I like to read classics, historical fiction and world lit. Oh and I love short stories.
Chinese history simply has the coolest names. What do you think about names such as the "Spring and Autumn period" or the "Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove"? Or what about the elusive "White Lotus Society"? Piqued your interested? I'm hooked too! Thanks to this book I've got a list of subjects I want to dive into.
Introduction to Chinese history – 5 stars
This book proved to be an excellent and thorough introduction to Chinese history. It's very easy to follow for those who know nothing about the subject. Also, Ropp knows how to entertain the reader by providing salient details and stories about several historical figures. When I started this book, I wasn't too sure about reading a book on Chinese history. I already had quite some knowledge of modern Chinese history, but the more ancient stuff always appeared to me as a dizzying list of dynasties where I had no idea what was going on at all. Ropp's setup is to explain the different era's in Chinese history and how society changed from one era to another in a clear manner. This made it possible for me to get a basic understanding for the first time of Chinese history pre-19th century.
Ropp chose not only to tell about the political and military events important for the development of Chinese history, he also discusses important literary works, scholars, artistic developments, and schools of thought. This gives a frame of reference for major cultural heritage sites, such as the Great Wall and the terracota warrios, but also gives an overview for influential works of literature and philosophy which are still widely known in Chinese culture today. This was very interesting to read about and gave me some further insight into how the Chinese view their own history.
Futhermore, I liked the tracing of the position of women throughout the different eras in Chinese history. As women are not traditionally at the forefront of political and military events, it's nice that some light was shed on what their role in society was or was supposed to be.
Global perspective – 1 star
I do not feel Ropp accomplished the premise which he set at the beginning of the book at all. In his foreword he states that he wants to “narrate the long history of China within the larger context of world history”, whereby he wants to compare the development of Chinese civilization with other, contemporaneous civilizations. Another point he wants to address is Chinese relations with foreign cultures and peoples. I feel this is done in an unsatisfactory manner. Three reasons:
1) The context of China in world history given throughout the book is constantly Western-centric. There's a little about India, but only when it becomes relevant in the history of Buddhism spreading through China. Yet overall, the only true comparisons Ropp makes are with Western civilization – comparing ancient Rome and the Han dynasty, a parallel between Machiavelli and the work of Han Fuizi, etc. Africa and the South- and Mesoamerican cultures are conspicuous in their absence.
Also, there is very little about the bordering civilizations. The only civilization discusses are the nomad tribes who have a strong influence on Chinese history. Nothing about Japanese, Korean, South-East Asian, Tibetan, etc. So while Ropp feels the need to mention comparisons between the West and China, and to emphasize the influence of the silk road at both end destinations, the influences and interactions with more immediate civilizations remain untouched. Perhaps those were negligible, but now, I just feel these were cut out entirely in favor of Western-centric analysis and – especially in the case of Japan – that might have been entirely unjustified.
2) America-centrism in the chapters dealing with the history of the late 19th century to modern day was disproportionate and completely overshadowed the roles of other countries in this period of Chinese history. Ropp's patriotism is shining through whenever his country involved in the events of Chinese history. He made a strange selection of what he chose to tell about WW1 or the aftermath of the Opium Wars (America is there to fight for peace, freedom and democracy, ahaha). Also, post-WW2 Chinese foreign relations are entirely about Chinese-American relations. That is hardly the most important thing that happened on that subject. Once again I ask you: where is Japan? If there's one relationship influenced deeply by their common history, it's between those countries. It's strange that's missing from this overview. I also found his statement that there's still scholarly discussion about the Nanking massacre a gross understatement. There's more going on.
3) To Ropp it's oddly important to mention the religious details of any historical figure who ever converted or thought about converting to Christianity. Also, missionaries are saints who did awesome work and it's a crying shame the Chinese population turned hostile to them after Western countries raped their country during and after the Opium wars.
I picked up on those three elements because the emphasis was overdone, and clearly because of the author's own background, though those are not the obvious choices when you look at what needs to go in a quick overview of Chinese history in a more objective manner.
I would recommend this book to people who want a quick and solid introduction to Chinese history, but I'd warn them to take the "global perspective" with a kilo of salt.