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A concise account of how revolutions made modern China and helped shape the modern world China’s emergence as a twenty-first-century global economic, cultural, and political power is often presented as a story of what Chinese leader Xi Jinping calls the nation’s “great rejuvenation,” a story narrated as the return of China to its “rightful” place at the center of the world. A concise account of how revolutions made modern China and helped shape the modern world China’s emergence as a twenty-first-century global economic, cultural, and political power is often presented as a story of what Chinese leader Xi Jinping calls the nation’s “great rejuvenation,” a story narrated as the return of China to its “rightful” place at the center of the world. In China’s Revolutions in the Modern World, historian Rebecca E. Karl argues that China’s contemporary emergence is best seen not as a “return,” but rather as the product of revolutionary and counter-revolutionary activity and imaginings. From the Taipings in the mid-nineteenth century through nationalist, anti-imperialist, cultural, and socialist revolutions to today’s capitalist-inflected Communist State, modern China has been made in intellectual dissonance and class struggle, in mass democratic movements and global war, in socialism and anti-socialism, in repression and conflict by multiple generations of Chinese people mobilized to seize history and make the future in their own name. Through China’s successive revolutions, the contours of our contemporary world have taken shape. This brief interpretive history shows how.


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A concise account of how revolutions made modern China and helped shape the modern world China’s emergence as a twenty-first-century global economic, cultural, and political power is often presented as a story of what Chinese leader Xi Jinping calls the nation’s “great rejuvenation,” a story narrated as the return of China to its “rightful” place at the center of the world. A concise account of how revolutions made modern China and helped shape the modern world China’s emergence as a twenty-first-century global economic, cultural, and political power is often presented as a story of what Chinese leader Xi Jinping calls the nation’s “great rejuvenation,” a story narrated as the return of China to its “rightful” place at the center of the world. In China’s Revolutions in the Modern World, historian Rebecca E. Karl argues that China’s contemporary emergence is best seen not as a “return,” but rather as the product of revolutionary and counter-revolutionary activity and imaginings. From the Taipings in the mid-nineteenth century through nationalist, anti-imperialist, cultural, and socialist revolutions to today’s capitalist-inflected Communist State, modern China has been made in intellectual dissonance and class struggle, in mass democratic movements and global war, in socialism and anti-socialism, in repression and conflict by multiple generations of Chinese people mobilized to seize history and make the future in their own name. Through China’s successive revolutions, the contours of our contemporary world have taken shape. This brief interpretive history shows how.

30 review for China's Revolutions in the Modern World: A Brief Interpretive History

  1. 5 out of 5

    Carlos Martinez

    This relatively short book covers an impressive amount of Chinese revolutionary history, starting with the Taiping Rebellion (from 1850), moving through the collapse of the Qing Dynasty, on to the establishment of the Republic of China (1912), the May Fourth Movement (1919 onwards), the rises and falls of the United Front between the Communist Party and the Guomindang, the founding of the People's Republic (1949), the Cultural Revolution, and the reform period (1978 onwards). Karl provides a part This relatively short book covers an impressive amount of Chinese revolutionary history, starting with the Taiping Rebellion (from 1850), moving through the collapse of the Qing Dynasty, on to the establishment of the Republic of China (1912), the May Fourth Movement (1919 onwards), the rises and falls of the United Front between the Communist Party and the Guomindang, the founding of the People's Republic (1949), the Cultural Revolution, and the reform period (1978 onwards). Karl provides a particularly interesting and nuanced analysis of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. Although she doesn't shirk from describing the horrors associated with those two periods, she manages to avoid the childish tropes that are usually found in Western historical accounts, for example of Mao being crazed and power-hungry. Instead, Karl describes the incredibly complex domestic and international political context, along with the competing political forces at work. The history of the back-and-forth struggle between the communists and the Guomindang is also told with skill and subtlety. I was slightly taken aback by Karl's treatment of post-1978 China, which is presented simply as a pitiful setback, in which socialism is undone and replaced with a vicious neoliberalism, combined with a ruthless repression of the masses' creative energy. The valid critique of terrible inequality isn't meaningfully balanced by a discussion of how the lives of the vast majority of Chinese have improved in the reform era. Deng Xiaoping and his successors are criticised for a strategy in which the 'ends' of development justify the 'means' of inequality. And yet, development isn't an 'end'; it's a proxy for improving people's lives and for breaking out of backwardness. The reform period has achieved extraordinary successes in poverty alleviation, to a point where extreme poverty, illiteracy, malnutrition and homelessness have been all but wiped out. Is it impossible to see something socialist in this? If the treatment of the post-1978 period comes across as more-or-less Maoist, the treatment of the Tiananmen Square incident and Xinjiang situation is basically a recapitulation of the standard Western narrative. Serious historians don't rely on professional anti-communist and Christian fundamentalist Adrian Zenz to provide primary evidence on the treatment of Uyghur Muslims! My final complaint is about the huge amount of academese; everything is historicity, temporality and futurity. It feels unnecessary, and renders the book less accessible than it could be. These issues aside, I'm glad to have read the book and would recommend to others interested in modern Chinese history. As ever, read critically.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Efrén Ayón

