China: A history by John Keay (2008)

Keay crams China’s dense and confusing 3,000-plus-year history into 580 pages, divided into 16 fact-packed chapters, with plenty of notes, diagrams and, above all, lots and lots of maps. It’s a very big subject – it’s a lot to digest!

He explains at the start that many Western accounts race through the earlier periods in order to get to the first European arrivals in China (around 1500), slow down to dwell on the imperialist nineteenth century – ‘our bit’ of Chinese history – and then really linger over the disasters of the 20th century – the 1912 Republican Revolution, the Warlord Era, the Japanese invasion, World War II, the Civil War, communist victory, the long Maoist nightmare, and finally the slow crawl out of tyranny into the state capitalism of the nineties which continues to the present.

Keay deliberately inverts these priorities, devoting an unusual amount of space to the earliest era of proto-Chinese history, the period of myths and legends when many of the founding ideas about Chinese identity and lineage were laid down by semi-historical figures. By contrast he relatively skimps on the modern period, particularly on the troubled 20th century – after all, there are plenty of other books about all that.

This is just one of the several ways Keay deliberately sets out to question, challenge or overthrow the accepted narratives of Chinese history.

Conflicting versions of ancient Chinese history

Rule 1: China is obsessed by its history and its cultural continuity. The traditional narrative has the ethnic Han Chinese developing in the northern, ‘core’ area of the Huang He or ‘Yellow River’ valley, before slowly spreading their culture outwards. Traditional history describes how there were a legendary ‘five emperors’ before 2000 BC, who were followed by three pre-imperial dynasties. The three pre-imperial dynasties are:

  • Xia – 2070 BC – 1600 BC
  • Shang – 1600 BC – 1046 BC
  • Zhou – 1050 BC – 256 BC


1. The increasing pace of archaeological discovery in the past 30 years (freed from the Maoist dictatorship, paid for by new capitalist wealth, and often prompted by the frenzy of new building work going on in China) has produced more and more evidence to undermine this centuries-old view. The Chinese are proud of their very early tradition of casting bronze to make sculptures and bells, enormous bells. But now findings from the south and west of the country are suggesting that bronze-casting peoples who used a proto-Chinese script existed side by side with, and maybe even before, the northern ‘founders’ of the Chinese state. Scandal.

2. From the earliest times China has possessed a written record of its dynasties and rulers. But the archaeological record is turning up evidence consistently at odds with the traditional periods and dates for the rise and fall of the pre-imperial kings and/or dynasties (above) given by tradition. The traditional timeline is being undermined and no new synthesis or scholarly consensus has yet emerged. The historian of early China is in a tricky limbo, for the time being.

3. It’s a straw in the wind, a symptom of this general overhaul of Chinese history, that the Chinese for centuries considered there to have been ‘Four Great Ancient Capitals of China’ (Beijing, Nanjing, Luoyang and Xi’an (Chang’an)) – but that during the twentieth century archaeology has revealed the size and importance of other ancient cities to such an extent that the number has slowly been doubled, with the inclusion of Kaifeng (added in the 1920s), Hangzhou (added in the 1930s), Anyang (added in 1988) and Zhengzhou (2004).

4. Even more controversially, Keay relates the discovery of a set of Caucasian ‘Tarim mummies‘ in the eastern part of the modern province of Xinjiang. These startling finds have led some scholars to speculate that working with metal – and particularly bronze – the wheel, chariots and so on, may have been introduced into China from the West. Not, admittedly, from Europe but the cultures of the Caucasus or India or Tibet. Or maybe not. The debate rages. But for a culture which prides itself on its uniqueness, its separateness and its ancientness, this is shocking stuff.

Needless to say, scholars in China have had some difficulty with this. (p.41)

Keay continues this theme throughout the book with examples too many and too complicated to quote. But again and again he says that modern scholarship, set free from nationalist and communist tyranny, is now chipping away at the traditional narrative of a northern, solely Han origin for Chinese culture. This long tradition in fact relies on a series of Han historians who worked at the courts of the various Chinese dynasties, and who shaped their narratives to please their masters and the cultural expectations of the day.

But increasingly we realise that at many, many periods, large parts of China were not under the control of the Han Chinese. Many non-Han kingdoms and dynasties rose and ruled for centuries other key parts of Chinese territory – At its simplest, many non-Han peoples ruled China.

An already well-known example is the Manchu people (which Manchuria is named after). The Manchus form the largest branch of the Tungusic peoples. They are descended from the Jurchen people, who established the Jin dynasty (1115–1234) in China, and then went on to found the Later Jin dynasty (1616-1636), and then, famously, China’s final dynasty, the Qing dynasty (1636–1912).

