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34 of 36 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Spence takes you there
Older readers may recall those Walter Kronkite-narrated documentaries where Kronkite kept saying "And you were there!", even though the documentaries themselves were stripped-down butcherings. This book does take you there. Spence accomplishes what so few historians do--he approaches his subject on its own terms, and within the narrative seeks to immerse the...
Published on 13 Nov 1998

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3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Detailed, but so very very dry
This book was essential reading for one of my modules at university, so first and foremost I must say that I am probably biased against it because I had to read it under duress.

This being said, however, the book does have numerous good points. Spence makes the history of modern China (starting from about 1800 and through to the modern day) readable and...
Published on 29 Mar 2012 by S


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34 of 36 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Spence takes you there, 13 Nov 1998
By A Customer
This review is from: The Search for Modern China (Paperback)
Older readers may recall those Walter Kronkite-narrated documentaries where Kronkite kept saying "And you were there!", even though the documentaries themselves were stripped-down butcherings. This book does take you there. Spence accomplishes what so few historians do--he approaches his subject on its own terms, and within the narrative seeks to immerse the reader in the temporal and geographic subject matter. This is one of the few--perhaps the only--narrative surveys where readers might root for protagonists and feel anger toward villains. In reading this book, you feel as if you _are_ China; the turmoils of the late 1800s and 1900s strike you physically, at the gut. Each chapter conveys not only the happenings, but also the mood of the period--you feel tranquil and arrogant as you read about the Qing Dynasty at the height of its power, you begin to feel anxious as the Western world arrives, and you feel helpless as internal strife and Western demands eat away at the Empire. If you have near-zero interest in history books and will read only ten in your lifetime, this should be one of them. (PS--If you are ever in New Haven during school terms, make sure to sit in on a Spence lecture.)
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21 of 22 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Classic, 27 Jan 2004
I bought this book to supplement other books on Chinese history. It really brings the whole thing to life. Spence is such a good writer; I was so impressed I ended up buying other books by him.
He made a source book which accompanies this book, which has extra documents and pictures.
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17 of 19 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars So good, 28 May 2003
Wow! Ever so big, yet so very readable. An exhaustive history of China from then till now, it covers every aspect of chinese civilization. Spence uses an incredible amount of detail to make four centuries+ of chinese history come alive and draw the reader ever deeper, rather than bore him to tears as so many authors seem to do with this kind of work. Need I say more? Get it.
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15 of 17 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A magnet for the eyes, 29 Mar 1997
By A Customer
This review is from: The Search for Modern China (Paperback)
War, revolution, drama, triumphs and defeats: It's all here in this 800+ page book. Spence, a scholar with unquestionable competence, does a great job detailing the struggle of a nation trying to claim its place in the modern world. From the conquest of the Manchus to the dominance of Western powers, from the fall of the last imperial dynasty to the birth of a republic, and from the tragedy of Tiananmen to the promise of a better future, the reader gets a sense of history unfolding before his own eyes. The beautiful photographs and illustrations included brings the reader even closer to being a witness of history.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars China through Western eyes, 26 Mar 2010
Jonathon Spence treats the reader to a fascinating analysis of Western perceptions of the Chinese. He examines the influence of the likes of Marco Polo, Matteo Ricci and the great novelists and thinkers of the 19th and 20th centuries. What emerges is a tale of prejudice, misinformation and sheer fabrication, and in later years, an often sympathetic bias. An excellent read and essential for anyone interested in examining the development of Western attitudes to China and its people.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Present echoes the Past, 31 Dec 2011
By 
Antenna (UK) - See all my reviews
(TOP 500 REVIEWER)   
This is an excellent history of modern China, very readable despite the small print and thin pages. Admittedly, it requires a good deal of time and dedication, but repays the effort. Clearly very knowledgeable but modest with it, Spence knows what points to select from a mass of detail to convey a clear understanding of how and why China evolved from a vast empire, which had turned its face inward against western-style development, to the world's largest communist state, now rapidly embracing economic growth.

He starts with the decline of the late Ming dynasty in the late C17, enough to capture the flavour of a highly centralised, bureaucratic, top-down society which has been the nature of China since the first unified Qin dynasty of 221BC, but he doesn't make the mistake of getting bogged down in detail that far back.

In the subsequent Qing dynasty, we see the first painful enforced contacts with the west, including the shameful role of the British, in flogging opium to save having to spend silver on purchasing Chinese goods. In addition to the usual problems of natural disasters and the difficulty of collecting taxes in such a vast area, the Qing had to contend with major rebellions but managed to survive for a surprisingly long time up to 1912, partly owing to the effectiveness of some impressive campaigns under remarkable Confucian-trained leaders, motivated by their loyalty to traditional Chinese values. Despite this, and a belated willingness to reform, the Qing eventually fell, leading to a prolonged period of chaotic civil war between a succession of warlords.

