The Dragon and the Foreign Devils, China and the World, 1100 BC to the Present

Written by Harry G. Gelber
Review by Lucinda Byatt

No one would doubt the timeliness of this history at a moment when China is once again a dominant international player whose explosive economy can trigger shock waves across the world. There is no shortage of histories of this extraordinary country, but its vastness defeats neat categorisations. The West tended to see China as a dazzlingly rich warehouse, plundered by European traders eager to feed the European appetite for imported silks, spices, tea, Chinoiserie of all kinds and, infamously, opium. It is a truism borne out by Gelber’s analysis that ‘the Chinese and the Europeans had vastly different impressions of each other.’

Westerners were far more interested in China than the Chinese were in the West, a pattern that has only recently altered. Other scholars have focused on the complex story of China’s dynasties, the struggle to defend its borders and its internal politics, but, Gelber examines China’s relationship with the rest of the world and attempts to make sense of the recurring cycles of Chinese history. Although the scope is enormous, covering 3,000 or more years from Confucius to the Cultural Revolution and modern-day China, over half the book focuses on the last 150 years. When speculating on what the future may hold, Gelber argues that history is about the ebb and flow of societies and states, leavened by the inevitability of the unexpected.