It would be hard enough if Keay were simply retelling the ‘traditional’ Han-focused history of China in his book – long and complex and alien enough to be demanding – but in this book he relates both the ‘traditional’ account and then highlights how it is being undermined at all points by new archaeological, textual and ethnographic evidence.

The only comparison I’m in a position to make is with my own people, the English. It would be as if there were an ‘official’ version of the history in which the English had ruled England from time immemorial, had invented all its culture and, despite some changes in dynasty, handed down one continuous language and culture. And then modern scholars came along and began to unearth and present a radically different story, that the ancient Britons had driven out earlier peoples before being themselves colonised by the Romans, then by various tribes of Angles, Saxons and Jutes, then the long wars with the Viking Danes, then the conquest by a completely foreign people, the Normans, not to mention the imposition of foreign kings in the shape of James I of Scotland, William of Orange and George I of Hanover.

As I write this I am still reading the section about the Song Dynasty, which lasted from 960 to 1279 (although, true to his revisionist approach, Keay points out that the official dates for most of these dynasties are ‘optimistic’: they tended to consolidate true power somewhat after the official start date and to have lost their grip long before the official end date: there was more chaos and interregnum between dynasties than traditional Chinese historiography likes to admit). Although it appears to have been a period of artistic flourishing in the Song-held area, Keay’s narrative is just as much about how much of China was held by long-lasting alternative dynasties and ethnic groups – the Jurchen in the far north, the Khitan and Lao in the north, the Xia in the middle Yellow River valley, the Nanchao in the deep south on the border with Vietnam, and the Uighurs west in Xinjiang.

When Keay quotes 11th century courtiers and poets criticising the way the Song had to give large payments or tributes to the Khitan, it reminds me exactly of how the critics of Aethelred the Unready complained at his abject payment of Danegeld to the voracious Vikings around 1000 AD.

Think of the complexity of English history over the past 3,000 years – and then multiply that by a continent. It is a huge and confusing history, though this volume does a marvellous job of telling it, helped along by a vital supply of maps and frequent timelines for the numerous dynasties (and overlapping dynasties and kingdoms).

Barriers to understanding Chinese history

But it isn’t just the size and geographic scope and ethnic complexity of the story (and the fact that the old versions are being superseded by new discoveries) which make Chinese history so hard to assimilate. Right at the start of the book Keay spends some time outlining the cultural difficulties so many Europeans have in getting to grips with Chinese culture or history.

1. The Chinese language

Logograms European languages (and Arabic, apparently) use symbols (letters) to depict individual sounds, and build up ‘words’ by assembling these individual ‘letters’ together. Chinese is radically different. It consists of logograms or ‘characters’, each one of which stands for a different idea or concept. To quote Wikipedia:

A well-educated Chinese reader today recognizes approximately 4,000 to 6,000 characters; approximately 3,000 characters are required to read a Mainland newspaper. The PRC government defines literacy amongst workers as a knowledge of 2,000 characters, though this would be only functional literacy. School-children typically learn around 2,000 characters whereas scholars may memorize up to 10,000. A large unabridged dictionary, like the Kangxi Dictionary, contains over 40,000 characters, including obscure, variant, rare, and archaic characters; fewer than a quarter of these characters are now commonly used.

The picture is complicated by the way that each pictogram can have radically different meanings depending on the precise tone and intonation of the sound attached to it – there are, apparently, five distinct tones which can be used in Chinese pronunciation to drastically alter the meaning of a written symbol and no recognised way of conveying these in Roman script.

In addition, pronunciation varies hugely across China, so that numerous regional dialects are mutually incomprehensible; two Chinese may be able to read the same newspaper, but would pronounce the characters so differently as to be unintelligible to each other.

Writing system Western scholars have been struggling for centuries to devise a system with which to transliterate the logograms into Latin/Roman script, before then translating the transliterations. From the late 1890s to the late 20th century many Anglophones used the Wade–Giles system, produced by Thomas Wade and systematised in Herbert A. Giles’s Chinese–English Dictionary of 1892.

Its drawbacks were:

a) it used nearly as many diacritics or apostrophes, hyphens and various supernumerary markings to convey the variety of intonations as it did letters, making it hard to familiarise yourself with
b) it wasn’t used in America or other European countries

To try and sort out the confusion, from the 1960s onwards Wade-Giles has been steadily replaced by the Hanyu Pinyin system which transliterates Chinese characters into a different set of letters. This is progress, but has the bad side-effect that many if not most Chinese places, people and events can go under two different names: for example, Peking (Wade-Giles) or Beijing (pinyin); Mao Tse-tung or Mao Zedong.

