The Rough Guide History of China

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9781858287645: The Rough Guide History of China
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INTRODUCTION

What we now know as China began to emerge four to five thousand years ago, in the fertile flatlands of the middle Yellow River. In the second millennium BC first the shadowy Xia, then the Shang, and finally the cultivated Zhou dynasty created an integrated, expansive kingdom that spread north, east and south, swallowing up smaller, now mainly forgotten states and peoples. Then in 221 BC the semi-alien Qin, coming from the Wei River valley in the west, forged the ‘empire’ itself, centred on the same heartland.

In due course, the territories ruled from the ‘dragon throne’ stretched from Mongolia to Vietnam, and from Korea to the Pamir Mountains. But for the ‘Han’ Chinese (as the dominant people often call themselves) lengthening frontiers were a continuous challenge. Successive waves of ‘barbarian’ troublemakers from the north and west threatened the divine order at the centre. As China prospered, so its expanding borders demanded protection. At times, the effort proved too much. In the 13th century China was itself conquered by the Mongols, and in the 17th by the longer-lasting Manchu Qing. Indeed, if we judge Marxism-Leninism to be an alien intrusion, then for the last eight hundred years China has only been self-governed during the Ming dynasty (1368–1644) and the war-torn early 20th century.

More persuasively, it is claimed that Chinese communism, for all its anti-imperialist rhetoric, has in fact restored the ‘Middle Kingdom’ (the Chinese empire), ruling through a bureaucracy reminiscent of the Confucian mandarins who managed China’s affairs for almost 2000 years. Like its imperial antecedents, the Beijing politburo also rules a vast territory. Officially, 91 percent of an equally vast population (at 1.3 billion the world’s largest) are Han Chinese. The remaining nine or ten percent – made up of Tibetans, Uigurs, Yao and a host of other minorities – together comprise a population that exceeds the combined totals of Italy and Spain.

Separatism within its borders has been another persistent theme in China’s history. Even the Han themselves are prone to division, as recurrent stand-offs between north and south testify – not to mention other pulls such as Sichuan and Yunnan. But the commanding contemporary example of internal discontent must be Tibet. While the oppression of the Tibetan people is widely condemned, what is less understood is how, historically, Tibet personifies the central dilemma of the Chinese imperium. Tibet’s western borders, once secured, are eminently defensible; the western borders of China proper without Tibet are far less so.

That China still constitutes an empire is self-evident. Whether Han or otherwise, its people are subject to an authoritarian regime that owes its existence to past conquest and continuing force. Genuinely democratic institutions are few and far between, either on the peripheries, or in the heartlands. China is still recovering from Mao Zedong’s experiment in iconoclastic totalitarianism and as long as the Communist Party cherishes the notion of a nation organically unified under its own direction, Mao’s legend as the ‘Great Helmsman’ cannot be casually dismissed.

Pragmatically, the line officially promulgated by the People’s Republic is that Mao’s policies were 30 percent wrong, but 70 percent right. By such legerdemain, from the late 1970s, Deng Xiaoping sponsored economic reform. But as the miserable showdown in Tiananmen Square demonstrated in 1989, political reform remains largely off-limits. At one end of the contemporary spectrum are government-approved, as also government-unapproved, millionaires; at the other, in both town and countryside, is a distressed underclass that can no longer rely on state socialism for basic life-support, but whose grievances, however acute, are, without representative institutions, politically insignificant.

China at the beginning of the 21st century, therefore, is not so very different from China at the beginning of the 19th, 16th, 12th or the 8th. It continues to abide by its own political traditions. Yet away from politics, China reveals another facade. While its historic high culture, as expressed in its art and literature, is predictably idiosyncratic, when it comes to its material culture there is far more of a continental, even global, homogeneity.

In this respect, the key engine has been the steppe corridor, leading out of the Yellow River basin through Gansu, and linking the Pacific to the Mediterranean. From the 1st century this became known as the Silk Road, enabling a patchy, but mutually enriching commodity exchange between East and West. But as archeology increasingly demonstrates, the same steppe highway functioned as Eurasia’s umbilical throughout pre-history, serving as a conduit for primary technological transfer: the wheel, horsepower, metallurgy, and before those the woman-based industrial art of weaving. In its early stages, such transfer was mainly West–East, or rather it radiated west and east from around the Black Sea region. Later, however, it became East–West. As well as silk, the Chinese gave us printing, gunpowder, the magnetic compass, the stern-rudder – not to mention peaches and ice cream.

Today, it is broadly accepted that Chinese material culture during the Tang and Song dynasties was more advanced than anywhere else on the planet, and that for many centuries western Eurasia was a net beneficiary of Chinese innovation. Perhaps though, in the wider chronology, the precise order and rate of exchange is secondary to the sense of a shared human endeavour, underpinned by shared capacities to which different centres of civilization contribute at different times, both as makers and as users.

The Chinese then are our collaborators, far more than potential competitors or enemies. Like ourselves, they have marched on foreign soils, though no Chinese gunboat has ever approached a European or American shore in anger. It should also be recalled how, from the 17th century onwards, it was not some wild horde issuing from the Gobi or Taklamakan desert that unhinged the complex equilibrium of Chinese civilization, but our own venal and often brutal ancestry.

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About the Author:

Justin Wintle is series editor of the Rough Guide Chronicles. He has many publications to his credit, including several reference books, two novels and Romancing Vietnam (Penguin) and Furious Interiors: Wales, R.S.Thomas and God (HarperCollins).

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