Book Review: A Fresh look at China

Five hundred-page tomes on the history of China are usually a daunting prospect for the general reader. Even the best-written works of the most learned scholars often assume a degree of prior knowledge or a detailed interest in some specific part of this vast field.

So welcome the latest addition to the vast literature in English about China. The just-published China: A History is by an author, John Keay, who makes no claims to being a Sinologist. Indeed he admits to scant prior knowledge of his subject prior to embarking on this project three years ago.

But Keay is an old hand at absorbing and digesting the works of dozens of primary and secondary sources to produce a relatively easy read of history, using detail and anecdote where needed but focusing on the major trends and themes and in language devoid of jargon.

His History of India was a stunning success, as was his The Honourable Company – a history of the English East India Company. China is less familiar territory than India, about which he has written on many occasions. But for the inexpert reader this has the advantage that he explains many facets of China that sinologists take for granted but remain mysteries to the uninitiated.

Keay also has a keen sense of relative importance. For instance, the past 250 years of Chinese history take up little more than 10 percent of the entire text. Such perspective may frustrate those more interested in the more recent political and economic history but they do accord with China's own perception of the length of its civilization and the need to take a long view of events.

Not that Keay falls into many Chinese nationalist traps. The book does back away from confronting difficult isues of history and identity, even though it seldom makes it own judgments. It is particularly keenly aware of the tradition of rewriting history, something done by the winners in all societies but pursued with particular deliberation by China's dynasties and their faithful and detailed official scribes. He notes, for example, how modern science is enabling archeologists (and indeed geneticists) to present new perspectives of China's history which complement, and sometimes, contradict the written, politically correct versions of the time. Keay himself is prisoner of no ideology and well aware of how interpretations and perceptions of history change over time.

For the generalist, 500 pages on Chinese history may still seem a lot. But this is a fresh and very readable effort. What the sinologists make of it has yet to be seen. Doubtless its broad scope necessitates many generalizations with which the more expert will quarrel. But for this reader at least it is a fine effort – though a lesser book than his India as it lacks the sense of familiarity that he brought to that.