101 of 104 people found the following review helpful
on May 5, 2003
If you compare this book to its obvious competitors (e.g. Valerie Hansen's Open Empire, Schirokauer's Brief History of Chinese Civilization), you have to be amazed at the relatively low list price--especially considering that the publisher, Cambridge University Press, is not famous for selling cheap books. If you can buy only one textbook history of China, this one is worth considering for that reason alone.
Students tend to have the same complaints about Gernet's book year after year (I've used this book many times in an undergraduate survey of Chinese history): it is too long and confusing, without emphasizing what is "important" and what isn't. Other reviewers on this page have similar concerns: the book isn't organized emperor-by-emperor; rather, it tends to focus topically on themes that cover several emperors' reigns, sometimes whole centuries. But weigh that against the major criticism of the book by professional historians, who argue, on the contrary, that the book is arranged only too rigidly according to a periodization imposed from Western history (ancient, medieval, modern, etc.). There isn't enough space here to get involved in these theoretical issues, but it should be clear that Gernet is to be lauded, not derided, for his courage to depart from the old fashioned year-by-year, emperor-by-emperor approach.
This is especially evident in his section on the Six Dynasties (or Northern and Southern Dynasties), which is probably the best succinct account of the period in any Western language. Instead of tediously relating events and dates for this chaotic period, Gernet reveals the underlying socioeconomic forces that dictated the pattern of history in the north and south over the course of this long and complex period. (He happens to be one of the foremost economic historians of China, and is clearly in his element with this kind of historiography.) I believe readers come away with a richer understanding of the Six Dynasties because of Gernet's focus.
Finally, the complaints about Wade-Giles Romanization are unfair and uninformed. When this book first appeared, before the Library of Congress and other major libraries switched to Pinyin, virtually all Chinese books were catalogued according to Wade-Giles, so it made much more sense to write a textbook using that Romanization system than Pinyin. Today, of course, Pinyin would be preferable. But it's not the case that Pinyin is more precise. Both are acceptable Romanization schemes for Mandarin Chinese, and both--assuming one has mastered the principles--indicate the correct sounds efficiently and unambiguously. Criticizing a book about China on the basis of its Romanization system is a bit like judging a book by its cover.
58 of 59 people found the following review helpful
on November 3, 2001
This book gives better depth to Chinese history than Spence or Fairbank do. Spence is more concerned with the last 200 years, and Fairbank is too closely tied to the US foreign policy establishment for my tastes. The fact that Gernet is on page 462 of 655 before he starts writing about the Manchus is a good thing. He covers art and economics, politics and religion, with a refreshing equanimity. It would be interesting to hear how well written it is in French, but the English is fine. While clearly Western, Gernet's French persective is a welcome change of pace to these American's eyes.
28 of 28 people found the following review helpful
on February 7, 2006
My main interest in history is to understand the development of civilization from earliest times, and since I had been concentrating mainly on the Middle East and Egypt, I realized I had to know more about the eastern civilizations of India and China. After rereading China's Imperial Past by Charles O Hucker (ISBN 0804708878 which was published in 1975), I searched for later books on the same subject, which would hopefully provide more details about the development of Chinese civilization. I liked the reviews of this book, and so I purchased it.
Professor Gernet certainly provides a very detailed review of Chinese civilization from earliest times to the present day, with a helpful introductory chapter, many useful maps and summary tables, a long Chronological table, many interesting plates and photographs, and an extensive bibliography and index, all of which I found to be essential for obtaining an understanding of what I was reading. This 800 page book is in 11 parts chronologically arranged by dynasty and comprises 32 chapters in all.
I found one of the most enjoyable features of the book to be Professor Gernet's admiration for of the achievements of the people of China over the past 2000 years, and in particular, his description of the continuity and improvements which have occurred to political administration, technological developments, and political and philosophical thought despite the many political upheavals and diverse origins of successive dynasties. What I also found very appealing were his deep sympathies to their enormous sufferings particularly in the last 150 years
This book generally covers the same topics as Professor Hucker's book does for the period up to 1850 and they are usually quite consistent in their descriptions of events. While both books are strong on the subjects of literature, philosophy and art, I found that Professor Gernet was the better on the subjects of social and economic development and that Professor Hucker was much easier to follow on the essential threads of political history, even though Professor Gernet provides rather more detail. However, whereas Professor Hucker ends his book in 1850, Professor Gernet devotes the final chapters of his book (150 pages) to the consequences of the economic and social decline of China from 1800 onwards, which resulted in the massive rebellions of the period 1850-1875, the takeover of China by the nations of the West and Japan, and the establishment of the People's Republic of China
While this was not a reason I purchased this book, I did find it particularly helpful in understanding the reason for the success of Chinese Communist Party in founding the People's Republic of China. The final chapter of the book which summarizes the main events of the period up to 1992, went a very long way in helping me understand the behaviour and logic of the leaders of the PRC, and the book as a whole clearly demonstrated to me that a good knowledge of the past history of a country is essential in understanding its attitude and behaviour in modern times.
