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Everything Under the Heavens: How the Past Helps Shape China’s Push for Global Power

3.97  ·  Rating details ·  474 ratings  ·  66 reviews
An incisive investigation of China’s ideological development as it becomes an ever more aggressive player in regional and global diplomacy.

For many years after Deng Xiaoping initiated the economic reforms that began in 1978 and led to its overtaking the USA as the world’s economic powerhouse, China maintained an attitude of false modesty about its ambitions. That diffidenc
Hardcover, 352 pages
Published April 13th 2017 by Scribe UK
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Clif Hostetler
Jun 27, 2017 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history
This book reviews history leading into current events which together with commentary attempts to explain the motivations leading to current tensions between China and its neighboring countries. It provides a prospect for a future with many challenges that will require wise diplomacy if military conflict is to be avoided. (Is "wise diplomacy" an oxymoron? Or does it just seem that way?)

From China's perspective the current international order that mantains equality of sovereignty among nation sta
Zhiyi Li
Oct 17, 2017 rated it really liked it
A prescient book for understanding current Chinese foreign policy, especially the most recent messages from 19th National Congress of the CCP.

As a native Chinese, the theme of the book is not new to me. After all, I was indoctrinated with the Under the Heavens (天下) philosophy before I came to the US. And because I came to the US when I was relatively young, I could later saw the unreasonableness that philosophy inherently has and the uncomfortableness it may bring to people in other part of the
Pedro L. Fragoso
Apr 07, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I postulate that this is an essential book for anyone interested in understanding one of the most fundamental drivers of all our futures in this planet.

“The human mind finds it hard to resist organizing history into discrete periods, but a sense of the transitions from one era to another usually only takes firm root with the distance of time. Nonetheless, events in Asia in recent years make it very tempting to declare that a new era is upon us. One could take as its starting point the moment in
Aug 11, 2017 rated it did not like it
Shelves: china, hiatus
This is a rather typical Western-biased view of Chinese "expansionism", which of course pales in comparison to Western "expansionsim" by any measures, but we won't mention that inconvenient truth. Underlying this theme is the same old regurgitation of its perceived threat to the Western world order you can find in pretty much any articles in Western media. I have expected more from this author since he has more understanding of Chinese history and culture than most, but aside of some tidbits of ...more
Apr 01, 2018 rated it really liked it
This was a fascinating and incisive look into how China’s history has shaped its geopolitical strategies and future interests, especially in relation to to the East and South China Seas. I learned a lot about the concept of tian xia, disputes over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, and China’s relationships to the US but also, neighboring nations.
I’d recommend this as an introductory book for people that have never read much about China before (like myself) but are interested in politics— it is short,
Rob Hocking
May 24, 2018 rated it really liked it
This book, originally released in 2017 and with a new afterword for the 2018 edition, is quite up to date and focuses on the more recent issues that China has been having with its neighbours (particularly in the South China Sea), as well as their historical context. The main theme of the book is that you cannot understand how the leadership of China today thinks without understanding the "tribute system" that existed in China for thousands of years before the modern era.

What is this tribute syst
Jul 07, 2017 rated it really liked it
China has emerged as a major economic and military power in the last fifteen years, surpassing Japan as the second largest economy in the world. This sudden rise of China has raised anxiety among the Western powers as to whether the future portends a peaceful China or an aggressive, militaristic one. More importantly, China’s neighbours like Japan, Vietnam, Philippines, India and Indonesia have started feeling that China is on its way to use its economic and military might to hegemonize Asia and ...more
Although my knowledge of Chinese history is far from extensive, there was surprisingly not a lot here that I did not know. Chinese rulers have a conception of themselves as rulers of "all under heaven," and went through a painful "century of humiliation" at the hands of both their neighbors and Western powers, which they are eager to rectify. As a power returning to greatness, China seeks to revise the terms of an international order that it had no hand in constructing. In particular, it seeks t ...more
'Everything Under the Heavens' is ideal for anyone who, like me, does not have much, if any, knowledge of the history of China and the rest of East/Southeast Asia, but who wishes to understand more about the whys and hows of the events playing out in the Pacific. French guides readers through history with an even hand never pushing too hard in any one direction. Asia's history dates back much further than that of the West, the scope of which is something that can be difficult at times to grasp f ...more
Oct 03, 2017 rated it really liked it
Very interesting methodology and follow through. It was sometimes slightly disjointed (as opposed to a fluid narrative) because it jumped all around in time, but it showed immense intelligence throughout and I learned a lot.
Apr 08, 2020 rated it did not like it
Shelves: junk
French is a sad example of the government mandated education: for him China means a vague blend between a god and a hive mind.
Scribe Publications
Howard French has tackled what is perhaps the most important issue of our time, and of many years to come, with the vivid prose of a first-rate reporter, the scholarship of an excellent historian, and great human sympathy.
Ian Buruma, Author of Year Zero: A History of 1945

Taking full account of China’s achievements and ambitions, without being panicked by them or losing sight of China's vulnerabilities, will be a major challenge for the next generation in the rest of the world — and in China itse
Chris Jaffe
This is French's second book on China's foreign policy in the 21st century. Previously he wrote "China's Second Continent" about their involvement in Africa. This time, he's looking closer to home, as China deals with other countries in Asia - East Asia, Southeast Asia, and a little in South and Central Asia.

