The Chinese regard their country as the centre of the Universe and the only truly civilised place to live.
But to us in the West, China is a strange place. An alien world.
Recently I wrote a novel set in 7th Century China, during the Tang Dynasty. In preparation, I began reading every book I could find in my local library with ‘China’ in the title.
China since 1949 is not a novel, it’s a synopsis of the recent history of China – and a fascinating read. The first two chapters give a brief overview of the sprawling history and geography of this vast country, this is followed by a more detailed account of China from 1949 up until the start of the 21st Century. At the end are extracts taken from relevant documents.
In 145 pages, I have learnt more about modern China than I thought possible. This is an excellent book. Factually correct, without being terminally dull.
What did I learn as a writer?
The 20th Century was unlike any other century before because the amount of contemporaneous information available (documents, commentary, original source material, media clips) is huge. But Linda Benson has managed to distil 50 years of turbulent events into a mere 145 pages.
Perhaps I found it interesting because of my previous knowledge of Chinese Medicine. Perhaps, also, because many of these events were being relayed in the news during my teenage years and young adult life – although, like the droning of a distant airplane, they were simply background noise of which I can’t say I ever took much notice at the time.
- Why do the Chinese regard the Japanese with such enmity?
- How did the ‘Great Leap Forward’ kill 30 million people?
- Who were the Red Guards?
- What were the ‘five olds’ and what, exactly, was the Cultural Revolution?
- Where is modern China going and what will happen next?
A mark of good writing is that it challenges preconceived ideas and gives you a different perspective. Chairman Mao might have done some terrible things, but I had a greater understanding of his motivations after reading this book.
Whether or not this book helped me write my Tang Dynasty novel is hard to say. But who cares.