Review: ‘Division to Unification in Imperial China (vol. 2): The Three Kingdoms to the Tang Dynasty (220–907)’

Volume 2 in Jing Liu's Understanding China Through Comics series.

Volume 2 in Jing Liu’s Understanding China Through Comics series.

Jing Liu brings to life the history of China in his series, Understanding China Through Comics. With Donald Trump’s focus on China, with no signs of letting up, it is a perfect time to gain a better understanding of a very misunderstood country. It was a pleasure to review the first volume in this series. You can read that here. For this second volume, Liu proceeds where he left off and focuses on the periods of division and unification in Imperial China. The full title is, “Division to Unification in Imperial China (vol. 2): The Three Kingdoms to the Tang Dynasty (220–907),” published by Stone Bridge Press. But don’t let the long title intimidate you. This is a highly accessible work tailored to fast learning while also very entertaining.

There is much to marvel over with Liu’s book. As a cartoonist myself, I fully appreciate the balancing act that Liu had to negotiate in order to have the facts make sense in a comics format. It is often believed that the only path for a work in comics or a graphic novel is brevity. You should only insert a limited number of words in those word balloons and text boxes, so the rule goes. However, that all depends. Liu presents everything in a very clean and visually appealing style and has managed to up his word count as needed.

Dividing up territory.

Dividing up territory.

The story of China is one of many regions vying for control and Liu is up to the task of showing us all the machinations. With great clarity, Liu reveals all the moving parts involved and reintroduces key facts as the story unfolds. Liu employs a number of time-saving devices, primarily he makes good use of all his digital options: fonts, pre-made borders for his panels, word balloons, and such. And, in an uncanny way, his art style compliments this more compact approach. It is a relatively spare style but not without a beauty and flourish running throughout in the spirit of manga. He’s managed to hold back enough in order to mix well with the flow of characters and events. You will not only learn about battles and wars, you will learn about the evolution of Chinese culture and spirituality. For instance, Liu provides a wonderful comparison and contrast to the Tao and Buddhist belief systems.

The excess of The One Percent.

The excess of The One Percent.

Liu presents us with cycles of history, the rise and fall of dynasties. And we come to see the patterns and how they relate to current history. We see the perpetual struggle between the rich and the poor, the strong and the weak. But we never tire of such a narrative. First, dynasties prospered. Then they grew corrupt. Finally, they fell and gave way to other dynasties. Liu shows us both the good, the bad, and the in-between. One example that sticks with me falls squarely in the bad column: there was a time when wealthy aristocrats thought nothing of commissioning miles and miles of screens made of silk just so they could pass through them and greet each other. Now, there’s some One Percent decadence for you!

“Division to Unification in Imperial China” is a 166-page book, published by Stone Bridge Press. For more details, and how to purchase, visit Stone Bridge Press right here.

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Filed under China, Comics, Graphic Novel Reviews, graphic novels, Jing Liu, Stone Bridge Press

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