Copyright 2000 www.cosmopolis.ch Louis Gerber All rights
A History of China
With a surface area of almost 10 million sq. km (slightly
larger than that of the USA), a population exceeding 1 billion and a history
spanning over 4000 years, "China" is so vast a subject that 300
pages can only offer a brief introduction. A History of China by
J.A.G. Roberts concentrates on the national picture and makes only sporadic
reference to developments at regional or provincial levels. The book's emphasis
lies in historical interpretation rather than in historical narrative. Roberts is
of course aware of the debate about the "differentness" of China.
"In the eighteenth century some French philosophes regarded China
as a model for Europe and suggested that features of Chinese society should be
adopted in Western states. By the nineteenth century this admiration had been
replaced with condescension." Communist China offered the interpretation
of Oriental Despotism (the title of a book by Karl Wittfogel in 1957).
Roberts comes to the conclusion that although the "richness of Chinese
culture, the complexity of China's political experience, the drama of China's
recent past, might seem to justify treating China as a special case.
Nevertheless in these pages the history of China is presented as being in no
fundamental way different from the history of any other nation or
society." Roberts treats some of the subjects with too few pages. The Xia
dynasty that may have existed between approximately 2200 and 1750 BC gets only
one page. Even if one considers that the study of the Xia dynasty is still at
the beginning, that is not enough. The final chapter on China since the
1949 Revolution ends with Deng Xiaoping's reforms in the year 1992 - the
book was published in 1999. Interesting are Roberts' remarks on China's
response to the West which traditionally has concentrated on Western economic
imperialism, treaty ports, etc., "while ignoring the broader context of
cultural and social changes already taking place in Chinese society."
Based on a number of recent works, Roberts shows that the Chinese society was
not unchanging and that Chinese intellectuals were "thinking". A
History of China is an introduction offering basic information and
interpretation as well as a commented bibliography on books available in