Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 17, 2023

The Shortest History of China (2021), by Linda Jaivin

I discovered Five Books at Twitter and have been keeping an eye on it ever since as a useful guide to book recommendations on non-fiction subjects.  (Fiction, not so much.)  Their website describes what they do as…

… a library of knowledge, curating book recommendations on any topic. Experts recommend the five best books in their subject. 

So when their China expert recommends Linda Jaivin’s The Shortest History of China, you know it must be pretty good to have been chosen from amongst hundreds to be one of the five.  By ‘good’, I mean ‘authoritative’ because I can only judge whether the book is interesting or well-written.  I have no expertise to judge whether it gives an accurate picture of China or not.

The Shortest History of China is a remarkable feat.  In only about 250 pages, it covers China’s ancient beginnings to the present day, beginning the history of our powerful neighbour with one of its creation stories:

Far, far back in time, a popular Chinese creation story tells us, primal chaos congealed into an egg, in which the complementary cosmic energies of Yin and Yang thickened around a hairy, horned giant called Pángû. Eighteen thousand years passed.  Pangu hatched fully formed, holding an axe, with which he hacked apart the Yin and Yang .  The Yin became the earth beneath his feet, and the Yang, the sky.  As he grew taller, he pushed the two further and further apart. After Pangu died, his flesh turned to soil, his sweat to rain and his breath to wind.  His blood flowed as rivers and seas. His eyes became the sun and the moon.  From his hair sprung plants and trees, and the fleas in his fur became animals and people.  (p.10).

Beginning in this way signals that the book is a cultural history, much more than just a timeline of dynasties and a catalogue of events.

When I was at school, we learned about the ancient civilisations of the Middle East: the Sumerians and the Babylonians, the Egyptians, the Greeks and the Romans.  These days, the Year 7 Australian Curriculum (V8.4) mandates a general overview of the ancient world (Egypt, Mesopotamia, Persia, Greece, Rome, India, China and the Maya) and students then learn in detail about one Mediterranean civilisation: Egypt or Greece or Rome, and one Asian civilisation: India or China. My guess is that there are many students who find Jaivin’s history very useful indeed.

Amongst other deficiencies in my education was that the role and contributions of women in history were paid scant attention in any of it. But Jaivin has unearthed all kinds of interesting women, from the Empress Dowager Cixi who was a contemporary of Queen Victoria and joint regent with the uncle of a boy emperor called Tongzhi, to Chien-Shiung Wu (1912-1997) who worked on the Manhattan Project in 1944.

#Digression: at this point in writing this review I went off to have my Covid booster and spent the rest of the day dozing on the sofa instead of capturing my thoughts while they were fresh in my mind. So apologies to Linda Jaivin if I have failed to encapsulate her very fine book as well as I might otherwise have done.

The most useful aspect of Jaivin’s history is the way that it explains China’s sense of humiliation by foreign powers.  It seems to me that throughout the dynastic changes with their internal machinations and their pattern of collapsing due to corruption, China had a long, long history of minding its own business while Europe minded its own. That was followed by European expansionism and colonialisation which caught the Chinese unprepared when they weren’t willing to open up to trade.  Japan saw this coming and modernised, and China didn’t, which led to the atrocity known as the Rape of Nanking in 1937.  This Japanese invasion of China was the start of WW2, in which China fought with the Allies*.

(And now, notwithstanding Japanese war crimes within living memory — for which they have never been held accountable — we are allies with them!)

To add to China’s humiliation, the postwar assumption of power by a communist government entrenched isolation imposed by the west.  There was no Marshall Plan to help them with postwar reconstruction, just as there wasn’t in the USSR. The Chinese were on their own, with all the problems of rapid modernisation exacerbated by the disastrous leadership of Mao Tse-tung a.k.a. Mao Zedong.

