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By now, even the most casual observer of goings on in Asia will have noted the aggressive geopolitical maneuvering of China, a country news outlets have taken to calling “resurgent.”

To understand how apt that term is, it’s necessary to visit China’s distant past. By examining the ancient roots of its self-regard, it’s possible to bring the nature of its relations with neighboring countries into sharp focus. This is the idea at the heart of “Everything Under the Heavens: How the Past Helps Shape China’s Push for Global Power,” a new book by Howard W. French, a former New York Times bureau chief whose posts included Tokyo and Shanghai.

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