So when I was reading that history of ancient Egypt, I mentioned that maybe I could do with a bit less pottery in my histories, but here we are in Li Feng’s Early China: A Social and Cultural History:

In fact, through the entire early Western Zhou period, the pottery assemblage in the eastern plains continued to follow the Shang tradition, while in the Zhou central sites in the Wei River valley the pottery culture seems to have gone through a long process of adaptation and modification of the types of different cultural origins.


But this is a lot more than pottery; Li is covering here Chinese civilization from prehistory all the way through the Han Dynasty, which ends in 220 AD. So yeah, you get stuff that’s like that early Egyptian archaeology (but a little less early, because Egypt really did get a good solid head start), but then you also get states with some limited written records, and then you go all the way up through heavily bureaucratic states with whole volumes of philosophy, endless tax records, and detailed histories that put Herodotus to shame.

It’s a pretty broad sweep of history, is what I’m saying, and it moves along fast enough to feel like a fast-paced and breezy read; but what’s extra-fascinating is that a lot of this stuff is new discoveries: Li makes constant references to finds in the 1970s and 1990s—and not just like buildings or statues or whatever, but whole new works of literature that were lost to the ages until now, philosophers who were just barely after Confucius and whose works had an impact on their school of thought, but whose works were lost for millennia.

And of course the discoveries made in these time periods have strong political dimensions to them—when Communist China in the middle of the Cold War is finding things about its own history, they tend to be interpreted in an ideological light both by Chinese scholars and American ones, albeit in different ways; Li gets into the historiography of early China in some detail, from the founding of the subfield to these more recent developments.

It’s all fascinating stuff, and the only real downside is that it is covering so much in such a short book (it’s apparently just a bit under 400 pages in print, which I guess isn’t that short, but it felt shorter) that it doesn’t get into much detail. This is the kind of book that makes you want to read more, rather than making you feel like you now know enough. But I guess that’s not a bad thing for a high-level survey to do, and it definitely does it well. Recommended.


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