MMTop10 Books Ten books we at Manhattan Mandarin have found useful for understanding modern China (or for understanding how people think they understand modern China)
'As China reclaims its position as a world power, Imperial Twilight looks back to tell the story of the country’s last age of ascendance and how it came to an end in the nineteenth-century Opium War. As one of the most potent turning points in the country’s modern history, the Opium War has since come to stand for everything that today’s China seeks to put behind it. In this dramatic, epic story, award-winning historian Stephen Platt sheds new light on the early attempts by Western traders and missionaries to “open” China even as China’s imperial rulers were struggling to manage their country’s decline and Confucian scholars grappled with how to use foreign trade to China’s advantage. The book paints an enduring portrait of an immensely profitable—and mostly peaceful—meeting of civilizations that was destined to be shattered by one of the most shockingly unjust wars in the annals of imperial history. Brimming with a fascinating cast of British, Chinese, and American characters, this riveting narrative of relations between China and the West has important implications for today’s uncertain and ever-changing political climate.'
Harry's Hot Take: Happy to find the book did anything but rush towards the war. Provides immense background; great stories about dozens of the first foreigners to venture into China. Well demonstrates how it wasn't only greater economic phenomena, but also certain individuals on both sides, their interests and character flaws, that contributed to the outbreak of an avoidable war.
9] On China by Henry Kissinger
'In this sweeping and insightful history, Henry Kissinger turns for the first time at book length to a country he has known intimately for decades and whose modern relations with the West he helped shape. On China illuminates the inner workings of Chinese diplomacy during such pivotal events as the initial encounters between China and tight line modern European powers, the formation and breakdown of the Sino-Soviet alliance, the Korean War, and Richard Nixon’s historic trip to Beijing. With a new final chapter on the emerging superpower’s twenty-first-century role in global politics and economics, On China provides historical perspective on Chinese foreign affairs from one of the premier statesmen of our time.'
Jamie's Hot Take: Whether you care for his policies or not, Henry Kissinger played a large role in shaping world order for much of the second half of the 20th century, and was instrumental in rebuilding the relationship between modern China and rest of the world.
Unparalleled insight from a diplomat who was a centerpiece of many of the events covered.
8] Mao by Jung Chang and Jon Halliday
'The most authoritative life of the Chinese leader ever written, Mao: The Unknown Story is based on a decade of research, and on interviews with many of Mao’s close circle in China who have never talked before — and with virtually everyone outside China who had significant dealings with him. It is full of startling revelations, exploding the myth of the Long March, and showing a completely unknown Mao: he was not driven by idealism or ideology; his intimate and intricate relationship with Stalin went back to the 1920s, ultimately bringing him to power; he welcomed Japanese occupation of much of China; and he schemed, poisoned, and blackmailed to get his way. After Mao conquered China in 1949, his secret goal was to dominate the world. In chasing this dream he caused the deaths of 38 million people in the greatest famine in history. In all, well over 70 million Chinese perished under Mao’s rule — in peacetime.'
Harry's Hot Take: My goodness. Not for the happy-go-lucky or naive...a life-altering book for anyone interested in China, as well as psychology. I recently read a post that listed this book as one to avoid because it's 'unfair to Mao'. Is it? Why not read and decide for yourself? Fear not.
'China, the world's oldest and most populous state, remains an enigma to most people in the West, even at a time when that country is playing an increasingly prominent role on the international stage. At the heart of modern Chinese history have been the efforts of the Chinese people to transform their polity into a modern nation state, the Confucian orthodoxy into an ideology that can help direct that process, and an agrarian economy into an industrial one. These efforts are ongoing and of great importance.
This book is both an introduction to the major features of modern Chinese history and a resource for researchers interested in virtually any topic relating to the Chinese experience of the last 220 years. This valuable reference contains: a historical narrative providing a comprehensive overview of five core aspects of Chinese history: domestic politics, society, the economy, the world of culture and thought, and relations with the outside world; a compendium of 250 short, descriptive articles on key figures, events, and terms; a resource guide containing approximately 500 annotated entries for the most authoritative sources for further research in English, as well as descriptions of important films depicting modern China and a guide to electronic resources; and appendices, including a chronology, excerpts from key primary source documents, and a wealth of tables and graphs on demographic, social, and economic trends.'
Harry's Hot Take: If you're just beginning to familiarize with yourself China, a good place to begin. Also a fine sweeping guide to read in tandem with other China-related books that cover more specific topics.
6] Age of Ambition by Evan Osnos
'From abroad, we often see China as a caricature: a nation of pragmatic plutocrats and ruthlessly dedicated students destined to rule the global economy-or an addled Goliath, riddled with corruption and on the edge of stagnation. What we don't see is how both powerful and ordinary people are remaking their lives as their country dramatically changes.
