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

I know that when writing reviews it’s important to focus on the book and less so on the author.  I’m breaking this rule.  Jefferey Wasserstrom has to be on of the most tireless writers/scholars on China today.  Seriously, I have no idea when he sleeps.  He teaches history at UC Irvine, supervises a very dynamic group of graduate students, is the author of numerous articles, a blogger for Huffington Post, the driving force behind The China Beat, and in the last three years has published three books: the wry and observant China’s Brave New World – And Other Tales for Global Times (2007), the ambitious scholarly work Global Shanghai, 1850-2010 (2009),  and now a new book with a perhaps even more ambitious premise, China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know (2010). Just this past week, he’s finished up a month long series of talks at M on the Bund in Shanghai.

The man is a force of nature.

Moreover, Professor Wasserstrom is a model for bridging the divide between good academic scholarship and the needs of a general readership, a divide that seems all the more wide when it comes to writing about China.  The term “public intellectual” is a fraught term, but I think it’s fair to say that it is a mantle which Jeffrey Wasserstrom has taken on for himself and it is one which he wears well.

Now, what about the book?

Well, it’s short. 135 pages hardly seems sufficient for such an ambitious title, but that’s part of the conceit. Professor Wasserstrom isn’t writing an encyclopedia so much as a highly-condensed briefing book which would be valuable reading for any journalist, traveler, or student about to step off the plane at Beijing’s Terminal Three.

As Professor Wasserstrom writes in his “Author’s Note:”

“The goal of this book is to help normalize discussions of China, a country that is too often seen as — to use the cliché — inscrutable. My aim is to clear up sources of Western misunderstanding about China, provide insights into issues of significance relating to it, and above all, reveal that, though it can be dauntingly complex, we can arrive at a basic understanding of its nature.” (Wasserstrom, 2010, p. xv)

The book is organized as an FAQ with chapters proceeding, more or less chronologically.  The book moves from “What were Confucius’ core ideas,” (education, ritual, and hierarchical yet reciprocal relationships) to “Why did the Qing Dynasty Fall,” (external imperialism and internal structural weaknesses) “What happened after Sun Yat-sen became president,” (Yuan Shikai nudged him to one side); to questions of a more recent vintage, “How do ordinary Chinese feel about Mao,” (the gamut from nostalgia to fury, admiration to disdain) “What is the real story of the Tiananmen Uprising,” (not only by students and not only about democracy) and “How do U.S. and Chinese views on Tibet differ?” (Americans think Tibetans are cuddly and oppressed, Chinese think that Tibet is part of China), etc.

Specialists in different fields will no doubt wish for more details to fill in key gaps.  In my own area, I could lament that there was obviously a lot more going on in China in the 19th century than the Opium War, the Taiping Rebellion, and the Boxer Uprising. (The self-strengthening movement gets a couple of sentences.) Which I suppose is being a bit greedy, since all the other dynasties from the Xia through to the Ming are covered in the span of about four pages, one of which is devoted to Zheng He.

But despite questions of what should have been included, the basic information in the book is quite sound and the concision with which Professor Wasserstrom presents these complex topics will be appreciated by people who are more interested in jumping right in and understanding China’s past and present than wading through a blow-by-blow of the different dynasties.  The book also comes with an excellent and up to date recommended readings list, so readers interested in learning more about, for example, “How did China’s rulers avoid falling prey to the ‘Leninist extinction?’ are directed to David Shambaugh’s China’s Communist Party: Atrophy and Adaptation.

I’m teaching a class this summer (and next year) on Understanding China. It’s an introductory class for our Contemporary Issues Program here at the Beijing Center.  I’ve been using Wasserstrom’s book (along with a similar book by Rana Mitter, Modern China: A Very Short Introduction) as a way of setting up the basic questions and giving the students some background on various issues before we delve into more detailed readings.  It’s been a successful strategy so far, especially because so many of the questions which make up China in the 21st Century are the same ones my students ask each semester, and also, I suspect, ones Professor Wasserstrom has heard in his own classes.

If I were heading over to China for the first time and wanted a readable and information-packed read for the flight over, this is the book I would take with me on the plane.  Highly Recommended.