“The Oxford Illustrated History of Modern China” by Jeffrey Wasserstrom (editor)

Integral to the misguided conception of China as unknowably complex is the sheer scale of its history. While historians of the United States, for example, need to cultivate a knowledge base which extends back a few centuries or so, scholars of Chinese history must contend with a national story of anything between three thousand and five thousand years, depending on what you consider “China” to be. Either way, the terrain of Chinese history seems deeply forbidding to the non-specialist, who is left asking the question: how much of China’s history do I need to know in order to understand the country today?

The Oxford Illustrated History of Modern China, Jeffrey Wasserstrom (ed) (Oxford University Press, June 2016)
The Oxford Illustrated History of Modern China, Jeffrey Wasserstrom (ed) (Oxford University Press, June 2016)

In The Oxford Illustrated History of Modern China, editor Jeffrey Wasserstrom makes a compelling case for beginning one’s investigations into the genesis of the modern Chinese state with the gradual decline of the Ming dynasty in the late sixteenth century. As Wasserstrom observes, it was in this era that many of the issues that lead to the eventual demise of the Imperial system first begin to become evident. It was also around this time that many of the cultural symbols which seem to signify “China” “came into existence or at least took their most familiar form”: the Great Wall; the Forbidden City; and the seminal novel Hong Lou Meng amongst them.

The volume thus begins in 1550, with a sweeping account by Anne Gerritsen of the social, cultural and political continuities and developments between the late Ming and early Qing eras; a period during which, among other transformations, China began to open itself to Western ideas of science through the influence of Jesuit missionaries in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

The subsequent eleven chapters—each written by a different specialist—cover the story of the eventual downfall of the Qing dynasty and, in greater detail, the calamitous decades of warlordism, civil war and Communist social engineering. The chapters, in many cases, offer neatly condensed versions of longer form scholarship: Rana Mitter’s chapter summarizes his earlier book China’s War with Japan, 1937-1945, while Stephen R Platt’s chapter on the period from 1792-1860 likewise abridges his compelling full-length account of the Taiping rebellion in Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom.

The best place to start for those who wish to get a handle on modern China

There is, therefore, much to recommend this book to the interested China amateur. Perhaps most useful for the non-specialist, however, is the integration within the text of a few hundred aptly chosen images, maps, paintings and diagrams, which help immeasurably in contextualizing and solidifying the historical narrative. The purpose truly is to illustrate: this is the first China book I have encountered that takes the trouble to provide a diagrammatic outline of the intricate and, at least to this observer, previously opaque bureaucracies and divisions of power within the Chinese Communist Party.

The book concludes with an essay by Ian Johnson: indisputably one of the most insightful commentators on modern China, along with this volume’s editor. His chapter encourages the reader to step back from the consideration of China’s historical narrative, and to instead observe the country’s own attitude to its heritage. Johnson is, it is fair to say, uncomfortable with the nature of this relationship: “[A] country that has so completely obliterated and then recreated its past–can it be trusted?” he asks. “What eats at a country, or a people, or a civilisation, so much that remains profoundly uncomfortable with its history?”

Johnson’s essay is worth the price of admission alone, but even without its inclusion, this volume (despite its slightly unwieldy coffee-table design) would remain my recommendation as the best place to start for those who wish to get a handle on modern China.

Jonathan Chatwin is a British writer who has lived in, and written on, China. He is the author of Anywhere Out of the World: The Work of Bruce Chatwin.