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The Story of China: The Epic History of a World Power from the Middle Kingdom to Mao and the China Dream

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A single volume history of China, offering a look into the past of the global superpower and its significance today.

Michael Wood has travelled the length and breadth of China producing a magisterial new book that combines a sweeping narrative of China's story with the stories of its people, the history of its landscape and commentary from his extensive travel journals. He begins with a look at China's prehistory--the early dynasties, the origins of the Chinese state, and the roots of Chinese culture in the teachings of Confucius. He looks at particular periods and themes that are being revaluated by historians now such as The Renaissance of the Song with its brilliant scientific discoveries. He offers a revaluation of the Qing Empire in the 18th century, just before the European impact, a time when China's rich and diverse culture was at its height. Wood takes a new look at the encounter with the West, the Opium Wars, clashes with the British and the extraordinarily rich debates in the late 19th century as to which path China should take to move forward into modernity.

Finally, he brings the story up to today by giving readers a clear, current account of China post 1949 complete with a more balanced view of Mao based on newly-opened archives. In the final chapter, Wood considers the provocative question of when, if ever, China will rule the world. Michael Wood's The Story of China answers that question and is the indispensable book about the most intriguing and powerful country amassing power on the world stage today.

624 pages, Hardcover

First published June 9, 2020

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About the author

Michael Wood

97 books258 followers
Librarian Note: There's more than one author in the GoodReads database with this name. See this thread for more information.

Michael David Wood is an English historian & broadcaster. He's presented numerous tv documentary series. Library of Congress lists him as Michael Wood.

Wood was born in Moston, Manchester, & educated at Manchester Grammar School & Oriel College, Oxford. His special interest was Anglo-Saxon history. In the 70s Wood worked for the BBC in Manchester. He was 1st a reporter, then an assistant producer on current affairs programmes, before returning to his love of history with his 1981 series In Search of the Dark Ages for BBC2. This explored the lives of leaders of the period, including Boadicea, King Arthur, Offa, Alfred the Great, Athelstan, Eric Bloodaxe & William the Conquerer (& gave rise to his 1st book, based upon the series).

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 166 reviews
Profile Image for Henk.
796 reviews
January 17, 2023
An impressive summary of Chinese history, easily readable and with fascinating glimpses of personal life, from the stone age to COVID-19
Stability is in unity - Mencius

Michael Wood takes on the impossible task to describe the history of a 1 billion plus nation in a one volume book. Kudos to him for succeeding quite well in his goals: The Story of China: A Portrait of a Civilisation and Its People is a highly readable account of how the tides of history have swept dynasty after dynasty from great achievements to their downfall. The only thing I missed in the account, if in all fairness an unanswerable question, is some kind of view on why the scientific and industrial revolution did not occur in China, while the level of civilization, technology and the sheer number of people in the nation outstripped that of the rest of the world at almost any point in history.
Also the book reminds me of just how little I at least know of the history of this fascinating country; for instance I was not aware the Manchu Qing dynasty was as foreign/non-Han as the Mongol Yuan empire.
A final critique I have is the link between the terra-cotta army and the Hellenistic world; as if a certain form of artistic expression and quality would not have been achievable without influence from art from "The West". Still an amazing book, with many sneak peeks in life during the various dynasties, while not loosing view of the broader history of the country.

Some basic facts that amazed me while reading the book:
Hope is like a path in the countryside, at first there is no path, but if enough people walk in the same direction the path appears
- Before the start of western calendar already more than 140.000 literate bureaucrats were employed by the Qin state
- The Tang dynasty founder in the 7th century after Christ being the first emperor who was known to Western historians by name
- Also interesting how only around this time Buddhism came to China
- A Syrian monk arriving in the imperial capital and being allowed to build a church looked after by 21 priests in 654
- Wars during the Tang period leading to 2/3 decline of the households who paid tax and a loss of lives of an estimated 30 million people
- Move over Harvard and GMAT testing: only 219 bureaucrats passing an exam with over 14.000 applicants in 1002
- In the 11th century the army of the Song was 3 times as large as Rome’s was at its height
- So much impact of climate change and freak weather, like the little ice age, that led to fall of dynasties
- Like the concept of Rome, the Chinese state is being raised again and again after disasters, but every time not just the idea of China comes back, but also a sense of geographical unity of the nation is achieved once more, quite in contrast to the Roman Empire's (spiritual) successors.
- Wow, the Qing Emperor diplomatic rebuke to the English king is spectaculair, if ill thought of in view of later events
- Between 20-30 million dead after the Taiping rebellion, while the 1907 famine led to 25 million dead; its amazing that the dynasty managed to keep on ruling in the face of such disasters
- The Great Famine killing 25% to 30% of people on the countryside
- China's CCP currently spends more on internal surveillance than on external defence
Profile Image for Lou (nonfiction fiend).
2,771 reviews1,624 followers
November 12, 2020
A single-volume history of China, offering a look into the past of the global superpower and its significance today. Michael Wood has travelled the length and breadth of China, the world’s oldest civilization and longest-lasting state, to tell a thrilling story of intense drama, fabulous creativity, and deep humanity that stretches back thousands of years. After a century and a half of foreign invasion, civil war, and revolution, China has once again returned to centre stage as a global superpower and the world’s second-largest economy. But how did it become so dominant? Wood argues that in order to comprehend the great significance of China today, we must begin with its history.

