Book review: The rise of modern China


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Amazon price $ 24.42-63.76 paperback

SBN 10: 0195125045 / ISBN 13: 9780195125047
Published by Oxford University Press, 1999


by Ankit Kumar   10 June 2023

About the Author

Immanuel Hsu was a sinologist and a distinguished scholar of Chinese history. He was born in China and raised in Shanghai before joining the Chinese diplomatic corps and serving in Tokyo for a period of two years. Following World War II, he relocated to the United States to embark on his academic journey. Throughout his career, he authored numerous books and articles focusing on China’s history in the 19th and 20th centuries.

One of his most notable works is the book titled “The Rise of Modern China,” published in 1970. This book provides a comprehensive history of China spanning over 350 years. In 1999, Hsu released the 6th edition of this esteemed publication. “The Rise of Modern China” has become a standard textbook studied worldwide for understanding Chinese modern history.

Jonathan Spence, in the Preface to the Chinese translation of his book “The Search for Modern China,” acknowledges that the two most notable English-language surveys of modern Chinese history before his work were those authored by John King Fairbank in the 1960s and Immanuel Hsu in the 1970s. Spence expresses his gratitude for the knowledge he gained from these two esteemed scholars.

Immanuel Hsu’s notable publications include:

  1. “The Rise of Modern China” (First edition, 1970; sixth edition, 2000) published by Oxford University Press.
  2. “Intellectual Trends in the Ch’ing Period.”
  3. “China’s Entry into the Family of Nations: The Diplomatic Phase, 1858–1880.”
  4. “The Ili Crisis: A Study of Sino-Russian Diplomacy, 1871–1881.”
  5. “China Without Mao: The Search for a New Order” was published by Oxford University Press in 1983.
  6. The chapter on Late Ch’ing foreign relations, 1866–1905 in “The Cambridge History of China, Volume 11: Late Ch’ing, 1800–1911,” edited by John K. Fairbank and Kwang-Ching Liu, published by Cambridge University Press. (Publisher’s Catalogue)


Categorizing Immanuel Hsu into a specific label or pigeonhole is challenging due to the range and diversity of his scholarly work. However, he is commonly recognized as a sinologist and a prominent scholar of Chinese history. His publications cover various aspects of Chinese history, including intellectual trends, diplomacy, and the modernization of China. Hsu’s expertise extends beyond a single narrow focus, showcasing his broad understanding and contributions to the field of Chinese studies.

Considering his diverse body of work, we can discern Immanuel Hsu’s overarching framework. He aligns himself with a liberal-conservative stance, displaying empathy towards nationalist ideas and movements. Hsu strongly criticizes the Manchu elite and foreign imperialists, considering them transgressors who protracted the Qing dynasty’s existence and impeded China’s organic development.

It is worth noting that Hsu primarily attributes the Nationalist defeat in the Civil War to financial bankruptcy and exhaustion, rather than solely attributing it to mismanagement and corruption. However, it should be mentioned that he tends to downplay or overlook the accomplishments of the communist forces.

While these viewpoints shed light on Hsu’s ideological inclination, it is essential to acknowledge the breadth of his scholarly work and his contributions that surpass a singular perspective.

Assessment of the author

In the prologue, Professor Hsu sets out three shaping forces of modern China”. He identifies both overt and covert forces at play during different periods. First, Hsu highlights the significance of government policies and institutions in shaping China’s trajectory. During the Ch’ing period, the dynasty prioritized self-preservation and employed various strategies to maintain its rule. This included aligning with traditional order, implementing literary inquisitions to suppress critics, preserving Manchu identity, and creating specialized government offices.

Second, the author recognizes that understanding history requires an exploration of not only the explicit governmental forces but also the subterranean currents. In an autocratic regime like the Ch’ing, underground activities and silent opposition played a significant role. Chinese individuals who opposed the Manchu rule expressed dissent through secret society activities and nationalistic movements. Initially, there was a desire to revive the Ming dynasty, as evidenced by loyalist movements

Third, Professor Hsu’s analysis highlights the conflict between China and the West as a significant “shaping force.” He presents a strong perspective on this matter. Although he does not frame China’s struggle against imperialism in moralistic terms, he clearly emphasizes foreign “aggression” and “imperialism.”

Assessment of the book

The Rise of Modern China is a comprehensive and detailed book. Immanuel Hsu had done a phenomenal job of compressing 400 years of Chinese history (1600-1999) into more than 1100 pages of the book. This text is considered a standard textbook for students of Modern china across the world. The straightforward historical narrative of China through the lens of political, economic, social and cultural aspects made this book more immersive. The book has been divided into 7 themes.

