Roving thoughts and provocations

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China: Five Pounds of Facts

Ian Berry/Magnum Photos
Sichuan, China, 2002

No one seems to have measured exactly how old Chinese civilization is, but Endymion Wilkinson can probably give a more precise answer than anyone else. “1.6 billion minutes separate us from the Zhou conquest of the Shang,” he informs us at the beginning of his Chinese History: A New Manual. Undaunted, he then sets out to describe just about everything that has happened since.

Here he is, for example, on chopsticks: “The first ones used for placing food in the mouth may be the bronze pair excavated from an Anhui site dating from the late Chunqiu,” yet “many centuries were to go by before they replaced the use of hands at the table (and the forefinger and index finger is still called shizhi 食指, the eating or tasting finger).”

On names:

Because only a handful of lineage names were held by a large percentage of the population already 2,000 years ago, most of the population today shares the same few Chinese family names…. In 1998, in Beijing, 13,000 people had the name Zhang Shuzhen 张淑珍, 11,000 were called Wang Shuzhen 王淑珍, and 10,100 were named Li Shuzhen 李淑珍.

Or on hairstyles:

Children’s hairstyles in China have been remarkably consistent from the Zhou dynasty to the present day. By custom, children had their head shaved on a lucky day one month (or slightly less) after birth…Later both boys and girls might have two tufts plaited to curve down to the left and right like horns, hence their name, guan 丱, horn-like tufts….The shaved heads and tufts of infancy survived the reforms and revolutions of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and are still a common sight.

Before readers can thread a path through Wilkinson’s unparalleled collection of Chinese facts and analysis, reaching from the earliest recorded times to the late twentieth century, however, they must find a way to handle a book weighing well over five pounds. In the lap? On a table? On a stand? The 1.5 million words, enough for nine four-hundred-page books, appear in two columns on most pages and, if one is no longer young, require fresh eyes after only a few minutes of reading.

But soon what Wilkinson has done becomes clear. The New Manual, he says too modestly, is intended to “introduce students” to Chinese history. It comprises fourteen supremely learned “book-length parts” in seventy-six chapters, including entries on language, people, geography, and the environment, on ideas and beliefs, and on technology and science. This will save hard-pressed professors much time as they wave graduate students or extra-clever undergraduates towards the relevant sections of their research. If they have yet to learn enough Chinese, classical and modern, to plunge into this sea, they can get started with western-language sources, which Wilkinson also copiously lists. (I spotted only one error: the author of Ba Jin, cited twice, is Olga, not Olger, Lang.) Who beside Wilkinson could have the energy, patience, ambition, and skills to perform this feat? He reports that the current New Manual took him half a century of study, though an early version was first published in 1973. After learning Chinese at Cambridge in the 1960s Wilkinson did further graduate work, mostly in the US, and along the way became the EU’s Ambassador to Beijing for seven years (1994–2001).

What is most fascinating for me and, I suppose, older China hands, is Wilkinson’s passion for minutiae. I doubt whether many of the students for whom he intends his book want to know the origin of chopsticks; or the traditional way of placing one hand over the other when greeting an older, younger, or more important person; or how to arrange the rank order at a twelve-person dinner table. Self-deprecating in a Chinese way, Wilkinson says, “Only a small section of the many polite, derogatory, and self-deprecatory terms in use are provided in the following sections.” That small section, I am happy to say, takes up two and half columns of small print, including such endearing self-deprecations as rustic (bi 鄙), lowly (bei 卑), foolish (yu 愚), lacking ability (bucai 不才), and your slave (nu 奴). Particular attention is paid to the kowtow in which one kneels then knocks one’s head on the floor, “depending on the intensity of the salutation.” A Manchu prince, exiled in Taiwan, once demanded I do this if I wanted him to teach me, but chuckled indulgently when I refused.

For friendly greetings, when one cups the hands in front of the chest, “The height at which the clasped hands were held depended on the status of the person being greeted.” If the status was high the gesture must be “accompanied by a broad smile and a sharp, good-natured intake of breath.” I now see I got this wrong for years. I did know that in Taiwan, where I studied, boys were sometimes given girls’ names “to fool malignant spirits.” In any event, as noted above, names have always been different in China. (Wilkinson has further troubled himself to discover that whereas 6.7 percent of all Chinese—about 90 million people—have the surname Wang, only 0.15 percent of Americans are called the most common Smith.)

At the other end of the courtesy scale was, and often still is, Han—indigenous Chinese—contempt for non-Hans. This went back to early times. In the nineteenth century, there were foreigners fluent enough in Chinese to dislike the word yi 夷, a barbarian. Some objected to its use in diplomatic and business dealings. “During the early 1850s the British continued to request the Chinese authorities to desist using the term yi when referring to them.” The Qing government agreed in 1858 to stop using the word—at least in documents seen by the British—but was replaced by some other rude words that continue to be used today.

Many ambitious parents in the UK are now seeing to it that their children learn Chinese, which, Wilkinson reports, is now the mother tongue of 10 percent of the world’s population; it may soon be almost double that. English, meanwhile, is spoken by 25 to 30 percent, but this dominance is declining. Will Chinese replace English as the global language? Wilkinson thinks not. The same alphabet is used in hundreds of world languages, while Chinese characters, which must be memorized one by one, are used mostly in China. “The prestige of English as the language of the rich and powerful may still survive intact,” he concludes, “Chinese will gain in influence as a second language.” If Wilkinson, for whom spoken and written Chinese must be much like a second language, says so, that’s good enough for me.

Near the end of his mighty book, Wilkinson directly addresses aspiring students: “How many scholarly books or articles in your field published thirty years previously have you read in the last month?” Before the students cringe, he goes on: “The conclusion is that most scholarship has a shorter lifespan than the humans who produce it.” It is, therefore, “comforting to know that only a very few [articles] are of sufficient quality to be worth considering. The reason is that most spread rather than add to existing knowledge.” It is also comforting to know that the “very few” have found their way into Endymion Wilkinson’s magnificent 1.5 million words.


Endymion Wilkinson’s Chinese History: A New Manual is published by the Harvard University Asia Center and distributed by Harvard University Press.

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