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China: A History

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610 PAGES ISBN 978-0872209152, PAPERBACK

Reviewed by David Kenley


Book cover of "China A History"Since the conclusion of the Beijing Olympics, China has been in the international spotlight, and many students across the US now seem to be clamoring for access to Chinese language and history courses. Seeking to capitalize on this excitement, Harold M. Tanner has published a new, cogently written textbook entitled quite simply, China: A History.

Encompassing the full breadth of China’s history, from its mythical origins to the 2008 Beijing Olympics, both teachers and students will welcome this ambitious text. It will join the thin ranks of texts that attempt to cover 5,000 years of Chinese history (including Fairbank and Goldman, China: A New History; Gernet, A History of Chinese Civilization; Ebrey, Cambridge Illustrated History of China; and another similarly-titled, recent entry, Keay, China: A History). Instructors who are looking for a single text for both pre-modern and modern China will find this to be an appealing option. Though printed entirely in black and white, it contains numerous attractive and easy-to-read charts, graphs, and illustrations. It is also modestly priced relative to its competitors.

The text opens with a recounting of the Beijing Olympics. “For Chinese audiences,” Tanner writes, “the opening ceremony and the games themselves symbolized a recovery of lost glory.” On the other hand, Tanner points out, “most American spectators approached the Beijing Olympics with a very different idea of China’s history. The American media portrayed the games as China’s ‘coming out party.’” Tanner rejects both of these meta-narratives.

The story of China,” he claims, “goes beyond the simple but misleading narratives of glory to downfall to redemption or of isolation to opening . . . (and includes) heroes and villains . . . women and men, tragedy and comedy, high culture and coarse humor, exquisite art and terrible suffering, feast and famine, extremes of wealth and poverty, philosophies of peace and practices of war . . . .

In short, this is an extremely ambitious 600-page text.

Tanner admirably retells many familiar aspects of “the story of China,” while incorporating recent scholarship. His sources are varied and impressive. For instance, his use of recent environmental histories sheds interesting light on the fall of the Eastern Han, making connections and conclusions unavailable in earlier Chinese history textbooks. Not only does Tanner use very current publications, but he also relies on conference presentations and online sources. Furthermore, Tanner should be commended for his balanced chronological coverage. Too frequently, texts of this type focus primarily on the modern period, while skimming over earlier eras. By contrast, Tanner’s date of demarcation is 1366 (the founding of the Ming Dynasty), with half of the text covering the preceding years and the other half covering subsequent years. The work is arranged chronologically, based on China’s political dynastic divisions.

The text consists of an introduction and four main sections, each characterized by a selected hexagram from the Book of Changes. These include the hexagrams symbolizing, “biting through,” “possession in great measure,” “abundance,” and “change.” Because of the book’s scope, Tanner must make choices regarding content coverage. Throughout all four sections, his analysis of political and military history is excellent. He helps clarify those politically confusing eras, such as the Warring States, the Eastern Han, and the Six Dynasties periods. His definition of China is broad, allowing him to provide considerable coverage to non-Chinese borderlands including Manchuria, Mongolia, and Xinjiang. This allows Tanner to highlight the cross-cultural interactions that have been so pervasive (and so overlooked) in Chinese history. Visual art, literature, and other aspects of cultural history also receive attention. For example, Tanner’s discussions of the famous calligraphers “Crazy Zhang” and “Drunken Monk” are both entertaining and enlightening. Because of his emphases, other topics receive less attention than perhaps they should. Tanner’s analysis of women in history focuses primarily on powerful women (Empress Wu, Cixi, and Madame Chiang Kai-shek, for instance), while his coverage of typical women is far more scant. He also tends to gloss over those topics that are especially interesting to Western audiences, such as the examination system, foot binding, and the Rape of Nanjing. Perhaps Tanner does not want to emphasize the exotic, thereby “Orientalizing” Chinese history. It would have been helpful, however, if he had clearly explained his guiding principles in selecting the topics he included. Similarly, while some of his hexagram descriptors are self-evident, Tanner could provide more information on why he chose them to represent a particular era in Chinese history.

An associate professor of Chinese history at the University of North Texas, Harold M. Tanner brings a wealth of experience to this topic. The author of Strike Hard: Anti-Crime Campaigns and Chinese Criminal Justice, 1979–1985 (Cornell East Asia Series), Dr. Tanner is an expert on modern China’s legal, political, and military environment. He also has experience working with secondary school teachers through the National Consortium for Teaching about Asia. Not surprisingly, both high school and undergraduate college instructors will find much to admire in China: A History. Nevertheless, the text does not include many of the peripherals—primary documents, sidebars, and guiding questions—some teachers have come to expect. At a minimum, teachers should anticipate assigning additional primary documents to engage students, such as Ebrey’s Chinese Civilization, Cheng and Lestz’s The Search for Modern China: A Documentary Collection, or deBary’s Sources of Chinese Tradition.

China: A History is eminently readable, clearly organized, and balanced in its chronology. For those teaching both pre-modern and modern China, this will be a fine addition to assigned reading lists.