Book Title: Understanding China Through Comics vol. 1: Foundations of Chinese Civilization: The Yellow Emperor to the Han Dynasty (2697 BCE – 220 CE)
Author: Jing Liu
Style: Graphic Novel
Target Audience: Adult
Genres: Non-Fiction, History
Page Count: 168
Format: Paperback (library)
Reading time: 2 hours
Date Finished: 1/16/17
Click here to find it on Amazon (New window)
My impressions: If you’ve ever tried to study Chinese history as an English-speaker, you’ve probably found, as I have, that’s it’s an exceedingly difficult exercise, not only because the culture reaches so far back in history (the Chinese have been around in one form or another for over 5000 years), but also because everything about China operates at such an amazing scale that the details are truly formidable to understand. When you throw in the very different language, the cultural barriers and the shifting geography that changed what China was over the centuries, it’s almost easier to throw your hands in the air and just focus on something narrower like the Romance of the Three Kingdoms (an 800,000-word history of a particular war in the 2nd and 3rd centuries CE) and hope you’ll pick up enough to know something.
Fortunately, Chinese artist and writer Jing Liu has recognized that the English-speaking world has a poverty of resources when it comes to learning about Chinese history and has resolved to make it easier through a series of extremely readable graphic novels. I breezed through this first one in a couple of hours and immediately felt better about understanding the first 3,000 years of Chinese history (and this was after twice attempting to get through a Great Courses audio series on the same topic). I’m genuinely intrigued by much of what I read, and I feel like I’m on firmer ground now if I go and study some of the varied Chinese schools of thought or dynasties.
I can’t emphasize enough how well-crafted this graphic novel is in terms of the efficiency of information it provides. It uses a lot of excellent techniques to convey action, drama, intrigue and disaster, and yet it also manages to explain the differences between Confucian school of thought and the Zhou school that preceded it; it manages to make sense of the different dynasties and their geographic differences in extremely easy-to-read maps and timelines; it manages to create characters out of some of its historical figures and make them distinctive enough that their appearance and names stick out in memorable ways rather than blurring together. (And since, as the book notes, 85% of modern Han Chinese draw their surnames from a short list of around 100 houses that have endured over the millennia, it’s quite easy to get people mixed up!).
I’m excited to track down and read the second volume, as well as the two that are forthcoming in 2017. I’d recommend this to anyone who wants to learn more about China, as I obviously do.
Special thanks to my wife for spotting this book in the library and picking it up. I never even knew it existed, and I’m glad I read it!