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Historical Perspectives

Page history last edited by Bob Andrian 7 years, 3 months ago

Chinese and American Historical Perspectives to 1949


Throughout its long imperial history (221 BCE-1912--Qin through Qing dynasties), China has seen itself as the center of the world. Indeed its name, "Zhong guo" translates as "Middle Kingdom." Throughout its short history the United States has similarly viewed itself ethnocentrically. Both countries possessed (and still do possess) a certain kind of exceptionalism rooted in different historical and cultural identities. In a world where imperial China believed it had no equals, other nations and kingdoms were supposed to come to the China to pay tribute, literally and figuratively. China was the mother lode of civilization for others to emulate.






The epicenter of the Chinese state lay in the east, which was not surprising given the country's topography. The Chinese empire has essentially looked to the east towards the Yellow Sea with the Eurasian continent in the rear view mirror.




As Henry Kissinger has noted in his enlightening book, On China, the concept of a "balance of power" among nations was never part of the Chinese realpolitik. And while such a concept was part and parcel of the American understanding of power relationships among nation-states, that did not prevent us, from believing that our way was "the" way, and furthering assuming that other peoples joined us in that belief. Rather than waiting for other peoples to come to us (as the Chinese expected they would and should), we decided to spread "civilization" to others. Think back to John Winthtrop's "city upon a hill" idea, that grand Puritan experiment in Massachusetts Bay Colony. It did not take long for such messianism to spread in a kind of "manifest destiny" to our western borders and then around the globe. Fareed Zakaria argues in The Post-American World that 


"In the case of Britain and the United States, perhaps because they have been so powerful, their Protestant sense of purpose at the core of their foreign policies has made a deep mark on global affairs. China, in contrast, may never acquire a similar sense of destiny. Simply being China [his italics] and becoming a world power, in a sense, fulfills its historical purpose. It doesn't need to spread anything to anyone to vindicate itself." (Zakaria, as quoted in Dodson, China Inside Out, 209)


China's nationalism and its "Zhongguoism" (Sinocentrism) were culturally rooted and served to establish clear distinctions in ancient times between "cultured" Han China and the "barbarian" periphery in Inner Asia. Justice in the Chinese realm meant a harmonious relationship (achieved through rules and rituals) within the family, the state, and between the "center" and the periphery. 


Manchus, Mongolians, Tibetans, and later Uighurs and others (especially the nomads of Inner Asia), despite possessing their own level of sophistication on the steppes, were viewed as threats not only to the superior social institutions and cultural norms of Han China but also the centrality and weight of the Chinese political order. To a large extent as powerful warriors they were often threats, which caused many emperors much angst and their realms great expense. Countless commercial and territorial disputes frequently resulted in military conflicts. And yet, it was from the Central Asians' craving for Han silk, and the Han interest in powerful horses that the Silk Roads trade was born, a trade which China would come to dominate over time as the Middle Kingdom.


Various factors, particularly during the emergence of the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) and the subsequent, foreign Manchu or Qing dynasty (1644-1912), contributed to this concept of "Zhongguoism" or Chinese exceptionalism. Along with the Arabs and the Indians, China was the preeminent player in the Indian Ocean trading networks. It expanded its influence and prestige into Mongolia and Vietnam, sent out embassies into various places in Central Asia, and moved the capital from Nanjing in the south to Beijing in the north where the emperor was closer to the Great Wall and its defense against barbarian outsiders.


Most exceptionally (and adventurously) in an effort to demonstrate Chinese "soft power" in diplomatic and trade relations and to impress rest of the eastern hemisphere, the Ming emperor in the early 15th century sent out Admiral Zheng He on a series of seven extraordinary voyages showing the Chinese flag. For a variety of ideological and practical reasons the voyages ceased around 1435. This cessation of maritime power would prove telling during the 19th century when the Chinese, sans a real navy, proved to be no match for British, Americans, and other European powers wishing to "open up" China to trade and missionary activity.


