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Why an A to Z?

Emperor Qianlong

This book does not pretend to be an all-encompassing history of China. That would be a gargantuan, multi-volume undertaking. Instead it is an effort to focus on some of the key events and personalities in China’s extensive history, as a means to help explain how contemporary Chinese look at the world and their place in it.

Every topic and figure will be familiar to Chinese readers but paradoxically almost none of them will be well known by non-Chinese. That is especially true for Europeans and Americans, who are taught history that largely avoids China in favour of Western narratives (from the birth of democracy in Greece and the rise and fall of Rome; through the flowering of the Italian Renaissance and the era of scientific discovery; to the Industrial Revolution, the American War of Independence and the two world wars).

As a continuous civilisation, China’s history is longer and richer than anyone else’s. But we have arranged it in an A to Z format, allowing for 26 bite-size explainers. That ties us less to chronology and enables us to jump around the historical canvas in a way that we hope to be more thought-provoking, albeit less comprehensive.

It is generally agreed Chinese history spans 5,000 years, although the nation was first forged into a single political entity in 221 BC by Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor. In the ensuing millennia that empire changed in shape and size (see the four maps on page 8 for how dramatic the expansion was). The country was for large periods ruled by emperors, from the Qin Dynasty (221 BC) to the final dynasty, the Qing (which was replaced by the Republic in 1912). But it also went through turbulent periods of disunity and civil war.

After reading this guide you should understand some of the key themes better, and hopefully feel less daunted should a Chinese counterpart bring up names such as Zhuge Liang or Zheng He, or compare the challenges of Emperor Kangxi versus those of the Tudor monarch Henry VIII (the former had 24 eligible male heirs, causing political chaos; the latter was so desperate for male heirs he went through six wives just to produce one son).

Given the sheer scope of the task at hand, our chronology does not go beyond 1949. However, it does reach into the present day, by highlighting how the views of China’s leaders – on issues like the environment, social stability and national sovereignty – are conditioned by events that happened long before the founding of the People’s Republic. Of course, Chinese history is complex and if any reader disagrees with any of the perspectives we have taken they can email us at: [email protected]


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