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16 of 16 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Detailed, interesting, but perhaps a little dense for the layman
You know what you are getting when you sit down to read a Penguin history - something with depth, a huge amount of information, but also a book that can try to fit too much into a one volume history.

Modern China was no exception to this. It's a fascinating book on a country that we all should know more about, but it suffers in places from too many names and...
Published on 14 April 2011 by Matthew Smith

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31 of 36 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A disappointment, and a rush-job.
This is a disappointing book, and it needn't have been; Jonathan Fenby, while not a trained historian, is a strong and intelligent writer, and 'Generalissimo' was excellent. This, however, clearly shows signs of being a rush job done for the Olympic Year; for one thing, given how recently Fenby's other books came out, it seems extremely unlikely he had the time that a...
Published on 12 Jun 2008 by James Palmer


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16 of 16 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Detailed, interesting, but perhaps a little dense for the layman, 14 April 2011
By 
Matthew Smith (London) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: The Penguin History of Modern China: The Fall and Rise of a Great Power, 1850 - 2009 (Paperback)
You know what you are getting when you sit down to read a Penguin history - something with depth, a huge amount of information, but also a book that can try to fit too much into a one volume history.

Modern China was no exception to this. It's a fascinating book on a country that we all should know more about, but it suffers in places from too many names and too many places, making it difficult to keep up with who was doing what to whom, particularly in the period between the two World Wars when sides seemingly kept changing.

This book does do a marvellous job of taking you from the end of the imperial era right up to the present day, outlining the evolution of Chinese Communism and the characters that shaped it. The author does an excellent job of sifting through the sources with their various biases and presents a balanced history, pointing out the gains that China has made under it's current systems as well as the usual flaws that commentators in the West like to point out.

If you're a history fan and want a primer for modern China, this is definitely the book to read, but be prepared for it to take a while to get throu
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9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A stunning overview of a complex time, 26 Jan 2011
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This substantial book is an impressive and detailed history of modern China from the last days of the Qing dynasty in the late 1800's to the present day (2009) under Hu Jintao and Wen Jibao.
It paints a detailed picture of each phase, with periodic references back which contrast and compare each movement with earlier incidents or periods. It describes the influences of the various foreign powers who had designs on China - notably Britain and France (Britain's insistence on the Opium trade being a notable shameful incident), and later the Japanese who sought to conquer the country, but only managed to control Manchuria despite forays further south and west. The story continues with the parallel development of the Nationalists under Chiang Kai-Shek and the slow growth of the communist party philosophy and apparatus under Mao Zedong and his various lieutenants - most notably, Zhou Enlai. Again China learns to deal with external powers - but now mainly perhaps Russia and the United States.
Each period is described in quite impressive detail with much reference to the key protagonists of each phase and philosophy - drawing on numerous references and newspaper articles. Perhaps this mass of researched detail of the people involved and their power manoeuvrings is one of the major strengths of this book.
The Cultural Revolution and the conflicts behind it are dispassionately recounted - and the story of the cruelty of Mao unfolds to reveal abuses and inhumanity easily the equal of that displayed by the Japanese in the Rape of Nanjing. This shows, as in earlier periods, but perhaps on a greater scale, how lowly was human life valued in the march to the "ideal" of the Nation and the party. As with other leaders in other times and places, the picture emerges of Mao losing his mind and faculties but still bitterly self obsessed and quite unable to cope with the realities of an emerging superpower - despite his success in creating (at least the appearance of) an integrated nation in a way that Chang Kai-Shek was never able to do.
Prominent amongst the later scenarios are two chapters on the uprisings and arguments which led to the June 4th massacre in Tiannamen Square and beyond. The disruption and "turmoil" of this period extended from April 1979 to the final denoument in June, and was accompanied by similar unrest in major cities across the country. The book documents numerous behind the scenes meetings both within the Party and between the students and the Party, again identifying by name those closely involved. Passing reference at this stage is made to the "new guard" - in particular Hu Jintao, who was at this time earning his spurs by suppressing an uprising in Tibet.
In a later phase the reform of Deng Xiaoping is described as he tries to wrestle with bringing the country up to date and to incorporate the best ideas from around the world rather than exclude them on principle.
In the concluding chapters, the rise of the new technocrats is outlined with more biographical detail of Hu and Wen, and some the new generation.
The book includes numerous references, a useful list of the key players of the periods and a range of illustrations. Although clearly not designed for the purely casual reader, this book is an outstanding read for those with a real interest in the development of China.
Conversion to electronic form could be better with some instances of words run on together - sometimes for a whole line, but this doesn't really affect the enjoyment and educational value of this striking book.
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28 of 30 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A fantastic read!, 29 Sep 2008
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I wanted to learn about China's modern political history in light of the fact that Beijing was hosting the Olympic Games this year. I stumbled across this book by Johnathan Fenby at my local library and was really quite impressed with what I read. Fenby has written the book in such a way that you can't put it down until you've read an entire chapter! I feel this book has a number of attributes which i'll speak of below:

