Merchant, Soldier, Sage: a new history of power, By David Priestland

China's history can offer a test for this bold new model of eras and societies. How does it fare?

As we lurch unsteadily further into this millennium, none of the ideologies and institutions inherited from the last two appear to work any more, and no one seems to have a clue why. This very readable account of recent history suggests that rethinking our situation as the outcome of competition not between classes or even nations, but of occupational groups, may give us a better perspective on our plight. Its unfamiliar vocabulary demands a bit of persistence in order to understand the arguments being made, and the first stumbling block is the use of the word "caste" for these groups.

Something much looser than the Indian usage is envisaged, perhaps closer to the original Portuguese, where it occurs in phrases equivalent to "well-bred", though in the old-fashioned complimentary sense, innocent of eugenic overtones. The main players in David Priestland's book are the warrior, the merchant, and a figure termed the "sage-technocrat". Unfortunate reminiscences of Lewis Carroll's Father William conjure up to my mind the sage as an elderly but somewhat daft individual, but Asian-language equivalents usually signify genuine wisdom.

In fact, the awkward hyphenation points to a range of possibilities. Those for whom neither the acquisition of money nor martial heroism form the highest goal may be mere pen pushers, or may value creativity, perhaps even understanding. The scheme used, which has its antecedents in the sociologist Max Weber's "ideal types", is both flexible and nuanced.

On balance, it provides far more illumination than one might have feared, especially once a slightly giddy introductory whirl through history brings us to the period the author knows best. His studies of Communism have given him an enviable grasp of 19th- and 20th-century developments across the globe, and he writes with such verve that one fears other academic historians will be sniffy about the book.

Not that a subdued sniff or two would be out of place. "Merchant, warrior, sage" works well as a scheme for Indo-European societies and maybe for a number of others, but China for one does not follow the pattern too closely, since there warrior and sage were complementary roles within the same ruling group, often played by the same person. Yes, the young Mao did criticise later followers of Confucius for their lack of martial vigour - as he knew other Confucians had done - but he notes Confucius was remembered as an archer good enough to draw crowds.

Yes, Confucians believed that benevolence rather than force was the best policy in government – they were fond of saying that one could "win the empire on horseback, but not rule the empire on horseback". But internal or external threats that arose despite this policy always attracted sterner measures. The Art of War, though not Confucian in inspiration, was always widely read, and two of the 11 commentators on it were also famous as talented poets who pursued relatively successful careers as civil servants.

At times part or all of China fell under the control of foreign invaders who ruled as a separate caste of military aristocrats, but this was regarded as un-Chinese, and was even explicitly compared to Indian social practice. The Indian occupational divisions were well known in China through the translation of Buddhist scriptures, but the translators never attempted to explain the Indian situation by reference to Chinese categories. They usually transliterated the Indian caste names, and where they did not, used rather vague terms such as "member of a prominent family" that obscured the Indian terminology.

Of course, few people in China wished for anything other than getting as rich as possible, but for those who bettered themselves that way it seems always to have been important to purchase the means to appear culturally on a par with the ruling group. Then as now, buying education for children rated as a smart move, rather than solely flaunting wealth through a luxury culture - as Japanese merchants, blocked from access to the samurai elite, once tended to do. In China, education was the path to power.

How will this heritage play out in our own world, in which the short-term outlook of the mercantile mentality has brought all too many nations to their knees? In the tumultuous decade in China before Communist cadres took over the role formerly occupied by Confucian mandarins, the generalissimo in charge allowed a millionaire brother-in-law to play ducks and drakes with the national finances. But nothing like this episode looks like being repeated, however money-crazy China appears. A few years ago, the Confucian civil official responsible for putting down the iconoclastic Taiping rebels in warfare as bloody as any before the 20th century was conspicuously rehabilitated, perhaps in part because of his skill in using foreigners like General Gordon while keeping them in their place. But the republication of his family letters does not look like an endorsement of militarism.

In imperial times, loyalty to a well-defined cultural tradition, whether expressed in military or civil terms, trumped all other values. Today a different form of patriotism decrees the Dalai Lama subversive for, in effect, not declaring the Buddha a Chinese citizen. This may look a little overweening - like assuming Jesus had a European face - but actually such an outlook does not preclude pragmatism.

Periods without a central government in China have been frequent enough in the past that a multi-polar world – even a world in which Chinese will, like everyone else, always be a minority – is historically intelligible. But if the kindly, co-operative sage turns bellicose warrior, this will probably signal neither duplicity nor an internal power shift, but rather a response to different circumstances. Priestland casts an intriguing glimmer of light on what may be ahead. The details remain to be seen.

TH Barrett is research professor of East Asian history at SOAS