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China: A History

3.89  ·  Rating Details  ·  626 Ratings  ·  77 Reviews
Many nations define themselves in terms of territory or people; China defines itself in terms of history. Taking into account the country’s unrivaled, voluminous tradition of history writing, John Keay has composed a vital and illuminating overview of the nation’s complex and vivid past. Keay’s authoritative history examines 5,000 years in China, from the time of the Three ...more
Paperback, 608 pages
Published December 6th 2011 by Basic Books (first published July 1st 2008)
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(showing 1-30 of 2,354)
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Huw Evans
Jan 23, 2013 Huw Evans rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history, chinese
If the documented history of China is approximately four thousand years this book will give you eight years per page. The Cambridge History of China runs to twenty incomplete volumes so how can such a short book possibly give any insights into the Chinese mentality and its history?

The simple answer is very easily. John Keay gives a glorious overview of the genesis and development of China with its multiple regime changes and the role of Confucianism throughout all of the turmoil up to, and inclu
John Keay’s China, A History, provides a nice introduction for those curious about the world’s most populous nation and the rising economic superpower that we refer to as China. Prior to this reading I had scant knowledge of the nearly continuous 3-6ooo year history of the region that spans from Mongolia to the Himalayas and from Afghanistan to the China Sea. Granted, although China celebrates its dynastic chain of succession of “All Under Heaven,” the broad scoping historical reference of Keay’ ...more
Feb 19, 2012 John marked it as to-read  ·  review of another edition
December 8, 2011.

I'm 230 pages into this fascinating book. I've been reading serious history for about 45 years now, and I'm glad to encounter one that introduces me to the history of China, which I have known only through its archeology and ceramics. I'm fascinated by the insights that collations of archeology and political/social history affords. I will also say that the "dynastic kaleidoscope" is a bit more than even I, who possesses a very high tolerance for tedium, can take. I have become s
Mar 10, 2016 Dimitri rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Chinese history for noobs. I fall squarely into that category: I knew that the First Emperor came out on top of the Warring States & build the Great Wall, Marco Polo paid a visit while the Mongols ruled... and before you know it, the British import opium at gunpoint, the Empire falls & China is up to its neck in Japanese & Mao.
John Keay's book is a perfect introduction to imperial China. The most important realisation is the myth of continuity as professed by Chinese historiography.
Dec 03, 2010 David rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
It is the overview I have been looking for for years. Some of the maps could have been placed differently and included more information. A great overview.
May 06, 2016 Courtney rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Very dense, but very good.

The size of the book and the period it covers might seem a bit daunting, but it's actual a very accessible history, I think. It is a lot to take in, but because there's this abundance of information on the entirety of Chinese history, Keay can only devote so much time to any dynasty. This allows the narrative to flow quite smoothly and you get sufficient coverage of major events and people in that time period.

At first, going through the introduction, I didn't think I wa

Kavinder Negi
Feb 09, 2015 Kavinder Negi rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition

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 of 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
Feb 12, 2016 Char rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: abandoned
Very dry; read like a textbook - which I suppose is inevitable with any book trying to provide a short overview of China's incredibly long history.
Rajiv Chopra
May 20, 2014 Rajiv Chopra rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Someone who wold like to get an overview of Chinese history
Shelves: history
On the whole, I would say that this is a very good book. I have read a bit about Chinese history when I was living there, and was very confused by certain epochs in ancient Chinese History, like the period of the Warring States.

