A History


By John Keay

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An authoritative account of five thousand years of Chinese history

Many nations define themselves in terms of territory or people; China defines itself in terms of history. Taking into account the country’s unrivaled, voluminous tradition of history writing, John Keay has composed a vital and illuminating overview of the nation’s complex and vivid past. Keay’s authoritative history examines 5,000 years in China, from the time of the Three Dynasties through Chairman Mao and the current economic transformation of the country. Crisp, judicious, and engaging, China is the classic single-volume history for anyone seeking to understand the present and future of this immensely powerful nation.



JOHN KEAY’S books include India Discovered, The Honourable Company, Last Post: The End of the Empire in Far East, the two-volume Explorers of the Western Himalayas, India: A History, The Great Arc, Sowing the Wind: The Seeds of Conflict in the Middle East and Mad about the Mekong: Exploration and Empire in South East Asia. He is married with four children, lives in Scotland, and is co-author with Julia Keay of the Collins Encyclopaedia of Scotland.

From the reviews of China: A History:

‘Much of [China’s] past, by any standard, is awe-inspiring. Not just for the temples, palaces and terracotta armies that remain, but for the earliest books and scripts – and poems – that underpin the beginnings of true civilisation . . . Anybody fascinated by the puzzle of what comes next for our frail, perplexed planet will find unexpected answers in this crisp, often witty chronicle of amazements: for what comes next, as the Chinese know, is also what came up in the dynasty before last’


‘Ambitious . . . [this] book has many virtues, not least its refusal to adopt a Eurocentric perspective. It also reminds us that to talk of one China, or one Chinese history, is absurd . . . China’s past was contested and fragmented. Intoxicatingly interesting’

Independent on Sunday

‘An epic history of China . . . As China begins to dominate the contemporary world order a comprehensive record of this vast nation, its extended ancestry and distinctive culture is particularly timely. There’s no way of understanding China’s stirring future without a sense of its awe-inspiring past’

Traveller magazine



By the same author

Into India

When Men and Mountains Meet

The Gilgit Game

Eccentric Travellers

Explorers Extraordinary

Highland Drove

The Royal Geographical Society’s History of World Exploration

India Discovered

The Honourable Company

The Collins Encyclopaedia of Scotland (with Julia Keay)

Indonesia: From Sabang to Merauke

Last Post: The End of Empire in the Far East

The Great Arc

India: A History

Sowing the Wind: The Seeds of Conflict in the Middle East

Mad about the Mekong: Exploration and

Empire in South East Asia

The Spice Route: A History

The London Encyclopaedia (3rd Edn) (with Julia Keay)





The Master said, ‘Is it not a pleasure, having learned something, to try it out at due intervals? Is it not a joy to have like-minded friends come from afar? Is it not gentlemanly not to take offence when others fail to appreciate your abilities?’

Confucius, The Analects, Book I, i1


He who does not forget the past is master of the present.

Sima Qian, Shiji2


Mawangdui silk banner (Hunan Provincial Museum)

Shang turtle plastron (China Images/Alamy)

Sanxingdui bronze figure (Uniphoto/AAA Collection)

Zeng Hou Yi bronze zun (Uniphoto/AAA Collection)

First Emperor’s terracotta army (China Photos/Getty Images)

Chariot from the First Emperor’s burial site (Viktor Korotayev/Reuters/Corbis)

Tou Wan’s jade suit (Asian Art & Archaeology, Inc/Corbis)

The Tarim Mummy ‘Charchan Man’ (© Jeffrey Newbury)

Han Granary at Dunhuang (© Powerhouse Museum, Sydney. Photographer: Jean-François Lanzarone)

Scene from the Romance of the Three Kingdoms (The Avery Brundage Collection, B60M427. © Asian Art Museum of San Francisco. Used by permission)

‘Nomads with a tribute horse’ (detail), traditionally attributed to Li Zanhua, Chinese, 899–936. Ink, colour, and gold on silk. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Keith McLeod Fund 52.1380. (Photograph © 2008 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

Tang figurine of horsewoman (Uniphoto/AAA Collection)

Tang figurine of camel and rider (Werner Forman Archive/Christian Deydier)

The Buddha’s First Sermon, seventeenth-century fresco, Tibet (Art Archive/Museo Nazionale d’Arte Orientale, Rome/Gianni Dagli Orti)

