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China; a history.

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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.

512 pages, Hardcover

First published July 1, 2008

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About the author

John Keay

60 books202 followers
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; many others have become classics. His combination of meticulous research, irreverent wit, powerful narrative and lively prose have invariably been complimented by both reviewers and readers.

UK-based and a full-time author since 1973, he also wrote and presented over 100 documentaries for BBC Radios 3 and 4 from 1975-95 and guest-lectured tour groups 1990-2000. He reviews on related subjects, occasionally speaks on them, and travels extensively.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 232 reviews
Profile Image for Huw Evans.
443 reviews25 followers
January 23, 2013
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 including, the present day. Each Dynasty has its heroes, villains and key events which he uses to explain the impact of changing dynasties. This is not a book full of dates and events but much more an assessment of the Chinese character and mindset. A knowledgeable Sinophile once told me that to understand the China of the twenty-first century you had to be acquainted with the Analects written three thousand years ago. The impact of this thinking is demonstrated time and time again and the veneration of the Emperor's role, if not his persona, is paramount.

The style of writing is superb. Many histories can be difficult to read due to dry style and an expected level of knowledge before you start. Not so with John Keay. His style is lucid and literate, witty and whimsical and is, overall, a joy to read. If you are interested in China as a historian, a traveller or a public house pundit this book is a must read. If it has any deficits it is in the quality of its timelines and maps which may have lost something in the font reduction from hard to paper back. But this is me being really picky, finding fault with what is an otherwise superb piece of writing. I hope his other books live up to this standard and I look forward to finding out.
Profile Image for Dimitri.
797 reviews197 followers
March 10, 2016
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 rose & fall, most of them were foreign & there were always the horse peoples of the north on the other of the border, if such a demarcation can ever be made.
Keay writes with the pun of the journalist. He accelerates (too) fast once the West intrudes, but this rift suits my intentions perfectly the 19th & 20th century history of China is well served by others.
Profile Image for Anthony.
205 reviews9 followers
June 17, 2013
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’s book reveals that China has hardly been so blessed to celebrate a continuous rule of everlasting peace. As is true of all history, there is much bloodshed, civil strife, exchange of power and successive sequences of turmoil and eventual collapse. There have been several periods of warring states and divided kingdoms, as well as colonial expansion and isolationist retraction. In short, China’s history is subject to a cyclical pattern of unification, growth and development that transitions into steady decline, turmoil, collapse, dispersal, and ultimately reunification. Even the current communist/socialist republic falls into this pattern with Mao being the unifier after a period of 50 years of civil war and the current capitalistic expansion mirroring past dynastic periods of growth and innovation.

Keay starts the book well, with keen awareness that he is writing for a western reader unfamiliar with the geography of the Chinese region and he provides many maps to provide perspective and reference. His introduction did a great job of orienting this reader to a region I know little about and he also clearly acknowledges that the novice reader will struggle with the Chinese names that are often repetitious (dynastic emperors will recycle names just like European rulers would) and without turning the book into a linguistic orientation he does provide some clarification of the meaning of some words (such as Bejing literally meaning northern capital).

Keay provides much acknowledgement to the richness of China’s historical record with written texts spanning at least 3000 years of history and he also provides welcome explanation of the influences of classical Confucianism, the import of Buddhism, and eventually Islam and Christianity upon the Chinese mindset. Through the historical transitions Keay adeptly illuminates that despite the influence of the imported religions, ultimately Confucianism provides the core of “Eastern” thought just as Socratic examination provides the core of “Western” thought. Keay’s insight into the social thought during historical periods is definitely the strongest element his work.