The three variables used by the author, which shaped the forces of Modern China were the Government’s policies and institutions of the Qing dynasty and second one, the underground activity and movement of secret society which gave rise to the nationalistic-racial revolt and revolution by Ming loyalists. We can witness this in the resistance of Koxinga and the revolt of the Three Feudatories. And the final one was China’s response to the West after the mid-19th century. Li Hung described it as “a great change in more than three thousand years of history.”

Professor Hsu avoids the pitfall of “foreign causation” in the interpretation of Modern Chinese history. He fills a significant void by providing an extensive and comprehensive general history of modern China. The book successfully combines the expertise of both Asian and Western scholars, creating a well-rounded perspective on the subject matter. While the utilization of Japanese secondary works may be limited, the overall result remains highly impressive.

One of the notable strengths of this book is its expansive scope, with 1133 pages of text, of which delve into the period spanning from 1600 to the return of Hong Kong in 1997. The author’s meticulous attention to detail and clear narrative style contribute to its value for general readers and make it an essential resource for higher education. It would be fair to say that a university student studying modern Chinese history would be at a disadvantage without a copy of this book.

Hsu’s stated goal of achieving a “new synthesis” in modern Chinese history is ambitious. While it may be challenging to fully accomplish such a task, this book goes beyond being a mere synthesis. It reflects the author’s views and interpretations, which enriches the historical discourse.

One intriguing aspect that Hsu explores is the relationship between the dynastic history of the Qing dynasty and the subsequent era of “modern” history. The author’s perspective on this connection adds depth to the narrative and stimulates critical thinking.

“The Rise of Modern China” excels in its ability to present complex historical events and developments in a comprehensive and accessible manner. Hsu’s writing style allows readers to engage with the material, regardless of their prior knowledge of Chinese history.

While no book is without its limitations, Immanuel Hsu’s “The Rise of Modern China” offers an exceptional resource for those seeking a deep understanding of modern Chinese history. Its broad coverage, attention to detail, and the author’s insightful interpretations make it an indispensable addition to the field.

The author describes his approach as one which stresses the importance of the modern period of the traditional background, and indeed the Opium war breaks out on page 168. By that point, he had given already a vibrant detail of the founding Qing dynasty and also described its political, economic, social and intellectual features of pre-1800 China. He also described the stratification of Chinese society along with the scholar-gentry class. The author displays narrative skill, especially in his admirable account of the Opium War.

The period from 1911 to the Cultural Revolution occupies 7 chapters. The section on the May Fourth movement holds up particularly well.

Hsu emphasizes the significance of the Kuomintang’s (KMT) role in the fight against Japan while downplaying the contributions of the Communists. He attributes General Stilwell’s criticisms of the KMT’s war efforts and their policy towards the Communists to the influence of “a group of liberal and somewhat leftist advisers.” When discussing political life in Taiwan under Chiang Kai-shek, Hsu describes it as “peaceful, if somewhat pedestrian,” without mentioning political prisoners or the ongoing state of martial law since 1949. While the book acknowledges the prominent role of the military on the mainland, especially during the Cultural Revolution, it fails to mention the Garrison Command in Taiwan. Regarding the present-day frustrations in Taiwan, Hsu only considers the perspective of refugees, neglecting the views of the Taiwanese themselves. However, Hsu’s treatment of the negotiations between the KMT and the Communists in 1945 and 1946, as well as the reasons for their failure, is remarkably clear and balanced.

The concise nature of this text makes it suitable for an advanced college course. It assumes prior knowledge of China, as it does not provide the customary introduction to topics such as rivers, crops, or language. Each chapter concludes with suggestions for further reading, including numerous Chinese sources.

Overall, while Hsu’s work offers valuable insights, the Bibliographic references at the end of each chapter are just goldmines for further readings.


Undoubtedly, this book provides valuable insights into the intricate history of modern China. However, there are certain limitations to consider. The author’s focus on political, diplomatic, and intellectual history tends to overshadow the socio-economic factors that underlie the country’s challenges. Furthermore, there appears to be a bias towards the Kuomintang (KMT) government, as the author does not grant the Communist Party the benefit of the doubt. The author attributes the defeat of the Nationalist government primarily to financial bankruptcy and exhaustion, neglecting to explore the potential impact of corruption or inefficiency. Additionally, the book falls short in adequately addressing the social crises occurring in rural China.