He links it to the imperial tradition, where China saw itself as the Middle Kingdom and others gained respect by their proximity to China and similarity to its culture. French begins with t
Daniel Cunningham
For someone like me (American, generally aware of current events but not particularly aware of e.g Vietnamese-Chinese conflict beyond there being a history of wars and imperialism "a long time ago", etc.) this book was both incredibly eye-opening and a series of, "Oh, right, duh!" moments. I've read enough to know about Chinese expansion southward over the last couple of mellenia, to know about "Chinese exceptionalism," to know about Chinese imperialism, indigenous racism, etc. I have had a coup ...more
Viet Phuong
May 22, 2017 rated it liked it
For a novice in this subject, this will probably be a fascinating book that helps provide a certain, and correct, perspective about China's world view and its interaction with neighbouring countries. On the other hand, people with a sufficient understanding of China's history and its perception of nation/state identity would likely find this book disappointing due to its repetitiveness (many ideas and narratives are repeated many times throughout the book without any added value), academic shall ...more
Tom Mobley
Mar 29, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: business
Great book explaining how we got to where we are with China.

Listened to this book on my travels back and forth to MI.
Mar 07, 2020 rated it did not like it
Having read both of French's books (at roughly 280-pages each) on the Chinese in Africa, learned much of interest, and to both of which I gave 5 stars, I fully expected the same to apply to this one but I was so disappointed I gave up around page 50.
I fear he has fallen victim to the current demand of publishing houses that books must reach close to 300 pages and has, perhaps, become irritated by that demand and allowed someone to pad his work to fulfil the requirement. Certain it is that ther
Apr 13, 2017 rated it it was amazing
"For the better part of two millennia, the norm for China, from its own perspective, was a natural dominion over everything under heaven, a concept known in the Chinese language as tian xia." (3-4)

"'The modern idea of Zheng He as an explorer is largely a creation of Western scholarship. Zheng He's fleet was actually an armada, in the sense that it carried a powerful army that could be disembarked, and its purpose was to awe the rulers of Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean into sending tribute t
Fraser Kinnear
Not what I was expecting, this is mostly a geopolitcal account of China's actions in the South China Sea, explaining both the long-term historical context as well as contemporary motivations.

Recently, China has pushed for more and more control over the ocean between China, Japan, the Philippenes, and Indonesia/Malaysia. These waters serve as valuable shipping routes to control, have enormous petrochemical reserves, and afford food security, which China has always had some anxiety over.

French ex
Sep 01, 2018 rated it really liked it
Straightforward, Well-Supported Thesis - But What to Do?

The basic thesis of Howard French’s book is straightforward. For most of its 4,000 year history, China regarded itself, with considerable justification, as the world’s preeminent civilization and, as far as it could see from interaction with cultures in the “known world”, the leading military and commercial power. Thus the Chinese mindset regards as a brief aberration the period of 150 years from, say, 1800 to 1950, in which China’s soverei
May 17, 2018 rated it really liked it
China's economic development and its consequent rise to great power status has been the defining geopolitical reality of our time. In this book, Howard French looks at how with an ascendant China will seek to overturn many of the long-held power balances in the region; balances that were established when China was much weaker. A Chinese quest for space in its periphery and the general Asia-Pacific will not be simply that of a rising power in the post-war system under-girded by US power, but it w ...more
Jul 25, 2017 rated it really liked it
Howard French has written a new book on China's rise in the world and its growing influence on contemporary geopolitics. His prior book on China's policies in Africa was outstanding and focused on development efforts that had been receiving scant attention elsewhere. In this new book, French French argues that a careful reading of China's history, especially its tradition of being a dominant state in a tributary system, helps to explain its current behavior under its recent leadership. The focus ...more
Andrew Dale
Jun 01, 2017 rated it it was amazing
One of the best books I've read on China's rise and the associated geopolitics.