The Lungmen Buddha caves (Wolfgang Kaehler/Corbis)

Travelling Tang monk, ninth-century Chinese painting, Tunhuang/Musée Guimet (akg-images/Erich Lessing)

The Grand Canal at Yangzhou (Claro Cortes IV/Reuters/Corbis)

Song paddle boat (from Joseph Needham, Science and Civilisation in China, Vol 4, Physics and Physical Technology Part 2, Mechanical Engineering, 1965, Cambridge University Press. Originally from Yü Chhang-Hui’s Fang Hai Chi Yao, 1842)

The Qingming scroll: ‘Going on the River at the Qingming Festival’ by Zhang Zeduan (The Palace Museum, Beijing)

The walls and gateway, Nanjing (AFP/Getty Images)

Jizhou plan of the Great Wall (Collection of the National Museum of China – C14.2142)

The Great Wall today (Adam Tall/Robert Hardin)

Qingbai porcelain bowl (Kimbell Art Museum/Corbis)

Ming blue-and-white vase (© RMN/Richard Lambert)

Xu Yang’s ‘Bird’s-Eye View of the Capital’ hanging scroll, colour on silk, 1767 (Palace Museum, Beijing. Ref. X146672)

The Mongol leader Dawaci (bpk/Ethnologisches Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin/Photo: Waltraudt Schneider-Schütz)

Engraving of cannons on camel-back (Library of Congress)

Scroll painting of the Kangxi emperor’s tour of the south by Yang Jin, c. 1644– c. 1726. (© RMN/© Thierry Ollivier)

The Qing Qianlong emperor preparing to receive Macartney, engraving 1793 after original by William Alexander (Getty Images)

Court portrait of the Qianlong emperor (The Palace Museum, Beijing. Ref: G6465)

Packing porcelain for export (Private collection. Photo © Bonhams/Bridgeman Art Library)

The hongs of Canton (Private collection/Roy Miles Fine Painting/Bridgeman Art Library)

Taiping encampment at Tianjin (Harvard-Yenching Library, Harvard University)

The execution of Boxer insurgents (Getty Images)

The empress dowager Cixi (portrait, 1905–6, by Hubert Vos) (akg-images)

Pu-yi, ‘the Last Emperor’ (The Art Archive/Culver Pictures)

Chiang Kai-shek and Zhang Xueling (Getty Images)

The Shanghai bund in 1930 (Getty Images)

The Nanjing Massacre, December 1937 (Getty Images)

Chongqing under Japanese bombing (Getty Images)

Mao Zedong at Yan’an (Getty Images)

‘Rivers and Mountains are Charming’ poster (Swim Ink/Corbis)

‘Survey the Enemy’ poster (Swim Ink/Corbis)

One-child-per-family policy poster (Owen Franken/Corbis)

The Three Gorges Dam (Reuters/Corbis)

Labrang Tashikyil monastery, Amdo (Ian Cumming/Axiom)


China: cradle, core and current provinces

Rivers and mountains

The big five dynasties

Timeline: the five emperors and the three (pre-imperial) dynasties

Archaeological type sites for the three (pre-imperial) dynasties

Timeline: Former/Western Zhou kings, c. 1045–770BC

Realm of the Former/Western Zhou, c. 1045–770BC

Classic texts and their provenance

The Warring States, c. 350BC

The expansion of Qin, c. 350–210BC

Timeline: the ruling house of Qin

Civil war, 209–202BC

Timeline: from Qin to Han, 220–87BC

Han empire in the first century BC

Timeline: Former/Western Han succession, 87BCAD9

Timeline: Later/Eastern Han succession, AD25–220

The Three Kingdoms, AD220– c. 270

Dynasties of ‘the Period of Disunion’, AD220–590

Timeline: ‘Period of Disunion’ succession, AD220–600

Buddhism in ‘the Period of Disunion’

The Grand Canal, c. AD611

The Sui-Tang reunification, 580–650

Timeline: the Sui/Tang succession, 580–650

The Tang empire, c. 650

The Tang empire, c. 750 (1)

The Tang empire, c. 750 (2)

