I love to read and can get very attached to my opinions, but recently I've been learning not to completely lose my head when people disagree with me, so feel safe to argue with me whenever you wish ;)
This book, the first of an ongoing series spanning almost the entire recorded history of China, goes over four chronological periods: Shang dynasty, Zhou dynasty, Spring and Autumn Period, and the Warring States Period, all the way up to Qin Shihuang's unification of the empire in 221 B.C. I chose it for several reasons:
a) it's written by a number of trained Sinologists, some rather famous, so I was ensured a certain level of expertise and credentials. All of them are probably fluent in Classical Chinese, which means primary sources are accessible to them,
b) it alternates between textual and archaeological history in balance to one another, guaranteeing a critical look at historiography and bypassing the effects of either nationalism or Western-centric criticism, and
c) I was looking to build a narrative history of the pre-imperial period and a book almost 1100 pages long was guaranteed to have some points coherent enough to string together.
But, it should be noted I haven't read the whole thing (yet). I read way too slow and I won't be able to check stuff out at my school library for another three months. Here are the chapters I did read, crossed out:
1. China on the Eve of the Historical Period
2. Language and Writing
3. Shang Archaeology
4. The Shang: China's First Historical Dynasty
5. Western Zhou History
6. Western Zhou Archaeology
7. The Waning of the Bronze Age
8. The Spring and Autumn Period
9. Warring States Political History
10. The Art and Architecture of the Warring States Period
11. The Classical Philosophical Writings
12. Warring States Natural Philosophy and Occult Thought
13. The Northern Frontier in pre-imperial China
14. The Heritage Left to Empires
I am very excited to read 13 and 14. All the others left remaining...eh...not so much. But I might slog through it just to be proud of myself.
For any future readers, my advice would be to customize this book to your interests; I regret not going over the table of contents more thoroughly beforehand. I was most interested in political and military history of the Spring and Autumn and Warring States Periods, but still went through the first 500 pages (Shang and Zhou) before getting even close. The nature of a time period so distant--2nd and early 1st millennium B.C.--means this book is forced to extract a lot from very little. The main source of study in that period are the Shang oracle bones and Zhou bronzes, so you don't get so much a "story" as you do pages upon pages of hypothesizing and examination of obscure archaeological objects. There's also a few other drawbacks: this was published in 1999, the incorporation of archaeology into Western Sinology is actually quite young, so new discoveries being made at the present moment of writing could very well mean this information will be outdated in the near future. (In fact, the introduction explicitly states that the writers of this book hope it will become outdated if archaeology continues to proceed at its current pace.)
It's expert stuff and as accessible as it can possibly be without being able to read the archaeological inscriptions yourself. If you have massive and divine powers of concentration, which I definitely do not, this will be very rewarding.
Anyway, after struggling through what was undoubtedly beyond my level of comprehension and only a little within my interest, I finally decided to skip to what I was really looking forward to: Chapter 9, the political history of the Warring States. Actually, what I really wanted to read about was the development of the military strategic tradition, and I did stumble upon a few measly gems:
The commander also figured, along with the "persuader," as one of the archetypal figures of the realm of stratagem and cunning. The military treatises describe the ideal commander as a potent figure who could penetrate the flux of appearance, perceive underlying order, recognize decisive moments of change, and then strike. He was able to disguise his intentions while penetrating the schemes of his adversary and to manipulate appearances so that the enemy would march to its doom. A master of maneuver, illusion, and deception, he waged war in the realm of the mind and directly translated his strategems into victory in the field.
Oh yes. ...Although the fact that I had to hunt through a tome as big as this for so little really says something about how many damns Sinology gives to military history, compared to the pages upon pages of cultural, linguistic, archaeological, and philosophical analysis. Sigh.
This does bother me on a more than personal level. I feel like a lot of pre-imperial history doesn't make sense without getting into logistics, especially in a time period most famous for its warfare. Were ancient Chinese armies really as big as they're reputed to be (hundreds of thousands)? If so, what made it possible? And the passage cited above is tantalizing for its lack of information. Which generals exemplified the ideal described? Which military treatises? What victories on the battlefield could be traced to operational and tactical genius, especially the final Qin conquests? Yet another interesting thing to delve into would have been the civil engineering projects of the Warring States Period, spawned by the military competition between states at the time, but topics like Dujiangyan irrigation system which made the Sichuan basin one of the richest regions in the Chinese subcontinent--and is still in use today--are mentioned only in passing.
It might sound like I'm complaining a lot. I am, actually, but not just about this book in particular. Western and Chinese collaboration on Chinese history is a relatively new thing that only started seriously taking off in the mid 1900s. The authors had and have a gargantuan task ahead of them, and the mere concept of a project like this simply takes my breath away, let alone what it would be like to read the whole series. I think I'll somehow manage to get through the rest of this book and can't wait to read the next volume on the Qin and Han empires--a time when indigenous Chinese historiography became a discipline in and of itself. (hopefully fewer bronze vessels to analyze). Hopefully they have something at least passably juicy on the Han-Xiongnu War.