rightAsked for his views on the French Revolution, Zhou Enlai famously replied that it was too early to say. For about 2,000 years, until 500 years ago, China was the most advanced nation in the world. For most of recorded history Chinese philosophy, poetry, science and government were more sophisticated than those in Europe. Until a few centuries ago the average Chinese probably had a higher standard of living than the average European, and Chinese society in many respects was more prosperous and well organized than society in Europe. China has been home to the world's largest economy for all but three of the last 20 centuries. It appears ready to reclaim that position within the next 20 years. Many say that China is now ready to dominate the 21st century the same way the United States dominated the 20th century.

Dr. Robert Eno of Indiana University wrote: “While the world of Classical China is far removed from us in time but contemporary with ancient Greece, the shape of Classical Chinese culture was in many respects entirely unique. Some features of society were functions of the particular historical circumstances of the Classical period, around the 5th century B.C. But there are aspects of Classical culture that we could term pan-Chinese, common to all or most stages of China’s cultural history. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

“No country in the world has a history longer than China’s. If you were to travel back in time over two thousand years, you would discover the Chinese state thriving where it is today, a strong government ruling over the largest country the world had ever known. And though you had traveled back before the time of Jesus, you would find that China already possessed a historical tradition two thousand years long. Since that time, there have been periods where the country of China has been divided for extended periods, with regional governments claiming independent sovereignty, but the belief that China is at root a single state with a single culture has always remained so strong that unity has ultimately returned, making even centuries of fragmentation seem like brief lapses in the story of the longest surviving political entity on earth. /+/

“No country on earth has a population greater and more diverse than China’s. With over 1.2 billion people, vast stretches of land occupied by minority nationalities who, in many cases, don’t even consider themselves Chinese, and a jarring mixture of soaring city skylines and premodern rural backwaters, China today may be the most complex country in the world, difficult even for the Chinese themselves to understand. /+/

left“China’s cultural history may be the most diverse of any in the world, and no generalization is likely to be entirely true. However, the often repeated statement that the family is of overwhelming importance to Chinese culture has a great deal of validity. Of course, the family is such a basic human form that it is important in all world cultures, but the institutions associated with the family in Chinese tradition have been unusually profound and self-conscious. It seems equally true to stress that in China, the authority and influence of the state – the emperor’s government – has been unusually strong and pervasive, a pattern that continues today. What is less often noted is that between the levels of the state and the family – where in many societies various forms of “community” institutions are found – there tends to be a relative gap in China, both historically and today. /+/

“If we trace Chinese society back to its earliest ancestral culture, we see in that culture a variety of features that are distinctive of the social environment in which philosophy emerged in China. These include: 1) the belief in the normative goal of creating a universal culture subsuming all pre-literate and non-agricultural peoples within the Chinese cultural sphere; 2) the associated notion that the Chinese cultural sphere is a natural socio-political unit; 3) the existence of a sharply stratified class society with power concentrated in walled urban nodes; 4) the dominance of lineage structures and family-centered personal values; 5) the centrality of ancestor worship and the suffusion of religious ritual throughout society.” /+/

Brantly Womack, a professor of foreign affairs at the University of Virginia, wrote in the Washington Post, "Traditional China's greatest accomplishment was not its vastness but rather its constant reemergence from periods of disunity and conquest." Henry Kissinger has pointed out that China's diplomacy mirrors the game of wei qi, also known as go, in which players try to encircle one another, rather than the Western strategic game of chess in which the goal is checkmate.

China, the World's Oldest Continuous Civilization

Yan and Huang, legendary ancient Chinese emperors

China is the oldest continuous civilization in the world today. All the other great civilizations, such as ancient Egypt, the Mayan empire, Byzantium and ancient Greece died out hundreds or thousands of years ago. The only existing institutions which rival China in longevity are the Catholic Church and England, both of which are about one forth of the age of China. China has the world's longest continuously used written language system and gave the world, in the words of the great British scholar and biochemist Joseph Needham, the "four great inventions” of paper,the compass, gunpowder, and printing.

China has 4,600 years of recorded history, with the first 600 years or so being of dubious credibility. When someone once asked the late Chinese premier Zhou Enlai what he thought about the French Revolution, he replied it was "too early to say." China is the only nation that has survived throughout recorded history. This has was made possible by a set of common customs (Confucianism) and the belief that China was the center of the world (meaning that lands outside of China were of little importance).