It focused on interpreting China's decisions through its history - in effect, understanding the world as the Chinese see it, illuminated by historical reference points and motivations that are usually opaque to non-Chinese. The key takeaway being that the Chinese probably never believed in the system of international relations among equal states, and are looking to restore something akin to their historical memory of
Apr 13, 2019 rated it really liked it
‪A beautifully written account of the cultural and historical context of China’s approach to geostrategic power. The key driver is not ideology, but to ensure that the barbarians submit and pay tribute to their civilizational superior.‬

Rooted in the Confucian principle of hierarchy, there simply is no tradition of states coexisting on a theoretical basis of equality — and this is absolutely the case for cultures in China’s “near abroad” who are customarily viewed as culturally derivative, subsi
Andrew Yen
May 03, 2019 rated it liked it
A measured, comprehensive account of China's rise through a historical and cultural perspective. There is a lot to say about the still largely enigmatic China - and much HAS been said - but French takes an approach which accounts both for the historical trends - both ancient and recent history - and ideological underpinnings of the present authoritative system. In a sense, this book combats the alarmist narrative which has been sounding in journalistic circles since the era of China's economic m ...more
Andrew Carr
Jul 07, 2019 rated it it was ok
I tend to like journalists diving into big topics and history, as they can bring attention to issues and provide an on-the-ground analysis that is fresh and different to those of scholars. Geoff Dyer's The Contest of The Century, or Bill Hayton's South China Sea are good recent examples on China. It's a genre I like to read, and I was keen to dive into this after having it recommended to me.

French's book trades the journalist's shoe leather for a broad romp through history, but unfortunately ne
Mar 23, 2018 rated it really liked it
French's account of Chinese historiography is a compelling read, and rises to the level of necessary reading for observers of Asian geopolitical relations. French's strength in this volume is to give a historical narrative that not only involves China, but countries around its periphery, and then to give significant weight to both the real and imagined histories of how these countries see their relations with one another. In doing so, French avoids the common trap of over-essentializing China, w ...more
Jul 06, 2017 rated it it was amazing
On the one hand: Really interesting discussion of how China's past informs its present take-for-granted-ness about its emerging dominance, French is obviously very knowledgeable of Chinese history and culture as well as those of East/Southeast Asia, really made me think about how traumas get co-opted to consolidate national identity/nationalism, made me rethink propaganda again for the sixteenth time, Chinese history and politics is literally my oldest jam.

On the other: Has more temporal jumps t
Aug 03, 2017 rated it really liked it
Well researched and narrated book - about a serious Foreign Policy Subject.
Book provides the historical context of the Chinese Empire and its Emperors; the Chinese-Japanese relationship(s); the Chinese relationships with its "tributaries" (those who provide tribute to China); and China's existing and future challenges with the United States.

A serious book - not sure the population understands the "current state of play" - regarding China's plan to (at first) share world power with the United Sta
Mar 08, 2018 rated it really liked it
The concept is important and timely.

People in the U.S, and the west, are still figuring out what to think about China going forward. The historical episodes in Malaysia and Sri Lanka were the most fascinating as they are less well known for most readers. The explanations behind the series of recent encounters with Japan and Vietnam over island and territorial disputes are also quite useful, as these headlines flare up and die out in the media.

There did seem to be some difficulty to bring togeth
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Howard W. French is an associate professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, where he has taught both journalism and photography since 2008. For many years, he was a Senior Writer for The New York Times, where he spent most of a nearly 23 year career as a foreign correspondent, working in and traveling to over 100 countries on five continents.

From 1979 to 1986, he lived in

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“North Vietnam had long played patron to Cambodia’s revolutionaries, often under difficult circumstances. In the early 1950s, in conformity with the strong spirit of the Marxist internationalism that still existed then, Mao encouraged Ho Chi Minh and his cohorts to oversee the creation of Communist parties in Southeast Asia, a task that the North Vietnamese undertook with enthusiasm. The North Vietnamese cadres sent to Cambodia in the 1950s were virtually obliged to start from scratch. As late as 1944, only five hundred Khmer students completed primary school each year, and nationwide there were not more than a thousand secondary school students.” 0 likes
“in mounting its push into the South China Sea, Chinese cartographers have adopted a trick from digital photography, where many cameras can change their display ratios, or “aspect,” from square to rectangular to panoramic. In China’s new cartography, its north-south dimension is emphasized. This has the effect of making the South China Sea appear to hang from the southern coastline like an enormous blue banner. Almost magically, it begins to look more or less like a natural extension of the country and less marginal or incidental as it did on the older, more familiar maps. To complete the trick, Beijing has mounted an unrelenting campaign of domestic propaganda instructing the Chinese people that the waters the world identifies today as the South China Sea—a name introduced by Europeans in the nineteenth century—indisputably belong to China. In 2015, one of the most striking examples of this was a promotional video for the People’s Liberation Army Navy that was reportedly shared online more than one hundred million times in the first week after its release. “China’s oceanic and overseas interests are developing rapidly,” it said. “Our land is vast. But we will not yield a single inch of our frontiers to foreigners.” 0 likes
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