When I began reading Chinese history in 1955 we learned that there was something unchangingly ‘Chinese’ about China’s past from about the third century BC until the 1840s, when Western imperialism shattered ‘traditional’ China, humbling the last emperors, forcing opium on the Chinese people, and compelling China, ever so slowly, to ‘Westernise’. We were taught, too, that whenever China was conquered by non-Chinese peoples (such as the Mongols in the thirteenth century and the Manchus in the seventeenth), the ‘barbarians’, as the Chinese called them, recognised that the conquered were more civilised than they were; they strove, therefore, to become ‘Chinese’ in dress, language, customs and politics. We also believed that the sometimes long periods between dynasties were unfortunate hitches of ‘disunion’ in the parade of dynastic rule during which Chinese civilisation, as the dominant Harvard school put it, changed within tradition. These six new books mark out a completely different set of themes, showing above all that the concept of ‘unchanging China’ short-changes the fascinating realities of over 2000 years of dynastic and interdynastic history.
Stanford’s Mark Edward Lewis, the energetic, widely learned author of the first three volumes of this series, understands the need for a clear narrative line. In The Early Chinese Empires: Qin and Han (321pp £24.95), he moves from 897 BC, when the first Qin state was born, to its