Harper Press, 2009.
This is my introduction to a 'complete' history of
- beginning from prehistory and ending up in the 1970s, with a final brief nod to current events. The history is written in Keay's apparently usual style (see his 'India') - which means lighthearted use of the language, going through the facts at great speed, but trying to be as comprehensive as possible, a great many references and some analyses. Aa an introduction, the book is good, I suppose. But I don't think a China scholar would think much of it. I don't know why I think so, perhaps it is because of the writing style. The narrative appears unbiased - well, maybe there is a slight anti-western bias. But Keay does not shy away from the great cruelties Chinese inflicted on each other and on others. He is particularly condemnatory in discussing female foot-binding and talks highly of the communists for doing away with this practice. China
Before I sketch out the historical story line let me mention, as Keay explains in the first few chapters, that 'China', through most of its history, meant the middle eastern part of the present-day land area, essentially the area encompassing the two great rivers - the Yangtse (or Yanzi in the present day script) in the south and the Yellow river in the north. Thus Tibet, Mongolia, much of northern Manchuria, the western desert or steppe lands of Xinjiang (adjoining the 'stans' of central Asia) and even parts of the southern country, just north of Vietnam, were considered to be 'fringe' areas, either occupied by, or paying tribute to the central kingdom. Chinese history, at least according to Keay, is thus a list of kings, emperors and dynasties holding sway chiefly over this large and productive piece of land, called the 'middle kingdom' or Zhongguo in Chinese (which is also the present-day official Chinese name for itself), but not necessarily the fringe areas. Here, then, is the list of dynasties. Mythologically there were five great emperors, one after the other, who are credited with the early origins of Chinese civilization. These and later empires and emperors were conferred legitimacy by establishing that they, and no one else, had 'Heaven's mandate' to rule 'All under Heaven'. The conferment of the mandate was indicated by the absence of natural disasters during their reign, and the presence of ‘good’ omens, as much as the loss of the mandate was indicated by the occurrence of such disasters, and ‘bad’ omens. (I suppose the mandate was assumed by the Emperor analogous to the way the ‘taking of silk’ was assumed at a specific time by lawyers in Victorian England.) The first of the more historical dynasties (kings now, rather than emperors) starts at about 2000 BC with Xia, followed by Shang and then the Zhou dynasties. The last one is most notable for a 'General Zhou' who put in a place a perfect administration in around 1000 - 250 BC, much admired by Confucius (ca 500 BC). These dynasties were during the bronze age, and
reached great technological heights in working bronze - presumably other stuff as well. The latter part of the Zhou dynasty overlapped with a period of confusion called the 'spring and autumn' period, followed by a period of the 'warring states'. At this time, there was no king clearly superior to the numerous dukes and other lesser nobles who ruled bits and pieces of the land. This period was followed by the first known imperial dynasty, the Qin dynasty, ruling a large portion of the middle kingdom. The first historically recognized emperor was Zheng Shi Huangdi (246 to 210 BC) who actually called himself 'the first emperor' expecting to be followed by the second, the third and so on. In the event he was followed by just two more. Huangdi has been credited with building the great wall of China, but the archaeological evidence says he built a small portion of it, at a location not identical to the present site, and using stamped mud as the building material, rather than the stone structure seen today. But the chambers of the 'terracotta army' (which has been identified as the tomb of Huangdi) discovered recently, and not yet fully explored or analysed, points to a sophisticated technology (armor made of jade stones!) and advanced administrative systems (e.g. a common examination in the classics - the writings of 'General Zhou' and Confucius, the 'I Ching'.... all of which literature is reliably dated to the first millenium BC or even earlier - for admission to the Emperor's administrative service, much like the ICS or IAS exams). The Qin empire suffered a period of decline and was reconstituted as the Han empire which lasted about 400 years until about 220 AD. The Han Empire is the first of the five great empires that define Chinese history. Thus, even today, the Han Chinese are the 'real' Chinese - others are minority ethnic groups such as Tibetans, Mongolians, Manchurians, Uighurs, etc., etc. This period of great cultural and technological advances (carts, paper, printing, astronomy, bronze and iron working, irrigation, canal building) was followed by the so-called 'period of the three kingdoms' (Wei, Shu and Wu, each contending for supremacy, and the subject of a popular later - 17th century - novel called 'The Romance of the Three Kingdoms') followed in turn by a 'period of disunion' for about four hundred years during which 16 - 20 dynasties held and contended for portions of the middle kingdom, against each other and local chieftains.The second great empire, the Tang empire, followed from 550 to 907 AD, and was once again a period of great cultural and technological advances, especially in administrative structures, tax reforms, etc. The period is also notable for the reign, during a large part of it, by the Dowager Empress Wu Zetian, who ruled as regent in the name of her son, nephew and grandson. Buddhism also became more