Review of China in World History by Paul S. Ropp Oxford University Press
China’s meteoric rise over the last three decades has alternately provoked admiration, alarm, and awe. Indeed, it appears to be primed to play a major role in global affairs throughout the twenty-first century. To cite just the two most obvious facts supporting this conclusion, China is the world’s most populous country and recently replaced Japan as its second largest economy. China’s growing clout in the present and seemingly auspicious prospects for the future, however, should not be used as an excuse for disregarding the trials, tribulations, and triumphs of its past. Instead, they should be viewed as invitations to further study, suggesting that there is truly no better time than the present for students to become acquainted with Chinese history and its position in world history. Paul S. Ropp’s China in World History, which is part of The New Oxford World History series by Oxford University Press, is a highly commendable introduction to both of these subjects.
Strengths are evident from the onset of the text. In the preface, Ropp identifies four distinctive characteristics of Chinese history that help to frame his historical narrative. These are the presence of the world’s most labor intensive and productive agriculture, an organizational aptitude for specialized, large-scale tasks, the cultural prominence of respect for ancestors and family life, and a philosophic tendency toward optimistic humanism (xiv-v). Though it can be debated whether this list is exhaustive or exclusive to Chinese history, its educational utility cannot. By providing readers with a clear, concise listing of factors unique to or important in China’s past, Ropp both helps to structure their assessments of the relationship between China and the rest of the world and opens the door to further reflection on the comparison of disparate societies.
Ropp’s thesis is both comprehensive and compelling, making it useful to students and teachers alike. At the end of the preface, he articulates his intention to both “cover the essential developments of each period” of Chinese history and “situate these developments within the context of world history,” adding that he “believe[s] it is no denigration of Chinese genius or ingenuity to note how often the Chinese have borrowed institutions, inventions, products, and procedures from non-Chinese outsiders” (xv-vi). Naturally, as the text progresses, China’s interactions with regions beyond its borders receive greater and greater emphasis. This, of course, mirrors the growth of globalization.
The final three chapters vividly recount the history of China’s strained relations with Japan and the West throughout the late modern period. The Opium Wars, Taiping Rebellion, Boxer Rebellion, First and Second Sino-Japanese Wars, and Korean War all stand as testaments to the destructive power of this state of affairs. Ropp identifies the Second Opium War (1858-60) as a turning point in Chinese history, arguing the concessions wrenched from the Qing Dynasty by British and French forces in its aftermath transformed the dynasty into a semi-colony of the West (107). The further erosion of the dynasty’s power over the next five decades helped to spark the Wuchang Uprising (1911), which led to the overthrow of the Qing Dynasty and establishment of the Republic of China. Despite China’s often inimical relationship with Japan and the West, Ropp makes clear that China, or at least certain segments of its population, remained receptive of foreign influences. For example, the modernization and dynastic reform movement spearheaded by Kang Youwei during the summer of 1898, now known as the Hundred Days Reform, advocated rapid industrialization and the addition of Western subjects to the traditional educational system as a means of restoring Chinese greatness (110). More famously, the Chinese Communist Party was inspired by Marxism and the Bolshevik Revolution (1917) and arose during a time in which China’s relative weakness was widely blamed on both foreign imperialism and conservative Confucian culture (118-9).
Yet, Ropp’s most extensive account of China’s relations with the world outside the Middle Kingdom accompanies the first part of his historical narrative. Chapter 3 explains how the political tumult and intellectual nonconformity of the Six Dynasties period (220-589 C.E.) “helped provide fertile soil for the rise of Buddhism in China” (41). The collapse of the Han dynasty caused many Chinese to seek a viable alternative to Confucianism. Buddhism assumed this role in no small part due to its sharing of the Daoist ideals of emotional detachment and contentment. Besides reflecting Chinese tradition, these values were conducive to life in a society traumatized by violence and instability. Buddhism also offered Chinese intellectuals, who were attempting to distance themselves from the more practical considerations of Confucianism, access to the accomplished history of Indian metaphysical speculation. Still, they were not willing to totally abandon Chinese tradition so Buddhist missionaries and converts had to render Buddhist terms in language familiar to the Chinese. Consequently, dharma (teaching), bodhi (enlightenment), and yoga were all translated as dao (the way), nirvana as wu (emptiness), and sila (morality) as xiaoxun (filial piety). Ropp demonstrates that the spread of Buddhism is a fundamental example of how China has interacted with a variety of other civilizations via exchange, cooperation, competition, and occasionally clashes.
