China and the World Since 1750
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Review by John S. Major
There are many books on modern China, but few are as authoritative, as readable, and as freshly insightful as Restless Empire. Westad, a professor of international history at the London School of Economics, turns a fundamental idea about modern China on its head and forces us to re-think our old assumptions.
One thing that “we all know” about Qing dynasty China is that it was isolated from the rest of the world and willfully ignorant of Europe in particular—witness the Qianlong Emperor’s famous letter to King George III turning down proposals for increased trade and diplomatic relations. True as far as it goes, but there is more to the story than that. Westad reminds us that for much of the 18th century the Qing dynasty was engaged in a massive project of empire-building, annexing huge areas that had not usually been ruled by China, including Manchuria, Mongolia, Turkestan, and Tibet. Bumping up against Russia’s expansion in eastern Siberia gave China its first taste of Western-style diplomacy even as China was setting up the Canton System of trade to keep Europeans at arm’s length.
Looking beyond opium and missionaries, Westad emphasizes the wide-ranging impact of foreign innovations on 19th-century China. He emphasizes how reports from sojourners (miners, railroad workers, shopkeepers, students) writing home or returning home from many corners of the globe engendered new ways of thinking about the world, and how a rapidly modernizing Japan became not only a threat to China but a source of inspiration for young reformers as well.
The 20th century, too, emerges as a more complicated story than usually depicted. Foreign impacts were always part of China’s struggle to become a strong, modern state, from the Communist Party’s ambivalent experience with the Comintern, to the Nationalist Party’s wary alliance with the United States during WWII, to the lasting reverberations of the Korean War. Avoiding the over-emphasis on US-China relations found in many books about the modern era, Westad gives full weight to the Sino-Soviet experience and to China’s complicated relations with Korea, Japan, India, and Southeast Asia. Looking at the contemporary world, the book astutely analyzes the dual view held by many Chinese of America as a land of promise and as a devious enemy, and explores how China’s rise as a regional power will complicate its relations with all of its neighbors.
Westad ends his book with a judicious and intelligent look into the future, not to make firm predictions but to establish the parameters within which change will continue to occur. (His only unqualified prediction is that people who make straight-line extrapolations from the present will be wrong.) I’ve read many books about modern China and consider myself pretty well informed in that field; I was delighted to find in these pages a consistent flow of new information, new perspectives, and new insights. I found it an engrossing and enlightening read; many History Book Club members will feel the same way.
Hardcover Book : 528 pages
Publisher: Basic Books Inc. ( August 28, 2012 )
Item #: 13-618080
Product Dimensions: 6.125 x 9.25 x 1.32inches
Product Weight: 26.0 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)