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China: A History Hardcover – 7 Jul 2008

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Product details

  • Hardcover: 592 pages
  • Publisher: HarperPress; First Edition edition (7 July 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0007221770
  • ISBN-13: 978-0007221776
  • Product Dimensions: 16.5 x 4.9 x 24.2 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (32 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 94,765 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Review

‘There is no understanding China, present or future without a sense of its past…Anybody fascinated by the puzzle of what come next for our frail, perplexed planet will find unexpected answers in this crisp, often witty chronicle of amazements.’ Peter Preston, Observer

Review

'John Keay...has produced a valiant, fluently written attempt to condense a sprawling story into a few hundred pages.'

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Customer Reviews

4.0 out of 5 stars

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

15 of 15 people found the following review helpful By reader 451 TOP 1000 REVIEWER on 19 Oct. 2010
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Keay's book is probably the one to chose if you are looking for a one-volume history of China from the origins of Chinese civilisation to today. The alternative is the Cambridge Illustrated History, but that's shorter and Keay, at 530 pages, already packs it in. The book is well written and absorbing, and it is not overtly Euro-centric in outlook (for example, Keay finds nice things to say about Maoism). It also has fascinating detail about the imperial annals and the rich tradition in Chinese history-writing. Keay successfully uses the same approach as in his history of India and gives equal length to all periods, so that this is not weighted towards modern history. His justification is that giving undue importance to the modern era is to focus on times of Western dominance, whereas their classical or Ming periods matter more or equally to the Chinese. If you would however like to read more about the last four centuries, then Spence's The Search for Modern China is highly recommended.
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10 of 10 people found the following review helpful By bluecougar25 on 5 Jan. 2010
Format: Paperback
This is an eminently readable account of China's history, from a thousand years BC up to modern day and provides a great introduction to a huge topic. John Keay's style is approachable and helpful - he uses humour and analogy to help the reader get a handle on successive dynasties with similar names, complex battles and regime changes that seem to happen overnight, name changes, philosphies and the myriad elements that make the history of China such a fascinating (and confusing) study. There are some colour plates, though not enough in my view: more useful to me were the timelines to keep track of names and dates, and the odd reference to what was happening in the Western world at the same time, which helped give a wider perspective on Chinese ideas and ingenuity compared to British or European events of the time, with which I have more familiarity.

Keay includes literature and painting in his chapters, discusses idealogies and does an excellent job of providing a balanced and informed view of Tartar invasions, the Opium Wars, the construction of the Great Wall, as well as an insight into daily life both at court and amongst the people. There is a lot of detail here and the footnotes and references to other works both show the levels of research undertaken as well as providing further sources of study. This is not a "popular" account and needs some concentration, but the effort is repaid: as a first step I cannot recommend this work highly enough.
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47 of 49 people found the following review helpful By Overseas Reviewer on 3 April 2009
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Just what I wanted - an accessible and well written history of the middle kingdom covering the social, political and dynastic history right up to the ascent of Mao. It's got it all; territorial expansion, dynastic struggles, the interplay between Daoism, Buddhism and Confucian values, the Mongols, evolution of technology and literature, opium wars, the Generalisimo etc, What I found particularly interesting were the recurrent themes of the `mandate of heaven', the importance attributed to history in Chinese society and the repeated inability of `new' empires to consolidate gains. However, with so much to cover, no one area is dealt with in great depth and those seeking more detail, about recent history in particular, might wish to look elsewhere.

I've read a couple of other titles by Keay and found his writing style hard work. Happily I cannot say the same for this book, which I've enjoyed reading immensely and learned a great deal in the process. The maps and photos within are clear and informative too. I find it hard to imagine that there are any significantly better single-volume histories of China available.
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34 of 36 people found the following review helpful By Mr. F. J. Evans on 2 Aug. 2009
Format: Paperback
This book is very comprehensive. If you're approaching chinese history from little or no knowledge, this is a good starting point. However, as with all subjects being approached for the first time, it needs to be read in context and alongside other books to give a detailed understanding of the country.
In my opinion, this is best read with a very basic overview of the Chinese language (get a book from the library) and of certain key figures of China's past. This needn't be more than a day's research, although the greater your language knowledge, the better.

Having read this I'm now interested in reading this The Rise of Modern China to provide more detail. After reading that, I intend to read Keay again to make the smaller but crucial details sink in - one reading will always be insufficient for a book of this breadth.

Definitely worthwhile; my only warning would be that its coverage of the modern period (20th cent esp) is inadequate, and needs to be supplemented.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful By Matthew Culley on 23 May 2010
Format: Paperback
John Keay's excellent work charts the history of China from pre-history to the middle of the 20th Century. Unlike other "complete" histories, this book has a distinctive emphasis on the early history of China. This is useful and important for a number of reasons. Firstly, it is quite difficult to understand China today and indeed critical events such as the "Long March" without reference to the past. Whereas the West (including North America and Australasia) is the child of Ancient Greece and Rome, China has its own distinct and unique foundational philosophy and culture. For example, the difficulties that China faced in the 19th Century may be partly understood by knowing something of the nature of Chinese foreign relations in the previous centuries. This may only be understood by studying China's complex and long past. This is no mean feat. John Keay makes this clear in his introductory chapter, but it is a worthwhile exercise that should repay the student. This book is as good a place as any to start.

A large book like this may appear daunting but I can assure you that John keay's writing is fresh and crisp. In some ways, reading it was like visiting a good museum: each chapter was like an exciting exhibition space. I felt propelled to read through it, which can be unusual in a work of this type. The text is accompanied by a number of full colour plates that work to enchance the text, although of course one could always have more.

As well as being a narrative history, important concepts that are integral to the Imperial history are discussed, such as the idea of dynasties and emperors possessing the "Mandate of Heaven" to rule. Dynasties lost and won the Mandate, but the Empire continued, and observation in direct contrast to the Roman Empire for example.
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