In the second half of the 19th century, China appeared as the sick man of Asia, rocked by recurrent revolts and huge natural disasters, ruled by an anachronistic imperial system and humiliated by foreign invasions. Karl Marx saw it as bound to disintegrate, like 'any mummy carefully preserved in a hermetically sealed coffin'.
The first half of the 20th century was even worse, culminating in fourteen years of invasion by Japan, four years of civil war and three decades of chaotic, oppressive rule by Mao Zedong that killed tens of millions. Now, at the start of the 21st century, China is a major global force, booming economically and confident that it holds the keys to a future in which it will rival the United States.
It is impossible to understand modern China without understanding the country's terrible recent past and Jonathan Fenby's magnificent new book is the essential work. The Penguin History of Modern China is both a brilliant narrative, crammed with surprising and interesting stories, and a profound study of the nature of political power and its abuse.