Nevertheless, as a specialist in Chinese history, Ropp understandably decides to devote a majority of China in World History to the history of China itself. All the foremost developments in the Middle Kingdom’s history, from the life and times of the Peking Man to the actions and policies of the current administration of Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao, are skillfully presented and examined. A case-in-point is the text’s coverage of the Hundred Schools of Thought. Ropp not only examines the most important philosophies that emerged during this period in their own right, but contrasts them with one another. Confucianism, then, is recognized not only as an “idealistic vision of benevolent rule based on early Zhou rituals and reverence for ancestors,” but a repudiation of the agricultural, economic, and martial changes promoted by adherents of Legalism (13). Similarly, Daoism is portrayed in part as a rejection of the self-righteousness intrinsic to Confucianism and Legalism. Yet, in spite of its concentration on Chinese history, Ropp ends this section of the text with a good, albeit relatively brief, comparison of the thought of ancient China, Mesopotamia, India, and Greece. He concludes that ancient Chinese philosophy is distinctive due to its beliefs that the world’s creation and continuation were not dependent on divine power and everything in the universe is thoroughly interconnected (19).
Ropp’s text employs several features that are well-suited for an introductory historical overview. Key among these is his numerous lively and insightful descriptions of important historical personages, events, ideas, and artifacts. Prior to reading a text like China in World History, it is unlikely that many students will have had substantial exposure to the Hundred Schools of Thought of the Zhou Dynasty, Emperor Han Wudi of the Han Dynasty, the landscape painting of the Song Dynasty, and the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution of the People’s Republic of China. Ropp offers engaging descriptions of all of these and much more. Thus, students are encouraged to not only learn about the broad historical currents that shaped China’s past, but the people, places, and things that brought about these changes. Another laudable aspect of Ropp’s text is its overall brevity and succinctness. Altogether, the book totals one hundred and fifty-five pages, which is perfect for introducing students to Chinese history and its interconnection with world history in a week or two. At roughly twenty pages apiece, each of the text’s nine chapters is ideal for individual student presentations. Furthermore, they can be paired with supplementary material, either primary or secondary, for a more thorough historical account. The text features a timeline, list of readings and websites relevant to further research, several maps, and numerous photographs, all of which only enhance its appeal.
Students unfamiliar with Chinese history often initially find the sheer number of dynasties to be at best fairly challenging and at worst utterly befuddling. Each chapter of Ropp’s text is assigned to one or more dynasties or republics, he organizes it chronologically and highlights the distinguishing features of each period. These methods establish an evolutionary outline, demonstrating how developments that emerged during one dynasty were modified during another. This results in a means of differentiating between specific dynasties. The status of women, for instance, is covered in several chapters. These periodic appraisals start during the Han Dynasty with the philosophy of the Ban Zhao, the most famous female scholar in Chinese history (33-5). They end in the present with the author mentioning: “In some ways, the status of women, ironically, has declined in China since the Maoist era” (152). In between, the political and social standing of women in the Tang, Song, Ming, and Qing dynasties is discussed in brief. Students are provided with several other relatively novel ways of telling the difference between all of the dynasties throughout the book, ranging from technological advances to the role of foreign influences.
China in World History is perhaps best suited for broad historical surveys of China, as it offers students an extensive summary of the country’s remarkable past and valuable indications of its relationship with the history of the rest of the world. Students and teachers of world history, however, will find this text to be quite beneficial too. Its contents are directly related to two of the central concepts of this field of history. More specifically, it promotes comparison across time and space by demonstrating precisely what is inimitable about Chinese history and supports analysis of transnational interactions by considering the influence foreign peoples, goods, and ideas exerted on the progression of Chinese history. No matter if it is used in a Chinese or world history course, students and teachers will ultimately find much of value in China in World History. Ropp crafts a historical narrative that is simultaneously intelligent, fascinating, and unassuming. The merits of such a text are obvious. With China on the rise and the increasing eminence of world history as a historical discipline, it would certainly appear that China in World History was written for these times.
Reviewed by Brock M. Erdahl, The North Star Reports: Global Citizenship and Digital Literacy
Edited by Susan E. Smith
(c) 2013 The Middle Ground Journal, Number 5, Fall, 2012. See Submission Guidelines page for the journal’s not-for-profit educational open-access policy. [Originally published on the St. Scholastica website]