City Guide to Edinburgh, Scotland

City Guide to Edinburgh, Scotland

Book Festival: Keay, Man and Fenby Focus on China

By James Forrester - Posted on 21 August 2008

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Jonathan Fenby, John Keay, John Man

Three acknowledged experts on China took a capacity audience at the Edinburgh Book Festival's Studio Theatre on a quick trip through China's long history, revealing many interesting new facts and offering a different
perspective on some accepted ones. They neatly encapsulated thousands of years of history, without leaving the audience feeling there had been glaring omissions.

kicked off with China's first emperor - known to many for his terra cotta army burial -
stressing that he was a brutal, ruthless Mongol, not Chinese, who started the long struggle for

on, John Keay focussed on the "Middle Kingdom", the firmly-propounded belief
that China was the centre and other peoples were peripheral. Much of what we
regarded as Chinese history was more myth than fact, he said, pointing out
written accounts were far from contemporary, usually emerging much later. They
were produce either to laud or denigrate previous rulers, according to the
ethos of current ones.

Keay put forward the view that unlike other regional powers China was
never expansionist. He cited the great Chinese admiral who sailed far and wide
with a mighty fleet without trying to capture or settle foreign lands. As a
result, the Chinese voyagers were welcomed in the ports visited and memories of
their peaceful behaviour resulted in the welcome given to Portuguese explorer
Vasco da Gama when he arrived in India
with more aggressive intent.

Uniformity, integrity and continuity were the driving force of China's
rulers throughout this period. Jonathan Fenby reiterated that from the first
emperor onwards, China had been ruled through a system of authority exercised from the top

Though seeds of disunity could possibly be detected in the leadership
since the Communist takeover, stability had been established through the
Communist Party. Surveying roughly 300 years of history, he said we had much more
contemporary evidence available for a period which saw repeated European
incursions, an end to imperial rule, the establishment of a republic and its
transformation into a Communist state. Opium wars, the Taiping revolt and the Boxer rising were all
significant, Fenby said , but "myths"
were also embedded in western versions of fairly recent history.

Some of his disclosures surprised many
listeners. Referring to Japanese aggression in the run up to World
War Two, he said Nationalist leader Chiang Kai Shek devoted more time and
resources to fighting Mao Tse Tung's communists than to resisting the Japanese.
A hidden aspect of Mao's "heroic Long March" was the fact that 40 per cent of
the Communists' income at the time came from clandestine opium trade.

Fenby was at the Edinburgh Book Festival as an
author - he has published two books on China this
year, and two in the previous year. His authoritative and highly-regarded
History of Modern China took five years to research and write. Before carving out a new writing career, Fenby had an enviable
reputation as a journalist - Editor of Reuters News Agency, the Observer, and
the South China Morning Post. He said he only became interested in Chinese affairs when head-hunted for the editorship of the Hong Kong daily.

Copyright Iain Gilmour, August 2008