Modern Chinese History: An Interview with Author David Kenley

Modern Chinese History cover image

AAS Publications is pleased to announce that the second edition of Modern Chinese History by David Kenley is now available. Part of our Key Issues in Asian Studies series, Kenley’s book is a rapid-fire introduction to China’s past from the seventeenth century onward; its concise form and straightforward prose make Modern Chinese History the ideal text for a high-schooler or undergraduate seeking an introduction to the country. In this interview, David Kenley discusses his book, how it has evolved in its second iteration, and another AAS Publications project he has recently completed—the edited volume Teaching About Asia in a Time of Pandemic, now available for pre-order from our distribution partner, Columbia University Press.

Maura Elizabeth Cunningham: You published the first edition of Modern Chinese History in 2013. Why a second edition now, and what are some of the major changes or updates you’ve made to the text?

David Kenley: Since the first edition of Modern Chinese History was published in 2012, much has changed in China. President Xi Jinping has consolidated power to levels unseen in a generation and Beijing is playing an uncharacteristically assertive role in North Korea, India, the South China Sea, and elsewhere. Furthermore, historians have continued to amend the orthodox interpretations of China’s past. Recently, scholars have readdressed such topics as Chinese regionalism, nationalism, labor movements, the Sino-Japanese War, and the Communist Revolution. Because of all these changes, a revised second edition of Modern Chinese History is warranted.

MEC: You organize the book around two main themes: cosmopolitanism and Chinese exceptionalism. Why do you find those to be especially useful concepts for students getting acquainted with modern Chinese history?

DK: China has a long history of foreign interaction. Nevertheless, some contemporary Chinese leaders argue that the international community should leave China alone to pursue its own path. Modern Chinese History tries to make sense of these apparent contradictions. The volume’s first theme, cosmopolitanism, highlights the role of international, cross-cultural encounters in Chinese history. During the modern era in particular, the Chinese have continuously engaged with their Asian neighbors and the larger world. The second theme critically evaluates the concept of Chinese exceptionalism, meaning the belief that China somehow does not conform to widely accepted norms or patterns for nation-states. An example of this might be the so-called “Socialism with Chinese Characteristics,” implying that China’s march toward economic liberalization will be unique from Russia’s, Britain’s, or any other nation’s. Exceptionalism is not necessarily the opposite of cosmopolitanism, but the two do seem to be in apparent tension at times. Understanding this tension, I believe, is an important key to understanding modern China.

MEC: Modern Chinese History covers a tremendous amount of temporal ground in under 100 pages. What are some of the benefits to this concision, and what do you wish you could have discussed more in the text?

DK: When I was first invited to write this text, I thought it would be impossible to cover modern Chinese history in such a succinct volume, especially since I contend that China’s modern period began at least three centuries ago. At the same time, I really had to consider carefully what are the more enduring trends in modern Chinese history, and what are the seminal turning points. The result, I believe, is an easy-to-read volume that avoids getting bogged down with ephemera. Of course I would love to expand on many of the chapters within the book, including the important period between the Qing and the People’s Republic, but that is largely a reflection of my own intellectual interests.

MEC: What are a few of your favorite books, movies, primary sources, etc. to recommend to people just getting acquainted with the field of Chinese history?

DK: There are so many from which to choose! Of course there are many wonderful Chinese fiction writers that I would recommend to everyone, including Lu Xun, Lao She, and more recently Ha Jin. There are several astute foreign observers of modern China writing for the general public, such as Peter Hessler and Scott Tong. Some of my favorite films include To Live and Shower, which sympathetically portray everyday life in the People’s Republic, or Eat Drink Man Woman and In the Mood for Love, which are set in Taiwan and Hong Kong [respectively]. Many talented writers and directors provide wonderful perspectives for people just getting acquainted with Chinese history.

MEC: You’re currently editing another volume for a different AAS Publications series. Can you tell #AsiaNow readers a bit about that project and what they can expect from it?

DK: When the COVID-19 pandemic struck, countries around the world responded by closing borders, shutting down market access, and stoking xenophobic nationalism. At the same time, schools were going online and streamlining their curriculum. I worried that Asia-related topics would be cropped from many teachers’ syllabi just at the time when the study of cross-cultural difference was so desperately needed. For these reasons, my colleagues and I decided to produce a volume titled Teaching about Asia in a Time of Pandemic. It contains chapters written by skilled educators working at the high school and university levels. Some chapters analyze how to teach Asian history, politics, culture, and society using examples and case studies emerging from the pandemic. Other chapters discuss how to adapt our teaching methods in light of our new socially-distanced realities. I believe the pandemic will fundamentally change the way we teach about Asia and therefore the volume’s impact will extend well beyond the advent of a COVID-19 vaccine.

Register now for an AAS Digital Dialogue session on December 14, 2020 with David Kenley and contributors to Teaching About Asia in a Time of Pandemic. GET MORE INFO

MEC: Finally, you’ve recently moved from a faculty position at Elizabethtown College into an administrative role at Dakota State University. How is that transition going, and what have you enjoyed the most about getting to know a new school and state?

DK: After spending most of my life in the mid-Atlantic, I am enjoying a new adventure in the upper Midwest. Just as I started this new position, South Dakota’s coronavirus cases skyrocketed, reminding all of us that we are one interconnected world. It should come as no surprise that a virus that originated in Wuhan, China (population 11 million) would eventually show up in Madison, South Dakota (population 7,500). South Dakotans are wonderful, welcoming people, and they are eager to learn more about their counterparts in Asia. While I miss my colleagues on the East Coast, I know I am going to be very happy here and look forward to continuing the important work of teaching about China.