Tag Archives: History of China

Book: China: Land of Dragons and Emperors


As simple a Chinese history as is possible to write. Needs a revamp.
255 pages, ★★

Chinese history is notoriously complicated. There have been 83 dynasties (maybe 85) and 559 emperors (plus about 8 more “chairmen” since the 1911 revolution—but this is debatable), each with their own cultures, palaces and stories. As a civilisation, China enjoys the longest unbroken history on Earth. For five thousand years, dynasties followed the predictable cycle of “conquer-rise-prosper-decline” due to warfare, patriotism, tyranny and corruption, respectively. Dynasties often ruled simultaneously in different locations, particularly in the first half of China’s 5000-year history. With China’s vast population and its fondness of large governments, the number of influential people in China’s history is unfathomably large for most people. To confuse matters further, many important people and cities had several names, and the historical record was destroyed and re-written several times in the course of China’s 5000-year history.

China’s official history of the last 100 years alone comprises several tomes filled with tiny Chinese characters on wafer-thin bible-paper. To make an abridged version of the last 5000 years especially for children, therefore, is a remarkable feat. Adeline Yen Mah (whose other books I’ve reviewed here) writes beautifully and accurately in a way that captivates. She includes anecdotes to keep children interested, and peppers the book with editorials that keep young people’s moral compasses on track during scenes of violence or promiscuity.

This book lacked sufficient detail to make it interesting for me. Zheng He’s story is a really exciting one, but it was glossed over in just a few pages in this book. Only the Qing and Tang dynasties were written in sufficient detail for me. Despite its brevity, though, all the most important people and events were at least mentioned in this book.

Reading this book on an iPad, I found myself reimagining PDF as a real iBook specifically designed for the iPad. Chinese history is an exciting topic, and iBooks on the iPad lends itself wonderfully to the videos, animations, speeches and 3D relics that could help bring this colourful history to life. The current version, a black-and-white scanned PDF, seems very dated in 2013. This book needs a digital revamp.

China: Land of Dragons and Emperors was definitely less interesting than Watching the Tree for several reasons. As someone who reads almost every remotely-interesting book on the “China” shelf, particularly non-fiction, I already know most of what she’s writing. It’s also aimed at children, and I was reading it on an iPad with all its drawbacks. If only the book could be re-engineered to take full advantage of all the features the iPad can offer, this book would be very special indeed.

I recommend this book for young teenagers (aged 10-16) who already love reading but don’t yet know much about China. Its discontinuous, highly-chaptered structure lends itself well to reading in bed. (For those who already know a lot about China but don’t like reading so much, I recommend 1421 instead.) ★★★

Book: A Little History of the World

A Little History of the World by E. H. Gombrich
I read this as a PDF on an iPod. The paperback version would probably earn five jameskennedybeijing stars. I’ve been reading this in bed.

Perfect Middle School World History Reader. Adults should read this with children.
305 pages, ★★★★ (probably five stars in paperback) 

A Little History of the World is delightful to read. It’s written in verbatim speech, more like a bedtime story than a history textbook. The author, E. H. Gombrich, wrote this book extremely fast: sometimes one chapter per day, and very little editing was done before publication. The book therefore retains an original, colloquial style. That adds character.

Gombrich brings an obvious Greece/Rome/Europe-centric bias to this book. Very little space is devoted to flourishing ancient cultures in China, India, Africa and the pre-colonial Americas. In fact, the sole chapter on Chinese Buddhism was written not by Gombrich, but by a guest author. I suggest reading this book in conjunction with both Quick Access to Chinese History and China’s History for a more balanced picture.

I like how Gombrich sets the historical background for world-changing ideas: Christianity, Confucianism, Buddhism and Marxism, according to Gombrich, were inevitable results of social situations at different times. He explains the social background for each of these philosophies, and introduces each of them as a “solution to a major historical problem”. Historical atrocities are thus a little easier to accept. This suits children.

E. H. Gombrich tells stories less like a professional historian and more like a grandfather. His style is colloquial and his account of history is not 100% correct—he corrects his errors in the final chapter—but his vivid descriptions of character and situations are always memorable.