John Keay does a very good job in writing about this, and his use of maps makes this very clear. The reasons for the fall of the various dynasties is also detailed very well, and considerable space is given to the Qing. I would have personally wished for a little more de
Mar 09, 2015 Justin rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I have focused much of my history education on "Western" civilization in the past, and I am so glad I ventured east. This roughly 500-page sweeping history of what we call 'China' today covers roughly 4,000 years of dynastic changes, wars, sociological uprisings, and incredibly interesting accounts of common people as well as warriors and emperors. I feel much more educated and can understand on a more intimate level the culture driving China today, as well as its neighbors Korea, Vietnam, Taiwa ...more
Sep 10, 2012 Joyce rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history
Trying to cover the history of China in 535 pages is a big job. This book starts an interested reader on a path to further discoveries by trying to give "the big picture." Has a decent bibliography for future reading on more specialized areas of Chinese history.
Oct 31, 2010 Raj rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history, china
John Keay is my favorite historian, by far. His history of China makes for a good read, even though I have a lot of trouble remembering the names (not his fault). He is entertaining but serious at the same time.
Feb 05, 2013 Lysergius rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history
Excellent. The most manageable history of the celestial empire I have read. Somehow Keay manages to make it accessible, clear and understandable. A serious achievement.
Aug 10, 2015 Mark rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Beginning from the Stone Age jade carvings and Bronze Age Shang vessels, and ending with the reverberations of the Cultural Revolution, this book is dizzying in its scope and pace. In covering so much history at once the author must have been tempted to throw a mass of names and dates into air and hope that the reader will keep up. Thankfully Keay knows his audience, shows restraint, and employs a number of excellent strategies to keep us going through the relatively dense narrative. I especiall ...more
Nov 16, 2014 Ryan rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: other-history
This is an excellent though very broad overview of China’s 4,000 + year history. The book focuses primarily on imperial Chinese history, especially the big five dynasties - the Han, Tang, Song, Ming and Qing, and only covers the post-imperial history (beginning in 1912) in the final 35 pages.

Not surprisingly, it turns out a lot has happened in China over the course of 4,000 years. Though I was and I believe many westerners generally are ignorant of Chinese history, it is somewhat familiar to any
Aug 12, 2009 Joe rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I confess that prior to reading this book I hadn’t tackled any dedicated histories of China. My only knowledge of its past was related to great power interventions in European history books, newspapers and magazines, the odd programme on TV and what I’d seen at places like the British Museum. As such I have nothing on the subject to compare this book to.

However, despite my inability to make comparisons with other works I did find this book very useful and learnt a lot. It may be that further rea
Apr 02, 2013 Joni rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
China is an intelligent and sometimes challenging account that should not be taken lightly. I strongly believe that this book should be read "with Google" - in order to fully understand it one has to explore its locations, references and imagery.

It gets tedious at times for westerners with repetitive unfamiliar names representing faceless empires conquering one another; however that's what comprehensive history is. I like the idea of intercutting Chinese history with short contemporary reminders
Oct 24, 2012 Choonghwan rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition

It is a mind-boggling endeavor to write a history of such an long lasting civilization like China. It is equally overwhelming to read and make a sense of it for layman like me.

Her towering civilization and expanse can be ascribed, with a caution, to her geography of a huge accessible landmass and cultural inclination to accommodate and assimilate people within and without. But not without heavy tolls.

Though she remains intact in terms of continuous culture and territory for millennia, her long
May 04, 2013 logdog marked it as to-read  ·  review of another edition
"Most people could name half a dozen Roman emperors but few could name a single Chinese emperor. Confronted with an array of Chinese proper names in their Romanized spellings, English speakers experience a recognition problem, like a selective form of dyslexia, that makes the names all seem the same." Exactly. All sound same!

