China 102: The Making of Modern China

China 102: The Making of Modern China

Once you have managed to develop a good general picture of China’s history, and you have a deeper understanding of the years leading up to the Revolution, you are going to want to get a good feel for the tumult and transition of the last half of the 20th Century.

Given your limited time – and our desire to move on to more relevant topic areas once you are secure in your context – I recommend the following list:

The Man Who Stayed Behind by Sidney Rittenberg and Amanda Bennett: I’ve reviewed Sidney Rittenberg’s superb memoir of his life as an American who remained in China after the Revolution here. China has produced a crop of self-serving memoirs that are a collective embarrassment to the literature. Rittenberg’s stands above them all precisely because of his steadfast refusal to make himself a hero.

Life and Death in Shanghai by Nien Cheng: For some reason of all of the Cultural Revolution memoirs I have read, this comes across as the most sincere and most moving of the bunch. Cheng’s story is told from the eyes of someone too old to be a Red Guard, but not too old to be spared the ugliness of the chaos they helped foment, and for that reason the tragedy of the time is somehow more poignant.

The Private Life of Chairman Mao by Dr. Li Zhisui, and Mao, The Unknown Story by Jung Chang and Jon Halliday: I recommended other books from the pre-revolution period to give a glimpse of Mao Zedong at his best. These two books leave little doubt that the Great Helmsman probably overstayed his time at the helm. Sadly, both books suffer from notable imperfections, and I recommend them with caveats. Dr. Li’s book has the advantage of being written by someone in Mao’s court and therefore offers some insight to the period, but it suffers from having been written by someone who clearly remembers the time through a veil that casts the himself in a positive light. Read for feeling, not for facts.

Chang and Halliday offer a bit more detachment, but not much. There is some academic dispute over some parts of the book due to their access to sources that cannot be evaluated by others, and some have criticized them for outright distortions. I am insufficiently expert to speak to that, but it is their approach that troubles. What bothers me more is that while they appear to maintain an historian’s rigor and detachment, they clearly comes to their subject with anything but objectivity or balance. Make no mistake that Chung and Halliday appear determined is to write a documented expose that at times borders on the polemic. Given that much history – even that written by western authors – tends to treat Mao with more equanimity, this book strikes a balance in the overall literature.

Sadly, over three decades after Mao’s death, we are still waiting for a definitive historic biography, and we may well wait decades more for it to appear. In the meantime the above two works will suffice for our purposes here.

Eldest Son by Han Suyin: Too much attention is paid to Mao in English language histories of China for my taste, and too little to Zhou Enlai, though that is beginning to change. Zhou was no saint, but he was an excellent foil for Mao, a loyal and competent head of government where Mao was head of state, a thoughtful statesman where Mao was uncomfortable and disdainful of diplomacy, an administrator where Mao was the ideologue. No doubt he had to dance a bit in order to spare his own neck, making himself complicit in Mao’s exploits, but he did so with a purpose that seemed to rise above care for his own life. He is not the father of the Republic, but in his thinking and his selection of proteges he laid the foundation for China’s reform, opening, and emergence as a global economic power. As such he is not only the parent of China’s emerging technocracy, he also created the formulations on which Hu Jintao is building his “Peaceful Rise” foreign policy doctrine. I would argue that understanding modern China demands an eaual appreciation of both Mao and Zhou, and Han’s book is to date the best English portrait of the man and his work.

Deng Xiaoping and the Making of Modern China by Richard Evans: Zhou laid the foundations for Modern China, but Deng sketched the design and supervised its construction. This highly readable biography paints a positive portrait of Deng, focusing on his accomplishments and side-stepping some of the more controversial and heavy-handed aspects of his decade-and-a-half as China’s supreme leader. It has become fashionable to debunk Deng of late, and it is likely that he gets more credit for Reforming and Opening than he deserves, and more vilification for the events of the spring of 1989 than is his due. But if you see him as taking the torch from Zhou and adding his own imprint on Chinese polity, economy, and ideology, he still comes across as the leader that China needed, foibles and all.

China Awakes by Nicholas Kristoff and Sheryl WuDunn is getting a little dated as a current reader, but as a look at some of the ways China is struggling with so many of the social aspects of its transition, it is excellent, as is Orville Schell‘s Mandate of Heaven. Both books were published in 1994, but don’t let that fool you: the topics they cover are as important today in developing an understanding of the people and general environment of China as they were when they were published, an illustration that at some point the really good books about current events in China become classics.

Tiger on the Brink by Bruce Gilley: History is unlikely to be particularly kind to Jiang Zemin, and this is rather unfair. Jiang was thrust into leadership in the wake of the social unrest in mid 1989, a conscious selection of a man who walked the middle road between stability and unchecked reform. As China’s first true technocratic leader, his selection and the policy direction he created continue today, so to understand Jiang and his background is to have a window into an entire generation, indeed an entire class of Chinese policy-maker.

After getting through this list, let’s take a look at some good basic business reading in China 103.


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