Keay tells us that something like 75% of all Chinese words in translation have been changed in the past thirty years from Wade-Giles to pinyin, but we are living in a period of transition in the way Chinese is written in English, a confusion which Keay describes as having ‘catastrophic’ consequences for Western understanding of Chinese.

Mismatched vocabulary Their words are not our words. Our words are not their words. Thus, in the final chapters, Keay tells us that Chinese doesn’t really have words for ‘democracy’ or ‘human rights’. Instead these concepts have to be translated into characters which have vastly different, traditional connotations. Part of the belated reforms to the state and culture in the 1920s involved trying to update the language so it could cope with modern (Western) ideas (p.487).

A striking passage on page 461, he explains that the mistranslation of one character, yi, caused decades of trouble. A number of the treaties which the Western powers compelled the Chinese to sign in the 1840s and 1850s contained the word yi, which some translators gave as ‘foreigners’. (In a fascinating side issue, apparently Chinese nouns don’t indicate whether they’re singular or plural.) But other translators translated yi, widely used in this and other treaties to refer to the European side, as ‘barbarian’ – which the British in particular took as a huge racial insult.

The ramifications of the mistake, if that is what it was, were enormous. More even than opium this tiny monosyllable poisoned diplomatic exchanges, and would require an article of its own – number 51 – in the 1858 Anglo-Chinese Treaty of Tianjin. It infected the translation of other Chinese characters and slewed the interpretation of whole passages, invariably rendering them more reprehensible to foreign readers. It fouled Anglo-Chinese relations: it permeated racial stereotyping; and it corrupted – and still does – most non-Chinese writing on the entire course of China’s history… ‘Never has a lone word among the myriad languages of humanity made so much history as the Chinese character yi,’ writes Lydi Liu. (p.462)

Thus the difficulty and untranslatability of the Chinese language isn’t a remote academic issue, but central to centuries of misunderstanding working in both directions – so that the West has misunderstood Chinese ideas and intentions, but also China has been unable to understand or assimilate western ideas, without first placing them into entirely alien and inappropriate contexts.

2. Multiple dynasties and names

Language aside, there is another basic problem with the sheer numbers of Chinese rulers. There have been hundreds and hundreds. Over its 4,000 year (?) history, China has had numerous would-be ‘dynasties’, of which only a score or so are recognised as ‘canonical’, and of which there are Five Big Ones. Keay – sounding a lot like my old history teacher – says these need to be memorised:

  • HAN 202 BC – 220 AD (contemporary with the later Roman Republic and early Empire)
  • TANG 618-907 AD (from the Heptarchy to a unified England, or the early period of Muslim expansion)
  • SONG 960-1279 AD (roughly contemporary with the Crusades 1095-1291)
  • MING 1368-1644 AD (from Edward III to the start of the Civil War; or the early Ottoman and Mughal empires)
  • QING (or Manchu) 1644-1912 – from the time of Charles I to the Great War

Minor dynasties could overlap i.e. there be two (or more) competing dynasties at the same time in different parts of this huge country. For example, during the period from 907 to 960 there were no fewer than five dynasties in the heartland of the lower Yellow River and ten distinct kingdoms in the south!

Another complicating factor is that later dynasties often took the names of earlier dynasties in order to invoke their power and authority: these are distinguished by adding an indication of timing or a geographical location (former Han or Eastern Han).

At the individual level, emperors might also take a number of names – they had personal names, temple names, dynasty names and sometimes period names, with no consistent naming convention over the full 3,000 year reach. Sometimes they took the names of ancient and venerable predecessors, but without the convenient tradition – in Western Europe at any rate – of numbering same-name rulers. Instead emperors (or would-be emperors) have their dynasty name attached to the beginning of their title: thus Song Taizong (r.976-997), Song Renzong (r.1022-63), Song Shenzong (r.1068-85) and so on, where Song indicates the dynasty name. This is always written in italics.

Later, during the final dynasty, the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912) emperors were named after the period during which they ruled, their so-called era name which always starts with ‘the’ – thus the Shunzhi Emperor (r. 1643–1661), the Kangxi Emperor (r. 1661–1722), the Qianlong Emperor (r. 1735–1796) and so on. Though I read this through carefully several times, I still don’t pretend to really understand it…

3. Concern for the ‘Mandate of Heaven’ distorts Chinese history

And running like a thread through the narrative, Keay highlights the concern of most Chinese historians to present the history of China as One Unbroken Lineage. Very early on, the concept evolved of the ‘Mandate of Heaven’ i.e. that a dynasty and its emperor enjoyed its power from Heaven and that, in turn, their job was to ensure harmony and balance here on earth.

