Problems are bound to occur when a historian sets out to compress the broad panorama of a nation's past, reaching from prehistory to the present, into a concise summary. Decades, even centuries, are contracted into paragraphs, and history writing comes to resemble the uninspired recitation of facts and dates that has bored generations of schoolchildren.
In Witold Rodzinski's new book, ''The Walled Kingdom,'' the entirety of Chinese history and civilization is condensed in just over 400 pages. The result , not surprisingly, is that clarity is often sacrificed to brevity. Many of the most significant political and cultural milestones of China's long history are dispensed with in a cursory, almost roughshod manner.
Rodzinski, an American-educated Polish Sinologist who served as his nation's ambassador to China during the tumultuous years of the Cultural Revolution, seems to hit his stride only when the first British gunboats appear off China's shores in the 1830s. The rapid encroachment of the Western nations upon the crumbling Ching dynasty and the humiliating subjugation of a nation that long viewed itself as the epicenter of all human civilization are brilliantly and painstakingly chronicled.
Rodzinski shows us that, for the better part of the past 100 years, China served as a neutral battleground for the armed forces of the Western nations and Japan. Its cities occupied, its economy in a shambles, and its political revival impeded by the predations of corrupt officials and feudal warlords, the nation grew increasingly obsessed with its own history, and with the legacy of misrule and imperial arrogance that led to China's collapse. Rudiments of Chinese society, including the Confucian philosophy, the stilted education system, and China's deep-seated xenophobia, were subjected to intense scrutiny, and a nation long shackled to old and highly conservative principles and ideals, experienced an unprecedented flowering of intellectual dissent and disputation during the first half of the 20th century.
Worn away by a cycle of dynastic ascent and decline that doomed all of China's imperial houses, the Ching gave way in 1911 to a loosely organized coalition of democratic reformers led by Sun Yat-sen. Rodzinski carefully charts the course of the broad-based movement that brought an end to nearly 4,000 years of imperial rule in China. His examination of the myriad personalities and political currents that conditioned the rise of Chinese nationalism and contributed to the success of the world's first peasant-based communist revolution is precisely and perceptively wrought.
The outcome of the prolonged struggle over conflicting nostrums for China's future was the victory of Mao Tse-tung's forces in the Chinese civil war of 1946 -49.
Rodzinski is at his best defining the strategies and mass appeal of the communist movement in China.
One can only wish that the same attention to exacting detail and thorough analysis displayed in Rodzinski's treatment of modern Chinese history had been employed throughout all of ''The Walled Kingdom.'' However, many of the most significant political and cultural milestones of China's long history are dispensed with in a cursory, almost roughshod manner. A civil war in the 4th century BC, a peasant uprising in the 3rd century AD, a major religious suppression in the 800s, and the flowering of Chinese fiction in the 16th century all run together in a bewildering jumble that makes much of Chinese history seem a haphazard progression of unrelated events.
The overall effect, so aptly described in a different context by eminent 2 nd-century BC Chinese historian Ssu-ma Chien is of ''a glimpse through a crack in the wall of a galloping white colt.''