Book club review: The Story of China

By Denis Clifford

Denis is a retired Court of
Appeal judge. He is a life-
long Wellingtonian, and
these days a keen reader
and walker with interests
in history, the arts and

This is original content
for Capital online.

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Encountering China,
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In the second of our book reviews about China and its rich history Denis Clifford delves into The Story of China by Michael Wood.

For obvious reasons, the question “Who is Xi Jinping?” is being posed weekly, if not daily, in the news media. The answers are often frustratingly inane: a few, ill-understood details of Xi’s early life as a scion of the establishment, protected, though not for that reason, from the vagaries of life under Mao’s regime, then his ascent through the dense world of the CCP at local, regional and finally national (or perhaps imperial) level. But we are left knowing little of the man, and even less of the phenomenology of leadership of China.

Michael Wood, Manchester University’s Professor in Public History and prodigious author and documentary maker, structures his fascinating 2020 The Story of China – a portrait of a civilisation and its people around the fortunes and governance structures of the ruling dynasties of the last 4000 years and, at the same time, the lives of individual Chinese people ­ some famous or powerful rich, some male and some not. The details of these lives lighten the story of those millennia. And the result is a compelling insight into the China of today, and its current emperor Xi Jingping.

Most fundamentally Wood, reveals the conceptual underpinning of the governance of China, that is, the rule of all by a single, wise, legitimate monarch, “the Son of Heaven”, the personification of the “Mandate of Heaven”. Wood describes the eight centuries from the fall of the 500-year dynasty of the Shang, in 1045 BCE, to the rise of the First Emperor, Qin Shi Huangdi in the 240s BCE, in these terms: “The period saw the emergence of a distinctive political philosophy based on older historical traditions and rituals of rulership. At its heart was the one great and enduring idea, that of the king who ruled by virtue, the sage-monarch mandated by heaven, to whom all allegiance was due.”

Confucius was the key figure in shaping this ideology, which continues to shape today’s China. But the ideology was an ideal, and the ideal was, as is ever the case, rarely fully realised. Dynasties came and went, the transitions between them being periods of great turmoil, violence, and destruction. Wood quotes from the 11th-Century historia, Sima Guang, introducing his 354-chapter work on the years 403 BCE to 959 CE to the Emperor Shenzong: “You will see in these pages, over these 1400 years, that the history of China has been a story of violence and disorder in which the periods of good order and harmony have been short….Harmony in the state is therefore a very difficult thing to establish – and needs to be carefully tended once it has been achieved.”

Wood’s narrative traces this history through the Song, Ming and Qing dynasties to the early 20th Century. He highlights the magnitude and density of the Chinese state and, populace and rulers: we learn of the establishment in 340 BCE of the system, which essentially survives today, dividing society into counties, districts, and villages based on a unit of five families mutually responsible for each others’ conduct; of the system of universal registration for all people from birth to death; of the 13 categories of quantifiable data collected for all; and of the competitive entry civil service, the hundreds of thousands of mandarins who administered the monolith.

Inevitably the detail of the narrative threatens to overwhelm the reader. But Wood has a firm hand and an eye firmly fixed on the main story. He unequivocally places Xi Jingping in the continuum that is that story. China, the hybrid Confucian – Leninist state; Xi the authoritarian leader espousing the concept of “right behaviour” and uncannily resonating with the edicts of Qing emperors though with the aid of modern technology; and, finally, Xi the emperor whose reign is now threatened by a rising tide of public dissatisfaction with mismanagement of a great natural disaster. Not, as for Tang Xuanzong in the 750’s, hurricanes and floods, but this time a pandemic.

Is regime change imminent, or is it only the emperor who is at risk?

Either way, to read Wood’s The Story of China is to know and understand Xi. It is, therefore, a “must” in these troubled times for Emperor Xi.


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