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China: A History
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on September 12, 2016
Wow, I love this book, but I definitely recommend getting it in paperback or Hardcover. Though this is an overwhelming subject, Keay has shaped the narrative in such a way that a new student to China has a foothold and the stories are amazing, The maps are important to see to connect this complex country, and I didn't realize that there were photographs to underscore the detail until I ordered a used copy to support my Kindle copy. There just are books that should not be read on the Kindle.
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on October 21, 2016
The history of China is complex. John Keay gives an overview of China and its rich history starting from before the country was unified under the Qin and up until modern times excluding the Communist party from the second half of the 20th century. There is of course a lot to try to convey in this 3000 year period but the author does well to give the reader an overview of both the history and evolution that China has witnessed. Having grown up with an absence of books on China's entire history this is a good addition to the literature for a wide audience.

The author begins with some of the earliest records of China starting before 1000 BC but quickly gets into the period of warring states and the unification and beginning of the Qin dynasty. The author gives all the background needed to understand how later conflicts reference back to the early conflicts faced in China. The author gives the reader a brief picture of the world Confucius lived in and the philosophy he created that was probably the strongest current in Chinese government through its history. The book details the dynasties and the philosophies that drove each age. It also discusses how dynastic transitions were described by Chinese historians as the legitimate passing of the mandate of heaven on as rulers failed in their duties. The author gives an overview of all the major dynasties and in particular he focuses on the Han dynasty which is often seen as the golden age where borders were expanded and leadership was just. He focuses on the Tang dynasty where China resurfaced as a unified power and the Song where China was last ruled by its own people before being over run by a series of outside powers. One reads a history where China has not been unified throughout its history and fragmentation of the empire has been distinct in multiple periods. One learns of how China had frequent dynastic turnover as emperors were invaded and lost the faith of the people only for the cycle to repeat itself. One of course learns of the Mongolian invasion and their Yuan dynasty as well as the peasant uprising that led to the Ming dynasty. It is fascinating to learn about how the mandate of heaven was transferred to a peasant in more than one occasion when the broad population was discontent with the ruler of the times. The relative decline of China is described in the last 500 years as it went from most properous and populous to exploited as industrialization took place in the west and gun boat diplomacy defined trade relations. This happened in particular with the Manchu's as they conquered the Ming in the 17th century. From there one sees a sequence of bullying trade deals and incremental isolation of China. The author spends time discussing the opium wars and the nationalist movement in China with Sun Yat-Sen and leaves us at the end of the second world war.

China: A History gives a relatively quick overview of the major dynasties in China and its early modern history. Multiple more volumes could no doubt be written but this is a good starting point to get a sense of how China has evolved and where its civilization started. The archaeological record continues to broaden as its academic world opens up. This book gives you exactly what the title says, a History of China. The writing is clear and the content is interesting, worth the read.
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on October 7, 2016
This is the finest history of China I have read. Much better than Spence or Fairbank. It manages to capture the flavor and nuance of of each dynasty as well as the economic and social changes. The writing is clear and often gripping. Of course, even at 500 pages, it is only an overview of the 5,000 years of Chinese History. The only comparison I can think of is "China Marches West" by Peter Perdue, but then he covers only the Qing Dynasty's and it conquest of Manchuria (part), Mongolia, Xinjiang, and Tibet.
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on February 3, 2016
Keay's narrative on the history of China is certainly different than the conventional ones written on the subject. For the first few pages, one may find this refreshing and even entertaining. However, reading on, one soon discovers that Keay's own views are persistently found throughout. Keay spends much of the book to dwell on the non Han minorities. This is understandable since throughout Chinese history minorities play an important role, but the book should be more balanced for more descriptions on other areas of Chinese history such as the developments in art, culture, religion. Keay is an expert on Indian history; I suspect more so than on Chinese history, and perhaps that expertise caused him to write more on tribal cultures and influences. Furthermore, Keay's opinions on the characteristics of dynastic and monarchic rule continue to show up in the narration, which is first tiresome and then becomes annoying.
Not recommended as a first book on the history of China. It is an interesting read for a different but opinionated perspective on the subject, probably for readers who already have basic knowledge of the subject.
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on September 26, 2014
Perhaps nowhere is the saying, “The more things change, the more they stay the same” more appropriate than in China. China has the honor of being the civilization with the longest continuous history on Earth. China was not the first or the oldest civilization, but while ancient Egypt and Sumer have long since vanished from history, China remains. In that long 3000-4000 years of history, China has undergone many changes. Dynasties of rulers have risen and fallen. The country has been united into an empire, only to break apart and then be united once again. The Chinese Empire has expanded its frontiers into Central Asia, and has been restricted to northern or southern China, while foreigners have ruled other sections. China has been conquered and has regained its independence. Through all the revolutions and changes, China remains China.

