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An accessible introduction to Modern China
on 3 June 2011
Modern China is a fascinating subject in its own right. China, in general, has been one of the most intriguing countries in the world for most of its history. The most populous nation, China is an heir to an ancient civilization that at one point surpassed all the others in the world in terms of cultural and technological achievement. Yet, over the centuries that civilization had fallen behind others and only in recent decades has China started to approach again its erstwhile status of a great power. This raise has been rather gradual, and with many setbacks has taken the better part of the last hundred years. The Modern China is a work in progress, and this very short introduction provides one of the best overviews of this process. The book covers most of the Chinese twentieth century history, and it's noteworthy in that it doesn't see the arrival of the communists in 1949 so much as a clean break from the past as a continuation of the previous attempts at modernization by the Nationalists and their predecessors. The communist rule is also approached more critically, somewhat downplaying the extent of the most egregious years of the Cultural Revolution, and emphasizing the discontinuities within the Communist regime and its policies. In particular, the author argues that some of the economic advances in the recent years can be traced to the set of reforms that started in the late 70s.
One of the strengths of this book is the attention that it pays to the cultural as well as technological and economic advances. Since most people in the West are at least somewhat familiar with some of the most prominent recent Chinese cinematographic achievements, this provides an accessible connection to the cultural trends in China these days.
The weakness of the book is its lack of any deeper exploration of the human rights abuses and the very serious suppression of dissent that has plagued China for the better part of the past hundred years under different regimes. The abuse has been particularly systematic and ruthless under the Communists, and it is the ugly flip side of the breakneck progress that China has been enjoying in the recent decades.
Overall, this is a very informative and accessible book on Modern China that is well suited for the general readership. It is not a dry scholarly work, and it even indulges in imaginative allegories and analyses on an occasion. It is well worth reading for anyone who is interested in what forces have shaped the Modern China.