Paperbacks

16th May 1997 at 01:00
As a journalist and lecturer, Dick Wilson has reported on Chinese affairs for more than 40 years, and China: The Big Tiger: a nation awakes (Abacus Pounds 9.99), his final overview of the subject, is an indispensable guide as we approach "the Chinese century".

There are many good things here, but perhaps the two most interesting aspects of Wilson's survey are the way he puts China's present state in historical context and also examines the country's status as a regional superpower in the economic hot-house of South-East Asia. Despite a resurgence of nationalism, often taking the ideological form of neo-Confucianism, Dick Wilson is not as gloomy as some about China and its ambitions. His main warning is that Western models and preconceptions are of limited value in understanding this nation of 1.2 billion people.

A sign of changing times is the existence of books such as China: The Rough Guide (Pounds 15.99). Unfortunately, The TES's budget doesn't stretch to my checking the mass of information it contains at first hand, but the whole thing is clearly laid out, and in addition to all the essentials for any intrepid back-packer, there are many fascinating nuggets of historical and cultural background.

There have been periods of English history that have been just as turbulent as China's has been in this century. As Desmond Seward points out in his The Wars of the Roses (Constable Pounds 14.95), the 15th-century bloodletting, which lasted more than 30 years, saw three kings, a Prince of Wales and eight royal (or semi-royal) dukes murdered or die in battle. The campaigns of 1460-61 alone saw more than a third of the English peerage perish. Desmond Seward's way into the labyrinthine politics of the period is to follow the careers of five men and women, from John de Vere, Earl of Oxford, the head of England's most ancient noble family who briefly became a pirate, to Jane Shore, whom Seward describes as "the first ordinary Englishwoman recognizable as a human being from contemporary sources". Essentially this is narrative history of a fairly old-fashioned sort, but Desmond Seward's pointillist approach does much to bring the kings-and-battles to life with details of harsh, lawless life 500 years ago.

Where Desmond Seward uses anecdote to bring medieval history to life, the husband-and-wife team of Alan Walker and Pat Shipman do the same for science in The Wisdom of Bones: In Search of Human Origins (Phoenix Pounds 7.99). Not only do they use novelistic techniques to bring home the excitement and significance of their discovery in Kenya in 1984 of "the Nariokotome Boy", a specimen of homo erectus dating back more than 1.5 million years, they also delve into the history of palaeoanthropology, a field which has attracted more than its share of oddballs, obsessives and "fossil jocks". More seriously, their analysis of their find challenges the "brain-first" school of human evolution. Without language, the Nariokotome Boy was, they conclude, "in many ways an animal in a human body".

Strangely, Roger Smith's account of the history of ideas about human evolution in the Norton History of the Human Sciences (Pounds 12.99) stops short at the end of the 19th century. This reflects the fact that although there are sections on the insights provided in the 20th century by advances in neuroscience, the main focus of this 900-page survey - which confines itself to the West since the Renaissance - is on those disciplines such as psychology and sociology which use behavioural description as a way of exploring "human nature". Roger Smith writes with elegance and clarity, and is always sensitive to the wider philosophical issues at stake. The 100-page bibliographical essay alone is invaluable.

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