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The Search For Modern China

4.16  ·  Rating details ·  2,426 ratings  ·  137 reviews
In this widely acclaimed history of modern China, Jonathan Spence achieves a fine blend of narrative richness and efficiency. Praised as "a miracle of readability and scholarly authority," (Jonathan Mirsky) The Search for Modern China offers a matchless introduction to China's history.
Paperback, 912 pages
Published 1991 by W. W. Norton Company (first published April 1990)
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Ian No, it goes from 1640 to 1990, so the two dynasties mentioned are the late Ming and the Qing. The Qin was over 2,000 years ago, so it only gets the…moreNo, it goes from 1640 to 1990, so the two dynasties mentioned are the late Ming and the Qing. The Qin was over 2,000 years ago, so it only gets the occasional tangential mention.(less)

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Jul 03, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Mr. Spence gets an A+ for this term paper. Given my critical state of mind, my instinct is to find blatant fault, somehow, someway with this work; unfortunately, I found none. This book is an important reminder of the many complexities in Chinese history, a reminder of the error lurking in the pursuit of reductionist thought, for China is a poster child for complexity.

I couldn't help but wonder, as I read along, just how little information I would retain in long-term memory; there's so much to
May 15, 2007 rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction, china
Probably the best, and certainly the most popular, history of China in the modern era (i.e., post 1500 CE). Spence's prose is straightforward and clean, and his method of following individual artists, writers, or activists through a given time period to illustrate general policy acts as an engine to drive the reader through long descriptions of economic policies and trade issues. Furthermore, Spence always aims to show how the past informs the present and how patterns of history overlap and ...more
Sudhang Shankar
Nov 18, 2012 rated it it was amazing
The ascent of contemporary China in some thirty years has fascinated and bewildered many, especially as the nation belies all western/modern ideas of the enlightenment, such as Individual Freedom, Representative Democracy. Onlookers from more liberal nations struggle to make sense of this rise that challenges the basic foundations of liberal democracies. From that perspective, Spence's book (which stops shortly after Tiananmen Square Massacre) offers some explanation behind the Sinic love for ...more
Josh Friedlander
Dec 07, 2015 rated it really liked it
Sonder is the term for the realisation that every person around you has an inner life as deep and meaningful as your own, and the explosion of complexity implied thereby. Sometimes you just realise how little you know; how absurdly deep the water goes past your shallow part of the pool. Reading a book about China is kind of the same: to realise that all of the historical and cultural knowledge you've ever accumulated mostly ignores this area (Greater China or the Sinosphere, so as not to tread ...more
May 09, 2008 rated it it was amazing

1122 - 1234 Manchu Jurchens take northern China Jin dynasty
1368 Ming Dynasty established
1550 Portugese establish presence in Macao.
1559 Nurhaci born
1570 Pirate attacks stopped in southern coast, Spain enters Manila
1572 to 1620 Emperor Wanli of Ming Dynasty
1590s Nurhacu leads tribesmen in Liaodong, eunuchs ascendent, Japan invades Korea
1601 Silk weavers strike in Suzhou, porcelin workers strike in Jiangxi
1604 Dongli Society founded, opposed corrupt eunuchs. Infamous eunuch Wei Zhongxian
Rebecca Radnor
This is a REALLY well written book. First time I read it was for a course on the history of Modern China at my alma mater, Northwestern University. I think I took the course in 2010(??). And by modern they mean, post 1500 in the common era, i.e., ONLY in China is the 'Modern' era dated back to after the Fall of Constantinople. I wish more history books were this well written.

