on July 3, 2010
Firstly, the author should be commended for even attempting to condense such a vast and complex subject as the history of China into a single volume. On the whole, it is an accessible account which will give an introductory understanding of many parts of China's history.
However, the book gives the impression that the supporting research was done in a great hurry, and contains errors, inconsistincies, and a number of sensational conclusions, some of which are not supported by sufficient evidence. It was therefore little wonder to me when I learned that the author is, in fact, a journalist and not a historian. It seems as though the author has attempted to make some attention-grabbing statements in a clumsy attempt to turn Chinese history on its head.
I will give just three examples of the kind of sloppiness that I have referred to. 1) One theory, which is entirely undeveloped apart from a small amount of hypothesising on the part of the author, is that the Great Wall did not prevent northern tribes from entering China and was never designed for this purpose. In stating this, the author appears unaware of the extraordinary career and accomplishments of Qi Jiguang, perhaps China's greatest military leader of the Ming (or any other) period. He built, and successfully defended the Great Wall against all comers. Although it was never intended to be an entirely defensive structure, and although no one other than Qi Jiguang was able to defend China's northern frontier as he did, this hardly validates the author's sensational theory 2) the portrayal of Jiang Jieshi (Chiang Kai-Shek) as a collaborator in the Long March of the CCP ignores the fact that he hated the CCP, wanted it to be eradicated from the face of the Earth, and had expended an enormous amount of political and military effort in attempting to defeat them. For Jiang to sit back and watch the Long March, while "shepherding" the CCP to its new northern base under duress from the Soviet Union, runs counter to everything that we know about Jiang's struggle with the CCP 3) the author states that Jesuit missionaries in China attempted a top-down conversion of the Chinese empire to Christianity, which is a misconception of the kind that you would expect from someone who only reads headlines - while the Jesuit missionaries spent substantial efforts attempting to win imperial recognition and support, the vast majority of their work was focussed on the Chinese countryside.
I readily admit that I am no expert on any period of Chinese history. However, the fact that even someone in my position can easily see some of the flaws in the author's arguments only shows how circumspect the reader needs to be in approaching this book. I would guess that someone who really is an expert on Chinese history would find many more flaws.
This book is useful as a basic outline of Chinese history, but is flawed in at least some, probably many, of its details, and needs to be supplemented with other sources to gain a more balanced and informed view of the topics covered.
John Keay is correct in observing that Chinese history is often impenetrable to all but the specialist. Yet it is an important and ancient history and one many people would like to know more about. So he has set out to do for China what he did for India in India: A History and make it accessible to an English speaking audience.
THis is a well written account of a fascinating country and its people. It does what few books do which is to ignore the present and instead give the past a fair shake in terms. There is no telescoping the narrative so that the last hundred years gets half the book, instead the las thundred years of Chinese history receives just a few dozen pages, giving the reader the correct impression that China's past is as important as her present.
In general the book also gives the reader a great deal of handy charts to keep track of dynasties and people. A very well written account,
Seth J. Frantzman
on February 1, 2009
I bought and read this book because I am Chinese but know nothing about Chinese history (having grown up in Australia), so I was probably always going to enjoy this book.
After reading this book, I've learnt that China's history is very complicated, but Keay does a fantastic job to provide objectively a good picture of each era. He is very descriptive on the important moments in Chinese history (it's impossible to fit every moment of Chinese history in a book of this size), so after reading this book, the reader is likely to remember these important points in Chinese history.
The maps are also very helpful to get an idea of all the warfare that was going on. I thought more maps would have even been better, and more pictures/portraits/photos (e.g. of important emperors and other leaders) would have also been good as it puts a face to a name.
I am not a frequent reader, but I can still tell that Keay chooses his words carefully and skillfully. I had to reach for the dictionary plenty of times. Hopefully someone with a better vocabulary base can appreciate this aspect more than myself.
on March 11, 2012
I was looking for a good over-view of chinese history without an obvious bias or emphasis on a particular era. I found this book excellent in its scope and largely fulfilled what I was looking for. At over 500 pages it takes time to get through, but it is sufficiently well written to be enjoyable and interesting enough so that you do not want to give up.
