Book Review: The Search For Ancient China

The Search For Ancient China, by Corinne Debaine-Francefort

What does it mean to want to explore the search for ancient China?  This book provides at least two sorts of answers to what it means to search for ancient China, and both of them are surprisingly excellent even if they are also both a bit strange in terms of the answers that they give for the search for ancient China as well as the sorts of things that one will find.  Like many books about ancient history, this one is gorgeously illustrated in a way that tries to inform the reader about the sort of material artifacts, especially of a religious or artistic kind, that can be found.  The author is also strangely ambivalent to hostile about the large role that military matters have played in ancient history as well as its portrayal in Chinese history.  For example, the author makes much of the claim that the Zhou dynasty made up the history of the Hsia dynasty simply to have the Shang do something to another dynasty in rebelling against them what they did in seizing a supposed mandate of heaven.  But is it necessary to think that the Zhou made up the past in a whole cloth when it actually corresponds to a historical period that is deeply obscure?

This book is around 150 pages or so and it is divided into six chapters that cover broad sections of history as well as various supplementary materials.  The author begins with a discussion of the birth of archaeology in China, which includes a brief period during the Song dynasty as well as a much larger attempt that started with the efforts of Westerners in the nineteenth century and Chinese starting in the 20th century (1).  After that comes a discussion of the Chinese neolithic and the way that it shows a great deal of complexity in terms of the various material cultures that one finds in both Northern and Southern China, suggesting to the author a sort of political and/or cultural pluralism (2).  After that comes a look at the Shang and how it shows the emergence of what we recognize as civilization in Northern China (3).  The author then looks at the Zhou period as eight centuries of eventful, but not necessarily praiseworthy history (4).  This is followed by a discussion of the Qin as the first empire, focusing attention on the grave of the first Qin emperor (5) and the massive and brutal labor that was involved in its creation.  Finally, the author talks about the spread of the Han empire (6), after which there are some interesting documents, a chronology, historical landmarks, suggestions for further reading, a list of illustrations, and an index.

What is it that we know about ancient China?  This is not as straightforward question as one might hope.  We have material remains, but not as many as we would like to have, and they are certainly not ambiguous, as they reveal a complex picture of interaction between various cultural centers and hint at a large degree of division and complexity within China and the growth of what is now called Chinese civilization.  Likewise, the author is clearly hostile to the violent way that the Zhou overthrew the Shang and certainly to the bloodbath that marked much of the Warring States period that ended in the short period of dominance of the Qin over China.  Likewise, she has some critical things to say about the inward focus and faulty historical view of the early Chinese communist period.  All of this points to a strikingly personal look at Chinese history that feels comfortable wading into controversy but which also makes it hard to understand where the author is coming from sometimes.  Still, this is a good book to read even if it is more an entrance into a debate than it is a firm answer to the difficult questions people have about Chinese history.

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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