China - A History (2009)

John Keay

14 Feb 2021

★ ★ ★ ★ ★

Keay’s history of China traces a line from its earliest known records through to the present day. But Chinese history is special, so emphasis is important. In the writer’s own words:

Histories like this usually award priority to the recent. The narrative slows, like a train drawing into a station, as it approaches the platform of the present. Breaking hard through the 19th century, it crawls obligingly through the 20th towards the buffers of the 21st. This book, in devoting more space to the distant past and less to the recent past, may go to the other extreme. But since no culture is so historically consious as China’s, the remote is often more relevant.

Having only a vague outline of China’s history before reading this book, I’m very grateful for the emphasis on the distant past rather than the more recent. What I wanted from a history of China, was a deep-dive into the collective mindset of the nation through its history. The only way to understand China today, is through its past.

China, Zhongguo, translates roughly to “Middle Kingdom”. Throughout history this land has been at intervals at war with itself, partly whole again, then fragmented anew. What is powerful about the present day is that it is united for almost the first time, and coincicent with being accendent globally. It finally is living up to its name. Because, “middle” kingdom has always meant middle as in centre – i.e. at the centre of everything. That’s China today.