Philip Ball
Bodley Head
2016 | 352pp | £19.99
ISBN 9781847923547

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Tthe Water Kingdom

Water shapes the nation of China, both physically and metaphorically. Whether in the rivers and channels that feed the rice fields or in the philosophies of Daoism and Confucianism, water is the centre of life. In no other country would hydrologic management be a metaphor for good morals.

In The water kingdom, Philip Ball dives in at the deep end and follows the course of water throughout China’s history. This is a sprawling work, reaching from the earliest myths of ancient China to the political and environmental challenges facing the country today. It touches on a multitude of topics including, but not limited to, politics, history, mythology, art, war, civil engineering, dragons and the written language.

One of my favourite things about this book is the enthusiasm with which Ball tackles his subject. This book is clearly born of a deep love of China and its culture, from someone who knows it well. The scope is large, but the book rewards a perseverant reader. As Ball himself notes, the many dynasties that make up China’s imperial history can prove confusing to a western reader, but a handy timeline is included in the foreword that is well worth keeping bookmarked in case you come adrift in history.  Similarly, the maps come in useful for those of us less familiar with the geography of China.

My one criticism would be the pictures. The book is wonderfully illustrated with paintings, diagrams and photographs of the places and items described in the text, but these are small and printed in blotchy black and white, with details not always being clear. It seems a shame not to show them off.

Overall this book is fascinating, and took me on a journey into a world I previously knew very little about. Take the time to immerse yourself and you will find this a rewarding read.