The History of Modern China

I took my first Chinese history class in the late 1970s, eager to learn how the country had been reshaped by the revolutions of 1911 and 1949 that had ended dynastic rule and brought the Communist Party to power, respectively. My interest was soon piqued by finding out that long before Sun Yat-sen and Mao Zedong, China had already witnessed many insurrections, some of which had ended in the establishment of new dynasties; whether history called a rebel leader a “bandit” or a “king,” the saying went, came down to whether you won. As someone whose fascination with history began with memorizing the names of English kings and queens during a pre-teen year spent in England and who had always been intrigued by revolutions, I was hooked.

Much about China and the way it is studied has changed since I took that class. The country has grown stronger, more globally entwined, more urban. And thanks to novel trends in the discipline and greater access to the Chinese mainland and previously unknown or off-limits materials, new questions are being asked about China’s modern period—defined broadly here as beginning with end of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644).

There is still value, though, in many books published before China’s recent rise; the basic things that first interested me about Chinese history remain relevant. What was altered and what left untouched by the upheavals that either toppled or almost toppled ruling groups? Why has China’s development continued to be a story of surprising twists and turns, with the Communist Party’s staying power sometimes seeming as unexpected in its own way as the fall of past ruling groups were at the time? The country’s current rulers, like some past ones, are fond of saying there is a single unified “Chinese tradition” of reverence for hierarchy and tradition. How is it, then, that history reveals a culture with multiple strands, including ones that extol questioning received wisdoms and turning the world upside down?

Places to Start

Frederic E. Wakeman, The Fall of Imperial China (1975)

As good a place to begin as it was when I was assigned it in the late 1970s, this book surveys major events from the 1644 start of rule by the ethnically Manchu Qing Dynasty through the 1911 Revolution that established the Republic of China. It includes wonderfully straightforward chapters devoted to key social classes and a particularly lively account of the Taiping Uprising, a failed millenarian insurrection led by a man who claimed to be Christ’s younger brother.

Elizabeth J. Perry, Rebels and Revolutionaries in North China, 1845-1945 (1980)

An accessibly written though theoretically sophisticated work that focuses on similarities and differences between insurrections. The first major publication by a political scientist so historically minded that she later won an American Historical Association book prize, it introduces readers to a colorful cast of participants in violent actions, from militiamen (concerned only with protecting their villages) to bandits (inspired by Robin Hood-like tales), to Communist organizers.

Jonathan D. Spence, The Gate of Heavenly Peace: The Chinese and Their Revolution, 1895-1980 (1981)

A collection of intertwined biographies of intellectuals, it begins with reform efforts of the late 1800s and ends with the immediate aftermath of the Mao era (1949-1976). Written by one of the most gifted living historical stylists, its charms include poignant portraits of notable individuals, such as Joan of Arc-like cross-dressing revolutionary heroine Qiu Jin, and summaries of and quotations from memorable works of fiction by gifted authors such as Lu Xun.

Digging In

Paul A. Cohen, Discovering History in China: American Historical Writing on the Recent Chinese Past (1984—2010 reissue with a new preface)

Valuable for the treasure trove of thoughtful, critical summaries of Cold War publications it contains, this book also makes a compelling case for what the author describes as “China-centered” work on the Chinese past. Prior work tried to force Chinese experience into pre-set molds and overstated the significance of foreign influences.Cohen celebrates the shift—underway in 1984, much more developed by 2010—toward approaches that burrow into local settings and figure out what motivated Chinese actors.

Joseph W. Esherick, The Origins of the Boxer Uprising (1987)

A meticulously researched study of the anti-Christian militants, dubbed “Boxers” by Westerners of the time, who captured global attention in 1900 by laying siege to Beijing’s foreign legations. A state-of-the-art example of ethnographically minded bottom-up history (and what Cohen dubbed “China-centered” work), it teases out the roles of local tensions and popular culture in shaping the actions of the Boxers. Esherick puts to rest the misleading notion that they were anti-dynastic rebels.

New Moves

Ruth Rogaski, Hygienic Modernity: Meanings of Health and Disease in Treaty-Port China (2004)

A sophisticated foray into the increasingly rich field of the history of science and medicine, which focuses on Tianjin when it was divided into districts run by different foreign powers. Rogaski is particularly good at showing the influence on Chinese cities of Japanese ideas about sanitation and health.

Susan Mann, The Talented Women of the Zhang Family (2007)

An elegantly crafted work that brings to life in imaginative and convincing ways the experiences of a group of interrelated women belonging to three generations of a highly literate family. Enriched by close study of the poetry of the protagonists, whose writings reveal an interest in ideas and relationships that challenges standard ideas of cloistered women with worldviews as limited as their movements, it asks us to think about how differently China’s eventful nineteenth century looks when viewed from the perspective of intellectually curious elite women.

Voices and Lives

Sang Ye, China Candid: The People on the People‘s Republic, with translation and introduction by Geremie R. Barmé (2006)

A Studs Terkel-like collection of interviews with individuals from many walks of life who offer unvarnished and opinionated accounts of their experiences: everything from working in brothels to writing code; from challenging to gaming corrupt systems; from creating art to making trouble. Some chapters are moving; some amusing; many unsettle common assumptions. Translated in a lively, effective way by a leading Australian cultural historian.

Jie Li, Shanghai Homes: Palimpsests of Private Life (2014)

This slim volume offers an evocative, gracefully written, and carefully researched reconstruction of the experiences of the inhabitants of two Shanghai alleyway homes. Concentrating mostly on the Mao years, this is both a scholarly and intensely personal work, since the author spent her childhood in Shanghai just after the period that is her focus, before moving abroad; her parents and grandparents lived in the homes in question; and she makes extensive use of interviews as well as archival materials and family photographs.

Jeffrey Wasserstrom is Chancellor’s Professor of History at UC Irvine and the author, most recently, of Eight Juxtapositions: China through Imperfect Analogies from Mark Twain to Manchukuo, forthcoming in 2016 as a Penguin Special.