Chinese today has 28 provinces. You can figure out a few of their names if you know these words:
Bei = north
Nan = south
Dong = east
Xi = west
Shan = mountain
He = river
Hu = lake
Feb 25, 2012 Prashanth rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Certainly an accessible (so far as anything as complex and alien as China's history can be rendered so) history of the next superpower. Compressing into about 500 pages 4000 years of Chinese civilization, the author begins, very wisely, with a map of modern China and defines the "Cradle", "Core" areas which have over the ages been central its superior sense of history. Emphasizing this consciousness of, even obsession with the past, the author draws heavily upon authentically Chinese sources suc ...more
Jan 24, 2013 Adrian rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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 a
Jan 17, 2015 Rebecca rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history-china
A tremendous effort at turning 4000 (at least) years of history into a 535, easily readable and often enjoyable book. It's hard to come up with any criticism that doesn't have to do with trying to smush such a long period of time into such a condense work - it hits all of the major milestones, cultural forces and phenomena up through the Mao years and the 1980s and 1990s. You know you've read a good book when your reaction at the end is "I want to read more about this subject"...
Eric Mccann
Mar 26, 2013 Eric Mccann rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history
I'll state at the outset, I came to this book fairly unfamiliar with Chinese history. And this is not a thin book by any means.

John Keay presents this fairly well - but with China being foreign in pretty much every respect to me, this got to be a difficult read. I'm not being facetious when I say it gets to be hard to keep track of all the Wu, Hu, etc. names... just for the sake of being unfamiliar.

I honestly think it could be broken (and expanded) into 2-3 books - but I'm not sure it'd help i
Jeff Powanda
If you want a concise, one-volume history of China, Keay's book will do fine. The book covers three thousand years of Chinese history in a little over six hundred pages. It's a breezy treatment written by an Australian journalist who isn't shy about expressing his opinions. The dynasties fly by. Keay pays more attention to the earlier dynasties (Han, Tang, and Song) rather than modern Chinese history, but plenty of other books (notably Jonathan Spence's The Search for Modern China) cover that pe ...more
Christopher Bashforth
When I was at College I took a glass in Chinese History from 1644 to the present day, so I have always wanted to study what came before 1644, hence the buying and reading of this book. I thoroughly enjoyed this book and the author provides an interesting narrative (there are at least two rulers who had to run away in the back of a peasants cart!) of what may be dry events. What I found suprising was that in China the list of notable rulers is relatively small, compared to say England, US, France ...more
Apr 28, 2013 Sophie rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction, history, 2013
This started out well enough - Keay is clearly knowledgeable and did his research for this 600-page monster - but having finished all 600 pages, I'm not really sure what I learned.

To be honest I was expecting to enjoy this more and to get a better understanding of how China developed into the country is today. And while I got a bit from it, I certainly don't have the grasp I expected. Overall I found the writing style too dense and I didn't appreciate the skipping around in time (from one centu
Jul 02, 2013 Michael rated it liked it
China: A History is one of the best books on Chinese history I've read. It takes the incredibly complicated and long history of China and makes it surprisingly accessible. The book walks the reader through the pre-Qin period up through Mao and the last of the emperors with well-written prose and a flowing narrative. Although I've read about Chinese history before, I learned a lot from reading this book, and I appreciated the updated spelling of Chinese names and locations. Although slow in place ...more
Dec 03, 2011 Barbara rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
So good that I'm reading it again. This time I'm appreciating John Keay's style - noticing the little snarky bits, the amusing asides, an occasional lyricism, black moments recording the fates of historians, concubines or the inhabitants of whole cities.

But what most appeals is the forward momentum the author achieves while taking us through how many millenia? (5-6? if you count the legendary emperors) of what has always been the most populous, almost always the most advanced, and absolutely the
Ekta Mallya
Jun 13, 2016 Ekta Mallya rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Awe-inspiring and enlightening. John Keay makes the ancient emperors seem strikingly modern.I now see things from a different view. You don't just understand present China unless you know it's past. Must read.
Oct 26, 2015 Rowan rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
I read 323 pages of this book before realizing that I had learnt nothing and had been utterly bored in the process. I rarely throw books in the bin but I thought this time it was warranted.
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John Keay (born 1941) is an English journalist and author specialising in writing popular histories about India and the Far East, often with a particular focus on their colonisation and exploration by Europeans.

John Keay is the author of about 20 books, all factual, mostly historical, and largely to do with Asia, exploration or Scotland. His first book stayed in print for thirty years; many others
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