It terms of over-all balance there are a four areas that I felt were slightly lacking. The first is on the coverage of Ghengis Khan. He only gets a few pages despite founding a dynasty. The second is a coherent perspective on the Japanese occupation. Although the topic is covered it is dispersed throughout the text and not treated as a subject in its own right. I think that this is quite an important topic in understanding contemporary China and its relationship with Japan. There is no mention of Unit 731 in Harbin (where the Japanese committed major atrocities) and the denial by the Japanese of the Nanjing/Nanking massacre for example. The third topic that I thought was inadequately and insensitively addressed was the destruction of the old Summer Palace by French and British expeditionary forces. He states "Though no great loss to architecture, it was a body blow to Qing prestige". He makes no reference to the loss of innocent lives ( those who were burned to death), nor the destruction of hundreds of years worth of priceless chinese historical artifacts and cultural treasures (other than to describe the palace as a "fanciful Louvre"). The forth topic treated rather superficially was that of the philosophical underpinnings of Daoism, Confucianism, Legalism and Moism. To be fair to the author some of these topics are very large in themselves and perhaps we might not expect them to be covered in depth, without removing some other key passage.
The impact of the West on China was treated largely from a Western perspective, and was probably far less critical than a Chinese perspective would be. Whilst the author does not codone the actions of the West, he also does not criticize it heavily. This is fairly typical of the book, in that we are allowed to come to our own conclusions without filtering out the value judgments of the author.
In a perfect version of this book, I would like to see modern simplified Chinese characters included for Chinese names, however this is likely to be of more interest for those studying the Chinese language. I would certainly buy a revised copy of the book and read it again if these were included.
On reading this book, I was left with an impression of the incredible suffering that the Chinese people have had to endure throughout their history due to dynastic change and internecine fighting. The richness and complexity of Chinese history is difficult to comprehend, but this book seems to be a reasonable place to start.
on January 5, 2015
Temple University Japan
B.A. East Asian Studies UM Asia
I've spent more than my fair share of time pouring over texts on China for both academic and professional purposes in the East Asian studies field. I understand that an attempt to condense the vast intricacies of Chinese history and culture into a comprehensive book is no easy task, and many of us are still waiting for the day a hallmark, standard text will come to light that leaves no questions to the reader. But from the moment I cracked open this book, which was bought more or less as one more supplementary text to add to my collection on history, I was completely lost.
An author cannot hold the hand of a reader, but when we're talking about thousands of years of history, there needs to be a standard breakdown of individual periods on a timeline. What I found just perusing the first chapter was nothing more than a few significant names and dates here and there, followed by offhand tangents on completely unrelated subject matter. The first chapter alone attempts to cram three dynasties, archaeological findings, writing systems, family structures, and more, all within only 25 pages. With as much jumping around as this book does, I would be impressed if a reader who had finished the first few chapters of the book would even be able to list the first five major dynasties in order, and maybe a few facts that actually distinguishes each dynasty from the next. The author likes to use catchy quip titles to chapters, such as "Rites to Writing," "Within and Beyond," and "Caving In," but these chapter headings mean nothing to a reader who is not familiar with a broken down timeline of Chinese history. I hate to say it (for fear of sounding elementary ), but a much more effective way of tackling Chinese history would be to simply break down chapters into "Xia Dynasty," "Shang Dynasty," "Zhou Dynasty," and so on.
All in all, if this is the first book you've ever picked up on Chinese history, then you may not pick up on the inherent flaws of how this text is organized. But for those who are more versed in Chinese history texts, you'll find that this book is essentially unreadable. If you're looking for a step by step breakdown of Chinese history throughout the ages that follows an easy, chronological order, this book is not it.
on December 3, 2009
An amazingly readable as well as comprehensive treatment of an often complex and always fascinating history. I studied Asian history at University quite some years ago but this history held my interest like a well written novel. The topic is so thoroughly covered I am giving it a second read and have shared it with a Chinese American neighbor.
on May 16, 2012
This is probably one of the best and most readable one volume histories of China, though Cambridge's Illustrated History of China is also very good. The strength of this book is that it takes the reader through the incredible panorama of Chinese history without skimming on periods that non-Chinese may not find very relevant, such as the period of disunity between the Han and Sui dynasties. As the author rightly points out, for the Chinese, history is everything, and for the Chinese history teaches lessons in the way other traditions utilize myth, religion, or philosophy. China is one of the world's most important civilizations, both in ancient times and today. Keay rightly gives its civilization its due consideration by spending an equal amount of time on each of its main dynasties as well as the periods in between. Also rare for a history of China, he deals with other states that are today within the borders of China but were not ethnically Han Chinese states. How many other books will take into consideration the important role of say, the Tanguts or the kingdom of Dali? All in all, a very good and readable book with balanced analysis, historical depth, and cultural explanations that make one feel the power of Chinese civilization. Of course as other readers pointed out, the author slips into some bias as we enter the 20th century, which is hard to totally escape being a product of that very eventful century. It is easier to adapt a much more measured, neutral approach when the subject at hand occurred many hundreds or thousands of years ago. This is in general a weakness of the author, and is evidenced in his other book "India: A History," which like this one is excellent but suffers from a slight bias in the most chronologically recent chapters. This should not really be an issue; most readers are probably familiar and have their own opinions about modern China and India and if they are so inclined, they can get more detailed volumes that deal with the modern histories of those nations. More importantly, one should read a book like this to get a feel of Chinese history and civilization, so as to understand where the Chinese came from and where they are going. This book accomplishes this very well. Such a way of thinking is essential to understanding not just modern China and the modern world, but by learning about the ancients, we learn valuable lessons about human nature and human culture, as Confucius would have said.