firmly established during this time, presumably the time Bodhidharma travelled from Kanchipuram (?) to the Shao Lin temple (?). From being the ‘greatest power in China Asia’ during the early days, the Tang empire fell into bad times from around 750 AD. In the mid tenth century there was the usual period of confusion with five dynasties and/or ten kingdoms contending to be top gun. Among these were some from Manchuria and (Jurchen, Jin) and the Song. This last named was considered the most representative of the lot and this period is identified with it. The period is counted as the ‘Golden Age’ of Mongolia , culturally and, again, technologically and administratively. This confusion yielded to rule by the Mongols. While Chengis Khan and his earlier successors were content to invade China China (and other parts of Eurasia) and return to their homeland, the later sucessors overthrew the Song dynasty in about 1280 AD and established the Yuan dynasty, with Kubhlai Khan as its most notable Emperor. This dynasty was followed by the indigenous Ming dynasty from about 1375 AD. The Ming period is associated with the voyages as far afield as Africa of Admiral Zheng He, with the increase in trade between China and not just Asia but also Europe, the articles traded being now, more and more, tea and porcelain, rather than just silk, and again great technological advances, including sailing and navigation. The Great Wall worked on in bits and pieces over the years by various Kings and Emperors, was given its final shape in stone during this period. The great canal connecting the Yangxi and the Yellow rivers, was also rebuild, renewed and opened to a great deal of traffic and trade. The Ming period ended in about 1650, when the Manchus (from Manchuria) conquered and started their own Qing dynasty. The kingdom was consolidated during this period, and slowly opened up to foreign trade, specifically European and American. It was in the Qing period that the British expanded their empire also into China China, pushing opium into the country, as described by Amitav Ghosh in ‘ ’. Other powers were not far behind in humiliating and overpowering the remanants of the Qing dynasty. The dynasty lingered on until the early 20th century with the ‘Last Emperor’ Pu Yi memorialized in the River of Smoke Hollywood movie of the same name. The mandarins (‘IAS’ officials) did much of the actual ruling – Commissioner Li (described in ‘ ’ being one of them). River of Smoke was parceled out between the Europeans, the Americans, the Japanese and a huge number of warlords, each a King or the ruler of his piece of land, and constantly bickering with the neighbours. This went on until the Nationalists under Sun Yat Sen and, later, Chiang Kai Shek united large portions of the empire to form a republic. The Communist party was slowly building up its strength under Mao, Zhou Enlai, Lin Biao and others. After first joining the Nationalists to push out the foreigners,a nd in particular the Japanese, they took over the country after the famous ‘Long March’ and established the People’s Republic of China , still called the ‘Middle Kingdom’ - Zhongguo - in Chinese. China
In brief: Five Mythical Emperors – Xia, Shang, Zhou – the first empire Qin (Huangdi) – Han – the three kingdoms – Tang – Song – Ming – Qing – Europe – PRC.
Perhaps I looked forward to too much, but the book fails to explain or give some rational lead up to
’s current status as a poor, developing country, albeit developing very fast. With India, firstly there was never such high technological development, secondly our history of being a colony, and thirdly the sub-continent was never, or only very rarely, one integrated nation, fourthly the caste system, and fifthly the existence of tens of different important language groups and hundreds of different languages, many with their own literature and mostly with their own culture – these may be used to plausibly explain the state of our economy and our polity. None of these factors apply to China . Technology was far in advanced of the Europeans hundreds of years before them, as was their culture, and most importantly they had in place a terrific administrative system a couple of millenia before such things were thought of elsewhere. They have had a continuous ‘Chinese’ culture extending back 4000 years to the second millennium BC. And yet, and yet…..For example they knew gunpowder, they knew bronze and iron working – why did they not make cannons and guns? They knew shipbuilding, they knew navigation, they had adventurers – why did they not cross the Pacific? They knew bureaucracy, administration, accounting – why did not not build colonies? Why did they not colonize even their neighbours China Japan and Korea, let alone India, Europe, America, Africa? My reading of this book raises these questions in my mind, but I do not find any answers to them in it. Except one. Both India and did not have western democracy (communism is after all a post-feudal democratic order, also imported from the west) until recent times. Maybe that is what kept both of the peoples behind. China
Perhaps I looked forward to too much, but the book fails to explain or give some rational lead up to
Before I read the book, I thought Chinese history would more or less parallel
’s, and there are indications in the book that Keay thinks so, even after all his research. However, I think there are real differences. I think India has been, as a civilisation, far in advance of the rest of the world. At least that is the sense I get from this book, though Keay himself seems to notice nothing particularly remarkable. So even though the book itself narrates the history as one king after another, and one dynasty after another, the meta message I got is the one I have stated above. However reading the book again would probably be a bore. China