Early Tai-Chi on the Bund
Photo of Shanghai by le niners used under a Creative Commons license.

Jonathan D. Spence, The Search for Modern China (W.W. Norton & Co., 1999).
In Salon’s Literary Guide to the World, Nell Freudenberger recommends this

concise account of China’s transformation from dynastic empire to modern nation-state, beginning with the apogee of Ming power in the late 16th century and ending with the democracy movements of the 1980s. In what ways did the demonstrators at Tiananmen Square in 1989 echo the May Fourth movement of intellectuals in the 1920s, or for that matter, the 17th century Ming loyalists? What does the Boxer Rebellion have to do with the abdication of Puyi, the last emperor, in 1911? (What was the Boxer Rebellion again?) Spence answers all the obvious questions in such engaging prose that you feel you’ve lucked into a seminar with the best professor you ever had. He is particularly skilled at illuminating the cultural misunderstandings that have plagued China’s relationship with the West for the last 400 years. . . .

This is not a small book, so you might want to do some weight training before you read it.

Here is Spence’s bio at Yale, and here is a more narrative version at the American Historical Association. Vera Schwarcz reviewed it in The New York Times. So did Christopher Lehmann-Haupt. Here is Richard Seltzer. Reviewing it in the National Review, George Jochnowitz praised the book but picks some bones as well. The book appears on many lists of recommended reading on China, like this one. Here is something like an interview with Hanchao Lu (.pdf). Spence is giving the 2008 Reith lectures; this BBC article discusses him and his work and links to audio recordings of the lectures.

Buy it at Amazon.com.