Chinese imperial expansion continued vigorously in the second half of the 18th century under the Manchu (Qing) Qianlong emperor, especially in Central Asia. The power and centrality of the Qing state was pervasive. As historian Odd Arne Westad argues,


Qianlong believed that Qing rule was in form universal, in the sense that its principles should be applied by all peoples who were culturally advanced enough to appreciate and use them. It was this universalism more than anything else, that in the late eighteenth century drove the empire to engage in costly military expeditions at its frontiers. These excursions would, by the early nineteenth century, empty the imperial coffers and contribute to a general sense of exhaustion and malaise. (Westad, Restless Empire, 9)



By the 1770s the Chinese empire had doubled in size adding peoples from Mongolia, Tibet and other areas in the northwest and west including the Muslim Uighurs. A diplomatic treaty with Russia had given that country enough territory so that in return it would not interfere with what Qianlong called "the final solution" to the Zunghar (Mongol) problem. The swift and brutal genocide resulted in the creation of China's "new frontier" region, or Xinjiang.


Tributary states including Vietnam, Java, Korea, and Japan all recognized China's dominance within a vibrant, commercial East Asian trade network. And China's ever-increasing demand for silver, in particular New World silver, helped to make it the fulcrum of international trade while providing money for Europe to buy sought after spices and goods from Asia.


It was Asia that had the most productive economies in the world from 1500-1800, with China leading the way. As the historian Robert Marks notes, "In 1775, Asia produced about 80 percent of everything in the world ... ." (Marks, The Origins of the Modern World, (Rowman and Littlefield, New York, 2002), 81) Often New World commercial interests were dwarfed by Chinese goods. In 1594 the Spanish viceroy of Peru complained, 


Chinese merchandise is so cheap and Spanish goods so dear that I believe it impossible to choke off the trade to such an extent that no Chinese wares will be consumed in this realm, since a man can clothe his wife in Chinese silks for 200 reales (25 pesos), whereas he could not provide her with clothing of Spanish silks with 200 pesos. (Marks, 81) 


18th century China then was as highly developed a market economy as any other developed country. It was the most populous empire in the world and many of its people lived as well or better than others around the globe. Orville Schell and John DeLury note that,


As Ken Pomeranz's work has shown, per capita standards of living in China's wealthiest region, the lower Yangtze River delta, rivaled those in Britain and the Netherlands, then the wealthiest parts of Europe, which increasingly craved Chinese tea, porcelain, and silk. And the Qing economy was an important engine driving economic globalization, such as it was, in the preindustrial world. (Schell and Delury, Wealth and Power, 16) 



As Henry Kissinger indicates, "[even] As late as 1820, it [China] produced over 30 percent of world GDP---an amount exceeding the GDP of Western Europe, Eastern Europe, and the United States combined." (Kissinger, On China, 12)  And yet, by the mid-19th century, China, with a labor intensive agriculture and without coal or colonies, was destined not to enjoy the Industrial Revolution that would emerge in Britain. The consequences would prove disastrous for the Middle Kingdom. China would enter the modern age as


a state claiming universal relevance for its culture and institutions but making few efforts to proselytize; the wealthiest country in the world but one that was indifferent to foreign trade and technological innovation; a culture of cosmopolitanism overseen by a political elite oblivious to the onset of the Western age of exploration; and a political unit of unparalleled geographic extent that was unaware of the technological and historical currents that would threaten its existence. (Kissinger, 32) 


In the early 18th century the British were able to provide slaves to Spain's New World colonies; they received silver in return and then proceeded to buy Chinese tea, lots of Chinese tea. Frustrated by China's intransigence in not allowing British traders more than one market, Guangzhou (Canton), to shop for tea, George III sent Lord McCartney to establish regular diplomatic relations and open access to Chinese markets. China's Qianlong emperor essentially sent the British mission packing and included a letter to the English king, conveying rather starkly the sense of "Zhongguoism" we have been discussing above.