Timeline: the Tang succession, 650–750

Timeline: Later Tang succession, 750–907

Huang Chao’s long march, 878–80

Timeline: the Five (Northern) Dynasties, 907–59

The Five (Northern) Dynasties and the Ten Kingdoms, 907–60

The Ten Kingdoms of the Five Dynasties period

China, c. 1100

Timeline: the succession of regional dynasties, 1000–1300

China, c. 1200

Timeline: the Song and Jin successions

The Mongol advance, 1209–1300

The Mongol succession

Timeline: the Southern Song succession, 1127–1279

The Mongol Yuan succession, 1279–1368

The Mongol Yuan provinces

Timeline: the Ming reign periods, 1368–1644

Profile of an emperor

Zheng He’s voyages, 1405–31

Northern frontier and the Great Wall, 1550–1650

Manchu conquests, 1616–1755

Timeline: Manchu Qing succession, 1620–1820

China in the nineteenth century

Timeline: Later Qing succession, 1795–1911

The Northern Expedition and the Long March


This book is heavily indebted to a legion of China specialists, some of whom are mentioned in the text and others in the source notes and bibliography. I know few of them personally but I hope their views have not been misrepresented. It also owes much to Ian Paten for his painstaking editing, to Caroline Hotblack who brought a rare understanding to the picture research, and to Louise McLeman for the design and HL Studios for labouring over the maps and tables. I am most grateful to all of them. A word of thanks, too, to the inventor of wheeled luggage, without which the squirreling home of trunkloads of books would have crippled me, and to the makers of that China-traveller’s essential, the plastic cafetière.

Richard Johnson of HarperCollins suggested the book. He also championed it, commissioned it, and oversaw every stage of its production. This is the fifth book on which we have worked together. His support and friendship have been so invaluable that mere acknowledgment seems insulting. The same goes for Julia, to whom I am married. For three years she has lived this book as much as I have. It was she who fathomed the working of China Railways, hauled me from the path of oncoming traffic, and almost never complained. She has read every word of the text and drew the roughs for the maps and tables, often at the expense of her own work. No one could have been readier with encouragement and support. Ideally her name should be beside mine on the title page. Instead it is as near as possible, on the dedicatory page.

John Keay

May 2008



CHINA’S ECONOMIC RESURGENCE IN THE POST-MAO era has not been without its casualties. Gone are the Chairman’s portraits, the mass parades of flag-waving workers and the hoe-toting brigades on their collectivised farms. Apartment blocks, tightly mustered and regimentally aligned, perform the new choreography; flyovers vault the rice paddies, cable cars abseil the most sacred of mountains, hydrofoils ruffle the lakes beloved of poets. Familiar features in the historical landscape have either disappeared or been reconfigured as visitor attractions. Iconised for a market as much domestic as foreign, they make inviting targets for another demolitionist fraternity, that of international academe. When history itself is being so spectacularly rewritten, nothing is sacred. The Great Wall, the Grand Canal, the Long March, even the Giant Panda? Myths, declare the revisionist scholars, facile conflations, figments of foreign ignorance now appropriated to gratify Chinese chauvinism.

Contrary to the tourist brochures, the Great Wall has been shown to be not ‘over 2,000 years old’, not ‘6,000 miles [9,700 kilometres] long’, not ‘visible from outer space’ – not visible on the ground in many places – and never to have been a single continuous structure.1 It did not keep out marauding nomads nor was that its original purpose; instead of defending and defining Chinese territory, it was probably designed to augment and project it.2 Those sections near Beijing that may conveniently be inspected today have been substantially reconstructed for just such inspection; and the rubble and footings from which they rise are those of Ming fortifications no older than the palaces in the Forbidden City or London’s Hampton Court.

Likewise the Grand Canal. Reaching from the Yangzi delta to the Yellow River (Huang He), a distance of about 1,100 kilometres (700 miles), the canal is supposed to have served as a main artery between China’s productive heartland and its brain of government. Laid out in the seventh century AD, it did indeed connect the rice-surplus south to the often cereal-deficient north, so fusing the two main geographical components of China’s political economy and supplying a much-needed highway for bulk transport and imperial progresses. Yet it, too, was never a single continuous construction, more a series of well-engineered waterways interconnecting the various deltaic arms of the Yangzi, and elsewhere linking that river’s tributaries to those of the Huai River, whose tributaries were in turn linked to the wayward Yellow River. The system was rarely operational throughout its entirety because of variable water flow, the rainy season in the north not coinciding with that in the south; colossal manpower was needed to haul the heavily laden transports and work the locks; dredging and maintenance proved prohibitively expensive; and so frequent were the necessary realignments of the system that there are now almost as many abandoned sections of Grand Canal as there are of Great Wall.3

