Rereading China: A History

Rereading John Keay’s China: A History which is even more mind blowing—I suppose illuminating is the bigger word for it, but same thing—than when I read it a decade ago. It’s longish, half a thousand pages and some—but almost breezily written, full of vivid details from the astonishingly complete record that Chinese written history has left us, going back almost continuously for three thousand years. I’ve never read Tolkien but I suspect that the feeling of being immersed in an alternative world packed with drama and personalities and vivid detail in a continuous narrative is the same, without the vast gaps that plague so many parts of the world where people never got around to writing anything down (as Dark Age Europe, say, or India, where they invented the science of language among so many other extraordinary things but never really got round to history.) In any case it’s the Tang Empire now halfway through the book, when China was unparalleled by anybody anywhere, a sophistication at the time (about 650 A.D. by our watches) that is almost impossible for a westerner to understand. Such is the advantage of an arc of civilization unbroken by the conquest or immersion or annihilation that befalls most civilizations, a status that lasted in China for thousands of years. And in China they wrote everything down going way, way back and in a language and writing system that didn’t become indecipherable. You don’t forget how to do things when you’ve written everything down and even if you do forget after a lapse of a couple centuries—these things can happen in the best of civilizations—you can look it up again. Technologies were not forgotten the way so much was forgotten after the Roman or Persian or Khmer or Incan empires fell (among many myriad examples.) The downside of this continuation, though, is that eventually you get hung up in your own traditions, hidebound and crotchety and unwilling to try anything new. That’s still coming up in the book, though, centuries after the Mongols invaded and killed 20 million people and wrecked everything. I’m a hundred pages and half a millennium away from that mess. Happier times ahead for now. Then collapse, reemergence, virtual annihilation, reemergence, collapse again, another invasion….eventually we get to the latest Revolution (there is a long history of such revolutions in China, nothing there is never really new) and the latest emergence. The US will probably be long gone in a thousand years, but China in some stage of its interminable gyres will still be China.

Anyway, gotta run, this new Tang emperor is getting down.

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