China: A History by John Keay HarperPress, HK$400 Scholars may disagree on exactly how far back China's history stretches, but what makes it different is its general continuity and written record. It would be difficult, for example, to look at Iraq today and immediately identify what remains of the empires of Mesopotamia. Egypt is the same. For China, there are objects, traditions and writings that have come down through thousands of years that are recognisably 'Chinese'. Writing a history of this long legacy is therefore not for the faint-hearted. For more than 2,000 years there were bureaucrats whose job it was to write down everything that happened at court on a daily basis during the reigning dynasty. Theoretically, the emperors were not allowed to interfere and these notes would be used by the following dynasty to write the 'official' history of the previous one. Although we can be fairly certain that things did not quite go according to plan, we still have an enormous amount of official documentation from which to gain an understanding of what did happen. (Needless to say, there is a tremendous amount of non-official documentation as well.) Some of this refers to astronomical events, so for example we can read about a sighting two millennia ago of what we call Halley's comet. It seems clear enough that there are two kinds of people who will write books on Chinese history: the professional sinologists who have access to these primary texts in Chinese and 'the rest', usually journalists or former journalists such as John Keay (although he did read history at Oxford University). Most specialists avoid the kind of sweeping book that this by definition is, because they are forced to simplify too much. When you specialise, let's say, in all the detail and ramifications of the Taiping Rebellion, you do not want to have to reduce it to a few pages. Keay is not hamstrung by this problem, having a knack for summarising major events. He has done an excellent job. In the first few chapters he tackles the great deal of new evidence of early Chinese history that has appeared in the archaeological record in the past 20 to 30 years. This alone puts his book above most other general histories of China. He is also one of the few non-sinologists to report the name of the country correctly: Zhongguo (China) could mean the 'Middle Kingdom' but it was a reference to the 'kingdoms of the middle' and because the Chinese language does not distinguish number - there is no singular or plural - it has been incorrectly translated and Middle Kingdom has become a cliche. He is right again on the Mongol invasion of China and the founding of the Yuan dynasty. He refers to the great conqueror as Chinggis Khan (correct) not Genghis Khan. Perhaps now his name might be pronounced correctly. When Keay covers modern history he does so with great caution and in the spirit of a historian. He mentions the biography of Mao Zedong by Jung Chang and Jon Halliday and their claim that the Long March was 'one of the biggest myths of the 20th century' but he is careful with their assertions. The book was praised on publication but once the serious scholars had a chance to look it attracted considerable criticism. Rather than becoming bogged down in this argument, Keay rightly points out that the Long March - no matter what actually happened - did become the kind of myth that rallies a nation (compare the Dunkirk evacuation or Paul Revere in America). This is a history of political events, told with considerable skill so that it is an easy read. This is not, however, a cultural history; if you are looking for insights into art, music, philosophy, calligraphy, architecture, poetry or anything else that touches on China's cultural past, you will not find it here. This is, however, an excellent beginner's history and if it encourages one to read more detailed accounts it will have done its job.