More controversially, the Long March, that 1934–35 epic of heroic communist endeavour, has been disparaged as neither as long nor as heroic as supposed. It is said the battles and skirmishes en route were exaggerated, if not contrived, for propaganda purposes; and of the 80,000 troops who began the march in Jiangxi in the south-east, only 8,000 actually foot-slogged their way right round China’s mountainous perimeter to Yan’an in the north-west. As for the rest, some perished but most simply dropped out long before the 9,700-kilometre (6,000-mile) march was completed. And of those who did complete it, one at least seldom marched; Mao, we are assured, was borne along on a litter.4

Maybe the Giant Panda, a byword for endangered icons if ever there was one, is on safer ground. In the 1960s and ’70s the nearly extinct creature, together with some acrobatic ping-pong players, emerged as a notable asset in the diplomatic arsenal of the beleaguered People’s Republic. Much sought after by zoos worldwide, the pandas, especially females, were freely bestowed on deserving heads of state. The presentations were described as ‘friendship gestures’, and experimental breeding was encouraged as if a successful issue might somehow cement the political entente. But not any more. From sparse references in classic texts such as the ‘Book of Documents’ (Shu-jing or Shangshu, bits of which may date from the second millennium BC) a pedigree of undoubted antiquity has been constructed for the panda and a standard name awarded to it. Now known as the Daxiongmao or ‘Great Bear-Cat’, its habits have been found sufficiently inoffensive to merit its promotion as a ‘universal symbol of peace’; its numbers have stabilised, perhaps increased, thanks to zealous conservation; and lest anyone harbour designs on such a national paragon, no longer may Giant Pandas be expatriated. All are Chinese pandas. Foreign zoos may only lease them, the lease being for ten years, the rental fee around $2 million per annum, and any cubs born during the rental being deemed to inherit the nationality of their mother – and the same terms of contract. Like its piebald image as featured in countless brand logos, the Giant Panda has itself become a franchise.

None of this is particularly surprising or regrettable. All history is subject to revision, and the Chinese having taken a greater interest in their history – and for longer – than any other civilisation, theirs is a history that has been more often rewritten than any other. During the last century alone the history books had to be reconfigured at least four times – to create a Nationalist mythology, to accommodate the Marxist dialectic of class struggle, to conform to Maoist insistence on the dynamics of proletarian revolution, and to justify market socialism’s conviction that wealth creation is compatible with authoritarian rule.

A much-publicised claim that modern China has inherited ‘the longest continuous civilisation in the world’ (its length being anything from 3,000 to 6,000 years, depending on the credibility of the publication) should perhaps be subjected to the same forensic scrutiny as phrases like ‘the Great Wall’ and ‘the Giant Panda’. Though now widely deployed by the Chinese themselves, the claim sounds suspiciously like another glib foreign generalisation. Three to six thousand years of continuous civilisation could simply indicate three to six thousand years of what others have found a continuously perplexing civilisation. Certainly the nature of that civilisation needs careful definition; so do the motives of those who have championed it; and the insistence on continuity seems particularly suspect in the light of the last century’s revolutionary ructions. As with the segmented Great Wall and the surviving snippets of Grand Canal, the discontinuities in China’s record may deserve as much attention as the proud concept into which they have been conflated.

One continuity is obvious: Chinese scholars have been obsessed by their country’s past almost since it had one. Like other societies, the ancient Chinese subscribed to the idea that their land had once hosted a primordial perfection, a prehistoric Eden, characterised in this instance by a virtuous hierarchy in which cosmic, natural and human forces operated in harmonious accord. To guide mankind to a new realisation of this idealised past, it was history, not revelation, which provided directions; and it did so by affording solutions to present dilemmas and insights into the future that were derived from written texts. Ancient compilations, such as the ‘Book of Documents’, thus acquired canonical status and were treated to the respect, as well as the exegetical analysis, reserved in other lands for the scriptures of divine revelation. Familiarity with the standard texts was not just a mark of scholarship but a basic indicator of Chinese identity and a measure of cultural proficiency.

