The Cambridge Illustrated History of China by Patricia Buckley Ebrey
It is clearly written, understandable and with some superb pictures which really add to the experience. I also admired the author's stance. To me it seemed admirably neutral. For instance, having read several accounts of life in twentieth century China, I found myself looking at the whole sad history from yet another viewpoint. Mao, for instance, was not demonised, neither was he hugely admired, but he and his actions were examined, and therefore, to some extent, explained.
The epilogue was particularly fine. It compared the Western and Eastern views of civilisation. In the West, the metaphor for a civilisation is the life of a man: a tumultuous youth followed by the steadiness of maturity and then a decline in old age. One rises to supremacy then declines and another takes its place, and only one may reign supreme at a time. In the East, however, the metaphor is a line of descent. There is 'No sense that young civilisations supplant old ones - rather it passes through a series of yin-yang-like reversals of direction from excessive disorder to excessive order and back again.'
I found this idea very interesting, because it reminded me again of Joseph Needham's questions: why did Chinese science decline after such an exciting start in (Western) pre-Renaissance times? Patricia Buckley Ebrey puts this in a slightly different way. She says that until 1700 ideas tended to go from east to west, but by the nineteenth century China was outclassed, and suggests this may have been due to the more ordered society of the Qing dynasty 1644-1900.
The Ming Dynasty that came before it was a more open society and as more disordered, but also creative. Under the Manchu of the Qing Dynasty there was more order, but also more repressive: homosexuality and noel writing were deemed to be subversive and the ideal woman were sensitive, delicate and 'pure'. For instance, there was a rise in the number of 'celibate widows' who refused to marry another even though they had never met the man to whom they had been betrothed (the man in question having died before marriage).
So maybe the decline in creativity in China was due not to the flow of all the great young minds to the civil service as I have read elsewhere (this, after all, had been in place long before 1700) or that lack of wars between kingdoms (the Qing emperor's seemed to do a lot of that too) but just the repression and discouragement of free-thinking.
I'm thinking of this as I begin to read Shifu, You'll Do Anything for a Laugh by Mo Yan. Mo Yan grew up in the Great Leap Forward. A time when the intellectuals had been purged following the 1956 'Let a hundred flowers bloom' and the subsequent anti-Rightist campaign. Jung Chang, author of Wild Swans said that such conditions are bad for creativity, and she had to write her book in her head during her time in forced labour. But Mo Yan says, in his excellent preface, that he is writer because of this period of loneliness and hunger. Maybe these apparently conflicting viewpoints are actually different facets of the same process.
It is as though, in this instance, the repression of hard labour in the countryside has led to an intellectual disorder: a time when ideas can fly like Poincaré's hooked atoms around the room of the mind. But unfortunately, there is no opportunity to record the flashes of insight that occur in the toil and deprivation, but at least they happen, and with luck can be recalled later. There would also be little opportunity to share ideas or learn, just this time to reflect. Luckily, for these two authors, and their readers, it turned out to be enough.