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China: A History

3.90  ·  Rating details ·  1,606 ratings  ·  184 reviews
This narrative history of China takes in everything from the earliest times to the present day. The book is informed by a wide knowledge of the Asian context and an approach devoid of Euro-centric bias. The book also examines the many non-Chinese elements in China's history, such as the impact of Buddhism, foreign trade, etc. ...more
Hardcover, 512 pages
Published July 1st 2008 by HarperCollins Publishers
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Average rating 3.90  · 
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 ·  1,606 ratings  ·  184 reviews

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Huw Evans
Jan 23, 2013 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
Feb 10, 2014 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. Dynasties r
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 Granted, although China celebrates its dynastic chain of succession of “All Under Heaven,” the broad scoping historical reference of Keay’ ...more
J.M. Hushour
I know, I know, those who follow my reading of a history of every country on earth--it took a while to slog through this one and in the end I came away somewhat satisfied, somewhat disappointed. Don't misinterpret, this is what the blurbs call a "magisterial" "tour de force" "ass-blazing bananarama". It's huge. It's so unbelievably huge that 375 pages in, 3/4 of the book, I realize we're just getting to the Ming. What the hell?
It's comprehensiveness is astonishing yet ultimately its biggest letd
Riju Ganguly
Nov 24, 2020 rated it really liked it
Before reading this book, I couldn’t even imagine history of China being packed into a single modest volume. But here it is! I had serious apprehensions once the volume arrived. History of China in such a book! I thought, this would be another Western (hence barbarian) endeavour towards inflicting gravest possible injustices upon China (again) in the garb of history.
I was wrong.
This is truly the BEST introduction a lay reader would prefer before going into serious and period/person- specific stu
Amy Sturgis
Apr 18, 2017 rated it really liked it
There's a reason there aren't many single-volume, comprehensive histories of China around: writing one is a monumental undertaking. Keay is to be commended for this work. It's an excellent starting place for anyone interested in the subject, mindful of meaningful details, recent scholarship, and official revisionism while never losing sight of the big picture. ...more
Kavinder Negi
Feb 03, 2015 rated it it was amazing

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
Alex Cook
Jun 05, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I have many thoughts John Keay's history of China. I would like to think I now know the different dynasties and eras of China and their distinctions, with a general timeline of China over its lengthy history. It took me quite a long time to finish; I had picked it up and put it down over the course of several months. However, this period has given me the advantage of being able to let the information stew over time.

Firstly, despite this book being a history book (and the reputation that precedes
Dec 08, 2011 marked it as to-read
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
Leo Walsh
Feb 10, 2013 rated it liked it
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
Revanth Ukkalam
Sep 07, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: china
Keay gives a glimpse of the currents of historical change, breaking barriers like 'dynastic succession', cultural advances', or 'economic determinism' imposed by various schools of historical thought. He echoes the voices of the Grand Historian and Ban Gu and more - valorises Guan Yu where he has to and vilifies Han Gaozu. What Keay gives is a rich history of one of the world's lushest civilisations. ...more
Sep 10, 2012 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. ...more
Sep 07, 2010 rated it really liked it
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.
Oct 14, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Anyone with an interest in learning about China’s history.
Shelves: history, geopolitical
China: A History by John Keay

How can an amateur historian begin to understand a country of which the official Cambridge History (begun in the 1960’s) is at 16 books and growing? For perspective, the Cambridge historical analysis is still publishing volumes on the Sui and T’ang dynasties (ending around 900AD) forty years after publishing volumes on the 1800’s.

China: A History is written with the express intent of giving a reasonably concise history of key moments and changes across ‘China’. Just
Jessie  (Ageless Pages Reviews)
Fairly in-depth and expansive look at the history of China as a country from 2000 BC to the modern era. Broad scope and a keen eye for condensing pivotal dynasties and players to manageable information.
Mar 31, 2016 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

Kyle Muntz
Jun 21, 2017 rated it liked it
This book is rough going. Keay covers something like 4000 years of Chinese history, from the mythical past to the last few hundred years--and the effect, as I read through this beast in about 3 days, was a sort of brutal, numbing, unrelenting sequence of dynasties infinitely making, destroying, and remaking themselves, always looking back towards the past as a model for the present that never quite fits. As a whole, the book shows the same cycles of human failing as all history: stupidity and an ...more
Kara Wicks
Apr 25, 2016 rated it really liked it
This book is comprehensive. Let me start with that.