It was also an essential requisite for government service. Precedent and practice, culled from the textual records, came to serve as the currency of political debate. Correctly interpreted, historical precedent could legitimise a ruler, sanction an initiative or forewarn of a disaster. It might also be manipulated so as to legitimise a usurper, sanction repression or forestall reform. Among the educated elite it sometimes served as a coded critique whereby, through reference to the past, unfavourable comment might be passed on current policies without necessarily incurring the wrath of those responsible for them. Conversely it could be officially used to confuse an issue or offload responsibility.

In 1974, by way of discrediting Lin Biao (or Lin Piao, the military man previously named as Mao’s successor), the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party mounted a campaign against Confucius (Kong Qiu), the cultural colossus most closely associated with the whole textual tradition. What the fifth-century BC sage had in common with the twentieth-century revolutionary was, of course, ‘reactionary’ leanings. But since, in the case of Lin Biao, these were not immediately obvious to cadres acccustomed to idolising Lin as the most ‘progressive’ of communist leaders, it was necessary that he be paraded for censure alongside a teacher whose doctrines, in the aftermath of the Cultural Revolution, could not be mistaken for other than the rankest form of reaction. The principle, borrowed from ballistics and familiar to all China-watchers, was simply that of aiming at a far target to hit a near one. Becoming an official campaign, this ‘Anti-Lin Biao–anti-Confucius’ linkage duly induced a rush of hot air from Marxist study groups which deflected attention from the otherwise mysterious demise and disgrace of the unfortunate Marshal Lin.5

In a century as rife with revolutions (Nationalist, communist, cultural, market-socialist) as the last, the revisionists have sometimes been pushed to keep up with the pace of events; but their predicament is nothing new. The onus of constantly reviewing the historical record, of refining, reinterpreting and extending it, has weighed heavily on every Chinese rulership since time immemorial. At periods of dynastic change it could be particularly acute, but even in the golden age of Tang (ad 618–907) the management of history ranked in terms of political sensitivity on a par with the management of the economy today. Historiography was not some scholarly pastime but a vital function of government. Within the imperial bureaucracy the Director of the Historiographical Office enjoyed all the perquisites of great seniority and commanded a large and highly qualified staff that generated copious paperwork (and before that, woodwork, slivers of bamboo being the earliest form of stationery).

An analysis of official history-writing under the Tang has revealed the painstaking compilation methods employed by the Historiography Office to extend the historical record using near-contemporary sources.6


  • "Exquisitely written.... In fluid, effortless prose, Keay moves energetically through the vicissitudes of China's dynastic past."—Guardian (UK)
  • "Absorbingly readable.... A pleasingly cultured account of the great sweep of China's evolution."—Independent (UK)
  • "Here, at roughly 130 pages per millennium, is China's history from the earliest fragments of Xia dynasty to the last emperor, with a little of Chairman Mao added for good (or bad) luck. Its core, though, covers the 'big five' dynasties--Han, Tang, Song, Ming and Qing--from 200 BC to the start of the twentieth century, and Keay's choice is deliberate. There is no understanding China present or future without a sense of its past. Much of that past, by any standard, is awe-inspiring."—Observer(UK)
  • "Without sacrificing substance for brevity, Keay manages to illustrate China's history very much as a narrative of the rise and fall of strong and feeble emperors, bureaucratic cliques and factionalism, the development of philosophical traditions and religious incarnations, and the constant restructuring of the empire's geographical boundaries. Readers already interested in, or wishing newly to embark upon, Chinese history will adore this book. Highly recommended."—Library Journal
  • "John Keay has written...with unflagging zest, clear, accessible prose, and a refreshingly panoramic perspective." Open Letters Monthly

On Sale
Oct 6, 2009
Page Count
624 pages
Basic Books

John Keay

About the Author

John Keay is the author of several acclaimed books, including China: A History, The Great Arc: The Dramatic Tale of How India Was Mapped and Everest Was Named, and the bestselling India: A History. He was formerly a special correspondent for the Economist, and contributes regularly to the Sunday Telegraph, Times Higher Educational Supplement, and the Literary Review.

Learn more about this author