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Over the Old Elms

By (January 1, 2010) No Comment

China: A History

By John Keay
Basic Books, 2009

The appearance of a hefty new history of China is enough to make even the bravest soul a bit apprehensive. What, after all, can readers in the West expect of such a thing? The long and detailed progress of a big, backward country from an ancient past that featured barbaric violations of human rights, to a recent past that featured state-sponsored pogroms against book-readers, to a present that features the same old barbaric human rights violations, with the added benefit of owning most of America’s ninety jillion dollars of debt. Hardly the stuff of which John Ford westerns (or even Tom Clancy techno-thrillers) are made; a repressive, creepily alien regime … stays in power and eventually gets to rule the world. Cue credits, and send John Wayne home.


This admittedly dyspeptic view is born of China’s ubiquity in the news. It’s inherently myopic, and you’d hope a new historian of China’s long past would take pains to point that out. John Keay has written such a history, and with unflagging zest, clear, accessible prose, and a refreshingly panoramic perspective, he offers just such a warning:

When reviewing China’s record during the twentieth century, historians of the future may see things differently. The wars and revolutions that loomed so large to contemporaries, the men who led them and the ideologies that polarised them are likely to be set alongside less conspicuous developments that seemed at the time secondary or intermittent. Already all those revolutions – republican, Nationalist, communist, cultural – may be bracketed within a finite sequence, a sixty-year continuum of turbulence whose horrors are mercifully diminished by longer perspective and a more pragmatic present. The ideologies have been declawed, the revolutionaries cut down to size, the wars consigned to museums and monuments. Attention is shifting to other, longer-term agents of change.

He’s happy to wade into discussion of those agents of change – unaccountable factors such as half a billion Chinese women entering the workforce or millions of young people texting on their cell phones, drastically and rapidly simplifying the traditionally hermetic written Chinese language – but he stresses whenever he can that this is not a ‘what are the Chinese up to nowadays?’ When dealing with a country that’s been recording (and, as Keay points out, obsessing over) its own history for nearly four thousand years, the key virtue is patience: “A vast country with an interminable pedigree, an idiosyncratic culture, a traumatic recent past and an exciting future,” he warns us, “can hardly be taken at a canter.”

The resulting book, China: A History is nearly 600 pages long, and, joyfully, only a tiny fraction of those pages, wedged up at the end (when you’ll be ready for them, as it were), deal with the depressing and off-putting China that makes its way into the news these days. Keay has a very long story to tell, and a good number of persistent misconceptions to gently implode (every single person writing about China – including me, right now – is duty bound to mention that the Great Wall cannot, in fact, be seen from space), so it makes sense the last seventy years would serve almost as an appendix. The country’s past is vast enough – and problematic enough – as it is.

Keay spends roughly equal amounts of space on all the various formative periods of Chinese history, from the primitive Shang Dynasty (“primitive” here only in a strictly relative sense – in the world circa 1500 B.C., the Shang sanitation, transportation, agricultural techniques, written tradition, eating habits, and a great deal else were far more sophisticated than those of any other land on Earth, with the exception only of ancient Egypt), to the stable Zhou Dynasty that gave the world Taoism, Confucianism, and mountains of bureaucratic paperwork, to the mighty Tang and Song Dynasties, in which culture, commerce, invention, and literature flourished in the East while they were generally slumbering in the 7th-to-12th century Europe of the day. Internecine strife marred all of these periods, and Keay covers all of that too – this is a prodigious work of synthesis; the longer you spend in his narrative, the more impressed with it you become. Partly this is due to the fact that he’s always working hard to keep his readers’ attention, as in this passage on ever-expanding Chinese trade:

As an arena for imperial expansion, inner Asia has somewhat improbably been called ‘the rough equivalent of the Mediterranean Sea’ in Graeco-Roman history. Though as dry as the Mediterranean is wet and as harsh as it is balmy, the sands of what was later known as Turkestan glowed at sunset like ‘the wine-red sea’ and did indeed produce grapes; [the first century explorer] Zhang had earlier noted that they were fermented into a fine liquor that improved with age; and it was from Xinjiang that the vine would speedily be introduced to China. More to the point, the trading oases lay strung along the desert like an archipelago of islands. Inexperienced voyagers could safely navigate from one to another; and autonomous but vulnerable, they could then serve as ports of call and supply or as permanently garrisoned strongholds. The key to the wider world lay in securing the ‘sea-ways’ of Xinjiang.

(This passage additionally shows the downside of earnest pot-stirring, unfortunately; that “archipelago of islands” isn’t the only clunker in the book.)

