I’m planning on reading the last book in the ‘Poppy War’ series soon, which takes place in a fantasy version of China. Because I am a giant nerd, I decided to do some research on the background topic so I can enter the final text with more insight. To that end, I listened to this Great Courses lecture series about the fall of the Qing dynasty, the warlord era which followed, and finally the rise of Mao and communism. This lecture series spans the expanse of time from 1700 to 2010. This course is 24 hours longs.
This lecture series focuses primarily on the communist era. The lecturer is an American China scholar/diplomat who spent the better part of 4 decades in and out of China and Taiwan. He used his personal insight to provide the listener with valuable ‘ground level’ anecdotes of what was going on at the time. From the Vietnam War to the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the lecturer was there and playing a minor part in events as they happened. I enjoyed the lecturer’s personable attitude, and breadth of experience on the people and location in question. He made China seem not like ancient history in a far away place, but right next door and yesterday.
What this lecture series did very well was emphasize the importance of Chairman Mao. The lecturer emphasized his foibles and personal failings- as well as his military genius. Mao was a skilled soldier whose tactical innovations are still taught in military academies worldwide to this day. However, ultimately he got a lot of civilians killed because his hatred of the intellectual elite led to him not valuing trained experts on subjects, and his collectivization of farms destabilized generations of learned agricultural wisdom causing mass starvation. Mao’s paranoia was a valuable asset for keeping himself and the communists alive during the warlord era- but that selfsame paranoia unleashed the Cultural Revolution decades later, nearly toppling the communist regime. Mao was ultimately a deeply unstable man who surrounded himself with yes-men, and millions died as a result.
This lecture series was fascinating to listen to. If this sounds even a little bit interesting to you, I HIGHLY suggest you give it a spin. This is one of the best courses I’ve ever listened to. Just remember 1 thing as you listen to it: this is written by an American in China who served as a Taiwan attaché during the Cold War, so there is an anti-communist bent subtly woven into everything. As an amateur scholar myself, I appreciate that the lecturer did such a good job of constantly reminding us of his personal biases on scholarly issues. Scientific/scholarly bias can have a subtle impact on a person’s research, so it is valuable for nonfiction authors to state their pre-existing biases to inform the reader of what they’re getting into.
Judgement: HIGHLY Recommended
Genres/Tagwords: nonfiction, China, Great Courses, Lecture Series
Previous books by the author/in the series I’ve reviewed: