China And The Manchus Review

China And The Manchus
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China And The Manchus ReviewThe author of this book, Professor Herbert Allen Giles (1845 - 1935) was a British diplomat officially stationed in China between 1880-1893. Unlike many ivory tower academics, he had the real life experience to develop an in-depth understanding of China and the Manchus.
(I summarized the relevant history in the following paragraph. Feel free to skip it if you know it already.
Between 1640s - 1911, the Manchus, a northern tribe skilled in warfare occupied the Chinese land and became the ruling class in China as emperors of the "Qing" Dynasty. The Han people, although the vast majority of Chinese population, were treated as 2nd class citizens with limited rights. In the early days, there were wise and tolerant Qing emperors who did not stir up the ethnic tension, going as far as allowing the rumors that certain Qing emperors may have Han ancestors. However, as time went on, Qing Dynasty becamse more corrupt internally and inept against foreign military powers. A particularly corrupt ruler in early 1900's, Empress Dowager Cixi, considered surrending to the foreigners as a better option than giving basic rights to the Chinese, justifying such action as "it's better to give this country away to neighbors than wasting it on household slaves." The common Chinese people rose up with the slogan "kick out the barbarians and return China to the Chinese." This led to the 1911 Chinese nationalist revolution, which effectively ended the Qing Dynasty and the rule of Manchus.)
This book was written in 1912, shortly after the Chinese nationalist revolution. I approached this book with reservation, expecting certain colonial bias given the age of book. However, I am very pleasantly surprised by what I have found in this book.
First, Professor Giles wrote this book with a neutral, conversational tone. He saw the subjects of his writing as real human beings, portraying them with respect, understanding, and a slightly dry sense of humor. No matter whether the person mentioned happened to be a Manchu emperor, a Han peasant, a British ambassador or anyone in between, he treated them as the individuals with varying motivations, personal quirks, and characters with human strength or weakness. In fact, a British official was portrayed as inflexible and arrogant(even quoting Napoleon's comment on this matter), while a Chinese official who opposed the British dumping of opium to China was described as a just and respected man. The reader does not finish this book with a sense of who the heroes or villains were, but a better understanding of human actions and their historical context.
Second, this book has covered so much ground (from roughly the 9th century to 1912) with ease. Professor Giles was an excellent writer with a highly engaging style. The book itself is very readable, allowing me to finish it in a few hours. I can't say the same with most history books, which have a tendency to put people to sleep rather quickly. Granted, I had some background in Chinese history, but many fresh facts still jumped out at me and kept me interested throughout. The reader will be informed as well as entertained.
Last, but not the least, Professor Giles was an enlightened and open-minded man not just for his times, but for ours. There was no sense of racial or cultural superiority, or a sense of exaggeration in his writing. He did not fear, hate, envy, or blindly admire anyone simply because of their racial or ethnic background or affiliation. His writing is free of modern political correctness, as he did not try to justify, excuse or apologize as a group, not for the Manchus, not for the Chinese, and not even for his countrymen. He did not try to elevate one culture over another, and did not allow a "victim card" to be played. By not falling into these political correctness traps, he remained a reasoned voice, a careful observer and a friendly guide for anyone who may be interested in reading this book.
P.S. please note the frequent use of the term "China man" in this book does not mean that the author was a racist. The English language evolves over time, and something that may sound derogatory today did not necessarily have the same meaning 100 years ago.China And The Manchus Overview

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