    Interesante recuento de la historia de China en el siglo pasado, relatando su tortuosa búsqueda por la libertad y la grandeza de épocas pasadas. Tiene un buen equilibrio en cuanto a la profundidad con la que formula los episodios turbulentos por los que pasa, sin dejar de ser una lectura ligera y amena; el gran conocedor que quiera una obra más ambiciosa no la encontrará aquí. Sin embargo, peca en lo mismo que tantas otras investigaciones occidentales sobre sociedades anticapitalistas, y es que Interesante recuento de la historia de China en el siglo pasado, relatando su tortuosa búsqueda por la libertad y la grandeza de épocas pasadas. Tiene un buen equilibrio en cuanto a la profundidad con la que formula los episodios turbulentos por los que pasa, sin dejar de ser una lectura ligera y amena; el gran conocedor que quiera una obra más ambiciosa no la encontrará aquí. Sin embargo, peca en lo mismo que tantas otras investigaciones occidentales sobre sociedades anticapitalistas, y es que en buena medida se basa en obras de carácter burgués y da por hecho sus disparatadas afirmaciones, desestimando el experimento de socialismo chino como un fracaso al inicio y como una traición fraguada por oportunistas después. A veces puede obviarse, pero otras veces es hasta condescendiente con el pueblo chino al que casi que reduce al estereotipo de hormiga azul; trabajadora pero descerebrada, siguiendo a un líder despótico cuando no malévolo y demente. Nunca es más evidente esto que cuando da crédito al notorio charlatán Adrian Zenz para hablar de Xinjiang en el penúltimo capítulo.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Ro

    A quick and concise roller-coaster through the modern history of China's many revolutions, from the Taiping Revolution of the mid-1800s, all the way through to the neoliberal revolution of the post-Tiananmen era. Overall, the book does a great job of giving snapshots and analyses of the different revolutionary periods, as well as the periods in between, and the changing nature of Chinese political economy and society throughout. A good book both for people well-versed in Chinese history, as well A quick and concise roller-coaster through the modern history of China's many revolutions, from the Taiping Revolution of the mid-1800s, all the way through to the neoliberal revolution of the post-Tiananmen era. Overall, the book does a great job of giving snapshots and analyses of the different revolutionary periods, as well as the periods in between, and the changing nature of Chinese political economy and society throughout. A good book both for people well-versed in Chinese history, as well as relative newcomers looking for a quick and well-written dive.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Marc Bilbao

    The book achieves its objective, that is to provide a historical account and context to the present situation of China - that of a socialist global superpower at economic war with USA, UK and EU allies. However, the latest chapters from the book are terribly disappointing. They are filled with a mix of biased selection of sources (e.g. Hong Kong Free Press) on delicate issues such as ethnical tension, all wrapped up with the fundamental ideology of this book, that is the ultra-leftist this-kind-o The book achieves its objective, that is to provide a historical account and context to the present situation of China - that of a socialist global superpower at economic war with USA, UK and EU allies. However, the latest chapters from the book are terribly disappointing. They are filled with a mix of biased selection of sources (e.g. Hong Kong Free Press) on delicate issues such as ethnical tension, all wrapped up with the fundamental ideology of this book, that is the ultra-leftist this-kind-of-socialism-is-not-enough-for-me approach. It is understandable that the final chapters (1989 onwards) are by far the most complicated ones to write. There is less academic/historian consensus and it is difficult to analyze recent events impartially. However, it does seem that these chapters were quickly and clumsily written. Most gravely, one has the feeling that any western intelligence agency - known for their honorable job of weakening and getting rid of sovereign countries alike - would definitely recommend the read. For myself, the book became a mere contextual platform to provide a basic chronological account on China's development. Nothing more.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Steve

