China 101: Chinese History

A lot of people planning to come out to China, either for the first time or for a long time, ask me what they should be reading to get a good feel for the country and the way things work here.

Rather than sending out the same list over and over, I developed a list and broke it down into what are essentially three “virtual courses,” and I posted them at Silicon Hutong. To jumpstart my effort to craft more such courses for inclusion here on Peking Review, I’ve posted them here as well, with some additions.

It begins with history

It does not matter you are a businessperson or a tourist, whether you are planning to stay for a good time or for a long time, you need to try and understand this nutty place, and an understanding of China begins with history.

I know a lot of people who emphasize current affairs in their reading on China and ignore history. Taking their cue from Henry “history is bunk” Ford, their rationale goes like this: with things changing so fast  in the PRC, history is less relevant and more academic than current affairs and business.

But to paraphrase an old saying, if history doesn’t have a veto in the way things work in China, it at least has a vote, and an important one at that. I’d recommend that anyone traveling here spend time reading the history. If you are planning on working, studying, or building a business here, history is an essential part of your bedside fare.

The most important part of that context, in my opinion, falls between the British Macartney Mission to the Qianlong emperor from 1792-1794 and ends with the Communist victory in the Chinese civil war in 1949. The period covers the core of how China has dealt with, responded to, and been changed by its interaction with the outside world.

This is where you should start your quest. So I call this reading list “China 101.”There is no limit to the publications on offer, but here is a good core to start with:

First, order the books listed below. While you’re waiting for them, spend some time looking through the Condensed Chinawebsite. This will help you get your bearings and provide some context for what you will be reading.

Next, pop over to the Library of Congress’ website, where they maintain a well-researched and reasonably balanced overview of the country. Read the introductory material and Chapter 1 (Historical Setting) only. We’ll get to the other stuff later.

Here are the books you should read:

Tai-Pan by James Clavell. I start this list with a work of fiction for two reasons: first, because your China reading should be enjoyable, and historical fiction is a good place to start. Second, and perhaps most important, while Clavell has “changed the names to protect the innocent,” he manages to capture the flavor of the period that led to the creation of Hong Kong as China’s gateway to the world, and while conveying the essence of what it is like to do business here.

God’s Chinese Son: The Heavenly Kingdom of Hong Xiuquan by Jonathan Spence. You could read just about anything by Mr. Spence and walk away the wiser for it. This particular book, covering the Taiping Rebellion of 1845-1864, covers an event that not only set the stage for the ultimate fall of the Manchu Qing dynasty, it left China in a weakened state that would persist for a century.

The Boxer Rebellion by Diana Preston. While this book is a one-sided account of its eponymous incident, Ms. Preston’s meticulous research and superb writing keep you engrossed all the way through. The book leaves you with an appreciation of the latent xenophobia in the Chinese zeitgeist, and of the dangers implicit in when opportunistic leaders try to harness such emotions.

Twilight in the Forbidden City by Reginald Johnston. If you ever saw the film The Last Emperor, Peter O’Toole played the role of Reginald Johnston, the lettered British diplomat appointed as the tutor of the final sovereign of the Qing dynasty, Aisin Gioro Pu Yi. Johnston’s history covers the period from the reform movement of 1898 through to Pu Yi’s installation as the puppet ruler of the Japanese vassal state of Manchukuo in China’s industrial northeast. Johnston is an unabashed royalist and until his dying day saw a constitutional monarchy as China’s best hope for peace. Nonetheless, his insights into the workings of the imperial bureaucracy – which mirror those of Ms. Preston in her work on The Boxer Rebellion, are superb background for dealing with a Chinese bureaucrat of any ilk and in any territory.

The Family by Pa Chin. Also a work of fiction, Family is a classic of imperial Chinese literature. The story treats us to a snapshot of what it was like to live in the home of a well-off family under the strict social-moral code of Confucianism, and to the forces that tore apart traditional families as China underwent immense upheaval. In many ways the book is an allegory for China itself, but its great value is in the view it gives us to why Sun Yat-sen’s 1911 overthrow of the monarchy was only the beginning of a long, fitful process of revolution.

From Emperor to Citizen by Aisin Gioro Pu Yi. Historians have reason to be suspicious about autobiographies, as they are usually self-serving. This one was possibly even written under duress. Whatever faults this book may have as a piece of scholarship, the uniqueness of its subject – the life China’s last emporer – makes it easily worth the read. Pu Yi spent his life the pawn of one person or another, beginning with the Empress Dowager and ending with Mao Zedong, and he’s a bit like Forrest Gump’s feather in the wind. Yet his book is worthy purely as a chronicle of China from nationalist revolution through the Cultural revolution.

The Rape of Nanking by Iris Chang. You will never understand the animus that lies beneath how Chinese feel about Japanese until you read this little volume. It is not a happy read, but the late Iris Chang makes the best effort yet to step behind the rhetorical gauze and film treatments that have obscured this event and show it to us in detail.

Red Star Over China by Edgar Snow. Snow’s classic on the Communist Party of China, a work that introduced the world to the other side of the China story. I’ve been criticized for including this book in my list:  Snow was anything but an unbiased observer. Nonetheless I value the book precisely because of its bias. I think it is useful to get an idea of the kind of feelings Mao incited in those who supported him at the time, so when we read Jung Chang’s Mao bio (which itself is a polemic disguised as history) we don’t look back and wonder what people saw in Mao. Understanding China demands that we appreciate the appeal these figures had in the context of their time. If nothing else, it gives us another window into China’s soul, and compels us not to discard the times as a fit of collective insanity.

Thunder Out of China by Theodore White and Annalee Jacoby. There are likely no two journalists who stood as close to the political action in China before, during, and after World War II. White and Jacoby write a scathing yet balanced  account of China under Chiang that should have been enough to force US policymakers to reconsider their support of the KMT.

No doubt others will give you a different list, but this is only the first bit. I’ve designed this to be as easy to read as possible: there is little in here that is purely academic.

Once you’ve worked your way through this, click over to China 102.


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