Review: From Yao to Mao, Kenneth J. Hammond

Rating: 4 out of 5

Mr Hammond’s course on Chinese history from its earliest stages up to the 1980’s is a strong book. For me, in many places I could contrast this work with ‘The Story of China’ which I read a short time ago, noting the differences between the authors and stories. In general, however, this is a good overview with plenty of information and a relatively even balance across the ages—though some aspects, especially the arts, are left unmentioned except a few exceptions.

This is primarily a political overview. This is not only attested by the majority of the arts not coming into this narrative, with ‘The Romance of the Three Kingdoms’ being the exception, but also by the author’s emphasis on introducing political players and describing emperors based on their competency to govern as well as what they achieved in power. The intermediate phases are generally given short shrift, even when these lasted for prolonged periods, and the emphasis is on dynastic government and the (gradual) improvements each of these dynasties was able to make.

In comparison to Mr Wood’s ‘The Story of China’, this is a much more academic overview. Mr Wood often used literature of the time to describe its events and, in general, brought up many more arts-related events than Mr Hammond’s version. Yet, ‘The Story of China’ lacked the same focus on politics and in some cases, connections between events were not as clear as they are in this book. This is especially true for the 20th century, where the warlords period and Japanese invasion of China are covered much more thoroughly than in ‘The Story of China’.

Mr Hammond also focusses on understanding social classes more than ‘The Story of China’. This helps put certain actions into good context, especially where the ideal of the Chinese gentleman is a difficult one to understand. In addition, the author also brings out how this ideal met the groups’ collective interests in power and what these conundrums meant for the country (in short: nothing good).

However, what made me lower my rating for this book was that Chinese history has often been linked to natural events: earthquakes and floods. While a few (I think two) post-Ming natural events are mentioned here, the numerous floods of the 11th and 12th century that weakened the Song are not—though Mr Wood’s book covers these with only a few sentences, it is much better than nothing.

Overall, this is a very good overview of the Chinese history—though perhaps the last chapters dealing with post-Mao governments should be taken with a grain of salt.

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