Through biographies of China's most colorful and famous
personalities, John Wills displays the five-thousand-year sweep of
Chinese history from the legendary sage emperors to the tragedy of
Tiananmen Square. This unique introduction to Chinese history and
culture uses more than twenty exemplary lives--biographies of
China's most colorful and famous personalities--including those of
statesmen, philosophers, poets, and rulers, to provide the focus
for accounts of key historical trends and periods. What emerges is
a provocative rendering of China's moral landscape, featuring
characters who have resonated in the historical imagination as
examples of villainy, heroism, wisdom, spiritual vision, political
guile, and complex combinations of all of these.
Investigating both the legends and the facts surrounding these
figures, Wills reveals the intense interest of the Chinese in the
brilliance and in the frail complexities of their heroes. Included,
for instance, is a description of the frustrations and anxieties of
Confucius, who emerges as a vulnerable human being trying to
restore the world to the virtue and order of the sage kings. Wills
recounts and questions the wonderfully shocking stories about the
seventh-century Empress Wu, an astute ruler and shaper of an
increasingly centralized monarchy, who has since assumed a
prominent position in the Chinese tradition's rich gallery of bad
examples--because she was a woman meddling in politics. The
portrayal of Mao Zedong, which touches upon this leader's earthy
personality and his reckless political visions, demonstrates the
tendency of the Chinese not to divorce ideology from its human
context: Maoism for them is a form of "objective" Marxism,
inseparable from one man's life and leadership.
Each of the twenty chapters provides a many-sided exploration of
a "slice" of Chinese history, engaging the general reader in a deep
and personal encounter with China over the centuries and today. The
biographies repeatedly mirror the moral earnestness of the Chinese,
the great value they place on the ruler-minister relationship, and
their struggles with tensions among practicality, moral idealism,
and personal authenticity. Culminating in a reflection on China's
historical direction in the aftermath of Tiananmen Square, the
biographies show the modern Chinese still inspired and frustrated
by a complex heritage of moral fervor and political habits and
preconceptions. As absorbing as it is wide ranging, this history is
written for the general public curious about China and for the
student beginning to study its rich cultural heritage.
This new edition highlights important figures that have emerged
in China since the book's initial publication and provides updated
suggestions for further reading.
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