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The Birth of a Superpower: China from 1900 to the Present Day


  • Credit value: 30 credits at Level 5
  • Convenor: Professor Julia Lovell
  • Assessment: Two 2,000 word assessments (50%), one 48-hour take-home exam (50%), 60% class attendance requirement

Module description

It looks assured that China will become increasingly dominant - politically, economically and culturally - over the coming decades. Newspaper headlines often paint an alarming picture of China’s rise, portraying a suspicious, secretive, authoritarian superpower greedy for natural resources and still resentful of earlier humiliations by the imperialist West.

The reality is far more complex and chaotic. For the People’s Republic of China is a state still struggling to make sense of the enormous upheavals of the past hundred years: the challenge of the West; appalling external and internal violence; and the destruction and development that communism has brought.

This course will enable you to understand contemporary China through examining in depth its tumultuous twentieth century: in short, it will explain how the country’s recent past shapes its present and future.

Our seminars will range chronologically across twentieth-century China, examining the impact of imperialism and the forces that converged to bring down China’s last dynasty in 1911; the roots of the new republic’s endemic weakness; the cultural iconoclasm of the 1910s; the rise of the Nationalist and Communist Parties and their struggles for power; the impact of the Soviet model and of Japanese invasion; Mao’s violent visions of permanent revolution; the post-Mao economic and cultural changes.

The course will build very logically on knowledge acquired in the Group 1 course Modern History of East Asia, both reinforcing familiarity with the broad sweep of modern Chinese history and giving you an opportunity to explore in far greater detail the full complexity of key events and themes such as the May Fourth New Culture Movement, the Nationalist and Communist revolutions, the Cultural Revolution, the post-Mao economic reforms, the turmoil of the late 1980s and the present outlook for the People’s Republic.

There will be rich scope for considering alternative, dissenting responses to the totalitarian models of political revolution developed by the Nationalist and Communist Parties: in particular, the conflict between intellectuals and writers and revolutionary politics, the glamour of a westernised metropolis such as Shanghai, and the fraught relationship between modern Chinese nationalism and the concept of the 'new woman'. The course will set past and present political developments in a larger context of social, economic and cultural transformation, in order to explain why one particular (the Communist) version of revolution succeeded and how the People’s Republic of China has managed to survive longer than any of the revolutionary regimes that preceded it; and to ask whether the current government is fast approaching its expiry date.

Learning objectives

By the end of this module, you will be able to:

  • display a good knowledge of the major themes in the history of twentieth-century China
  • compare and contrast modern scholars’ approaches on the subject
  • handle primary sources with confidence and demonstrate the ability to use them as a means of critiquing current paradigms.