CHRIS DAVIS

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - WORLD REVIEW - NEW YORK JOUR­NAL

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

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