THE SEXTANTS OF BEIJING

GLOBAL CURRENTS IN CHINESE HISTORY

Compelling revisionist history of Chinese foreign relations. Waley-Cohen (History/New York Univ.; Exile in Mid-Qing China, 1991) is mainly concerned here with dispelling certain myths about Chinese attitudes and actions toward the rest of the world. China has been viewed as rabidly isolationist, virulently hostile to and ignorant of the world outside its borders, and irrationally resistant to change and innovation. All of these views, argues Waley-Cohen, are wrong, and stem from the peculiar perceptions of 19th century Western colonizers whose imprecations China quite naturally resisted. The author provides much historical evidence to back up her claims. As early as 200 b.c., China had established networks of trade throughout all of Asia, and later was to extend these ties to Europe and the New World. Foreign ideas and innovations were not as a rule shunned but welcomed. Buddhism, imported from India, became highly influential; foreign inventions, such as the sextant (hence the title of the book) and other astronomical instruments introduced in the 17th century, were enthusiastically adopted. What emerges from the author’s historical account is hardly the image of a benighted backward nation. But perception is often everything. China has indeed at times been hostile to foreign influences, yet the author shows this has often been for good reasons. Jesuit missionaries in the 16th century eventually met with official and popular resistance, yet Jesuit insistence on the exclusivity of Christianity ran counter to China’s traditionally tolerant and eclectic attitude toward religions. China did indeed attempt to restrict trade with the West in the 18th and 19th centuries, not out of ignorance, however, but from understanding all too well the imperial designs of the West. In modern times, China under communism has often been extremely hostile to the West, especially to the US, yet the US for its part reviled China, until very recently, as a criminal and outlaw regime. A provocative, original, and accessible study that may cause readers to reexamine long-held assumptions about China.

Pub Date: March 1, 1999

ISBN: 0-393-04693-1

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Norton

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 1999

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A PEOPLE'S HISTORY OF THE UNITED STATES

For Howard Zinn, long-time civil rights and anti-war activist, history and ideology have a lot in common. Since he thinks that everything is in someone's interest, the historian—Zinn posits—has to figure out whose interests he or she is defining/defending/reconstructing (hence one of his previous books, The Politics of History). Zinn has no doubts about where he stands in this "people's history": "it is a history disrespectful of governments and respectful of people's movements of resistance." So what we get here, instead of the usual survey of wars, presidents, and institutions, is a survey of the usual rebellions, strikes, and protest movements. Zinn starts out by depicting the arrival of Columbus in North America from the standpoint of the Indians (which amounts to their standpoint as constructed from the observations of the Europeans); and, after easily establishing the cultural disharmony that ensued, he goes on to the importation of slaves into the colonies. Add the laborers and indentured servants that followed, plus women and later immigrants, and you have Zinn's amorphous constituency. To hear Zinn tell it, all anyone did in America at any time was to oppress or be oppressed; and so he obscures as much as his hated mainstream historical foes do—only in Zinn's case there is that absurd presumption that virtually everything that came to pass was the work of ruling-class planning: this amounts to one great indictment for conspiracy. Despite surface similarities, this is not a social history, since we get no sense of the fabric of life. Instead of negating the one-sided histories he detests, Zinn has merely reversed the image; the distortion remains.

Pub Date: Jan. 1, 1979

ISBN: 0061965588

Page Count: 772

Publisher: Harper & Row

Review Posted Online: May 26, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 1979

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Harari delivers yet another tour de force.

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21 LESSONS FOR THE 21ST CENTURY

A highly instructive exploration of “current affairs and…the immediate future of human societies.”

Having produced an international bestseller about human origins (Sapiens, 2015, etc.) and avoided the sophomore jinx writing about our destiny (Homo Deus, 2017), Harari (History/Hebrew Univ. of Jerusalem) proves that he has not lost his touch, casting a brilliantly insightful eye on today’s myriad crises, from Trump to terrorism, Brexit to big data. As the author emphasizes, “humans think in stories rather than in facts, numbers, or equations, and the simpler the story, the better. Every person, group, and nation has its own tales and myths.” Three grand stories once predicted the future. World War II eliminated the fascist story but stimulated communism for a few decades until its collapse. The liberal story—think democracy, free markets, and globalism—reigned supreme for a decade until the 20th-century nasties—dictators, populists, and nationalists—came back in style. They promote jingoism over international cooperation, vilify the opposition, demonize immigrants and rival nations, and then win elections. “A bit like the Soviet elites in the 1980s,” writes Harari, “liberals don’t understand how history deviates from its preordained course, and they lack an alternative prism through which to interpret reality.” The author certainly understands, and in 21 painfully astute essays, he delivers his take on where our increasingly “post-truth” world is headed. Human ingenuity, which enables us to control the outside world, may soon re-engineer our insides, extend life, and guide our thoughts. Science-fiction movies get the future wrong, if only because they have happy endings. Most readers will find Harari’s narrative deliciously reasonable, including his explanation of the stories (not actually true but rational) of those who elect dictators, populists, and nationalists. His remedies for wildly disruptive technology (biotech, infotech) and its consequences (climate change, mass unemployment) ring true, provided nations act with more good sense than they have shown throughout history.

Harari delivers yet another tour de force.

Pub Date: Sept. 4, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-525-51217-2

Page Count: 400

Publisher: Spiegel & Grau

Review Posted Online: June 27, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 2018

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