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The many strengths of this work, which concisely presents the distinctive features of traditional Chinese civilization, are best understood after considering its major failing: the elements of an experience have been taken for the experience itself, an instance of the very fragmentation and artificial re-constitution (and juxtaposition to ""our"" experience) that Edward Said has recently decried (Orientalism, p. 1296). In the Epilogue, moreover, the relationship between past and present is all too glibly summarized, patently falsifying the Chinese experience today. We are told, for example, that ""Taoism and Buddhism have also dwindled,"" but reference to the wholesale destruction of monasteries and temples is omitted. The right elements are there, to be sure, but the guts are missing. Otherwise, Oxford historian Dawson's treatment of his chosen topics--traditional Chinese political life, philosophy, social structure, economics, and aesthetics--is superb. Each is dealt with not so much in terms of historical perspective as by the selection of significant themes, which are developed through the use of illustrative material drawn from different periods in China's history. Thus, regarding the emperor's education, a summary of that rigorous training and its Confucian orientation closes with a citation from the adolescent diary of the last Manchu emperor. The utility of Dawson's approach is most keenly felt apropos of those sections with which one is least familiar: his style is clear, his delineation of the issues is sharp, and his examples are apt, so that the reader gains that exact sense of the fundamental issues usually provided by specialized texts. It is to Dawson's credit, too, that he has included an excellent guide for just such study at the end of the book. Supplemented by a work like Simon Leys' Chinese Shadows for a contemporary perspective, this would be useful in orienting beginners, and not beginners alone.

Pub Date: Dec. 1st, 1978
Publisher: Scribners