This didn’t stop competing family members, usurpers, scheming eunuchs, queen mothers, rebellious generals and invading foreigners fighting like ferrets in a sack for Total Rule. But it meant that

a) when someone finally came out on top, there was an established sense of harmony, balance and Good Rule for them to follow, multiple traditions bolstered by hordes of followers of Confucius, who taught respect for the past and the necessity for a deeply hierarchical social order.
And b) that, looking back, the Chinese historians we rely on for much of our accounts, excluded or marginalised from their narratives incidental rulers or dynasties which didn’t suit a neat linear progression of the Mandate of Heaven.

Thus eleventh century historians like Ouyang Xiu and Sima Guang made the official pedigree of rulers flow through the northern Five Dynasties of the period – because they were based in the north, the ‘traditional’ birthplace of Chinese culture and rule – and downplayed the history of the Ten Kingdoms of the south, even though by this period the majority of the population of China lived in their territory in the south. Because they didn’t fit the tradition.

Their obsession with creating a consistent linear pedigree to bear out and justify the theory of the Mandate of Heaven means that the traditional, old Chinese historians have to be handled with caution. Having explained all this Keay routinely gives more space to alternative dynasties and entire non-Han kingdoms than the Chinese tradition likes to. It is another example of the way he’s not just telling one story, but comparing and contrasting multiple stories which we, the readers, are expected to grasp and evaluate for ourselves.

4. China name dyslexia

Even more basic, we can’t help it but we Westerners just find it difficult to remember Chinese names. They look and sound very similar. For example, the timeline of Western Zhou kings from 1045 to 770 BC goes: Wen, Wu, Cheng, Kang, Zhao, Mu, Gong, Yi, Xiao, Yi, Li, Gonghe, Xuan and You. If you read it through once:

a) it seems as if there are several repeats because several of the names are very similar
b) some of the names have distracting meanings in English e.g. Gong, You
c) adding to the difficulty is that they are all very short, just one or two syllables. Compare and contrast with the ancient names we’re used to from the European tradition – Julius Caesar, Alexander the Great. I’m not saying they’re better, just pointing out that they’re longer and so there’s more for the ear and mind to hang on to and distinguish.

Right at the start Keay himself remarks ‘Non-Chinese readers will be appalled by the swarm of same-sounding people, places and titles lying in wait for them. (p.52)’ and he isn’t wrong. Every time I picked the book up I had to go back a few pages to remind myself where I was and who I was reading about: which dynasty or kingdom, which era, which set of rulers, fighting which set of non-Han enemies, and so on.

Some memorable ideas

Beyond these few points I won’t make any attempt to summarise Chinese history, it is far too vast and complex: read Wikipedia, or this excellent book. But a few things have stuck in my mind.

No stone, no old buildings China is deficient in quarriable stone. The eastern part is soft loess and alluvial silt, fertile for agriculture with no stone in sight. From time immemorial the Chinese built in wood. Scrolls and artworks show immense cities and dazzling palaces from the time of the European Dark Ages onwards. But wood perishes and burns (and civil wars have repeatedly led to entire cities being razed to the ground), so hardly any of China’s ancient architecture survives. Unlike the ruins of ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome, there is not much to see.

Confucian conformity Keay describes the long waxing and waning of China’s three philosophical traditions – Confucianism, Daoism and Buddhism. Confucianism emphasises right-thinking, self-scrutiny and self-correction until you bring your mind into harmony with the heavens, the emperor, the ancestors and society around you. Because I know more about Chairman Mao’s terrifying tyranny of Right Thinking I found that every time I read about Confucius and Confucian traditions, it just made me think how Chinese culture’s long-held belief in the priority of the mass and society at large over the individual has made it a natural home for dictatorship and tyranny.

Compare and contrast with the irreverent knockabout vulgarity of Anglo-Saxon individualism, which is littered with eccentrics, rebels and dissidents, and which underpins our ideas of modern democracy i.e. that everyone is entitled to their opinion and to free speech to express it in and to freedom of association to form parties and groups who can argue and lobby for their ideas.