However, despite these strong points, where China, A History faults is that it is far too heavily a history told from the good-old-boy mentality. Keay relies too heavily upon the historical documents written by the learned class for the ruling class and much of his book is a catalog of emperors, generals, with much discussion of development of great cities and epic battles. Granted this is how much of world history is cataloged, from the perspective of those in power and not from the perspective of their subjects. I would have liked to have a little more knowledge of the social and anthropological context of the Chinese history. Despite some vague reference to three classical dynasties Keay pays little merit to archaeological data to support his historical thesis. Furthermore, he does not go far enough into the history to satisfy my curiosities. I wanted to know a little about the prehistorical migration into the region and the development of agriculture, but Keay skips all of this with blunt acceptance that there were a peoples in the region that developed into the dynastic empire. Although this work lacked these elements, it is still a great introduction into Chinese history. Keay does a great job of providing equal attention to every period in the Chinese history, each 1000 years or so is approximately 140 pages and the devotion to present day is just as focused as the devotion to the events occurring 500 years prior. I finished this book with a sense that I had learned a great deal and I’d put it on any list of works deserving credit as valuable for historical perspective.
Profile Image for Ozymandias.
431 reviews130 followers
October 8, 2021
I am a big fan of Keay’s earlier work on India, which provides a much needed systemic look at the narrative of Indian history and dynasty for the general reader. Speaking from experience, such books are hard to come by. China’s a different case. There are dozens of histories of China which do more or less what this book aims to do: tell the history of China’s political ebb and flow. As such, while this is a very good book, it doesn’t feel as essential as that other one. Which is not exactly a criticism, except to say that if you’ve already read some introductions to Chinese history you’ll probably find little new here.

This book is very conversational – by which I mean it has a flowing discussion that covers topics broadly without going into great detail. The narrative flows around each era, swirling occasionally around important facts but never allowing them to derail the story. Time passes – it’s often not clear how much – and you find yourself drifting round the next detail of the story. And story is exactly what this book is – it’s an account intended to entertain as well as edify. This isn’t done through long narrative sections or character sketches, but through, well, conversations.

One thing I like about this book is that it focuses more on the beginning than the end. China is a culture invested heavily in its past and as such a solid foundation in that past is necessary to understand what follows. While learning about Mao may be interesting it’s really not what defines Chinese culture, just how it directs the current form. Another thing I like is the suspicion it displays towards traditional dynastic approaches. It divides history by dynasty of course, no book on Chinese history could do otherwise, but there’s a deep suspicion that a unified single dynasty is not the natural and exclusive nature of China. The gaps form the most obvious problem – the assumption that one dynasty always held the Mandate of Heaven leads to some awfully odd interpretations of when and how a dynasty faded. But also the fact that until the Mongols came most of Chinese history had seen it divided between multiple states.

Summarizing a large general history like this is impossible, but it’s about the best basic book I’ve found. You won’t know anything in enormous detail, but it should be enough to help you work through more detailed topics. And that’s the best you can hope for from a book like this.
Profile Image for J.M. Hushour.
Author 8 books200 followers
August 15, 2016
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 letdown. You get it all, the Five Emperors, all those weird and wacky dynasties that you never knew you cared about--war, peace-- centrality, Confucius, and genital malfeasance. Nothing is really left out, it's all here.
Except for everything of immediacy that actually matters.
That's right, no matter how fascinating China's long and glorious past is, post-1911, the Mao Mix, the Cultural Revolution, Deng, and everything since gets less than 50 pages. This makes the work inherently frustrating, partly because Keay stays free of stupid academic shit (jargony cultural continuities of the "Arab Mind" ilk and other sundry crap) and just lays it all out for you. However, the Mao moneyshot is weak and flaccid, we're barely introduced to the astonishing and ceaselessly entertaining players of China's last 50 years before it's all summed up in a curt epilogue (titled "Epilogue") and the book just kind of ends.
Three stars because of these garish omissions. Hell, I would've stuck out another 300 pages for all the nitty-gritty.
Profile Image for Amy Sturgis.
Author 38 books382 followers
April 18, 2017
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.
Profile Image for Riju Ganguly.
Author 31 books1,396 followers
November 24, 2020
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 studies. It's witty, informed as well as magisterial, and truly overarching in the sense of context.
But once the West intervened, the unfolding of history accelerated to dizzying levels, glossing over too many things in too short span. That cost it a star, in my opinion.
But it’s an exceptional book, and hence definitely recommended.
Profile Image for daemyra, the realm's delight.
875 reviews37 followers
August 4, 2021
I have been carefully researching books about Chinese history when I came across John Keay's China: A History, and after doing some more research AKA parsing through GoodReads reviews (thank you honest reviews) that I decided to purchase the book. It's actually very nice in-person, smooth and elegant.

What I wanted to avoid was anti-Chinese bias and Western bias as much as I can. I did not want to read a history narrative rife with exoticism or told the story of the sun setting on the Chinese empire. These are common complaints that other books on Chinese history received and it was something I wanted to avoid because I knew it would bug the shit out of me.

