early china image
In the beginning, what was there? The title gives it a sort of neatness – a place, called China, which is the ancestor of the place bearing the same name today. And because of the brevity a title has to have, it’s understandable that this excellent, succinct overview of such a complex subject conveys this sense of orderly neatness and singularity. `Early China’, as opposed to `Middle China’ and then `Today’s China,’ as simple and seamless as ABC. Only, from the first chapter onwards, peering into the deep history, Li shows what unity finally came was hard won, took a long time, and was of places and about things that have left only traces today, and which sometimes fragmented and fell apart again. The challenge is not to pick the current claims to unity apart. It is more often than not, to find much evidence of unity in the first place!

Understanding origins in this case helps for many reasons. One of the most obvious is to explain the way that leaders of the entity called the People’s Republic of China (PRC) which exists in the geographical space Li writes of in this book (published by Cambridge University Press in 2014) have spoken in recent decades of that `5000 years of civilised history’ and why this means so much to them. This antiquity is clearly something of which they are immensely proud. And yet this book talks of over large parts of this time scale not of unity, but of diversity, disunity. If the task is to find unity here, then where can it be found?

In the ancient part there was a multi-region model for the Neolithic era on the great Central Plains, where archaeological digs show distinctive cultures and sub-cultures, from Yangshao, to Dawenkou, Hongshan, down to Shixia and Fengbitou, spreading across the whole eastern coast of the current PRC. Somehow, over immense periods of time, from farming, to settlement, to the creation of tribes from bands, and then states from chiefdoms, one gets the Xia from 4000 years ago– a period recognised now, but which remains contested and shadowy. Maybe the strongest candidate for a centre of the Xia is Erlitou, sprinkled around central China in today’s Shanxi, Shaanxi, Henan and Hunan. But as Li says, the earliest recorded mentioned of there ever being a Xia was in the Easter Zhou, a millennium after this era had ended. `The Shang oracle-bone inscriptions say nothing about a Xia Dynasty the Shang had conquered,’ he says (51). All we know is that these bones, some of them, refer to a period from 1600BCE to its fall, on 1046BCE, conquered by the Western Zhou, when the Shang itself existed. Where it had come from, and what it had replaced, are things it remains silent on.

The period following Shang, the Zhou `occupies a special position in the cultural and political history of China’, Li writes (112). Stretching from 1046 down to 221BCE, while its brief successor, the Qin, under the formidable First Emperor, is attributed with being the creator of an entity of any political unity from which modern China is descended, in many ways the Zhou contains the thinkers, cultural and social influences, and the philosophical ideas, and embodies the narrative of a Chinese nation and cultural unity that prevail to this day. In the Eastern Zhou, split between the poetically named Spring and Autumn Period and that of the Warring States, ideas as powerful as those that originated from ancient Athens around the same time were created. The idea of a High God from the Shang was transformed into something different – `God lost his omnipresent power over both human and natural worlds, a power that was taken over by heaven’ (144), Li states. This heaven, now capitalised, `represented the ultimate universal order.’ If there was a great divergence between China and the Western world (long before these places knew of each other), then this was it – the reinforcement and commitment to Theodicy in the societies that occupied the Middle East, and the philosophical expression of a all-powerful God in Plato’s work, and the disappearance of this notion in the Zhou. While Aristotle and those around him were pondering the nature of the world, and its metaphysical basis, Confucius, Mencius, Mozi and Han Fei, spread over several centuries, were constantly thinking about the nature of human action. For them, ethics was the key.

Li’s description of the destruction of the Zhou by the Qin in only nine years as `one of the most dramatic epics in human history’ (243) is not mere hyperbole. The annexation by what had been a minority state which existed at this time of all the others that had slowly grown up in the Chinese territory was an extraordinary achievement. The Qin remains so compelling because of its utterly remarkable archaeological legacy – the immense burial ground near Xian in Lishan, some 40Km East of Xiangyan near Xi’an. The warriors unearthed since 1974 are only part of this site – the main tomb remains unopened, till the time when the technology exists that will not damage what might be there. This gives it a physical drama and immediacy which is immensely appealing to the imagination. The succeeding Han dynasty, in particular through the works of its great historian Sima Qian, did not write kindly of the Qin first emperor. Even Li has to admit the social structure created under him meant that he had such vast powers he constantly lived in secret locations to protect himself. He `purposely distanced himself from all humans who were basically his slaves’ (250). Alas autocracy and vast power differences between the ruler and those ruled has deep roots in this culture. The Qin, despite these deep criticisms, in many ways lives on through his impact on power structures to this day.

All the time, new artefacts, new oracle bones with explanations of the predictions inscribed on them, new burial mounds and even texts are coming to light in digs occurring across China. The one thing one can safely conclude in standing back from Li’s concise overview is how immensely rich, diverse and complex this history is. Anyone who does want to wrestle with the origins of the China that exists today (and to be honest, without at least trying to do this, it is hard to see how one can really make much sense of the contemporary place, where appeals to history are so frequent, and a sense of that history so strong) should look at this book. It would be a good antidote to some of the extraordinary cultural and moral superiority one often gets coming from some of the squadron of new critics and judges on what China is now. It always offered a different view of the world. This wonderful piece of scholarship shows how, and why, that is the case, and why knowing of these origins matters.

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