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Now in Paperback: China, a History

China: A History

by John Keay

Basic Books, 2011

In the two years since John Keay’s grippingly readable book first came out in hardcover, its importance has only grown as its subject, China, takes a more and more prominent role on the world stage. A vast and rapidly developing country being stumblingly, forcibly confronted with environmental concerns, gender equality, insinuating capitalism, and rampant pop culture, China has emerged from the global economic slump of recent years as in many ways the world power of paramount importance – not least because it’s the largest foreign holder of U.S. debt.

In other words, it behooves us all to know a little bit more about China, and we could have no better guide than John Keay, whose book received a strongly positive review in Open Letters. On every page of his long and panoramic work – the definitive history of China in English – Keay displays a consummate narrative skill and erudition that’s all the more impressive for looking so effortless. He’s so adept at telescoping the particular to the general (and back again) that the sweep of what he’s doing is almost deceptive, as when he begins talking about the hands-off ruling style of the legendary Han Wudi:

This was in accord with Confucian teaching. Emperors were not supposed to toil day and night over cartloads of bamboo documentation as the Quin First Emperor was said to have done, nor to take the field with troops and drinking companions like Han Gaozu. Setting an irresistible example of righteousness and human conduct required Heaven’s Son to stand aloof, and with his authority unimpaired by legislative niceties and executive responsibilities, cultivate a state of impassivity.

Readers familiar with Donald Morris’ unforgettable masterpiece The Washing of the Spears will find the same kind of fascinating colorful details scattered through Keay’s pages, as when he shifts to the quelling of a revolt in A. D. 40 in what is now northern Vietnam:

Heavily romanticised, the story of Viet resistance to General Ma became a national epic rich in detail. It tells how one of the Boadicea-like Trung sisters rode into battle on elephant-back with her breasts flung over her shoulders like saddlebags – an arrangement that could be editorially glossed as the earliest authentic reference to the halter-neck top, or perhaps the brassiere.

(I didn’t quite follow that last supposition, but I sure as hell had a great time in the rest of the passage). Periodically, Keay will remind his readers that a land with four thousand years of recorded history will have many a dead end and strange temporal caprice to round out its weightier continuities. Emperors and empresses have inspirations that go nowhere, and seemingly great achievements, like the new capital of Luoyang built in A.D. 493, can drift away like clouds:

… after nine years of rebuilding and a massive population transfer, a great city once again graced the northern bank of the Luo River. The new Luoyang covered an area of over 18 square kilometres (7 square miles) and accommodated more than half a million people and 1,300 monasteries. It witnessed scenes of magnificence barely rivalled by its predecessors, it hosted further developments in Buddhist scholarship, it minted the first new coinage for a couple of centuries – and it lasted for all of a generation. Not wilfully destroyed this time, merely evacuated, by 535 Luoyang was again a ghost town.

It remains to be seen whether or not China’s new ascendancy will go the way of Luoyang, and in any case it’s fortunate that Keay devotes such a small portion of his book to the distractions of the contemporary era; there’s an enormously long perspective informing this fantastic book, the fruit of an impressive amount of research and compression. The witty, at times almost bantering voice of the whole thing is just an added bonus. Highly recommended.