Title – China A History || Author – John Keay || Pages – 535.


In year 1793, Qianlong Emperor received George Macartney, representing King George III of England, in Beijing. Macartney was an object of interest but not of respect. His request for setting up British Embassy was rebuffed as also his proposal to sign trade agreement with Britain. Later in history books it would go down as one of the biggest mistakes of modern times. In contrast at that time, to Qianlong Emperor it was completely out of logic to give a ‘barbarian’ state equal status to that of ‘Celestial Empire’, that he was ruling. At best Britain would be awarded the status extended to other tributaries like Korea and Vietnam. All that Macartney had brought as items for trade, were taken up gladly by Qianlong Emperor as tribute. And as for trade, according to the Emperor, there was no ‘British’ produce that China required. 

There are 15 volumes in ‘The Cambridge History of China’, still it is far from complete. Such is the immensity of China’s history, that in a way it outweighs that of rest of the world combined. Trying to cover this vast subject in mere 535 pages (which can be size of a large novel), one would wonder how much of justice it has done to the subject. So at the outset it is apt to say that the book can only introduce the reader to ‘History of China’, but again such is the complexity of dynastic nomenclature and multiplicity of dynasts, that any one picking this book up, must have at least a moderate level of familiarity with China’s past (used carefully in place of history).

If a 535 page long book can only be just an introduction to the China’s history, how can a page or two long review of the book capture these details ? As a solution to this, I will deal with some of the important questions which might be of contemporary interest and whose answers can be found in China’s history.

Why is China’s history so huge ?

1. Because China is a huge country, and also an old country (One of the four bronze age civilizations). It has maintained a geographical expanse equal to that of Roman Empire at its peak. In addition to this, it has remained most populous country throughout the history of mankind. So its quite natural for it to have an immense history.

– Probably it is not that simple. India is as old and is almost as vast and populous. Despite of the great research that is being conducted, its history is not as immense. ( ‘The Cambridge History of India’ is six volume thick )

2. So actually, China’s history is not immense mainly because of its size, antiquity and population, but thanks to an early practice of record keeping. Which might have triggered innovations such as paper and block printing. As dynasties rose and collapsed, ‘Standard History’ writing was never abandoned. In fact it received royal patronage throughout. It is meticulous documentation dating back to Han period (206 BC – 220 AD), which has resulted in this immense body of work which we can call as ‘History of China’.

Why China is so big ?

China is 3rd largest country in the world. What is the reason it has got this continental proportion ? The answer has two parts – conquests and colonizing. Conquests in the adjacent areas, which in historic sense can be considered all the parts of People’s Republic of China (PRC) outside Yellow river basin, was one of the direct outcome of empire building. In this the aptly named ‘First Emperor’ of Qin dynasty has to be credited. But mere expansion of military control would have resulted in consequent fizzling out of empire. The fact that dynasties came and went, and empire remained ever since, is credited to colonization. ‘Colonization’ which would gain token in wider world history in the 17th and 18th century was a state or rather imperial policy in China. The Chinese from ‘Heartland’ area (Yellow river basin), who are now called ‘Han’ Chinese were occasionally encouraged and mostly forced to shift to newly conquest-ed lands. These settlers unlike the ‘barbarians’ were ‘civilized’ peasants. This successful re-settlement to new area meant a tax base for the empire, and more pacific population. Thus even when individual dynasties fell and rose, the empire lasted forever.

Why China is not bigger ?

If China is so big, then what stopped it from being bigger ? If I have to answer that question in minimum words, my answer would be – ‘Battle of Talas River’. It was a battle fought near Talas river, on the border of modern day Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. The opponents were as grand as it can be, Abbasid Caliphate, the giant from west was meeting Tang Empire, giant from the east. The outcome was not catastrophic for either nor was it decisive gain for any, but it surely drew a line to which China’s influence would be restricted ever since. (Actually there is an aberration to this, but that ‘aberration’ is such a huge aberration in the history of world, that it requires another article for complete treatment).

What is China’s religion ?

One can always google to find statistics on different religious communities in China, but looked from historical perspective it is important to ask what is the status of religion in China ? What can be called as China’s dominant religion is ‘Confucianism’. To understand why it is not a religion in exact sense, a little exploration of ‘Confucius’, the person behind this body of thought, is rewarding. Around the same time as Buddha and Mahavira, Confucius went on to create a body of thought to guide social and personal behavior. What Confucius grappled with was disorder of ‘Spring and Autumn Period’, so his thoughts were mostly focused on cementing social order. Unlike Buddha and Mahavira, who around the same time in India, which was enjoying a period of prosperity, grappled with questions on human existence and cause for sufferings, Confucius’ teachings are like a ‘sophomore’s guide to the freshmen’, a ‘to do and not to do list’. It was deeply tied in the worldly affairs and moral code to keep society stable, and covered from ‘black head commoner’ to the ‘heaven’s son’ himself. (Earliest Chinese records call the common peasants as ‘black head commoner’ and all its emperors claimed divine right to rule China by virtue of being ‘heaven’s son’.) The social control according to Confucius is through the ‘sense of shame’. And behavior thus was guided to avoid it.

– A triumphant and indelible mark is left on China’s religious landscape by the import of Buddhism from India. And at one point of time it had such a sway in the imperial court, that a few emperors claimed to be ‘Chakravartin’, the turner of great wheel in true Buddhist tradition.

When did China first invade India ?

1962. What exact date ? Don’t worry about that, because the first ever recorded Chinese invasion or Sino-Tibetan invasion of India took place in 649 AD. Tang standard claimed, ‘India was overawed’. But it probably was limited to border areas, because this had neither any impact on Indian political landscape, nor did it leave any lasting imprint on its history. However the story becomes interesting because two well known individuals are central to this ‘invasion’. Emperor Harshvardhana of Kannauj and Hsuan-Tsang, the Chinese traveler who came to former’s court. None of them were active participant in the battle, but it was latter’s writings which had inspired a Tang mission to former’s court. And it was former’s death in between the two visits, which created an atmosphere that led to attack on the Tang mission. This humiliation was too much for Tang empire.

I am sure there are many other such interesting questions which can be answered by referring them to China’s history. And for that exact purpose anyone who wants to have a ‘more than average awareness’ of world history and more so, how it shapes contemporary world, this book is a GOOD read.

Before closing, few points to ponder upon ;

1. China’s empire was long lasting one, apart from ‘colonization’ it was its bureaucracy which led to this longevity. As author of this book quotes, ‘Though often violent and sometimes downright aggressive, China always remained a state where civil authorities dominated the military’.

2. Despite being glorious China’s history is marred with serious controversies; the biggest being the ‘alien rule’. Most of China’s dynasties were non-Han, e.g. Jurchens, Mongols, Manchus etc. Many within China look at it with embarrassment. (That essential ‘sense of shame’ associated with Confucianism).

3. The greatest civilization debate : Is China the greatest civilization of world ? C’mon that is India 🙂

– And finally in tradition of the imaginative poetry written during the Southern Song period (In exile) –

What else can be this SMALL volume, but a brush over the skin of the Dragon.’

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