Wednesday, January 28, 2009

2008's best China books

Jeffrey Wasserstrom took an interesting approach to naming 2008's best China books for the Far Eastern Economic Review: he created "thematic pairs of books that are particularly effective when read together."

One such pair:
China Past and Present. Several worthy 2008 books provide a more upbeat assessment of the present and "Modern China: A Very Short Introduction" can be placed in this category. Its author, Oxford historian Rana Mitter, does not view contemporary China through rose-colored glasses, but after finishing his latest book, readers will likely feel more positive about the PRC’s prospects than will those who have just put down "Out of Mao’s Shadow" or "Slaughter Pavilion." One of the book’s most interesting features is the emphasis that Mitter puts on continuities between the Republican era (1912-1949), especially the part when Chiang Kai-shek was in power (1928-1949), and the Communist period. While noting breaks and ruptures, he emphasizes enduring goals (modernization), strategies (nationalistic rhetoric) and flaws (authoritarian tendencies) that connect Chiang to the Communist Party leaders who’ve run China since 1949.

This makes Modern China particularly interesting to read beside Frank Dikotter’s "The Age of Openness: China before Mao" (University of California). Dikotter also links the Republican era to the Communist one. But his thesis is that much was basically right about the country during the decades immediately preceding 1949 (China was far more open to currents from the West then, he insists, and far less tightly controlled), and has been basically wrong ever since (especially but not only when Mao ruled).

Each book is short and lively. In addition, each makes effective use of intriguing examples—even though these sometimes are used to buttress arguments that specialists may feel, as I did occasionally with "Age of Openness" in particular, are made a bit too starkly, pushed a bit too far, or overstate the novelty of the author’s position.
Read about another pair from Wasserstrom's list.

The Page 69 Test: Rana Mitter's Modern China: A Very Short Introduction.

The Page 69 Test: Jeffrey Wasserstrom's China's Brave New World.

The Page 99 Test: Jeffrey Wasserstrom's Global Shanghai, 1850–2010.

--Marshal Zeringue