This is China: The First 5,000 Years

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This is China: The First 5,000 Years (ed. Haiwang Yuan). Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing Group LLC, 2010.

Book review by Kittie and Stephanie Helmick

This is China: The First 5,000 Years condenses the five volumes of the Berkshire Encyclopedia of China into 130 pages. The editor, Haiwang Yuan, is a naturalized U.S. citizen and former Fulbright scholar. His work is broad and thorough, while still brief. It aims to introduce students of China to the country’s demographics, ancient history, twentieth century politics, and contemporary culture, along with highlighting Mandarin phrases and international controversies. As stated in the introduction, This is China exemplifies the proverb: “a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”

The introduction urges readers to seek a better understanding of China, on the grounds that the country’s massive scale and recent growth have destined it to become a global leader in international affairs. It points out  China’s preeminent size and scope in factors ranging from population to internet use. To face upcoming challenges as a united international community, the editor argues,  we must understand China’s past so that we are prepared for the leadership role China will take in the future.

Along with providing an overview of each of the four chapters, the introduction encourages readers to use the text as educational and non-political reference material, or as a cohesive narrative, as the reader prefers. It can be used in curriculum development or any number of academic disciplines related to Chinese language, history, and culture. The text includes Chinese characters throughout, for example, plus transliterations with tone marks for beginning Chinese language students. Each chapter is interspersed with “thought experiments”: brief excerpts with questions designed to provoke questions or facilitate further research; for example, “What problems do regional differences create for China?” Each chapter concludes with a list of sources for further study.

Chapter 1: Background - The Land and the People

Chapter 1 covers basic Chinese demographics in two sections on physical and human geography. It emphasizes China’s enormous magnitude and variety, noting, “There are a billion more people living in China than in the United States” (1.33 billion Chinese, 310 million in the United States as of 2009). The chapter introduction notes China’s four great inventions: gunpowder, paper, printing, and the compass.

The first section, “Physical Geography,” identifies China as one of the largest countries in the world. The author explores China by comparing it to the United States and noting the surprising similarities between their geography. For example, both countries are at the same latitude, and they would have the same number of time zones if China had not established a single time zone nationwide. China is approximately the same size as the United States, although the territorial calculations are controversial, due to disagreements over how to measure a country’s size. The section goes on to identify China’s terrain and notable bodies of water, climate, vegetation, and mineral resources. It identifies China as a historically agricultural community that benefited from its vastness because natural disasters in one area were usually offset by favorable weather in other regions.

The second section, “Human Geography,” begins with a discussion of the ancient human fossils discovered in China. A subsection on ethnicities distinguishes the Han ethnic group, which makes up “slightly more than 91 percent of the total population as of 2010,” from the 55 recognized minority groups in China. A brief subsection on faith and philosophies identifies Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism as the three main Chinese belief systems, as distinct from widespread ancestor veneration and polytheistic folk religions. In the 21st century, the Chinese Communist Party protects five state- controlled religions: Buddhism, Daoism, Islam, Roman Catholicism, and Protestantism. Communist Party members are required to profess Marxist atheism, however.

The chapter concludes with a survey of Chinese dialects and non-Sinitic languages, including popular Mandarin and classical Chinese. Each served a different purpose in Chinese society, from conversation to literature to civil service.

Chapter 2: From Prehistory to the End of the Empire

Chapter 2 surveys China’s ten dynasties plus two periods of rule not considered true dynasties, i.e. the thirteen major epochs in Chinese history prior to the republic founded in 1912. The chapter opens with Chinese creation myths, observing that the stories have evolved over the four- thousand- year historical record.

To assist readers with distinguishing the major Chinese dynasties, the chapter introduction includes a chart with dates, a pronunciation guide, and notable features, e.g. “China’s ‘Dark Ages’” and “Building the Great Wall.” Before launching into a detailed description of each epoch, the chapter highlights the “Dynasty Song,” a musical mnemonic sung to the tune of “Frere Jacques.”

The individual descriptions offer colorful and lively histories, peopled with evocative character sketches and references to classic Chinese literature.

Chapter 3: A Century of Change - From 1912 to Today

Chapter 3 represents China’s 20th century as a three-act play, moving from turbulence and challenges, through the dark days of Mao, to a new era of stability and burgeoning potential. The first act begins in 1911, with the Nationalist Party’s struggles to stabilize the new Republic and fend off threats from Japan and Chinese Communists. The second act opens with the victorious Communist Party’s establishing the People’s Republic. The Communist leader Mao Zedong oversees revolutions, famines, and revolts until his death in 1976. In the final act, new leadership guides China to development in four major areas: agriculture, industry, science and technology, and defense. The chapter concludes by highlighting China’s emergence onto the world stage with events such as the Beijing Olympics in 2008.

The historical narrative provides a balanced overview of the violent struggles between the Nationalists, Communists, and Japan. It attributes the failure of the republic founded in 1912 to disorganization and infighting between leaders such as Sun Yat-sen and the Qing general Yuan Shikai. Discussing Chiang Kai-shek’s Republican rule from 1928 to 1937, it notes that his forces were initially successful in suppressing Communist opposition, but that his government failed to improve living conditions for the vast population of Chinese peasants who eventually became the Communists’ strongest supporters. Although Chiang Kai-shek was “never able to achieve total control,” the editor allows that he may have succeeded if not for Japanese intervention.

