Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 8, 2013

Chinese Lives, The People Who Made a Civilization (2013), by Victor H Mair, Sanping Chen and Frances Wood

Chinese Lives: The People Who Made a CivilizationChina is becoming ever more important in world affairs, and for Australians, the inclusion of Asia and Australia’s engagement with Asia as a curriculum priority for all students of all ages, means that teachers need to get up to speed with a multiplicity of countries, their cultures and histories.

That’s where a book like Chinese Lives, the People Who Made a Civilization is so very useful. The blurb at Fishpond has this to say:

China is the most populous country on earth, with the longest history of any modern nation. In the 21st century, it is clear that China’s future, as a political and economic world power, is set to be as significant as its past, and its achievements still depend upon its people. This book tells the story of China through 96 short biographies. We see the range of Chinese cultural and scientific achievements, as well as its military conquests, wars, rebellions and political and philosophical movements, through the eyes of real people who created or were caught up by them. Here is a colourful array of very different men and women: emperors and empresses, concubines, officials and political figures, rebels, exiles, philosophers, writers and poets, artists, musicians, scientists, military leaders and committed pacifists. Their careers, achievements, misdeeds, disasters, punishments, ideas and love stories make this an unforgettable read. The expert authors have drawn on a huge range of sources to assemble information about the widest possible range of individuals from all periods and parts of China, from an early warrior lady of the 13th century BC, Fu Hao, to the late-20th-century Communist leader Deng Xiaoping.

Dream of the Red Chamber (Real Reads)What is so useful for busy teachers is that these short biographies really are short – only 2-3 pages long at the most, so they are quick and easy to read. It’s a book made for dipping into, so although it’s handy that the Table of Contents lists the subjects by Chinese dynasty, i.e. corresponding to chronological sequence, it’s a pity that there isn’t also a listing by occupation. I had to browse through it to find my first ‘pearl’ which was a bio of Cao Xueqin, said to be China’s greatest author, who has a status similar to Shakespeare in English-speaking countries. It was a quick and easy task to whip up a potted version simple enough for my Year 5 & 6 students who are about to embark on a Biography project, and it was also quick and easy to find a children’s version of Cao Xueqin’s novel, Dream of the Red Chamber (Real Reads) which I have ordered for our school library.

Mind you, it was not exactly a hardship to browse through the book to find interesting people worth knowing about. And what this experience made me realise was that whereas every school kid knows the famous names of western civilization (Benjamin Franklin, Marie Curie, Einstein, Jane Austen, Beethoven et al) and adults would be thought ignorant if they did not know who these people were, we in the West (apart from a few Sinophiles) have absolutely no idea about the comparable roll-call in China, one of the most advanced and enduring civilizations in history, and one that now matters to us all. (Notwithstanding aspects of China that we don’t like, such as its appalling human rights record, its censorship and the dreadful conditions under which its workers create the cheap goods that we are forced to buy because Chinese manufacturing has put our own manufacturing industries out of business.)

I haven’t finished reading the book, and probably won’t have read it cover-to-cover by the time it has to go back to the library, but I shall be cherry-picking the profiles of people of some interest to 10-12 year-olds and adding them to my wiki. If I had money to burn in my school library budget I would buy a copy, because it would be worth it even if only one or two of my colleagues were to read it. For secondary schools, I think it’s a must-have. Just as a quick sample, there are stories of

The Shang to Han Dynasties (c. 16th century BC to AD 220)

  • Fu Hao, a woman warrior of the Shang
  • Confucius (of course)
  • King Wuling of the Zhao, a warrior, and the man who brought trousers to China!)
  • Zhang Qian, an explorer
  • Sima Qian, an historian
  • Cai Yan, an exiled woman poet
  • Shi Le, a slave who became an emperor

The Sui and Tang Dynasties (220-907)

  • Kumarajiva, who translated Buddist sutras for the court, apparently kidnapped from Central Asia to do it
  • Wu Zetian, the only female emperor of China

As well as poets, there are plenty of politicians, rebels and bandits in this era because it was a period of disunity. But not so many interesting people, which perhaps proves that peace is better for making progress than war.

