Tuesday, July 14, 2009

An eight year old recommended this academic history of China

Just a bit on the actual book, first. So feel free to skip ahead to the eight year old if uninterested in the history of classical China.

The book is The Early Chinese Empires: Qin and Han (2007, Harvard University Press) by Mark Edward Lewis, a distinguished Stanford professor. The book is excellent for its purpose, which is to cram one with knowledge. Since I started from little, the Return on Investment has been very high. Just as an example, I can now place Emperor Qin Shi Huangdi, buried with his terra cotta warriors, in some real context. He's not just a very old Chinese emperor now. Please, do not test me on this in five years. Or months.

It is not a narrative history, not a book of personalities or dramatic events. Chapters are titled "Kinship," "Rural Society," "Religion." Sounds a little snoozy, looked at that way. But I'm used to, and can even enjoy, this sort of thing, and, look, the eight year old kid liked it fine.

Maybe he was nine, I don't know. I never met him. See this piece at Anecdotal Evidence, in which Patrick Kurp encounters the Mark Edward Lewis book in the hands of a schoolkid who is also a master wizard. Or something. Anyway, I'm not going to be outread by a dang third grader.

I am actually reading this book because of this kid, and Kurp. Since my surprise trip to Japan last summer convinced me that classic Japanese literature was far more accessible than I had thought, I have been trying to read a little bit of Asian literature, mostly old poems. Japanese poetry led to Chinese poetry. Chinese poetry led to a desire to fill in some substantial gaps in my knowledge of Chinese history. And then somehow I remembered Kurp's post, and that eight year old.

The Early Chinese Empires: Qin and Han is the "first of a six-volume series on the history of imperial China." I'll bet that kid is already way ahead of me. But I'm gonna catch up.


  1. Well, you moved on to classic Chinese poetry before I even cracked open Yiddish literature, so I'm not even going to try to catch up with you!

  2. Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress (which, for full disclosure I have not read) has previously made me think of you and now definitely does, just because it (apparently) combines Victorian lit. with Chinese history.

  3. I read a thick history of Korea in middle school (...for fun...) and thought it was brilliant. Since then, I've learned to accept recommendations for books that sound anything like it... plus this sounds really interesting.

  4. Art, try this one - Chinese poetry, at least the part that translators pass on to me, is a breeze.

    I would read the Balzac etc. novel if it were about Balzac's secret trip to China, in which he loses his addiction to black coffee but replaces it with black tea, is treated by acupuncture, and converts to Buddhism (temporarily). Yes, that book I would read.

    AnonCh, that's the spirit. How to recapture that childhood enthusiasm and energy? The Mark Edward Lewis book is definitely readable, as they say. The chapter titled "Law" was maybe a bit of a struggle.