Rambling about A History of East Asia – Early Dynasties, Colonialism, and China as a Global Hegemon

Key takeaways:

  • Holcombe’s A History of East Asia is the kind of dry, academic, extremely cautious textbook that gives history as a subject a bad name (and myself some flashbacks to uni).
  • Nonetheless, this book is certainly a serviceable overview of the histories of China, Japan, Korea, and Vietnam, which was the minimum I was hoping for.
  • Like most other geographical regions, the overall gist of East Asian history is a move (over millennia) from many small kingdoms to centralization and now, increasingly, globalization. In-between, there are a lot of revenge cycles, family members killing each other, and foreign invasions.
  • This book only included Vietnam in this second edition, and even so, the Vietnam content is pretty light. After reading it, I understand why the author was hesitant to put Vietnam into the category of “East Asia” as its history doesn’t quite follow the same kinds of patterns as the other countries. Still, I’ll probably have to seek out other resources to learn more.

In the video, I also go over some highlights and “things I didn’t know” about the history itself. Short version is: the antecedents of events and documents are often unexpected and sometimes downright bizarre… “truth is stranger than fiction”!


  1. I really enjoyed your review, I’m also not impartial to the format 🙂 It’s particularly to interesting to hear about the things you’ve learned from the book and your criticism too (I was hoping you’d go to some detail and you did). My Polish upbringing meant zero non-European history throughout my early education (the scope then shrank even more when I went to high school in the UK) so I was eager to listen to things about Vietnam and China that you’ve mentioned. I hope you find a good book on Vietnamese history and if you do, please do share, I’d love to know a bit more (and I wish I was in a position to recommend something!).


    1. Thanks, Mari! Your educational experience sounds similar to mine…I think there’s an idea that kids will be lucky to remember their own history, let alone other countries’. 😀

      I’ll definitely update if I find better resources… I don’t think I mentioned it in the video, but Ken Burns’s Vietnam War is a great documentary for learning about that era specifically. As you can imagine, though, it’s incredibly bleak, plus highly focused on the US experience. I’ll be reading some books later this year about the Vietnamese perspective to kind of fill in the gaps there (my dad who grew up in it shares stories sometimes, but it is still hard for him to talk about).


  2. I’m glad you keep telling me this book is dry so I won’t run out and buy it, because Asian history is a passion of mine. I have a couple of books on the history of Vietnam. It’s an interest of mine because I knew so many Vietnamese growing up.

    Also, my son is living in China so that is naturally an area of interest. I love the art from all of these countries. I have two close friends, one from Japan and another from South Korea. We like to exchange comments about the different art there. I’m especially enjoying modern art from these countries.


  3. This is one that had appeared on my radar when I was scouting for Discovery of Asia, I think, or considering a return to that theme. I’m sorry to hear that it seems dry, but at least you were able to get something out of it! The repetitive nature I think is endemic to sweeping histories like this, unless the author goes for a general narrative instead of a straightforward narrative. According to your vid, the author was very deliberate/cautious, so I’m not surprised they didn’t go for a more entertaining approach. (When I was reviewing “The Persians”, I commented that it was just a list of men killing men, and that the only thing which really changed was who was getting killed by who…)


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