China: Ancient Culture, Modern Society


The authors of China: Ancient Culture, Modern Society declare, “China has arrived, big time.” Their work offers a primer for readers who want to be informed about the world’s newest superpower with an accessible yet comprehensive text. As the authors, G. Wright Doyle and Peter Xiaoming Yu, hail from the United States and China respectively, their work is well-qualified to present China to American readers.

Section I: An Overview

The first section introduces readers to five groups of Chinese people: mainland China, Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan, and overseas Chinese. These pages are packed with statistics and facts about China’s climate, population, and economy. The first chapter introduces China as the most populous nation on earth with the third largest geographical area. The details about China’s demographics, including a table of seven major dialects, reveal the immense diversity contained within the country.

Chapters Two and Three cover the history of two areas recently returned to the Chinese: Hong Kong, previously administered by Great Britain, and Macau, previously administered by Portugal. The authors provide excellent context for understanding these regions’ colonial heritage and make thoughtful conjectures about their possible futures. The dominant question is whether distinctive institutions such as political freedoms in Hong Kong and Christian evangelicalism in Macau will influence China at large, or whether the mainland culture will overwhelm the remnants of European rule.

Chapter Four explains the strategic significance of the island of Taiwan, both for the colonial powers who encountered it in the 16th century and for modern China. The authors describe the island’s original inhabitants: the Aborigines, a small minority made up of nine different tribes that nonetheless hold political and economic clout in modern-day Taiwan due to their protected status and ancient culture. The chapter goes on to review the struggle between China’s Nationalist and Communist parties in the 20th century. While acknowledging the political tensions that continue to exist, the authors point out that profitable trading partnerships have created a mutually beneficial relationship that both parties would hesitate to disrupt, though recent developments threaten to undo this precarious situation.

Chapter Five highlights China’s history of expansion via immigration, which has granted them cultural and political influence all over the world. The chapter ends by introducing a potential conflict between the growing conversion to Christianity among Chinese people living abroad and their attachment to their native homeland and heritage.

Section II: A Rich Heritage

Written by Peter Yu, the “Heritage” section covers China’s history, literature, art and crafts, medicine, holidays, and “marvels” or feats of engineering. The focus is on China’s cultural and political history. Chapter Six begins with the Xia dynasty (2000 BC-1600 BC), while the discussion of literature begins with the earliest written record of Chinese poetry in the Western Zhou dynasty (1000 BC-700 BC). The two chapters on history are divided into modern and pre-modern periods, with the second chapter beginning in the 1300s. The modern period emphasizes China’s economic development and technological advances.

Chapters Eight and Nine deal with Chinese poetry and prose. In the Han dynasty, the prime forms of literature were historical literature and “Fu” (a combination of rhyme, verse, and essay). Tiring of this form’s restrictions, writers during the Tang and Song dynasties revolutionized China’s literary scene from 618-907 AD and 960-1279 AD, respectively. This period became the “Golden Age” of Chinese poetry, widely recognized for both the quality and quantity of works produced. A selection of poems from the Tang dynasty forms an interesting contrast with selections from the Song dynasty. The most significant Chinese prose work is the Book of History--a document so old that its origins are shrouded in legend. This work spans Chinese history starting with China’s mythical beginnings and continuing until 600 or 700 BC. There were several other prose works published at the time, notably including quotations compiled by the founders of Daoism and the disciples of Confucius. The permanence of these philosophical works derives more from the wisdom they offered than literary technique.

Chapters Ten through Thirteen review the visual arts and crafts in China. The chapter on art compares and contrasts Chinese ink painting with Western oil painting. The Chinese form emphasizes lines and strokes, as it derived from calligraphy. Rather than a practical craft, calligraphy should be considered “the world’s first example of abstract art,” because the writer communicates his ideas through the aesthetic expression of shapes. In the chapter on architecture, we meet the guiding philosophy behind Chinese designs: the principles of balance, symmetry, and reflecting the natural world. The Chinese emperors poured resources into their imperial palaces and tombs, but wars and the passage of time have erased much of their efforts. Sub-sections include details on typical designs for residences, temples, and gardens, including commentary on their broader cultural significance. The chapter on chinaware recognizes this craft’s unique contribution in introducing China to the outside world. We learn that the differences in ceramic designs depending on the region of origin. Ceramic artifacts predate written history in China, dating all the way back to the Neolithic period.