That said, I'm currently "refreshing" my knowledge: i.e., am listening to the audio file via my iphone, while getting
May 31, 2011 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
In this monumental and detailed history of China from 1600-1990, Spence traces the many strands that have influenced the changes and development of this complex nation. He discusses Chinas internal conditions, its sociological and philosophical foundations and trends, and its often paranoid and contradictory relationships with the world around it. Personalities come alive, including those figures who played pivotal roles in the often confusing political history, and Spence also highlights ...more
Pie Resting-Place
It is very long, very detailed and ends just before modern China gets really interesting after 1989.
Jul 19, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: favorites
It is tempting when writing a review of an epic piece of work to declare it the best within its genre, however, I will go as far as to say that this is the best comprehensive history of Modern China I have yet read, and I do not say so lightly.
While this accolade was previously given to Jonathan Fenbys very respectable work, I nonetheless feel that Jonathan D Spence has composed a very broad-ranging and ambitious work that covers a very broad time span, starting with the fall of the Ming and
Shane Hill
Aug 08, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
A decent read that is very dense and detailed that is a little dry at times but overall it gives a nice record of the last 350 years of Chinese history! From the collapse of the Ming Dynasty morphing into the Qing Dynasty...the major events are all included here....the Opium War with England...The Taiping Rebellion....The Boxer Rebellion....The Revolution of Sun Yet San....the era of War lordism....the War against Japan and ensuing Civil war between the Nationalists and Communists...the tragic ...more
I was first assigned this book for my Modern China history class at Tufts University. It has taken me twenty years to read the whole thing. As far as I know, this book remains the definitive account of Chinese history from the Qing (pronounced "Ching") to the Tiananmen Massacre of 1989. As such I plan to supplement Spence with a modern work that carries on from Tiananmen. Spence wrote when China was only just emerging as an economic power, although he identified the key political, social, ...more
I have read a few books of Chinese history over the last 18 months and in general and had come to slightly understand Mao's rise to power. Anything from five years before that or earlier, totally lost. I have stood at the graves of previous rulers and had someone explain how this one related to that one buried over there and it still didn't help.

This book got me a couple hundred more years. I still have no idea what happened BEFORE the 17th century, but from the 17th century on, I think I've got
Jul 22, 2007 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This has been my first real introduction to Chinese history, read while I live my first month in Beijing. As such, I'm not really qualified to recommend it over other histories of China. I do like it a great deal though, and I suspect that it would hold up against similar books.

A history of China from the collapse of the Ming to around 2000. It is very well footnoted, index'd, and appendix'd, includes key statistics rendered as tables, many useful maps, and wonderful selections of visuals
This was the text for a History of Modern China course I took in undergrad. From that you can infer that it's very detailed and scholarly. However, it's also intensely readable: I've reread it for pleasure in the years since graduation.

The "Modern" China of the title is in the strict sense of Modern, in this case starting in the 17th century. That may seem a long time ago, but the context it gives to more contemporary events is rich and useful. I found the patterns and trends that emerged from
Dec 11, 2017 rated it liked it
I would say I read some 90% of this book. It is not generally my style to claim I have fully read a book when I have not, but given the effort I put into this, I'll give myself a break. I found it to be average as history books go. Mostly enjoyable to read, though not as enjoyable as some. Certainly feel more knowledgeable about China in retrospect. I give it three out of five stars, though, because I probably wouldn't have finished it had I not been urged to due to my class.
Jan 16, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Very readable and comprehensive history of China from the 17th century to present day (first decade of the 21st century, for the 3rd edition of the book). I can see why this is the go-to book for universities to introduce this subject. It's difficult to wrap the mind around the scale and pace at which events unfold across China, but the author highlights significant events and presents a compelling case for the patterns and themes that have defined Chinese society in its recent history.
It's a pretty good overview that starts with the Ming and goes through the late 1980s. Covers all the bases. Nothing is covered in exceptional depth (with a subject like China it rarely can be in a single book) but for a general idea of recent Chinese history it's more than adequate. Also, a very readable book.
Camelia Rose
Aug 15, 2012 rated it really liked it
Shelves: china, history
Jonathan Spence is a famous scholar in Chinese History. This book is very detailed and some parts can be a little too academic to read. The book is also no lack of details of individuals, so it's mostly quite readable as well. I especially like his attitude as a historian, as far as my judgement goes.
Betty Ho
Oct 13, 2012 rated it really liked it
Shelves: history, china
No an easy read (in fact quite textbooky) but definitely a rewarding one. This book covers the history of China from the end of Ming Dynasty to 1989 Tiananmen Incident through the perspectives of politics, economics and culture. Supported by numerous research and was written without any bias, this perhaps is one of the most trusted sources of Modern China history.
J.M. Hushour
Feb 24, 2013 rated it it was amazing
Immense and impressive, the likes of it will never be seen in this land again!
Will A
Jun 01, 2018 rated it really liked it
This book shows how China's efforts to respond to her encounter with the imperial industrial powers from the 1840s to the 1970s were an unmitigated disaster. The Qing state made efforts to modernise the economy and military, sending students abroad, recruiting Western armaments experts, building railways, and so on. But the circumstances were impossible. Rapacious predations by foreign forces and devastating internal civil wars denied China time and space to carry out the needed development. In ...more
Andrew Carr
Jul 05, 2019 rated it really liked it
A broad and elegant history of China from 1600 to 1990. This is a deserved classic. Though covering vast periods, the author weaves together common themes of the difficulty of ruling this vast country, and the difficulties faced by the ruled. The harassment and harm of external powers, and the inestimable damage done internally by their own leaders and ideological movements. A country of such capacity and power, which has been so often weak and divided. Along with the continuity of culture, ...more
Jan 25, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This book covers an immense amount of history in only 728 pages of non-appendix text. As such, I didnt get anywhere near the amount of detail I had been hoping for on a few topics, but instead I got a very valuable broad brush of the context that all the pieces of Chinese history fit into.

