I have been reading Histories of China (Modern and Ancient) in English since the 1980s and to this day have not found one which is definitive. My personal favorite is Jonathan Spence's The Search for Modern China, elegantly written but has been justly criticized for being light on the 1960s onwards (which is a fair criticism since there wasn't as much material available to the west when the book was published). I found Immanuel Hsu's (Rise of Modern China) brick of a book rather hard going and bogged down for minutiae, but it remains an important textbook even after three decades. Finally Jonathan Fenby's Penguin History of Modern China, is even worse on that front, chock a block full of minor characters and facts but lacking in structure and analysis.
Thus I approached this book with a bit of trepidation and was pleasantly surprised. By taking a international relations perspective Odd Arne Westad has managed to tame his subject matter by cutting through the domestic and social issues and giving us an analysis of how to understand China through its interactions with other states, starting with the strong position of the early Qing dynasty, to weakened interactions with the Imperial powers and finally the deft diplomacy to stay independent and relevant during the cold war period in a world that was forced to divide into a bipolar conflict. This all plays into how it now views its "peaceful rise" and its rightful place in the world.
The language is deliberately pared down and simple to understand, which is perhaps a function of Professor Westad's first language being Norwegian rather than English. This is of a great benefit for those without any background in Chinese history as it is direct and to the point.
Restless Empire avoids the pitfalls of the previous books by avoiding bringing in a host of minor characters to drive the narrative or overwhelming us with interesting trivia, instead it is the state, key personages and institutions that are the major actors in his book leaving the reader with a clear sense and analysis of how the situation evolved. It also avoids another pitfall of being Euro-centric in its analysis with ample space devoted to Japan and the USA. Where previous books perhaps overstate the importance of the Taiping Rebellion, Opium War and the Boxer Rebellion (due to the ease of access to primary data available in foreign libraries) these are dealt with quickly in 1-2 pages per topic and are placed in their proper context as important events that contributed to the demise of the Qing but only one part of the chain of causation - the other being the international situation and rivalry with Japan.
I was pleased to see that this book incorporated much of the latest scholarship, including details of how the Qing Empire was not as weak as previously assumed with research showing that during the early 18th century the productivity and standard of living of China compared favorably to any other part of the world and the economy was booming. Indeed Westad's argument is that the Qing Empire, had it not been crucially weakened by internal rebellions and wars had a good chance of catching up to the West in its own terms along the lines of Japan.
There is much trade and economic analysis that reflects the shift in emphasis in historical writing of the last 2 decades, which helps illuminate previously neglected topics such as the relationship of China with other Asian countries as well as the Chinese diaspora and students abroad. A chapter on foreigners is China is also useful in terms of their contribution to the development in bringing Chinese into modernity.
Finally, especially the in the first half of the book, due to focus on international relations and strategy we do get a good insight to some of the less well known international players such as the USA, France in Vietnam and Germany (fascinating stuff - besides its model colony in Shandong, Nazi Germany also provided most of Chiang Kai Shek's military advisors up to 1939) and a focus on Taiwan and Okinawa. Taiwan, Okinawa, the Chinese Diaspora all help us place the world of today in a sharper focus and in its rightful historical context.
Again - all in all a very, very good book - especially for a new reader and definitely of a much higher quality than a lot of the dross that you see in the bookshelves as so many authors try to jump on the China bandwagon. (Just because you visited China a few times or lived in China for a couple of years doesn't make you a China expert!). I would definitely recommend this as a great foundational, introductory text.