The Story of China takes a fresh look at the Middle Kingdom in light of the recent massive changes inside the country. Taking into account exciting new archaeological discoveries, the book begins with China’s prehistory—the early dynasties, the origins of the Chinese state, and the roots of Chinese culture in the age of Confucius. Wood looks at particular periods and themes that are now being re-evaluated by historians, such as the renaissance of the Song with its brilliant scientific discoveries. He paints a vibrant picture of the Qing Empire in the 18th century, just before the European impact, a time when China’s rich and diverse culture was at its height. Then, Wood explores the encounter with the West, the Opium Wars, the clashes with the British, and the extraordinarily rich debates in the late 19th century that pushed China along the path to modernity.

Finally, he provides a clear up-to-date account of post-1949 China, including revelations about the 1989 crisis based on newly leaked inside documents, and fresh insights into the new order of President Xi Jinping. All woven together with landscape history and the author’s own travel journals, The Story of China is the indispensable book about the most intriguing and powerful country on the world stage today. This is a fascinating, informative and accessible book on an exponentially rising economy and country. Written in fluid, languid prose, Wood has crafted a sweeping exploration of the evolutionary path the country has taken from centuries past right through to the present day and punctuates the timeline of the book with important events that have been most cataclysmic or beneficial to its growth and prosperity. If you have an interest in China and understanding how it became what it is today then I simply cannot recommend this exhaustive volume enough.
Profile Image for Emma Deplores Goodreads Censorship.
1,095 reviews1,132 followers
November 14, 2022
3.5 stars

This is absolutely a worthwhile read if, like me, you could use a crash course in Chinese history. The overwhelming majority of accessible material in English is about the 20th century and onward, with an occasional dip back into the 19th, and so a popular work providing an overview of all of Chinese history, from archaeological finds that open a window into the Bronze Age, through approximately 3500 years of empire in various forms, fills a major gap. That said, this book is essentially a more accessible textbook, or the equivalent of a 101-level history course—one I read more dutifully than enthusiastically, though I did find it worth my time.

Wood covers a lot, and does his best to bring history to a human level by occasionally zooming in on an individual, a family, or a village, tracing their experience of key events. Unlike most retellings of European history, this book pays little attention to the personal lives of rulers, most of whom aren’t even named, in favor of focusing on major trends. Reading about the heights of all the dynasties—which almost without exception involved cultural flourishing, population growth, increased standards of living, etc.—and the depths of chaos and violence between them—with each dynasty ultimately collapsing under the pressure of environmental catastrophes, famine, loss of control on the periphery, and peasant rebellions, all of it leading to mass death and violence—had me thinking “I see. Obviously, unity, order and stability are what’s more important here.” Which certainly explains a lot about Chinese history.

There is a certain conservatism about the book overall—and I don’t mean that in the narrow political sense, either Chinese or otherwise. While Wood’s filmmaking seems to have been welcomed in China, he’s hardly an apologist for the current government. At the same time, he does push back on some Western stereotypes, pointing out for instance the massive gains in education during the Communist era, while making no bones about the violence of the Cultural Revolution or the failure of collectivism. But all that said, there’s something a bit anodyne about his vision in the end, a certain tendency to view the status quo with a shrug. There’s virtually nothing about China’s treatment of minorities, for instance: all of two pages deal with China’s conquest of Tibet (almost entirely focused on the Cultural Revolution era), and about two sentences with recent events in Xinjiang. Every once in awhile there’s a few pages about women, mostly focused on the life of a particular intellectual.

As with a textbook, then: start here for the overview, especially if you know very little about Chinese history, because this book will give you a framework on which to build. But realize that it can’t possibly go very in-depth on any one subject, and that there is absolutely nothing subversive about it. Happily, there are other sources for that.

In the end, this one took me a long time to get through, and I can’t claim any special enthusiasm for it; it’s readable, but not particularly compelling. Nevertheless, it filled some serious gaps in my education, and that I appreciate.
Profile Image for Sherwood Smith.
Author 148 books37.5k followers
September 15, 2021
Four thousand years of history fitted into a single volume means there is going to be a great deal of summary, especially when the subject is China, which was developing written history when my own European ancestors were still running around in the woods.

So the question becomes, where to summarize and what details to include to illustrate one’s point? It’s for the expert to evaluate Wood’s choices in a judgment call. All I—a learner—can confidently say is that I got very involved in this book. I enjoyed great parts of it, specifically the details Wood chose from very recent archaeological finds that are shedding new light on China’s ancient past. Such as letters from homesick soldiers in the Qin Army and Han garrisons on Silk Road watchtowers, some written on sticks, others on silk, by monks, mid-range and low ranking officials, women, slaves.

Each dynasty has its illustrative detail, the highlights of its rule, and how it failed. There is plenty of attention paid to China’s geography, specifically the rivers, and how life rose and changed around these rivers—including the utter devastation when the rivers flooded or altered course.

Confucius is summarized, Mencius barely gets mentioned, but their legacy is worked through the summaries of the evolution of imperial government. I really appreciated the attention paid to the poets, both male and female, and the marvelous descriptions of ancient cities, such as Chang’An. There is also superlative focus on specific works of art that convey an idea of its time as well as its timeless beauty.

The astounding ructions of Chinese history in the twentieth century rightly would take up volumes, but Wood navigates his way by use of diaries, journals, and in more modern times, witness accounts. He includes everyone—grand families with long pedigrees going back centuries, even millennia, farmers, protestors.

I think my favorite bit was the vivid depiction of Song-era Kaifeng, and the description of the amazing scroll-painting “Festival on the River”—which is a highly detailed trip all through the city, from river bank to urban center and out. I would LOVE to see that in person—it’s as close to a time machine glimpse of the past as we can get.

Altogether an absorbing read, enjoyable in many places, heart-breaking in others: when China turned on itself in its wars, millions died, rivaling the profoundly disastrous effects of drought, quake, famine, flooding, and plague. Yet through it all the Chinese rose again and rebuilt, hearkening to their past, their thinking shaped by the enlightened views of ancient sages.

