China: A History
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China: A History

3.82 of 5 stars 3.82  ·  rating details  ·  287 ratings  ·  49 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 7th 2008)
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Huw Evans
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...more
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 Granted, although China celebrates its dynastic chain of succession of “All Under Heaven,” the broad scoping historical reference of Keay’...more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...more
Dimitri Laureys
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 ids 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...more
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.
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.
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.
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.
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...more
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...more

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...more
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
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
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...more
Eric Mccann
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...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
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...more
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
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...more
This is an accessible book for someone with no knowledge of Chinese history to catch themselves up. It spans from pre-imperial history to the beginnings of communist China. This huge undertaking is handled well by the author aside from his occasional tangents that zig-zag through the chronology of a few hundred years. He also handwaves some historical time periods that I might have enjoyed reading about in greater depth, but that's understandable from a book that's intended as an overview.

If you...more
Darran Mclaughlin
I decided to read this because, like most westerners, I know nothing about China. Seeing that it is going to be the most powerful country in the world I thought it would be sensible to remedy this situation. This book was exactly what I was looking for. A good, general history of China for the average reader. The history of China is a dramatic, diverse and significant as the history of Europe, but longer. I didn't come away from this with more than a cursory knowledge and understanding of Chines...more
This book is great if you read it in small chunks. It covers so much in such a limited amount of space that, if the subject is new to you as it was to me, the depth of information is a lot to take in. I liked the authors writing style. Mr. Keay has a very dry sense of humor and if you aren't paying attention you may just miss it. I would give it five stars, but some of the sections I found to be a little too confusing for a first timer on the subject, but it is very difficult to cover such a lon...more
Leo Walsh
China has been around for so long. There were times when the names collided in my head, and I got a little turned around. So the three-stars is likely a function of me (I prefer broad social and biological history -- think Jared Diamond, Fernand Braudel or "Why the West Rules... for now at least" -- instead of the stories of emperors and wars)

But Keay does an admirable job of crunching that history into a mere 500 pages. The prose is easy to follow. And gave me a strong introduction to a comple...more
John Lucy
Westerners frequently think that Western history is the only important history. Granted, we may not explicitly think this, but when we talk about "ancient" history we generally refer to the Greeks and Romans. So, this book is a good introduction to one of the major Eastern civilizations in history and today, as well as clearing up some misguided information that we often hear from people who don't know what they are talking about. But, unfortunately, it's not a great book in terms of writing sty...more
The purpose of the book is to provide an introduction to chinese history. If you are a beginner, this is the book for you. It is easy to read (the author takes special care so that you are not caught in an inextricable maze of phonetically similar chinese names), covers the whole timeline and makes you wonder how you had missed this juicy bit of history before.

It is kind of school-bookish, that is it provides the "standard" history of the country. Highly recommended for the beginner.
Apr 22, 2011 Emily marked it as to-read  ·  review of another edition
I'm officially putting this one back on my "to-read" shelf. I'm 150-ish pages in and it's such slow going that I'm losing interest. Not in the topic (because I am fascinated by ancient China) and not in the book itself (Mr. Keay makes thousands of years of Chinese history very readable and interjects amusing wordplays and such to keep readers awake). But I keep getting distracted by other books and just can't give it the focused attention it requires right now. Maybe later...
Rajendra Dave
Dec 17, 2012 Rajendra Dave rated it 5 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition Recommends it for: anyone who thinks history is boring!
Compressing recorded history of more than 3000 years in 500 odd pages is not easy and that is what the author has achieved. As one reads the book, China as we know today gradually takes shape. So many characters and events that seemed unconnected suddenly get connected. Apart from obviously painstaking research that has gone into writing this very condensed book, its anecdotal style of narrative, -sometime with dark humor- makes the book very readable to a layperson.
A very good starting point for those interested in Chinese history. It is well written and comprehensive. I think I will dip into it again and again. I had picked this up as I had enjoyed Keay's book on Indian history, but I think that this one is better. There are some pleaces that the book drags a bit for the general reader as it goes into too many details, but very good book on the whole.
Rich Brown
The info overload is tough to overcome. You can read a 5000-year history of your own civilization because you have lots of small mile-markers engrained all around you, from school, pop culture, etc. Tackling 5000 years of an utterly foreign world is tough. (Especially with all the names changing and getting re-defined every paragraph. Yeesh. Pick one, stick with it, willya?)
I went in knowing very little about China, and came out knowing some basics, while appreciating how little I know, but also how to go about learning more. Pays for itself in the first fifty pages, where the author tries, quite successfully in my opinion, to give some structure to the different (province, city, dynasty and personal) names which all sound the same to outsiders!
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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...more
More about John Keay...
India: A History The Great Arc: The Dramatic Tale of How India Was Mapped and Everest Was Named The Honourable Company: a History of the English East India Company India Discovered The Spice Route: A History

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