Sunday, February 10, 2013

Review of "An Outline History of China" by Bai Shouyi

Having one of the earliest recorded in the world, China’s history becomes even more interesting when one learns it is unbroken.  From the 3,600 years ago to modern day, scholars and historians have kept record of the Middle Kingdom’s events—amazing considering the multiple fragmentations and government transitions.  When China’s Foreign Language Press decided to publish this history in 1982, they called upon Bai Shouyi, a man with impeccable credentials, to condense 5,000 years into a book.  The 800 page An Outline History of China is the result.

Often when a person needs something, it’s best to go to the source.  Such as it is with An Outline History of China.  Bai being Chinese and having complete access to historical archives, the book is flooded with data and information coming directly from actual records and the work of thousands of years of Chinese historians.  Of particular interest is the early history of China.  Dynasties numerous and important figures even more so, I will not even begin to relate a summary of this, but suffice to say Bai’s work can be considered the authoritative version of matters in China before the 2nd millennium.  In this regard, the book is invaluable.

The same, unfortunately, cannot be said about events which happen after the turn of the 19th century, in particular the book’s political orientation.  Obviously intentional oversights—Taiwan, Tibet, East Turkestan (Xinjiang), etc.—are barely given footnote status, all discussion on these controversial geo-political issues, elided.  Readers looking for data, let alone accurate data, related to this ongoing issue would do best searching elsewhere.  
Another fault of the work is its lack of introspection.  Aberrations and disagreement naturally existing in most discussions on Chinese history, little of it makes its way onto the page.  Though this can be forgiven for matters in very early history, as time moves on and more events and details are recorded, the reader would expect controversial events to have their sides presented with a caveat that matters remain ambiguous.  Bai, however, generally plows straight ahead, leaving little margin for error in his declarative statements.  Undoubtedly culture influencing the style, a good Western historian will nevertheless approach their work in a more equivocal tone.
In the end, An Outline History of China is true to its title.  A sketch of more than three millennia of history, the narrative unfortunately begins to lose its veracity the closer events come to the present, the deeper political influence can be seen creeping in.  That being said, the early events of Chinese history which Bai discusses are a gold mine given the proximity to source material.  Style lean and straight forward (the translation is as efficient as the Chinese language), the chronologically ordered text relates to readers the major events shaping Chinese history and is best used in conjunction with material detailing specific eras and dynasties.  But what Bai describes post 1900 should be taken with a grain of salt—many, in fact. 

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