Book traces China's rise from Ming era

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Wasserstrom, who is chancellor's professor of history at the University of California Irvine, is one of the leading academics working on China in the United States.

He is perhaps most widely known for his previous well-regarded and insightful book, China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know; an updated third edition is to be released next year.

Wasserstrom says it can be difficult creating interest in the histories of non-Western countries, although China at least is becoming an exception to that.

"I did an event at King's College in London recently with other historians, including Sunil Khilnani, who has just done a big book on India, and we were talking about the Western interest in the histories that we all study," he recalls.

"One of the speakers worked on Indonesia and she said that there was at least some level of interest in China and India. She said people didn't have any knowledge whatsoever of any single event in Indonesian history, despite it having more than 100 million people."

Wasserstrom says this can be true of China: The Taiping Uprising, for example, is less well-known than the American Civil War, which took place at almost the same time.

"Yet it is dramatic and interesting. The leader thinks he is (Jesus) Christ's younger brother. You would think that was something just made up for a movie script," he says.

Wasserstrom's next major project is going to be a history of the 1900 Boxer Rebellion, which he believes is a much misunderstood period of Chinese history.

He says it is still best-known in the West from the 1963 Charlton Heston film, 55 Days at Peking.

"The thing about the Boxer Rebellion was that they didn't really box and they weren't really rebels. They were loyalists and they used martial arts. They supported the dynasty and the dynasty decided to use them."

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