Saturday, 13 February 2016

reading day

On Thursday, the Met Office forecast said that it was going to rain heavily all day on Saturday.  By yesterday they said it was going to be dry, but by this morning we were back to Plan A.  The first heavy drops splashed on to the wheelbarrow of logs parked outside the kitchen window as I finished my breakfast, and after that it didn't stop until too late in the day to contemplate doing anything outside.  It was jolly cold, too.

Trying to make the best of it, I have been continuing with the Cambridge Illustrated History of China by Patricia Buckley Ebrey.  I picked a clean used copy of a slightly out of date edition from Amazon a couple of years ago, thinking it sounded interesting, and added it to the pile of unread books by my bed until the moment when I should get round to reading it.  Prompted by Michael Wood's current series about China on the BBC that moment arrived a couple of days ago.

I am finding both histories quite hard to follow.  It's not that either are badly presented: Patricia Buckley Ebrey's prose is a model of clarity, her book is broken down into manageable sections and there are lots of nice self contained illustrated text boxes on specific aspects of culture, plus a generous sprinkling of maps.  And Michael Wood is never a less than chatty and enjoyable guide on the telly: I enjoyed his series The Story of India, and read the book of the series afterwards when the Systems Administrator gave me a copy.

I think my problems are twofold, firstly that the names are unfamiliar and to a western ear sound similar, and secondly that I don't know where any of the places are.  I keep turning to the maps to find out, but when a people with a name you don't recognise and can't pronounce invade an unknown district whose name you can't pronounce either, and are in due turn invaded by a different war lord with an unfamiliar name, I lack hooks to hang any of this information on, and it turns into a blur, so that afterwards I'm left mainly with a series of Wows.  The Chinese had crossbows a thousand years before we did in Europe, invented printing sometime BC by the western calender, built huge walled cities on a grid plan when the English were muddling around with small random groupings of huts, and so on.

By now I am agog to know why it was that having been so far ahead of the West technologically, development in China stalled while the West went on to have the industrial revolution.  I hope that either Michael Wood or Patricia Buckley Ebrey or both will tell me.

I looked her up on Google and discovered that she is an American academic now at the University of Washington.  A Sinophile since the 1960s, it was not until several years after gaining her PhD that she was able to visit China for the first time.   Michael Wood has been Professor of Public History at the University of Manchester since 2013, after a career as a TV historian spanning Beowulf, Domesday, Shakespeare and the Trojan Wars as well as India and China.  I hadn't realised he'd made so many other programmes and we'd missed them, but with any luck some will come round again on BBC4.  I really don't mind that he is a generalist and didn't finish his DPhil, because he is a brilliant communicator, and besides, I'm only trying to pick up a very generalist understanding or China or India myself.

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