To write a complete history of China in 300 text pages sounds like one of those near-impossible tasks assigned by demanding fairy-tale princesses to their suitors. J. A. G. Roberts has carried out this difficult task very effectively, and A History of China is a fluent work that effectively combines conciseness with detail.
The book contains six chapters, running from China's prehistoric period to the death of Deng Xiaoping in 1997, and deals with both political and social history. It outlines topics of major historical debate, such as the concept of a "medieval economic revolution" in the Song dynasty, the effectiveness of "self-strengthening" during the Qing, or the downfall of Chiang Kaishek's government. Roberts deploys his limited space well and cuts out areas that do not add to the big picture. So, in a discussion of the Age of Disunion (AD 220-589), he notes simply that a detailed description of politics during the period would be "dull reading" and moves on to the more important underlying social change, the re-emergence of an aristocratic society. The concise treatments of major areas are supplemented in the excellent bibliography.
The brevity of the book entails inevitable omissions. There are few detailed anecdotes to illuminate the themes raised, although some that are included are striking: the 1st-century emperor Wang Mang's enthusiasm for scientific experiment is described through his interest in a man who claimed to be able to fly thousands of miles when he had coated his arms with feathers. Some themes are also glossed over and it is a pity that there are no illustrations. However, the maps are detailed and numerous.
This book will be popular with students, as it provides all the key facts without overwhelming the reader. It would be particularly useful for first-year history courses that ask for a couple of units on China as part of a wider survey. For students on courses dedicated to modern China, Jonathan Spence's The Search for Modern China remains the richest text. But for those daunted by Spence's 800-odd pages, Roberts's text can be highly recommended.
Rana Mitter is lecturer in history, University of Warwick.
A History of China. First Edition
Author - J. A. G. Roberts
ISBN - 0 333 65425 0 and 65426 9
Publisher - Macmillan
Price - £37.50 and £11.99
Pages - 341