I would highly recommend John Keay's China: A History if you are interested in knowing about ancient China. You will receive a lot of joy and enchantment from this book if you go in expecting that because the majority of the book is on ancient China with the modern history right at the end. I like this because I was craving to know more about ancient civilizations and there were some f**ked up stories about palace intrigue, concubines, and eunuchs. Ate it up!

However, one major downfall of this book is, where are all the damn big tables and graphs? There were helpful mini graphs placed in each chapter but it would immensely help readers to have a few giant timelines alongside names of rulers. As it is, I had to rely on Google to refresh my memory, particularly as a lot of the names start to swirl altogether.
Profile Image for AJ.
105 reviews10 followers
January 16, 2022
A sprint through the millennia, this extremely condensed book competently did its job: to provide me with very basic knowledge and familiarity with the complex history of China. I am no eminent Chinese scholar, but now I can read Romance of the Three Kingdoms with a little deeper understanding of the period in which it was based. I will say that although its physical size and weight is considerable, it could have been longer. Keay could have paused to catch his breath a little more often, thin out the pages and stretch it out to more than 535 pages. Comparable histories I’ve read of Africa and the Arabs have reached 7-800 pages, were not insurmountable but rather surprisingly readable.
Profile Image for Kavinder Negi.
13 reviews
February 10, 2015

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 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). Its 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 means a 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.’
Profile Image for Alexandra .
18 reviews1 follower
June 5, 2019
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 academia in history), this book carries a great narrative. The author talks to the reader as if they are in a very spirited conversation with them, injecting nuance, wit, and even some dry humor to keep the reader engaged, but never talking down to the reader or using the first person and injecting themselves into the narrative.

Much more important, though, is the author's careful balance of information between East and West. Keay is Scottish, but he is careful to consider the different factors contributing to the knowledge he puts in the book. In his attempt to find a narrative most representative of "the truth," Keay often mentions conflicting sources of information, such as conflict between the official Chinese history as stated by the modern Chinese government, archeological finds throughout China, imperial records of Chinese affairs, and western accounts, all of which have their own motivations for altering history to fit their own narratives.

However, Keay describes China's history from a more modern perspective than many other histories of China told from a western perspective. For example, when mentioning Chinese names and places, he uses the pinyin system of writing, as opposed to the more outdated Wade-Giles system. He also acknowledges the Orientalist and thus inherently racist ideas, especially surrounding Chinese contact with European powers circa the sixteenth century onward, and incorporates how those ideas are relevant to the notion of China in the modern day.

Yet, there are a few things that I didn't like quite as much. There were many times that I got bogged down and easily confused, often referring back to earlier sections to remind myself of what happened just a few pages earlier to keep track of all the interlocking pieces of Chinese history; though I admit this could just be the complex nature of history and my inexperience in reading histories in general. Also, especially in the earlier time periods, Keay seems to rely a lot on sources accredited to Cambridge University in the UK, which makes me wary of colonial bias. This could also be countered with the fact that not many other reputable sources are accessible to Keay for the time periods in question. Lastly, I am skeptical of how far into the present Keay attributes China's consideration of the Mandate of Heaven in their understanding international law. Of course, he is the expert on this and not I, but it still feels suspicious and somewhat deterministic to me.

All of that being said, I have no doubt in giving this history of China a rating of five stars. It is comprehensive, entertaining, and informative. It provides the knowledge gained in academia while giving the pleasure of a novel. Because of this book, I feel personally encouraged to read more about China, and about history overall.
Profile Image for John.
226 reviews104 followers
Want to read
February 19, 2012
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 somewhat impatient with the endless procession of names, dates and places, which Keay's maps and timelines order and clarify wonderfully. I understand the necessity of all this, of course, and I can't fault the author for succeeding so brilliantly in achieving his purpose. Nonetheless, I can't remember the details from one page to the next. So what to do? Search for the larger patterns of Chinese political history - one phase of territorial unification succeeded by another phase of disunion and disintegration, all accompanied by relentless, unremitting and remorseless slaughter. One cycle after the other, millenium after millenium. I'm wondering what the population of China would be today had the slaughter claimed only 1-2% fewer victims each cycle.
Profile Image for Kara Wicks.
11 reviews1 follower
July 2, 2016
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 scope. This book gives you the broadest- so says the lady who hasn't read anything else.
It was never hard to follow, but the names and conciseness of it became a little jumbled. He does say that the nature of Chinese bureaucracratic history leaves gaps in flare and personal narrative documents. Still, the book holds many gems for those who want to have a general exposure to Chinese political history. Maybe a few more books on more specified eras?
Profile Image for Sophie.
274 reviews227 followers
April 29, 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 century to another and back). I felt like Keay skimmed very quickly over some topics or skipped them completely.

