Enter the Dragon: Modern Chinese History, 1839-1989

Module code: HS2353

Module co-ordinator: Dr Toby Lincoln

Module Outline

In this module you study how the world’s largest agricultural empire is becoming a twenty-first century global superpower. It is now impossible to ignore the impact that China’s development is having on our daily lives. You may be reading this on an electronic device made in a Chinese factory complex employing perhaps half a million workers. Many of these vast compounds exist on the outskirts of cities boasting high speed rail connections and futuristic skyscrapers designed by the world’s leading architects. Yet these rapid transformations have been presided over by a government that still claims to be Communist in nature.

China’s rise to global prominence has certainly been rapid, but the past has left an enduring legacy, and studying this is essential to understanding China’s current place in the world. In this module we learn how the Chinese empire collapsed at the beginning of the twentieth century. We witness the birth of a nation state in 1911 that barely had the chance to establish control over the country before it found itself fighting an eight-year war against Japanese invaders. Throughout much of this period, the Communist Party was gathering support and triumphed in 1949. We explore how under Mao Zedong, one of the twentieth century’s greatest and most controversial leaders, it embarked on a wholesale revolution of Chinese society that was to end in the disaster of the Cultural Revolution. Since then, the Communist Party has remained in power, presiding over an unprecedented period of economic growth that has transformed the lives of over a billion people.

Studying modern Chinese history introduces you to new cultures, societies and political systems. It challenges and broadens your view of the world, and helps you to understand how your life is directly affected by events that happen in a country far away about which we should all know much more.

Topics covered

This module serves as an introduction to modern Chinese history. It begins with the Late Imperial Chinese world view, the strengths and weaknesses of the political system, the threat of internal rebellions and the problems posed by foreign encroachment. Moving forward, we cover the disintegration of China into territories governed by warlords, the triumph of the Nationalist Party in 1927 and its attempt to create a modern nation state. Delving down into changes in Chinese society, we focus on Shanghai, the ‘Paris of the East,’ where the rich danced to the latest jazz in the Paramount Ballrooms, while the poor waited outside to pull them home in rickshaws. The good times did not last, and in 1937 the Japanese launched one of the most devastating invasions of the twentieth century. We look at the impact of atrocities, such as the Nanjing Massacre, and explore how the memory of the war continues to shape Chinese society today.              


This course will be taught through a combination of lectures and seminars. One hour lectures introduce the main facts and themes for each week, and these are covered through the exploration of specific readings in the seminars. There are a wide variety of readings, including primary sources and literature, and they allow us to engage with topics in great depth. In addition, students have the opportunity to discuss specific essay questions. 


Assessment is split 50:50 between coursework and exams. Students choose one from a wide range of essays, allowing them to concentrate on those aspects of history that they find most interesting. The final exam is designed to test that they have understood the main themes of the module as a whole.

Introductory Reading

Jonathan D. Spence, The Search for Modern China. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1991.

Rana Mitter, Modern China: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford, 2008.

Maurice Meisner, Mao’s China: a History of the People’s Republic. Free Press, 1977.

Kenneth Lieberthal, Governing China: From Revolution through Reform. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2005.

Joseph Fewsmith, China today, China tomorrow domestic politics, economy, and society. Rowman and Littlefield, 2010.