So, a comprehensive book covering more than a thousand years is a doozy. I had little experience with eastern culture. Really, I fell into an orientalist mindset of not quite discrediting "their" history, but definitely not spending time to explore it. There is, after all, so much to read.

After reading some Chinese poetry, I was intrigued. Must know more. So goodreads helped me out, and I found this concise history. I wanted to have a broad sc
Apr 28, 2013 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
Paul moved to LibraryThing
Definitely from the one damned thing after another school of history the author concentrates solely on the dynastic succession and military struggles accompanying it. I don't blame him since that reflects the sources available. Still, he's quite happy to report fiction, albeit with numerous and copious amounts of caveats. Fate of common people is hardly even a backdrop for these dynastic shenanigans at the top. How about offering some informed guesses if fictional accounts are enough for the dyn ...more
Kushal Karwa
Jan 14, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: favorites
Got a good understanding of the Chinese history and culture which is never taught in India. China is a very old civilisation and has always been a key supplier to the world - from Silk to Porcelain. I read John Keay's India history after this book and could clearly outline the differences in the civilisations from an outsider's perspective. History of China has been well preserved through written records of the historians of the Chinese Emperors - in most cases unilaterally but gives a fair idea ...more
Samuel Peck
Apr 17, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
A commendable effort in compressing the thousands of years of Chinese history into a single tome; understandably some details had to be lost in this compression process.

Keay also writes in a somewhat informal prose that is moderately refreshing, but his prose does appear wanting of eloquence and lucidity at times.
Sep 20, 2010 rated it it was amazing
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.
Jul 02, 2016 rated it liked it
Very dense, and it definitely makes me glad I never took a history class in college. Part of the denseness owes to the book not only cover the history of China but also the history of how China has constantly tried to revise its history.
Jul 28, 2011 rated it really liked it
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.
Jan 15, 2016 rated it it was ok
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. ...more
Randall Wallace
Dec 29, 2017 rated it liked it
Pandas can’t be bought, they all are contracted to Zoos which pay China $2,000,000 per year for each one for ten year periods. China’s history has been rewritten more than any other country; “during the last century alone the history books had to be reconfigured at least four times.” The big five dynasties chronologically are the Han (the long one), Tang (not the breakfast drink), Song (you can have the Tang for a Song), Ming, and Qing. Chinese was once translated through ‘Wade-Giles’, creating ...more
May 03, 2020 rated it really liked it
The task of covering such an infinite subject as "the history of china" is no easy one, and thus it should not be surprising that none have managed to near perfection in their personal attempts.

I've read several of these attempts (personally favoring Spence's), and this is one of the better ones. It comes from a western voice, and with that are the expected shortcomings of a liberal worldview. This shows especially near the end of the book as we enter Mao's era; while it could have been worse,
Carlos Martinez
Mar 21, 2018 rated it really liked it
Shelves: china
Overall a useful, well-written and engaging book. It's pretty huge, and for someone that only needs to get the basics and know their Mings from their Qings, it's probably a bit too detailed. And of course it's largely focused on emperors, empresses, eunuchs and intellectuals rather than ordinary folk - but that's a flaw of the written record, not the person collating it. The most interesting section, in my view, is from the 18th century until liberation (1949), ie China's decline and the reasons ...more
Sonja Tyson
Mar 16, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history
The book is a survey of allll of China's history--so many many places and people. But I do now have a better idea of the general history of China. John Keay managed to make a survey book more interesting than usual. He threw in the occasional fun fact and flushed out biographies of particularly interesting people. I'd recommend his book to someone looking for a basic end to end history, very shallow in parts, but wide history of the region. My favorite part was the first British repre ...more
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John Stanley Melville Keay FRGS 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; m

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