"China" is a contested, and abstract concept, far more than it is a concrete nation of absolute borders and laws. It is, therefore, not a nation conducive to "conventional" historical methods, as these tend to focus on policies, wars and ideologies, things peripheral to the lives of most Chinese people even today. Thus, reading these conventional histories rarely leads to a deep understanding of China.
Enter Odd Arne Westad, a professor of international history at the London School of Economics and Political Science, who tries to solve the problem with his latest work, "Restless Empire: China and the World Since 1750." The book arose from his need to give his students a text unlike the conventional fare that's been saturating the market lately.
Basic Books ($32).
Mr. Westad (born in Norway, where the first name "Odd" is common) needed something that would be less about conflicts and ideologies, and more about how those conflicts were resolved and the ideologies blended over time. The result is a revisionist attempt to break up tomes of statecraft and statesmen into histories of missionaries, businessmen, coolies, revolutionaries and scholars. "Restless Empire" is a personal, anecdotal and humanistic approach to history that uses the single common thread of China's turbulent past to tie 250 years of history together -- her people.
"Restless Empire" begins with the peaking of the Qing Dynasty and follows the ensuing history of wars and warlords, uprisings and revolutions, and the rise of the twin governments of the Republic of China (1912-49) and the People's Republic of China (1949-present). He writes in a loose, associative fashion that is mildly schizophrenic but a lucid and logical approach. Like the Chinese themselves, Mr. Westad approaches history through "prisms" and sorts his material by chapters; for example, "Imperialism" for discussing the first waves of western missionaries, merchants and invaders, and "Japan" for the complicated relationship between the two nations as teacher-student, future-past, and then finally conqueror-conquered.
The associative rather than temporal organization means the years overlap and the "characters" in the story jump around a bit, which can make for tiring and confusing reading on top of the blood and guts of history. However, the narrative never loses the fire of a living history that comes from his liberal use of primary sources.
Mr. Westad is foremost a good storyteller, the most important qualification of a good historian. (His 2005 book "The Global Cold War" won numerous awards in the field.) He also doesn't stoop to lecturing or interrupt his stories for ideological reasons, except to target both Chinese and foreign violators of human rights, in very Scandinavian fashion. He's focused not just on the "axes" of the line of history, but the points that make it up as well.
The grand result is a very complicated picture of a nation that stretches back continuously and clearly for centuries, just as much about refugees going abroad for Ph.D.s as about Nixon's trade talks. His history lacks the traditional "breaks" in 1912 and 1949, as if a handful of revolutionaries instantly imprinted "we are a republic" or "we are Communists" on the brains of 500 million people.
He reveals the imperialist and commercialist legacy the Chinese Communist Party has inherited from its imperial origins, and the mix of English, Japanese, Soviet and American influences, all reconciled and synthesized with indigenous thought and circumstances. It is this synthesis that has become the lumbering, fractured civilization-party-state we know and love today.
Four hundred fifty pages of Asian history does not make for breezy reading, but it's compelling stuff. China's is a history of life and struggle, metamorphosis, centuries of making the best out of a bad situation. Mr. Westad is also very good at showing Chinese people to be people first, Chinese second, which is definitely not the case with every writer.
If you've ever read an article about Foxconn slave labor or a new round of political repression and wondered "What are these people thinking?" then "Restless Empire" might be a good addition to the nightstand.
Shaun P. Lawson is a graduate of Dickinson College in East Asian Studies who has studied and worked in China. He lives in Hampton (email@example.com). First Published November 11, 2012 5:00 AM