By Roxy Simons.
It’s hard to deny the influence of China on the modern world, it has cemented itself as a global superpower and has the largest population on Earth. Chinese food is a staple takeaway choice, while you’d be hard-pressed to find an item in your home that doesn’t have the words ‘made in China’ written on it. Even the number of people that visit the cinema in the country has had an impact on how Hollywood makes movies, after China became the world’s largest film market in 2018. Chinese history has proved to be a rich and recurring source of inspirations for many anime and manga – it’s just as much a curiosity for the Japanese as for everyone else. And yet, the average reader has yet to truly peel back the layers on this remarkable, tumultuous contradiction of a nation.
Written with the general public in mind, Jonathan Clements’ A Brief History of China takes us right into the lives of China’s most colourful figures. This fantastically researched account is a bite-sized yet captivating look into how the country came to be, from an amalgamation of small communities to the superpower it is today.
As with his earlier Brief History of Japan, Clements begins his chapters with narrative segments that guide the reader into each era through the perspective of a contemporary figure. He has a knack of bringing these historical figures to life, plunging the readers instantly into entrancing stories that are often either amusing or desperately sad. One introduction sees the portly Tang dynasty general Roxshan parading around a bath house in a diaper-like loincloth, while another focuses on Princess Liu Xijun as she curses her father whilst on a journey to marry the leader of the Wusun barbarians. It’s a charming way to lend a human touch to the historical facts.
The author can currently be seen on the National Geographic channel, presenting the fifth season of Route Awakening, a TV series about icons of Chinese history and culture. But in this book, Clements brings to light the voices of the hidden and the marginalised, through snapshots of real people, and readings between the lines of poetry, historical records, and contemporary literature. He pays particular attention to women, uncovering their often-buried impact on China’s past, and one segment shows how one rather controversial lady, in particular, helped shape its future. Acknowledging that it was the enemies of Empress Wu who chronicled her life after she was gone, Clements examines the divisive figure, now a feminist icon, with a dry wit. He candidly breaks down the bias against her simply by recognising her achievements and how the way she kept her court was considered perfectly acceptable for her male counterparts. One hilarious remark sees him recount how the Empress had a harem of 120 “fiercely pretty boys”, which was deemed provocative by ministers, but would have been considered “understaffed” if the genders were switched around.
Another fascinating female figure is the poet Qiu Jin, who Clements describes as a “self-styled woman warrior” determined to take part in the plot to overthrow the Manchus during the Qing dynasty. She is a riveting subject, not only thanks to her great literary achievements but also her fierce passion for liberating women from the shackles of the patriarchy. Herself inspired by Empress Wu’s example, Qiu Jin was a remarkable woman whose story has made her a Chinese heroine. It’s not hard to see why she has had such a lasting impact, especially when considered alongside modern-day movements like the #MeToo and Time’s Up campaigns.
A Brief History of China deftly explores the global super-power’s past, examining its shifting cultures and competing ideals to create an enthralling read from start to finish. Instead of only telling the stories of the champions, curated to their own advantage to ‘fix’ any unfavourable events, Clements takes China’s history back to its diverse human core, immersing booklovers in a vast cast of characters and a gripping narrative, effortlessly easy to enjoy.
A Brief History of China is published by Tuttle.