The Dragon and the Foreign Devils by Harry G. Gelber Bloomsbury, HK$400 In her new book, Nixon and Mao, Margaret MacMillan reminds us that Richard Nixon's 1972 trip to China was once considered the diplomatic equivalent of the moon landing, a risky rapprochement with a remote, forbidding enigma. How did China become so isolated? The course of Chinese history has rarely run smooth. The nation's symbol is the Great Wall, after all - hardly a propitious welcome to outsiders. Yet, as Harry Gelber argues in The Dragon and the Foreign Devils, China's resistance to foreign influence has also shaped its character. Gelber, a former visiting scholar at Harvard and the London School of Economics, has set himself an impossible task - surveying Chinese interaction with the wider world from prehistory to the present - and his account necessarily sacrifices depth for breadth. Although it includes mini-chapters on pivotal figures and events, The Dragon and the Foreign Devils is broad, even for a general history, glossing three millennia in a mere 400 pages. A profusion of dates and dynasties lends the book an unfortunate Gradgrindian tone. Yet Gelber does capably sketch the major patterns in Chinese foreign relations. 'China has gone through recurring cycles, from turmoil to disorder to strong central government and back to turmoil,' he writes. 'Foreign attitudes, too, have moved in waves and cycles, from admiration or greed to disappointment, impatience, even contempt, and back again.' For much of its early history, China dealt with foreign entities by absorbing them. Both the Yuan and Qing dynasties were founded by invaders from the north, Gelber notes. He argues that this success in assimilating neighbouring powers bred imperial arrogance, which in turn blinded China to the growing threat from further abroad. Whereas European powers expected to negotiate with China as equals, Chinese officials demanded obeisance, symbolised by the ritual of kowtowing to the emperor. For all practical purposes, the idea of sovereign foreign states didn't figure in Chinese cosmology. Although the earliest European visitors marvelled at China's technological genius and cultural subtlety, later diplomats were less impressed, considering the country backward and unstable. One 18th-century British ambassador offered this assessment: 'China is an old, crazy, first-rate Man of War which a fortunate succession of able and vigilant officers have contrived to keep afloat for these hundred and fifty years past, and to over-awe their neighbours merely by her bulk and appearance. But, whenever an inefficient man happens to have command of the deck, adieu to the discipline and safety of the ship.' Periodically, as dynasties waned, corrupt, self-interested courtiers would steer the ship onto the rocks, leading to mass starvation, war, and eventually dynastic renewal. (Gelber notes echoes of this pattern during the tenure of Mao Zedong, the so-called Great Helmsman). China's reflexive conservatism and sense of cultural superiority led it into conflict with European colonial powers jockeying for influence in Asia. Gelber, who wrote about the opium wars in Opium, Soldiers and Evangelicals, doesn't buy the argument that China was simply bullied by predatory colonialists. Indeed, he argues that Britain's two wars with China were less about the drug trade than about redressing perceived slights to British diplomats and merchants - as much a question of national honour as one of lucre. Subsequent outbursts of xenophobia and millenarianism, such as the Boxer Rebellion, were a reaction to this humiliation by barbarians. For the next century, the proud empire was largely relegated to a bit part in the drama of great-power politics. What, then, to make of the country's dramatic modern resurgence? Noting some intriguing parallels between the post-revolutionary period and the Ming dynasty, Gelber argues that China's economic blossoming is part of this larger pattern of ebb and flow running through its history, a cycle driven by both demographics and culture. Whether China continues to project its influence internationally or whether it again retreats behind an isolationist bulwark may well determine the shape of this century. Historians aren't prophets, of course. As Gelber writes: 'How China develops, whether it becomes a more equal partner of America, or else a competitor, equally depends on myriad decisions not yet made ... Since all dreams of the future are mere artifacts of the present, the only absolute certainty is that the unexpected is out there somewhere, brooding and waiting to pounce.'