Copy provided by NetGalley
Profile Image for Richard Derus.
2,855 reviews1,885 followers
March 20, 2022

My Review
: I got a DRC just as COVID hit and, in the mishegas of having it twice and wanting to make a review commensurate with the book's quality, have so far failed to get any review at all done. It really is a terrific job of work, just as writing almost a thousand pages goes. One expects Wood to be top-flight at research, given his forty-plus years of making and presenting TV shows about history (his In Search of the Dark Ages series easily being my favorites!) but the clarity and the wit of his sentence-by-sentence storytelling really brings his anecdotes alive.
Profile Image for Randal White.
773 reviews68 followers
September 23, 2020
This is an incredible, epic read of Chinese history. Covering 4000 years of history is a daunting task, however the author does an excellent job of it. Breaking down the history into specific dynasties, Wood's makes you feel like you are there as history is being made. He manages to accomplish this not by reciting boring facts and dates, but by telling a story in each section.
This is not a book that you can plow through in one sitting. It requires your attention, and the reading of one chapter at a time, then taking time to digest it. But....you will come away with a much greater appreciation of China and it's people.
On a different note, as I read this, I was discussing the chapters with a Chinese student that we have hosted. She was very surprised, stating several times that she "did not know that"!
I highly recommend this book!
Profile Image for Amanda.
78 reviews27 followers
July 2, 2020
"In the freezing December of 1899, two days before the winter solstice, the Guangxu emperor left the Forbidden City through Tiananmen Gate at the head of a huge and colourful procession."

The Story of China is a highly engaging history of the many dynasties that were finally swept away by revolution. This comprehensive account starts with an examination of how geography, especially flooding, shaped local beliefs and gave rise to the Shang dynasty. The book ends with the emergence of Xi Jinping, the latest emperor in “the new dynasty founded by Mao.”

Michael Wood is a notable historian and broadcaster, also known for his films on China under the same title. Although Wood modestly admits that he is not a Sinologist, it is his passion for archaeology and presenting the voices of the people with a broadcaster’s finesse which sets this book apart from other Chinese history books. China has an uneasy record when it comes to the preservation and presentation of history, and much has been written on what was lost during the Cultural Revolution. Thus, it is a joy to read his numerous inclusions and descriptions of very recent and emerging archaeological and astronomical finds that are shedding new light on China’s ancient past and the historical facts behind myths and folklore.

Amazingly, some of these new finds include written records, such as highly relatable letters from homesick soldiers in the Qin Army and Han garrisons on Silk Road watchtowers. With his film maker’s manner, Wood regularly presents his “view from the village” derived from written records and letters from imperial officials, Buddhist monks, women sold into slavery, children, feminist authors, declining grand families and farmers to enrich our picture of how it really was to experience these massive historic events. In more recent years, personal interviews, oral traditions and family documents replace archaeology, but when possible, he interviews members of the families we were introduced to hundreds of years before. In this way, the book creates a vivid sense of immediacy and takes the reader along for the transformation of China, through all its achievements and losses. These families endured through “…population growth , overtaxation, natural disasters and that indefinable loss of group feeling that can undermine even the most powerful states…”

For readers interested in visiting China, Wood as a travel show host does not disappoint. Each chapter, generally divided by dynasty, begins with an explanation of how the area looks now if you were to visit. If you were to arrive by high speed train, walk through its alleyways and past the factories, what’s the story of that pagoda there? He then introduces what remains of this ancient history, and explains if that monument or building has been rebuilt or restored in the modern era. Then, he takes you back to that time, with careful explanations of daily life, religion, ritual, family and relationships, power struggles, war and climate. These vignettes are brought to life through quotes from those who lived it. These memorable portraits allow readers to wrap their heads around the many dynasties and the creation of this “centralised, authoritarian bureaucracy ruled by a sage-emperor and his ministers and scholars…”

I especially enjoyed the feature on the Song dynasty poet Li Qingzhao (李清照). In the happy days of her marriage, she and her husband collected antiques, books, art and enjoyed the food stalls throughout the lanes near the university. “We lived happy together those years. By the fire we made tea…and were untroubled by sudden storms…so long as we could share a cup of wine, and a sheet of fine paper.” Concubines, war, and widowhood would turn her to a career in Hangzhou publishing poetry and essays.

This is an exceptionally well balanced book. If you are interested in travel, religion, war, literature, class or gender studies, there is ample coverage of these topics through each time period. Taiwan, Tibet and Xinjiang are only lightly covered, as is Empress Dowager Cixi. “Sparked by drought and famine, poverty and class war, peasant risings were flaring up across China. Then, in 1894– 5, China suffered a humiliating defeat in a disastrous war with Japan. Now the colonial powers gathered like vultures: the Russians, Japanese and Germans in the north; the French and British in the south.” He uses broad strokes to describe events from the 1940s onward. I believe this is more due to scope of the text, rather than any intentional avoidance on the author’s part. However, his historical daring in tackling ancient China with a travel writer’s flair is perfection. Overall, the introduction to China’s ancient dynasties makes this book worth purchasing alone.

It is due to this balance and the above mentioned inclusion of different voices through history that you won’t be able to put this book down. It is a massive and slightly intimidating history, but nicely divided into easily consumed wedges. Wood kindly refers repeatedly to where we are at in the Western timeline (Such as who was the Roman emperor during that time period) or draws parallels to similar events in Western history, which helps the unfamiliar reader mentally locate these events in world history. For example, in describing the cultural losses of the Taiping Rebellion he says that it was “as if, let us say, the scholarly heartland of Western Europe in the 1860s had been smashed from Amsterdam to Paris, its scholars killed or dispersed and its libraries destroyed.”

