The Rites of Ming

This is my review of China: A History by John Keay.

This thorough, systematic history provides an informative and readable textbook.

I like the introduction which challenges the myths which have arisen over The Great Wall, the Grand Canal, the Long March and even the Giant Panda. Although I appreciate the author's point that a history of China calls for a focus on the distant past because its culture is so "historically conscious" that "the remote is often more relevant", I am not sure that the author actually identifies this relevance very often! Yet it is salutary to realise how relatively advanced the Chinese have been for so long, compared to the west.

However, taking 300 pages to cover the first two thousand years without quite reaching the date of the Norman Conquest of England proved too much detail for me to absorb. My solution as a "general interest reader" was to move to Chapter 14 on "The Rites of Ming", the time span 1405-1620, i.e. contemporaneous with the late Renaissance in Europe. Although the characters do not come alive as individuals like, say, the Tudors, it is interesting to read about the size and scale of the Chinese voyages of the famous eunuch Zheng He with up to 300 ships, the largest over 130 metres long compared with the pioneering voyage of Columbus with only three ships, none longer than 20 metres. Yet, rather than dominate the seas, the Chinese fleets were laid by to rot, after the emperor's decision (or was it that of the scholar-bureaucrat mandarins?) to turn his back on overseas enterprise. The conflicts between the emperor, who despite his "heavenly power" could only "dispose", and the mandarins who "proposed" his actions are also intriguing.

It is hard to keep track of the various states, so that more small maps at relevant points would have been useful.

I recommend this book as a useful text to have on one's shelf for reference, although I am personally more interested in the last couple of centuries of Chinese history i.e. its contact with the west.

⭐⭐⭐⭐ 4 Stars

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