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By J.A.G. Roberts

Pub Date: Dec. 1st, 1999
ISBN: 0-674-00074-9
Publisher: Harvard Univ.

China specialist Roberts (Modern China: An Illustrated History, not reviewed, etc.) begins with the discovery of the remains of homo erectus nearly a half-million years old, proceeds through dynasties, uprisings, and revolutions, and ends with the Yangzi floods of 1998. Roberts has set himself a daunting task: how to cover thousands of years of history in only a few hundred pages? Since only swift, broad strokes will do in such a endeavor, Roberts elects to focus on politics and economics (at the expense of, say, art and literature and science), to organize by dynasties (because, he says, it is “the organizational principle which is most accessible to the reader”), and to provide a substantial bibliography for the curious and the committed. Along the way he provides both fascinating detail and clear explanations of some of the best-known aspects of Chinese history. An early creation legend, for example, tells that “human beings had their origin in the parasites on the body of the creator, Pangu.— The Chinese initiated civil service exams in the late sixth century. They issued promissory notes, the ancestors of paper money, in the tenth. In the realm of the familiar, Roberts discusses the difference between yin and yang, the rise of Buddhism, the adventures of Genghis Khan and Marco Polo (yes, he actually was in China), the origin of foot-binding, the Great Wall, the Manchu hairstyle (head partially shaved, long braid, or “queue,” in the back), the Dalai Lama, the Boxer Uprising, the rise of Chairman Mao, the Red Guards, Nixon in China, the 1989 massacre near Tiananmen Square. Readers may have difficulty with the pinyin spelling Roberts employs. Although it’s now the “official system of romanization,— some adjustment is required to see “Xianggang” and think “Hong Kong.” A clear trail into a vast, lovely, alluring land. (10 maps)