Bryn Hammond's Reviews > China Marches West: The Qing Conquest of Central Eurasia

China Marches West by Peter C. Perdue
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Jan 10, 2012

it was amazing
bookshelves: steppe-history, website-widget

Additional. I knew I didn't do justice to this book. I'm on page 18 of a second read and have no notion why I didn't five-star this. Fixed.

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I'm giving this a second read.
He argues for 'human agency' in history, and feels that previous history, of the steppe and China -- specific to this time but not only -- has refused to grant human agency to the actors in history, through too much determinative theory (eg. the typical one of the steppe, its politics and wars determined by climate fluctuations). Historians deal far too much in 'biological imagery and mechanical causation' particularly when they talk about steppe events -- as if nomads never changed, or indeed have no minds of their own. Old China, too, has a frozen feel in our written history, that he believes is quite false.

He studies change. When he writes about events he stresses 'the indeterminacy of the outcome'. The choices people had. The accidents or the off-the-cuff decisions that sent history the way it went. It might have been different. At every junction [I meant to write 'juncture', but that'll do] he wants to tell you, it might have been different.

That's an exciting sort of history to read. I met Peter Perdue in an essay in Warfare in Inner Asian History 500-1800: 500-1800 (Handbook of Oriental Studies/Handbuch Der Orientalistik), where he goes on, thrillingly, about contingency: he looks at a few campaigns (of the Qing against the Zunghars) and by dint of NOT using hindsight -- which makes results look inevitable -- he conveys a real sense of seat-of-the-pants history, that so easily might turned out another way. It struck me then that this is how a novelist operates; he tells me a historian should, too, and his history can have a novel-like 'what happens next? -- the unexpected'. A quote from that article: After the battles have been lost and won, it is tempting to search for definitive causes of one side's victory, but it is equally important to recapture the sense of uncertainty that the protagonists experienced during the fog of war.

It's true I was bored stiff by grain transportation when I read this, but of such stuff is history on-the-ground made. We'll see the 2nd time around. To offset the exhaustive detail it has great pictures: old cannon and portraits or battle scenes by a certain Guiseppe Castiglione, Jesuit missionary who became a court painter to the Qing.
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Reading Progress

Finished Reading
January 10, 2012 – Shelved
January 10, 2012 – Shelved as: steppe-history
October 26, 2012 – Shelved as: website-widget

Comments (showing 1-4 of 4) (4 new)

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message 1: by Ahmed (last edited Feb 02, 2014 10:56AM) (new) - added it

Ahmed Eighty-seven likes. I used to read the last few chapters of world history textbooks published in the early 1910s, or early 1870s and the like, trying to get a sense of what textbook writers thought the main challenges (and challengers) of society were, just to shake off the determinism, the post-hoc explanation-addled gasbagging that most history books seems to survive on (even ones I like). Perdue excluded, historians seem unable to connect the ambiguity that impinges when they imagine the future, the sometimes-crippling doubt as they try to make plans and contingencies for their lives, with their subjects from the past, gleefully fooling themselves (it seems to me) into incomplete and untestable and almost-certainly incorrect explanations. (I mean, I know they're doing it for a paycheck, but some intellectual integrity would be appreciated...) I remember Nassim Taleb distilling his The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable as "a treatise against historians", in a literary mathematical framework that gave voice to my frustration. Also, Duncan Watts' Everything is Obvious: Once You Know the Answer drags in philosophical-mathematical constructions like The Ideal Chronicler, "a truly panoptical being, able to observe in real time every single person, object, action, thought, and intention in Tolstoy’s battle [Borodino, in War And Peace], or any other event": Danto showed that such a being "could not give the kind of descriptions of what was happening that historians provide. The reason is that when historians describe the past, they invariably rely on what Danto calls narrative sentences, meaning sentences that purport to be describing something that happened at a particular point in time but do so in a way that invokes knowledge of a later point." And your review (and blog post mentioning Perdue) makes me realize that novelists can help provide an antidote to historians, hooray! The internet seems to have given me a copy of this book (China Marches West), diving in right now.


Bryn Hammond What a great comment. I'm speechless.
This gives what Perdue says context for me. And other avenues. Maybe I should chase up the books you talk about, if just to make sure those history texts aren't straightlining my brain unbeknownst. I mean, I only had Perdue. And the fiction-instincts.

"...narrative sentences, meaning sentences that purport to be describing something that happened at a particular point in time but do so in a way that invokes knowledge of a later point." -- Ah yes yes yes. Must be a need-to-read. Can't remind yourself too much of this.


message 3: by Ahmed (new) - added it

Ahmed This book makes me want to read histfic (an unusual occurrence): "Some environmental factors favored the Qing, but others favored the Zunghars. Personal deci-sions, accidental deaths, misunderstandings, and deceit all played impor-tant parts. This story would have no drama if Heavenly mandates, environmental conditions, or teleologies of the nation predetermined the outcome."


Bryn Hammond Good, eh?
Mind, histfic has to avoid predeterminism too. Must be as much a trap for novelists as historians?


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