Try squeezing 30 years of your life into 3 pages, and maybe then you will understand what 3000 years of Chinese history feels like on 300 pages. Somehow though, J.A.G. Roberts pulls it off. The book never leaves you feeling like this or that period was shortchanged. On the contrary, you leave the reading well satisfied, sort of the way you feel after a 4-course meal followed by an espresso and a cigarette. If you supplement the reading with literary samples from the different periods (I used The Norton Anthology of World Literature) and full-color historical maps (Rand McNally), you’re in for quite a ride.
Of particular interest to me were the jinshi examinations, which unbelievably lasted until 1905, and were it not for their inherent conservatism, seemed like a very effective way of encouraging a meritocracy. Instead of abolishing those, I would’ve simply added more science and foreign texts to the Confucian base. At many other similar times during the reading, the pragmatist in me wanted to jump in and say, “Hey wait! We could do this better, Mr. Emperor!” Thinking along those lines, I was able to prolong the reign of the Tang, solve the Ming crisis and avoid the Cultural Revolution. You have to give Roberts credit for rousing the pragmatic beast in me, a feat almost as impressive as his synthetic compilation of what seems to be most of the relevant scholarship, both Chinese and Western, and his ability to make so many characters come to life in such a small space.