Tuesday, May 26, 2020

A Silk and Chai reading list: 10 books in English about Chinese history

I’ve been asked by a couple of my friends now on Facebook for book recommendations on a good English-language general Chinese history, and what they usually want is a one-volume. Personally, I find this question a bit perplexing and troublesome to answer, in part because I never learned Chinese history from a one-volume book. What I know of Chinese history, I learned first from my late, great high school area studies teacher Bruce Mjaanes. The rest, I’ve basically cobbled together from scholarly monographs, from scholarly books about China on other subjects like œconomics or literature, from non-scholarly novels like the Judge Dee mysteries, or from bilingual-edition or Chinese-language history books like the Spring and Autumn Annals, Ban Gu’s Book of Han or Sima Guang’s Zizhi Tongjian. Or from just living over there for about five years total.

In fact, one of my sorest temptations, when confronted with this question, is to recommend Larry Gonick’s Cartoon History of the Universe (which is kind of cheating, because it’s actually a three-volume series). This recommendation would be only slightly tongue-in-cheek, because I have three good reasons for making it.


First of all: asking for a one-volume English general history of China is in fact a lot like asking for a three-volume general history of the entire known universe in cartoon format, because there’s so much there – five thousand years of a continuous civilisation’s journey from the Neolithic age to the Information Age seems a tall task to ask of any one book by any one author. What you would get from such a book, even if it were written by John King Fairbank, wouldn’t be much more than a cartoon history anyway – a caricature drawn from one scholar’s selection of relevant source material. So why not go for the ‘real deal’ instead, and get a few good yuks while you’re at it?

Second: Gonick is actually fairly balanced and nuanced in his Cartoon History. He spends roughly equal time on the great world civilisations – including Sumer, Ægypt, sub-Saharan Africa, India, China and the præ-Contact Native civilisations – and doesn’t adopt a(n overtly) Eurocentric perspective. His unique brand of humour – which sometimes consists of putting Freudian psychoanalysis in the mouths of figures like Attila the Hun, for example – allows him to enter into his subject matter with a degree of sympathy that you might not find in other, more ‘serious’ works. His global perspective also allows him to take into account the dynamism and interconnectedness of even the præ-modern world, and he even talks at length about the trade networks that formed the first world-systems in classical times!

Lastly: Gonick’s Cartoon History of the Universe has an impressive and painstaking bibliography, of which one can readily avail oneself if one wants to learn more about a given topic. He gives an impressive array of primary and secondary historical sources on each area and time period he covers, at the end of each volume. I’ve sniped more than one additional book from these bibliographies, much to the chagrin of my overstrained and double-stacked bookshelves…

So, yes. Gonick’s Cartoon History, if you want the one-volume scoop on China. Er, three-volume.

But if you want to go the route that I did, and learn about China from scholarly sources on your own power, I’d make the following recommendations.
  1. The Spring and Autumn Annals, traditionally attributed to Confucius. This is the OG one-volume history of (one era of history of) China, compiled toward the end of the Spring and Autumn period of Chinese history. On the face of it, it’s a terse, fairly dry and matter-of-fact chronicle of the State of Lu – Confucius’s home state. It records important events in the lives of the ruling family (including marriages, deaths, accessions and so on), official rituals, foreign engagements both friendly and hostile, natural disasters and cosmic events. However, it is considered the classical work of Chinese history, in part because it was widely considered to be the work of Confucius himself, and in part because it provided the first format for history arranged in annals form – and was thus the go-to work for all subsequent Chinese history and historiographical commentary.

    Speaking of which, I recommend a good commentary to go with this one, as well. The three traditional ones are the Gongyang, Zuo and Guliang commentaries, of which three I tend to prefer the Gongyang Commentary, which has a recent English-language translation by Harry Miller. The Gongyang Commentary gave rise to the religious-personalist and politically-reformist New Text school of Chinese classical hermeneutics. The Zuo Commentary also has a bilingual edition by Jiahu Books.


  2. A Romance of Three Kingdoms by Luo Guanzhong. Though it is not to be considered history in the strict sense of the word, this one among the ‘Four Great Novels’ of China – the first one written in Early Mandarin rather than Classical Chinese – more than any other illuminates the way generations of Chinese people have thought about their own history. Written in the early Ming Dynasty around 1350 but taking place during the decline and collapse of the Han Dynasty about two hundred years after the time of Christ, Three Kingdoms is a labyrinthine tale of violent upheavals, power struggles, political manœuvres, deceits and stratagems – and the rise and fall of the three rival kingdoms led by Cao Cao, Liu Bei and Sun Quan. It illustrates nicely both the power-realist dimension in Chinese political thought, and also (by virtue of how much it’s wanting in the narrative) the high value that has traditionally been placed in Chinese society on peace and order. If you can get a hold of it, I recommend the Moss Roberts translation that I was fortunate enough to pick up at college, and which I read alongside the Early Mandarin original.


