Excerpt: The Shortest History of China

Reader's Digest Editors 1 July 2022

The Shortest History of China crams the country's sprawling, ancient legacy into a fascinating yet easily readable volume

Learn about the fascinating, surprising and complex history of China by delving into author Linda Jaivin’s thrilling feat of a book, The Shortest History of China. From ancient times to Xi Jinping, COVID-19, and the “wolf warriors”, it is the vast Chinese history distilled into just 250 pages.

Jaivin dismantles the idea of a monolithic China, revealing instead a nation of startling diversity. And she gives China’s women, from ancient warriors, inventors and rebels to their 21st-century counterparts, long overdue attention.

The Excerpt

The Shortest History of China by Linda Jaivin book cover

“Towards the end of the second century, the Han, like empires everywhere, grew too great for its own good. Challenges arose, succeeding or being violently crushed; either way, taking a terrible toll on the people, as described in this verse by the poet, politician and general Cao Cao.

Ten thousand families were all wiped out.
Their white bones lay and bleached in the wilderness.
For a thousand leagues not a cock was heard to crow.
Of the people, barely one in a hundred survived.
Remembering this is enough to break your heart

Aged eight when enthroned in 189, the 13th Han emperor Xian was a mere pawn, abducted by one warlord after another.

In 192, after escaping from one particularly cruel captor, he was about to send a plea to Cao Cao for help. The messenger had barely saddled up when Cao Cao—with judicious timing—turned up alongside his army.

With the Emperor now his grateful puppet, Cao Cao set out to reunite the fractured empire. After subduing the main northern rivals, in 220 he led his huge army south, and into the most legendary battle in Chinese history. Red Cliff.

"As this floating Trojan Horse neared Cao Cao’s fleet, the passengers ignited their vessels"

By the time Cao Cao and his troops reached the Yangtze, everyone was exhausted, weakened by disease, low in morale and supplies. The cavalry, recruited from Northern tribes, couldn’t advance through the steamy marshlands.

But Cao Cao had one asset up his sleeve: an armada of warships captured from a rebel kingdom en route.

His goal was to crush the Han’s last two big rivals, the Wu and the Shu, which together commanded all the land south of the Yangtze, and had formed an alliance to face the Han.

After an initial skirmish, Cao Cao withdrew for a tactical rest, chaining the warships up by the Yangtse at a place called Red Cliff. While his men recuperated, the general prepared to receive a flotilla of enemy boats: Wu and Shu troops apparently keen to defect.

But their boats were filled with kindling and flammable oil; as this floating Trojan Horse neared Cao Cao’s fleet, the passengers ignited their vessels, escaping on smaller craft as the winds slammed them ablaze into the stationary fleet.

There were huge losses: the end of the Han was in sight.

Statue of Cao Cao at Weiwudi Square, Xuchang, Henan, ChinaCredit: Morio, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons. Statue of Cao Cao at Weiwudi Square, Xuchang, China

To consolidate power, the Wu Emperor Sun Quan married his younger sister to the widowed Shu leader, Liu Bei. Know to posterity as Sun Ren, the bride was reputedly a fierce warrior, and she has enjoyed a long afterlife as a pop-culture hero.

Historians record that her cohort of sword-wielding handmaidens made her much-older husband so nervous that whenever Liu Bei entered her bedroom, Liu Bei ‘felt a chill in his heart’.

Cao Cao died in 220, leaving instructions that his concubines and dancing girls were to be confined to the Brazen (or copper) Bird Tower overlooking his grave. They were to behave as though he had not died, bring meals to his curtained bed and performing for guests on the 15th of every month.

One of his most famous poems ‘The Empty City’ implores:

Come drink with me and sing
For life’s a fleeting thing

Full many a day has fled

Like the morning dew…

After Cao Cao’s death, Cao Pi, one of his twenty-six sons, forced the hapless emperor to abdicate, marking the formal end of the Han dynasty, and appointing himself the emperor of the state of Wei.

One of the ‘Three Kingdoms’ for which the ensuing era is known—the Wei court became a haven for mavericks and radicals.

Under the child-ruler Zhengshi, the Wei co-regent Cao Shuang presided over a coterie of scholars who captivated and scandalised society with their libertine ways, cheeky banter and indulgence in ‘Five Minerals Powder’—a hallucinogen and alleged aphrodisiac.

Unamused, Zhengshi’s other regent had them all massacred in 249.

"The Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove gathered to take intoxicants, swap banter, compose poetry and satire"

These eccentrics were contemporaries of another lively group, the Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove. They wouldn’t go near a court and hence, allegedly, they gathered in a bamboo grove to take intoxicants, swap banter, compose poetry and satire.

They detested conformity, Confucian rituals, displays of propriety and modesty, and the idea that men of learning had a duty to enter public service.

They were also committed drinkers, none so much as Liu Ling (225-280), revered ever after as ‘the Wine Immortal’.

Once, some acquaintances called on Liu Ling at home and were shocked to find him drinking naked. ‘I take heaven and earth for my pillars and roof,’ the unrepentant Liu Ling responded. ‘And my house with its rooms as my trousers and jacket. What are you doing in my trousers?’

The Three Kingdoms period lasted a mere seventy years or so. Yet its personalities, battles and politics live on in the national imagination, largely thanks to the 14th-cenury historical novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms.

It has inspired popular culture for centuries, from classical operas to contemporary film, television and storytelling in China and beyond. 21st-century online gamers can even play Total War: Three Kingdoms (tagline: ‘Unite China under your rule and forge the next great dynasty!’)

Scene of Mulan with horse, The Trustees of the British MuseumCredit: The Trustees of the British Museum. Scene of Mulan with a horse. Printed in ink, 1867 CE

In 280, a new dynasty, the Jin, conquered all three kingdoms and unified the country once more. The process was far from peaceful: the armies were desperate for soldiers, and forced conscription, even of elderly men and young boys, was widespread.

And thus a girl named Hua Mulan masqueraded as a boy, in order to save her elderly father from the draft. After soldiering with distinction for twelve years, she was offered an official post, which she turned down.

"Mulan bonds with a fellow woman warrior and, upon returning home, commits suicide rather than submit to a man"

When some fellow soldiers later ran into her dressed in women’s clothes, they were astonished, never having guessed her gender. Or so goes the Ballad of Mulan, written four centuries later.

Retellings of her story stress her womanly virtues, along with her bravery and filial piety, with an arranged marriage following her homecoming. In one 17th-century version, however, Mulan bonds with a fellow woman warrior and, upon returning home, commits suicide rather than submit to a man.

The Disney versions of Mulan are historically and culturally fanciful. For one thing, she fought on behalf of the Northern Wei dynasty, whose ruling proto-Mongol clan were, as one scholar puts it, more Hun than Han.’”

Linda Jaivin is the author of seven novels and five works of non-fiction, journalist, Mandarin translator and film subtitler. She’s written on every China-related subject from Hong Kong politics to Taiwanese pop, and she's an authority on Pan Jin Lian, the 14th-century semi-fictional anti-heroine who still fascinates and horrifies modern audiences.

The Shortest History of China is out in paperback on July 5, published by Old Street.