As this 2015 CNN article makes clear, China’s role in WW2 is now largely forgotten, yet imagine what kind of world it would be, had the Chinese not contained Japan in Asia.  And how is it that the deaths of millions seems not to count at all in Western narratives about WW2? The chart from the same article (at right) is actually deceptive, because the article’s author Rana Mitter (Professor of Modern Chinese Politics and History at the University of Oxford) states that some 14 million Chinese died and up to 100 million became refugees during the eight years of the conflict with Japan from 1937 to 1945.

While Jaivin does not skate over repression by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), she provides context that we rarely see amid relentless anti-Chinese propaganda in the mainstream media.  The example of Falungong is interesting.

Across the mainland, a fad arose for qìgōng 气功, an ancient form of healing and exercise involving the cultivation of qi.  Some qigong masters, expounding Daoist-influenced philosophies, developed large, cultish followings. Such were the origins of many a rebellion in dynastic times.  In the mid-1990s, the CCP placed all qigong groups under supervision.

One group resisted.  Led by the self-proclaimed healer Li Hóngzhi (b.1951) the Falúngōng combined Buddhist and Daoist notions of compassion with racialist ideas, homophobia and the conviction that extraterrestrials were hollowing out humanity spiritually for nefarious purposes. (p.229)

When the CCP denounced Falungong as ‘feudal superstition’ there were huge protests.  The movement had grown to 70 million believers, compared to 63 members of the CCP.  The shocked leadership deemed this the most serious political incident since 1989 and banned the group.

Falungong has since accused the CCP of serious human rights abuses, including the harvesting of organs from their imprisoned members.  The sect promotes its cause abroad through US-based media outlets including the rightwing Epoch Times, New Tang Dynasty Television and the travelling extravaganza Shen Yun, which combines quasi-traditional cultural performances with anti-Communist agit-prop. (p.229)

I was puzzled by this because somehow I had come to believe that there were no rational reasons for China to repress and oppress this movement, which, so far as I could tell, was a harmless exercise regime a bit like Tai Chi. So I read the Wikipedia article about Falun Gong which calls it a new religious movement.  Though the movement’s use of Trumpist media and its nonsensical anti-evolutionary stance becomes clear in the second paragraph, you have to read a lot of benign descriptions of its practices before you come to Li Hongzhi’s despicable teachings about homosexuality and ‘race-mixing’, and his risible belief that aliens are among us here on earth.  But knowing how on any given day WP can be manipulated by its adherents and its opponents, I still wasn’t quite convinced until I read this article tucked away on the ABC’s Religion and Ethics department.  Written by a former adherent of Falun Gong, it’s titled ‘The ABC is right that Falun Gong teachings are dangerous.’ He wrote it in response to criticism of the ABC for this report. Which is interesting because my main source of news until recently was the ABC.  Where did I get this impression that Falun Gong was a bunch off eccentrics unreasonably being persecuted by China?

With the current demonisation of China amid calls for preparation for war with them, it seems to me that we ought to be much better informed about our powerful neighbour,  Jaivin’s history is a good start.

*You can read my review of The Men of the Burma Road (1942), Chiang Yee’s account of heroic peasants building a road to facilitate the WW2 movement of allied arms after Japan held all the Chinese ports, here.

Other titles in this Shortest History series include:

  • The World, by David Baker
  • Greece, by James Heneage
  • India, by John Zubrzycki (on my wishlist)
  • The Soviet Union, by Sheila Fitzpatrick (on my TBR)
  • Democracy, by John Keane
  • War, by Gwynne Dyer
  • England, by James Hawes, and
  • Europe, by John Hirst

Author: Linda Jaivin
Title: The Shortest History of China
Series: Shortest History
Publisher: Black Inc, 2021
ISBN: 9781760641122, pbk., 278 pages including the index
Source: Personal library, purchased from Readings, $24.99



  1. This sounds an important book at this time. And I too am concerned about the anti Chinese narrative that seems to be growing in strength in this country.


    • I do not understand why our politicians think that we have to choose between China and the US, which not content with fomenting war in Europe, now wants to do the same in Asia.
      I had hoped that things would change with the change of government, but this lot are just as foolish as the last lot.


