Book Review: The Chronicles of the Chinese Emperors

Chronicle of the Chinese EmperorsMovies set in historical periods or otherwise based around historical events will never go away. We will always have Victorian tales of class-based angst. Same with tales of valorious (or conniving) knights in medieval Europe. For Eastern cinema, we’ll probably always have samurai films of various stripes, and the same with various Wuxia films, discussing various martial artists and their exploits in Imperial China.

To get try and some background on wuxia films and their I recently read The Chronicles of the Chinese Emperors by Ann Paludan. The book gives an overview of the reign of approximately every emperor in Chinese history that is considered to be “officially” an emperor. Officially is in air-quotes because the book appears to defer heavily to the official Imperial histories.

This, ultimately, is the book’s undoing. By tying the book to the official line, we start seeing trends in the history that look more then a little questionable. The first emperor of each dynasty is always fair, just and noble. Then the emperor’s offspring always become weak and easily manipulated by either their parents, or their advisors, or their eunuchs. Then we get an uprising. If the emperor holds on, then clearly he had the mandate of heaven, so thus the official history has that emperor is actually okay, and is just and noble for listening to his advisors. If he loses, then he didn’t have the mandate of heaven due to being manipulated by his advisors/his mother/the eunuchs.

While other books are cited in the bibliography, the citations are not connected to any of the text of the book. For example, dramatic claims such as the claim that China was the most wealthy and populous nation in the world in 1775 have no citation, meaning that the reader has no way to evaluate this claim and determine its veracity. Is this the author’s opinion? Is this the opinion of another author who the author is repeating? Is there actual economic data to back this up? There’s no way to know.

Additionally, important cultural notes are completely omitted. While we get explanations of Buddhism as practiced in feudal China, as well as Confucianism and Daoism, we get no explanation of other important roles like, for example, the role of the eunuchs. This is a dramatic oversight as literally every single time things go wrong, according to the histories it’s always the fault of the eunuchs when a dynasty falls (including the fall of the Qing dynasty, China’s last dynasty), yet the eunuchs always persist as a court faction. A simple side bar explaining why the eunuchs were and why they were kept around would explain things a lot.

Ultimately, the book just doesn’t dig deep enough into Chinese history. Not only is it too shallow for people who want to learn more about specific periods, it’s too generic and doesn’t cite its sources well enough for those who in search of a primer of Chinese history and are looking to see what periods interest them more. Skip this book.