For a book targeted at children, Division to Unification in Imperial China has a ponderous title. Parents and teachers might wish to cover this over with masking tape so that young readers instead concentrate on the handsome black, white and ochre illustration that otherwise adorns the cover.
Division, which covers the Three Kingdoms through the Tang, roughly the third through ninth centuries, is the sequel to Foundations of Chinese Civilization by Jing Liu, a “comic book” treatment of Chinese history and has many of the same benefits as the first in the series. The illustrations are communicative, the text is (on the whole) breezy and it covers a lot of ground with relatively little effort. This volume has a particular and effective focus on the cyclical nature of Chinese history: dynasties rising and falling in a repeating pattern.
Chinese history, however, tends to get more complicated after the Han and the comic book treatment has to struggle a bit more: one can’t do anything about the succession of dynasty names. The to-ing and fro-ing between Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism is covered, but other than that, there is less room for things other than battles, names of emperors and dates.
And as history gets more complex, there are more places where one might quibble with what is, after all, a much simplified and streamlined treatment. The volume starts by contrasting Christianity, Islam, Judaism and Sikhism with Chinese beliefs, saying that “The Chinese don’t believe in supernatural creators”. The speech bubble on the monotheistic religion side of the page goes “God created us”, while that on the other side reads “Chinese civilization was created by great men.” It’s an effective but somewhat misleading lede, for these are to some extent apples and oranges.
That being said, Division to Unification does what it sets out to do and serves as a Chinese history text teenagers might actually read, as long as they can get past the title, and read volume 1 first to get them in the groove, as it were.