China’s Roots by Orient Lee – Book Review
As one of the oldest and largest civilizations in the world, China has seen both its political state and culture morph in countless ways through periods of war, peace, prosperity, and destitution. To summarize its thousands
of years of history in a mere few hundred pages is, undeniably, a formidable task, but Orient Lee attempts it in his work China’s Roots. As the title suggests, the book describes how China and the Chinese people came to be what they are today through a chronological retelling of China’s development from prehistoric to contemporary times. It is not, however, a comprehensive description of Chinese history, but nor does it profess to be. Rather, Lee, a Chinese scholar with many historical works under his belt, presents a broad framework of the nation’s transition through various periods of history. Above this frame, he selectively adds more detailed descriptions of the most notable events, persons, and cultural aspects, offering insight into things that have come to define China and the Chinese people. In the same vein, Lee also supplements his history with separate chapters on the evolution of science, art, and literature in China. Presented in both Chinese and English translation, the book is moreover accessible to both Chinese and foreign readers. However, while China’s Roots is a commendable introduction to China’s history and culture, it is nevertheless marred by several faults, including uneven focus, unreliable information, and the author’s clear bias towards certain subjects.
China’s Roots summarizes Chinese history and cultural development in twelve chapters. The first chapter introduces China’s geography and describes the nation’s land mass, provinces, cities, mountains, lakes, deserts, plains, prairies, plateaus, forests, islands, and rivers, showing that most do not shy in comparison to those of the powerful nation in the world, the United States. He also highlights the nation’s most notable natural wonders, including the Great Central Plain, Himalaya Mountains, Yellow River, and Yangtze River, whose length is comparable to that of the Nile and Amazon. On the whole, Lee’s descriptions emphasize the beauty, usefulness, and grandeur of the Chinese landscape. The second chapter concerns China during prehistoric times, citing various archaeological remains from Paleolithic, Mesolithic, and Neolithic times. The author traces the development of humans in various regions through these ancient times, describing the tools, houses, pottery, and other artifacts of each era.
In the next seven chapters, Lee relates China’s historical past from the Xia Dynasty to modern China, with focus on the political aspects of the country’s development. He begins by blending the myths of China’s origin with historical fact to create an account of proto-history. A brief description of the Xia Dynasty is given, though it is made clear that the information is based on ancient texts as opposed to archaeological evidence. The Shang Dynasty is also only described briefly, with passing remarks about its 28 kings and achievements in agriculture, military, and the like. Next Lee describes how the Zhou Dynasty was established as well as the four main vassal states during Middle Zhou. He also describes each of the Five Hegemons individually and gives a brief account of the seven Warring States, the growth of feudalism, and how Qin came to power. The account of Qin’s and its achievements in road-building, measuring, writing and such, is brief like its reign. Following this Lee traces the establishment of Han and its first five emperors, but then quickly speeds through the rest of the emperors and attainments in the lengthy eras of Former and Latter Han, with special attention given to certain emperors such as Wu Ti and Ming Ti. When drawing attention to the Three Kingdoms period, the author briefly describes the three states and their rulers, and then reflects on why no kingdom was able to unify China. This is followed by a detailed portrayal of the struggles between the eight princes of Jin, and a description of the minority tribes of the period as well as the Northern and Southern Dynasties stage. There were also significant developments in philosophy, science, literature, and religion at this time. During the Sui and Tang dynasties, society and economy flourished, although this epoch was also plagued by problems such as the Fanchen Warlords and rebellions. The Five Dynasties period only lasted shortly, and the Northern Song Dynasty that followed suffered from a poor military and administrative system. Despite Wang AnShi’s reforms, rebellion rose. Numerous battles between Jhin and Sung took place during the Southern Song, and the economy of the period suffered great deficit. The Mongol-ruled Yuan Dynasty treated the Han Chinese as ninth-class citizens. After years of misrule, rebels eventually established Ming, though the first ruler was deemed insane and ruled poorly. Another rebellion eventually brought about the Manchu Qing Dynasty, which had the misfortune to fall to the status of a sub-colony after fighting two Opium Wars as well as several other foreign wars. Next Lee describes the establishment of the Republic of China, which fought an 80 year war against Japan as well as a civil war that eventually put China under the rule of a communist government. After noting Deng XiaoPing’s reforms that opened China, the author ends his historical account by asserting his hope for one China.
The latter third of the text focuses on various cultural achievements in science and technology, art, and literature. As for technological developments, Lee chronologically details the evolution of technology in different areas, including irrigation, transportation, and chemistry. He also includes a subsection on the sciences that the Chinese purportedly excelled at, including math, astronomy, metallurgy, and medicine. The chapter on the development of arts is separated into subsections of architecture, sculpture, and painting. In each section, Lee describes the development of the art throughout the ages and names specific artists and their accomplishments. Finally, in the last chapter, the author chronologically tracks the growth of Chinese literature and lists several notable authors and works.
