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Date Posted: 18:37 12/02/2005

Pointless, inane violence


IN THE opening chapter of The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Milan Kundera discusses the moral basis to Nietzsche's theory of eternal recurrence. As just a historical one-off, Kundera says, the absurd war between two African kingdoms 'altered nothing in the destiny of the world, even if a hundred thousand blacks perished in excruciating torment.' Under the conditions of eternal recurrence, however, 'it will become a solid mass, permanently protuberant, its inanity irreparable.' For that reason, it becomes significant. Its horrors become eternal.

As Rayne Kruger's All Under Heaven, A Complete History of China reminds us, the history of China is filled with pointless, inane violence, little of which meant anything, despite the bogus claims made by present-day court historians about the four millennia of uninterrupted and unparalleled Chinese history. Leaders and lords and emperors are ambushed or poisoned, but perhaps they would have been reassured to know that the rivals who gouged out their eyes almost invariably met a similar fate further on down the line. There is no such consolation for the nameless millions of peasants slaughtered or worked to death by their masters over the centuries.

One brief example suffices. China's only Empress, Wu Chao, 'the emulator of Heaven', set up the country's first secret police, executed much of the aristocracy and sold their relatives into slavery, threw spies into cauldrons, and had her own lovers murdered as soon as she had grown tired of them. The only unusual aspect of her story was that, well, she was a woman.

Before one starts to think that China itself was always unncessarily brutal, and that this has any particular bearing on the way its government behaves today, remember that other sweeping works of history, including Norman Davies' imperious history of Europe, leaves the reader feeling equally bewildered by the violent pointlessness of the human race. One tribe or kingdom fights another, it wins or gets destroyed and neither fate makes much difference in the long run.

But finally, on to Kruger's book, which was completed shortly before his death in 2002, and reminds one of the dubious works of scholarship one would find remaindered in budget bookshops. The style, similarly, indicates the sort of punctilious hero worship one would expect from an obsessive amateur. For a more impressive read, try Patricia Buckley-Ebrey's Cambridge Illustrated History of China, or alternatively, for a detailed appraisal of modern Chinese history, Jack Gray's Rebellions and Revolutions, the undergrad's book of choice.

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