Throughout the text he examines the psyche of Chinese culture and how this idea of a unified state and a feeling of togetherness has persisted through peasant uprising, warlords, Japanese invasions, civil wars, revolution, famine and trauma. He examines both the cities and countryside equally, as “China in the 1920s and ’30s was a land of extraordinary extremes and hugely uneven development. In places in the deep countryside , peasants laboured barefoot with medieval implements, faced with famine and flood, selling their children into slavery while warlords and their militias extorted and murdered at will.”

This is well handled in his overview of Tiananmen Square 1989. Wood does not make excuses nor claim to be a mind reader into what led to those decisions, but rather examines recently released 2019 documentary sources, such as memoirs, Politburo papers and diaries. He closes with a brief presentation about the continuing questions related to their credibility and significance.

The thematic backbone of this history is that China has suffered great upheavals, caused by their fellow humans and by natural disasters. The “astonishing patience and stoicism of the Chinese people” in the face of these seemingly endless catastrophic events allows the reader to understand this country’s yearning for stability, economic growth and recognition for the remarkable accomplishments of Chinese civilisation.
Profile Image for Clara.
45 reviews3 followers
January 11, 2023
Admittedly I don't know a lot about Chinese history, so I've got no ideas, whether this was a complete or biased account. Feel free to tell me.

I really enjoyed reading this book. It was detailed and didn't lose itself in numbers but portrayed an interesting and changing culture while showing overarching themes. The history felt incredibly alive as philosophy, politics, culture in military developments where presented in relation to each other. It had it lengths and I was probably to tired to enjoy it completely, but was exactly what I was looking for: An approachable entry into the history of China.
Profile Image for Dee Arr.
734 reviews87 followers
November 25, 2020
Floods on the Yangtze River… the different dynasties, such as Han, Tang, Song, and Ming…a society far advanced from Europe. These and many other illuminating facts await you in “The Story of China” by Michael Wood.

Don’t be turned away by the 600+ pages in this book. My impression before opening the book was that I was in for a long slog of dry reading, facts and dates and endless paragraphs of useless knowledge guaranteed to fill up countless pages with mind-numbing data. Right from the start, Mr. Wood demonstrated that this book would be different than many of the offerings on the market.

While the history is told in chronological order, the author regularly injects current day facts, thus tying the two time periods together and explaining how past events dictated the way China is today. Many history books get caught up with a strict chronological version of events, but I like that Mr. Wood would easily switch to the current day and describe a certain part of the country as it is now before referring back to what happened many years ago in that same area, or would interview a person and find out about that person’s ancestors.

The tremendous research is the five-star element in this book. The author referenced many written records that were used to compile this book, and readers are treated to a history that offers the facts as well as includes the human element. The famous and the not-so-well-known are all featured here. The written records left by China’s previous inhabitants lent a personal side as we gained a deeper knowledge of how history affected the people living at that time, which is not usually seen in other books.

There is much to learn here and it is one of the most enjoyable history books I have ever had the pleasure to read. Five stars.

My thanks to NetGalley and St. Martin’s Press for a complimentary electronic copy of this title.
Profile Image for Kristjan.
336 reviews16 followers
March 29, 2022
Chinese history in not something that is studied with any depth here in the west. As a casual student of history, I have frequently attempted to do this on my own with mixed results. Most of the books that I have read are structured a lot like the history text books from which we learn our own history ... basically a list of dates, events and people on a timeline to memorize. Rarely do we see any attempt to explain the impact of these events on the social consciousness of the society in which they happen. This book not only provides an accessible survey of Chinese history, it compares and contrasts the social difference as well as presenting a reasonable hypothesis for why East and West have such divergent approaches to governance. Key to this examination are the references to contemporary western (greek/roman) philosophers and historians. From this I believe that I have a better understanding of the importance of conformity within eastern cultures, and how such could fall under the influence of such "Machiavellian" thought found within "The Book of Lord Shang." (Loc 1088/12%).

As expected given the time periods covered, this is a huge book packed with a great deal of information; some more interesting to me and some less so. I found myself skimming over a lot of the literary references in part because I had a hard time understanding how they reinforced or supported some of the authors points on Chinese culture. That still left a lot of material to slog through. The book is organized by dynasties (Xia, Shang, Zhou, Qin, Han, Tang, Song, Yuan, Ming, Qing) and interregnums (Warring States, Three Kingdoms, Five Dynasties, Taiping & Boxer Rebellions, etc.), highlighting the cultural contributions (and continuity) of each as well as the reasons for decline and inevitable fall (loss of the Mandate of Heaven). What I found most interesting was the intersection of the Confucian ideal of the sage-ruler and the evolution of rather autocratic rulers (almost as if they knew they didn't have what was needed and through increasing paranoia harshly suppressed any criticism). Criticism and/or failure of any kind seems detrimental to life (not just your own, but your entire family to the 9th degree). This all has something of a discordant feel to people raised within a modern western culture (aka me). For pivotal events ... such as Mao's revolution ... the author tries to show multiple viewpoints (from traditional history to how it played in the rural areas with the common man).

Over all I found this book to be significantly helpful in understanding the differences between the east and west world views and I highly recommend it.

I was given this free advance reader copy (ARC) ebook at my request and have voluntarily left this review.