Chapter Fourteen introduces the three great treatises of Chinese medicine. Unlike Western medicine, the Chinese conception of medicine was based in the philosophy of a person’s being a “mini-universe” floating between heaven and earth. The goal is to correct the imbalances between body systems, using techniques such as acupuncture. Western medicine has begun to supplant traditional Chinese philosophy, but traditional Chinese medicine remains a strong force in Chinese society and culture.

Chapter Fifteen describes the major holidays of the Chinese lunar calendar, as compared with the Western solar calendar. The final chapter in this section describes Chinese feats of engineering, including the Great Wall, the Grand Canal, the underground well system, several bridges--one as old as 7th century BC--the Dujiangyan Water Irrigation Project, and the Terra Cotta Warriors.

Section III: Belief Systems

The third section, by Wright Doyle, compares and contrasts six religions currently influencing China today, with special emphasis on the origins of Confucianism and Daoism. Brief chapters on each of the traditional Chinese religions (Confucianism, Daoism, and folk or popular religion) serve as thorough introductions for readers unfamiliar with eastern faiths. Folk religion includes the relationship between earth and heaven, especially the ethical “mandate of heaven,” ancestor worship, mediums, local deified heroes, and the principle of yin and yang. Popular religion has persisted in China despite competition from Western religions and the major Chinese philosophical schools.

The section ends with one chapter for each of the universal religions: Buddhism, Islam, and Christianity. The chapter on Christianity highlights the diversity of Christian experience in China with balanced analysis of Chinese churches’ strengths and weaknesses.

Today and Tomorrow

The final section assesses China’s current status as a burgeoning world power and forecasts possible futures for the country, especially with respect to its relationship with the United States. The text divides between understanding current challenges that face China, such as education reform, and acquainting foreign readers with the Chinese people themselves.

In Chapter Twenty-Six, for example, Peter Yu highlights the history of education reform in China. The closest equivalent to modern schools appeared in China during the Zhou dynasty to teach aristocratic etiquette: the six arts of music, archery, horse riding, writing, mathematics, ritual, as well as the reading of the classics. Three hundred years later, Confucius led reforms of the school system, particularly among the lower classes. Then the Sui dynasty introduced the civil service examination, an insular system that prevailed until the modern era, with brief interludes for innovations such as the independent schools of the Shu Yuan movement and vocational schools introduced by Mongol invaders.

In the modern period, the civil service exam system fell under harsh criticism, so the People’s Republic abolished the system and replaced it with Soviet-style schools. This approach to education continued until the 1970s, when the new Open Door policy allowed the educational community in China to interact with the wider world. Currently, Chinese education receives insufficient government funding, and dropouts are a persistent problem due to rising expenses, leaving the government to grapple with choosing between prioritizing elite schools or general education.

Chapter Twenty-Seven focuses on the Chinese people by illustrating those qualities that have endured throughout China’s long history. Core characteristics include reverence for the past, pride in their country, preference for the group over the individual, focus on material prosperity over spiritual concerns, and social hierarchy among others. The authors also caution readers against misunderstandings that frequently arise between the Chinese and Western visitors.

Chapter Twenty-Eight stands out for its engaging approach to balancing commentary on the extremes of Chinese-American relations. It opens by describing China and the United States as “natural friends,” listing all the reasons for goodwill between the countries. Then the chapter goes on to identify all the factors that make China and the United States “natural enemies.” There are lively and evocative descriptions of the modern Chinese mindset, including extended metaphors based on a Chinese dinner party and the 2008 Beijing Olympics. These illustrations help the reader to feel as if he knows China personally even if he has never visited.


Though published in 2009, this book remains an invaluable resource both for readers who have no direct experience with China, and for those with experience in a particular field who are seeking an overview of China from a broad perspective. Along with its detailed and thoughtful analysis, each chapter concludes with recommended reading lists for those who wish to use the book as a reference to jumpstart deeper research on a multitude of subjects. Finally, the book includes vivid maps and photographs that add to the sense of receiving a personal virtual tour through China.

ReviewsKittie Helmick