The Early Chinese Empires: Qin and Han by Mark Edward Lewis – A Review

The Book

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The Early Chinese Empires – Qin and Han (History of Imperial China Book 1) by Mark Edward Lewis
Goodreads
Published by Harvard University Press
Released June 30, 2009
Buy: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | ThriftBooks | Books-a-Million

Synopsis

This book focuses on the history of the Qin and Han dynasties in early Chinese history. From how the empires got started, to individual emperors, their wars with the nomadic peoples of the north, and how the lives of normal peasants looked, this non-fiction book contains all the information you need on the Qin and Han dynasties. Throughout the pages are also maps of the areas being talked about and images of ancient Chinese art to help illustrate the ideas.

I wanted to include some of my favorite bits of information from this book, in no particular order, to give you an idea of the types of things you can learn from it:

  • In many of the earliest Chinese empires, such as the Zhou, conformity was favored by the ruling classes, and people saw regional variations in behavior and dress as belonging to a to a lower class of person.
  • Wang Mang’s Xin dynasty was incredibly short-lived, lasting only seventeen years. He was a Confucian ruler who implemented a number of reforms that eventually led to the rebellion that ousted him. Such reforms included confiscating and redistributing land in equal plots, which infuriated much of the population.
  • There was a system in place for people to police one another in much of early Chinese history. For example, if someone broke the law or committed a grievous crime, their entire family could be punished for multiple generations, as well as the entire town in which they inhabited. People failing to report crimes would also be punished, and some of these punishments were harsh: “Anyone who failed to report criminal activity would be chopped in two at the waist, while those who reported it would receive the same reward as that for obtaining the head of an enemy.”
  • Some emperors would build replica palaces of areas that they conquered in battle. “Because palaces were seen as the embodiment of states, the Qin could symbolically annex a state by destroying its original palace and rebuilding a ‘captive’ replica in its own capital.”

Review

Before I begin this review, I would like to preface it by saying that I’ve always loved historical non-fiction. In fact, in high school and my first couple years of university, it was what I primarily read for fun. I grew up loving history and wanting to constantly learn new things, so I was always seeking out new history books to read.

From the time I read Foundations of Chinese Civilizations by Jing Liu I knew I wanted to learn more about the Qin and Han dynasties. The histories of both sounded so fascinating, and I saw this book at my local library when I was searching for books for my #readtheworldchina challenge.

Although this book does contain a lot of interesting information, it was so dry that I had trouble reading it. I didn’t even finish it if I’m being honest. I made it about two-thirds of the way through, and I was starting to feel bored just looking at the cover. I decided to DNF this book because I was no longer able to focus on it. The whole time I was reading it I was actually thinking about other books that I could be reading instead.

I think it’s easy to make non-fiction enjoyable if you focus on the people involved and the reasons behind the things they did rather than minute details and dates. This felt more academic than enjoyable, so if you’re writing an essay on the Qin and Han dynasties of Imperial China, then I actually would recommend this book to you. However, if you’re looking for a fun read, this might not be it.

Verdict

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Although there is great information in this book, it was too dry and laborious for me to give it more than two stars.

The Four Chinese Classics

China's Four Classic Novels

#readtheworld

This is part of Read Yourself Happy’s #readtheworld series. Every other month, a new country will be selected, and we’ll examine literature and culture for that location. If you would like to participate this month, use the hashtag #readtheworldchina.

When you start learning about Chinese literature, you will undoubtedly come across the Four Chinese Classics – four (very long) books that are essentially the foundation of Chinese literature. I wanted to take a moment today and share some information about those four books, including the one I’m currently reading.

All of these books were written hundreds of years ago, and although each book is contributed to a specific author, in all cases that authorship is somewhat contested.

One of the reasons these four novels are so important is that they use vernacular Chinese rather than Classical Chinese, making the works more accessible. These four novels are still influential today.

Romance of the Three Kingdoms by Luo Guanzhong

Written in the 14th century, this novel is about political intrigue during the Three Kingdoms period of Chinese history at the end of the Han dynasty and follows hundreds of characters.

Although Romance of the Three Kingdoms is a fictional novel, the battles detailed in the book are real. At the end of the Han dynasty, the lands were divided up and ruled by three separate rulers: Cao Cao, Liu Bei, and Sun Quan. This novel examines the politics of this era alongside some more fantastical elements, such as avenging ghosts.

Journey to the West by Wu Cheng’en

Journey to the West was written in the 16th century and is probably the classic that Americans are most familiar with due to its prevalence in films and popular culture. It was the first novel to put ancient Chinese myths into writing.

The story follows Xuanzang, a Buddhist monk, as he travels on a sixteen-year pilgrimage through western China. It draws on Buddhism, Chinese folktales, mythology, Taoism, and pantheism for its characters, including Xuanzang’s three disciples – a monkey, a pig, and a river ogre.

There are countless adaptions of this novel and aspects of it in both Chinese and American television and film.

Water Margin by Shi Nai’an

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Also known as Outlaws of the Marsh, this book was written in the 14th century and was actually the first of these four to be released. This is the book I’m currently reading, after being prompted by my boyfriend who had a copy of all three volumes and loved it when he read it in college.

