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‘The Story of China – A Portrait of a Civilisation and Its People’ review: Tracking the China of yesterday, today and tomorrow

The historian, Michael Wood, is best known here for his spectacular television series, The Story of India. Now, with his latest book The Story of China, a follow-up on his engrossing eponymous documentary, he has outdone himself. In a little over 600 pages, Wood walks us through China’s history from the Shang dynasty (from around 1600 to 1046 BCE) to the Qing (1644-1912) and onward to today. He even covers the outbreak of COVID-19 in China and its aggressive posturing in the South China Sea and with India.

“To touch on the deep past, we must move beyond the beaten track,” Wood observes, and he takes detours “to provide close-ups, homing in on particular places, moments and individual lives, voices high and low.”

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Historical, literary past

Throughout history, Wood tells us, the Chinese have been curious and creative. They have much to show for that —the magnetic compass, gunpowder, the periodic census, examination-based meritocratic appointment of civil servants among several others. They have also produced some of the greatest philosophical, literary and historical works in the world, such as the Analects of Confucius, the poetry of Du Fu, the epic novel, Romance of the Three Kingdoms, by Luo Guanzhong, the disturbing classic The Book of Lord Shang, widely regarded as the world’s first totalitarian manual, and the great historian, Sima Qian’s Records of the Grand Historian. Wood takes particular care to highlight the achievements of Chinese women through history including the poet Fang Weiyi and the radical feminist He Zhen.

The Chinese have long been receptive to new ideas. At least one Emperor allowed Christianity into his realm and another hailed the return of Chinese Buddhist monk Xuanzang from India.

The Silk Road, much in the news today, was a Chinese construct. Between 1405 and 1433, China’s ‘master-mariner’, Zheng He, commanded massive fleets that reached West Asia and Africa.

The only period China came under foreign sway under the Mongols (the Yuan Dynasty 1271 – 1368CE), it was the Chinese who made their conquerors accept their Confucian ways and buy into the concept of just rulership enshrined in the ‘Mandate of Heaven’.

Terracota warriors

Wood introduces us to recent archaeological finds, among them the terracotta warriors buried with China’s first emperor in 210 BCE. He marvels at how the idea of one-China has endured and prevailed over centuries. But this view is tempered.

Wood believes that without the moderating influence of Confucius, China’s appalling human rights record would have been far worse. Even so, the 20-30 million killed in the Taiping rebellion, the 36 million who starved to death in Mao’s Great Leap Forward and the deaths at Tiananmen Square in 1989, have their precedents in China’s deeper past.

Despite its spectacular successes in educating its people and eliminating absolute poverty, Wood feels that China’s further economic progress is by no means assured. He is deeply concerned about its seemingly unresolvable environmental problems and alarmed at the deep inequalities in Chinese society.

Most worrying for Wood is China’s drift to one-man rule of the kind that brought it to its knees under Mao.

There is no doubt that the West and Japan were responsible for China’s century of humiliation that ended with Mao and the Communists taking over the country in 1949. Wood does not gloss over this. But his book also brings out the deep respect and understanding China and the West have for each other. Without the support of the U.S., China could never have transformed itself so spectacularly over the last 40 years. India will do well to ponder over this.

The Story of China – A Portrait of a Civilisation and Its People; Michael Wood, Simon & Schuster, ₹699.

The reviewer teaches at IISc, Bengaluru.

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