#TheStoryofChina #NetGalley
Profile Image for Aron.
38 reviews6 followers
May 9, 2021
This author has quite clearly 'gone native', which is the first mistake any student of a foreign (high) culture should be at pains to avoid. Sure, Mr. Wood, China's history is interesting and important, but I feel your description of it is somewhat one-sided and fed by a lack of understanding of regions you have not made a particular study of.
For example: it is just to claim that China was able to create and maintain a strong state bureaucracy much earlier than any other state. But the claim that China would probably have set out on a path of modernisation comparable to the one in Europe if it had only been left alone by outside forces seems totally unfounded to me. And even though early discoveries such as that of gunpowder are admirable, this really cannot be compared to the systematic formalisation of a 'scientific method' as happened in the West and which could serve as the basis for a /general/ program of investigation and increase of knowledge.
Also: it seems a bit strange to say that 'the vote is still out' to decide whether Chairman Mao was a great man or not. Such statements make me wonder whether he did not soften his discourse in order to flatter the current government. He needs their approval, after all, because their country is his place of work and they could probably make his life a lot harder if they wanted to. Nowhere in this book, in any case, he gives the impression that he /is/ willing to criticise it more than superficially.
5 reviews
May 8, 2021
This book helped me understand more about modern China than anything else I have read. Wood does a masterful job of weaving historical narratives with contemporary political and cultural topics, while also keeping the book engaging and not too dense. Highly, highly recommend.
Profile Image for Jeff Bursey.
Author 12 books141 followers
January 6, 2023
Roughly four thousand years in 600+ pages is a lot to cover, so one should pick this book up knowing it can't get too much into the details that make history a little more understandable. As an overview it's just okay. Not written with great style, and Wood skates over topics that demand more space (tibet is a good example). It's a preparatory work that will help when reading other, more in-depth and insightful histories of the country.
Profile Image for Sarah.
Author 17 books411 followers
September 28, 2021

My dad was a university professor. When I was a kid, he’d often host students from other countries. I grew up in a house where students from Georgia, Germany, Russia, and China came in and out of my life frequently. Though I was just a kid, often my first real understanding of the wider world came from these visits. I remember, for example, we had some people over at our house from Georgia right around when the USSR was collapsing. The first time I ever heard the word “Stalin” was at that meal, when my dad was discussing the collapse of the USSR and its subsequent fallout with them.

A few years later, my dad got a job teaching at a university in China, and from that point on, he’d spend every summer teaching in China, and then sometime during the year, a group of Chinese students from that university would come to our house.

It was a real eye-opening experience, to be able to talk to these people who were from such different parts of the world. These visits opened up the world for me in a way I don’t think I’ve really appreciated until I got older. My dad would tell me stories about what it was like to teach at universities in other countries, and when people from these far-flung nations and diverse cultures would come to our house, I’d sit at the table while they talked to my parents and soak up everything they said like a sponge. It always fascinated me.

But China is not a place I know very well. I’ve never been there. My dad has told me some things, and I’ve talked to the Chinese exchange students that would come to our house, but I don’t really know China. To be quite honest, the country has always intimidated me because it’s so ancient. There’s just so much of it, where do you start? When I saw this book, I honestly had almost no hope for it. How on earth could someone distill the history of an entire region of the world that spans so much time into one book, no matter how long?

Well, the truth is, you can’t. Not really. There’s just so much there, that all you can expect from a book like this is an overview. Some topics are going to be touched on in more depth than others, but if you want to really get into the details of any specific event, you’ll have to use this book as a jumping-off point for further research. However, that’s not really a bad thing. I don’t know a whole lot about China, and what I really needed was an overview, an introduction, as it were. An overview to show me just how rich the history is, presented in such a way that allowed me to shake hands with it, and really get comfortable.

The Story of China is an absolutely fascinating book, which almost feels cinematic in how it is written. Some of the events and people are focused on in such a way, I could almost feel the camera zooming in on a macro level, really allowing me to not only understand what I was reading about, but also forging a connection that made me truly care. The way Michael Wood writes this book kept me engaged and enthralled in a way that a lot of nonfiction books just don’t manage.

The history covered in this book is told in chronological order, but Wood intersperses modern-day events and more modern details into the narrative here or there, thus showing the reader how history impacts the modern day. One cannot really exist without the other. These connections were rather fascinating to see, and it’s something I wish more historical nonfiction authors would infuse their writing with. History does not happen in a vacuum and being able to actually see how the ripples in the historical pond spread out and impact other, more modern events and/or people, was really one of the most interesting parts of the book.

The research that went into this book is absolutely mindboggling. There are a lot of referenced texts, artwork, and the like. I was quite honestly amazed by the amount of detail packed into this historical account. Woods absolutely infuses The Story of China with information, and somehow he never manages to lose sight of the story he’s actually telling, nor does the research become cumbersome, overwhelming, or confusing. He knows when to zoom his camera in and focus on one specific detail, person, or event, and when to use his wide-angle lens to show the sprawling scope, the wider landscape, the totality of the event.

There are some familiar events covered here like the rise and fall of dynasties, the Terracotta Army, the flooding of the Yangtze River, famines, and more. There is also a lot here that you won’t be aware of, and all those connections I mention above make all of this even more interesting. In fact, I daresay, out of all the history books I’ve read in my life, this had to be one of the most informative, enjoyable ones. There’s something about the way Woods manages to tell such a sprawling, illustrious history with such intimacy and care that just worked for me.

Lush descriptions of landscapes, palaces, cities, and officials brought many of the settings and the people to life. Outside forces that impacted events were covered, like the Little Ice Age, which brought sweeping political change to the fore. Small facts dropped in here or there were, quite honestly, staggering. For example, by the time the Western calendar began, there were already 140,000 literate Chinese bureaucrats employed by the Qin state. There was also a fairly nuanced study of Mao, which surprised me, as he is such a polarizing figure and is easily painted over with a large brush.