The Communists under Mao Zedong were determined to remake China into a modern, socialist country, yet they went about their goals in a characteristically Chinese fashion. Mao condemned Confucius and sought to end that sage’s influence on China. So did Qin Shi Huang, the first Emperor of China (previous rulers were referred to as “kings”). The Communists enforced a rigid Marxist conformity on China intellectuals. The Song Emperors enforced a rigid Neo-Confucian ideology. China, under Mao limited its contacts with foreigners. So did the Qing Emperors. The present rulers of China have converted China into a major trading nation. So did the Tang Emperors. The Communist Party does not tolerate any rival parties. No imperial dynasty was ever comfortable with parties or partisanship. Like the Emperors of old, the Chinese government thinks more in terms of taking a paternal interest in the lives of its subjects rather than in protecting human rights.

Yet, one must not think China as being unchanging or Chinese history as being boring. China has seen drastic changes throughout its history. One might think of this history of change and continuity in terms of the Chinese philosophical ideas of Yin and Yang, opposites that work together. Passive, feminineYin might represent the periods of imperial unity and strength while active, masculine Yang might represent the chaotic periods of war and disunity that were, nevertheless, the most intellectually productive periods of Chinese history.

I think there are few resources which explore the grand sweep of the Yin and Yang of Chinese history in one volume better than John Keay’s China, A History. In his book, John Keay tells the story of the Chinese nation from its Neolithic beginning right up to the modern age. Keay does not, as many writers of history books do, spend too much time on recent events while neglecting past centuries. Every dynasty gets the proper amount of attention, as do the periods of disunion. If I have any complaint at all about China, A History, it is that at 611 pages it is simply too short. Six hundred pages are hardly enough to give an outline of Chinese history. I am not complaining, however. If you want a general outline of Chinese history, China A History serves the purpose admirably and if you want to know more about any topic, there is the bibliography John Keay provides.
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on March 10, 2017
I thoroughly enjoyed this tour of Chinese history. You just have to let the names and dates roll by until you get to a period in history that you're familiar with so you can start making connections to people/events you already know. But even for the earlier ages, you get to read about some fascinating people and events and come away with a broad grasp of the Chinese experience, even if the details don't stick in your head. The writing is lively, and, yes, opinionated in places -- but no history is objective even when it pretends to be.
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on March 28, 2017
I always knew in the back of my mind that the people involved don't make history -- historians make it, and this is the first time I've read a history of anything where the author points out how the history of China was this or that in one era, and in a later era was completely revised in order to present that latter's desired paradigm. So, the book may not describe what really happened although it is filled with facts; it does, however, tell you what those who documented what happened said, and then how what happened was later revised. For those who are interested in world history, and Chinese history in particular, it is a great, eye-opening, myth busting read.
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on May 14, 2016
This was a great overview of what is known about Chinese history, from the earliest known Xia dynasty through to the Mongols and finally to the chaos of the 19th-20th centuries. Easy to read and the author doesn't shy away from controversy when there are possible multiple interpretations of events or where Western interpretation differs from interpretations of the Chinese themselves. I came to this being primarily interested in the revolutions and communist take over of the modern era and found that early Chinese history was just as fascinating. However, each period is only briefly covered, so if you want to look at one period in depth I'd try to find something a bit more specific.

Great starting point!
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on June 20, 2017
What a spectacular find! Keay' s thoughtful, helpful explanations of how the Chinese themselves regarded their history are totally necessary just to fathom the sweep of of their multiethnic past. Considering the complexity of the subject, he makes it accessible and a pleasure to read. Highly recommended!
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on March 16, 2016
It is lengthy, and for me, trying to keep the names straight was a bit daunting. However, this book has given me so much insight into a culture I know so little about. It is easier to understand the China of today in light of its history.
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