Archived article


Foundations of Chinese Civilization (vol. 1): The Yellow Emperor to the Han Dynasty (2697 BCE - 220 CE) by Jing Liu

When I was much younger, in single and very low double digits, there was a series of comic books called “Classics Illustrated” which retold both novels and history in comic book form. They were hardly great art, but I thought they were terrific. Of course, the graphic form is much more inefficient per square inch than text in conveying information, but something like the old 80/20 rule can apply: the right 20% of the text can supply the bulk of the basics of what one needs to know. And the visual reinforcement means that information may be more likely to stick.

Foundations of Chinese Civilization (vol. 1): The Yellow Emperor to the Han Dynasty (2697 BCE - 220 CE) by Jing Liu
Foundations of Chinese Civilization (vol. 1): The Yellow Emperor to the Han Dynasty (2697 BCE - 220 CE), Jing Liu (Stone Bridge Press, May 2016)

For children, at any rate. The information-efficiency trade-off presumably alters as we enter adulthood. But comic book treatments of serious subjects can work well for kids.

 

Foundations of Chinese Civilization is a graphic novel-style treatment of the Chinese history from “The Yellow Emperor to the Han Dynasty (2697 BCE - 222 CE)” and is the first volume in a series called “Understanding China Through Comics” from Stone Bridge Press, an independent publisher in Berkeley, California specializing in books on Asia. The author, Jing Liu, has a background in design which stands him in good stead.

The book covers the history (and prehistory), both chronologically and thematically, with religion, philosophy, agriculture and technology all making an appearance. The highlights are all there, from the dynasties, to Confucius, the development of paper and the start of the Silk Road. Others more knowledgeable than I will have to evaluate the book’s accuracy and completeness, but it gives every indication of having been well-vetted.

 

[caption id='attachment_0' align='aligncenter' width='100%'] [/caption]

The black and white illustrations are simple and draw from Asian graphic illustration styles as much if not more than Western ones. The book does what it says it does: a child will come away with a basic understanding of early Chinese history, what makes the Chinese tick as a people and culture. I see no reason why it should not work as well here in Asia as in its home market.

It’s rather wordy for a “graphic novel”—history has its nuances—but few pages have more that a couple hundred words. It’s been a long time since I (or even my children) were in the 11-17 age range the book is ostensibly targeted at, and so how well it hits the age range is a bit hard to judge. The occasional word like “quasi-legendary” notwithstanding, I think I’d place it more in a 10-14 range.

If my own kids had not outgrown this sort of thing, I'd probably have had them read it.


Peter Gordon is editor of The Asian Review of Books.