"You, O King, from afar have yearned after the blessings of our civilization, and in your eagerness to come into touch with our converting influence, have sent an Embassy across the sea bearing a memorial ... Hitherto, all European nations, including your own country's barbarian merchants have carried on their trade with our Celestial Empire at Canton [Guangzhou]. ... But your Ambassador has now put forward new requests which completely fail to recognize the Throne's principle to 'treat strangers from afar with indulgence,' and to exercise a pacifying control over barbarian tribes the world over. Moreover our dynasty, swaying the myriad races of the globe, extends the same benevolence towards all. Your England is not the only nation trading at Canton. If other nations, following your bad example, wrongfully importune my ear with impossible requests, how will it be possible for me to treat them with easy indulgence? Nevertheless, I do not forget the lonely remoteness of your island, cut off from the world by intervening wastes of sea, nor do I overlook your excusable ignorance of the usages of our Celestial Empire. ... (Hellerman and Stein, eds., China: Readings on the MIddle Kingdom (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1971), 145.)


The Qianlong Emperor receives Lord McCartney in 1793



Lord McCartney, however, proved to be more prescient about the true state of affairs in the Qing empire. Its "age of prosperity and flourishing" was rapidly drawing to a close. While still regarded as a cultural center in Asia, it was fraying around the edges due to political corruption, domestic insurrections (e.g.the White Lotus Rebellion), and poor imperial decision-making when it came to foreign affairs. Loss of prestige followed a disastrous war with Vietnam in the 1780s (one to be repeated 200 years later) and a costly failed attempt to prevent Burma from keeping its independence.


Britain's concerns over the outflow of silver to satisfy its thirst for tea led to the search for a commodity that the Chinese would desire. From their colony of India came opium, and as the drug flowed into China, Chinese silver flowed out. British merchants made a killing, and so did their American counterparts who joined the opium trade in the early 1800s. (After American independence from Britain, U.S. merchant ships could be found in Asian waters; the first such ship arrived in China in 1784. The China trade would prove quite lucrative indeed.) Robert Marks notes that American firms, drawing upon opium sources in Turkey, made immense profits, which "added to the endowments of prominent East Coast universities, padded the fortunes of the Peabody family in Boston (and hence the Peabody Museum) and the Roosevelt family in New York, and provided capital for Alexander Graham Bell's development of the telephone." (Marks, 127-28)


In the late 1830s the emperor had had enough and sent Commissioner Lin Zexu to Guangzhou to put an end to the opium traffic and the immorality of British and American drug dealers. Commissioner Lin abruptly blockaded foreign traders in their warehouses and proceeded to toss 21,000 opium chests into the South China Sea, a move that did not sit too well with with the British. Neither did the blunt language of Lin's letter to Queen Victoria.




Their response was immediate and devastating. Using Indian troops and the first all-iron gunboat, a product of the Industrial Revolution designed to ply the rivers of Asia as a tool of British colonialism,  Britain easily defeated China in the first Opium War in 1842. The "unequal" Treaty of Nanjing ended the war but also began China's "century of humiliation" in the face of ongoing Western imperialism. China's sovereignty became increasingly compromised. It ceded Hong Kong to the British, had to pay a $21 million indemnity in silver, opened more ports to the West, lost its ability to raise tariffs to protect its own infant industries, and in effect suffered a serious blow to its own self-perception as the state to whom all others paid tribute.


In 1843 the United States signed a similar type treaty (Wanghia or the "Treaty of Peace, Amity and Commerce") with a few important additions including allowing American missionaries to construct "hospitals, churches, and cemeteries" and permitting those Americans who had committed crimes in China to be tried by American officials "according to the laws of the United States." The French also adopted this principle of extraterritoriality in their own treaty the following year. Indeed, whatever privileges and immunities granted to one country by the Chinese were extended to all foreigners, the consequence of one of the clauses in the treaties known as a "most-favored nation" clause, not so dissimilar to the U.S. Open Door Policy for China in the early 20th century. (Jonathan Spence, The Search for Modern China, 2nd ed. (W.W. Norton, New York, 1999), 163.)) 


In attempting to minimize the damage and "handle" the barbarian invasion, the Chinese drew upon their military and philosophical traditions, strategies in the real world of power politics (realpolitik) that were in direct opposition to those in the West including the Americans. Here Henry Kissinger effectively illustrates the contrast by summarizing the key differences in playing the Chinese game of "wei qi" (Japanese game of "go") and the game of chess (begun actually in the Arab world). The former is about long-range encirclement, indirect attack, and relative gain. The latter is about a clash of forces, the "decisive battle" and "total victory." All the pieces are on the board in chess to start the game whereas in wei qi, the board starts empty. In the image below it appears the game might be drawing near to a conclusion.