  3. A Chinese Account of the Opium War by Wei Yuan. English translation by Edward Harper Parker. Written by the gæopolitically-astute realist, political reformist and Gongyang scholar Wei Yuan, a close friend and confidante of Commissioner Lin Zexu, this retrospective military history – almost an after-action report, really – takes the form of a blow-by-blow account of the most formative and first engagement of China with a Western imperial power, beginning with Lin Zexu’s famous destruction of British opium at Humen. It also takes you deep inside the politics of the Qing state, and reveals the frustrations of a reform-minded Chinese official during a time when ‘foreign learning’ could land you in serious trouble with the Imperial censors. Wei Yuan’s political prescriptions for and critique of the Qing state are trenchant and unsparing, and meant to be read as such. A quick warning: the romanisations of the Chinese names and toponyms in this book will quickly get frustrating if you’re not used to them; they were written before even the Wade-Giles standardised romanisations of spoken Chinese. Helpfully, Parker includes footnotes with the original Chinese characters on each page.


  4. The Spirit of the Chinese People by Thompson Gu Hongming. On the far other side of the political spectrum from Wei Yuan, this work by the brilliantly contrarian, cosmopolitan reactionary polymath Gu Hongming is a sympathetic and highly-literate treatment of Chinese culture under Qing rule. Gu Hongming – a Malaysian-born half-Chinese and half-Portuguese immigrant who worked for the Qing statesman Zhang Zhidong – has a unique ‘third-culture kid’ take on life in Qing China. In this volume, Gu Hongming attempts to make the case – using literary references from Shakespeare, Schiller and Goethe for the benefit of educated European readers – for the specific features of traditional Chinese life that were most apt to draw criticism from those same ‘enlightened’ Europeans. Personally speaking, I found this title a bit more interesting for the fact that it illuminates a certain aspect of ‘overseas Chinese’ and TCK experience and psychology, than for the insights it attempts to relate about the Chinese soul.


  5. The Good Earth by Pearl S Buck. A novel in the realist vein, written by an American author and missionary brat raised in China, this was assigned reading for yours truly in high school, by the incomparable Mr Mjaanes. The sprawling story of Anhui peasant Wang Lung, his wife O-lan and their children, his father, it’s a sweetly sensitive and keenly observant look at the life of the Chinese rural peasantry during the early Republican era. The overall story treats the struggles of the peasant family to stave off starvation, and later to survive in the big city, and then explores cares and troubles of a different sort after Wang Lung becomes a wealthy man. But there is also an immense amount of careful detail and realistic treatment of Chinese folkways to be found in the nooks and crevices of that story. Among English-language reads about China, this should be on any essentials list, not just mine. My review and retrospective on The Good Earth can be found here at The Heavy Anglo Orthodox.


  6. Land and Labour in China by Richard H Tawney. A work broadly concerned with the œconomic development (or lack thereof) in early modern China, this book by one of England’s foremost Christian socialists manages to bring to bear a gobsmacking wealth of data and statistics on the question without losing sight of the heart of the argument. Tawney sets aside his moralism for broad swathes of the book, but it is clear that his primary concerns when writing it in 1932 were for the œconomic well-being of the average Chinese peasant. Tawney has a palpable awe with which he regards the Chinese peasant family, and in particular the ingenuity and hard work with which they are able to do so much to feed themselves, with so little land and resources, with an environment of corruption and banditry that threatens to rob them at every turn of what they have, and with a government arrayed against them that simply does not care. His recommendations are clear and sweeping: nothing less than a reconstruction of the countryside is called for. It’s also to a testament to Tawney’s prescience that he was able to predict, that if nothing were done about official corruption and force against the peasantry, that a revolution of immense violence would result – and that the peasantry themselves would be the catalysts. My review of Tawney’s book may be found here, at The Heavy Anglo Orthodox.


  7. The End of the Revolution, by Wang Hui. Wang Hui is probably the single most interesting scholar of modern China that I know of doing work in English, even though he’s not a historian by scholarly training. He is a literary critic and a specialist on the novels and short stories of Lu Xun. I once described his take on Chinese history as Daoist, though it’s probably better to say that if he has a bias, it’s dialectical. He has a particular fondness for digging up forgotten histories and doing ‘history from below’, and bringing these forgotten histories into serious conversation with modern received wisdom. The End of the Revolution is his work grappling with the legacy of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, and his take is valuable in that he neither flinches from the damage it cause, nor takes refuge in an easy moral umbrage which can too-patly dissociate modern China from its effects or its logic. He has a unique perspective that critiques Chinese nationalism but at the same time salvages valuable insights from China’s legacy of socialist governance. He also – endearingly to me – draws a great deal of his political insight from Immanuel Wallerstein and other world-systems theorists. I would also highly recommend his books China’s Twentieth Century, China’s New Order, and China from Empire to Nation-State… which is also a sneaky way of recommending four books by the same author in a single list item.


