Wednesday, June 1, 2011

On China by Henry Kissinger

On China by Henry Kissinger
608 pages
Published May 2011 by Penguin Group
Source: the publisher and TLC Book Tours

In July of 1971, then National Security Adviser to President Richard Nixon, Henry Kissinger, made a secret trip to China. This trip was the precursor to Nixon's historic 1972 trip to China and the beginning of more friendly relations between the United States and China and opened trade. But how was it that Nixon was the first sitting U.S. President ever to visit China and why were relations so frosty up to that point? In On China, Mr. Kissinger takes an in-depth look at China, it's interactions with other societies and the development of trade and relations between those countries.

With the power that China now wields over the world, I thought it was important to read what one of the leading experts on the subject has to say about China and how we interact with them. As the daughter of a Current Events high school teacher, the evening news was always a part of my life and I vividly remember Kissinger from the Nixon administration and the trip to China, making this book even more of a draw for me. I knew this one was going to be a stretch for me, taking me well out of my usual comfort zone, and I had a feeling that I was going to be overloaded with information. It was, it did, and I was.

Kissinger opens the book with China's history and within thirty pages my head was swimming with names and dates but mostly with ideas. Ideas that had me nodding my head, thinking "well, that explains a lot."
"At its ultimate extent, the Chinese cultural sphere stretched over a continental area much larger than any European state, indeed about the size of continental Europe. The extent and variety of this territory bolstered the sense that China was a world unto itself."
For the earliest years, the Chinese considered themselves to the center of the world, the "Middle Kingdom." Not only was China larger, until the Industrial Revolution, it was also richer than any of the European states, making it hard for the Chinese to every feel the need to develop trade with other countries. Kissinger also writes, of China's history: "What was most remarkable about the Chinese approach to international affairs was less its monumental formal pretensions than its underlying strategic acumen and longevity." This seems to still be a strategy the Chinese are using.

Kissinger writes about how Confucius, Sun Tzu and the game wei qi have influenced the Chinese in their dealings with other countries. In fact wei qi in particular, comes back again and again as Kissinger explores his own role in opening relations with China. This is a game in which each player is constantly seeking relative advantage, "mitigating the strategic potential of his opponents pieces." As masters of the actual game, the Chinese have made the game part of their international dealings. He also writes extensively about the era of Mao Zedong and the formation of  modern China.

Richard Nixon took office at a time when China was perhaps more vulnerable to U.S. entreaties; with the U.S.S.R. building up troops along the Chinese borders and a major skirmish behind them, China was looking to ally with the U.S. against a common enemy. The U.S. was looking to redefine its foreign policy and retain its role as a world leader. Kissinger delves deeply into the roads that led both sides to this point and the steps it took to bring both sides to an agreement, particularly his own role in the journey.

On China is every bit the challenge I anticipated it to be and, to be honest, I ended up racing through the book to get it done on time. I have every intention of going back, over the coming months, and reading this one with the full attention it deserves. While I can see that the book contains some bias, being written as it is by someone so intimately involved, I found it extremely interesting and thought provoking. In light of the fact that opening trade with China gave us their cheap goods and them so much of our money, it might be argued that Nixon's 1972 mission wasn't such a good thing for the U.S. But it certainly makes for an interesting book and one that will lay a good basis for understanding future relations between the two countries.
For other opinions (many of them from people with a far greater understanding of the region than I have), check out the full book tour:

Wednesday, May 11th: Man of La Book
Thursday, May 12th: Mark's China Blog
Monday, May 16th: Hidden Harmonies China Blog
Tuesday, May 17th: Inside-Out China
Wednesday, May 18th: Lisa Graas
Monday, May 23rd: Divided We Stand United We Fall
Tuesday, May 24th: Bookworm's Dinner
Wednesday, May 25th: Pacific Rim Shots
Thursday, May 26th: Asia Unbound
Tuesday, May 31st: Wordsmithonia
Wednesday, June 1st: Lit and Life
Thursday, June 2nd: ChinaGeeks
Tuesday, June 7th: booker rising
Wednesday, June 8th: Power and Control
Thursday, June 9th: Marathon Pundit
Friday, June 10th: Rundpinne
Date TBD: Rhapsody In Books
Thanks to TLC Book Tours for including me on this tour!


  1. I think it does have a bias, but Kissinger makes it clear what his bias is, for instance, downplaying moral considerations in favor of practical concerns. China is such an interesting country; he was pretty fortunate, I think, to be able to interact with them as he did!

  2. I have read a few other reviews of this book and think it sounds rather interesting. I have always wanted to beef up my knowledge of some of the Asian countries, so this book, I think would make a great read for me. Thanks for the wonderfully indepth review on this one, and for sharing your insight.

  3. This one looks like an interesting and thought-provoking read! I'm putting it on my list! Great review.

  4. I think that bias is inherent in this book but, for me, as long as I know it is there I can take it with a grain of salt. Love him or hate him, Kissinger was a hugely important force in politics especially in relation to China and getting his story "straight from the horse's mouth" must be fascinating.

    I'm glad you'll be revisiting this book over the coming months. It sounds like one that takes quite a long time to absorb.

    Thanks for being on the tour!

  5. Years and years ago, my English teacher very prophetically said to pay close attention to China and that within 10 years or so, it will become a world power. Boy was she right.

  6. I wish I'd read this book for the tour because I've just finished Lisa See's Dreams of Joy which portrayed China in the late '50s during the reign of Chairman Mao and his Red China. This book heightened my interest in China and I wonder what happened after Mao and how his reign came to an end. I'm going to do some research and may end up reading this book. It sounds chock full of info. and completely fascinating. I think this is a book I'll read either very slowly or quickly, as you did & then reread many parts of it!
    Thanks for your fascinating review & how cool that your dad (?) was a Current Events teacher (maybe I would have learned more history if I had a similar parent! lol

  7. Although I'm sure much of this would go over my head, it sounds like a fascinating book. I have studied a little bit of early Chinese history, but know very little about more recent events.

  8. I'm going to be revisiting this book as well, but mainly for the history part. I can do without Kissinger. Great review.