Saturday, January 12, 2013

Restless Empire - a short review

Odd Westad's newest book, Restless Empire: China and the World since 1750, was one that just recently showed up in my library's online selection and the first one I had an opportunity to read on my new e-reader.  First, I have not been a huge fan of e-readers in general but I can see its usefulness at times. This book on the iPad was not a bad read at all. It's a little distracting sometimes with the spacing and fonts but those are editable and I may yet come around to something that works for me. But not nearly as bad as I had feared it might have been.

Regarding the book itself, I was actually very pleased. Most books on China come out with very definitive viewpoints on China, either pro or negative. For some reason, there are few who can hold nuanced views when it comes to the subject of China. But Mr. Westad has managed to straddle a fine line that examines the last several hundred years of Chinese history from different perspectives while neatly tying them back together in the end with his own thoughts on the future for China.

While it is not an in-depth review (though at 528 pages in the cover version), I found it to be refreshingly comprehensive in its scope, albeit covering only from the Qing dynasty onward (which most English books on China seem to focus on). Neatly organized by chapter into various topics, including its metamorphosis from the early to late-Qing dynamics, its relationship with foreigners (along with their influence both positive and negative) and particularly to Japan (which is far more complex than is typically acknowledged today), the years of the republic government that eventually fell to the Communists and the post-war years to the current day are very enlightening with rare historical insight. For example, instead of painting with the wide brush used to often dismiss Chiang Kai-shek as the corrupt and incompetent leader he is commonly portrayed as today, he is far more forgiving in recognition of the times in which he existed and the obstacles he had to overcome.

His discussion around the influence of foreigners in and as they relate to China is also deftly handled. While he does not minimize the imperialistic attitudes of those foreigners, nor does he parody them and offers up some examples of the benefits of that influence in China then and today. His treatment of the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) is also more even-handed than most others - critical where it should be but also recognizing it is more than a mere caricature. Indeed, it is his ability to provide rationalizations without judgement that I found to be the most refreshing thing about this book.

While I cannot say that I necessarily agree with all of his predictions on the future - but that's the joy of making predictions, no one will necessarily agree with everything you think - I found his thoughts to be well-reasoned based on his earlier observations in the book. All in all, I would highly recommend this book for those who want to learn more about China, how it got to where it is today and why it behaves the way it does.