I'm glad to be done.

P.S. I would have appreciated a pronunciation guide for names and places. I know Chinese is so different from English that a basic key can't do it justice, but I still wanted one.
Profile Image for Leo Walsh.
Author 3 books94 followers
August 11, 2013
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 complex, amazing culture.
Profile Image for Revanth Ukkalam.
Author 1 book24 followers
September 8, 2017
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.
Profile Image for Joyce.
3 reviews
September 10, 2012
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.
Profile Image for David.
220 reviews
December 4, 2010
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.
Profile Image for Coan.
64 reviews5 followers
October 14, 2018
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 the very definition of the country and where borders of its history begin/end is debatable given this time-period stretches to beyond 2000BC.

But this is the real genius of John Keay’s work. So large is the potential topic, they still manage to give a very good sense of the factors that shaped modern day China. While I think the author brushes very quickly over ‘modern history’ (here I’d label this being roughly 1900AD onwards), that’s only 100 or so years compared to the thousands they need to cover.

Make no mistake, the author is clear that the sometimes seemingly pervasive view of China having the ‘longest, continuous civilisation in the world’ is an ill-informed viewpoint. Reading this book, it is clear that some historically ancient cultural elements continue through modern China. But the facts are far more interesting than a fiction of a continuous set of imperial dynasties. The chaos of circular rebellion and war is both tragic and fascinating. Take for example the rivalry between northern geographic parts of the country and the south and how this played out in various power dynamics and politics. This is information you simply cannot get from a television documentary or abridged history of certain periods. One really only grasps the region’s history and continual fragmentation and unification by seeing the broad brush strokes over millennia. This is what John Keay succeeds at.

The book is just over 500 pages long, and I think this is an appropriate size. I would have liked another 20-50 pages in the epilogue to have the author’s comparisons of modern China to historical similarities. That said, I did find parts in the third/fourth fifth of the book drag a little (for those that simply must know, this was during the late Ming/early Qing dynastic period –say 1500AD to 1750AD).

Please do not misunderstand. Reading this book will only give you a decent high-level view of history in China. You could do much further reading on parts encountered. See for my example my earlier review on “Genghis Khan: The man who conquered the world” –an entire book which John Keay covers in half a chapter. But that’s the trade-off. You get a decent understanding on the history of China without needing to spend a year or more studying it. However, it might just enchant you enough to learn more about your favourite era e.g. the Three Kingdoms period or Five Dynasties timeline.

Special mention to the use of maps and particularly tables in the book. Both are of superior quality. Reading the acknowledgements, the author’s wife (Julia Keay) prepared their first drafts. While the maps are really very good, the tables were beyond helpful and some of the best I’ve seen in a history book. Nothing fancy, simply greatly effective in conveying key dynasties and changes. Julia Keay passed away in 2011 a few years after this book was first published, and I was happy to see the book was dedicated to her.

Lastly, I couldn’t leave this review without special mention of the author’s inclusion of some rare but welcome puns and wry observations. I won’t spoil anything, and they certainly aren’t everywhere but they certainly added some extra fun to learning. I could imagine the author sitting of their desk giving a little cheer as they thought of a really good line to throw in.

I encourage anyone with an interest in learning about China’s history to read this book. This is an easy read by someone who has spent the time doing their research and has a passion for the topic.

4.5/5 stars
Profile Image for Arun.
42 reviews45 followers
December 29, 2022
A brilliant account of the complicated and vast history of China which largely focuses on the imperial history and skims through the monumental events of the 20th century. Keay justifies this choice since "no culture is so historically conscious as China's", making the remote past "often more relevant". Completely oblivious to China's ancient history, I wanted a gateway book to get a lay of the land, and probably couldn't have gone with a better choice.
3 reviews
March 5, 2023
Gave it a 3, but would have rated it 3.5 if possible. Lots of good information, but overly dense at times and a bit of a slog to get through. Solid overall review of Chinese history and philosophy.
Profile Image for Betawolf.
372 reviews1,471 followers
July 2, 2017
As the title suggests, this is intended to be a summary of the history of China, modernly incorporated as the People's Republic of China. Notably, the author sets out to cover the entirety of known Chinese history in one volume, a task which can be comprehended only when you hear that the Cambridge History of China, still not completed despite being begun in 1979, is meant to run to 15 (actually 17) volumes.