1) This book is accessible to all: to academics and readers with a general interest in China. This is only the case because Fenby has got the balance right: key events in China's history haven't been talked about in vast amounts of detail to bore the reader, but at the same time the book isn't oversimplified (and in fact is highly informative, as Fenby employs a wide range of resources and statistics).
2) The book is up-to-date. Fenby talks about modern issues in China such as Hu Jintao's vision of a "Peaceful rise in a harmonious world" and China's absorption of huge quantites of metals and oil which is leading to price rises in these commodities. Up-to-date statistics from 2007 and 2008 are included.
3) I think the book is balanced: Fenby doesn't shy away from recounting the full extent of the horrors of the Great Leap Forward, but at the same time puts across clearly how proud Chinese people are today of their country's achievements which have come through economic reform with the CCP at the helm.
4) The book is complete: no major event is left out: Fenby talks about practically all the major events in China's modern political history (from the loss of Hong Kong in the Opium Wars of 1840 to the fall of the last imperial dynasty, to the rise of both Nationalism and Communism in China; China's brief experience of western-style democracy and elections in 1912; War with Japan; the ascendency of Mao and the CCP; economic reforms under Deng Xiaoping, the Tiananmen Square Massacre in 1989; and China under the leadership of modern CCP members such as Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao). Fenby also mentions how China's international relations with the West (namely the US), Japan and Russia have evolved since the fall of the Qing dynasty.

Before reading Fenby's book, I had read Jung Chang's "Mao The Unknown Story" and felt Fenby's book was an excellent accomplimant: Chang's book gives you a detailed insight into China under Mao, whilst Fenby's book informs the reader of China before Mao and what happened in China after Mao (which has brought China to where it is today: a global economic power).

A thoroughly good read, I look forward to finding books of such a high standard covering political histories for differnt parts of the world.
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10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars good introduction to modern chinese history, 23 Jun 2010
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This review is from: The Penguin History of Modern China: The Fall and Rise of a Great Power, 1850 - 2009 (Paperback)
As a Chinese born in the 80s Beijing and lived under the state propaganda until 16, I have only recently realized that I probably have a skewed view of China from the indoctrination in my childhood. Thus I was quite eager to find out the 'truth', so to speak. As my American friends have pointed out, all historians have agendas, so I'm sure this one has some agenda too, but overall I thought it was pretty factual and at least tried not to be too biased or giving too much opinion. Definitely more balanced than most American newspaper articles about China I've encountered over the years.

I cannot comment on the historical accuracy or style since I'm no expert in either, but I did feel that most of the time it is a good read, and it gave me a pretty good overall of modern China, though not much in-depth. I would have appreciated a bit more details in the period post-1989 and 2009, since it's the era I grew up in and China experienced a great deal of social changes during this period of time.

Overall I recommend it to anyone interested in China and I'd particularly recommend fellow Chinese people to read it, though I doubt many would be open to accept some of the facts that are different from the Chinese government's official line...
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31 of 36 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A disappointment, and a rush-job., 12 Jun 2008
By 
James Palmer (Beijing, China) - See all my reviews
This is a disappointing book, and it needn't have been; Jonathan Fenby, while not a trained historian, is a strong and intelligent writer, and 'Generalissimo' was excellent. This, however, clearly shows signs of being a rush job done for the Olympic Year; for one thing, given how recently Fenby's other books came out, it seems extremely unlikely he had the time that a book of this magnitude requires. The writing is journalistic and in places glib, without the depth of sources or statistics that a book like this needs. Most bizarrely, there are no Chinese-language sources cited in the text! Despite ideological bias, good, interesting historical work is done on the mainland - never mind Taiwan and Hong Kong - and it seems odd to overlook it so completely.

