Review: The Story of China, Michael Wood

Rating: 4 out of 5

I found this a tremendous experience. Mr Wood’s summary of the millennia of Chinese history touched on both the politicians as well as the poets, and many names I had only heard of briefly before were introduced in their proper context. This made the book an amazing introduction into Chinese history while I feel that people who are already familiar with the broad strokes will have less to gain from here.

Yet, there were some drawbacks to this work. The biggest one of these was the author’s fairly often-repeating comment that “our understanding of this period has been revolutionised recently”. This quickly became tiresome; more so because it was rarely reasoned. The one time explicit reasons were given for this statement had to do with new magnetometry surveys across the archaeological site which was a very decent reasonable explanation. Such reasons would have been welcomed for the rest of these statements as well.

Beyond this, I became more familiar with figures like Wang Renyu and Du Fu, who will stick with me longest. Some of the politicians and generals, no matter their skill, will inevitably fade, for the Tang warlords were surpassed by their Song successors; and the Song in turn by the Ming. Yet, the rhymes from the great poets are good to ponder even now, millennia hence.

Likewise, the actions and words of the great traditionalists were interesting to behold, for example, Liu Dapeng who in the 1930’s would keep to the Confucian belief to value the written word and, because of that, pick up cigarette paper from the streets. Of course, Mr Wood’s story included such gems for nearly every epoch, and it is clear there is so much more to be discovered!

As I said, therefore, this is a good starting point to start pondering the four or five millennia of history that China can offer—but it is not the end of the road.

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