2008 has been the year of the Chia history blockbuster it seems. Jonathan Fenby's The Penguin History of Modern China: The Fall and Rise of a Great Power, 1850-2009 is large but worth a read and, I note, just got a great review in the Far Eastern Economic Review. Publishing a history in 2008 that goes to 2009 is pretty good going. But Fenby is good as he points out that all this economic change is being matched by a pretty stagnant political system - all perestroika and no glasnost. John Keay's China: A History is also out but I haven't read it and it's also pretty fat. And then there was Modern China: A Very Short Introduction by the over-rated Rana Mitter, (media friendly guy but not that clued up sadly as he gets a lot of airtime is the general assessment) which was very short as promised but also not very good largely because it overemphasises the transformative powers of the Communist Party. He's popular with the BBC though.
So it's very good news that Frank Dikotter has put out his excellent The Age of Openness: China Before Mao. Dikotter concisely and brilliantly argues the case against the Communist Party "Great Myth" that they 'saved' China and that only under them did China 'stand up' - the myth the hapless Mitter buys into and regularly repeats on the radio. Dikotter points out the achievements of the Republican era with numerous examples. I'll try and do a fuller review later but I really can't recommend this excellent one-sitting read enough. Of all the China histories out now this is the one you should read - sadly as it's from a smallish university press it won't be the one pushed at you in Waterstones or Borders. Shame.