The Shortest History of China – and the timeliest

Linda Jaivin speaking about her China novels at the Australia-China Institute for Arts and Culture, Western Sydney University, Friday, 5 April, 2019. Photo: www.westernsydney.edu.au.

John Moyle speaks to Sydney author, translator, essayist, novelist and specialist China writer Linda Jaivin about her latest book, The Shortest History of China.

Few books this year are as timely as The Shortest History of China by American-born, Sydney-based Linda Jaivin.

As Australia’s relationship with China plummets into bellicose rhetoric and trade disputes, we forget that it is Inevitable that the world order will certainly bend to China, at least economically, and that we need to find a common ground.

That is why we need to understand how China came into being and how its history is informing its present and possible future – and there is no better place to start than Jaivin’s latest book.

Many will remember the ever present Linda Jaivin on television in the mid-nineties, with her vermilion coloured hair, promoting her best seller Eat Me while commentating on pop culture at large.

Few knew at the time that the telegenic visage also contained a serious China scholar, fluent in Mandarin and calligraphy since her time at an American Ivy League university.

Passionate about China, Jaivin continued her language studies in Taiwan and Hong Kong after making her first trip to mainland China in 1979, and where she would eventually spend time living in Beijing.

Economically written at 288 pages, including notes and index, The Shortest History of China is a precis of 3,500 years of history covering nine dynasties, various unsettled periods and the tumultuous 20th century, leading to the eventual foundation of the People’s Republic of China, which rules today.

Being Jaivin, her take on this momentous task is not some dry academic treatise but a book filled with unique insights and humorous minutiae and in particular, the roles of woman through this incredible swathe of history, told in her inimitable style.

When asked about her favourite period, Jaivin said: “The Qing (1644-1911) is very important in making contemporary China, but my favourite dynasty is definitely the Tang (618-907).

“Women were relatively free and the Tang court was open to foreign ideas and was really great about the patronage of the arts.

“Also, the clothes were great and there were fantastic makeup trends and the women had so many different eyebrow styles and lipstick styles.”

Written records in China began around 3,500 years ago with inscriptions on shells and bones made by shamans, called oracle bone script.

“One bone script was about a woman called Fu Hao, who, as part of her dowery to the king brought her own army to court.

“She was a hunter and she was interested in her own tomb with her own battle axes and this tells you that there was a semi-matriarchal society where women participated in military affairs and hunting,” Jaivin said.

Arching across the long list of dynasties are the various philosophies and religions that would shape Chinese thinking to this day.

One of the most prominent of these is Confucius and his philosophy of personal and governmental correctness, and whose influence has spread across East Asian culture with his impacts being felt to this day.

“Confucius was born in 551 BCE and he had definite ideas about women and their place, but he had ideas about everything and their place,” Jaivin said.

“He believed that a woman should obey her husband and he had ideas on how to govern and these became very influential on how to organise society.

“Confucianism is more a philosophy but not as we understand philosophy, it is more practical and it doesn’t have metaphysical and transcendent aspects, it’s very much about how to govern and how to live.”

Buddhism was another philosophy, from India, that took on a religious mantle and would become very influential across China, along as did the homegrown philosophy of Daoism.

“There are religious elements to the philosophies, so Daoism, which should be a philosophy, has a strong religious element with temples and people praying to various Daoist figures because many people like that religious idea,” Jaivin said.

“We also have the phenomenon in China of cults and that is religion gone wrong such as Falun Gong and the various historical cults such as the Lotus societies based on Daoism with charismatic leaders.”

Linda Jaivin speaking at the Sydney Lecture Series: Rethinking China, hosted by the China Matters policy institute at the Museum of Sydney, Wednesday, 24 March, 2021. Video: China Matters/YouTube.

With her book providing a keyhole through which we can look at both modern and ancient China, we can get some insight into what makes the leaders of this enormous land react.

“A common theme throughout Chinese history is the protection of their outside borders and they are still doing that today,” Jaivin said.

“The key thing is the understanding of the sense of ‘us’ and ‘other’, ‘Inside’ and ‘outside’, and the Chinese have traditionally defined themselves against what is outside the perimeter.

“We are in a new era now and what history teaches us about Xi Jinping is that there are dangers in centralising power.”

After the People’s Liberation Army’s victory in 1949, Mao assumed the mantle of supreme leader and continued in that role until his death in 1976.

Various power struggles followed until Deng Xiaoping came to power in 1982 and mandated that no leader could rule more than two five-year terms.

That rule now seems to have been thrown out, creating a leadership succession vacuum and uncertainty about the future.

Jaivin also sees that the position of feminism in Chinese society is now under threat as the word is banned and feminists get trolled online by the ultra nationalistic Wolf Warriors.

It’s a long way from the 1920s when English feminist Dora Black met with counterparts in Beijing and declared them fiercer women than those back home in England.

While not exactly upbeat about the present situation, Jaivin still has hopes for the future.

“Even the 96 million people who belong to the Chinese Communist Party, not an enormous number out of the overall population, not all of them feel exactly the same way, and we need to broaden our assumptions and engage on every level that we can,” Jaivin said.

And The Shortest History of China is a quick cut to an enormous and ultimately intriguing subject that can help us in the West understand the coming powerhouse of the 21st century.

The Shortest History of China book cover. Image: Black Inc. Books Australia.

The Shortest History of China (RRP $24.99) is published by Black Inc.

John Moyle is the news editor of the Sydney Sentinel.