According to the Library of Congress: The History of China, as documented in ancient writings, dates back back some 3,300 years. Modern archaeological studies provide evidence of still more ancient origins in a culture that flourished between 2500 and 2000 B.C. in what is now central China and the lower Huang He (Yellow River) Valley of north China. Centuries of migration, amalgamation, and development brought about a distinctive system of writing, philosophy, art, and political organization that came to be recognizable as Chinese civilization. What makes the civilization unique in world history is its continuity through over 4,000 years to the present century. The Chinese have developed a strong sense of their real and mythological origins and have kept voluminous records since very early times. It is largely as a result of these records that knowledge concerning the ancient past, not only of China but also of its neighbors, has survived. [Source: The Library of Congress]

China has a strong sense of its continuity. For millennia the tradition was for one ruling dynasty to write a history about the dynasty that preceded it. The history of the Qing Dynasty, which lasted from 1644 to 1911, is only being written now almost a century after it ended. To get the official Chinese version of the People's Republic we probably will have to wait until at least the 22nd century. [Source: George Yeo, Singapore's foreign minister, Global Viewpoint]

Winston Churchill once described China as a civilization in search of a nation. Some Chinese have described the United States as a nation in search of a civilization. China, alone among the world's great civilizations, evolved in almost total isolation from the rest of the world. This was primarily the result of geography: the sea to the east, the Himalayas to the south, the Gobi desert to the north and inhospitable deserts and high plateaus to the west.

Anthropologists say there are three definite first Pristine States: Mesopotamia (3300 B.C); Peru (around the time of Christ), and Mesoamerica (about 100 A.D.). Probable Pristine States include Egypt (3100 BC), Indus Valley (shortly before 2000 B.C.) and Yellow River Basin in northern China (shortly after 2000 BC). A pristine state is defined as one not influenced by other civilizations.

Tan Chung, the dean for many years at the Center for East Asian Studies at Jawaharial Nehru University, has argued that civilizations in China and India endured while those in the West died out was because civilizations in the East followed the 'geocivilizational paradigm' while those in West followed the 'geopolitical paradigm'. "In the Western Hemisphere," Tan wrote, "all the brilliant ancient civilizations like Babylonia, Egypt, Greece and Rome have become ruins without being handed down. This was because there was no 'geocivilizational paradigm' among them. The 'geopolitical paradigm' pushed them to scramble for territory and indulge in mutual destruction. The basic difference between Eastern and Western hemispheres lies here." He points to the evolution described by Confucius in "Analects" from the power-seeking Qi state to the Lu state, which stressed cultural development, to the truth-prevailing Tan state as the ideal pursued in the east.

Chinese Success

11th century fire arrow rockets

Mark Kitto wrote in Prospect Magazine, "It is often argued that China led the world once before, so we have nothing to fear. As the Chinese like to say, they only want to "regain their rightful position." While there is no dispute that China was once the major world superpower, there are two fundamental problems with the idea that it should therefore regain that "rightful position." [Source: Mark Kitto, Prospect Magazine, August 8, 2012]

A key reason China achieved primacy was its size. As it is today, China was, and always will be, big. (China loves "big." "Big" is good. If a Chinese person ever asks you what you think of China, just say "It's big," and they will be delighted.) If you are the biggest, and physical size matters as it did in the days before microchips, you tend to dominate. Once in charge the Chinese sat back and accepted tribute from their suzerain and vassal states, such as Tibet. If trouble was brewing beyond its borders that might threaten the security or interests of China itself, the troublemakers were set against each other or paid off.

The second reason the rightful position idea is misguided is that the world in which China was the superpower did not include the Americas, an enlightened Europe or a modern Africa. The world does not want to live in a Chinese century, just as much of it doesn't like living in an American one. China, politically, culturally and as a society, is inward looking. It does not welcome intruders---unless they happen to be militarily superior and invade from the north, as did two imperial dynasties, the Yuan (1271-1368) and the Qing (1644-1911), who became more Chinese than the Chinese themselves. Moreover, the fates of the Mongols, who became the Yuan, and Manchu, who became the Qing, provide the ultimate deterrent: "Invade us and be consumed from the inside," rather like the movie Alien. All non-Chinese are, to the Chinese, aliens, in a mildly derogatory sense. The polite word is "Outsider." The Chinese are on "The Inside." Like anyone who does not like what is going on outside---the weather, a loud argument, a natural disaster---the Chinese can shut the door on it. Maybe they'll stick up a note: "Knock when you've decided how to deal with it."

