25 February 2014

Baked History: The Terracotta Army, A Review

The Terracotta Army: China's First Emperor and the Birth of a Nation by John Man (pp 380, Bantam 2008)

John Man records a journey to modern Asia, explores a historical-site-cum-tourist-attraction, and adventures through China's history to educate readers in customs, glories, and warring machinations. The topic demands a varied content. Man devises a structure to meet that need. This elevates what could have been a dry chronicle to a distilled and fruitful presentation.

1. The What

Man discusses ancient political scheming alongside modern Chinese landmarks and practices. Today’s China continues some traditions and remembers ancient loves. Man recognises this and frames the nation’s present with its own past. Readers are therefore privy to the customs and ideals it is necessary to understand to experience the Terracotta Army in its clearest light.

The textual result is choppy at times. It provides a vivid image, however--a polaroid that renders Man's approach a worthwhile read for fans of popular Oriental history and anthropology.

2. The Approach

To build suspense and drama, Man recites myths as facts in a running and parsed historical narrative. He skilfully avoids undermining the project's authenticity. He avoids that negative accusation with footnoted analyses in which he considers the truth of questionable ideas. By examining folkloric details with reference to what is known today in science, philosophy, and logic, Man is able to show how relevant stories are distorted. The result is almost a reverse game of Chinese Whispers (a game I believe is called Telephone in the US).

When the words might loosen their grip on busy readers (about three-quarters of the way through), Man snaps back at attentions with an anecdote or two (p 295, 297). The witticisms’ position and presence demonstrates good writing technique--one of many devices that Man exploits in his quest to enliven history.

To uncover a treasure lost for generations is to court a little excitement. And although this particular historical mystery intrinsically stimulates, Man helps lift the tone from a well written account to one that engages the public mind as well.

3. Conclusion

The book is enjoyable and easy to read. Readers are sure to learn something from Man, even if already aware of the Terracotta Army and its surrounding stories. The book is a worthwhile read.

Created: 6 February 2014. Version 1.0.

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