on February 14, 2010
I bought this book because I am an overseas Chinese who wants to learn more about ancient Chinese history from an English language source. This book starts out promising enough, however it is riddled with errors. For example, on page 411, Keay states, "The Ming's nearly twenty-seven decades were up, the Qing's nearly twenty-eight just beginning." But a simple calculation reveals that the Qing dynasty lasted 267 years (1644 to 1911), whereas the Ming lasted slightly longer, 276 years (1368 to 1644). There should be no errors in such pro forma statements. On page 531 he writes "The 1973 discovery of the first 'Terracotta Warriors' lent a Heavent-sent sanction [to the idea of the Qin Emperor's proto-proletarian dictatorship']", but the Terracotta Warriors were actually discovered on March 29, 1974, not 1973. On page 519, he writes "When on 1 October 1939 the People's Republic of China (PRC) was officially announced by Mao in Beijing...", but the People's Republic of China was actually announced on 1 October 1949. In 1939, Beijing was still under Japanese occupation. This is an error so egregious that it may be taken to be a typo, until a page later, page 520, where he writes, "In December 1939, on his first every trip outside China, Mao took the train to Moscow. There, Stalin, basking in the cult of his own personality while tyrannising both people and Party, encouraged Mao's autocratic tendencies without over-indulging his revolution. But in hammering out the terms of a treaty..." surely he is referring to a trip taken in December 1949, not December 1939. He also says that Deng was feted by Ronald Reagan when he visited America in 1979, but Jimmy Carter was President then, not Reagan.
The only reason I was able to catch these errors is because I have a basic familiarity with China' modern history, and in the case of the length of the Ming and Qing, an ability to do basic subtraction. Who knows what other factual errors there are in this book. The casual English language reader with no familiarity with Chinese history is especially vulnerable to being led astray. Looking over his previous works and the notes that come with the book, Keay clearly has more passion for India than China, and his only reason for writing about China was a suggestion from his publisher. He should stick to India. Better to learn nothing at all than to learn incorrect history due to carelessness.
on October 19, 2010
Keay's book is probably the one to chose if you are looking for a one-volume history of China from the origins of Chinese civilisation to today. The alternative is the Cambridge Illustrated History, but that's shorter and Keay, at 530 pages, already packs it in. The book is well written and absorbing, and it is not overtly Euro-centric in outlook (for example, Keay finds nice things to say about Maoism). It also has fascinating detail about the imperial annals and the rich tradition in Chinese history-writing. Keay successfully uses the same approach as in his history of India and gives equal length to all periods, so that this is not weighted towards modern history. His justification is that giving undue importance to the modern era is to focus on times of Western dominance, whereas their classical or Ming periods matter more or equally to the Chinese. If you would however like to read more about the last four centuries, then Spence's The Search for Modern China is highly recommended.
This is a credible popular history, not particularly scholarly but the research seems solid. The book doesn't get lost in tiny details the way more academic histories sometimes do. The book does not cover much social history or environmental history, which disappointed me. It does examine the strengths and weaknesses of each dynasty. It makes accessible the complicated history of eras like the Warring States Period. The maps are fairly good.
It has an informative discussion of how the old Wade-Giles system of transliteration was replaced by the Pinyin system, and explains how one emperor may have several names. Keay considers some history that is perhaps more myth, such as the Great Wall and the Long March. He considers how each dynasty manipulated the Mandate of Heaven idea. He does criticize Mao, but credits him with substantial achievements. Interestingly (to me) he sees China as being just as imperialist as other powers (Yunnan, for example).
The best parts are on the later Qing, including the Taipings, the predatory powers, the Dowager Empress and the Mao era. Keay is balanced in his narrative, with no ranting and no excuse making.