Book 13; Continent: Asia

The Dynasties of China: A History by Bamber Gascoine

  • 304 pages (286 excluding appendices, etc.)
  • Get your bearings on 2000-plus years of Chinese history to prepare for travel within the country or taking in an Asian art exhibit

This relatively short book makes no pretense of offering a complete history of China, as its author has opted for making the topic accessible to the reader instead. Personally, I’m not one to be intimidated by a book, but the tomes claiming comprehensive Chinese history often run 500 pages or more in length and threaten to be terribly dry reading. I was delighted to discover this book as an alternative. Summarizing an entire dynasty’s impact on culture, art, law and daily lives of the Chinese people is no mean feat, especially when one considers that these dynasties lasted centuries. After all, how much do your values and lifestyle have in common with your great-grandfather’s own? Gascoine manages to make the discussion credible by choosing which details to include rather than glossing over all of them.

I found this book’s length to be ideal for an entry into a huge swath of Eastern history, a perfect starting point to provide context for reading more detailed works. The genius of the book is in its succinct treatment of important concepts for the lay Western reader. For example, I appreciated the objective and concise discussion of Confucianism, Daoism and Buddhism. Gascoine not only offers a handle on these philosophies but makes the point that they can coexist within the culture, within a household, and even within a personal moral code. This idea is relevant to how the ruling class made decisions and belongs in the text.

Gascoine summarizes the characteristics of one dynasty per chapter for each of the major dynasties (there have been myriad lesser dynasties that didn’t last long enough to make an impression on the culture). He mentions relatively few rulers by name, preferring to focus on the traits of a full period or how those traits evolved over the course of that span. For instance, the Han dynasty was characterized by tyrannical leadership of its rulers and intrigues within the harem to achieve the title of empress—one was empress only if one’s son was the named heir, so it was a rough time to be a boy at court. Gascoine knows I won’t remember the name of a particular emperor or his named heir, but I can remember that if you were born a boy under the Han dynasty, you better hope you weren’t in line for the throne.

The author also discusses the arrival of Westerners in the court of Kublai Khan (including, famously, Marco Polo) and the Opium War during the Qing dynasty. Until recently, the introduction of Opium was probably the most significant impact the Western world made on the relatively closed society of China. The relatively late appearance of interactions with the Western world in this text underscores the nonexistent or very limited role of the West in Chinese cultural development (for more on East-West relations and the Opium War, consider reading Stella Dong’s excellent Shanghai).

If Asian art is of interest to you, then this book may be worth a read for that reason. It doesn’t allot much space to discussing particular art forms, and the serious art student would already know about the pottery techniques the author describes. However, the nodding familiarity with dynastic history one stands to gain would undoubtedly enrich an afternoon at the museum. Also, this is the book to read while in flight if one is traveling in China: its short format and easy writing style makes it easy to absorb over the course of several hours.

As a final note, consider reading the “Postscript”. It provides a thumbnail of the nation’s rule since that time. If the Boxer Rebellion and Sun Yat Sen ring only faint bells for you from history class, then this tidy summary of how Chinese rule has changed hands over the course of the twentieth century will remind you.

Photo credit: sometimes rains in JUN / Foter / CC BY-NC-ND

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3 thoughts on “Book 13; Continent: Asia

  1. Sounds like a really interesting read. I recently read a history of China since the collapse of the dynasties and felt the lack of an understanding of the historical background. This one sounds like it could provide that.

    • This book turned out to be a nice foundation for future reading. Not the most detailed book on the shelf, but choosing which details to include is a strength for the author. I actually had a paper copy of it and read with a pencil in hand so I could write a one-liner about each dynasty as I finished a chapter.

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