In critiquing China’s Roots, it is firstly of note to mention that the book has a fairly unique format, which is at times helpful for the reader but sometimes detrimental. The work imparts the aforementioned information in both Chinese and English using Wade-Giles romanization. From the limited amount of Chinese I can read, the English version appears to be a direct translation of the original, with minor discrepancies. For example, when speaking of the math of China, the English version merely mentions that a mathematician solved problems with the “Method of Finite Difference” (p.201) while the Chinese version actually details the equations and mathematics associated with the method. Similarly, a picture of an oracle describing novas appears only in the Chinese version. Clearly, such discrepancies, which appear throughout the book, indicate that each version is intended for a specific audience. Foreigners are expected know the Method of Finite Difference without further elaboration, and only Chinese readers are expected to recognize characters on the oracle bone. Although this entails that certain details will be missed by those who only read one version, it also implies that the author knows his audience and is likely catered his writing accordingly. Indeed, even the title, presented as “Our Roots” in Chinese but “China’s Roots” in English, likewise suggests a specific audience for each version. This review is based off of the English version.
When comparing the organization of China’s Roots with two other similar works on Chinese civilization, An Introduction to Chinese Civilization by John. T. Meskill and China: Tradition and Transformation by John Fairbank and Edwin Reischauer, one sees evident uniqueness in Lee’s approach. Lee chooses to first present geography and chronological history, and then delve more intensively into specific aspects of culture, including science, art, and literature. Although he still enriches his earlier chapters with some cultural information, such as when he describes the flourishing of Tang metropolises, he does not interweave it entirely with history as Fairbank does. In doing so, he succeeds in drawing greater attention to culture as well offering a more coherent narrative of its development. Furthermore, the sections in the chapters of Roots are laid out with appropriate headings, subheadings, and bolded proper names that make specific content easy to access. However, unlike the two aforementioned works, it lacks an index. So while a reader can easily find information regarding certain time periods, he will have difficulty locating more specific names and subjects embedded within the text. The book also suffers from peculiar, counterintuitive organization in some areas, such as when it covers the effect of Qin’s rule on the six other Warring States before describing the wars that led Qin to accomplish its takeover. It might also be of note that there are several printing errors in the book, including typographic errors, truncated paragraphs, and even repeated pages. It is, then, not unreasonable to assume that certain names and dates could contain errors as well. Altogether, such details mar an otherwise well-organized book.
In general, China’s Roots provides well-written and comprehensive overviews of its subjects. Compared to the works of Fairbank and Meskill, Roots is shorter in length but covers the same events, names, locations, and other facts important to Chinese history and culture. It does so in a more succinct manner, often offering only the most important details, so that readers can learn a great deal about China’s origin without having to read hundreds and hundred of pages of text. Indeed, in merely 250 pages, Lee has laudably created a comprehensive, compact, and largely well-written piece of work that has summarized a massive history for almost anyone to enjoy. Like the other authors, Lee also, in a professional manner, tries to prove most of his assertions or opinions with fact. When he claims that “Tang…was the greatest [dynasty] in Chinese history” (p.102), he immediately appends a list of facts about Tang’s political, criminal, military, and philosophical bearings, which support his assertion as evidence. Similarly, when he claims that the Tang dynasty flourished, he proves it with numbers and statistics. Moreover, in addition to capturing the essence of the longer and more well-known books, Lee’s book also delves into subjects that are not usually touched upon by other writers. For example, while Lee uses a similar organization of chapters as Meskill, the latter fails to include a section on science as Lee does. In all fairness, few people would associate China with scientific innovation, but Lee’s unique inclusion of the subject serves to shatter misconceptions by highlighting China’s lead in many areas of technological achievement. Also, while Meskill and Fairbank are reluctant to include unproven information that is not supported by evidence, Lee freely includes stories and myths in spite of dubious accuracy. This leads him to include sections on the myths of origin about Yao, Shun and Yu, as well as information on Xia that is only supported by writings from thousands of years after the fact. In contrast, the other two works only mention the Xia Dynasty briefly in one paragraph or even just a sentence. Lee’s inclusion of such information expands the reader’s understanding of China and where the Chinese people believe their roots lie.
