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The Civilization of China Paperback – January 1, 2011
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H.A. Giles wrote this in the last years of the Qing Dynasty, the end of imperial rule (the preface is signed 1911, and the dynasty collapsed in 1912). That is a fascinating time to write a history of China (and also makes for interesting reading), but misses out all of the republic, the warlords, and of course the Communist Party.
I can't fault Giles for writing in the early 1900s, and in fact, maybe the end of the Qing Dynasty is a great stopping point for a first (concise) volume of China's history. But there are other reasons why I rated this 3 stars out of 5.
Why didn't I rate this higher? The early 20th century was an awkward time for westerners to write histories for non-western countries. Most writings of the time now sound patronizing, naive, or even xenophobic. I think H.A. Giles (professor of Chinese at Cambridge, and former British Consul in Ningpo) rates better than many of his contemporaries, and he attempts to dispel the most egregious stereotypes of the time, but even so, the text is anachronistic. Giles does his best to rise above the sexism and cultural elitism of the time, but at times it is awkward reading--and you sometimes doubt his observations because of it.
The sciences of archaeology and anthropology weren't as advanced or rigorous then, and that also shows. Giles bases much of his conclusions on hearsay or his personal experiences in what was already one of the world's largest and most populous countries. Although he does challenge and sometimes discredits a number of myths and legends, the lack of scientific or statistical rigor again make it hard to accept some of his generalizations.
As an example of another western history of China from about the same era (well, 1935), there is also Will Durant's "Our Oriental Heritage," the first of his volumes on The Story of Civilization. The title has a patronizing ring, but due to either Durant's outlook, and/or the passage of 20 years, Durant manages to present a much more balanced view of the history of China, and does a better job of identifying the broader changes that occurred throughout China's recorded history. The China-focused part of Durant's book, although old and also slightly anachronistic, still ranks as my favorite single-volume history of China.
So those are the negatives. Why read this?
Because H.A. Giles liked China, liked the people of China, and (I think) he had fun writing this book. He came across as fluent in Chinese reading and writing (he makes references to many conversations with locals, and comments on puns and jokes that don't quite translate). The narrative often digresses from its historical narrative, but that's because Giles had a fun anecdote or observation to add.
Don't read this as an authoritative history of China. Instead, read it as a personal narrative from an on-the-ground westerner who was there for the end of the imperial era, and had lived there long enough to really appreciate the country and the people. This is a great read, just as a time capsule from the era.