Justin du Coeur (jducoeur) wrote,
Justin du Coeur
jducoeur

Review: The Fall and Rise of China

As many of you know, I am almost always listening to *something* in the car. Sometimes it's music, sometimes audiobooks, sometimes the news -- and sometimes, it's a course from the Teaching Company.

My TeachCo listening had bogged down in recent months, mostly due to the course I was in the middle of, Reason and Faith: Philosophy in the Middle Ages. It's not a bad course, mind, and the topic is conceptually interesting and relevant. But in practice, the subject matter proved ethereal, and the teaching style much the same, so I just couldn't get through more than one lecture at a time without getting distracted into something else. It was taking for-bloody-ever to get through.

Finally, I decided to give up. It actually helped that I was *also* in the middle of an audiobook that was proving just plain boring (Moving Pictures, from the Discworld series, the first complete failure I've hit); oddly, deciding to give up on both of them at once turned out to be easier than either individually. So I moved on to the next course in my queue: The Fall and Rise of China. And that one's worth a review.

This is a straight-up history course, and a truly excellent one. It is the story of modern China -- it starts around 1700, but really is focused on the 19th and 20th centuries, especially the career of Mao Zedong. The result is a gripping ride, starting with the decline and fall of the Manchu dynasty, moving through the rise of the competing nationalist and communist movements, and then tracing in lovingly horrified detail the story of the 1950s and 60s before things get put together again in more recent years.

The professor is Richard Baum of UCLA, and he's a hoot. He does not in the slightest pretend to neutral detachment. Quite the contrary: especially in the latter half of the course, he is prone to personal digressions of the "I was there" variety. Having acquired an interest in China in college, he was a grad student in the latter days of the Cultural Revolution, and a veteran "China watcher" by the time of the rise of Deng Xioping. As a result, he was in and around China at a number of significant junctures, and he proves to be a wonderful storyteller in describing what it was like to brush against history as it was happening. (The story of the incident that made his career is worth listening to all by itself, and serves as a fine lesson in the most important skills a grad student can possess: good timing and pilferage.)

He tells the history of modern China in a very personal way, focusing heavily on the leaders who drove and shaped it, illustrating each one's qualities and faults. This is particularly true in the stretch from lectures 14-28, which detail the contradictions of Chairman Mao, showing him neither as purely sinner nor saint, but never papering over the disastrous results of his policies and style. In general, this is a course about politics more than battles: who was doing what, and why.

I gradually got drawn in, eventually to the point of just listening to this straight through and ignoring the other items vying for my attention in the car. I'm not done with the course yet -- I'm up to about 1980, and we'll see whether the economic rise of modern China can possibly be as fascinating as the disaster stories from mid-century. But so far, this one is a winner, one of the best TeachCo courses I've heard to date, and a reminder that little is quite as much fun as a really well-told history lesson...
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