Reviewed by David Buck (University of Wisconsin=Milwaukee)
Published on H-Asia (January, 2011)
Commissioned by Sumit Guha (The University of Texas at Austin)
Fitting China into World History
Oxford University Press has embarked on a major effort to produce works suited for world history classes. They have in print a dozen titles, with others in preparation, in The New Oxford World History series edited by Bonnie G. Smith and Anand Yang. Paul S. Ropp’s volume on China joins a group within this series that uses world regions as the main topic. Craig Lockard’s Southeast Asia in World History (2009) is another example of this approach. Other studies use a period of history, such as John E. Wills Jr.’s The World from 1450 to 1700 (2009), or examine a general topic in detail, such as Daniel Headrick’s Technology in World History (2009). The volumes, published both in hardcover and paperback, are aimed primarily at the textbook market, but also can serve as brief introductions to an area, a time period, or a general theme. Each runs about two hundred pages including ancillary material, such as timelines, notes, black and white illustrations, maps, suggested further reading, and an index.
Ropp’s contribution is gracefully written, fast paced, and organized around the standard periodization of Chinese history, into periods of unity and division with unity being the dominant pattern. He selects four distinctive characteristics for Chinese history: intensive agriculture, which he sees as providing “a strong impetus for population growth” (p. xiv); state organization of large-scale projects, including irrigation, walls, and canals; emphasis on extended family relations and ancestor worship; and finally, an optimistic and humanistic view of the world. Although Ropp discusses in detail the different dynasties, he does not emphasize the dynastic cycle of a strong founder followed by able early rulers, and leading to a plateau of moderate and less capable emperors, sometimes interrupted by a short revival, but inevitably leading to dynastic collapse.
A recurring problem with general textbooks on Chinese history is the “one dammed dynasty after another” fatigue that students and readers experience. Ropp, a Distinguished Professor of History at Clark University, has worked hard to avoid that pitfall by emphasizing international influences, especially from the nomadic peoples to China’s north and west, and detailing distinctive characteristics of particular periods, such as the Ming (1368-1644) creativity in porcelain and the early fifteenth-century great naval armadas. Ropp builds on key features of each era or dynasty, and, as a result, students should have less trouble differentiating the Tang, the Song, and other dynasties. Downplaying the dynastic cycle also helps in this effort.
Ropp devotes two-thirds of the text to Chinese history before 1800. His chapters on the period of disunion (220-589) and the Sui and Tang (618-907) are particularly strong. Wisely for an introductory history, Ropp gives colorful descriptions of key rulers. He also introduces material that shows a clear pattern of evolution by discussing technological advances, changes in agriculture and trade, and growth of population and appearance of larger cities. His twenty pages on the People’s Republic of China is an excellent summary. This and other chapters are well suited to an evening’s assigned reading for beginning students.
Although Ropp’s title indicates that he is placing China in the context of world history, he stays away from some of the most provocative scholarship linking Chinese and world history. For example, he does not introduce Andre Gunner Frank’s thesis that China’s insatiable demand for New World silver bolstered the European economy from the sixteenth century onward (ReORIENT: Global Economy in the Asia Age ), or Timothy Brook’s marvelous Vermeer’s Hat: The Seventeenth Century and the Dawn of the Global World (2008), which shows how trade in Chinese objects shaped European taste and daily life.
There now are a good many choices of introductory books on Chinese history. Patricia Ebrey’s Cambridge Illustrated History of China (2nd edition, 2010) is twice the length and beautifully illustrated, while well-established texts, such as Conrad Shirokauer’s A Brief History of Chinese Civilization (2nd edition, 2006), remain serviceable, but Ropp’s is particularly well written and presented. It should have a long life as a classroom text and also can be recommended as a good short introduction to Chinese history for the general reader.
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If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-asia.
David Buck. Review of Ropp, Paul S., China in World History.
H-Asia, H-Net Reviews.
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