  8. The Open Empire by Valerie Hansen. A valuable volume of English-language history of China for several reasons. The Yale-based author covers the late-mediæval to early-modern era of China’s history through the Song, Yuan, Ming and Qing Dynasties. She also does so as social history, covering trends in material culture and the arts as well as political events; her book gives rich and detailed descriptions of the lives of ordinary people during this time, based on history as told through gazetteers, almanacs and archæological finds as well as traditional historiography. Hansen’s book also refuses, as the title of the book hints, to treat China as a ‘closed system’, but situates it in world history with a particular regard to how China interacted with its neighbours. The descriptions of the Song-period Jurchen Jin and Khitan Liao cultures are particularly valuable, as they would later play important governing rôles in China’s history.


  9. The Last Quarter of the Moon by Chi Zijian. This is a modern novel by an ethnic-Han author from Dongbei, which has been recently translated into English by Bruce Humes. If you want to understand how members of an ethnic minority in China understand themselves, and if you want to understand how they place themselves (or don’t) within China’s history and modern society, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better book than this one, even among scholarly histories. Taking the perspective of the last chieftain’s wife of an Evenki tribe in northeastern China, this elegiac and highly-poetic saga of her life spanning a childhood in the early Soviet and Republic eras to her old age during Reform and Opening showcases many of the dramatic material and social changes that the tribe underwent in the transition to modernity. This book is notable also in that it is non-judgemental on the people involved, without romanticising or sugar-coating either the brutality and harshness of their prior way of life, or the ambiguous and sometimes equally-dangerous blessings of modern technology and sedentary living. My full review of this novel is up on The Heavy Anglo Orthodox.


  10. Boxers & Saints by Gene Luen Yang. That’s right. Just to one-up my own recommendation of Larry Gonick, I’m also recommending a historical-based graphic novel collection in this series. Heh. Yang’s work is all awesome and worth exploring on its own merits, though: American Born Chinese and The Shadow Hero as well as the Avatar comics (big shout-out to Netflix for putting the original series up on Friday last week, by the way!). But Boxers & Saints, a fictionalised account of the 1899 Boxer Rebellion aimed at young adults, as told from two opposing perspectives – that of one of the Yihetuan leaders, and that of a Chinese convert to Catholicism, whose lives intersect and overlap in various comic and tragic ways – is both a tear-jerker and a cultural education in its own right. Yang is actually to be commended here for telling two compelling and seemingly diametrically-opposed stories, in a way that makes internal sense of both sides. He also doesn’t shy away from the ‘big problems’ of cultural belonging, colonial oppression, faith and violence; and explores a lot of the antinomies of his own experience in the process. There is a resolution, but it is far from a straightforward one, and it comes at a high cost. Yang does bring quite a bit of scholarly depth to this comic, but that’s nothing compared to the achievement of making you able to feel the messy, conflicted and contradictory spirit of the age: which is in fact a reflection of the present.


An interesting point of comparison, and one worth perusing for those who follow this blog already, would be the 100 books on China recommended by the contributors at SupChina, a list with a far broader scope than this one. My list here does share a bit of overlap with theirs: I notice off the bat that A Romance of Three Kingdoms, The Last Quarter of the Moon and The Good Earth all make appearances there. There are others on the SupChina list that I desperately want to read but haven’t gotten to yet – in particular the Yu Hua and Mo Yan novels, and Iris Chang’s book on the Rape of Nanjing. Others on that list touch on similar themes to the ones I list here: the Opium War, the Boxer Rebellion and the Cultural Revolution, for example.

So, there you have it: my ten recommended books on Chinese history. This list I’m intending to serve as a guide and ready reference to those who ask for places to start diving in. There are probably several others I could have included here that are even more specialist in their outlook and thus not as likely to be as interesting or as useful to a beginner looking to understand China. However, for those looking for that deeper dive into anthropology, sociology or biography, I could easily also recommend: From the Soil by Fei Xiaotong, The Transformation of Traditional Chinese Education by Tao Xingzhi, The Last Confucian by Guy Alitto, Tell the People by YC James Yen. And that’s not to mention philosophy, poetry and literary criticism… though perhaps it is best to stop here.

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