Chinese strategies harken back to Master Sun Tzu's 8th century BCE text, The Art of War, which draws upon the psychological and political as much as military in its advice. Note what the best approach to confrontation is in this translation:


Ultimate excellence lies

Not in winning

Every battle

But in defeating the enemy

Without ever fighting 

The highest form of warfare

Is to attack [the enemy's]

Strategy itself;

The next,

To attack [his]


The next,

To attack


The lowest form of war is 

To attack 


Siege warfare 

Is a last resort.

(Kissinger, 28) 


Even as China's sense of "Zhongguoism" and preeminence in the world began to fade in the face of challenges from the West, and later Russia and Japan, throughout the 19th century and well into the 20th, China's skilled diplomats attempted to "handle the barbarians" with flattery, conciliation and obfuscation, at times trying to play off the foreigners against each other, a traditional tactic. In a memorial written to the emperor Daoguang in 1844, the official Qiying noted,


There are times when it is possible to have them [the barbarians] follow our directions but not let them understand the reasons. Sometimes we expose everything so that they will not be suspicious, whereupon we can dissipate their rebellious restlessness. Sometimes we have given them receptions and entertainment, after which they have had a feeling of appreciation. And at still other times we have shown trust in them ... whereupon we have been able to get their help with the business at hand. (Qiying, as quoted in Nancy Sizer, China: A Brief History, 44)


Another top Chinese official, Wei Yuan, argued for learning from the superior technological skills of the barbarians in order ultimately to control them. Wei's profoundly influential book, An Anthology of Statecraft Writings from the Present Dynasty (1826), drew upon the Legalist dicta of the 3rd century BCE theoretician, Han Feizi, who posited "If a wise ruler masters wealth and power, he can have whatever he desires." (as quoted in Schell & Delury, 21) Though a Han Chinese and a Confucian, Wei had been proud of the Qing's "wealth and power" and saddened by its decline. He well understood that the "ordering of the world" had been changing since the start of the 19th century, and he wanted to prescribe the necessary remedies to avoid a humiliating and shameful Chinese collapse in the face of European powers.


While this kind of "self-strengthening" strategy (admitting the superiority of the foreigners' advancements and mastering them while not abandoning Chinese values) did take hold for periods of time, (notably under the scholar-official Feng Guifen), it did not diminish the power of the foreigner to lord over Chinese commercial and geopolitical life, especially considering the consequences of the Sino-Japanese war over Korea in 1894-95.


One of the greatest demonstrations of European superiority was the British and French complete evisceration in 1860 at the end of the Second Opium War of the ultimate symbol of Qing power and universalism, the Yuanmingyuan, or Garden of Perfect Brightness. Construction began in 1709 and was completed around 1750. The complex, complete with parks, lakes, pagodas and various palaces housing among other things, Qianlong's vast European art collection, resembled a Chinese Versailles. A veritable World's Fair of sorts, no ordinary Chinese could enter it. The British spared nothing in their destruction, providing "an object lesson for others who might contemplate defying British power."


Today Yuanmingyuan's ruins serve quite effectively as an "outdoor museum of victimization" at the hands of the Western powers. One signpost reminds visitors: "Do not forget our humiliation." (Ibid, 40-42) Indeed, modern Chinese history (post first Opium War) represents a pragmatic (for the most part) search to return the country to a state of fuqiang or "wealth and power." Foreign imperialism and colonialism helped to engender Chinese nationalism and strengthen the desire to restore the nation's global preeminence.




A look at this site from MIT offers the viewer the chance to see the Chinese designed sites at the garden complex. The paintings were commissioned by Qianlong for posterity. 


Though not formally colonized, China was to be "carved" into foreign controlled concession zones, or spheres of influence, privileging no one imperialistic nation over the other and supported by the United States Open Door Policy in 1899. (It would be the Japanese who would move to modernize in the face of first American and then European intervention in their affairs.) Ultimately ongoing domestic instability threatening the Manchu dynasty often took precedence over foreign policy concerns. 


