Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Five top books on China, 1911-2011

Rana Mitter, Professor of the History and Politics of Modern China and Fellow of St Cross College, University of Oxford, is the author of Modern China: A Very Short Introduction.

One of five top books on modern China he discussed with Alec Ash at The Browser:
Two Kinds of Time
by Graham Peck

Jumping forwards to the 1930s and 40s, the two rival forces which arose after the failed promise of the 1911 revolution are Chiang Kai-shek’s nationalists and Mao Zedong’s communists. The book you’ve chosen here is an American perspective on events, Graham Peck’s Two Kinds of Time.

Two Kinds of Time is the only one of the five books I’ve chosen that’s not actually by a Chinese, but I’ve chosen it because it seems to me, of the fairly wide range of things you can read about World War Two in China, to be the single most evocative. It’s quite a long book but it actually goes by quite fast. One doesn’t have to make too much of an effort because the prose is so good. Of the many people who came to China in the 20th century and wrote about it, Peck remains one of the most fluid and sensitive.

His description of a Japanese wartime air raid over occupied China is one of the funniest passages I’ve read on China, which is actually rather odd considering the nature of the topic. This vision of people walking at first with dignity, and then deciding as the planes get closer that they’ll make a run for it and dignity be blown, is very nicely done. It’s not in any way mocking, he is someone who was a friend of many Chinese and lived amongst them. So it’s very much a story with the Chinese, rather than looking at them.

It’s also a very important book because it speaks about a very important historical moment which we’ve almost forgotten, which was the debate in cold war America about – as they put it – who “lost China”. In other words, why did China turn to the communists? Peck’s book is probably the best of those which argue that essentially America spent too long propping up the nationalist regime of Chiang Kai-shek that ruled China at the time, that became corrupt, hollowed out and ineffective – and that essentially cleared the way for the communists to take over, because the Americans clung too long to a failed leader.

The book itself is not important because of what it says about the interpretation, but rather it gives a fabulous picture of this moment when America and the West more generally and China try to come to an understanding and singularly fail, and unfortunately set the path, for the best part of a quarter of a century, for isolation from each other before things change again in the 1960s and 1970s.
Read about another book Mitter tagged at The Browser.

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

--Marshal Zeringue