There are books, there are tomes and there are monumental tomes. And then there is the newly revised edition of Endymion Wilkinson’s Chinese History: A New Manual, just published by Harvard University Press.
Priced at $48, the Chinese history manual contains 1.5 million words broken into 14 book-length parts in 76 chapters. It is arranged in two columns on pages using a type size that, as one reviewer put it, “requires fresh eyes after only a few minutes of reading” if the reader is no longer young.
Wilkinson, who studied Chinese at Cambridge in the 1960s and served as the European Union’s ambassador to Beijing from 1994 to 2001, has compiled an exhaustive assemblage of facts and analysis, with an almost obsessive level of minutiae and cross-referencing. It is, in short, the kind of book that scholars love.
Where, for example, did chopsticks come from? “The first ones used for placing food in the mouth may be the bronze pair excavated from an Anhui site” dating from the Spring and Autumn Period (770-476 BC). “Many centuries were to go by before they replaced the use of hands at the table,” he writes, adding that the index finger is “still called shizhi, the eating or tasting finger”.
In Chapter 18, he traces the five stages of the evolution of Chinese manuscript and book production, beginning with manuscripts written on bamboo strips and wooden tablets in the Shang Dynasty (16th century-11th century BC) and the subsequent Western Han Dynasty (206 BC-AD 24) and Eastern Han Dynasty (AD 25-220).
He proceeds to manuscripts written on silk, in the Warring States Period (475-221 BC) to Han, and then on paper, in the later Han period to the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms era (AD 907-960). He follows