Improved foreign relations between China and the outside world in the 1860s---for example, the head of a liberal arts college in Beijing, Xu Jiyu, had heaped praise upon George Washington---gave way to increasing concerns about the presence of Protestant and Catholic missionaries, many of them American, in China. Confucian scholars polemicized about Christian doctrine at odds with Confucianism, about Christian attempts at conversion, and about Christian practices such as seeking out Chinese terminally ill infants and baptizing them before death. There was often tension, exploitation, and misunderstanding. (Spence, 204) 


But, as Jonathan Spence observes, missionary activity did much good in China and was often very well received by the Chinese. Mission schools and hospitals in particular exposed Chinese to new forms of knowledge and indeed a different way of looking at the world. Many missionaries were women and brought with them new ideas of women's roles and status in their communities. Spence offers an example of the positive impact of missionary work:


In 1892 two young Chinese mission-school graduates, their names Westernized as Ida Kahn and Mary Stone, sailed to the United States and earned their medical degrees at the University of Michigan. By 1896 they were back in China and had opened their own practices. The success of these women and the faith that inspired them were a startling tribute to the power of one side of the missionary dream. (Spence, 208) 


A Foochow (Fuzhou) missionary and her Chinese Bible group (http://www.nwhm.org/online-exhibits/chinese/33.html)


Missionary attempts like the Foochow to convert the Chinese and the growing number of Chinese converts were anathema to many Chinese included a male group known as the "Boxers United in Righteousness" and their female counterpart, the "Red Lanterns Shining." The nationalistic slogan of the Boxer Rebellion in 1900 was "Revive the Qing, destroy the foreign," which of course caused the foreigners great angst and a good number, along with Chinese Christians, their deaths before the resistance was put down by foreign expeditionary forces.


Other forms of Chinese nationalism arose as a result of American treatment of Chinese immigrants. Beyond the passage of the nativistic Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882, U.S. immigration officials engaged in frequent harassment and deportation of Chinese, broke into homes, and manhandled Chinese delegations arriving in the U.S. including those invited to the St. Louis Exposition in 1904.



Sino-American relations continued to sour when U.S. extended its exclusionary policies to Hawaii and newly annexed, imperial acquisition, the Philippines, the result of the U.S. victory in the rather jingoistic Spanish-American war in Cuba in 1898. Angered and humiliated Chinese merchants engineered a widely successful boycott of American goods, including cigarettes, cotton, kerosene, and flour, in 1905. Patriotic Chinese students (especially those who had studied in Japan and were fervently anti-Manchu) supported the anti-American economic action. (Spence, 235-36)


When Japan defeated China in the 1894-95 war, the notion of a Sino-centered world, let alone a Sino-centered Asia became a distant memory. The Treaty of Versailles ending World War I reinforced the switch in the balance of power in East Asia as Japan remained ensconced in southern Manchuria, Korea, and Taiwan, much to the consternation of Chinese students and intellectuals who demonstrated in great numbers for a stronger Chinese state during the May 4th Movement in 1919. The U.S. and other European nations wished to maintain China's sovereignty and territorial integrity. While recognizing Japan's newly acquired international status, they attempted (unsuccessfully as things would turn out) to limit Japan's superiority in East Asia.


After the fall of the Qing (Manchu) dynasty and the establishment of a Chinese republic (in name only) in 1912, a period of warlordism dominated the Chinese landscape until 1927 when Chiang Kai-shek put a stop to the violent conflict. His Nationalist (Guomindang) Party then attempted with a good deal of success to purge from the land the growing Communist power led by Mao Zedong. Such actions pleased the U.S. government, and the next year the U.S. allowed China to set its own tariffs on foreign imports; the following year the Americans recognized the Nationalist government as China's official governing body. 


China's more positive image to Americans was enhanced when Chiang married the Wellesley College educated Soong Meiling, and when he was baptized a Christian in Shanghai in 1930.




