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Bamber Gascoigne


Book review by Anthony Campbell. Copyright © Anthony Campbell (2004).

Many Westerners who consider themselves to be well educated would be hard put to it to name the main dynasties of China or even the approximate dates of the most important events in Chinese history. There is thus a place for a popular account of these things and Bamber Gascoigne's book fills the role pretty well. Though the book is quite short he covers the whole long span of Chinese history, starting in prehistory and ending with the present day. Inevitably, this means that a huge amount has to be missed out, but Gascoigne has used good judgement in selecting what to include to attain a balanced picture. And at least he is never dull. His method is to focus as far as possible on individuals—not just rulers but also scholars, artists, and poets - and this helps to make his account lively and readable.

The book uses the newer Pinyin transliteration system instead of the Wade-Giles system with which many readers will probably be more familiar. This can lead to difficulties in recognizing people's names; Gascoigne has tried to help by including a cross-reference in the index to the older system for each of the Chinese names. Even so, a guide to pronunciation would have been useful.

There are some amusing descriptions of the experiences of foreign visitors. The Chinese habitually regarded their state as the centre of the world and expected Western ambassadors to kowtow to the Emperor as befitted the representatives of vassal monarchs. The trading nations of the West, of course, took a very different view and treated China as backward and inferior. This attitude culminated in the nineteenth century in the deplorable episode of the opium wars, in which Britain figured particularly prominently. Gascoigne tells this unsavoury story well.

For many centuries Chinese technology was far in advance of that in Europe; the Chinese, for example, had paper, gunpowder, and the compass long before Europeans. Nevertheless, the spirit of radical inquiry that gave rise to modern science never arose in China. On the social level, too, China appears to the modern eye to have been oddly "backward" in certain ways; some mediaeval practices, such as castration and foot-binding, persisted until the dawn of the twentieth century. But no doubt various European customs of the time would have appeared equally barbarous to the Chinese.

There is a tendency for certain themes to recur repeatedly in Chinese history. Gascoigne thinks that the excesses of the Red Guards in the Cultural Revolution find echoes in events of the eleventh century and even earlier, in a Tang dynasty poem which he quotes. But changes are occurring, especially in the relation of China to the wider world. There seems no doubt that the global importance of China is set to increase immeasurably in the coming century, and ignorance of the main features of Chinese history will no longer be an option for Westerners who wish to think of themselves as cultured. Gascoigne's book makes a relatively painless introduction to this fascinating topic, and the excellent photographs by his wife Christina add considerably to its value.

26 February 2004

%T A brief history of the dynasties of China
%A Bamber Gascoigne
%I Robinson
%C London
%D 1973, 2003
%G ISBN 1-84119-791-0
%P xi + 228 pp
%K history
%O revised edition
%O illustrated
%O paperback

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