It's still a decent introduction to modern China for someone new to the field, but it doesn't offer the depth or insight that other books in the Penguin History series have. The strongest sections are on the 1930s and 1940s, where Fenby has done previous work; others have been put together at some speed from other English books, most noticeably MAO'S LAST REVOLUTION for the Cultural Revolution sections. This isn't necessarily a bad thing; MLR, for instance, though a great book, is not that accessible, but the lack of original research or insight is noticeable. Ultimately, it's a weak entry in a normally great series of books.
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8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Perhaps the best volume on Modern China money can buy!, 21 Feb 2011
By 
A. J. Smith (UK) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: The Penguin History of Modern China: The Fall and Rise of a Great Power, 1850 - 2009 (Paperback)
A staggering, vast volume, chronicling a decisive era of not only Chinese, but also, world history, Fenby's History delivers a detailed, enlightening, and thoroughly readable study.
Beginning in the mid 1850s with China's unequal treaties, and the subsequent foreign intervention and humiliation, Fenby proceeds to describe everything that constitutes the fall described in the title. We learn of the details of the Opium War, the rise of the real power behind the throne, Dowager Empress Cixi, the subsequent ill fated 100 days reform, and the more famous Boxer Rebellion, with greater detail given to this often misunderstood movement that has frequently captured the Western imagination.
In comparison to previous histories this reader has studied, greater attention is given to more essential details such as the fall of the Imperial Court in 1912, the short lived Republic, and the Warlord Era. One learns why Chiang Kai Shek ultimately lost control of the Mainland, due in part to shouldering the burden of resistance to the Japanese, but equally due to the cronyism and inefficiency of his own administration.
Fenby provides a very detailed portrait of the WWII period, revealing a careful game of diplomacy wherein both the United States and the USSR took an approach toward China moulded on little more than self interest. Roosevelt, or more specifically, the various Generals and Civil Servants despatched to assist with the war effort, and policy, showed little understanding of China, and were more concerned with events in Europe. This is evinced in Madame Chiang's fruitless trip to the US at the end of the War.
Stalin, on the other hand, viewed China with secondary concern, wanting little more than a vassal state, regardless of whether it was ruled by the Communist Party, the Guomindang, or as he suggested, a coalition government. This was in part, due to his desire to avoid an attack on the Soviet Far East from Japan, evinced in his refusal to meet Chiang, but even in the event of the eventual communist victory, Stalin and his successors regarded their Chinese counterparts as "margarine communists" and little more than agricultural reformers. Indeed, the Sino-Soviet split was rooted in the Soviet desire for China to be little more than a vassal state, rather than a power in its own right.
The rule, or rather misrule, of Mao is presented in decidedly non-romantic terms, describing the abject disaster of the Great Leap Forward, and the bizarre horror of the Cultural Revolution. Fenby provides greater detail than one has previously divulged in detailing the machinations against Liu Shaoqi, and the mysterious flight of Lin Biao.
At times the section on Mao has a mild resemblance to Jung Chang's Mao: The Unknown Story, which appears in this volumes bibliography. This may be disappointing for those seeking a less derisive study of Mao's rule, however this chapter lacks the vitriol and scorn found within the Jung Chang book.
The study of the age of Deng is a definite plus within the book, describing the Paramount Leaders outmanoeuvring of Hua Guofeng and his consolidation of power. Fenby gives particular importance to the role of the 8 Immortals and their continuing influence, describing the period as a power struggle between radicals and conservatives, that led to a head in 1989.
Devoting a decent 3 chapters to perhaps the biggest stain on China's image of the past few decades, the Tiananmen Square Massacre, Fenby provides details that are often overlooked by other Westerners covering the event, how the protests were not as peaceful as commonly believed, how force was not readily used by the PLA forces, and how the movement in many ways used whatever forceful means at its disposal to resist the evacuation of the square.
For those who have been tuned into China's current events since the late 90s, the final section on Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao may provide little new material, but one is treated to a highly readable overview of the continuation the economic boom, and the strengths and failings of Deng's successors.
Fenby concludes with a well reasoned overview of the strengths and internal contradictions of modern China, in many ways delivering on the title chronicling China's rise, in contrast to it's earlier fall.
What one has in Fenby's volume is a highly readable and informative account of this crucial period of Chinese history that is increasingly consequential for the world at large.
A book that is strongly recommended for both new comers to the study of China, and experienced China hands, or those who would like a highly engaging study of modern history.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Very well-written introduction to modern Chinese history, 20 July 2011
This review is from: The Penguin History of Modern China: The Fall and Rise of a Great Power, 1850 - 2009 (Paperback)
Fenby is a journalist,not a historian,so that accounts for this book being an easy read for the non-Sinologist.
It kicks off at the times of the Opium Wars,and follows the story of China seemingly going down the plughole in the late 19th century-at some points,westerners thought there would be a "Scramble For China" as had just happened in Africa.Then,some Chinese started exploring the new ideas brought from outside-nationalism,socialism,democracy-and saw that they could benefit China.
So,the confrontation between China and the outside world from the 19th century onwards was made up of ideas,not just armies.
Fenby also stresses continuities in Chinese history.His account of the Cultural Revolution points oiut that some themes of the 1960s had very deep roots in Chinese history.
His account of post-Mao China also shows the the tendencies towards localism,corruption and autocracy in today's Communist Party aren't modern inventions either.
A good introduction,and the bibliography is worth a glance if you wish to read in more detail on the themes of Fenby's book.
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3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent, informative and detailed, 22 Jan 2010
By 
E. Love "Uptown Funky Stuff" (Suffolk, England) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: The Penguin History of Modern China: The Fall and Rise of a Great Power, 1850 - 2009 (Paperback)
Jonathan Fenby has produced a reliable and detailed text on an incredibly broad area of history. I am currently studying China in the 20th Century as part of my A Level History course. I have used this book as a resource for reading an overview of the subject and shall also be using it as part of a more detailed study with source analysis.

