Thursday, August 1, 2013

China: A History

by John Keay

This is a great big book on the history of China.

The first point that jumps out at me is the fact that if you are not an emperor, then you'll be almost completely ignored by history.  Even if you are an emperor you'll likely get no more than a mention, unless lots of important stuff happened while you were in charge.

Then again, if we wanted to remember everybody, we'd have no time for anything else.

Another point of interest is that the name we know people by are different from what we think they are.  Confucius was not some guy's name.  His name was Kong.  The way it works "in the East" is family name, then first name or title.  Master Kong is "Kong Master," as in Kong then something approximating "fucius" for "master".  

The first Chinese emperor is known as Qin Shi Huang.  This is a "name" he picked for himself.  (I hear many Chinese pick the name they are known as as an adult, themselves.)  It actually means "first emperor."  It would be like referring to George Washington as "first president," and mentioning him by no other name or title.  First President was born in...  First President was a military officer in the French and Indian wars. First President lead the revolutionary army during the war of independence.

Apparently, the next guy was "second emperor."  And after that other dynasties took charge and changed their naming ideas.

Another interesting note is how much of China's history occurs after around 300 BC.  There is a chapter, or two, before then, but I don't recall anything about the earlier times.

One of the early empires was known as the Han.  Today the largest, numerically, ethnic group is the Han Chinese.

The Han empire was divided by some events into the "Former" and "Later" Han.  One of the most important characters in between the two empires was known as Wang Mang.  He was emperor for a while and wanted to reform the country to make it more prosperous.

He instituted price controls, divided the land equally among the citizens, and so on.

Guess what happened when he improved the lives of the poor by taking land from the wealthy, gave it to the poor, and did things like institute price controls?
A.  Prosperity ensued, Wang Mang was widely admired, and his dynasty lasted hundreds of years.

B. Nothing good, starvation and so on, his line ended with him, and all historians from the time despised him.
If you've visited this blog before, you don't need to be told which was the case.

That is not the only economic fact I found interesting.  A while before 500 AD land ownership was banned and whenever there was a war the citizens fled to wherever there wasn't a war.  Around 500 AD the various emperors determined that they needed to incentiveize staying in place, so they allowed private property to accumulate.  And the book explicitly stated that this was the last time, until Mao that China attempted to progressivize the country.  They seemed to notice that it never turned out well and they avoided much of it for around 1500 years.

Anyway, from my perspective, it seems that the various emperors can be grouped into four parts, in somewhat equal measure: the well meaning, the mean and awful, those with no interest in running an empire, and those who were too young and had regents run things for them, often to take up the title themselves and join one of the first two parts.

The succession of emperors takes up a large part of the book.  Their numbers and even the empires that they ran are too numerous to mention, or even understand after reading such a book.


This is a good book.  Even though I'm not as interested in India as I am in China I would read Keay's History of India if I was not already so far behind in my reading.

Recommended for those of you who are interested in lengthy readings on the whole history of China. 

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