An astute, succinct study of modern China emphasizing overarching themes like hybrid identity and foreign influence rather than nationalism and centrality.
In presenting this complex portrait of a fast-changing, multiethnic empire as it collided head-on with modern currents, Westad (International History/London School of Economics; The Global Cold War: Third World Interventions and the Making of Our Times, 2005, etc.) takes a thematic approach, following a dozen currents including the effects of imperialism and the relationship with Japan. The orientation of China’s empire for millennia was toward the Yellow River and the east, with fluid borders, numerous tributary states and a sense of centrality dictated by Confucian ideals. Since 1636, the Qing, a conquering outsider tribe, consolidated rule by expanding outward, even by genocidal means. Qing rule would steadily be chipped away during the 19th century, due to subsequent ineffectual leadership and disastrous interventions in Burma and Vietnam, uneven growth while Europe began undergoing technological expansion, and a shifting trade with Russia and England. The aggressive arrogance demonstrated by Britain during the Opium War and the concessions wrung by the treaty underscored Qing impotence, emphasized Westerners’ contempt for Chinese traditions, and sowed internal dissent. Westad employs this theme of foreign intervention all the way through Mao Zedong’s stringent shutting off of China to the outside world. The author also examines the significance of the global Chinese émigré community, which has played a key role in China’s capitalist transformation since 1978. China’s relationship with Japan grew mutually suspicious and fearful as Russia and the West moved in, and Japan’s aggressive war with China, 1937-1945, wrought unimaginable destruction, as well as renewal and modernization.
A fresh look at a confounding nation the West has not yet figured out.