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4.0 out of 5 stars
China: A History
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15 of 15 people found the following review helpful
TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 19 October 2010
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
on 5 January 2010
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
on 3 April 2009
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
on 2 August 2009
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
on 23 May 2010
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. A good account is given of the foundational period of Chinese history prior to the the Qin first emperor, in particular of the Zhou period, during which the philosopher Confucius. The significance of he sainted duke of Zhou to later China is discussed. The reader will realise that even a comprehensive account of Chinese history as presented here can only scratch the surface.

Overall, highly recommended.
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20 of 21 people found the following review helpful
The ability to make history 'come to life' is something many authors of this genre aspire to and few attain. China: A History is written in a style pitched to both inform and entertain. The text is factual, but laced with anecdotes about legends that have grown up in folklore and which have been found to have, at least in part, some verifiable substance. A book designed to give factual details to those who are looking for them and to attract the attention of those with a passing interest in the subject.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on 27 January 2011
An appropriate title, and a very reasonable delivery on a title that presents a daunting task, essentially the chronicling of 6,000 years of history within one volume, and a readable one at that.
John Keay leaves no stone unturned, beginning with China's creation myth, and linking this with the essential, underlying theme of "all under Heaven", Keay chronicles the history of the history of the Middle Kingdom from the legendary 5 Emperors, to the modern China of the 21st Century.
The organization and structure is handled appropriately, with Chapters being grouped into the respective dynasties, and the sub chapters entitled under the specific cataclysms or milestones within those dynasties.
With regard to the distribution of attention and focus on particular periods of figures, a China amateur like myself has no qualification to say whether focus was applied appropriately, however no linchpins are lacking within this volume, and a great sense of the political sociological chances are felt, particularly the evolution of Chinese thought, and the periodic suppressions of Buddhism.
A book that is both recommendable to those already acquainted with studies of China, such as myself, or new comers to the field. Even those with an extensive knowledge of the subject would no doubt benefit from a very readable sweep of Chinese history, and John Keay's excellent volume does exactly that.
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17 of 19 people found the following review helpful
on 9 March 2010
John Keay has compressed China's history into some 500 pages. The result is an excellent overview, comprehensive and complete up to the establishment of the Peoples Republic. Keay highlights each dynasty's quest for legitimacy through historical precedent, lineage and philosophical righteousness and analyses its successes and failures, both military and social.
For me, however, Keay's style is at times difficult and renders a complex history difficult to grasp. The reader is helped by the admirably clear dynastic charts but I feel there is a need for more maps and perhaps more sub-titles. Overall the book is easy to put down and difficult to pick up again.
On a minor issue, I believe Keay's criticism of Pinyin is unjustified. Pinyin is an excellent system for students of the Chinese language and is far simpler than the often complicated and cumbersome Wade-Giles system. Incidentally, his Tang dynasty poets Li Bo and Dou Fu should be rendered Li Bai and Du Fu in Pinyin.
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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on 8 July 2009
This magnificient tome comes from one of that select group of Scottish authors who can turn out non fiction and fiction books that are well researched, easy to read and understand but most importantly become icons of English languagu and history.
The history of China is not an easy subject to write about as it starts at the begining of time to the present day-constantly changing and developing.
Following an interesting introduction covering myths,dynastys,trans lation problems leading to Pinyin and geography the book is divided into 18 chapters dealing withh the period pre1050 BC to 1950 with the ascent of Mao.Each chapter is ann excellent account of the era under review and could be a book on its own but the author has encapsulated the salient details of the time written about.
It is a pity the book stops at 1950 as great changes have occured in China since then eg. the Cultural Revolution,the rise to a world power and the development of democracy.
My only criticisms ofthe book are -the list of illustrations on page xii should be numbered individually and page numbered The 3 groups of illustrations should be numbered to compare with the printed list.The photographs while good require the attentions ofa good laboratory
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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
Not an easy book - but it taught me a lot. Elegant writing, complicated (well, which history isn't?) with many recurrent names for different people... a bit like a whole series of kings called either Henry, Edward, Philip or Louis, I suppose. Also I kept on having to look up place names; but there is a whole series of maps provided for *that* purpose.

It is very dense, with print that other publishers would have spread it over a thousand pages. As it is, page 300 takes us to the year 1000 AD, page 400 to the year 1500, and by page 500 we are in the 1900's. On the other hand, you find such little gems as "Succesful exam candidates are said to have enjoyed the acclaim nowadays accorded to style gurus and raddled entertainers", or the "bespoke communists" of the late 20th century.

Enjoyable, in a slow and thoughtful way; all a history book should be, really! I will be buying his book on India next.
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