Book Reviews

Understanding China

Contemporary China by Alan Hunter and John Sexton. St. Martin’s Press, New York, 1999, 226 pp. ISBN 0-312-22147-9, paperback. Cost $18.95.

Reviewed by Kim-kwong Chan

China has undergone major social changes—especially during the past two decades. Standard texts on contemporary China are quickly outdated and, in general, sinologists have a hard time keeping up with the changes of this vastly diverse sociopolitical reality called China. It is not easy to find a single volume, written for the layman, that provides an overall picture of this vast and complex country. Alan Hunter’s and John Sexton’s Contemporary China may have achieved a seemingly impossible task—providing a scholarly work that covers most of the important issues in contemporary China, yet easily read by the laity, in a book about 200 pages long. This small volume is co-authored by a sinologist (Hunter) and journalist (Sexton), a unique combination of scholarship and general readership.

While most of the current books on contemporary China emphasize the areas of economics and politics, this volume provides a comprehensive spectrum of the current sociopolitical landscape of China. Its chapters include “The History of Modern China,” “Land and People,” “The Chinese Economy,” “Political Life,” “The Social System,” “Chinese Culture,” “China’s International Relations,” and “China into the Twenty-First Century.” It covers virtually all the major themes that one needs to know about China. Most of the chapters are summaries of current scholarship in that particular field.

The second chapter, “Land and People.” is a refreshing one for it addresses the centrality of the peasant existence in China—the land. Although this topic has often been neglected by contemporary China studies, it has been an important theme within China among the 70% or so of the Chinese population that live in rural areas.

The inclusion of religion in the chapter on “Chinese Culture” is very appropriate. Not only the traditional religions, but also folk religion, which is an emerging phenomenon, are discussed. They are described as follows: “. . . China’s traditional religious life was multifarious, encompassing many kinds of beliefs and practices with all kinds of local and personal varieties. It seems that by the 1990s a modern version of the situation had emerged, with an equally multifarious, or even chaotic, kaleidoscope of religious practices under the watchful, and at times resentful, eyes of a hostile state” (p.175).

The final chapter challenges the reader with the thoughtful questions to ponder regarding the future of China vis-à-vis the rest of the world. Will the current regime continue to remain in power with the rapid opening of China to the rest of the world? Will the break-up theory—the Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc countries scenario—be applicable in China?

At the end of this volume, there are several valuable additional sections. The “Recommended Reading” section provides an annotated bibliography for each chapter. The “Bibliography” contains most of the important publications on contemporary China. A unique feature, “China on the Internet,” brings the reader into the World-Wide-Web age of information. Also included is an index as well as diagrams, maps, graphs, and boxes of information scattered throughout its pages.

The fact that it was written by a British sinologist may provide a continental perspective on China in contrast to those stances commonly taken by American scholars. One omission I noted was that the boundary line for Chongqing Municipality, newly established in 1997, was not included on the map of China’s provinces and major cities (p. xiii).

Contemporary China is an important and timely volume not to be missed by either China experts or the layperson. 

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Kim-Kwong Chan

The Rev. Kim-Kwong Chan, PhD, DTh, is the Executive Secretary of the Hong Kong Christian Council.View Full Bio