Dr_Savage's Reviews > The Penguin History of Modern China: The Fall and Rise of a Great Power, 1850-2009

The Penguin History of Modern China by Jonathan Fenby
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Jun 24, 12

Read from January 31 to February 01, 2012

Jonathan Fenby's overview of modern Chinese history emphasises the continuities with the late imperial period that belie the Communist revolution of 1949. Two key tensions inform the book. The first is that between the centripetal forces which drew power towards the emperor in Beijing (an emperor in peasant's garb, in the case of Mao), and the centrifugal forces which periodically plunged the Middle Kingdom into civil war. The second is that between the struggles for power at the top of the system, detailed in mind-numbingly intricate detail by Fenby, and the sporadic upheavals which convulsed it from the bottom. Perhaps the greatest achievement of Chairman Mao, the book's central figure, was to exploit these tensions to his own ends, inciting the grassroots activism of the Red Guards in order to tighten his grip on power.

I found it a struggle to read this book - not because it was badly written, but from the sheer cumulative weight of all the misery and human waste recounted in its pages. In the retelling, Chinese history from the peasant revolts against the increasingly beleagured Qing dynasty in the late nineteenth century through to the death of Mao in 1976 (if not later!) appears as a dreary parade of uprisings, civil wars, crackdowns, invasions, witch-hunts, reprisals, famines, power plays and bloodbaths. Fenby's book helped me to understand why the present-day Chinese Communist Party places such a premium on stability, and why it is prepared at all costs to maintain a moribund political system that sits uneasily with the market-oriented economic policies pursued by Deng Xiaoping and his successors. Whether the system can continue to hold up under its internal contradictions remains to be seen. We live in interesting times!
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