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China's cities, notes Cotterell (China: A Cultural History), played an important role in symbolizing the legitimacy of a new regime; upstart emperors spent untold treasure and lives on building magnificent capitals, carefully laid out on principles of cosmology and feng shui, to demonstrate their assumption of the Mandate of Heaven. These cities furnish the author with splendid panoramas of 2,300 years of Chinese civilization. Working with maps, photos, reproductions of Chinese art and literary accounts, he recreates the cosmopolitanism of medieval Chang'an, the commercial bustle of Song dynasty Hangzhou and the sublime architecture of Beijing's Forbidden City. These set pieces frame a sprightly history of China up to the founding of the republic. Cotterell elucidates large-scale themes-the long seesaw battle between China and its nomadic neighbors, the Confucian scholar-bureaucracy's struggle to control the state, and the cycle of imperial despotism and peasant revolt-while sketching a picaresque chronicle of dynastic succession and court intrigue, complete with overmighty eunuchs and scheming concubines. The result is a fine evocation of China as both a place and a story. 46 b&w photos and maps. (June)Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.