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History manual takes scholarship to new level

Updated: 2013-12-13 07:00
By Chris Davis ( China Daily)

There are books, there are tomes and there are monumental tomes. And then there is the newly revised edition of Endymion Wilkinson's Chinese History: A New Manual, just published by Harvard University Press.

Priced at $48, the Chinese history manual contains 1.5 million words broken into 14 book-length parts in 76 chapters. It is arranged in two columns on pages using a type size that, as one reviewer put it, "requires fresh eyes after only a few minutes of reading" if the reader is no longer young.

Wilkinson, who studied Chinese at Cambridge in the 1960s and served as the European Union's ambassador to Beijing from 1994 to 2001, has compiled an exhaustive assemblage of facts and analysis, with an almost obsessive level of minutiae and cross-referencing. It is, in short, the kind of book that scholars love.

Where, for example, did chopsticks come from? "The first ones used for placing food in the mouth may be the bronze pair excavated from an Anhui site" dating from the Spring and Autumn Period (770-476 BC). "Many centuries were to go by before they replaced the use of hands at the table," he writes, adding that the index finger is "still called shizhi, the eating or tasting finger".

In Chapter 18, he traces the five stages of the evolution of Chinese manuscript and book production, beginning with manuscripts written on bamboo strips and wooden tablets in the Shang Dynasty (16th century-11th century BC) and the subsequent Western Han Dynasty (206 BC-AD 24) and Eastern Han Dynasty (AD 25-220).

He proceeds to manuscripts written on silk, in the Warring States Period (475-221 BC) to Han, and then on paper, in the later Han period to the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms era (AD 907-960). He follows the evolution of woodblock printing from the seventh to 19th centuries, culminating in Western printing machinery in the late 19th century to the present.

Regarding the printing advancements, he somewhat wryly observes, "A much handier and a cheaper medium for keeping records than shells, bones, jade, bronze or stone was bamboo or wood," which historically were "a longer-serving medium for writing than paper".

The section on Chinese astronomy is fascinating. "Chinese records of eclipses, comets and other celestial phenomena are more complete and continuous than those found in any other culture. There are many such records on the oracle bones," he writes.

Peasants digging in fields around Anyang in the late 19th century discovered the oracle bones, he explains. But they did not realize the value of the bones until an antiques dealer from Weixian spotted them in a Shandong neighborhood. The writing carved into the bones was some of the most ancient Chinese script ever seen, and after years of study, the bones confirmed the names of the last nine Shang rulers.

On names, Wilkinson explains that some 12,000 family names, or surnames, have been recorded in the course of Chinese history, but at any given time, there were probably no more than a couple of thousand in use, and of those, the vast majority of people used no more than a few hundred. "This is a good example of a random drift trend by which many thousands of choices become narrowed down to a few, in this case, more and more people using fewer and fewer names," he writes.

According to his research, 6.7 percent of all Chinese - or about 90 million people - are surnamed Wang. By way of contrast, he notes that only 0.15 percent of US citizens - about half a million - are named Smith, the most popular family name in the United States.

The work includes other tidbits of fact. In Taiwan, for instance, boys were sometimes given girls' names "to fool malignant spirits".

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