Patterns and Revolutions in Chinese History

Jeffrey 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 and author of “China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know”. He told the China Daily it is a challenge to be a historian of China because it is a country where history always matters. "I think history has always been seen as significant on multiple different levels and is significant in different ways," he told said China Daily.

According to the Columbia Encyclopedia: “China's history is traditionally viewed as a continuous development with certain repetitive tendencies, as described in the following general pattern: The area under political control tends to expand from the eastern Huang He and Chang (Yangtze) basins, the heart of Chinese culture, and then, under outside military pressure, to shrink back. Conquering barbarians from the north and the west supplant native dynasties, take over Chinese culture, lose their vigor, and are expelled in a surge of national feeling. Following a disordered and anarchic period a new dynasty may arise. Its predecessor, by engaging in excessive warfare, tolerating corruption, and failing to keep up public works, has forfeited the right to rule—in the traditional view, the dynasty has lost "the mandate of Heaven." The administrators change, central authority is reestablished, public works constructed, taxation modified and equalized, and land redistributed. After a prosperous period disintegration reappears, inviting barbarian intervention or native revolt. [Source: Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed., Columbia University Press]

China has had an organized political system since the founding of the Shang dynasty in 1766 B.C. Records of civilization in China date back to that time. The Zhou defeated the Shang in 1059 B.C. and went on to rule for nearly one thousand years, longer than any other dynasty. China was a divided feudal state until Emperor Qin Shi Huang united various states and became the first emperor in 221 B.C.. He ruled with an iron fist — conscripting thousands of people to construct canals, roads, and defensive walls that became the Great Wall of China and had the teachings of Confucius burned — but The Qin Dynasty was short-lived, lasting only three years by some reckonings. [Source: Eleanor Stanford, Countries and Their Cultures, Gale Group Inc., 2001]

Over the course of the centuries, China developed one of the world's most advanced civilizations while its borders were threatened by nomadic horsemen peoples — ancestors of the Huns, Turks, and Mongols. Under these terms, the Chinese came to think of themselves as civilized people living in a world surrounded of barbarians. They viewed history as a series of three- or four-century cycles marked by upheaval, renewal, and eventual decline. Medieval dynasties such as the Tang (A.D. 618–907) and Sung (960–1279) bore out out this premonition with surprising accuracy. [Source: Middle Ages Reference Library, Gale Group, Inc., 2001]

In her book “China’s Revolutions in the Modern World: A Brief Interpretive History”, Rebecca E. Karl argues that “China’s emergence as a twenty-first-century global economic, cultural, and political power is not a story of what Chinese leader Xi Jinping calls the nation’s “great rejuvenation,” a story narrated as the return of China to its “rightful” place at the center of the world. Rather China’s contemporary emergence is best seen not as a “return,” but rather as the product of revolutionary and counter-revolutionary activity and imaginings. From the Taipings in the mid-nineteenth century through nationalist, anti-imperialist, cultural, and socialist revolutions to today’s capitalist-inflected Communist State, modern China has been made in intellectual dissonance and class struggle, in mass democratic movements and global war, in socialism and anti-socialism, in repression and conflict by multiple generations of Chinese people mobilized to seize history and make the future in their own name. "

Diversity Within China

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Mao-era poster of Chinese minorities
Dr. Eno wrote: “But the Chinese did not exist in total cultural isolation. The heartland of China was surrounded by a variety of different peoples. Nomadic cultures based on sheep and cattle herding flourished on the grassy steppes to the North and to the West; hunter-gatherer and fishing cultures existed in the forests of the South and on the coasts of the East. But none of these societies was literate, and none had created stable and complex centers of settlement. The Chinese people had for thousands of years practiced agriculture, and their gradually expanding domain was well marked by extensive engineering projects: networks of walls, roads, and irrigation canals that connected permanent village settlements and populous urban centers. These physical networks reflected enduring political and cultural connections as well. /+/

