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Book Review

 

Benson, Linda. China since 1949 (Harlow: Pearson Education Limited, 2002). 145 pp, $19.20.

 
    In the middle of the twentieth century, China's estimated GNP per capita was only one-third to one-half of England's in the seventeenth century (Berson, page 19). Now, fifty years later, many pundits declare that we are entering a Chinese century. How did this happen? 1
    In a concise 145 pages, Linda Benson's China since 1949 provides an excellent account of China from the communist takeover in 1949 until 2000. Ideally suited for a course or seminar on Modern China, Benson's work can also supplement an introductory World History course at the college or advanced high school levels. 2
    A volume in the Pearson's Seminar Studies in History, this book pairs a fine narrative with well-chosen documents. Students will also find Benson's glossary, 'Who's Who,' chronology, and maps useful. Based on solid and recent scholarship, an excellent bibliography provides rich resources for further in-depth study. The twenty-two documents are keyed to the text and range from economic issues (document 19 "Privatization of State-Owned Enterprises) to politics (document 6, "Political Campaigns of 195758" i.e., the "hundred flowers campaign") to social issues (document 17, "Atheism in China"). 3
     The first section introduces China's geography and sums up its pre-1949 history, a useful feature for a class incorporating the PRC's history into a broader historical context. The second section, "China Under the Communist Party," forms the core of the book. Benson divides this section into the following chapters: China's new Revolutionary Road 1949 - 57; The Radical Maoist Phase, 1958 - 76; Building Reform-Era China, 1977 - 89; Deepening Reform: China in the 1990s; New Society, New Challenges; and China and the World. 4
     Political change is of course at the core of Benson's narrative. Benson is at her best here, describing the successes and devastating failures of Mao Zedong's policies as well as the implications of Deng Xiaopeng's post-Mao slogan "to get rich is glorious." The 1989 Tiananmen Square crisis (54-59) is one example of Benson's fine political discussions. In developing a context for understanding the protests, Benson notes the importance of minority affairs and nationalism, touching on Mongol, Tibetan, and Uighur experience. Challenging government authority in oil-rich Xinjiang province, the PRC's eight million Uighurs are often overlooked in other texts.  5
     In addition to political and economic coverage, Professor Benson shows the effect of PRC policies on the lives of ordinary people. For example, the Marriage Law of 1950 declared men and women equal, allowed women to sue for divorce, banned arranged marriages, and forbade marriage to men under twenty or women under eighteen. The law also prohibited dowry. All this ran counter to deeply ingrained traditions; husbands, mothers-in-law, and Communist party cadres all objected. Benson also directs reader attention to recent Chinese popular culture (65-66). This discussion can contribute much to discussions of global popular culture in the 1990s and early 2000s.  6
     Benson's third section, "Assessing China's Half-Century Under the CCP," ably summarizes the challenges facing China going forward: managing economic growth, grappling with Han nationalism and the aspirations of ethnic minorities, rethinking the status and role of women, and contending with discontent over unemployment, crime, income disparities, and governmental accountability.   7
     While Benson's brevity is admirable, a second edition might add a discussion of PRC reintegration of Hong Kong beyond a mention in the glossary. Benson might also highlight China's surging energy use, its relations with North Korea, and its participation in economic globalization. These additions, however, will not change Benson's conclusion, that "the Chinese people's own ability and tenacity are the single greatest asset China has as it moves through the twenty-first century." (89) 8
Sanjeev A. Rao, Jr.
Monmouth University and Brookdale Community College

 
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