The besetting dilemma here is the deep divide that has always existed in Chinese history, and you can see it even in the exquisite writing that has grown with the culture. The traditional symbol that represents the basic order of the universe, the tao, is made of two contrasting pictograms: shou, which is head, thought, deliberation, and ch’o, which is foot, movement, action. The two opposites uneasily meld together to form a national philosophy with a rift right down the middle, and any responsible account of the country’s long history must try – even in the face of certain failure – to reconcile the two. Westerners from Marco Polo on have sought both to pose this riddle and to answer it, and when King George III sent an enormous embassy to the court of the Qing Dynasty at the height of its power in 1793, he, too, was seeking any sign of something recognizable, a consistency his glittering representatives (with their boatloads of tribute) could report as useful. Keay is more comfortable reporting the advances of this exotic civilization on the other side of the world than he is at confronting its enigmas. This is probably because he views the enigmas as in large part exaggerations of the present; he wants to keep his focus on the past, and some of his revelations will prod readers to reshape their conceptions of the much-storied Elizabethan Age:

Of the three inventions credited by Francis Bacon with having changed his sixteenth-century European world – printing, the magnetic compass and gunpowder – all had been anticipated by the Chinese and all had entered everyday use under the Song [Dynasty – circa A.D. 1000], so distinguishing that age of innovation from the Tang age of importation. The printed book dealt a telling blow to ignorance, the compass discovered its vocation as a navigational instrument, and gunpowder graduated from fireworks to warfare (mainly for the mining of fortifications and as an explosive projectile rather than as a propellant). Coal began to replace charcoal in furnace, forge and kiln as tree cover in the north was depleted, steel to replace iron for weapons, implements and in construction. Surveying and map-making achieved high degree of accuracy; so did astronomy, ever a strong suit in the Celestial Empire. A calculation of the world’s circumference proved accurate to within a few metres; the fall of the Grand Canal over a 420-kilometer (260-mile) section was measured within millimeters.

But for my part, I found Keay’s comments on more contemporary Chinese history and players utterly fascinating. He’s justifiably wary about reducing 3,500 years of invasions, warring dynasties, technological and artistic advances, and mercantile expansion to a mere opening act for the 20th century’s great Asian upheavals, but nevertheless, his insights on figures like Chairman Mao are uniformly shrewd and illuminating:

A possible verdict on Mao’s manic chairmanship might echo that applied to the Qin First Emperor, he whose great failing had been ‘not changing with the times.’ According to Grand Historian Sima Qian, the qualities essential for acquiring an empire were not the same as those needed for ruling it; or as an advisor had pointed out to Liu Bang, founder of the Han dynasty, an empire won from the saddle could not be run from the saddle. Violent and impulsive tactics were fine in the field but quite inappropriate in the council chamber. Thus, failing to adapt, or ‘not changing with the times’, was a flaw common to many dynastic founders. Mao was exceptional in just two respects: he lasted longer than most, thus multiplying his potential for mischief, and he discovered a rationale for prolonging the mischief that masked his mere love of power. This lay in his belief that constant turmoil and class struggle were essential to the integrity of the revolution, which would otherwise be undermined by inertia, corruption and ideological back-sliding. It did not occur to him that the revolution might also be undermined by histrionic efforts to perpetuate it.

Keay opens his book by defending his decision to add “another divot to this tumulus of erudition” that is Chinese historiography, but reading his final chapters made me hope his next volume will deal exclusively with the 20th century – a sequel of sorts, and one the general reader has been waiting for.

In the meantime, we have China: A History, which should find its way onto the nightstands of every national leader in the world, the President of the debtor United States certainly included. Here is the latest scholarship (so late, in fact, that crusty old academics such as myself will bridle at being required to call beloved poets such as Tu Fu or the great Li Po by newer, more accurate renditions of their names – how will I ever adapt to Dou Fu and, ugh, Li Bo?) calmly and intelligently précised for a new century in which China promises to be more important than ever.

More important, but in the end perhaps not a bit more easily comprehensible – China is a country that could send tanks to crush peaceful demonstrations and execute officials who perform their jobs poorly, but also a country that could produce and educate, as one example among countless others, the brilliant young poet Hsu Chih-Mo (1895-1931), whose “No. 7, Stone Tiger Lane” (in a translation by Kai-Yu Hsu) speaks so beautifully of the shou that always accompanies the Chinese c’ho:

Sometimes in our little garden there ripples infinite tenderness.
Giggling vines bare their bosoms for the persimmon leaves to caress.
Elms, a hundred feet tall, stoop in the breeze to embrace the cherry-apple,
Our yellow dog at the hedge watches over his little friend, the sleeping Po-erh.
Little birds create their new mating tunes, singing without stop.
Sometimes in our little garden there ripples infinite tenderness.

Sometimes in our little garden there spreads a vague dream;
Misty shadows after rain and dark green weave into silent shade.
A little frog sits before withered orchids, listening to the earthworms next door.
A patch of lingering black cloud rolls and unrolls over the old elms,
Skimming along the eaves, whirling in waltz – are they dragonflies or bats?
Sometimes in our little garden there spreads a vague dream.

Hugh Seames is a retired professor of Baroque art and architecture who now makes his home in Orvieto, Italy.

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