    China's Revolutions in the Modern World condenses two centuries of political, social and cultural upheaval into just over 200 pages. NYU Professor Rebecca E Karl organizes her analysis into seven historical periods of deep, revolutionary change punctuated by "interludes" of consolidation or side-stepping. It's a small gem to read. If you want deeply-footnoted, highly detailed academic work covering new ground, you'll need to look elsewhere. Karl's goals seem at once more limited and more ambiti China's Revolutions in the Modern World condenses two centuries of political, social and cultural upheaval into just over 200 pages. NYU Professor Rebecca E Karl organizes her analysis into seven historical periods of deep, revolutionary change punctuated by "interludes" of consolidation or side-stepping. It's a small gem to read. If you want deeply-footnoted, highly detailed academic work covering new ground, you'll need to look elsewhere. Karl's goals seem at once more limited and more ambitious. Karl condenses a lot of historical detail while providing important and useful perspective. The opening chapter on the Taipings already conveys sense of how revolutionary ideas would spread in China even without 21st century communications, how frustrated educated city-dwellers might join with China's dominant peasant and rural town majority, the ebb and flow of neo-Confucian traditions and revolt targeting them. In each successive wave, Karl strengthens the analysis with significant attention to household life, the political awakening of women, and the culture as a contested arena. I had forgotten (from study long ago) the scale of the Taiping revolution--more than a revolt or uprising--in numbers, geographic spread, societal ambitions, and, alas, numbers killed. Reading this opening chapter and the restoration "interlude" that follows, I sat up, and then plowed through the rest more like a novel than a historical overview. The book got my attention because of the themes Karl explores. To what extent did each successive wave help lay the foundation for the Communist 1949 victory? What is the continuing grasp of Confucianism such that each turn to the tide or backwards, including the present, includes some element of ideological revival--as well as the centrality of modern cultural opposition to it? How should we balance internal social contradictions against external, global factors--from 19th century European colonial exploitation to Japanese invasion to Comintern "guidance"? While the book rightfully focuses on neo-Confucianism, I have been thinking a lot lately about China's other deep original trend, Taoism, reflecting a longtime study of Tai Chi and qigong and related meditation. For one thing, the concepts of protracted war and attention to the "rear area" which carried forward from Taipings to Mao's writing and practices with the People's Army had to come from somewhere deep in the culture, and that somewhere presumably included Sunzi Art of War and the Taoist-inspired messages regarding contradiction, balance, cause, (also Confucian) virtue. Karl does end with an "interlude" on `the crisis in Zinjiang and the government's relationship with non-Han and (in this case Islam-influenced) peoples. I would also have liked to see some consideration of the role of the Taoist and for that matter Buddhist traditions. This is especially so in a book that gives excellent attention to culture. I am fine all the same with the book's major concerns. Just given the title, one might expect a mission is to establish the place of the Communist revolution. In this aspect, Karl continues here analysis in another recent volume, focusing on Mao Zedong. Both uphold ambition and legacy without glossing over the Great Leap Forward and subsequent momentous setbacks. By the end, however, I found that this new book helps even more context for evaluating the contemporary, Xi Jinping era. The earlier trends all factor in and yet Karl resists leaving us with a sense of inevitability, that it all had to be this way. Whatever portion of the years from Cultural Revolution to the present you may have lived through--or pursue in academic study--and especially if looking for new perspectives on what drives people to seek massive change, do take a read.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Graham

