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The Search for Modern China Paperback – January 1, 1991

4.6 out of 5 stars 90 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Spence advocates democracy in China and presents contemporary views of its oppressive history, including Chiang Kai-Shek's fascist supporters and the bloodbath known as the Cultural Revolution. "A splendid achievement, this sweeping . . . epic chronicle compresses four centuries of political and social change into a sharply observant narrative," said PW . Photos.
Copyright 1991 Reed Business Information, Inc.

From School Library Journal

YA --The difficulty of finding a complete, one-volume history of China is no longer a problem with publication of this work, which covers Chinese history from the 16th-century Ming Dynasty to the 1989 "China Spring" demonstrations. The 200+ photographs and illustrations, many in color and previously unpublished, include historical notes that add understanding to the art and the stories illustrated. The text is written in an informative manner that will appeal to students; their lack of knowledge of Chinese history is forstalled by the comprehensive glossary that explains phrases, people, and events. High-school teachers will bless you for buying this well-researched volume.
-Dolores Steinhauer, Jefferson Sci-Tech, Alexandria, VA
Copyright 1990 Reed Business Information, Inc.
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 912 pages
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company; 1st Paperback edition (January 1, 1991)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0393307808
  • ISBN-13: 978-0393307801
  • Product Dimensions: 6.2 x 2 x 9.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2.2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (90 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #216,209 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Thomas F. Ogara on August 29, 2000
Format: Paperback
This book, now in its second edition, has been quite successful and has in one sense managed to fill a perceived need among literate westerners, particulaarly Americans, to know something about modern Chinese history.
However, few people appreciate what a ground-breaking book this was, at least in its first edition. That it was a popular history of China ("popular" in the sense that it was not primarily designed to be a college text) was not unique; reasonably well-researched surveys of Chinese history have been around since the nineteenth century. But for those of us who sat through an undergraduate course on Chinese history prior to 1980, Spence's approach was refreshingly un-Eurocentered.
Once upon a time, Chinese history was presented in two neat halves: the first half was "traditional" China from prehistoric times to the Opium Wars (1840's). The second half was everything else going forward. The overall impression was that everything changed when the white man appeared - which is, of course, a misperception, to put it mildly. Spence conceives of "modern" Chinese history as beginning with the Ming Dynasty, and treated the Western intervention as just one theme among many.
Thus, Spence was able to present a new view of China to a new generation, and it was a viewpoint that explains a great deal more than previous ones did. That he does it in such a compelling way, opening new vistas up to us in the process, is what makes this a great book. A great deal of thought and sensitivity has gone into this work, and it deserves to be appreciated for that.
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Format: Paperback
I enjoyed this book for several reasons. The writing is excellent. It does not read like dry history. The author starts with the fall of the Ming dynasty. This is an excellent choice. By starting here, the reader better understands why China views the west it does. This places current events more in historical perspective. I also liked the author making value judgments about various historical figures and events. I am sure these value judgments will provoke controversy by the academic community. Spence does a good job of showing that the Communist revolution was more than a cult of Mao. Others were involved and Mao had his limits of power. This book is an excellent choice for someone who knows little about Chinese history but wants a quick survey of recent history.
As for weaknesses, I thought the coverage of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution was weak. The horror of these two events is discussed too dispassionately. If readers have no previous knowledge of these two events, it is hard from this text to understand the nature of the true tragedy.
As a disclaimer, I am not a scholar of Chinese history. I had only read a few books and have had no academic courses in Chinese history
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Format: Paperback
I have read Jonathan Spence's history course on modern China is one of the most popular courses at Yale University. "The Search for Modern China" is a great introduction to modern Chinese history. Spence's prose is very readable and the book is obviously exceedingly well researched.

Unlike the tendency of most Americans to falsely claim the United States and the West in general are at the center of the historical unverse, this book presents modern Chinese history primarily in a Chinese context. I especially enjoyed the chapters about the fall of the Ming dynasty and the Kangxi emperor, who was probably the wisest and most capable of the Qing emperors.

Americans and other people should be better able to understand after reading Jonathan Spence's book, the resentment many Chinese still have about recent, as well as current Western interference and continued popular hostility toward Japan. For nearly a century, as Spence ably writes, China endured a system of western imposed unequal treaties, a semi-colonial western and Japanese presence in many large Chinese cities and Japanese invasion. The western intrusion in China had the inadvertent consequences of weakening the Qing dynasty. The Japanese invasion prevented Jiang Jieshi or Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalist armies from completely defeating Mao's Communist forces. Had there been no Japanese invasion of China, it is likely the communists would have never prevailed over the Nationalists. The century of western and Japanese imperialism in China helps explain why many Chinese still harbor strong suspicions and resentment about recent and current United States policies toward China.
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Format: Paperback
For anyone interested in contemporary China, this books provides the necessary historical backdrop in great and well reasoned detail. In my reading, Spence explains better than anyone why the Chinese currently prefer stability over democracy and why the country has made a slow and halting entry into the modern world. While making no excuses for the excesses of the Party's leadership, Spence chronicles the immense change that Mao and his successors initiated, not from the standpoint of solely the 20th Century, but over the last 300 years. If you are looking for a single book that provides a 360° view of the evolution of this ancient and complex civilisation, this is the book for you. Spence is also a master of eloquent and concise prose, refreshingly un-academic in tone and yet a brilliant synthesis of contemporary research.
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