Figuring out Chinese history and culture

WATCHING the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics on television in 2008, China expert Kerry Brown saw a spectacular giant scroll of history unfold and wondered whether audiences outside the country had "any clue who or what these figures were".

Few people, he sensed, had a grasp of China's long and "overwhelming" history or would be able to name more than one or two of its great figures.

In an effort to fill this gap, Professor Brown spent almost six years compiling the Dictionary Of Chinese Biography - the first of its kind to be published in English since the 1890s.

Running to three volumes, with a fourth on its way, the work includes 135 entries spanning 4,000 years. They range from mythological figures such as Yu the Great to Confucius and Mao Zedong, as well as scientists, poets, explorers, calligraphers and writers.

Prof Brown, head of the University of Sydney's China Studies Centre, told The Straits Times about the task of researching and writing the dictionary in his office. He said he hoped the dictionary would provide a "pleasurable" start to understanding some of the complexities of Chinese history and culture.

"Now that China is a massively important political and economic player, you can't just focus relentlessly on economics - you need to focus on the culture... It is a huge and long history. I have dealt with it for 25 years and find it overwhelming and intimidating. Most people think 'where do I start'."

The dictionary could even be helpful for those who travel to China regularly, Prof Brown said. It might help to explain the behaviour of Chinese people and their strong sense of pride.

"It will be increasingly important to have a more complex view of China," he said. "For people who work in China or do business with China, engaging in the history helps to explain some of the ways in which Chinese people behave - the sense of pride in their history and the feeling that it should be validated."

The only other such dictionary was also compiled by a British scholar-diplomat; Herbert Giles served in China for 25 years and then became Chair of Chinese at Cambridge University in 1897.

Prof Brown, 46, was First Secretary in Beijing from 2000 to 2003 before working on international policy at London's Chatham House. He took up his post at Sydney University in 2012.

He said it is probably no coincidence that it has taken two scholar-diplomats to compile the dictionaries, albeit more than a century apart.

"I suppose people who go to China as diplomats have to engage with all sorts of things that scholars sometimes don't have to.

"I would have loved to have been able to point to something like this to people when I was there, for them to familiarise themselves with some historical figures. It is a practical work rather than making some big scholarly point."

The dictionary - all three volumes were published simultaneously last month by Berkshire Publishing and are available online for US$595 (S$749) - includes 135 entries written by leading China scholars from 12 countries.

The first entry is for Fu Hao, a warrior and queen who lived about 3,200 years ago. The only foreigner included is Matteo Ricci, a Jesuit priest who went to China in the 16th century and helped to improve Chinese understanding of Western culture, and vice versa.

Prof Brown said there are plans to translate the first three volumes into Chinese and publish them in China. But, he added, the forthcoming final volume, which begins in 1979, will include entries on activists and dissidents such as Wei Jingsheng and Nobel Peace laureate Liu Xiaobo and will probably prove too contentious to be published in China.

Prof Brown said his aim was to make the entries compelling and readable and provide "a light way of complicating people's views".

"To know just a bit of this history makes you realise that there is no monolithic Chinese history that has existed since time immemorial," he said.

"It has been a global history that has contributed to our science and has had enormous impact globally.

"This was a society with recorded history that goes back to 1,000 years before Christ. To not have some awareness of it would be like going to Greece and ignoring the history of the Greek empire or their great contributions to philosophy and history."

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