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Reviews 523 J.A.G. Roberts. A History ofChina. Volume 1, Prehistory to c. 1800. NewYork: St. Martin's Press, 1996. xviii, 252 pp. Hardcover $35.00, isbn 0-312-16334-7. Serious general histories of China are still too few in number. Worse, of the ones that are available, nearly all seem dated, many having been published decades ago. For most of them the problem is exacerbated by the great strides made by recent scholarship. J.A.G. Roberts, the author ofthis first ofa projected two-volume history ofChina, is evidendy aware ofthe need for an updated general history that incorporates the latest discussions and findings. The autiior's stated aim is to present a clear introduction to the history ofChina by making use ofrecent writings and by drawing attention to conflicting interpretations (p. v). Furthermore, he states, it is intended to convey some ofthe interest and excitement that has been stirred up by the recent réévaluation of Chinese history (p. v). Unfortunately , however, this volume conveys neither. A glance at the endnotes and the bibliography alone leads one to doubt the author's chances for success. The works that are consulted, entirely in English, are mostly monographs, and there are few listings of the articles in scholarly journals and collections ofessays where the réévaluation has been more daring. More disturbingly , the author distinctly prefers older, more familiar material. Too often, for example, he resorts to the timeworn general histories ofJohn K. Fairbank and Edwin O. Reischauer, Wolfram Eberhard, and Charles O. Hucker. Not only does he cite approvingly from these and other works ofcomparable outiook, but he does so even where newer, clearly more acceptable views have already been proposed. The author admits diat his choice of emphasis has forced him to neglect some ofthe areas usually covered in general histories. To name but three, he cites economic history, regional history, and women's history (p. v). This admission is frankly troubling, considering the author's professed aim. The neglected areas are among those where scholarly achievement has been most notable recently, and with these consciously left out, one wonders what new insights he proposes to bring to this new effort. Predictably, political history dominates the narrative. The author revels, in particular, in the world oflicentious and elixir-seeking emperors, scheming palace women, and unscrupulous eunuchs. Typical ofhis approach is his retelling of the rise ofthe Empress Wu Zetian (r. 684-705), to whom five full pages are devoted, more than 2 percent ofthe text's total length. Along with his account ofMachiavellian machination, the author unfailingly notes the salacious© 1997 by University details ofWu Zetian's personal life, including the role ofXue Huaiyi, her alleged ofHawai'i Pressparamour (pp. 91-96). Not surprisingly, his preferred source is the gossipy biography of the empress by C. P. Fitzgerald, published in 1956. 524 China Review International: Vol. 4, No. 2, Fall 1997 At the beginning of die volume, Roberts introduces a number of theories, without endorsing any one of them, on die pattern ofhistorical evolution in China. The text leaves little doubt, however, as to where he feels truly at home. Most of the book's twelve chapters are devoted to individual dynasties. Within each, the narrative basically follows the classical outline of a dynastic cycle, consisting of a heroic beginning, constructive early years, prolonged stagnation and decline, and the final denouement. Also, ever faithful to the narrative's premise, Roberts always emphasizes political factors, especially the successes or failures of the rulers and their helpers. Occasionally, as if to forestall criticism, he draws attention to analyses that seek answers to questions by looking at environmental, economic, or demographic factors, but he is obviously less than comfortable with them. The consensus among historians of China is that the power of the emperor grew impressively in the later periods, to the extent that the use ofexpressions like "monarchical absolutism" is fully warranted. Roberts follows this consensus. Furthermore, he correctly identifies the disappearance of the hereditary aristocracy as a major reason for this phenomenon. On the other hand, he seems to be unaware ofwhat we now know thanks to recent scholarship. Even as the power of the emperor itself...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1527-9367
Print ISSN
1069-5834
Pages
pp. 523-525
Launched on MUSE
2011-03-30
Open Access
No
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