I’d read this to primary school students at bedtime; and I’d teach this to middle school students after school. A Little History of the World lends itself extremely well to annotations, research projects and extra homework assignments. It’s a book designed for adults to read with children. ★★★★

Book: An Introduction to Modern China History (1840–1949)

I like to reading the English. Do you?

Tragic period of Chinese history made funny by terrible English and production.
191 pages, ★★

An Introduction to Modern China History is riddled with errors, some of which are funny. Fonts and text colours change haphazardly, which indicates careless copy-and-paste jobs from external sources. Fixed-width symbols are used instead of Roman numerals, and the book suffers greatly from bad grammar, repetition and missing punctuation throughout. Historical references are sometimes questionable, too: answers.com and blogspot.com are each cited several times. I would have a field day proofreading this book.

Grave historical mistakes are also made. Confucius most certainly did not “invent” Confucianism, and the Taiping Rebellion did not occur in 1950.

The intended audience is explained in the book’s opening sentence: “Generally speaking, this book is provided to the overseas students who study in Jinan University.” The majority of overseas students in Jinan University probably won’t even open this book.

The second sentence is utter nonsense: “As a book of history, the basic historic events should be the most important material of the book”. Delete.

As a proofreader, terrible English prevented me from taking this book seriously. I learned little. Read Stilwell and the American Experience in China, 1911-45 instead. ★★

Book: Quick Access to Chinese History: From Ancient Times to the 21st Century

Beautifully-produced. The cover feels like ancient paper: it even has imperfections. Made by Chinese authors and Chinese publishers in perfect English. That's rare!

No. 1 Chinese history overview. Basically China’s National Museum in print. A Syllabus.
357 pages, ★★★★★

I’ve been looking for a Chinese history overview for many months now. I tried ancient history authors like Jonathan Spence (too detailed) and Gavin Menzies (wildly outlandish); and also modern historians such as Martin Jaques (increasingly confused). Nothing has come close to Quick Access to Chinese History‘s in terms of a clear overview.

Surprisingly, this full-color book was only $8.50 (¥54) on Amazon China with free delivery. It’s entirely made in China. Since mistakes in language and production usually jump right out at me, I’m proud to say that this book is almost completely error-free! As a proofreader, high-quality editing and production makes me very happy. 🙂

History in this book is exactly the same as that in China’s National Museum: even the pictures are the same. This is important because China, unlike Britain, seems to be very sure of its ancient history. Unlike British authors, Chinese authors seldom present conflicting views or alternative versions of the last few thousand years. Quick Access to Chinese History is therefore the only version of Chinese history you’ll ever need.

Rather than waking up at 6am to get museum tickets, then skipping lunch in order to see everything, this book can be read at home with tea, chocolate and breaks for meals. It’s more relaxing.

Each of the 1000 or so events in this book warrants reading a whole other book. Quick Access to Chinese History gives you more of a reading list, or a syllabus, than an in-depth understanding. It describes the Neolithic Era to the year 2010.

Rather than brainstorm this book (as I do with all books), I made a list of topics I want to research further. My further reading list starts like this:

  • Did Yuanmou Man of 1,700,000 years B.C. really use fire?
  • What was the Ganzhi dating system?
  • Yi Ching (易经)
  • “Upamichad” (Indian philosophy)
  • Spring and Autumn Period (春秋). Mohism, Confucianism, Daoism, Legalism, Naturalism and Yinyang schools of thought all emerged during this turbulent period.
  • Zhuangzi (庄子) and his furthering of Daoism (道教)
  • Taichu calendar
  • Huangdi Neijing (黄帝内经)
  • Communist-style land reform first occurred in 485 A.D.
  • Eight-legged essay…
  • … and many more

This is the best-value book I’ve ever bought on Amazon China. And it would make an excellent starting point for a Chinese history syllabus in a school: not just as an ancient history syllabus, but since the 20th century occupies the last 25% of the book, as a complete modern history syllabus too. I recommend this book as a history starting point for all Sinophiles. A gem. ★★★★★