RESTLESS EMPIRE: China and the World Since 1750. By Odd Arne Westad. Basic Books. 528 pages. $32.
Even in Charleston, China increasingly looms larger: More elementary schools here are offering Chinese language classes; more of our college students are studying in China. Understanding China’s cultural, commercial and diplomatic relationships to the U.S. and the rest of the world is an important task. That’s why this book is so useful.
For China, perhaps more than any other country, understanding its past is key to understanding its present and future. Author Odd Arne Westad teaches us that although China never had overseas colonies, as so many European states did, in the 18th century it was a massive land empire, with hegemony from Korea to Nepal, Siberia to Thailand. Its very name, Zhong Guo, the middle kingdom, suggests its central place in the world, and Westad argues that it still sees itself that way.
Although this book focuses on how China sees and interacts with the world, it also serves as a clearly written primer on modern Chisnese history, including the Boxer Rebellion, the Japanese invasion, the Cultural Revolution and Tiananmen Square protests of 1989. These, however, are seen through the lens of how these events affected China’s relationship with the rest of the world.
Westad also looks at China’s economic rise, noting that in the 1990s there was more direct foreign investment in China than in any other country in the world except the U.S., a fact even more remarkable given that before 1980 China had no foreign investment at all. Today, China practices an American-style capitalism, Westad argues, with less of a safety net and more inequality than in Europe or Japan.
Westad constructs his narrative from sources that include other scholarship, personal anecdotes and primary research, but with an accessible style. “Restless Empire” is a great example of macro-history written for the general reader.
Reviewer Elijah Siegler is professor of religion at the College of Charleston.