  2. Wonderful review, Lisa. When I went to live and work in China for a few years, I realized that whatever is coming out in the international media about China is biased and exaggerated and not true. So I stopped trusting the news. Can’t deny the horrors of the 1989 Tiananmen massacre or the horrors of the Cultural Revolution, both of which most Chinese don’t talk about today. But today’s China is a much different place. An interesting chapter in Chinese history was the way British used to grow drugs (opium) in India and used to buy tea from China and pay for that tea with drugs, and when Chinese customs seized the vessels bringing in drugs, because selling drugs was illegal, the British went to war against China – it is a shameful chapter in British history. If any government did this today – peddle drugs in another country – it will be denounced. How the British got away with this and how this has been swept below the carpet, while the British made the Chinese look like bad guys – I still don’t know. History is fascinating and we learn new things everyday. Glad to know that this book is good and you liked it.


    • The Opium Wars are indeed a shameful chapter in history. Although it was fiction, I learned about it from Amitav Ghosh’s Ibis Trilogy, beginning with Sea of Poppies. An astonishing story…


  3. Those books sound totally interesting, especially the shortest history of China. I have read quite a few books about that country, would be nice to get a review in one.


    • I think the series might be a little like OUP’s Very Short Introductions series? An overview of the topic, to pique an interest.


    • I was always interested in China, so it doesn’t need to be piqued but an overview sounds good.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. What a good find Lisa (Five Books are very useful!) And it’s becoming so hard to get any factual news nowadays – each outlet seems to have its own bias and actually getting any hard factss seems impossible.


    • So true about the difficulties with media these days. We can no longer trust official sources like the ABC or the BBC, but where to find credible alternatives?
      Certainly, on China, our ABC is a dead loss. Two of their journalists fled a couple of years ago in a story where they were the story, and now they report from Taiwan. They don’t identify their location, and they report using a digital China-ish background but they are not there and they have no capacity to report objectively or credibly about anything.

      I look for articles by people who have China expertise, university professors and the like. You may enjoy this article: a tad over-the-top, but amusing, and spot-on about the real reasons we are spoiling for a proxy war with China
      Or this one, about how the relentless uncritical relaying of the Zelensky line is not helping prospects for a negotiated settlement.


      • Thanks for those links – I will check them out. I just wish that the reporting would be more nuanced – much as I support Ukraine and deplore what Putin is doing, the blind repeating of what Zelensky is saying doesn’t allow for any critical appraisal of the situation and a sensible approach for resolution. As for what you say about the journalists in Taiwan, Mr K is always pointing out that whatever footage we see on TV is totally unverified and we have no idea when or where it comes from. Orwell was certainly spot on about the manipulation of media.


  5. Hi Lisa. If interested, I have a bookshelf on China on GR. I just had a look and see I have 27 books on the subject, with only 9 read. I have said that Chinese history is better than fantasy, such is its depth. If interested, read the wiki on the Taiping Civil War. Amazing!!!!!


    • Thanks for this, you’ve got an interesting list there. The only one (of yours) that I’ve read is Women of the Long March which impressed me because women so rarely get a mention in it. We also have a coffee table book called China the Long March by Anthony Lawrence, published in 1986 to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the march. It’s really good because it has photos that show the difficulty (and often, the beauty) of the terrain they traversed.

      I’ve got a China shelf at GR too, though some of those are fiction of course, because novels are my favourite form of reading. You can see that I’ve found some very interesting inexpensive titles (F and NF) in the Penguin Specials series. If you are minded to read a novel about China by a contemporary Chinese satirist still somehow managing to circumvent censorship and publish in China, I would suggest Yan Lianke. You’ll find the six that I’ve reviewed here, they are very revealing!
      I’d also suggest the Australian Foreign Affairs journal (reviewed here on the blog too) because they’re always writing about China and not the usual rubbish that you find elsewhere.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Gee, what one to start with?


Please share your thoughts and join the conversation!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: