Happy Lunar New Year! May you all have a prosperous year ahead.
While I have always been vaguely away of the custom of Chinese New Year, I have only really gone out of my way to mark the occasion in 2020 (Year of the Rat) and 2021 (Year of the Bull). Partly I think this was because I started working more closely with a colleague whose family is from Hong Kong, but I am sure the start COVID pandemic around New Year 2020 and disgusting anti-Chinese racism from some quarters played a part in convincing me to show solidarity with over a sixth of the world’s population!
This year, I will be celebrating with dinner with the wife (I am sure there will be photos online for you to enjoy…) but I also wanted to share a timely book review with you in honour of the occasion. I read Michael Wood’s The Story of China last year when it came out in paperback (I really do prefer paperback to hardback) and feel this is as good a time as any to tell you about it. I should probably say at this point this is outside of my non-resolution to read the books I was bought for Christmas. I am still plodding along there, though I have slowed a little this last week. Hopefully book three will be finished and the review out soon.
The Story of China
My Rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
Attempting to cover the history of a civilisation over 5000 years old is a daunting task. I suspect the sheer magnitude of the challenge is part of the reason so few complete histories of China existed in English before Michael Wood’s book came along. Fortunately for all of us English readers, Wood has risen to the challenge and accomplished a piece of brilliance.
Working from the prehistoric right up to the present day, The Story of China takes a broad brush approach to history which I tend to prefer, while providing delightfully personal stories of the real people who lived through monumental, seismic events. And given names, places and at times whole philosophical concepts need to be translated from a language very different from my own, it is incredible how readable and engaging the book is.
In theory the Story of China is something the casual reader could dip in and out of. More interested in the Tang than the Yuan dynasties? Then head on over to chapter 6. But in reality, this is a book begging to be read cover to cover, to see the themes of Chinese culture and society develop over millennia, and to begin to understand some of the contemporary issues alive in China today. History cannot explain every single piece of the modern world, but without a good understanding like Wood provides, it is impossible to have the complete picture.
What I really liked
- It probably comes as no surprise but the sheer ambition in this book is breathtaking, and more than that, to have actually pulled it off in a coherent narrative is incredible. I have read a fair few history books in my life, and nothing so far has even come close to the scale of the task Wood attempted and succeeded at.
- The use of individual stories through history to illustrate how otherwise dispassionate events impact real people and real lives. While the stories are welcome, they are also used sparingly throughout to prevent them becoming tedious. With a culture at times so very different from my own, these little insights provide a glimpse into a potentially unimaginable world.
- The book showed me just how little I knew of a vast span of human history. Last year I also read The Grace of Kings by Ken Liu, entirely oblivious to the plot’s inspiration in the history of the warring kingdoms in China. Discovering there are more unknown unknowns in the world than anything else was a surprisingly delightful treat I did not expect from a history book.
- The maps! I should not need to say anything else here really, but I do love a good map, and The Story of China does not disappoint. I could gripe and say it needed more maps, but that would be unfair, and I suspect those of you weird enough to not like maps would not appreciate a book of nothing but cartography…
The less good bits
- I struggled to think of anything really for this section, it truly was an amazing book. If I am being picky, Wood does skim over some time periods a little too quickly for my liking, but then if every part of China’s history was given the in-depth analysis I would like, the book would run to thousands of pages and either Wood would still be writing it or I would still be reading it! (And yes I am well aware I said just a few paragraphs earlier I like the broad brush approach to history. Life is all about balance, and for me the balance could have moved a little more to the side of detail).
Who should by this book?
In short, everyone.
More specifically, anyone with an interest in history who feel their own historical education is too Europe focused, anyone interested in East Asia and how this impacts the world we live, or even someone who likes a gripping (historical) tale.
Have you read The Story of China? What did you think? And are you celebrating Chinese New Year today? Let me know in the comments below. Most of all, I hope the year of the tiger is a happy and prosperous one for you and your loved ones.