By Confucius’s time, in the 5th century B.C., China was actually a composite ethnic and cultural entity in the process of long-term dynamic change. One important reason why Chinese civilization was able to outstrip its neighboring cultures by so great a distance was precisely the richness of its multi-ethnic structure, which included cultural contributions from a variety of sources. Although individuals during the period of Classical China tended to conceive and speak of China as a single civilization with a single history and a single destiny, we will discover important variety within that civilization, reflecting the fault lines of China’s cultural geography. /+/

China’s Sense That It Is a Special Place

Dr. Eno wrote: “When Confucius, China’s most influential thinker, was born in 551 B.C., China was the most vast and complex political entity on earth, in touch only with the simple and unsophisticated cultures surrounding it. Cut off from Europe by the deserts of Central Asia, from India by the Himalayas, from the rest of the world by ocean, and surrounded by small, mobile, non-literate cultural groups, China had no way of conceiving a world in which there might be many alternative paths of human improvement, organization, and fulfillment. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

“This situation led the ancient Chinese to view themselves as uniquely advanced and valuable. Chinese viewed their civilization as self-evidently the product of some special cosmic grace, and they assumed that there was something special about the culture heroes who, according to history and legend, had created Chinese civilization. Chinese civilization seemed the acme of human development, and the future of China meant nothing less than the future of human kind. This viewpoint is sometimes referred to as China’s "sino-centric" point of view (sino- is a prefix meaning “China”), and it contrasts very strongly with the Mediterranean awareness of multiplicity and variety in social practices and cultural values. /+/

“All this might lead us to expect that China, during the time of Confucius, would have been a static and monolithic society. But another set of geographical facts had created a very different situation. While the people of China felt they were, in fact, a highly unified group, there existed within Chinese civilization itself great diversity, the product of centuries of cultural absorption. /+/

Chinese Versus Non-Chinese People

Another recurrent historical theme has been the unceasing struggle of the largely agrarian Chinese against the threat posed to their safety and way of life by non-Chinese peoples on the margins of their territory. For centuries most of the foreigners that China's officials saw came from or through the Central and Inner Asian societies to the north and west. This circumstance conditioned the Chinese view of the outside world. The Chinese saw their domain as the self-sufficient center of the universe, and from this image they derived the traditional (and still used) Chinese name for their country---Zhongguo, literally Middle Kingdom or Central Nation. Those at the center ("zhong") of civilization (as they knew it) distinguished themselves from the barbarian---peoples on the outside (wai), whose cultures were presumed to be inferior by Chinese standards. [Source: Library of Congress]

For centuries, China faced periodic invasions from Central and Inner Asia---including major incursions in the twelfth century by the Khitan and the Jurchen, in the thirteenth century by the Mongols, and in the seventeenth century by the Manchu, all of whom left an imprint on Chinese civilization while heightening Chinese perceptions of threat from the north. Starting in the pre-Qin period, Chinese states built large defensive walls that, in time, composed a "Great Wall." The Great Wall is actually a series of noncontiguous walls, forts, and other defensive structures built or rebuilt during the Qin, Han, Sui (A.D. 589---618), Jin (1115---1234), and Ming (1368—1643) periods, rather than a single, continuous wall. The Great Wall reaches from the coast of Hebei Province to northwestern Gansu, officially 6,000 kilometers in length, although unofficial estimates range from 2,700 kilometers to as many as 50,000 kilometers, depending on which structures are included in the measurement.

20080304-ethnic444 map u wash.jpg

The Tang (618—907) and Song (960—1279) dynasties represented high points of Chinese cultural development and interaction with distant foreign lands. The Yuan, or Mongol, Dynasty (1279—1368) was a period of foreign occupation but of even greater interaction with other cultures. Despite these periods of openness, which brought occasional Middle Eastern and European envoys and missionaries, the China-centered ('sinocentric') view of the world remained largely undisturbed until the nineteenth century when China first clashed with the European nations. The Manchu had conquered China and established the Qing Dynasty (1644---1911), ushering in a period of great conquest and a long period of relative peace. When Europeans began arriving in increasing numbers, Chinese courtiers expected them to conduct themselves according to traditional tributary relations that had evolved over the centuries between their emperor and representatives of Central Asian states who came via the Silk Road and others who came from Southeast Asia and the Middle East via the sea trade. The Western powers arrived in China in full force at a time of tremendous internal rebellion and rapid economic and social change. By the mid-nineteenth century, China had been defeated militarily by superior Western technology and weaponry, and the government was plagued with ever mounting rebellions. As it faced dynastic breakdown and imminent territorial dismemberment, China began to reassess its position with respect to its own internal development and the Western incursions. By 1911 the millennia-old dynastic system of imperial government was hastily toppled as a result of the efforts of a half century of reform, modernization, and, ultimately, revolution. [Ibid]

