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Book review: 'China in the 21st Century', by Jeffrey Wasserstrom

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 04 August, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 04 August, 2013, 2:50pm

China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know
by Jeffrey Wasserstrom
Oxford University Press
3.5 stars 

Alexandre HuiBonHoa

Jeffrey Wasserstrom, a professor of history at the University of California, Irvine, provides an essential guide for understanding how China has become what it is today. A foolproof "Chinese history for dummies" book, it clears up misconceptions and offers a prediction of the mainland's future.

The book is split into two parts: "Historical Legacies" and "The Present and the Future". The former gives a brief - sometimes too brief - introduction to China's history. Wasserstrom does an effective job of dipping the reader's toes in the deep and wild waters of Chinese history with direct and easy-to-follow information.

He doesn't bog the reader down with heavy details, focusing on being informative rather than be overly detailed.

There are constant references to Western history and culture, and current events, making the mainland's history relevant and relatable.

Though this book works well in its attempt to give readers a brief insight into China, there are some areas which require more depth because of their importance in Chinese history.

For example, the explanation of the Taiping Rebellion, which was the first instance of total war in modern China, is too short and touches more upon the leader, Hong Xiuquan, than the actual event. For such an important incident, there needs to be more substance.

In the second part of the book, Wasserstrom successfully clarifies our misconceptions about modern China by answering questions such as "why is China's diversity overlooked?" and "is China still truly an atheist state?" This section focuses on setting the record straight, which makes this book stand out from many others.

In the final chapter, Wasserstrom presents a set of forecasts and provides insightful answers to troubling political matters surrounding China today and in the near future.

A unique, but for the most part, frustrating aspect of the book is the way in which it is written. Wasserstrom adopts a Q&A approach, almost like a FAQ about China, which makes it read like a tourist's handbook with the professor acting as our tour guide.

There are times when the method proves to be successful with questions such as "is Mao seen in China as someone who made errors?" because the answer calls for different angles and opinions. However, the way questions and answers are structured makes dates and important figures confusing to follow because the events do not flow in a chronological order.

For example, there is no mention of the Empress Dowager Cixi or Yuan Shikai when the questions "what was the Boxer Rebellion?" and "how did Qing rule finally end?" are posed. It is only after the question "is the Chinese Communist Party a new dynasty?" that Cixi is mentioned. And Yuan is only introduced in the next chapter, after the explanation of the fall of the Qing dynasty.

The book could have been written in a chronological narrative to help avoid any confusion.

Overall, China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know is a worthwhile read at a time when getting a grip on China's background is vital. Although limited at times, the book's succinct information sets the basis for more focused, in-depth books on Chinese history.

Finally, but most notably, what distinguishes this book from many others is Wasserstrom's convincing answers to the most misunderstood questions and current issues that revolve around China today.

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