It is clear that the impetus for radical change came from men who, from the C19, had the opportunity to travel abroad where they could gain access to western political ideas of both liberal representative democracy - an alien concept in China - and Marxist-Leninism. Spence provides a clear analytical account of the rise to power of the Guomindang movement, inspired by Sun Yat-sen and led by Chiang Kai-shek until his exile to Taiwan. He traces the development of the communist People's Republic of China, by no means a foregone conclusion. The machinations of leaders like Mao Zedong as they tighten their grip on power, the Orwellian twists in accepted views make fascinating reading, even to those familiar with the basic facts. To quote Spence on the abrupt fall from favour of Lin Biao under Mao Zedong's regime: "The credulity of the Chinese people had been stretched beyond all possible boundaries as leader after leader had been first praised to the skies and then vilified."

Deng Xiaoping is an intriguing character, as he steers his vast nation towards economic development with periodic crackdowns on free speech, the most shocking and tragic being the killing or wounding of thousands in Tiananmen Square - worse violence perhaps than any single incident in the recent "Arab Spring".

Every section starts with a useful summary, and there is a full glossary at the end in the likely event of your finding it hard to retain the confusingly similar names of many people and places. Although there are many maps to describe the numerous military campaigns, I would have liked a brief section at the outset to highlight key aspects of the geography.

I am most interested in present-day China, but this book provides an essential foundation to understanding this country's complex mix of sophistication and barbarity - developing beautiful artefacts hundreds of years before say the UK, only to smash them wantonly in the misnamed Cultural Revolution of the 1970s. The historical approach enables us to appreciate how the protests of the Chinese who spoke out against repression in the 1970s and 1980s echo those of the past, not just the anti-Guomindang and the anti-Qing of the late C19, but even the Ming loyalists of the C17.

Last updated in 1999, this seminal work is now due for a brief update to cover recent developments as China invests in Africa and copes with the effects of global recession.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Phenomenal book, 16 Jun 2010
Just finished reading this. It is the most accurate, comprehensive and compelling book on Chinese history that you could ever hope to read.

Fantastic.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Very interesting read, 4 Jun 1999
By A Customer
This book offers an interesting portrait of China from the time of Marco Polo (13th century) to present day. As with all of Spence's books, the level of detail is sufficient yet not overwhelming. The book recounts numerous passages by various travelers who visited China over the course of 700 years. Would recommend this book to anyone interested in Chinese history or to anyone interested in learning about how the West has viewed China past and present.
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3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Detailed, but so very very dry, 29 Mar 2012
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This book was essential reading for one of my modules at university, so first and foremost I must say that I am probably biased against it because I had to read it under duress.

This being said, however, the book does have numerous good points. Spence makes the history of modern China (starting from about 1800 and through to the modern day) readable and (mostly) quite simple to follow. I could tell that he had really done his homework and the book is very well researched and it often goes into great detail.

Unfortunately, however, these great forays into detail make for a very heavy and dense book, with only about 200 years of Chinese history spread out over roughly 800 pages of actual text. I say "only 200 years" knowing full well that the period in question was a turbulent one (discovered through reading the book no less), but I do feel that Spence could have worked out a compromise between detail and readability.

Secondly, I found the book's coverage of certain events in history somewhat odd. I don't believe the chapter that concerns the First United Front actually mentions the words "First United Front" at all. In fact, if I remember rightly (and I could be mistaken) I don't think Spence gives that particular period a name at all, merely calling it a "fractured alliance."

My main problem with the book is that I did not find it very interesting. I know that this is obviously subjective, but when it came to reading this book for revision purposes, it wasn't something I looked forward to doing (as much as one can look forward to revision), and was something that I looked on as a chore.

On a final note, the book is all right for my needs as a university text book. However I would not recommend it to those who have a casual interest in Chinese history, as it is too dense, dry, and there aren't many pictures. The dearth of pictures isn't a crippling fault, but it helps to break up the large blocks of text.
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5.0 out of 5 stars best book on china, 22 July 2013
This review is from: The Search for Modern China (Paperback)
my first review since amazon began, I was randomly browsing books on China and came across this old chesnut, having read it several years ago I was extremely surprised to see it so low down in the rankings and with so few reviews. This simply is the best book on Chinese history ever written bar none, and should absolutely be read by anyone who visits or has visited China at any point in their lives to help them understand the place.
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The Search for Modern China
The Search for Modern China by Johnathan D Spence (Paperback - 17 Oct 2001)
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