Reading this deeply into Chinese history makes you realise how vast is the gulf between our Western democratic individualism and the Chinese mind-set, even today. From earliest times the emperor was subservient to the Mandate of Heaven, everyone was subservient to the emperor, and the Confucian system was one of unrelenting hierarchy and subservience in every social situation. The entire tradition produced what Keay describes as ‘a stifling degree of social conformity’ (p.349). Seen in this perspective the terrifying mind control of the Maoist years, in which millions of victims were singled out because they were rich peasants or traders or teachers and subjected to ‘re-education sessions’ in which they had to reveal their past errors of thought and learn ‘correct thinking’, appear just a continuation of Confucian notions that the individual must bring his thinking into harmony and alignment with the ancestors, the emperor and society around him (it’s always a he).

China and the West China had an advanced civilisation while Europe was in the Dark Ages, how come Europe came to dominate China by the 19th century etc etc blah blah? Having read this account the answer is fairly obvious:

  • Chinese culture preached slavish submission to the emperor; Europe was convulsed by widespread revolutions which overthrew oppressive rulers in the name of liberty and freedom from as early as the 1640s, and which led to (various competing forms) of democracy.
  • Confucianism despises merchants and trade and business. According to Confucian scholars the highest calling in life was being a Confucian scholar. On the contrary, the West, despite superficial distaste, in fact worships and glorifies the trader, the merchant, the successful businessman, the plantation owner, the Indian nabob, anyone who made it rich and bought a big estate in the country.
  • In China innovation was punished. Innovation and change, like the formation of any ‘party’ or lobby group, were seen as subverting the static harmony of the Celestial Kingdom and directly threatening the emperor, his huge bureaucracy, and society at large. From the Middle Ages through to the 19th century, any attempt to change things generally resulted in punishment, exile or execution. If any reforms were carried out, they had to be camouflaged as returns to an idealised past, invoking the names of past emperors or dynasties. Thus it was that figures as diverse as  Britain’s first envoy to China, George Macartney, and the father of modern communism, Karl Marx, both agreed that China’s political system had completely outlived its relevance and was a hollow shell just waiting to collapse.

Foot binding Under the Song Dynasty, by about 1100, binding the feet of girls and women had become commonplace. As soon as they could toddle girls’ feet were securely bent and bound, each toe bent and held under the sole by rope or rags. The binding was never taken off, but only changed as feet grew (or tried to). The result was girls and women were in constant pain, their feet sometimes growing to only half their intended size, permanently deformed and bent double like a birds’ claws. Hundreds of millions of girls and women were reduced to an agonising hobble. Maybe a third of China’s female population was tortured this way, for the best part of 800 years. Given the size of the Chinese population, Keay remarks that the Chinese custom of binding girls’ feet may have caused pain and suffering to more people than any other activity in human history (p.326).

One reason the Song dynasty is remembered The Song dynasty ended in the 1270s. It was followed by three other Big Dynasties which followed each other without much hiatus – the Yuan (1279-1368), Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1912). But all three were somewhat compromised. The Yuan and Qing were imposed from outside by non-Han peoples; the Yuan by Mongols and the Qing by Manchu northerners. So for many Chinese to this day, both dynasties are somewhat unauthentic. The only ethnically Chinese dynasty was the Ming, but they are now associated with China’s long decline, the era when China’s international standing began to slip in comparison with the European nations who increasingly visited and oppressed her.

By contrast with these three compromised dynasties, the Song – untainted by foreign rulers or national humiliation – is sometimes considered, by Chinese scholars, to be a peak of peace, culture and achievement, even if it did end while Henry III was on the throne of England.

The name China When Marco Polo visited China in the 1270s, it had come under the rule of the Mongols. The Mongols had had to fight their way south from Mongolia through the part of northern China long-held by the Jin people, before confronting and overthrowing the reigning Song dynasty. As a result, from their perspective, the Mongols tended to refer to all the southern enemy as Jin – or Chin, as they pronounced it. Thus the Mongols who hosted Marco Polo and showed him round referred to the ‘natives’ as Chin and through one of the many mistranslations and misunderstandings which characterise China’s interaction with outsides, in Polo’s account of his adventures, this became Chin-a.

That’s one theory, anyway.

Magna Carta and Genghis Khan I was struck by the coincidence that Genghis Khan and his Mongol army, having fought their way across northern China, captured Beijing on 1 June 1215. And on 15 June 1215, exactly a fortnight later, King John of England grudgingly signed the ‘Magna Carta‘, effectively a peace treaty in his civil war with his own nobles. Two worlds, one emphasising its Asiatic tyranny, the other laying the basis of civil rights and democracy.

Chinese history in one map

This animation gives a sense of the ebb and flow of Han power over this vast geographical region.

Related links

Other reviews about the history of China or the Far East

Leave a comment

1 Comment

  1. Jose D Juan

     /  June 7, 2017

    Great review. Thank you.


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