As the Beijing correspondent for The New Yorker, Evan Osnos was on the ground in China for years, witness to profound political, economic, and cultural upheaval. InAge of Ambition, he describes the greatest collision taking place in that country: the clash between the rise of the individual and the Communist Party's struggle to retain control. He asks probing questions: Why does a government with more success lifting people from poverty than any civilization in history choose to put strict restraints on freedom of expression? Why do millions of young Chinese professionals-fluent in English and devoted to Western pop culture-consider themselves "angry youth," dedicated to resisting the West's influence? How are Chinese from all strata finding meaning after two decades of the relentless pursuit of wealth? Writing with great narrative verve and a keen sense of irony, Osnos follows the moving stories of everyday people and reveals life in the new China to be a battleground between aspiration and authoritarianism, in which only one can prevail.'
'After the economic disaster of the Great Leap Forward that claimed tens of millions of lives between 1958 and 1962, an aging Mao launched an ambitious scheme to shore up his reputation and eliminate those he viewed as a threat to his legacy. The stated goal of the Cultural Revolution was to purge the country of bourgeois, capitalist elements he claimed were threatening genuine communist ideology. But the Chairman also used the Cultural Revolution to turn on his colleagues, some of them longstanding comrades-in-arms, subjecting them to public humiliation, imprisonment and torture.
Young students formed Red Guards, vowing to defend the Chairman to the death, but soon rival factions started fighting each other in the streets with semi-automatic weapons in the name of revolutionary purity. As the country descended into chaos, the military intervened, turning China into a garrison state marked by bloody purges that crushed as many as one in fifty people.
When the army itself fell victim to the Cultural Revolution, ordinary people used the political chaos to resurrect the marked and hollow out the party's ideology. In short, they buried Maoism. In-depth interviews and archival research at last give voice to the people and the complex choices they faced, undermining the picture of conformity that is often understood to have characterised the last years of Mao's regime. By demonstrating that decollectivisation from below was an unintended consequence of a decade of violent purges and entrenched fear, Frank Dikotter casts China's most tumultuous era in a wholly new light.
Written with unprecedented access to previously classified party documents from secret police reports to unexpurgated versions of leadership speeches, this third chapter in Frank Dikotter's extraordinarily lucid and ground-breaking 'People's Trilogy' is a devastating reassessment of the history of the People's Republic of China.'
4] China in Ten Words by Yu Hua
'From one of China’s most acclaimed writers: a unique, intimate look at the Chinese experience over the last several decades. Framed by ten phrases common in the Chinese vernacular, China in Ten Words uses personal stories and astute analysis to reveal as never before the world’s most populous yet oft-misunderstood nation. In “Disparity,” for example, Yu Hua illustrates the expanding gaps that separate citizens of the country. In “Copycat,” he depicts the escalating trend of piracy and imitation as a creative new form of revolutionary action. And in “Bamboozle,” he describes the increasingly brazen practices of trickery, fraud, and chicanery that are, he suggests, becoming a way of life at every level of society. Witty, insightful, and courageous, this is a refreshingly candid vision of the “Chinese miracle” and all of its consequences.'
The most widely used primary-source reader for the modern China course, thoroughly revised and updated to reflect the new edition of Spence, The Search for Modern China.
The new edition of this outstanding documents collection displays a stronger blend of social history—pieces reflecting everyday life, family, social networks, and culture—and political history—critical proclamations, treaties, laws, and other public acts. Many of the documents are translated into English for the first time and available only in this book. Informative headnotes accompany the selections, providing context and helping students with unfamiliar names, places, and events. This collection is the perfect source for a firsthand look at modern Chinese history.
2] Wild Swans by Jung Chang
The story of three generations in twentieth-century China that blends the intimacy of memoir and the panoramic sweep of eyewitness history—a bestselling classic in thirty languages with more than ten million copies sold around the world, now with a new introduction from the author.
An engrossing record of Mao’s impact on China, an unusual window on the female experience in the modern world, and an inspiring tale of courage and love, Jung Chang describes the extraordinary lives and experiences of her family members: her grandmother, a warlord’s concubine; her mother’s struggles as a young idealistic Communist; and her parents’ experience as members of the Communist elite and their ordeal during the Cultural Revolution. Chang was a Red Guard briefly at the age of fourteen, then worked as a peasant, a “barefoot doctor,” a steelworker, and an electrician. As the story of each generation unfolds, Chang captures in gripping, moving—and ultimately uplifting—detail the cycles of violent drama visited on her own family and millions of others caught in the whirlwind of history.