Due to the sparseness of available records and publication of archaeological data the coverage of the very early period to the end of the Warring States period was disappointingly brief. But the level of detail certainly picks up from the time of the formation of the first centralized state in 221BC. The most interesting sections for me were those covering the events of the T'ang, the Sung, and the Manchu dynasties and I now have a much better understanding of the involvement of China's rulers with Central and South East Asia, Korea and Japan. I was, however, disappointed in the section on the Yüan (Mongol) dynasty and had to supplement my reading of this period with the book on the Mongol invasion of Europe by James Chambers, and what I could find on the Internet
I have to say that I found this book very difficult to follow at times, not just because of the multitude of unfamiliar places, large number of people, and events, but because the book was organized by subject matter rather than chronological order. I also got the distinct impression that some parts of the book had been rather hurriedly put together from a collection of notes which were not always consistent in the dates or particular order of significant events. On many occasions I became confused as to what was the cause and what was the effect! As a result, I found it necessary to make extensive notes on people, places, events, and philosophical thought in order to fully understand what I was reading. Consequently it took me all of 9 months to complete the reading of the book which was considerably longer than I had planned.
But and notwithstanding my personal disappointments it was certainly it worth the effort. While I found it to be harder to read than Professor Hucker's book I found it to have significantly additional information on China, and the extensive bibliography will be very useful for my continuing studies on the Bronze Age civilizations of China and Central Asia I am glad I persevered to the end, and I do recommend it to other readers.
31 of 35 people found the following review helpful
on December 7, 2000
This book is an excellent resource for anyone, whether scholar or layman, who needs a quick reference guide to different periods in Chinese history. However, the appendices, which are an improvement from earlier editions, still leave room for improvement. For instance, not all proper names used in the text are listed in the Chinese character glossary. It would also be helpful to provide a Chinese character glossary for proper nouns that, although not of Chinese origin, appear extensively in Chinese texts. For example, it would have been interesting to know the Chinese equivalent of the ethnic group "Sogdian", or the Chinese name of Matteo Ricci. In addition, the bibliography could be further enlarged by including lists of contemporary Chinese and even Japanese works.
The book is not only useful for readers who are unfamiliar with the Chinese language. It is an excellent supplementary resource as well for readers whose first language is Chinese. Most Chinese language historical works suffer from one or more of the following faults: extensive use of classical Chinese materials which, while extremely useful, are often not properly annotated or translated (into vernacular Chinese), leaving readers with inadequate command of the classics at a loss; over-reliance on Chinese language resources at the expense of sources in Manchurian, Mongolian and other languages that have had prominence in different periods of Chinese history; and (especially in the case of the PRC) oftentimes a lack of objectivity, especially in the need to fit China's history into a Marxian straitjacket (so that, e.g., 2,000 years of imperial rule are described as "feudalism"). Gernet's work avoids these pitfalls.
11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
on September 7, 1999
Overall this is a superb, detailed and thorough accounting of the development of Chinese civilization, correlating the effect of economic, technological, political and other forces. It is, however, dry reading -- not at all a popularized account. That's fine with me -- considering the scope of the work it would be a huge volume indeed if pages were wasted trying to make the content more 'colorful'. One specific criticism -- generally the 'bc' and 'ad' are left off dates -- this is irritating in periods where the author develops a point by skipping about in a span of a few hundreds of years and it isn't always easy to discern immediately what century is being discussed.
26 of 31 people found the following review helpful
on October 27, 2005
Contentwise, you might want to read other reviews of this book. As for me, allow me to explain my rather sub-par score...
I am currently taking a course that uses this book as a reference book (although we've never referred to it in class). I've been interested in Ancient Chinese culture because a large part of my knowledge comes from Kung Fu movies, a troubling notion that I felt had to be fixed. Essentially, I've never studied Chinese history from before the cultural revolution.
That being said, I'm sure Gernet is a wonderul writer, but the translators need to be dragged out into the street and forced to read its sentences out loud. To beat poets.
An example- this is one sentence:
"The developement of infantry units from the sixth century B.C on wards- in Chin at the time of the battles in the mountainous country against the tribs of Shansi, and probably also in Wu and Yueh, where the terrain was scarecely any more suitable for chariots because of the lakes and numerous watercourses- down to the huge armies of foot-soldiers of the third century was to have very important consequences, and one may say that the advent of the centralized state was closely linked to this change in the technique of warfare."
I had to stare at this sentence for all of about 3 minutes before I could break it down and understand what it was trying to say:
I've matured and since grown older and fatter, so now I can read the sentence for what it's worth. I retrospect, it was a bad example of confusion, but a good example of a compound sentence. Lop it into two sentences or something, maybe a picture of a chariot soldier saying " screw it, this hizzle is too hilly for my nizzle" for my fellow laymen.
Techniques in warfare were favoring foot soldier use because of the development of a central state and because of the varied terrain in China. These changes would have very large consquences in the third century.
In a sense, the book is just a tad hard to read because of awkard sentence structures. And believe me, when you encounter these sentences for 600+ pages, it gets old fast.
Give me history in a clear, concise book, or give me french!
That's just my 2 cents.
4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on November 22, 2007
Is anyone familiar with the difference between the 1982 edition and the newer revised edition? I know the transliteration has been updated to pinyin, and that there is a longer bibliography, but have there been any substantive changes in the translation of the text?
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on August 29, 2013
The contents of the book is interesting and it is a good book for a beginner who doesn't know much about Chinese civilization.
The condition of the second-hand book is good. The shipping is fast. It arrives much earlier than expectation.
on October 14, 2014
I'm a chinese reader, because the chinese censored print edition of this book isn't perfect, so I come here. I rery liake this book,and satisfied with the logistics of Amazon, I recive the book only ten days.
8 of 13 people found the following review helpful
on July 26, 1999
the author is well known among the french sinologists, and this book was well received by the entire sinologist-world in france. this book can be used by everybody who has interest in chinese civilisation.