I read this because, with all the recommendations I'd received, well, I had to. When I first moved to China and was looking to start reading up about the place, I followed the advice of David Moser on an early Sinica Podcast to "read anything by Orville Schell". When none other than Sinica host Kaiser Kuo mentioned that Schell had a new book coming in June 2013, I immediately put it into my reading queue and this week I finished it.
A nice overview of key people in China's past two hundred years, the book has chapters with the usual suspects like Mao, Chiang Kai Shek, and the Qing Empress Dowager Cixi, but you really should read it for its descriptions of less well-known (to the West) people like Wei Yuan (the guy who during the Opium Wars first worried about China's "humiliation"), Liang Qichao (the scholar/journalist whose New Citizen journal influenced everyone remaking China in the early 20th Century), Chen Duxiu (energetic founder of the CCP, who introduced Mao to communism but was later ostracized) and dissidents like Liu Xiaobo (winner of the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize).
After reading the devastating Jung/Halliday book Mao: The Unknown Story, I found Schell's relatively mainstream depiction of both Mao and Chiang Kai Shek to be bland. Unless you're not already familiar with Edgar Snow's cheerful picture of Mao as heroic fighter against Nationalist corruption, you can skip those chapters. I'm being dramatic, of course -- anyone whose byline is on the Tiananmen Papers is no lackey for the CCP -- but to a curious, outside observer like me, deep skepticism is justified about everything people assume is true about Mao, and this book largely repaints the standard picture in ways that ensure the authors won't have their China visas revoked.
The last chapters, with its late-breaking history of China between 1989 and Liu Xiaobo were the most interesting to me. China, having lately received the wealth and power it has been lacking for the past two hundred years, may have found in the CCP a powerful new form of adaptable government, one that is intensely pragmatic in ways that seamlessly replace the capriciousness of revolutionary Mao with the flexibility required to steer a huge country into modernity: "resilient authoritarianism", as Columbia professor Andrew Nathan calls it.
Another final anecdote I liked in the book quotes famous sinologist Douglas Fairbanks lecturing a student who wants to compare China too much to the West: "Mao didn't make the Chinese Communist revolution for you", he says. China is on its own timetable, and the interesting characters portrayed in Wealth and Power are reminders that you can't understand the future unless you understand what's happening in China.