Some of my own main takeaways are:
1) an appreciation for how hard it is to govern a civilization / state like China;
2) combined with the previous bullet point, an understanding of *why* modern China is
Jan Bedol
Jan 28, 2018 rated it it was amazing
An essential starting point for my launch into Chinese fiction (in translation). An unexpected bonus is that Spence covers cultural developments, including literature and visual arts, for each period--- thus adding great titles for my survey of Chinese literature. I hope they can be found in print or digitally.
A big plus of Spence's work for me is that ploughing through lengthy passages dealing with battles and internecine power shifts is rewarded with rich descriptions of everyday life in city
Jan 16, 2017 rated it liked it
There's a lot going on in this book. It's really well researched. Lots of information and it's presented pretty well. The thing that bothers me about the whole book is how it feels a bit like it's written for people who don't believe China is a real place? There's this constant . . .not exploration, but maybe exploitation? of things people would do hundreds of years ago that feels very different from the way we talk about European history. It's difficult to explain in a short review, but it's ...more
It was ok. I wasn't terribly impressed. This is a trusted course reference on Chinese history. Instead of an abstraction of themes and dates, this book makes sure to pick out certain key figures of each time period, then set down the details of their lives as well as place the events of the time from their context or understanding, providing an immersive experience. There is sufficient info on the arts and literature of the periods discussed. In the end I just wasn't very interested in Chinese ...more
Spence has complete mastery of his subject, an excellent analytic acumen to supplement his slightly-sere-but-still-pleasing prose style, and an impressive ability to distill a wide disparity of political, social, cultural and military events and unfoldings into coherent, encapsulatory narratives, from both the structural heights of the collective and the foundational base of the individual. A magnificent achievement.
Joshua Marney
May 30, 2017 rated it really liked it
A good overview of modern Chinese history from the end of the Ming until the 1990s. Readable and about as comprehensive as possible given the length of time and amount of topics covered. Nonetheless, there some gripes to be had with the book, including a characterization of the warlord era and Nationalist era that is somewhat of the mark, and thus Frank Dikotters "Age of Openness"is an essential supplement to this book.
May 24, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
The book starts off at the end of the Ming dynasty, which is alot earlier than I expected a book on modern China to begin. I loved the book though because Spence adds so much detail, and for me it helped a lot in understanding the context of certain decisions and events, how something like the Cultural Revolution and dominance of Communism happened.
Anna C
Dec 02, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This is definitely the best and most comprehensive introduction to modern Chinese history, a landmark of scholarship etc etc, but all I can think about right now is how happy I am not to lug around this *tome* anymore. If I can retain even 2% of this book, I'll be golden.
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Jonathan D. Spence is a historian specializing in Chinese history. His self-selected Chinese name is Shǐ Jǐngqiān (simplified Chinese: 史景迁; traditional Chinese: 史景遷), which roughly translates to "A historian who admires Sima Qian."

He has been Sterling Professor of History at Yale University since 1993. His most famous book is The Search for Modern China, which has become one of the standard texts

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