Throughout the 1930s, American investment in China in the areas of education, medicine, and social programs, rooted in the American missionary movements of the 19th century, grew at a steady pace. YMCA's and YWCA's proliferated as did Christian schools, even as there was resistance from a deepening sense of Chinese nationalism. Secular universities, such as Nankai in Tianjin and Qinghua in Peking, were created, the result of substantial philanthropy notably from the Rockefeller Foundation. Qinghua, today a prestigious university in Beijing, helped to prepare 1,268 students to study abroad in the U.S. between 1909 and 1929. Private American financial backing also led to the establishment of medical schools in China, one of which, Xiangya, in Hunan province, was a joint U.S.-China venture which "achieved important results in smallpox and cholera research, and rat extermination to combat an alarming spread of pneumonic plague, and remedies for opium addiction." (Spence, 361-64)


Chiang Kai-shek's close ties with American Protestant missionaries (most Catholic priests and nuns were either European or Chinese) augmented American influence in the country, especially given the Guomindang's commitment to exterminate the Communists. Favorable Sino-American relations also benefitted from the growing absence of negative Chinese images, which had been the product of anti-Chinese immigration laws. Americans suffering during the Great Depression learned how arduous and painful rural life could be in China, the result of reading Pearl Buck's Pulitzer-prize winning,The Good Earth or watching the Broadway play or film of the same title. Pearl Buck wrote from first hand experience as the daughter of Presbyterian missionaries who were stationed in China and later as the wife of an American agriculturalist who spent his life examining the conditions of the Chinese peasantry.

               Pearl Buck and family and Chinese servant                                 Louise Rainer and Paul Muni in the movie The Good Earth, 1937


http://www.pocahontascountywv.com/pearl_s_buck_birthplace.aspx           http://movievegetables.blogspot.com/2011/02/good-earth-1937.html


At the time of the Japanese surrender in 1945, China's future looked bleak. Both the Nationalists and the Communists, despite the facade of an apparent reconciliation and desire for a politically democratic constitutional arrangement in China, mediated by, first Ambassador Patrick Hurley, and then General George Marshall, were bound and determined to take over control of the country. Both were using, as Henry Kissinger notes, the wei qi principle of strategic encirclement, though the Communists were more successful in winning over local, rural populations. There were four million Japanese still left on Chinese soil including 1.75 million civilians. The Soviet Union simultaneously was supplying arms to the Communists while supporting the GMD government; they also had moved substantial forces into Manchuria. China's control of Xinjiang, Tibet and Mongolia had begun slipping away.


Ambassador Patrick Hurley with Chiang Kai-shek and Mao Zedong


While U.S. policy was focused in trying to bring about a rapprochement between the two sides, and while there were at times rays of hope that an agreement could be brokered, such a policy ultimately was unrealistic given their brief and violent histories. In addition, the American government could hardly have claimed to have been neutral after Japan's surrender having supplied Chiang's armies with abundant equipment to help take back many Chinese cities. Moreover, two incidents in 1946 considerably aggravated tension between the Chinese left and the Americans. The first involved an ambush of a convoy of U.S. supply vehicles and 40 marines, and the second, on Christmas Eve, a rape of a female Peking university student "by an American serviceman, while another U.S. serviceman held the young woman down." As Jonathan Spence explains, 


Shocking though the incident was in its own terms, it was rapidly raised by carefully orchestrated leftist propaganda into a major political and imperialist incident: by this interpretation, the young woman stood for China, and the American man's act was equivalent to imperialist invasion. The Guomindang attempts to present the case as simply a personal misfortune were shouted down by huge student demonstrations, and the once cheering crowds that had welcomed the Americans as liberators in 1945 had become jeering mobs. (Spence 465-66) 


Marshall's mission to "save" China was doomed to failure and he left the next month. Two years later Chiang and the Nationalists fled to Taiwan, established the capital of the Republic of China in Taipei, secured the Chinese seat in the United Nations Security Council, and vowed to return one day to unify China under their rule. Mao and the Communists, having formally begun the People's Republic of China in October of 1949, faced the daunting challenges of unifying the country, securing its vast borders, and especially handling the presence of a anti-communist superpower, the United States, wondering how China had been "lost", on their doorstep in East Asia. 


Mao's China and the U.S.



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