On China by Henry Kissinger is the book I should have read first. A review of the book by Richard Stoyeck on the Amazon website advocates: “One would have to be foolish to visit China and not read this book first to truly benefit from such a trip.” I am inclined to agree. As I read this book, while traveling through China, things began to make sense to me.
Kissinger is, of course, a controversial figure. There is no doubt that he is smart. He has been a principal character in US-China relations for forty years. He has his own story and legacy to defend and there may well be significant portions of the book that a real China hand would find objectionable. For me, this was not a problem.
I found On China to be an excellent overview of the last several hundred years of Chinese history as seen from the perspective of the West. For example, it was immensely helpful for me to understand something of the context of “Middle Kingdom” and the embarrassment of foreign domination over the course of most of the nineteenth century and the chaos of the first half of the twentieth century.
While I can certainly understand how experienced China experts would find bias in Kissinger’s view of the last half of the twentieth century, for me that wasn’t a problem. I enjoyed Kissinger’s recollections and history of events such as ping-pong diplomacy; reading the details was gripping.
On our first full day in China, we had a chance to visit the Great Wall, Tiananmen Square, and the Forbidden City. As our group approached the Square, our guide told us that when his mother visited Beijing, she never failed to visit Mao’s tomb. This made no sense to me—wasn’t Mao the mastermind of numerous atrocities and millions of Chinese deaths? How could he be revered today?
Kissinger helped put this in context. Yes, the Chinese might concede, the Cultural Revolution was an error. Yes, the Great Leap Forward resulted in millions of starvation deaths. But it might also be true that the prior 150 years had set China so far back that a complete destruction of the existing institutions was necessary. I am not sure that this makes any sense to a Westerner, but given the economic success of the past several decades, one can understand how the Chinese might reach such a conclusion.
These kinds of insights made the book a valuable read for me.