Cotterell’s work is a historical survey of the various countries of East Asia, including China, Japan, Korea, Burma, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, and Indonesia, from the beginning of their histories to the present. It is a daunting challenge, both for the author and for the reader.
What impresses the reader is not that it was done well but that it could be done at all. Cotterell, the author of numerous works on China and other subjects, is nothing if not ambitious in EAST ASIA. Not only does he relate the history of the countries of that region but also, by beginning his story with the origins of Chinese civilization, he covers more than thirty-five hundred years of chronology. To most Western readers the history of East Asia is almost entirely unknown ground, and Cotterell is to be commended in presenting the subject in so concise a fashion.
The difficulty is to do justice to his subject in slightly more than 300 pages. In his attempt to be comprehensive, Cotterell has given the reader too much information about a few topics, at the same time that he neglects to give enough about others. EAST ASIA is too frequently merely the exhaustive and exhausting story of the rise and fall of numerous political dynasties, and although there are references to Buddhism and Confucianism, they are probably insufficient for most readers. The narrative becomes more accessible when the author reaches the dynasties, and although there are references to Buddhism and Confucianism, they are probably insufficient for most readers. The narrative becomes more accessible when the author reaches the twentieth century, in part because the story becomes more familiar, but also because Cotterell had more latitude—a third of the book is devoted to the last hundred years or so—to give his story the necessary complexity and elaboration required to tell his tale adequately.
EAST ASIA is an ambitious book about a subject vital to the world of the 1990’s, and it does give a brief overview of the ancient countries of that region. Unfortunately it does not quite succeed, either for the general reader or for the specialist.