Disunion to the Yuan Dynasty (907-1368)

  • Shen Gua, historian of science
  • Su Dongpo, not only a literary genius but also a legendary cook whose Dongpo-style pork is still a delicacy
  • Yue Fei, a patriot and national hero
  • Zhang Zeduan, a painter (the pictures in the book are gorgeous)
  • Khubilai Khan (grandson of yes, Genghis Khan)
  • Guan Hanqing, founder of Chinese drama

The Ming Dynasty to the People’s Republic of China

(This section, as you’d expect, takes up about half of the book)

  • Zheng He, the eunuch admiral who sailed to Africa
  • Hai Rui, who is famous for being incorruptible, and Heshen, famous because he wasn’t
  • Xu Xiake, a traveller and geographer, who did most of his exploring on foot, covering nearly all the provinces of Ming China
  • Feng Menglong, a popular writer of bestsellers (the Dan Brown of his day?)
  • Pu Songling, a popular writer of ghost and horror stories (the Edgar Alan Poe of his day?)
  • Lin Zexu, who took on the British at the height of their power and banned the opium trade
  • Qiu Jin, feminist heroine and martyr (who learned martial arts in spite of having bound feet)
  • Lu Xun, greatest Chinese writer of the 20th century

Of course there are bios of the Usual Suspects: Sun Yat-Sen, Chiang Kai-Shek and Mao Zedong, but you have to have been under a rock not to know who they are. The last entry is about Deng Xiaoping, the leader who transformed post-Mao China into a market-driven economy while also maintaining its iron grip on dictatorial powers and the suppression of all dissent.

Authors: Victor H Mair, Sanping Chen, Frances Wood
Title: Chinese Lives, the People Who Made a Civilization
Publisher: Thames and Hudson, 2013
ISBN: 9780500251928
Source: Casey-Cardinia Library


Fishpond: Chinese Lives: The People Who Made a Civilization
This review is cross-posted at LisaHillSchoolStuff.


  1. […] This review is cross-posted at ANZ LitLovers. […]


  2. This sounds like a perfect intro for those of us not up to speed on Chinese identities (an area I am sadly lacking in) and its good that each bio is brief.


    • Oh yes, brief is good! I’m just about to add another little page to my wiki about Fu Hao, warrior queen of the 13th century BC!


  3. Nice review, Lisa. This book looks really interesting as it looks like a wonderful introduction to Chinese history and culture. Thanks for writing about it.

    As you mentioned the edition of ‘Dream of Red Mansions’ for younger readers, I thought you might like this. There is a publisher called Asiapac based out of Singapore, which publishes comic versions of Chinese classics. They are excellent. I have their edition of ‘Three Kingdoms’ and a few other books. I found ‘Dream of Red Mansions’ also in their catalogue. You can find their website here.


    • This is great, Vishy – can you tell me the name of the series, or an ISBN? I can’t find the comic book version of it on the website.


  4. Hi Lisa, I am giving below the name, ISBN No. and the link to the comic versions of the four Chinese classics on the Asiapac website. Hope it is useful.

    (1) Dream of Red Mansions (978-981-229-593-4)
    (2) Romance of the Three Kingdoms (978-981-229-501-9)
    (3) Journey to the West (978-981-229-506-4)
    (4) Water Margin (also called as Outlaws of the Marsh) (981-229-283-7)


    • Thank you for going to so much trouble, Vishy, I’m off to check them all out now…
      (Later) Oh bother, my computer malware system is blocking the AsiaLink site because it doesn’t have a security certificate *frown*. And I’ve checked Fishpond, the Book Depository and even *shudder* Amazon and they don’t have these books.
      I’ll have to find a way of working round this…


      • You are welcome, Lisa. Sorry to know that you are not able to access those links. It is also surprising to know that these books are not available in leading online bookstores. One would think that these days almost any book in English would be available in Amazon or a similar bookstore, but it looks like the world continues to surprise us :) In case you want to know more details about these books or see the cover images, do let me know. I can download the concerned pages or put them in a Word document and send it to you.


        • Vishy, I haven’t given up on them yet because I’d really like to get them. Next time I’m at my local bookshop I’ll make enquiries, and I’m going to contact Fishpond (the Aussie online bookshop I mostly use) to see if they can add them to their catalogue.
          You know, I think it’s probably a matter of marketing, it’s surprising how few books from Asia are available, and it’s mainly because people don’t know about them. There are very few blogs in English reviewing books from Asia, and it’s rare to see reviews in the print media. I think there’s an opportunity for an entrepreneur to do something about that…
          That’s why the ‘Man Asian’ and the DSC prize are so important, but they don’t promote classic texts like the ones you’re recommending.
          If the worst comes to the worst, I can add the books to my shopping list next time I’m in Singapore! We nearly always stop over there on our way to Europe because it’s such a long flight, and I would really enjoy browsing through a bookshop of course!


          • Hi Lisa,

            I hope Fishpond is able to get it for you. I agree with you on the awareness part – it is rare to find reviews of Asian classics, in blogs or in the print media. Asiapac books is doing a really wonderful job of introducing Chinese culture in easy-to-read comic / graphic novel format which cover all aspects of Chinese culture – literature, history, culture, language, mythology. When I read my first book, I totally fell in love with it that I went and acquired a big collection of their books over the years.


            • I think that here in Australia the media is very focused on books that critique Chinese repression and not usually interested in other aspects at all…
              (I’m reading one of those at the moment as it happens, by the dissident Liao Yiwu).


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