China’s Centralism: Korea, Japan and America All Founded by Chinese?

Edward Cody wrote in the Washington Post: Chinese “have been taught, radiated far and wide over the centuries, embracing great historical events ranging from Genghis Khan's empire to the invention of spaghetti and meatballs. According to Chinese history, not only did Koguryo” — one of the first Korean kingdoms — “begin as an ethnic minority in the Chinese fold, but neighboring Japanese civilization got started when 1,000 Chinese boys and girls sailed over in 209 B.C. to colonize the islands in hopes of finding immortality pills.... The Chinese people's view of their place in the world. In a culture so old and so rich in history and invention, it seems folklore for centuries has tended to operate on the premise that China originated almost everything and foreigners are lucky if they can grab a little piece of the heritage.[Source: Edward Cody, Washington Post Foreign, September 22, 2004]

“Over the last 150 years, as China suffered from foreign occupation, civil war and extremist ideology, modern advances largely passed the country by. Only in recent years has China begun to regain its role in the world. But for most Chinese, the idea of their culture as a source of past greatness and future strength has never faded. "There are so many great people who did so many great things," said Wang Zhenhui, 22, a public finance student at Beijing University.

“The idea of China's centrality started early. Li Boqian, who ran the Center for the Study of Ancient Civilizations at Beijing University. Told the Washington Post that 3,000 years ago, the Western Chou Dynasty moved its capital to Luo Yang, south of Beijing in the present-day Henan province, and declared it the center of the Earth. A bronze wine vessel was found nearby in the 1970s, he said, with the inscription "Here Lives the Middle Kingdom," the first known use of what has become China's modern name.

“The Chinese appropriation of Genghis Khan, viewed elsewhere as a Mongolian conqueror who created a vast empire including parts of China, has received a more formal endorsement. The period during which his descendants ruled over much of what is now China has been baptized in most textbooks the Yuan Dynasty, 1279 to 1368, and treated by Chinese historians as another in a long succession of Chinese reigns.

“Similarly, most Chinese have been taught that American Indians descended from intrepid Chinese who moved down over the Bering Strait — a belief held by many non-Chinese historians as well — and that Buddhism, although imported from India, was spread around Asia by Chinese travelers. In particular, the story goes, the Chinese monk Jian Zhen sailed to Japan in 753 and, at the invitation of the Japanese royal family, spread knowledge about Buddhism, medical science and sculpture to a population thirsty for knowledge. That, of course, was long after the 500 boys and 500 girls dispatched by Emperor Qin Shihuan had started families and multiplied. Their gesture has been commemorated several times in recent years by people who gather at the Ancestral Temple of a Thousand Children, on the site where Qin had his capital in what is now Hebei province, just south of Beijing.”

Migration and Conquest of Neighboring People in China

The dynamism of Chinese history in may ways has been shaped by the merging of many different groups and regions into a one nation and the effort to hold that nation together.

The Han Chinese created much of present day China by conquering territory and overpowering local tribes by sheer numbers through mass migrations. Tribal kingdoms in Tibet, Sichuan and Yunnan have long histories of battling the Han Chinese for control of their homelands. Some groups were driven from the fertile valleys by the Han to the hills and mountains where they now live.

"Chinese speakers were especially vigorous in replacing and linguistically converting other ethnic groups, whom they looked down on as primitive and inferior," wrote Jared Diamond, a U.C.L.A profrssor, in Discover magazine. "The recorded history of China's Chou Dynasty, from 1111 B.C. to 256 B.C. describes the conquest and absorption of most of China's non-Chinese-speaking population by Chinese-speaking states."