While I truly loved this book, I will say that readers who are familiar with China’s history might not find anything new here. This is, after all, an overview. It’s a long book, but there is absolutely no way you can cover a history as storied and intricate as China’s adequately in one volume. For people like me, who aren’t terribly familiar with the region, this is exactly what the doctor ordered, and it’s given me a ton of ideas about books I want to read next, and things I want to learn about. I do advise, however, to keep in mind this is an overview, and depending on your familiarity with China, it may or may not give you new information.

For me, though, The Story of China blew my socks off. This was a digestible, interesting, intricate view of history that not only captivated me, but kept me coming back for more. Wood’s ability distill weighty, complicated history into digestible bites for his readers is laudable.

The Story of China is history as it should be written.
Profile Image for Vivek.
356 reviews19 followers
August 16, 2021
Hooter: Four thousand years of Chinese history eloquently summarized in one volume.

The quote "History may not repeat itself but it sure does rhyme" doesn't ring any more true than reading this capsule of Chinese history oscillating between military strife and golden renaissance of unified empire through it's history as dynasties and kingdoms change but the struggles, the rise and the fall follow a similar pattern. Starting with Shang, Zhou, Qin, Han, Tang, Song, Yuan, Ming, Qing to the CCP ending with a footnote on Xi Jinping. I personally wasn't aware of these many kingdoms and their varying diversities.

The beauty of this historical rendition is how Michael Wood intersperses historical facts with stories of individuals from various economic strata of society sharing their perspectives of paramount changes in their society. This information had been gleaned from letters , edicts and other archaeological finds that were discovered. The idea that printing presses and the written word have existed for centuries in this part of the world make it for a lot more colorful a picture across the centuries.

I presume since the author needs the good offices of the current government, the last century of the Chinese party seems to get a very watered down treatment when you compare to the kaleidoscopic depth of the historical dynasties.

The other interesting aspect is how he brings out the women poets through the ages who were the exceptions in otherwise a pretty chauvinistic society and recounted their experiences and journeys in scope of the eras they lived in. Their commentary adds color to the life of the people.

Though surprisingly Great Wall gets a passing mention which I was keen to understand the dynamics around that phase. Yuan dynasty run by non Chinese i.e. Mongols make for an interesting phase of Chinese history and the author tends to explain how that put the seeds of the inward looking philosophies that form the basis of current templates. An interesting fact was the string of pearls strategy has been a philosophy followed for centuries and not a recent phenomenon.
Profile Image for Jeremy.
554 reviews11 followers
February 1, 2021
I'll give this 4.5 stars - it seems near impossible to get 5 stars for a one-volume history of China since the reader is inevitably left wanting more, as I was. However, this certainly deserves attention as a go-to source for Chinese history for the layperson.

The author starts with early Chinese history and goes all the way up to today. He does a really good job of showing what life was like for ordinary citizens of each time period, by finding a particular family or person and following them. He goes to great effort to illuminate the literature of each period and women's rights. There were excellent maps as well. I came away with a really good high level understanding of Chinese history.

I thought the strength of this book lies in the older history, certainly all of the dynasties. I felt its weakest section started with the fall of the Qing to today. There was so much going on during that time period up to today, but we really just get the high points. This has certainly spurred my curiosity for good books covering this time period in more depth. I view this book as a great starting point for learning more about China and the Chinese.
Profile Image for Isa King.
166 reviews16 followers
Shelved as 'dnf'
December 1, 2020
I am admittedly not very impressed with this book, though I enjoyed Michael Wood's writing. While I wasn't expecting anything too in depth considering how monumental and impossible the task of covering the lengthy history of China in one book is, I was surprised by several generalizations that Wood BEGAN this book with. The most glaring one to me is the line about China having a "unitary culture" unlike Europe, with one "Han identity" and one "Han language." Already, I find myself raising my eyebrows because China is so ethnically diverse and has been throughout its long history, the conception of China as a single state isn't even necessarily true now considering the fraught political tensions between the CCP's "One China" message and their ongoing fight with Hong Kong and Taiwan, and absolutely downplays China's incorporation of Tibet and the genocide of Uyghur muslims. I think we have to be especially careful about the narratives we are pushing about China, considering the ongoing human rights issues that have and continue to happen.
Profile Image for Ken Reid.
149 reviews24 followers
January 1, 2021
I chose this as something I didn't think I would enjoy but would be important to read. I was half wrong - this was an absolute delight to read. Surprising depth in such breadth based overview of thousands of years of Chinese history. As someone whose only training in history was nationally based and only over 2 years at the ages of 11 & 12, this was highly accessible. The narrator, who is also the author, spoke with objective clarity - while still describing beautiful poetry, song, artwork and cultural masterpieces with passion. Unexpectedly still; Wood presented insight into the mindsets of Chinese women throughout the dynasties with compassion and a feminist heart. I will likely read this again, it is an oddly comforting, enlightening and most enjoyable read.
Profile Image for Daniel.
110 reviews
September 21, 2022
Threre is so much information to be digested when reading a book that covers 4000 years of history in only 600 pages. I was struck by the cyclical nature of the history of China. Typical cycles were triggered by external and internal threats that have caused incredible chaos between periods of prosperity, innovation and development.

The goal of the unity of the state is a permanent driver in the very long history of China. This is a state that has always been run by autocrats, some well intended towards humanity, inspired by philosophical or religious ideologies, but others were despotic and sadistic.

Any person who has to deal with chinese counterparts should read this book to get a glimpse of the complexity, brilliance and cruelty of the chinese cultures. I could not help but think of how it was difficult for the chinese population to forget how it was so badly treated by imperial britain during the Opium wars; creating a generation of addicts for profit is just despicable and was justified in the UK by a convenient belief of white superiority. Relationships with Japan are still tense because of the cruelty displayed by japanese troops between 1931 and 1945 in China . The foreign policy of the Chinese Communist Party is still influenced by these events. But internal actors were also an important factor of discontent as Mao, who eventually became just another despot, was the source of so much violence and in this instance the chinese cannot blame foreigners for his deeds.

