My Take

Leading Hong Kong barrister Warren Chan Chee-hoi tackles world history

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 01 March, 2014, 4:35am
UPDATED : Saturday, 01 March, 2014, 6:14am

Real-life courtrooms have none of the drama you see on television. But when I was a court reporter, there were a few times when it was almost interesting to watch when a barrister showed both intellect and flair.

One of them is Warren Chan Chee-hoi, SC, one of the city's most senior barristers. It turns out he is also a scholar, a distinguished historian no less. He has now published a two-volume bilingual history of the world, from 4500BC to 1911.

Though highly idiosyncratic, All Kinds of Everything is the kind of book I wish I had when I first went to college as a teenager. It used to be that well-taught youngsters would have gone to university with significant cultural and linguistic competence. Now, in Hong Kong and elsewhere, many start with a clean slate. It's difficult to absorb subjects in the humanities if you don't know the history behind them. Chan's book would have armed a young person with that knowledge.

At a time when the teaching of Chinese history on the mainland has been profoundly nationalistic and Hong Kong people are worried it is being imported here, Chan offers a general history that is both uniquely Chinese and universal. And when countries in the region are making belligerent territorial claims and counterclaims, their citizens need a historical understanding of their relations to restrain their leaders. This book should help fill a myopic void.

The chapters in both volumes adopt the periodisation of China's dynastic history. The first volume follows 16 dynastic periods. But interestingly, the second volume on world history has the same table of contents, because Chan charts what happened around the world during each of those Chinese dynasties. In other words, it is written from a Chinese perspective, but with a global view. For example, he pairs the rise and fall of the Umayyad and Abbasid caliphates in Islam with the Tang dynasty.

There are many world history books, but to my knowledge, none was written this way. At a time when historians are as specialised as everyone in other academic fields, you really need to earn your living outside of academia to dare write what in the trade is derisively called "universal history".

Chan's book deserves a wide audience, in China and elsewhere.