Set in the Song dynasty, the novel follows a group of outlaws. Before I started reading Outlaws of the Marsh I was incredibly intimidated by its huge cast of characters – 108 in total. After starting it, however, it actually flows incredibly well, and it’s easy to keep track of them all.

Supposedly, this novel is based on a real-life outlaw named Song Jiang who lived during the 12th century, so it is partially based in fact.

I’m not very far into it yet, but what I’ve noticed so far is that many of the characters are not happy with the status quo and actively go against it. The stories are accessible to modern readers because they focus on the people themselves. I’m really enjoying reading my way through this classic novel.

Dream of the Red Chamber by Cao Xueqin

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Written in the 18th century, Dream of the Red Chamber is the most modern of the four classics. The author, Cao Xueqin, wrote about the financial decay of both his family and the entire Qing dynasty. The novel also examines the Chinese aristocracy, as well as other aspects of Chinese culture such as art and medicine. I’ve seen in compared to Shakespear’s Romeo and Juliet in some descriptions because of the love story in it.


Have you read any of these books? Let me know down in the comments!

Foundations of Chinese Civilization by Jing Liu – A Review

“After 17,434 disasters, 3,791 wars, 663 emperors, and 95 dynasties, the 5,000-year-old Chinese civilization marches on.”

The Book

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Foundations of Chinese Civilization: The Yellow Emperor to the Han Dynasty (2697 BCE – 220 CE) by Jing Liu
Released May 31, 2016
Published by Stone Bridge Press
Goodreads
Author links: Facebook

Synopsis

Foundations of Chinese Civilizations is the history of China told through comic book form. This one is the first in the series.

It examines everything from the most important and long-lasting Chinese dynasties to the dynastic cycle itself, geography, emperors, and so much more.

Review

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I found this comic book on Hoopla while looking for books about Chinese history for this month’s #readtheworld-china challenge. The idea of telling a nation’s history through a comic book really caught my attention.

The thing that really struck me was how incredibly comprehensive it was. It covers everything, from geography and natural disasters to the history of the dynastic cycle and the origin of Chinese civilizations and the mysterious Xia dynasty, said to be the first, although no evidence has been found to support that theory.

I learned so much from this graphic novel, such as that during a dynasty change, as much as two-thirds of the population could perish (!). Also, some interesting information on Chinese surnames:

“Today, 85% of China’s population uses only 100 surnames. Many of these surnames come from the Zhou period.”

It also examines Chinese schools of thought and philosophers, such as Confucius:

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I really enjoyed learning about the Qin and Han dynasties, and some of their leaders, especially Wang Mang, who I’d never heard of before, but had interesting ideas to rid his government of corruption and make overall society fairer.

Rating

5 out of 5 stars. This was a wonderful way to learn more about early Chinese dynasties. I’m definitely going to be seeking out the rest of the books in this series.

Read the World Challenge: China

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I’ve been looking for a massive reading challenge to undertake. A few months ago, I decided that I wanted to read a book from every country, which in itself is pretty daunting, as there are 195 officially recognized countries in the world.

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Photo by Kyle Glenn on Unsplash

I’m taking it a little further though.

One of the personality traits that I love about myself is my need for complete understanding of a topic. It started when I was a kid, and I became obsessed with reading and memorizing my grandparent’s issues of National Geographic. (To this day, I still collect issues of National Geographic!) When I’d research a topic for school, I wouldn’t just stop once the paper was done – I wanted to understand how everything worked, how a place or thing came into being, and… just everything!

Due to that trait, my reading challenge is this: Every month, I will pick one of the 195 countries to focus on. I’ll read books and comic books and poetry created in that country. I want to learn about that location’s mythology, folklore, culture, food, and everything else I can find. Obviously, I can’t learn everything about a country in a single month, but it’s definitely enough time to learn plenty of new things.

For the first month of this challenge, I chose China for a variety of reasons.

First, my boyfriend, Ian, is an art history major with a particular fondness for classical Chinese history, art, and literature. We had the pleasure of visiting the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond, VA when they had a visiting exhibition of China’s famous Terra Cotta Soldiers from Emperor Qin’s tomb. Sometime this month, Ian is going to contribute a few guest posts, which I can’t wait to share with you guys.

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Second, China is one of the world’s earliest civilizations and the foundation of so many great achievements in human history. In fact, some of the most well-known inventions in ancient China are known as the Four Great Inventions: the compass, gunpowder, papermaking, and printing. I’m particularly thankful for their contributions to printing, considering how much I love books and the history of bookmaking.

Third, China is absolutely massive. It’s the most populous country in the world, and one of the largest in terms of landmass. China has so much to offer in terms of landscape, culture, philosophy, music, literature, and so, so, so much more.

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During the month of November, you’re going to be seeing regular posts that focus on Chinese culture and literature. I’ve already started reading one of the four classic Chinese novels, Outlaws of the Marsh, and my library is probably a tiny bit annoyed with me for literally requesting everything they had on China.

One thing I want to mention is that I will still be reading non-Chinese books during the month of November, as I have a ton of new releases and ARCs and my massive TBR list to work on.

I hope you enjoy this new series that will be featured on Read Yourself Happy. If you know of any Chinese books I should check out, please leave those recommendations in the comments.

In December, I’m going to read and learn about Norway, so I’m also taking recommendations for books written in and about Norway.

Feel free to participate and share your thoughts! #readtheworld

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