China: A History, By John Keay

This account reveals a turbulent sea of rivalries and uncertainty beneath a calm surface
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The Independent Culture

It's hard not to adore the Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove. Confronted with the turmoil of third-century Chinese politics and the backbiting of court life, they retreated into rural seclusion to a bamboo grove close by the city of Luoyang, in China's easterly Henan province. There, so the story goes, they indulged in lofty conversations, listened to soothing music, basked in nature's splendours and drank far too much wine. In their drunken, philosophical haze, the endless squabbles and pointless ceremonies of public life faded into insignificance: as one of their number, Liu Ling, is supposed to have said, "to a drunken man, the affairs of this world are like so much duck-weed in a river". To advertise just how much contempt he had for the formalised, fractious workaday world, Liu Ling is also said to have paraded through the streets of Luoyang with two servants. One of them carried Liu Ling's trusty wine bottle, the other carried a shovel so that, should Liu Ling happen to go the way of all flesh, he could be buried on the spot, doing away with all the intricate Confucian burial ceremonies that, to him, were nothing more than empty, imposed ritual.

Admittedly, the seven sages lived during one of the most chaotic eras in Chinese history – the so-called Six Dynasties period that stretched from the third to sixth centuries. It was a time of invasion, violence and upheaval, and yet the story of the seven sages would endure, being endlessly cited by later Chinese writers and thinkers, and inspiring some of the finest Chinese art. This is surely because – as John Keay's ambitious new book makes clear – Chinese history, far from being a story of continuities and smooth dynastic transitions, has so often been riddled by rivalry and uncertainty. It comes as little surprise that what the seven sages represented had a centuries-long cultural appeal.

Negotiating a narrative path through this turbulent history is the unenviable task that John Keay set himself, and he has produced a valiant, fluently written attempt to condense a sprawling story into a few hundred pages. And as Keay explains at the outset, it is a story about which we in the West know far too little. Ask us to name a Chinese dynasty and we will likely struggle after mentioning Ming, Manchu or, with a following wind, Han. It is often said that forward-looking parents ought now to convince their children to take lessons in the Chinese languages: there will be ' more useful assets in a century during which China is expected to play so crucial an economic, political and cultural role. Such parents would also be well advised to seek out some primers in Chinese history, not least because Chinese culture, like few others, is defined and energised by its past. Keay's book, while not superseding the best existing introductions to Chinese history, is a convenient place to start.

The book has its flaws. By paying so much attention to China's earliest history (which is a welcome redressing of an historiographical balance) it is obliged to race through the last five or so centuries at breakneck speed. The book also has many virtues, however, not least its refusal to adopt a Eurocentric perspective and its constant efforts to guide the reader through the confusing maze of Chinese geographical place-names, dynastic to-and-fros, and cultural developments. It also reminds us that to talk of one China, or one Chinese history, is absurd, and Keay mostly avoids reductive analyses. China's past was contested and fragmented. Just as the seven sages carved out their Daoist alternative in the face of a Confucian consensus so, in present-day Beijing and Shanghai, the so-called market-socialists' voices are not the only ones to be heard. China's history, as Keay's book does a creditable job of demonstrating, is intoxicatingly interesting and its future is sure to keep us on the edge of our geopolitical seats.