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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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My brother rode the crest of the building boom selling for Black and Decker in the 1990s there. He lived like a king. I know because he paid for my flight out there to visit him in 1996.

He might be interested in this book. Thanks.

Note that this isn't a book -- The Teaching Company basically sells college-level courses on audio and video. (Which is currently trendy, but they've been doing it for a long time, and have a lot more experience and depth than most people.)

Also important: their pricing model is pragmatically weird. Basically, all of the courses are rather expensive, aimed at readers of the Economist who think nothing of casually dropping $500 on a course. But every course goes on sale at least once a year, typically for about 75% off, and that's when the rest of us buy them. So I recommend checking out the website and keeping an eye open for interesting material that is currently on sale. (Personally, I simply go there every 6-12 months and buy courses at whim, based on what sources interesting and is currently on sale.)

Would you be willing to loan me some Teaching Company courses? Listening to something is the best way I have to get me to do housework. Otherwise I'll get bored and go looking for something else to do.

Sher, happy to. This one is actually a bit dicey -- I have the course in MP3 form, so the ethics of "loaning" it are grey -- but the vast majority are on CD, and I have no problem loaning those out. (I think in future, I'm going to focus on getting them as CDs, precisely so that I can loan them without ethical qualms.)

Since I am less interested in this one than in some of the others you have, I have no problem borrowing one of the others. I need to go see if I have a cassette deck that works (and runs on something other than batteries or in the car). I think I'd like to start with the History of the English Language. If you're willing to loan two, and I can do cassette, I'd also like the High Middle Ages. When do you think you'll be out here next/are you going to coronation?

Don't know when I'll next be at Camelot, but I will be going to Coronation. Remind me closer in, and we can coordinate.

"listening to this straight through and ignoring the other items vying for my attention in the car"

like red lights on the dashboard? The car stopping in front of you? The sirens coming up behind you?

Please be careful . . .

We are completely addicted to Teaching Company "tapes" (old school!) in my family. I'd be interested in your list of favorites.

My all time favorite is the Story of Human Language. I also listened to the History of Ancient Egypt and one that was something like "Early Christianity" fairly recently, both were quite good. I wish our library had a better selection.

Yep -- Story of Human Language and History of Ancient Egypt are favorites of mine as well. (The obsessive interest in mummies in the latter course never ceases to amuse me.)

My inventory, with capsule reviews, can be found here. That lists everything except the five that I got just last week, which are the project for the next six months or so...

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