BY PAUL S. ROPP
OXFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS, 2009
208 PAGES, ISBN: 978-0195381955, PAPERBACK
Reviewed by Karl R. Neumann
Writing a short history of Chinese civilization is fraught with challenges. How does one decide which events and trends from millennia of written history to include or exclude? What individual persons and ideas best represent the cultural and intellectual prolificacy of a country with the geographic dimensions and human diversity of a country like China? Given the complexity of answering these questions, it would be very easy to discount Paul S. Ropp’s China in World History as simply a cursory exploration of a topic requiring lengthier treatment. Ropp quickly dismisses this concern through his keen ability to summarize succinctly the key trends of each of China’s major historical periods while simultaneously interjecting the stories of individuals or cultural developments within those eras with a fluidity, detail, and wit that is sure to keep the attention of advanced high school and older readers.
One particularly interesting and appealing aspect of Ropp’s survey is his attention to the role women have played throughout Chinese history. Even though the text follows a fairly conventional narrative path from China’s prehistory to the modern day, women of note and influence are mentioned with regularity, thus underlying their integral contributions to what has, at times, been a very patriarchal society. Ropp’s vignettes on such diverse figures as Lady Hao, Ban Gu, Li Qingzhao, and Empress Cixi are enlightening despite their brevity and are representative of how he treats other groups in Chinese society such as intellectuals, artists, and political figures.
In addition to its excellent writing, China in World History is accompanied by many features that are sure to be of use to students encountering the whole of Chinese history for the first time. A brief chronology is accompanied by recommendations for further reading that include additional in-depth surveys of Chinese history, primary source anthologies, and monographs related to the issues of particular eras. Finally, the book’s reference section directs readers to websites that include multimedia resources that directly parallel and enhance the images and maps provided in the book.
Used in conjunction with teacher-selected primary sources and other ancillary materials, China in World History is certain to be a useful core text to any world history course or introductory class in Chinese history and civilization.