China, in short: handy primer for an informed perspective on then & now

Unless one is a serious student of Asian history or a Sinologist, most facts and perspectives about China are gathered piecemeal: people are informed through articles, reports, and even (sometimes unreliable) Wikipedia entries. On the other hand, China looms large, particularly in India, for obvious reasons: the ongoing troubles on the border and aggression in the Indo-Pacific, its emergence as an economic and military superpower, the ambitious Belt and Road initiative, the authoritarian turn under the leadership of Xi Jinping, and the aggressive “wolf warrior” diplomacy, among other developments make the new “superpower” an entity of great interest.

Linda Jaivin’s The Shortest History of China is an ambitious attempt to cover thousands of years of Chinese history and politics — from the mythic origins of the Han people through several dynasties, empires, and invasions to communism and finally, Xi’s China — in just about 250 pages.

For any lay reader looking for a basic and comprehensive overview of China’s history, as well as the cultural and “civilisational” themes that continue to find resonance in its politics today, Jaivin’s work serves the purpose.

The first of the themes that emerge from the book is the tension between the country’s great religious-philosophical traditions and how they have been instrumental in politics, identity, and governance.

Confucianism aims for order and stability; Daoism is more esoteric, and is associated with spiritual fluidity. These two broad archetypes interact and compete with each other and against other systems like Buddhism and Hanfeizi’s legalism (from at least the ‘Warring States’ period, around the 5th to the 2nd centuries BC).

Echoes of these tensions — between order and freedom, the material and the spiritual, chaos and authoritarianism — can be seen in communist China as well.

Another recurring aspect of Chinese history that Jaivin brings out is the treatment of intellectuals. Given the philosophical-religious underpinnings of governments, political changes were often marked by persecution — including being exiled or killed — of scholars and the “scholar-bureaucrats” who formed the backbone of the country’s administration.

Echoes of this can be seen in the Cultural Revolution (1966 onward), when Mao Zedong and the Red Guards sought to demonise nearly all intellectuals after the failure of the Great Leap Forward (1958-62).

Jaivin also places great emphasis on classical culture, literature, and technological innovations, all of which are an essential part of Chinese identity even today.

However, contrary to what President Xi and the CPC try to project, Chinese history is not merely a story of continuity, marked by periods of “humiliation”, such as in the run-up to and after the Opium Wars. Nor does the “civilisational” Chinese culture overlap perfectly with the boundaries of the People’s Republic of China — and its various territorial claims.

Through figures and maps, Jaivin illustrates how the territory we know as China today has often been under different rulers, and how the Chinese people are diverse, and have been assimilated from various cultures and ethnicities.

While The Shortest History is unlikely to make the reader an expert on China, it can help formulate an informed perspective on current events, as well as see the echoes and archetypes of the past play out in contemporary politics and geopolitics.

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