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The Dragon and the Foreign Devils: China and the World, 1100 BC to the Present    by Harry G. Gelber order for
Dragon and the Foreign Devils
by Harry G. Gelber
Order:  USA  Can
Bloomsbury, 2007 (2007)
* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

In The Dragon and the Foreign Devils, Harry G. Gelber analyses 'how foreign states and people have seen and dealt with China over many centuries and of how China has dealt with them' from '1100 BC to the Present', that is up to 2001. He prefaces the book with maps of the Han, Ming, Mongol (Yuan), and Mongol World Empires, as well as one of Modern China. Within the text are boxed mini-essays on subjects ranging from the private lives of the Han emperors to the Falun Gong. And lovely color images of Chinese art and porcelain are interspersed through the book.

In his Introduction, Gelber calls the country 'the most exciting rising power in the world today', in a relatively sudden and dramatic change from its situation a half century ago, a change that he tells us is deeply rooted in history. He speaks of recurring cycles in Chinese history driven by three major problems - 'population growth, overly personalised central administration and volatile borders.' It's a fascinating, and often disturbing, account.

The author speaks of the influence of geography in China's early insulation from its neighbours, as well as its focus on two major river valleys, and the strong social cohesion that evolved with labour-intensive agriculture. He discusses the origination of the idea of the Mandate of Heaven for rulers, and describes the influence of seminal thinkers, Confucius and Mencius. And he explains the expansion of the Chinese Empire, through military conquest but also via the attraction of its power, wealth and culture - leading to an inward-looking society with 'a good deal of hubris, complacency and ethnocentrism.'

There's much too much here to do the book justice in a brief review, but what I found most fascinating were the links through history, as in the author's comment that in the 1950s the 'Marxist-Maoist insistence on the unity of theory and practice fitted almost seamlessly into the traditions of Confucianism. Chinese people were still poor and frugal, afflicted by turmoil, and there were again - even more so - arguably too many of them.' There's also an intriguing comparison of Mao and Ming emperor Hongwu.

The book concludes with a chapter entitled Towards the Future? Here, Gelber considers challenges from science and technology, and new patterns in world economy. He speaks of the continuing relevance of China's three major problems, and looks at possible futures with respect to 'demography, governance, economics, China's role in the fields of science and technology, its relations with its borderlands, and most especially its possible place in the global balance of power.' And he ends aptly by quoting Philip Roth, with a warning that 'history is really only the path by which the unexpected becomes the inevitable.'

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