The Cambridge Illustrated History of China

Patricia Buckley Ebrey

Cambridge University Press 1999
A book review by Danny Yee © 2001
Ebrey's Illustrated History is an attractive, accessible, and scholarly general history of China. Her approach is chronological, with one chapter on each dynasty/period (two on ancient China and two on the twentieth century), but she makes no attempt to provide a continuous political and military narrative — only a few exceptional individuals and events feature. She offers, instead, a balance of economic and social history, with coverage of demographics, intellectual and religious history, political institutions, and broad cultural change. And in an epilogue she steps back to give a historiographical perspective on differences between Western and Chinese approaches to the past and on the ways in which the record tends to idealise earlier eras.

Given the amount to be covered in such a small space, Ebrey obviously can't go into much depth. But she treats a range of specialised topics in more detail in separate boxes, typically one or two pages in length. Most of these focus on the arts: Shang taotie decorative motifs, calligrapher and poet Su Dongpo, early Buddhist art, Ming drama and performing arts, the novel Dream of Red Mansions, modern Chinese painting, the writer Lu Xun, and so forth. Other topics covered include working life under the Qing, village fairs in the early twentieth century, and Chinese food.

The illustrations, taking up perhaps a quarter of the work, are mostly colour photographs of art and artifacts from the different periods, with contemporary photographs (mostly of people) appearing in the last three chapters. They are not spectacular — there is just one full-page no-whitespace photo (of the tomb of the First Emperor of Qin) — but they are attractive, provoking, and complement the text elegantly. There is also a nice selection of maps. The Illustrated History lacks references, but does have five dense pages of further reading suggestions, thematically organised, which will be useful for those for whom it is just a starting point.

If you're after a one-volume history of China, whether as a student or from general interest, you should definitely consider the Cambridge Illustrated History.

June 2001

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%T The Cambridge Illustrated History of China
%A Ebrey, Patricia Buckley
%I Cambridge University Press
%D 1999
%O paperback, colour photographs, index
%G ISBN 052166991X
%P 352pp