The Columbia Guide to Modern Chinese History is an introduction to major features of modern Chinese history and a reference for general readers interested in pursuing certain topics. This introduction points first to the importance of understanding Chinese history, as it sets forth some of its distinguishing aspects; it then explains the guide's approach to the history of modern China.
At the heart of modern Chinese history have been the efforts of the Chinese people to transform the traditional polity into a modern nation-state, the Confucian orthodoxy into an ideology that could help shape the process, and an agrarian economy into an industrial one. The result has been the largest revolution in world history in terms both of the radicalism of the changes and of the numbers of people affected. The revolutionary twists and turns have brought alternating cycles of hope and despair to the world's most populous country. At the opening of the twenty-first century, as the search for a new definition of modern China seems to be quickening, the United States, like the rest of the world, ponders whether the China coming into being will be friend or foe, challenger or collaborator. Hence, the need for an up-to-date understanding of the history of China.
Embedded in the effort to understand modern China are significant difficulties. On the surface and simplest level is the fact that there are many Chinas. Though a standard geographical division is between north and south China, the reality is much more complex. The standard dialect taught in schools is Mandarin, but there are more than 250 dialects, many of them as different as different languages. Traveling from mountain valley to mountain valley, one encounters these different dialects, each used to carry its own cultural traditions and practices, its own patterns of social and economic life.