Monday, 1 March 2010

La Chine Classique (Ivan P Kamenarovic)

--The blurb--
"China is coming to us: prestigious texts are now available in translation, plays introduce us to Chinese legend and history, and feng shui has arrived in Europe. But what do we know about the civilisation which has created these? Classical China comes to life through even the culture's most modern rituals. To know it badly would be to travel blindly where there is so much to see."

--The review--
Part of the "Guides to Civilisations" series, this examination of ancient China (extending from the Han dynasty - 200 BCE - to the Tang dynasty - 907 CE) joins a host of equally attractive works on places and peoples as diverse as the Siamese, the Venetians and the Khmers, to the Quebecois, Etruscans and Nabateans. However, China stands out from this collection as being a country with an especially fraught history, which remains still comparatively traumatic even in modern times. In helping readers to understand how China's ancient roots affect the country today, then, one could argue that Kamenarovic's work is characterised by trepidation and challenge.

He has, though, faced the challenge head on, making it his speciality, both in terms of his work as a researcher at the Sorbonne and in terms of also marketing this work to interested members of the public. In his mission, several different cultures collide bizarrely, and this is perhaps part of the appeal of this academic's work, with a man of Russian heritage partly seeking to unite the world by writing in French about China (even though the world's scholars cannot be united by his oeuvre, since his works are unavailable in English). The author says that the approach China's awesome history and mentality, great humility is required, and this is something that is well-reflected in this respectful and considered history book.

The work is comprehensive in its scope, covering the Chinese world and the Chinese being in several clearly divided chapters, and approaching all aspects of Chinese life, from ancient Chinese economics and politics, to Chinese arts and feng shui. This sheer range of topics may make the extended essay seem daunting, but it is easy enough to select the chapters that are of most interest. Equally, while Kamenarovic can offer insights into a typically Chinese outlook on life, and how this thread extends from ancient life to where we are today, these links are not always explicitly made, and it is admittedly better when he does, especially for those who are new to Chinese culture and history. Those looking for more direct insights into today's China may in some ways be better off looking elsewhere.

Nevertheless, the work is helpfully formatted, is not over-long, and carries plenty in the way of helpful illustrations and charts - and all without being patronising. The flip side of this, however, is that readers are sometimes assumed to be more knowledgeable than they actually are - so while this book may prove a helpful reference volume, one may perhaps profit from its knowledge best when it is accompanied by other books, too, from a range of authors covering even more aspects of China's lineage.

Other works by Ivan P Kamenarovic
Arts and letters in Chinese history (1999)
Conflict: Chinese and Western perceptions (2001)
To act and be passive in China and the West: the inactive sage and the man of action (2005)
Journey of a Chinese man of letters (2008)

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