A well structured and well referenced book, for anyone studying or interested in the history of Modern China this is indeed the one to own!
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3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The Penguin History of Modern China, 9 Nov 2009
By 
Dr. Martin McCauley (London) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: The Penguin History of Modern China: The Fall and Rise of a Great Power, 1850 - 2009 (Paperback)
Replete with information, this superb account of China's rise will find a wide readership. Beginners should read the book in parts as they may find the wealth of facts overwhelming. They should persevere because they will gain valuable insights into why China, over the last 30 years, has become the world's greatest success story. Politics receives most attention but economics is also covered adequately.Read about how Mao Zedong and a cast of thousands took over China from Chiang Kai shek and set out to restore the Middle Kingdom's fortunes. Over the last hundred years China has wrestled with two approaches to modernisation: the capitalist and the communist. The communist won in the short term but the capitalist in the long term. This brilliant book explains why.
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3.0 out of 5 stars Broad but not deep, 1 Jun 2013
By 
F Henwood "The bookworm that turned" (London) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: The Penguin History of Modern China: The Fall and Rise of a Great Power, 1850 - 2009 (Paperback)
This is an ambitious book that manages to cover a lot of ground and is for the most part readable and engaging history of China since 1850. In 1850 China was hopelessly divided and odds against itself. A century and a half later, it is on the cusp of becoming a global superpower. On the way, its people suffered every imaginable calamity, much of it at the hands of its own leaders as well as foreign imperialists. The author conveys the epic nature of this historical drama very well, with a skillfully constructed and executed narrative.

The book easily scores five stars for readability and 650 plus pages of narrative slipped by easily. However, it lacks analytical depth. Key developments are not well analysed. The Communists emerge in the story in the 1920s but little discussion is offered as to the roots of Chinese communism and the reasons why it ultimately triumphed after two decades of struggle. The Communists ended the reign of warlords and unified the country, albeit at great human cost. How did they manage to do that when the nationalists under Chiang Kai-shek failed? I didn't get much idea how. The famine years and the Great Leap Forward are treated with remarkable brevity. The discussion of the Cultural Revolution mostly centres on how Mao played off various individuals in his own party but offers no explanation as to what Mao thought he was doing while he prosecuted it.

Likewise, there is barely any discussion on why the Chinese Communist Party decided to abandon Maoism in the late 1970s and reintroduce capitalism. It is not enough to state, as the author seems to imply, that the primary purpose of this experiment was to keep the CCP in power. This does not seem to me to be a particularly convincing explanation of the CCP's motivation. If it was just a case of hanging onto power, then why didn't the Party go the way of North Korea or maybe the way of the Soviet Union after the death of Stalin? In unleashing the power of market forces, the CCP has embarked on one massive gamble, a gamble that it might well lose. This remarkable development surely calls for a more nuanced explanation.

The author seems to suggest that history has merely been repeating itself in China over the last 150 plus years, in endless cycles of violence and repression. But that is not the entire story. The China of 2009 is not the China of 1969 or 1949 or 1919. For better and for worse, there have been real changes. Overall, we get a good sense of what happened in China from 1850 to the present day but not necessarily a sense of how and why things turned out the way they did. Not all the book suffers from this shortcoming. The discussion of the repression of the student protests in 1989 gives better consideration of the context, for instance. But overall, the analytical shortcomings reduced the value of the book for me. So although I can wholeheartedly give it five stars for readability, I can only give it three stars overall for the reasons I mention above.
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