Friday, August 12th, 2022 01:27:25

A Scholarly Pursuit Of China’s History

Updated: January 8, 2011 4:48 pm

This 578-page book, which contains 16 chapters, is indeed a very comprehensive study on China’s history—from the earliest fragments of Xia dynasty to the last emperor, with a little of Chairman Mao added for good (or bad) luck. Its core, though, covers the “big five” dynasties—Han, Tang, Shang, Ming and Qing—from 200 BC to the start of the 20th century. Much of that past, by any standard, is awe-inspiring. Not just for the temples, palaces and terracotta armies that remain, but for the earliest books and scripts—and poems—that underpin the beginnings of true civilisation. More than 3,000 years ago, the writer notes, the Shang used a script that is still recognisably Chinese: more, it was soon put to bureaucratic purpose, recording the transactions of government. In fact, making a vital contribution on this front, the present work is designed to meet the much more pressing need for an overall history of China that does not take for granted a foreknowledge of the subject or an acquaintance with the Chinese language.

                A glance at the existing literature in English suggests an international consensus, not to say conspiracy, to make the subject as daunting and incomprehensible as possible. This state of affairs, in part a legacy of competitive scholarship in the colonial era, is addressed in this book; for China’s history is long enough and its culture challenging enough without gratuitous complication. This contradiction, therefore, has fundamental implications for the whole understanding of China’s civilisation, of its dynamics, and even of who the Chinese were and are. The stakes are so high that protagonists have occasionally overstated their case; scholarship may have been sullied by partisanship as a result. Basically all the written texts imply a single linear pedigree of rulership; it is comprised of successive ‘dynasties’ centred geographically on the north’s central plain, whence their superior and quintessentially “Chinese” culture supposedly spread outwards; and it stretched chronologically, like an apostolic succession, from “the Five Emperors” to “the Three Dynasties” of Xia, Shang and Zhou and on into less contentious times. Archaeology, on the other hand, recognises no such neat pedigree. Chronologically “the Three Dynasties” appear more probably to have overlapped with one another; geographically the kingdoms of the central plain were not as central nor as influential as once supposed; and as for the developments that led to a distinct Chinese culture, instead of radiating outwards from the central plain they germinated and interacted over a much wider area and among peoples who were by no means racially uniform.

It is as if, standing in some outer portal of the Forbidden City or any other traditional Chinese architectural complex, one group of scholars were to focus on the inward vista of solemn grey courtyards, airy halls and grand stairways all centrally aligned in receding order, while another group, looking outwards, were to gaze down on the real world with its typically urban profusion of competing vistas, all traffic-clogged, architecturally chaotic and equally intriguing. Reconciling the two seems scarcely possible, although. In a nutshell, the book is a crisp and witty chronicle of amazements. From one of the finest writers on India, China and the Far East, this fascinating, single-volume history combines narrative pace and skill with social, economic and cultural analysis to cover over two millennia of China’s history.

By Ashok Kumar

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