China: A History by John Keay details the rich history of this mighty country from its beginning at around 2000 BC up to the Cultural Revolution in 1966. Although this could be considered your one stop shop for learning of China’s history spanning almost 5,000 years, I felt that many of the finer details were missing. Although he goes through the major dynasties and writes about the major events that had happened, details such as daily life of the working class/peasants, food and art, social structure, culture, recreational activities and generally information about life outside the palaces are hard to come by and lacking. Understandably, writing a history book that spans such a long timeframe is a daunting challenge. Add to that the humongous territory that needed to be covered where each area can vary from one to the other and I can see why the author had to skip on many of these finer details otherwise he’d find himself writing this book till this very day!
“He who conquers himself is the mightiest warrior.” – Confucius
I find it so true when the author in the beginning of the book said that while many people can name at least one to two Roman emperors, many of them cannot name a single Chinese emperor during China’s long imperial dynasty history. And it’s definitely not due to a lack of them. We have movies and TV drama shows that take place in various dynasty settings. We have classical novels such as Romance of the Three Kingdoms and Journey to the West. We’ve even come to understand and accept modern China as a superpower in today’s society. So, why are many still lacking in knowledge and education when it comes to the history of such a powerful country?
While I enjoyed the book very much and have definitely learned a lot, there were times when I wished the author would have stopped trying to sound so smart (for a lack of a better term) and just explained or write things in a way most normal readers can understand! This makes the reading at certain times hard to follow so you’ll likely just gloss over them but fortunately this in no way hinders the overall experience and what you’ll get out of it upon completion.
“An empire won from the saddle could not be run from the saddle.” – an advisor to Liu Bang
Taking on such a massive project is commendable. There shouldn’t be a lack of books to choose from if you’re looking for a quick introduction to all of the major dynasties of China’s imperial past. While this book does that just fine, understand that if you’re looking for something very specific to learn of China’s history, this book might not be your best option. At a little over 500+ pages, I thought it was enough to cover this massive period. I was wrong. Very wrong. For example, the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution were two very important topics that warrants further research and reading elsewhere. The sections here serves as just an appetizer. I can guarantee that this won’t be the last book on China’s history that I read and for that I can’t thank the author enough.