As you might expect, considerations of space force Keay to treat many events in a summary manner, and this combines with the confusing nature of Chinese history itself to leave certain sections as a somewhat vague and bewildering memory. Keay shows good discretion, however, in treating seriously the events of the distant imperial dynasties, making frequent consideration of the Standard Histories, and not skipping forward to events which postdated Chinese contact with the West. This balanced view gives the reader a good sense of the scale of Chinese history, as well as the turmoil the Empire has survived (even though it was often just one of many), placing the current situation of the PRC into a new and somewhat more diminishing light.

Keay also shows discretion in his choice of interesting anecdotes to be drawn out of the history, knowing when to stop and linger over a subject and when to move summarily on. Some more knowledgeable about Chinese history may question ommisions or simplifications, but I think the plea to considerations of space (and reader patience) could be well-founded. Even as it was, I often found myself setting aside the book for some time in order to give myself a break. Keay attempts to prepare the reader for the range of foreign (and thus hard to remember) names they will encounter, but by a short time into the book I had forgotten what was outlined.

The writing itself is engaging, the monotonous advance of time enlivened with interesting observations and comparisons. Keay makes a point of undermining certain myths about China (such as the Great Wall, which he takes pains to point out doesn't exist), provides a sympathetic view of an Empire torn apart by the Western powers, and offers some context on the Tibet debate which goes against the modern narrative. While his history somewhat undermines the contention of China as a 3000-year long political fact, he provides solid support for its shockingly intact cultural legacy.

I picked up this book because I wanted to know something of China's history. For anyone with a similar interest, I can recommend it, though I warn you that it's no quick read.
Profile Image for KB.
188 reviews7 followers
May 6, 2016
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 was going to like the author's writing. It seemed wordy and British~. But I grew to really enjoy it and I loved that he had a voice. I never felt confused by his explanations, and the slight touches of humour were great:

"Meanwhile the Tibetans had renewed their solicitations to Chang'an, and in 641, with a view to ending their raids, Tang Taizong had granted the Tibetans what was in effect a 'peace-through-kinship' treaty. It was sealed as usual with the dispatch of an imperial princess. Further exchanges followed, the Tibetans regarding them as evidence of Tang vassalage and the Tang as evidence of Tibetan vassalage. Into this happy state of mutual confusion straggled Wang Xuance of his way back from his rebuff in India."

The book has a greater focus on pre-1900s history. Once you get to the end of the Qing, things move much more quickly, but I was okay with that. There's always give and take with general histories such as this. I'd say this is a good introduction to Chinese history; it was for me, anyway. China has a fascinating history and it comes across in Keay's account. There's so many intriguing people and interesting events that you can't help but want to learn more.

Profile Image for Kyle Muntz.
Author 7 books114 followers
June 22, 2017
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 endless capacity to fuck everything up; the danger of grandiose ideas of social order; blatant cruelty and exploitation towards almost everyone; the impermanence and fragility of everything; the massive cruelty and loss of life expended by "great societies" as they create an empire worth remembering.

There's a lot that's very impressive here, since in most ways China was considerably more advanced than the western world for a good chunk of history; but also something deeply, profoundly bleak about watching the same things happen over and over again... a feeling (this terrible dark thing you don't want to look at, but know is there) that yes: everything we create is going to be destroyed, and a few hundred years later, even if we're lucky enough to have a decent record, someone will be misinterpreting what it means.

As a whole, this book is sort of boring and numbing to read, with very little focus on individual people, ideas, or the texture of what it actually felt like to live in ancient China. But it gives a startling, condensed look at the unbelievable scope of its history, with patterns that ripple forward in interesting ways, which will be useful whenever I recover enough to read Jonathan Spence's book on China's more recent history.
Profile Image for Paul.
1,066 reviews23 followers
June 17, 2017
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 dynastic history? There is also an assumption you are already familiar with the culture, geography and basic history of China.
77 reviews1 follower
August 23, 2020
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 of key facts and events, whereas Indian history has mostly been passed on orally from one generation to the other.
Profile Image for Samuel Peck.
132 reviews19 followers
September 25, 2017
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.
10 reviews2 followers
October 31, 2010
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.
Profile Image for Jane.
300 reviews5 followers
July 2, 2016
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.
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