book-reviews

China: A History

by John Keay

Rating: ★★★★

As the title suggests, this is intended to be a summary of the history of China, modernly incorporated as the People's Republic of China. Notably, the author sets out to cover the entirety of known Chinese history in one volume, a task which can be comprehended only when you hear that the Cambridge History of China, still not completed despite being begun in 1979, is meant to run to 15 (actually 17) volumes.

As you might expect, considerations of space force Keay to treat many events in a summary manner, and this combines with the confusing nature of Chinese history itself to leave certain sections as a somewhat vague and bewildering memory. Keay shows good discretion, however, in treating seriously the events of the distant imperial dynasties, making frequent consideration of the Standard Histories, and not skipping forward to events which postdated Chinese contact with the West. This balanced view gives the reader a good sense of the scale of Chinese history, as well as the turmoil the Empire has survived (even though it was often just one of many), placing the current situation of the PRC into a new and somewhat more diminishing light.

Keay also shows discretion in his choice of interesting anecdotes to be drawn out of the history, knowing when to stop and linger over a subject and when to move summarily on. Some more knowledgeable about Chinese history may question ommisions or simplifications, but I think the plea to considerations of space (and reader patience) could be well-founded. Even as it was, I often found myself setting aside the book for some time in order to give myself a break. Keay attempts to prepare the reader for the range of foreign (and thus hard to remember) names they will encounter, but by a short time into the book I had forgotten what was outlined.

The writing itself is engaging, the monotonous advance of time enlivened with interesting observations and comparisons. Keay makes a point of undermining certain myths about China (such as the Great Wall, which he takes pains to point out doesn't exist), provides a sympathetic view of an Empire torn apart by the Western powers, and offers some context on the Tibet debate which goes against the modern narrative. While his history somewhat undermines the contention of China as a 3000-year long political fact, he provides solid support for its shockingly intact cultural legacy.

I picked up this book because I wanted to know something of China's history. For anyone with a similar interest, I can recommend it, though I warn you that it's no quick read.