A fascinating history and with many eras worthy of individual monographs. The author has an amazing grasp of his subject, a very impressive work. 5 stars.
Profile Image for Andrea .
436 reviews
July 9, 2021
Thank you to NetGalley and the publisher for an ARC.

The Story of China is a lengthy history covering 4,000 years of Chinese history. The throughline through the work is how the past and the present are tied together, and elements of current China can be traced back to events from decades, centuries, and millennia past. It begins with a moving description of the last instance of sacred solstice rites by the Emperor before the world-shattering events of the 20th century and how those rituals tie back to the Bronze Age. In addition to addressing major events, a substantial amount of the text is devoted to excerpted text from philosophers, government workers, and other writers of each era, including women and accounts from ordinary people as available. The author's documentary background shows through the occasional detailed descriptions of the modern cities overlaid on historic places. While these additions occasionally bog down the text, the end result is a rich, nuanced, and enjoyable history.

It's hard to pick favorite sections, but here are just a few:
- the lush descriptions of cosmopolitan Song-era Kaifeng had me swooning in delight. If I ever time travel, I want to go there/then, and I really want to see the amazing scroll Festival on the River (Quingming shanghe tu).
- the travels of Xu Xiake from the Late Ming, the most famous traveler in China
- the surprisingly nuanced portrayal of Mao (as the book sums up by quoting Chen Yun, "Had Mao died in 1956 he would be an immortal; in 1966 still a great man but flawed. But he died in 1976. Alas, what can one say?")

The Story of China will invite comparison most readily to the PBS documentary series of the same name and to Superpower Interrupted by Michael A. Schuman, another sweeping history of China published in 2020. I can't comment on the documentary series since I haven't watched it, but I read Superpower Interrupted a few months ago. The two books have substantial similarities— both are 2020 comprehensive histories of China for a western audience. If a reader has the bandwidth, I think it's well worth reading both. They bring a different take, and I found pleasure in reading them so close together since elements of The Story of China nicely emphasized points made in Superpower Interrupted. The Story of China is definitely more meandering, especially with the many paragraphs of excerpted writings and contemporary city descriptions, so even though the books have similar page counts, it felt a lot longer. I'd recommend Superpower Interrupted for those looking for a history much more targeted on drawing influences from historical China to the present. But read both!
453 reviews5 followers
November 17, 2020
A Vast Panorama of Ancient and Modern China

China has had a long and varied history. Wood makes a point of how the Chinese culture vacillates between unification and dispersion. The dynasties provided unification until peasant uprisings, natural catastrophes and wars pulled the country into individual fiefs. It’s a fascinating theme underlying Chinese history and for me explained much of the Chinese character.

The book presents the earliest history and progresses through the dynasties ending with modern China. When dealing with history, the author takes time to look at what the places he discusses look like today. It’s fascinating to see how the ancient monuments exist in industrialized setting and how the are in many cases being restored.

I found the use of recent archaeological finds particularly interesting. Many documents have been discovered which allow a glimpse of the life of average people. Letters describe the loneliness of a soldier serving in an outpost and another begs for shoes to be sent to him. Other documents give accurate recordings of the number of people in an area, how much acreage they owned, and other details that give a picture of ancient communities.

This description of the long history of China gives an insight into the psychology of the Chinese today. The author does and excellent job describing China since 1949 including recently leaked documents. This is a very rich book. It’s not an easy read. It takes time to digest all the information especially if you are unfamiliar, as I was, with the scope of Chinese history.

I highly recommend this book. China is a major player in the world today. While most of us are familiar with European history we are ignorant of China’s past. This book is an excellent way to get a better understanding of some of the forces driving this vast country.

I received this book from St. Martin’s Press for this review.
Profile Image for Lilisa.
391 reviews54 followers
October 25, 2020
This is an expansive mighty documentation of China’s history going all the way back to 1900 BCE chronicling the rise and fall of various dynasties through the Cultural Revolution and into modern-day China. It is a tome of information, with meticulous research, including liberal quotes from people who lived during those times and journaled about their lives, historians living through the ages, as well as the many Chinese poets that graced China’s vast geographic span building a culture rich in the arts, culture, and literature. I’m more familiar with China’s history around the nineteenth century, so this was an interesting look at where China came from centuries before then. This is a dense book, replete with sometimes minute details, so pace yourself and know that you’ll be with the book for quite a while. It took me awhile to follow the first couple of chapters or so as the author went back and forth a bit, but it evened out after that and felt more chronological as the book went on. All in all, a comprehensive account of China’s history along with great insights into the lives of the cumulative Chinese people and their relations to the outside world - great for anyone interested in a thorough account of the history of China. Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for the opportunity to read and review this book.
Profile Image for Amanda.
515 reviews17 followers
January 6, 2021
Thank you to Netgalley and the publisher for providing a copy for review.

