Rana Mitter proves that you don’t have to trudge through hundreds of pages to gain a nuanced view of China’s place in the current global milieu. His Modern China: A Very Short Introduction, is 140 pages (not including the index and other material) but packs more information and insight than many grander volumes.
Mitter sets out to describe modern China in a contrarian and engaging way. He does this by debunking popular ways of thinking about pre-modern China, which he defines as China before the mid-19th century, and also by overturning common wisdom of more recent times.
For example, he outlines the opposing but popularly held theories that either the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) ascent to power in 1949 changed China utterly, or that China has remained fundamentally unchanged with party leaders basically emperors after a type. “These views are wrong,” he declares, and the reader is left better off with this refreshing candidness.
Mitter’s contrarian approach and conversational tone ensure that his book is a valuable source of information for dinner-party smalltalk. He opens with a quote, for example, from a book published in 1910, whose authors noted that “China has at length come to the hour of her destiny … Even in remote places, we have found this new spirit – its evidence, strangely enough, the almost universal desire to learn English.”
In evaluating current Western ideals of modernity and how China measures up, he observes that China displayed features of modernity as understood in the West, long before the West itself adopted these practices.
In the 10th century, China was laying commercial foundations, with cash crops replacing subsistence farming and an examination system to order the elite. At that time, much of Europe was ruled by religious decree and brute force.
Mitter takes us on a whirlwind tour of China’s history and more, managing to cram in Taiwan, the social impact of the Super Voice Girls and a summary of China’s economic model, in addition to canonical topics like the Northern Expedition, the Boxer rebellion and the CCP’s eventual rise. The net effect is a book that would give essential perspective to anyone living or working in China.