The third volume of Understanding China Through Comics is out, and it is good. In my previous reviews I talked about how well the books explained Chinese history and how well they worked visually. As before, the answer to both is pretty well, and they are getting better.
This volume goes from 907-1368, so we get the Song and the Yuan. This is a tricky period to deal with visually. There are a lot of foreigners around, and it is hard to distinguish them. Different hats will help.
Unlike western writers, Liu is committed to explaining all the political ins and outs of this period, and he does a pretty good job of sorting out the constant political shifts, although reading this also helps explain why so may other authors don’t bother with all this.
As in the earlier volumes there is a lot of stuff explaining the past in terms of the present, so Song commercialization/technical advances is done through by having Malcom Gladwell drop by to discuss rice paddies.
The Song is actually a pretty interesting test case for Liu’s central thesis, that Chinese history is a 5,000 year quest to create a middle-class society, given that this is the time of the birth of an early modern commercial society and a time of great technological advance. Most importantly, this was the time of Wang Anshi. Wang’s reforms have garnered a lot of attention in the 20th century, since he is the Chinese official who’s policies can be most easily linked to the present. If you want to find signs of modern administration, the welfare state, democracy, or incipient Communists totalitarianism in traditional China, Wang’s reforms are where you look. Liu is clearly a member of Team Wang, presenting him as an upright technocrat who should have been listened to. The Song is also portrayed as the age when the “scholar-officials” came fully into power, and the idea that these upright technocrats were admirable and sacrosanct came from here. No more executing those who speak truth to power!While all the above is both pretty good history and also clearly has modern resonances, Liu does point out that you can’t read Chinese nationalism back into the past. Here we have peasants telling each other that it does not much matter who they are paying taxes to. This makes the books quite different from a lot of the Chinese history you see in China, where all of China’s 56 ethnic groups have always been modern nationalists. Unfortunately, Liu does gloss over some of the more bothersome aspects of China’s past. Footbinding is a good example. In this book it is presented as a way of protecting Chinese women from being carried off by barbarians.
Nobody has a really good explanation for why footbinding spread, but needless to say this is not one of the possible explanations. More importantly, this page reconciles me to the fact that Liu is not planning to go past 1911 in his history. If you won’t look at the uglier part of your history, what can you do with those who rebel against it? If you leave out what footbinding really was you can’t do Joe Hill or MLK, or Lu Xun or Liang Qichao. I guess they are just nagging troublemakers, rather than the best of what you are.
At the same time the new, re-drawn and expanded revised edition of Volume One is out.
1 Liu seems to be warming to his task, and in this new world of publish on demand he can re-work his stuff as much as he wants. Here is China surrounded by foes in the introduction to the old Volume 1
And here it is on p.13 of the new version
Not only are the drawings more detailed, they are better in that they convey more. You can loose yourself in the second one in a way you can’t in the first version.
Here is the new.
He has also expanded some parts. In the last version I mentioned that this was about as well as you could explain Confucianism, Daoism, and Legalism in one page,
but also pointed out that it might be o.k to use more than one page. Here is (part of) the new version.
We also get a bit more history of technology, and also a tendency to have characters leap out of the page to explain things to us.
It is still pretty much the same book, only better.