Starting in 17th century and lasting for 200 years the fertile Sichuan basin absorbed most of China's growing population, expanding from eight million in 1776 to 44 million in 1840, in an organized effort to populate and develop the region. Today the Sichuan province has China's largest regional population, with over 100 million people. The Yangtze highlands, Yunnan province, Manchuria and Yangtze river valley were all populated by similar migration strategies. In Manchuria the population jumped from 15 million in 1907 to 34 million in 1930. [Source: "Man on Earth" by John Reader, Perrenial Library, Harper and Row]

China's Borders and Threats

In his book review of "Rising China and Its Postmodern Fate: Memories of Empire in a New Global Context" by Charles Horner, Andrew Erickson wrote in the Naval War College Review, 'strategic debate in the Qing dynasty regarding the value of China's western territories reveals enduring tensions in its strategic orientation between continental and maritime frontiers and between factions advocating their respective emphases. Horner quotes one official, whose vividly expressed viewpoint carried the day (perhaps to Beijing's detriment, in retrospect): The maritime nations are like a sickness of the limbs, far away and light, but Russia is like a sickness of the heart and stomach, nearby and dangerous." [Source: Andrew Erickson, Naval War College Review, Spring 2010]

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Flood in 1931

"Horner tackles the enduring puzzle of why China's leaders failed to anticipate maritime threats from Western powers and finds that the Qing government devoted insufficient attention to diplomacy and intelligence abroad and failed to consult knowledgeable overseas Chinese. Nevertheless, by the dawn of the twentieth century, China's intelligentsia had achieved a deep understanding of the sources of Western power and self-understanding. Significant bureaucratic-curricular reforms proved insufficient, however: a painful consensus emerged that a new intellectual regime . . . would have to consolidate its power before the country's recovery of national power could begin in earnest. [Ibid]

Book: "Rising China and Its Postmodern Fate: Memories of Empire in a New Global Context" by Charles Horner (Athens: Univ. of Georgia Press, 2009)

Foreigners and Chinese History

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18th century drawing
of English sailor

China has been ruled several times by foreigners. Among the foreign ethnic groups that led China were the Toba, who established the Wei dynasty (A.D. 386-534); the Khitan who established the Liao dynasty (907-1125); the Jurchen who established the Jin dynasty (1115-1260); the Mongols, who established the Yuan dynasty (1234-1368); and the Manchu, descendants of the Jurchen, who established the Qing dynasty (1644-1911). In the case of all these groups tensions between the ruling elite and the Han Chinese majority played a part in the dissolution of their dynasty.

Of the consistent traits identified by independent historians, a salient one has been the capacity of the Chinese to absorb the people of surrounding areas into their own civilization. Their success can be attributed to the superiority of their ideographic written language, their technology, and their political institutions; the refinement of their artistic and intellectual creativity; and the sheer weight of their numbers. The process of assimilation continued over the centuries through conquest and colonization until what is now known as China Proper was brought under unified rule. The Chinese also left an enduring mark on people beyond their borders, especially the Koreans, Japanese, and Vietnamese. [Source: The Library of Congress *]

Another recurrent historical theme has been the unceasing struggle of the sedentary Chinese against the threat posed to their safety and way of life by non-Chinese peoples on the margins of their territory in the north, northeast, and northwest. In the thirteenth century, the Mongols from the northern steppes became the first alien people to conquer all China. Although not as culturally developed as the Chinese, they left some imprint on Chinese civilization while heightening Chinese perceptions of threat from the north. China came under alien rule for the second time in the mid-seventeenth century; the conquerors--the Manchus-- came again from the north and northeast. *

“For centuries virtually all the foreigners that Chinese rulers saw came from the less developed societies along their land borders. This circumstance conditioned the Chinese view of the outside world. The Chinese saw their domain as the self-sufficient center of the universe and derived from this image the traditional (and still used) Chinese name for their country--Zhongguo, literally, Middle Kingdom or Central Nation. China saw itself surrounded on all sides by so-called barbarian peoples whose cultures were demonstrably inferior by Chinese standards. This China-centered ("sinocentric") view of the world was still undisturbed in the nineteenth century, at the time of the first serious confrontation with the West. China had taken it for granted that its relations with Europeans would be conducted according to the tributary system that had evolved over the centuries between the emperor and representatives of the lesser states on China's borders as well as between the emperor and some earlier European visitors. But by the mid-nineteenth century, humiliated militarily by superior Western weaponry and technology and faced with imminent territorial dismemberment, China began to reassess its position with respect to Western civilization. By 1911 the two-millennia-old dynastic system of imperial government was brought down by its inability to make this adjustment successfully. *