Ultimately, the Japanese threat compelled the Nationalists and Communists to collaborate until China was delivered. Then a bloody civil war began. During the war, both sides continued in the military tactics that they had employed against Japan: major offensives with foreign allies for the Nationalists; guerrilla warfare for the Communists, until the final stages, when they launched army-scale offensives.  The people perceived the Communists as self-sacrificing and more authentically Chinese, while the United States failed to deliver the massive intervention that Chiang expected, which helped decide the country’s fate in favor of the Communists.

The chapter combines historical narrative with vivid imagery, such as photographs from the conflict with Japan, stylized drawings, and a graffiti caricature of Madame Mao. Cultural notes include an offset section on the political implications of Daoist philosophy. The section “Family Ties” evaluates Chiang Kai-shek’s legacy, with commentary on the political and cultural influence of his illustrious wife Soong Mei-ling or “Madame Chiang.”

The final section in this chapter, “China After Mao,” examines how China recovered from “an era that...harmed millions of people and set back China’s development for years.” China’s new leaders forged a way forward by admitting Mao’s tragic mistakes without rejecting his legacy. The author observes a balance between China’s conserving the communist ideals and limited political freedom advanced by Mao, and dramatic changes that propelled the country to modernization. It identifies Deng Xiaoping as the leader who piloted an economic system “that went against Mao’s in just about every way.” The text provides a detailed comparison of how agricultural production, industrial development, and international trade departed from Mao’s approach to reform China’s economy.

Deng’s new program, the Four Modernizations, advanced China economically and militarily without radically altering its political structure. Although economic progress spurred demands for political liberty, the author identifies the violent suppression of protesters at Tiananmen Square as effectively ending calls for democracy in China. The chapter concludes by highlighting China’s entry into the World Trade Organization and selection as hosts for the 2008 Olympic Games as indicators of China’s growing strength on the world stage.

Chapter 4: China Today

The final chapter frames China’s future role in terms of onlookers’ anxious speculation: Will China’s massive size and resilient culture render it a formidable enemy, or a powerful force for good? Meanwhile, the Chinese people are also engaging in self-reflection, with a recent return to traditional Chinese philosophy, especially Confucianism, to answer the quandaries of modern life. Given the rapidity of developing news on China, the chapter aims not to update readers on the most current situation in China, but rather to provide a context for understanding breaking news stories and ongoing debates. It encourages the reader to consider several “thought experiments,” including whether China should maintain its status as a developing country, controversy over Chinese policy on currency, and the advantages and disadvantages of its college admissions system.

The chapter opens with appreciation for China’s rapid growth and development since 1978, while acknowledging that severe economic disparity persists in the country. It notes the trend towards consumerism in Chinese culture, offset by the Chinese people’s traditional aversion to personal debt. Along with economic improvement, China has becoming increasingly more educated, which puts pressure on the government by increasing the demand for quality employment opportunities.

In the next two sections, “China’s Inner Life” and “Uniquely Chinese Concepts,” the author reflects on characteristics of the Chinese people and their principles. He characterizes China as “a country of aspiration,” with ambitious citizens who are proud of their heritage and optimistic about their future. Defining characteristics of Chinese beliefs include harmony, the ancestral home, saving face, guanxi or relying on interpersonal connections for doing business, hospitality, and a division between insiders and outsiders. The chapter describes each concept in detail, often tracing their origins in Confucianist philosophy.

The final section, “Challenges,” surveys the problems that Chinese leaders face in meeting the demands of their citizens while competing in a global economy. For examples of internal challenges, it identifies ethnic clashes and resistance to the government’s control over the media. For internal challenges, it mentions climate change policy and human rights violations. The chapter closes on a hopeful note, suggesting that the admirable ideals of the Beijing Olympics may guide China in defining its future leadership.

Resources

For readers eager to further their studies, the concluding bibliography offers three separate lists of sources: books, films, and organizations. “Further Reading” divides into history, modern China, biography, business and economics, and fiction. This section also includes a list of movies. “Recommended Organizations” breaks down by location: United States, Europe, Australia, and worldwide.

Conclusion

This is China: The First 5,000 Years achieves a unique success in offering all things to all readers: academic resources for scholars, general introduction for China novices, and detailed references for in-depth study. The writing is informative and engaging, presenting a big- picture perspective of China without losing sight of the myriad details. It is particularly addressed to American readers who have yet to consider the parallels between the United States and China. Readers of any nationality will benefit from contemplating the implications of China’s momentous history and rapid growth for the future of world affairs.

Much has changed since 2008, of course. The radical shift back to strict and comprehensive Party control under Xi Jinping has reduced the scope of various kinds of freedom in a variety of domains. Still, the basic character of Chinese culture and the general trajectory of its rise to worldwide influence remain the same, making this book still very relevant today.

Kittie Helmick