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Modern China: The Fall and Rise of a Great Power, 1850 to the Present Hardcover – June 24, 2008
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From the Publisher
--Times Literary Supplement (London)
"Panoramic narrative... a wonderful resource...One does not often feel that an author has got it just about all covered but Mr. Fenby is approaching the mark."
--Far Eastern Economic Review
"His book is a powerful revisionist account of a country whose history needs to be understood if the west is to comprehend China's role in the present and future...That century-old dilemma of how to create a strong China in a world buffeted by global forces in painfully relevant today. Jonathan Fenby's account of how China has coped with that dilemma makes his illuminating book the first major history that looks at the country with the eyes of the 21st century rather than the 20th."
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Still, and that is why I am giving the book 4 stars and not 5, I feel that a more sharp interpretation of events could have been possible. Even though the books helped me to have a basic understanding of the reasons behind the most significant events, such as the fall of the Empire, the raise of Mao to power, the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution or the Tiananmen Square revolt, I ended the book thinking that, yes, I know a lot more about China, and definitely I will understand better any China-related piece of news, but something was missing in the explanation of why those things happened.
In spite of its minor shortcomings, though, I recommend Fenby's book to those looking for a general overview of modern Chinese history.
For instance, the book introduces a whole gamut of important players, and I found myself turning several times to the index to remind myself who these were. Unfortunately more often than not, the page numberings in the index were just wrong, which was a minor annoyance throughout. Misspellings of names crop up every now and then - it may not matter much to the casual reader, but it is slightly irritating when you decide to read up more on Zong Zizhen, only to discover that his surname is Gong rather than Zong.
The book could also do with better cross references. I was intrigued by a reference to the Confucian Book of Odes, and tried looking up some lines which were quoted in the book, but never been able to find it till today.
Don't get me wrong, I would very much still recommend this book for someone who wants to understand what happened in China over the last 200 years, but it could have been so much better.
For instance, I now see in a light specific to China's history the ruling party's central dilemma of spurring economic development while simultaneously exerting tight control over political activities. This is a survey, a single-volume history covering a period that would fill multiple volumes easily, that shows the insanity of Mao's philosophy (if that's what it was) of constant revolution, while at the same time understanding how Mao kept a tight grip on the reins of the central government.
Fenby's coverage of Mao, rising through the evolving Chinese Communist Party to master control of the ruling organization, also reveals the insanity of the Chairman's initiatives once he got control of the government, including: the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution, and daily scheming to keep off balance those around him. But Fenby also notes that despite accentuating the paranoia so typical of China politics Mao did bring into being a centralized government out of chaos.
Deng Xiaoping comes into deserved detail treatment for being the midwife of China's economic reform, but failing to liberalize political processes and expression. The Tiananmen Square demonstrations, covered in good detail, are presented as the culmination of the country's leadership to liberalize politics and political expression to complement economic reform.
Modern China also devotes considerable detail to relations with Japan, and its occupation of the Middle Kingdom. This is important because of the tenuous grip China held on its independence as foreign powers including Japan and Western nations held over the most valuable cities and regions, dating back to the decades leading up to the period covered by Fenby. He correctly chose to delve into more detail of Japan's occupation than those of the Western powers, but covers pressures from European nations sufficiently to illustrate China's reluctance to, for instance, allow foreign companies set up shop without a Chinese partner.
Modern China has pointed toward areas for further study for me as well, especially of the managers class in the Politburo who have succeeded Deng and are advancing his model. Fenby's portrayal of events through Chiang Kai-shek's ineffectual attempt to forge a modern nation are essentially covered as military history, which I found not as rewarding as Fenby's treatment of subsequent events.
Highly recommended for those, like me, looking for an introduction to modern China.