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China: People, Place, Culture, History    by DK Publishing order for
by DK Publishing
Order:  USA  Can
DK Publishing, 2007 (2007)
Hardcover, Softcover
* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

In her Foreword to DK Publishing's magnificent coffee table book, China, Anchee Min (who was born in China and lived there for almost three decades) tells us that its creators 'have captured the essence of my country.' Sections cover: Landscape: China's Horizons; History: The Story of China; People: A Day in the Life; Culture: The Spirit of China; and Architecture: Building a Nation.

Landscape opens on a remarkable photograph, in which a bridge is mirrored in the water below, creating a circular window - echoing those in so many old Chinese Buddhist temples - onto a mountainscape beyond. The accompanying text speaks of China's 'varied and vast' cultural 'landscapes of utility as well as immense beauty', shaped by 'centuries of occupancy'. Readers are then taken on a superb photographic journey through the country's highest (down from the Tibet-Qinghai Plateau), middle (gorges, valleys and plains), and lowest (flat and fertile flow to the sea) steps.

The photography - as in a view through the mist of Songzanlin Monastery, Yunnan, or the Leshan Giant Buddha in Sichuan gazing down a cliff face - is spectacular. And to my delight, Chinese poems are quoted throughout above the pictures, like this one by Dun Xunhe (846-904): 'Half into the mountains - a mountain monastery. / A man in the country now, I climb to it on an autumn day. / It is right in their midst, with lovely rocks askew - / Solitary on the summit on its very highest layer.'

The authors bring History alive for us, reminding us that 'the Han Empire rivaled the Roman Empire in its power and sophistication, and that the Tang and Song empires recorded the highest levels of technological and artistic achievement in the world at that time' and that China is now on 'the brink of becoming a world superpower.' This section presents images of places and artefacts showcasing China's history from Neolithic times to the present. I was especially intrigued by early coins in the shape of knives and spades, and by a page on modern chinese cinema, but the entire section is fascinating and informative.

The People chapter 'profiles 14 people from disparate areas and backgrounds' - from a family in a rural Shaanxi cave dwelling to an opera performer on tour in Zhejiang. We also learn about the lives of a calligrapher, tea growers, a musical instrument maker, farmers, a retired teacher, a schoolchild, a Buddhist monk, a herbalist, a cricket seller, a festival host, a jewelry entrepeneur, and a sea fisherman. It's an impressive variety of in-depth presentations. Sidebars address related topics like migration to the cities and the art of tea tasting.

The chapter on Culture 'focuses on China's religious and philosophical beliefs and practices and its artistic and literary heritage' - from ways of thought (such as the qi concept) and philosophy and religion to the way of the brush (paintings embellished with calligraphic inscriptions and wonderful treatises on poetry and classical literature) and finishing with traditional opera.

Finally, in Architecture, we take 'visual tours of 16 important Chinese buildings', from a circular Hakka dwelling in Fujian to a classic courtyard house in Beijing, an 88-story hotel/office high-rise in Shanghai, and a variety of lovely temples and monasteries. For each, architectural sketches and historical and lifestyle information accompany the photos. I love the Qing dynasty private garden, with its moon gate and latticed windows, the shrine in the White Pagoda in Yunnan, and the different views of a Tibetan temple in Hebei.

Like the moon gates and other circular openings that offer perspectives inside, China: People, Place, Culture, History offers all kinds of intriguing windows onto that great - and very important in today's world - country, backed up by splendid photography. I will treasure my copy and highly recommend it to you. It would also make a wonderful holiday gift.

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