Lee also writes about China in a unique style that often adds to the entertainment value of the book. While Fairbank and Meskill’s works read like bulky textbooks that would only incite interest in a small specific group of readers, Lee reaches out to a larger audience. Most likely in effort to conjure up more interest in his subject, he uses style and includes content that a larger audience will enjoy. In some ways, Lee’s descriptions read almost like flowing narratives as he explains cause and effect and the rise and fall of each dynasty. Often times, he even includes anecdotes that make otherwise trivial or dull subjects amusing. For instance, he highlights greed, deceit, and betrayal of the ruling class in a needlessly detailed but unarguably interesting account (p.81-3) of the power struggle between eight Jin princes. At other times, he points out interesting facts that other history writers are likely omit, such as the financial enigma of Sung, whose yearly expenditures consistently exceeded revenues (p.137). Indeed, Lee attempts to inject his own interest in China into his readers.
On the other hand, the author’s efforts to lay emphasis on topics that are more appealing prove to have adverse effects as well. For one, Lee’s compulsion to share topics that he finds interesting results in uneven focus throughout many parts of the book. In one such instance, Lee devotes dozens of pages to the lengthy wars between Jhin and Song and even specifically describes the terms of many peace treaties and battle strategies. Such details offer little insight into Chinese history as a whole, and even Fairbank and Meskill only make passing references to them. The needlessly detailed description must then have arisen from the author’s interest in the subject, which ultimately imposes tedious information upon the reader. Furthermore, at other times, the author fails to include information on a subject if he finds it uninteresting. This is the case with the Five Dynasties Stage, to which he only devotes three pages because, to him, “None of the Five Short Dynasties in the metropolitan region had an edifying or interesting history. Theirs was a series of wars, murders, and usurpations” (p.119). Clearly, this uneven coverage of different subjects leaves the reader with information that is overabundant in some areas and insufficient in others.
In the same vein, Lee’s desire to please his core reader demographic is detrimental to foreigners who wish to extract accurate information from the text. It can be inferred from the Chinese title of the book, “Our Roots,” and the Taiwanese phonetics on the cover, that the core readership will be Taiwanese. With this in mind, Lee has created a work that often seems to glorify the Taiwanese and their ancestors specifically. For instance, when describing China’s geography, Lee presents his opinion that “Taiwan is…the most beautiful [island]” as fact (p.6). He also occasionally glosses over information that makes China appear weak in the face of other nations. When speaking of the Opium War and foreign dominations that follow, he only includes a few pages (p.154-6) on the subject, whereas Fairbank and Meskill both provide long sections on the details of the war, the resulting agreements, as well as other wars that followed. It is unfortunate that Roots fails to provide information on a shameful but nevertheless important part of Chinese history that helps to explain China’s inferiority complex during the many decades that followed. Similarly, the book names modern scientists, artists, and writers in Taiwan but not the People’s Republic of China. This, too, denies readers information that they will need to study and understand today’s China as a whole.
In addition to the aforementioned instances in which the author inserts his own bias and opinions in an unapparent manner, Lee also frequently asserts his views explicitly. There are many cases in which he utilizes the words “I think, “I believe,” or “I propose,” such as when he asserts that “I think the human element…had also played a role in historic happenings of every epoch” (80). While it is helpful to provide an expert’s opinion, including them also makes the work appear less objective. When opinions are inserted into a work of history, one begins to question the reliability of the rest of the information, which are then likely to be influenced by bias. Neither Meskill nor Fairbank address themselves in the first person in their works. Although Lee supports assertions with evidence for the most part, there are also times when he makes statements without sufficient proof. Often, these statements make Roots appear even less professional and less reliable. For example, he frequently describes characters without proof, such as when he repeatedly asserts that certain rulers are “stupid,” “ugly,” (p.81), or “crazy” (p.149). Moreover, although it is most likely due to inaccurate translation, the use of these adjectives, which are generally colloquial, reduce Lee’s credibility as a qualified historian.
Overall, China’s Roots is a well-written but nevertheless flawed piece of nonfiction on China’s past. Despite having listed many faults with the book, I would recommend it to anyone interested in Chinese history. While the writing may not be entirely objective, it does provide an abundance of valuable information on China and its origins. Furthermore, it conveys that information in a succinct and interesting manner, rendering what could otherwise be dull material into a more entertaining and understandable form. Personally, I found the stories of wars and power struggles to be fascinating. It is important for every Chinese person to learn about his or her origins, and this book represents a great source from which to draw that knowledge. On the whole, it provides the most important details of Chinese history and culture without being too detailed or too rough about its subject matter. However, readers must also take Lee’s words with a grain of salt, especially when he writes subjectively. When the author asserts that that Tang is the greatest dynasty, for example, readers should question the statement and decide for themselves the qualities that constitute true greatness.
Lee, Orient. China’s Roots. 2nd Edition. Monterey Park: Evergreen Publishing, 2002.
Meskill, John T. An Introduction to Chinese Civilization. Lexington: DC Health and Co, 1973.
Fairbank, John K. and Edwin O. Reischauer. China: Tradition and Transformation: Revised Edition. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1989.