Skip to content
Skip to navigation menu


A Great Leap Forward: China Transformed, 1840-present - 30 credits (HS1752)

Module Tutor: Dr Federica Ferlanti

Course Description

Today’s China is widely perceived as an economic powerhouse and a crucial player in Asia and more broadly in the international arena. However, China’s path to both economic and political prominence has been long and tortuous. The history of modern China provides an exciting and challenging platform for discussing key themes in modern history such as an empire’s disintegration, imperialism, nationalism, revolution and state building. This module will discuss the pivotal events in Chinese modern history by laying emphasis on China’s quest for modernity, the interaction/confrontation with the outside world and the centrality of ideology all in the context of modern historiography.
The first part of the module will explore topics such as the transition from imperial to Republican China, the ‘impact’ of western imperialism on Chinese state and society, the ideological roots and the implementation of the Communist revolution, and the impact and consequences of the War against Japan (1937-1945). The second part will focus on post-1949 by discussing the Chinese Communist Party’s vision for new China in the1950s, the unfolding of the Cultural Revolution, Deng Xiaoping’s reform era, and contemporary politics and society.

Credits: 30

Prerequisites: None

Learning Outcomes

On successful completion of the module a student will be able to:

• demonstrate a broad and systematic knowledge of modern Chinese history and an understanding of pertinent historical frameworks.
• discuss in an informed manner modern topics on Chinese history in a comparative perspective.
• identify a range of perspectives within the appropriate secondary literature.
• demonstrate an understanding of primary sources which are discussed in class.
• evaluate the significance, merits and demerits of alternative views and interpretations about the collapse of the empire, the Nationalist regime, Communist revolution and post-1949 China.

How the module will be delivered

A range of teaching methods will be used in each of the sessions of the course, comprising a combination of lectures and seminar discussion of major issues. The syllabus is divided into a series of major course themes, then sub-divided into principal topics for the study of each theme.

The aim of the lectures is to provide a brief introduction to a particular topic, establishing the salient features of major course themes, identifying key issues and providing historiographical guidance. The lectures aim to provide a basic framework for understanding and should be thought of as useful starting points for further discussion and individual study. Where appropriate, handouts and other materials may be distributed to reinforce the material discussed.

The primary aim of seminars will be to generate debate and discussion amongst course participants. Seminars for each of the course topics will provide an opportunity for students to analyse and further discuss key issues and topics relating to lectures.

Skills that will be practised and developed

• communicate ideas and arguments effectively, whether in class discussion or in written form, in an accurate, succinct and lucid manner.
• formulate and justify arguments and conclusions about a range of issues, and present appropriate supporting evidence
• an ability to modify as well as to defend their own position.
• an  ability to think critically and challenge assumptions on Chinese history.
• an ability to use a range of information technology resources to assist with information retrieval and assignment presentation.
• time management skills and an ability to independently organise their own study methods and workload.
• work effectively with others as part of a team or group in seminar or tutorial discussions.    


Students will be assessed by means of a combination of one 1000 word assessed essay [15%], one 2000 word assessed essay [35%] and one two-hour unseen written examination paper in which the student will answer two questions [50%].

Course assignments:

Assessed Essay 1 will contribute 15% of the final mark for the module. It is designed to give students the opportunity to demonstrate their ability to review evidence, draw appropriate conclusions from it and employ the formal conventions of scholarly presentation. It must be no longer than 1,000 words (excluding empirical appendices and references).

Assessed Essay 2 will contribute 35% of the final mark for the module. It is designed to give students the opportunity to demonstrate their ability to review evidence, draw appropriate conclusions from it and employ the formal conventions of scholarly presentation. It must be no longer than 2,000 words (excluding empirical appendices and references).

The Examination will take place during the second assessment period [May/June] and will consist of an unseen two hour paper that will contribute the remaining 50% of the final mark for this module. Students must write 2 answers in total.

The opportunity for reassessment in this module

The usual provisions for reassessment are made in this respect. Individual cases will be decided by the Examination Board of the History Board of Studies. Reassessment generally will take the form of a reassessment of the failed examination via a resit paper in the August Resit Examination Period.

Syllabus content

The course will cover a wide range of topics including:

State and Society in Late Imperial China
The Empire under Threat
Saving China from Collapse
The 1911 Revolution and the New Republic
The Chinese Communist Party: From Urban to Rural Revolution
Nanjing 1927: The Rule of the Nationalist Party
China’s War with Japan
Film Documentary on the Republican Period
The Civil War
The CCP in Power: State and Society in the 1950s
Maoist Vision in Crisis? Great Leap Forward
The Cultural Revolution
Film Documentary on the Cultural Revolution
Deng Xiaoping’s Era: The Politics of Modernisation
Challenging the CCP’s Authority: Protests and Repression
Film Documentary on 1989 Student Protest
China in the Twenty-first Century

Indicative Reading and Resource List:

Key Text:
Jonathan Spence, The Search for Modern China, (New York, c1999)

Useful Overviews:
Paul John Bailey, China in the Twentieth Century, (Oxford, 2001).
Pamela Kyle Crossley, The Wobbling Pivot: China since 1800: An Interpretive History, (Chichester, 2010).
Jack Gray, Rebellions and Revolutions: China from the 1800s to the 1980s, (Oxford, 1990).
Immanuel Hsü, The Rise of Modern China, (Oxford, 2000).
Rana Mitter, Modern China: A Very Short Introduction, (Oxford , 2008)
Evelyn Rawski, The Last Emperors: A Social History of Qing Imperial Institutions, (Berkeley, 1998).
Tony Saich, Governance and Politics of China, (Basingstoke, 2001, 2011).
The Cambridge History of China, vols. 11-15
Ezra Vogel, Deng Xiaoping and the Transformation of China, (Cambridge, Mass., 2011).