Carrie Gracie of the BBC News wrote: Having a porous sense of what is Chinese is itself part of the Chinese tradition. The same applies to innovations the barbarians brought with them and which China found useful. Chinese medicine absorbed Islamic medicine "but they never talk about it". Chillies arrived from the New World in the Ming dynasty of the 15th and 16th centuries. "But now they've been absolutely incorporated into the Chinese way of life, and we can't really think about Chinese cooking without chillies," Verity Wilson, expert on Chinese culture, told the BBC: says Wilson. "And the other thing we think about is teapots. Teapots have very much become an item associated with China. But pre-Ming dynasty, there were no teapots in China. So I think all those things which we take to be quintessentially Chinese have actually been absorbed by the Chinese from other cultures." [Source: Carrie Gracie BBC News, October 9, 2012 ***]

Xenophobia in China

Throughout their history the Chinese were, in the words of historian Daniel Boorstin "obstinate isolationists, stubbornly suspicious of anything from the outside."As was true in ancient Greece, Rome and Japan, ancient China considered itself the only civilized culture in the world; other cultures were made up of barbarians. Similar perceptions existed within China. In ancient China, the northern Chinese considered southern Chinese to be barbarians.

Describing non-Chinese people within the Chinese empire, a late Chou dynasty historian wrote: "the people of those five regions— the Middle states and the Jung, Yi, and other wild tribes around them—all had their severe natures, which they could not be made to alter. The tribes on the east were called Yi. They had their hair unbound, and tattooed their bodies. Some of them ate their food without it being cooked." He also described tribes to the south, west and north that tattooed their foreheads, turned their feet inward, wore skins, and lived in caves.”

Even today Chinese "nationalism" has been described as "isolationism shading into xenophobia."

Looting of the Summer Palace in 1860 during the Second Opium War

China, National Humiliation and Foreigners

Suffering and humiliation at the hands of foreigners has been a theme in Chinese history since the 19th century.. In the Opium Wars era, Britain subdued the Chinese population with Indian opium; made tons of money; and took over Chinese territory with humiliating unequal treaties. Later, the Russians and Japanese occupied the industrial north; European nations established "treaty ports" on the Chinese coast to exploit China's resources and labor; and, finally, Japan raped and pillaged China like medieval invaders before and during World War II. The Chinese describe their feelongs with the word "guochi", or "the national humiliation."

In the early 19th century Napoleon said, "Let China sleep when she wakes the world will be sorry." At that time misery and rebellions caused by overpopulation and an inefficient dynasty resulted in famines and wars which left tens of millions dead. Foreigners have long been aware of the way China was being exploited. In 1900, the future Russian revolutionary leader, Vladamir Lenin, said, "The European governments have robbed China as ghouls rob copses." A descriptive 1898 French lithograph showed Queen Victoria of Great Britain, Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany, the Japanese emperor Mutsuhito and Czar Nicholas II all sitting around a giant pizza, inscribed with China, dividing it up with butcher knives. The sports writer Tom Boswell said, “China’s whole history predisposes it to believing that foreign nations wish it ill and want to belittle it...Always sensitive to criticism from outsiders, China feels picked on.”

China expert Orville Schell wrote, “The most critical element in the formation of China’s modern identity has been the legacy of the country’s ‘humiliation’ at the hands of foreigners, beginning with its defeat in the Opium Wars in the 19th-century and the shameful treatment of Chinese immigrants in America. The process was exacerbated by Japan’s successful industrialization, Tokyo’s invasion and occupation of the mainland during World War II, which in many ways was more psychologically devastating than Western interventions because Japan was an Asian power that had succeeded in modernizing, where China had failed.” ”This inferiority complex has been institutionalized in the Chinese mind, “Orville wrote. “In the early 20th century China took up its victimization as a theme and, and it became a fundamental element in its evolving collective identity. A new literature arose around the idea of "bainian guochi"---”’100 year of national humiliation.’ After the 1919 Treaty of Versailles gave Germany’s concessions in China to Japan, the expression "wuwang guochi --- “Never forget our national humiliation” ---became a common slogan.”

