THE CHINESE CENTURY: A Photographic History of the Last Hundred Years by Jonathan D. Spence & Annping Chin. Photographs researched by the authors, Colin Jacobson and Annabel Merullo (Random House: 264 pp., $65). Perhaps because its population is the world's largest, everything about China's history--wars, famine and recurrent chaos--seems out-sized and overwhelming. Helping civilians get a grasp on it all is this fine photographic history, remarkable not only for its visuals but for captions and text that are more extensive and intelligent than usual.

Co-written by Jonathan D. Spence, a top China expert ("The Gate of Heavenly Peace," "The Death of Woman Wang" among others) and his wife and fellow Yale professor, Annping Chin, "The Chinese Century" takes us thoughtfully through the Boxer Rebellion, the warlord years, the duel of the Nationalists and the Communists, the Japanese invasion, the Long March, the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution and everything in between. And its photographs, which range from bloody executions to glimpses of ordinary lifestyles, are always arresting. Perhaps the most memorable is a 1935 shot of Chou En-lai and Mao Tse-tung (above), looking for all the world as youthful and unconcerned as Pearl Jam fans on line for the latest concert.

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