A Bitter Revolution: China's Struggle with the Modern World Review

A Bitter Revolution: China's Struggle with the Modern World
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A Bitter Revolution: China's Struggle with the Modern World ReviewThis is a well written and well researched book by the young university lecturer Rana Mitter at Oxford. He is also the author of at least two other books on China. The author attempts to tell us the 20th century story of China's political awakening by tracing many of the historical figures and writers to the small number of universities primarily in Beijing and Shanghai and the demonstrations of May 1919 in Beijing.
The book starts around the time of the May 4, 1919 demonstrations or what the author calls the first Tian'anmen Square (gate) demonstrations. The small number of protestors served as a touch stone or reference to future generations of Chinese as the century unfolded. In summary that group wanted to free China of its past ties to Confucianism and replace it with science and democracy. The author tells us the story of the development of China from that date and we read about a general "awakening" and the recent history of modern China. At the time of the 1919 demonstrations China was fragmented politically and had only 28,000 university students. Although the Nationalists had seized power, it lacked its own central authority and unifying government and was dominated by war lords and by colonial powers, the latter at its major seaports. The author believes that the students from the 1919 era and their contemporaries or those that followed in the decade after - the 1920s - set in motion the ideas, the political philosophies, and provided the leaders that changed China into a more modern state.
The modernization of China sharply lagged behind its Asian neighbor Japan, who started to modernize in the early 1850's building steel plants, railways, shipyards, and universities, in a unified effort among banks, the government including the military, and industry. China on the other hand remained fragmented, divided, a vast agrarian society with its costal cities dominated by colonial powers. The universities and intellectual base were very small by any standards, and for a country of the size of China were very small. In some ways China was similar to Russia in that it had a revolutionary spirit and rural unrest but a political vacuum. There was a general yearning for a new government or economic system and the communists filled that void almost by default after the Nationalists were weakened by WWII.
In any case the author tells a very detailed story about the people and ideas of the early café societies in Shanghai and the Beijing University that produced many popular writers and famous politicians including Mao and others. The author tells us about other writers such as Zou Raofen, Lu Xun, and the woman Ding Ling who wrote her "Miss Sophie" about her inner thoughts including sexuality in her writings, and about popular magazines such as "Life". The author goes on to lead us through the Nationalist movement, the communists, the invasion by Japan, the rise of the communists, the great leap forward, the cultural revolution, the failures of communism, the 1989 Tian'anmen massacre, etc. Instead of science and democracy China suffered through a series of crisis with as many as 60 million or more dead by famine and wars, with the people sometimes turning to cannibalism. Through all of the politicians and writers including Mao and others would reference the spirit of May 1919 although their own actions were no longer a reflection of the early ideals.
The book is just over 300 pages in medium font and gives a good introduction and overview to the development of modern China with many details on writers and political figures. As an added feature he includes nine pages of comments on follow up readings - mostly academic books or histories or other popular books - and mostly in English divided by category.
I enjoyed the book but thought it a bit short. Still it is worth 5 stars.A Bitter Revolution: China's Struggle with the Modern World Overview

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