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Book review: ‘China: A History’

Gaining some insight into one of the the world’s oldest civilisations via John Keay’s comprehensive history.

China has been in the Australian news a lot lately. Whether the country is reacting to challenges by the Royal Australian Navy in the South China Sea, Uyghurs in Xinjiang, “reviewing” imports of Australian wine and beef or seeking to expand economic interests in Australia, the relationship between our two nations has been strained of late. Things haven’t always been so difficult but likewise we’ve never had a diplomatic relationship that could be described as close either. It tends to ebb and flow.

Every year, Australia accepts thousands of Chinese students into its universities. Thousands more have emigrated to Australia. I have personally worked with many lovely people of Chinese background. So you’d expect that with such strong trade and cultural links between Australia and China that there would be a better understanding between the two nations. Instead, we continue to stumble into trouble. Why is this?

On a personal level, I thought it would be a good idea to make the effort to come to a better understanding of Australia’s largest trading partner through a better understanding of its history. Just as COVID-19 was starting to spread through the Australian population in March, I quickly ran to The Hill of Content bookshop and sought some history books for the pending “lockdown” period. John Keay’s China: A History (ISBN 9780007221783, HarperCollins) made its way into my shopping bag.

Front cover of John Keay's "China A History"
The front cover of John Keay’s “China: A History

China: A History is massive; 512 pages of very small text. But for a nation with almost 4000 years of recorded history, it’s fair to argue that this is barely enough. This book was first published a decade ago but remains current.

China: A History presents a history of all modern-day China, including those regions (Yunnan, Tibet, Xinjiang, Mongolia, Manchuria, Taiwan) that account for two thirds of the People’s Republic of China but which barely feature in its conventional history.

Keay’s book starts back as far as written history itself to the period when “oracle bones” (甲骨) were used to divine the future. Ancient Chinese diviners would submit questions to deities regarding future weather, crop planting, the fortunes of members of the royal family, military endeavors and so on. Intense heat was then applied with a metal rod until the bone or shell cracked due to thermal expansion. The diviner would then interpret the pattern of cracks and write the prognostication upon the material, which was usually either a turtle plastron or ox scapula. Remarkably many of these bones – dating to the second millennium BC – have survived and serve as a remarkable historical record of ancient Chinese society.

As China slowly developed into a more settled community and kings became emperors, scribes would compose “official histories” of the rulers and the ‘nation’. These have served as an invaluable resource for modern scholars and are so thoroughly detailed that many events can be dated with absolute precision. Nothing like this exists in the West. Nothing.

John Keay approaches the broad topic of China’s history in a more-or-less chronological manner, providing glimpses into Chinese society more broadly as well as the rulers to presided over it. This comprehensive narrative slowly paints a picture of a sophisticated society that dominated the region.

There are many myths about China. Some are perpetuated by China herself (such as there being a continuous Chinese nation throughout history) whilst others are imposed from outside. China: A History addresses these often-tricky matters in a sensitive, factual and insightful manner.

I have been told – repeatedly – by many Australians that we should not be concerned by recent military operations undertaken by the People’s Republic of China because historical China had no interest in invading or colonising its neighbours; it was solely interested in trade. Not withstanding the absurdly ignorant argument that the PRC and historical China would always behave in the same manner and without suggesting that we should “fear” China in any way, it is a matter of historical fact that China variously occupied as much territory as its emperors could manage to hold at any point in history. Just like European powers did.

Hence the borders of China expanded variously into Xinjiang, Mongolia, Vietnam, Tibet and Taiwan whilst many more neighbouring kingdoms were placed under suzerainty. Likewise China’s borders contracted when China became weak and her neighbours strengthened. Two Chinese dyanasties (Jin [115-1234], Qing [1644-1912]) were in fact occupied by “foreign” Jurchen Mongols who invaded from the north.

The other myth of there always being a single “China” ruled by a continuous string of “legitimate” dynasties is absurd. Emperors were presumed to rule “all people under heaven” with “heaven’s mandate”. When a dynasty ended, it was logically concluded that heaven’s mandate had been lost in favour of the victor, usually because the vanquished had squandered it. So what do we make of the periods when China fragmented into a multiplicity of kingdoms, such as during the Period of Disunion (220-589) which started with the fall of the Han dynasty and ended when the Sui dynasty reunited the country? We learn that the “official histories” tended to favour one or other of these rulers as being the single “legitimate” ruler and then wove that into a later narrative to promulgate an idea of continuity.

All nations have their myths and traditions and China’s are especially complex. China: A History provides a thorough account of these times and the rulers that presided over them. We learn of the capable and the corrupt; the pretenders and the military victors; the scholars and the ordinary folk. But we also get a thorough examination of Chinese society throughout these periods including its phenomenal bureaucracy, its technological advances, its social fabric and its religious changes.

John Keay’s book is very detailed, but it’s hard to walk away from China: A History and not conclude that significant periods in Chinese history were horrendously bloody. Again, this has no bearing on the modern Chinese nation, but there came a point when I became utterly shocked at how little regard there seemed to be for human life, whether it was building infrastructure projects, military occupation or “justice” that may be metered out to entire communities for the sins of one person. At one point, John Keay does address this matter in the book, suggesting that it was likely no different in Europe although this argument doesn’t seem very convincing.

Perhaps the saddest part of the China story was its demise at the end of the Qing dynasty after regular contact had made with the West for several centuries. The Chinese emperors were insular and arrogant and the Western powers were greedy and opportunist. It was a recipe for disaster on both sides as China was repeatedly forced into ever-worse treaty agreements with the Western powers (and Japan) at the hands of unscrupulous traders, ineffectual emperors and a fractured society. By the nineteenth century, China was on her knees and the European powers were deciding whether to break her up (as if she was theirs for the taking). This is the humiliation that China suffered and what it is still seeking to redress today as she again recovers her power and strength.

From this background, it’s easy to see how a life under Communist rule would seem appealing to the many. Indeed, when compared to other periods in history, it had much to offer. China had finally expelled the “foreign powers” and was standing on her own two feet again. Unlike in the West where democratic developments and concerns for the “rights of man” had developed after the Enlightenment, nothing of the sort ever happened in China during the imperial period or the short-lived pre-Communist republican period. Chinese people – especially women – were still comparatively liberated from what they had known before.

China’s twentieth century was more chaotic than many of its past; there was the end of the Qing, the divided republic, Japanese occupation, the establishment of the People’s Republic, the Cultural Revolution and then the reforms that were made in the 1970’s and 1980’s that set the foundations for China’s remarkable development in the twenty-first century. China has has more growing pains than most nations.

John Keay describes these in detail and provides important context to these events. One is left with a far deeper appreciation of where China has come from both culturally and historically.

Did China: A History answer my questions about our big neighbour to our north (or as many Australian’s continue to arrogantly suggest – the neighbour “on our doorstep”)? Yes and no.

Contemporary Chinese society is complex and has traditions vastly different to Australia’s, but there is no reason why a stronger sense of co-operation and understanding could not permeate both nations if there was sufficient will. This requires listening, reflecting and most of all – leadership.

My reading of one generalist history book doesn’t answer all of the questions in my mind, but it certainly went a long way. China: A History has provided me with some understanding and that’s a positive step indeed.



One response to “Book review: ‘China: A History’”

On 21 August 2020, Andrew wrote: Hyperlink chain icon

While I know there are reasons for China to be unhappy with Australia, I don’t really understand the lack of diplomacy and the blunt threats to our exports. Cryptic perhaps, but in some ways Chinese are more like us than many who one would think be more like us.

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