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Reviewed by:
  • Making China Modern: From the Great Qing to Xi Jinping by Klaus Mühlhahn
  • Thoralf Klein (bio)
Klaus Mühlhahn. Making China Modern: From the Great Qing to Xi Jinping. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2019. xii, 717 pp. Hardcover $39.95, ISBN 978-0-674-73735-8.

Already in its sheer physical dimensions, Klaus Mühlhahn's new history of modern China is an ambitious undertaking. In over 600 pages of text—not counting the appendices—the author traces the development of the country from the Manchu conquest in 1644 to 2017. Not only the book's scope, but even more its title is reminiscent of two similarly monumental studies, and a comparison with them elucidates the perspective and characteristics of Mühlhahn's work: The China that Immanuel Hsu saw on the ascendant in his The Rise of Modern China, first published in 1970, was the revolutionary state of Mao Zedong. Jonathan D. Spence's The Search for Modern China, on the other hand, was written in the period of uncertainty following the Tian'anmen massacre of 1989 and accordingly exudes a great deal of skepticism regarding China's modern trajectory. By contrast, the China Mühlhahn wishes to explain is the global superpower of today, and he thus provides the first truly twenty- first-century history of modern China. Moreover, the semantics of his book's title suggests that modern China did not simply rise, nor was it out there to be found; rather, its emergence was the product of human action. In the introduction, Mühlhahn identifies institutional change and innovation as the key factor in the making of modern China. In so doing, he shows himself to be more indebted to the modernity paradigm than he is ready to admit, despite emphasizing that modernity could always build on China's own historical legacies (see p. 3).

The book is neatly divided into four parts at three chapters each, roughly following the chronological trajectory. Within the chapters, however, Mühlhahn organizes his text into thematic blocks, which, especially in the first two sections, allows for a loosening of the chronological corset and a systematic discussion of specific topics. Overall, the text tilts towards the contemporary: approximately 250 years of Qing rule are dealt with in 180 pages, just under one and a half times the space required for the just twenty-seven years of the Mao era after 1949. In addition to the focus on institutions, a number of approaches hold the narrative thread together. Mühlhahn places more emphasis on economic history than is customary in general histories, providing lots of fascinating new insights into the transformation of China. Intellectual history is another staple of the work, while the environmental perspective, although flagged in the introduction, makes a more uneven appearance, occasionally missing where one would expect it, for example in conjunction [End Page 328] with the Great Leap Forward. Finally, wherever possible, Mühlhahn places the development of China into its international and global contexts.

In the first part, Mühlhahn traces the conquest of China by the Manchu Qing dynasty, its heyday in the eighteenth century and its demise at the hands of imperialism and domestic crises and rebellions in the nineteenth. With regard to the Qing takeover of power, he concentrates on those institutions that the dynasty inherited from its predecessors, not least the examination system. This brings him more into line with the older Sinicization thesis, rather than with New Qing History and its emphasis on what set the Manchu rulers and elites apart from the Han Chinese majority. Moving on into the nineteenth century, Mühlhahn provides an intriguing account of how the economic depression under the Daoguang Emperor (1821–1850) weakened the Qing state, then goes on to show how the onslaught of Western imperialism led to a wholesale restructuring of China's economy, shifting the center of activity from the interior to the coastal areas and increasing the urban-rural gap. Mühlhahn rightly stresses the adverse effects of imperialism, as well as the resilience of the Qing government which led to China not being colonized like other parts of the world...


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pp. 328-331
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