China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know Review

China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know
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China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know ReviewBeing surprised is something I expect from a good work of fiction, but not necessarily from nonfiction, especially when I am familiar with the subject - or so I thought. Thus it was a treat when I found plenty of surprises in this book, such as the following passage from the section titled "What is the alternative to viewing Mao as a monster?":
"There are many alternatives to thinking of Mao as a fiend who was China's Hitler. One useful one is to see Mao's place in China today as comparable to that of Andrew Jackson's in the United States. Though admittedly far from perfect, the comparison is based on the fact that Jackson is remembered both as someone who played a significant role in the development of a political organization (the Democratic Party) that still has many partisans, and as someone responsible for brutal policies toward Native Americans that are now often referred to as genocidal.
"Both men are thought of as having done terrible things, yet this does not necessarily prevent them from being used as positive symbols. And Jackson still appears on $20 bills, even though Americans tend now to view as heinous the institution of slavery (of which he was a passionate defender) and the early 19th-century military campaigns against Native Americans (in which he took part)."This comparison is refreshing, and it could only come from someone who knows both American and Chinese history intimately. Admittedly, I have limited knowledge about President Andrew Jackson. On the Chinese internet today, when searching for "President Jackson," glorious descriptions fill my eyes: "people's friend," "the bank killer," a war hero who defeated the British army, a wise politician who prevented the US from splitting apart. No mention of his not-so-glorious role in killing Native Americans. You wonder how an average internet surfer in mainland China can get a complete picture of this controversial American president.
But, before you feel fortunate to have the benefit of a free press and internet in the US, hold on a second. Can the average American reader get the whole picture of Mao? This really depends on what you happen to read or hear. If you have only read Jung Chang and Jon Halliday's best-selling biography, Mao: The Unknown Story (2005), for example, then Mao was born a monster. If you have only read Edgar Snow's Red Star Over China (1937), on the other hand, then Mao was a legendary hero of the Chinese peasants. The actual Mao, of course, was a more complex historical figure than either of those works portray.
Chinese in the Tang Dynasty already understood "Listen to both sides and you will be enlightened; heed only one side and you will be benighted", but it is never easy to consistently follow this practice. The few American writers I know of who write about China with this maxim in mind include James Fallows, Peter Hessler, and Jeffrey Wasserstrom. If you are interested in China and don't want to be benighted or brainwashed, read books with different views before forming your opinion. Or, as a short cut, start with a book like China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know. The parallel between Mao and Andrew Jackson might be imperfect, as Wasserstrom has noted, but it is a big step up from good-evil dichotomy that seems so pervasive.
In fact, one of the most appealing characteristics of Wasserstrom's new book is that it does not sidestep controversial issues and opinions. On the contrary, it deliberately provides the reader with views from opposite sides, in a rather straightforward and balanced manner. In recognizing differences between Western and Chinese views, Wasserstrom helps break stereotypical perceptions and opens the reader's inquiring minds. He does so throughout the book.
The breadth of this relatively short, 150-page book is amazing. Starting with "Who was Confucius," it continues without pause to "What was the Dynastic Cycle," "What was the Opium War," "Why did the Qing Dynasty Fail," and much more. Given the brevity and the format, there is a necessary lack of nuance, but there is a great overview of the backbone of Chinese history presented in the blink of an eye.
Building off of the past, the book devotes a chapter to the post-Mao development of China into the modern state it now is. Then it outlines "U.S. -China Misunderstandings," and finally presents a chapter on what the future holds, providing useful insights into the different ways that Americans and Chinese view one another and how differently they interpret the same events.
Understanding what is happening in China, or America, is difficult for even the best informed people on both sides of the globe. If you are trying to get real insight into the Boxer Rebellion, Mao Zedong, Tibet or a host of other issues relating to China, one short book is surely not enough. But whether you are new to things Chinese or are an old China-hand, something said in China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know will make you think twice, and the references included should carry you quite a way. If you feel a bit lost for not getting a definitive answer to some questions, then you might be one step closer to learning the truth.
(A more complete review can be found on my website [...])China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know Overview

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