The Story of China takes on the daunting task of covering a huge span of China's history. If you've ever studied it, even in passing, you know that they have long and complex history. Michael Wood does an incredible job of covering thousands of years, and while condensing it, manages to do more than gloss over things. One of the things that I loved about this book was that he really told it from the perspective of the laypeople and not just the ruling class. The author makes use of early recordings, and interviews with surviving family to tell the stories from different perspectives. Michael Wood covers multiple dynasties (Song, Tang, etc) all the way up to today in a way that gives you a good sense of what life was like during those times. I think though, that what I loved best was that he makes us take our Western view of a "closed China" and throw it out the window. China is vast and has long had contact with many nations throughout its history. I really made myself pace this one out so I could really absorb everything. This is an incredibly well researched and well written book, I absolutely loved it.
Profile Image for Campbell.
540 reviews
December 7, 2020
A fascinating and indeed (for me) revelatory look at the development of Chinese culture, so much of which I knew nothing about.
Profile Image for Mindfully Evie.
Author 2 books171 followers
October 14, 2022
3.5 stars ⭐️ I think this book just focused a little too much on fairly distributing the 3000 years evenly over the 600 pages or so. So it meant that events that didn’t matter/were a bit boring had too much time given to them, and the events that did matter/were utterly fascinating and engaging (like the last 100 pages) went by far too quickly for my liking. I think it started off very well and finished strongly, but in the middle when it then jumped back in time was when it started to dip for me. I totally appreciate what the author did and still recommend this book, and overall I feel my knowledge of China’s history has improved dramatically so credit to Michael Wood for this undertaking
Profile Image for Romulus.
705 reviews34 followers
January 6, 2023
Niezła książka. Jak na historię cywilizacji liczącej sobie cztery tysiące lat, z okładem. Rytualnie w takich przypadkach: zazdroszczę. My mamy problem z ustaleniem naszej historii tysiąc lat wstecz, a tu cztery tysiące lat i problemem jest jak je upchnąć w jednej książce. Nawet stosunkowo opasłej. Ale napisanej bardzo przystępnie. Z reporterskim zacięciem. Gdyż autor pisze także o miejscach, w których był. Jak w przypadku „Jedwabnych szlaków” Petera Frankopana: dobra okazja do spojrzenia na historię świata z innej niż zachodnia perspektywy.
Profile Image for Lizzie.
154 reviews
August 21, 2021
This book is an incredibly worthwhile use of time. As well as covering the large historical events (as you would expect any history book to do) Wood uses family records to paint a picture of society at all levels. This includes different classes, genders and ethnicities, all culminating in a much richer read.

The final chapters covering post-1900 felt much briefer than previous chapters, however as the book was already over 500 it is understandable for why that era was not explored in greater depth.

I now have a better grip on the basics of China and the culture, and a starting point for what else to read to explore further. Poetry next...
Author 1 book7 followers
November 18, 2020
Outstanding History of a World Power’s 4000-Year History

Visit I. David’s blog at https://www.goodreads.com/author/show...

After having read extensively about the history of the United States, Europe and the Middle East I found that I wanted to know something about the history of China, the country that is now challenging the United States for global economic leadership. I was looking for a book that could introduce me to the history of China and serve as the basis for further reading on the subject. I was very fortunate to find The Story of China: The Epic History of a World Power From the Middle Kingdom to Mao and the China Dream by Michael Wood.

Wood manages to pack the entire 4000-year history of the Chinese Empire, from its pre-history, through its multiple dynasties, to the evolution of its Communist led republic into today’s world power into a very readable 624 page volume. The book can best be described as Chinese History 101, 102 and 103.

It would have been one thing if Wood had simply described the rise and fall of the various dynasties that have ruled China throughout the millennia. But he has gone a huge step further by using letters, poems and other documentary evidence to bring to life individual Chinese residents who lived during those dynasties. And he helps the reader understand how these citizens viewed life in their authoritarian societies through the lens of their underlying philosophy of Confucianism and Daoism

Throughout the book Wood leads the reader through the ongoing challenges to the rulers who tried to govern the vast area, the innumerable people and the multiple ethnic groups that are China. He shows that the ruling dynasties were, at times, able to foster great economic, artistic and scientific achievements. But he also shows that, due to natural disasters, famines and revolts on the outer edges of the empire, each of the dynasties ultimately fell.

Unfortunately, what makes this book great, the presentation of a 4000-year history in a very concise format, is also its potential weakness. Because the history moves very quickly, it could be something of a challenge to keep track of the numerous characters and events that come and then go. But if this is an issue it is easily solvable. In 2017, the author, who is also a documentarian, presented a 6-hour documentary, entitled the Story of China, on PBS. That documentary, which can be found on both Amazon and PBS, covers much of the same territory as the book. By watching the documentary while I was reading the book I was able to easily keep up with the fast paced history.

The Story of China was exactly what I was looking for. It was a concise, enjoyable history of the Chinese Empire that gave me the background that I need to read further about China. I give it 5 stars and recommend it for anyone interested in learning more about the society that now challenges United States for global economic leadership.

Thanks to #netgalley and to St. Martin’s Press for my early release copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.

25 reviews
May 14, 2021
This book transformed my thoughts about China. Though I still wouldn't want to live under the current regime I now have a better understanding and even compassion for the people, culture and institutions of this great civilization. The author describes the importance over the millennia of the sage-emperor who mediates between heaven and (almost exclusively his) people, and the importance of this "mandate from heaven" to legitimize his power, create enlightened order in society and prevent chaos.

He weaves history with views from villages and key poets, artists, historians and ordinary people to demonstrate the importance of the Confucian ideals of family, village solidarity and strong central rule. These cultural values have endured throughout a 4000 year history filled with periods of stability and sometimes long periods of frightening civil strife. The author doesn't shy away from critical commentary of rulers past and present, but shows profound understanding of the deep roots underlying their actions.

I first saw his six-part BBC series (currently on Amazon Prime) of the same name, but the book is far more comprehensive. I wholeheartedly recommend the book.

Profile Image for Kyle.
200 reviews24 followers
November 25, 2020
Engaging and comprehensive read on a subject that is extremely difficult to cover. The reader will come away with a better understanding on the complexity of the history of China without being completely overwhelmed. This is a great resource for anyone interested in China's history, regardless of their level of knowledge on the subject prior to reading.

I received an ARC of this book via NetGalley in exchange for my hones review.
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