Thursday, May 8, 2014

The Dynasties of China: A History, by Bamber Gascoigne.

People who know me fairly well are no doubt familiar that my specialization with history is mostly Europe and the United States. I am, of course, passingly familiar with some more general facts of world history, but much of my studies have been focused on, to put it plainly, dead white men. In an ongoing attempt to try and learn more about the history of the majority of the world I picked up this book a while ago and finally got around to reading it. Going into this book I was aware that it was going to be a very basic primer talking about Chinese history in very broad strokes, but I thought that'd be particularly useful in giving me a much better understanding of the world's largest countries in terms of geography, economy, and population. Overall the book did an adequate job, and I hope to be able to explore more about China's four thousand year old culture.

The thing that I found rather frustrating, and I had to keep telling myself in my mind, is that this is a very basic book covering four thousand years of history in about two hundred pages. I alone have read books that talked about events that happened in a few weeks in twice as many pages, so I had to keep in mind that this book wasn't going to go into as much detail as I'd like just because of its broad focus. I would have also liked perhaps a list of recommended reading on topics discussed within the book to further my understanding of Chinese history, but unfortunately that simply was not the case in this text. However, as a very basic primer I feel like it managed to cover a lot of ground very quickly and give the reader a very good grounding in Chinese history. With a timeline and map it also looks like a handy quick reference for students going further in depth in Chinese history.

This text manages to touch on many issues, such as trade, religion, philosophy, poetry, and China's notorious civil service examinations. At points, however, I feel like this book decided to opt out of talking about the big picture to focus on individuals, which I feel is rather at odds with the intended focus of the book. I personally tend to be a big picture historian and don't really like focusing on one individual because I feel like it places too much emphasis on the person rather than the larger social, economic, and political framework which they inhabit. People certainly can be important, but I am staunchly of the opinion that it's the circumstances that allow them to be influential rather than some innate quality within the person themselves. I felt like Gascoigne focused on influential individuals to the detriment of the larger picture, which really should have been the main focus for a basic primer like this.

The one thing I did notice, and I found rather frustrating, was there were a couple of points where there was a focus on the exotic aspects of China, as if it was still a strange land to be explored by white people. The focus on human sacrifices during the Zhou period, the extremes of Legalism during the brief Qin dynasty, the more interesting of Taoist sexual practices, and the horrors of footbinding all were mentioned in considerable detail. And while these are all part of history and certainly shouldn't be forgotten, I feel like they were presented in a "Look at how different those foreigners are from us!" manner. The presentation certainly could have been done with far more dignity than it seemed to be done here.

Overall it was a very good primer for learning the very basics of Chinese history and I'd recommend it for people looking to get a start. Personally I think I will at least attempt to read more about Imperial China in the future.

- Kalpar

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