    Great overview of the revolutions and upheavals in China over the past century, really manages to encapsulate how much change the country went through in the course of just a few generations. In particular, the section on the Cultural Revolution dives into the "continuous revolutionary mindset" as both impetus and result. Concluding with Xinjiang in 2009 - and Xi Jinping in 2019 - Karl demonstrates why stability has become the watchword of the post-Mao CCP. She also shows that if China does have Great overview of the revolutions and upheavals in China over the past century, really manages to encapsulate how much change the country went through in the course of just a few generations. In particular, the section on the Cultural Revolution dives into the "continuous revolutionary mindset" as both impetus and result. Concluding with Xinjiang in 2009 - and Xi Jinping in 2019 - Karl demonstrates why stability has become the watchword of the post-Mao CCP. She also shows that if China does have major changes ahead, that in itself has a long history.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Ashwin Ravikumar

    This is the first book I have read about China’s revolutions of the past couple centuries. It’s actually the first book I’ve read about China at all, as far as I can remember. I can only speak from my own limited perspective, as learning history well requires deep study and reflection with multiple passes over varying perspectives. For someone like me, this was a good and informative introduction to basic Chinese history since 1850. Needless to say, in just around 200 pages, this book is not com This is the first book I have read about China’s revolutions of the past couple centuries. It’s actually the first book I’ve read about China at all, as far as I can remember. I can only speak from my own limited perspective, as learning history well requires deep study and reflection with multiple passes over varying perspectives. For someone like me, this was a good and informative introduction to basic Chinese history since 1850. Needless to say, in just around 200 pages, this book is not comprehensive, but it does quickly help you to get your head around some of the basic events that transpired. My goal in reading this book was to gain some basic historical grounding from a reasonably Left-wing perspective on major revolutionary events in China in the 20th century. Karl delievered. She expresses skepticism around CCP and orthodox Marxist historiography surrounding the various uprisings and revolutions, which I appreciated. She also makes a point of analyzing the ways in which the various revolutions challenged, but ultimately upheld, patriarchy. This book will give you a basic sense of how China’s revolutions, from the Taiping Uprising in 1850, to the Boxer Rebellion in 1899, through the Republican revolution of 1911, past the May Fourth movement of 1919, to the Nationalist consolidation and betrayal of the Communists in 1927, and the final success of the Communists in 1949, built on one another. Karl also conveys both the human tragedies and theoretical puzzles that came out of China’s communists’ efforts to build a working class and peasant-led revolution while a global regime of militaristic and racialized capitalism wokred to isolate and undermine them at every stage. This latter point is covered quickly in the final chapters of the book, but nevertheless provides an interesting starting point for considering Third Worldism and post-colonial forms of socialism that are still eminently relevant as we think about global climate change and ecosocialism. An issue I often have with history books about interesting stuff is that their prose is needlessly jargon-y and academic, making it hard to figure out what the hell actually happened. Karl writes well, and with some exceptions where it gets a bit too theoretical for my taste (partially this might be an inevitable consequence of trying to explain the cultural revolution in 20 pages or so), sticks to telling you what happened, and how a critical Left-leaning thinker might interpret it. It's more dense than a journalist who writes history (say, someone like Masha Gessen or Arundathi Roy or Jeremy Scahill or Naomi Klein), but way less deliberately obtuse than a lot of academic histories. It worked for me.

  8. 4 out of 5

    L MASH DAT

    Falls off very hard in the last few chapters

  9. 4 out of 5

    Austin

  10. 4 out of 5

    Shaun

  11. 4 out of 5

    Dayton Chen

  12. 4 out of 5

    Crops

  13. 5 out of 5

    Mac

  14. 4 out of 5

    Safari Mies

  15. 5 out of 5

    tristan

  16. 5 out of 5

    Eric

  17. 4 out of 5

    Emil

  18. 5 out of 5

    Zach

  19. 5 out of 5

    ethtilde

  20. 4 out of 5

    Adam

  21. 4 out of 5

    Adam Walker

  22. 4 out of 5

    t

  23. 4 out of 5

    Anem0ne

  24. 4 out of 5

    James Vail

  25. 5 out of 5

    Mauricio Santoro

  26. 5 out of 5

    SubtleOnion

  27. 5 out of 5

    Simone

  28. 5 out of 5

    Alex

  29. 5 out of 5

    Chris Baitz

  30. 5 out of 5

    Daniel

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