I highly recommend John Keay’s China: A History to any readers who wish to familiarize themselves with this civilization. Keay’s narrative is aimed at the general reader. Specialists will no doubt find themselves irritating by the simplifications, or even errors (I’m not a China specialist but even I picked out a factual error here and there), but I’m always impressed by Keay’s ability to interject a great deal of erudition and social history into a relatively fast paced political narrative (his India: A History is of similar quality).
Of course China matters. It matters now, and it has mattered in the past. To a great extent much of human history is Chinese history. It is amusing for example when Keay’s points out that China has always been characterized by export surpluses over its history; the world has long craved the goods of the Middle Kingdom, which in return demanded specie or vice. But more interestingly for readers of this weblog is the fact that between 200 BC and 1900 AD the Chinese political-cultural system maintained a high level of continuity and stability. A scholar who flourished during the reign of Hanwudi could have made himself understood with ease to a mandarin serving under the Dowager Cixi over 2,000 years later. It is true that in the 19th century much of the Western elite had familiarity with the classics of the Greeks and the Romans, but I think the analogy is broken because the resurrection of a civilian elite versed in the literature and values of the ancients was a reconstruction of the Renaissance. By contrast, the Confucian literati had maintained a chain of transmission back to antiquity.
Today we in a world dominated by Whiggish technocratic sensibilities are wont to denigrate the achievements of Imperial China, and characterize it as a regime of reflexive adherence to blind protocols and exhibiting a cultural torpor. And yet what would we say if Rome and arisen multiple times and revived its ancient forms for thousands of years? One might wonder if Roman ways were robust and congenial to human flourishing. The Confucian idolatry of antiquity seems backward looking to us today, but in a Malthusian world they made the best of it, and rested their philosophy upon concrete realities of family, custom and tradition. Lived human existence and not abstractions. I suspect there is much we could learn from their long record of success, and I believe, and yes hope, that China might learn something from its own cultural past as it surges toward material affluence.