All of China’s leaders in the 20th century tapped into it. Sun Yat-sen described China in 1924 as “a heap of loose sand” that had “experienced several decades of economic oppression.” Chiang Kai shek spoke of the entire country for more than 100 years ‘suffering under the yoke of unequal treaties” and demanded the “national humiliation be avenged.” And when Communist China was founded in in 1949 Mao declared, “Ours will no longer be a nation subject to insult and humiliation.” In 2001 the National People Congress proclaimed a “National Humiliation Day” but because there were so many historical dates that could be used delegates could not agree on a single one. Shu-Zen, the director of the film "Dark Matter", told Schell, “There is something almost in our DNA that triggers automatic, and sometimes extreme , responses to foreign criticism or put downs.” The famous Chinese essayist Lu Xun wrote in the 1930s, “ Throughout the ages Chinese have had only one way of looking at foreigners. We either looked up to them as gods or down on them as wild animals.”

Defeat at the hands of the Japanese in the Sino-Japanese War in 1895

Did Foreign Aggression Really Initiate China’s Decline

In a July 2017, during a speech to mark the 20th anniversary of Hong Kong’s handover, China’s leader Xi Jinping mentioned the Opium Wars, in which 10,000 British troops defeated the Qing dynasty, which had a 800,000-strong army and took Hong Kong Island from “a weak China under corrupt and incompetent feudal rule.” Frank Ching wrote in ejinsight: “This narrative of course, is that of China’s century of humiliation which Xi and the Communist Party love to tell. Today, they offer the “Chinese Dream” of national renewal, whose realization will see China return to its state of greatness, before the West arrived on the scene. [Source: Frank Ching, ejinsight, July 17, 2017]

“This is a great story but is it true? Can China’s decline be blamed on the West? There is little argument that 1,000 years ago, during the Northern Song dynasty, China was the most prosperous country in the world, richer than all the countries of Europe. But, by the 19th century when the Opium War occurred, China was the sick man of Asia. How did it happen? Many believed it was the industrial revolution that propelled the West ahead of China.

“But a recent paper casts a new light on this topic. The paper was written by three scholars, Stephen Broadberry of Oxford University, Hanhui Guan of Peking University and David Daokui Li of Tsinghua University.

“They focused on GDP per capita, a new approach, and found that Chinese GDP per capita fluctuated at a high level during the Northern Song and Ming dynasties before trending downwards during the Qing dynasty. China’s slide downhill lasted for centuries. In the abstract of their paper, the scholars state that “China led the world in living standards during the Northern Song dynasty, but had fallen behind Italy by 1300.” That is to say, the zenith of China’s glory was short-lived.

“What this study shows is that China had begun a long process of decline since before the Ming dynasty, a process that continued for 600 to 700 years before the West appeared on the scene. That is to say, China’s decline was due to internal factors and began very early, in the 13th century. Xi Jinping may well be partly aware of this. After all, he pointed out that the British prevailed in a war where they were outnumbered 80 to 1 by Chinese troops. This could only have happened if China had already suffered a long period of internal decay. Of course, the Communist Party can still talk about national rejuvenation, but it should put foreign intervention in its proper perspective. Sure, China was a victim of western imperialism, but this was simply the last straw on the back of a dying camel. China itself by the mid-19th century had gone through centuries of misrule and the humiliation it suffered was at its own hands.

Image Sources: Flood Image, Xinhua; Mao, Noll's China website ; 5) English sailor, Ohio State University; Others: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ; Asia for Educators, Columbia University; University of Washington’s Visual Sourcebook of Chinese Civilization, /=\; National Palace Museum, Taipei \=/; Library of Congress; New York Times; Washington Post; Los Angeles Times; China National Tourist Office (CNTO); Xinhua;; China Daily; Japan News; Times of London; National Geographic; The New Yorker; Time; Newsweek; Reuters; Associated Press; Lonely Planet Guides; Compton’s Encyclopedia; Smithsonian magazine; The Guardian; Yomiuri Shimbun; AFP; Wikipedia; BBC. Many sources are cited at the end of the facts for which they are used.

Last updated August 2021

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