Book Review: The Ancient Chinese

The Ancient Chinese, by Rosemary Rees

It is interesting how many books there are of ancient China that are small and are apparently designed for young readers.  It is unclear exactly what the reason for this is, given the fact that the history of East Asia is not a popular area for people to teach around the world even if it is a popular area for people to write books about for readers.  At any rate, if this book is not obviously a case for greater favoritism towards the contemporary Chinese government, it does reflect the fact that the study of ancient Chinese history is something that enough people are interested for there to be a healthy market for such works.  This book is certainly answering such a market and it makes for an interesting volume even if it is not a long one.  One of the many reasons why the research on ancient China is so interesting is that there are some disputes as to the sort of ancient dynasties that count as ancient history.  Many books (like this one) only include the Shang and Zhou, while the better works go even further back in history to the Xia.  Alas, this book does not cover what is found in the Erlitou culture.

This book is a short one and contains a variety of unnumbered short chapters that discuss a variety of topics relating to more than 1000 years of Chinese history.  The author asks the question of who the ancient Chinese were and then discusses how we know what we know about them.  This leads to a discussion of evidence from words and pictures as well as the transition from hunting to farming in many parts of China.  The author discusses government and society and the development of the idea of the Mandate of Heaven during the Zhou period.  There is also a discussion of life in noble families, Mandarins and warriors, as well as life in the town and country.  There is a discussion of food and cooking, clothing and appearance, faith and beliefs, death and funerals, as well as funerals and fun.  The author discusses transportation, trade, engineers, inventions, as well as material culture like writing and painting, pottery and porcelain, crafts and metalwork, as well as silk production.  After this the author discusses the political and military history of the Shang and Zhou dynasties, empires and kingdoms, China reunited, and the Chinese view of itself as the Middle Kingdom.  After this the author provides a time line, glossary, as well as suggestions for further reading and an index.

This book’s contents are rather concentrated into just over 50 pages of a book, which means that the treatment of the book’s contents is of necessity rather shallow.  This is not necessarily a bad thing, though, since the work is not meant for people who are going to be upset by some basic discussion of trends and aspects for life from a long-ago empire and who would demand long citations of sources.  This book is a start, helping to form opinions and make a basis for being interested in studying a subject in greater detail.  If the book is certainly basic for a reader like myself it is nonetheless easy enough to relate to this book and to appreciate its contents and recognize it is being made for an audience that is less familiar with Chinese history, indeed, less familiar with scholarly history as a whole.  The book is aimed at social history, making it appealing to those who want to read about the social classes of ancient China as well as the sort of technology and experience of people living in ancient times, all of which is certainly appealing to many people.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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