Commentary Magazine


Posts For: July 14, 2013

RE: China’s National Identity

I certainly agree with Max that China needs to change its historical focus away from its century of humiliation that began with the end of the First Opium War in 1842. Great Powers need to focus on their greatness, not their failures. Britons prefer thinking about the Agincourt, Nelson, and their “finest hour” to thinking about the First Afghan War and Suez.

But, in fairness to the Chinese, we need to remember the reason their humiliation was so very great and why it is so very hard for them to move on from it. For two thousand years China had been the Middle Kingdom, the Celestial Empire. The emperor was the Son of Heaven. And this was not merely empty braggadocio or hype (such as calling the American baseball championship the World Series). For those two millennia, China had indeed been the center of the world it knew: the richest, most cultured, most inventive, most economically and industrially advanced country on earth. China’s position was a bit like that of the United States in the immediate aftermath of World War II, only there was no Soviet Union and its total dominance lasted for 2,000 years.

Read More

I certainly agree with Max that China needs to change its historical focus away from its century of humiliation that began with the end of the First Opium War in 1842. Great Powers need to focus on their greatness, not their failures. Britons prefer thinking about the Agincourt, Nelson, and their “finest hour” to thinking about the First Afghan War and Suez.

But, in fairness to the Chinese, we need to remember the reason their humiliation was so very great and why it is so very hard for them to move on from it. For two thousand years China had been the Middle Kingdom, the Celestial Empire. The emperor was the Son of Heaven. And this was not merely empty braggadocio or hype (such as calling the American baseball championship the World Series). For those two millennia, China had indeed been the center of the world it knew: the richest, most cultured, most inventive, most economically and industrially advanced country on earth. China’s position was a bit like that of the United States in the immediate aftermath of World War II, only there was no Soviet Union and its total dominance lasted for 2,000 years.

To be sure, China sometimes fell to non-Chinese invaders, such as the Mongols in the 13th century and the Manchus in the 17th. But within a generation, these foreign conquerors had become more Chinese than the Chinese. Even when westerners began to appear in Chinese waters in numbers, in the 16th century, they had little to offer in the way of trade goods in exchange for silks, porcelains, tea, and luxury goods.

In 1700, China had about 25 percent of world GDP. But China’s population doubled in the 18th century and doubled again in the 19th. With little new land available for agriculture, food prices rose and unrest spread. But the Chinese government, self-perpetuating, inward looking, and complaisant, resisted change. The view from the mountaintop, after all, is always a satisfactory one.

In the West, mostly unknown to China, the Industrial Revolution sent the economy into overdrive and gave the West military power and technology the Chinese could not hope to match. Suddenly, the Chinese government found itself utterly at the mercy of uncouth barbarians who had not the slightest interest in adopting Chinese ways.

The shock was overwhelming.

Read Less

China’s National Identity

China scholars Orville Schell and John Delury are, of course, right that China needs a new national history which is not built around victimhood. For too long, as they note in the Wall Street Journal, Chinese students and ordinary citizens have been taught that their modern history began in 1843 with China’s humiliating capitulation to Great Britain in the First Opium War. This was followed by the creation of quasi-colonial “concessions” by the European powers and later Japan–a trend accelerated by China’s costly losses in future wars against the West (the Second Opium War, the Boxer Rebellion) and Japan (1894-1895, 1933-1945). Schell and Delury write that:

it is time for China and the more vociferous propagandists in Beijing to move beyond declarations about China’s “one hundred years of national humiliation.” That period has come to an end. The world has changed, China and the West have changed, and a new narrative is necessary for China to achieve its declared aim of equality and a “new type of great power relationship.”

Read More

China scholars Orville Schell and John Delury are, of course, right that China needs a new national history which is not built around victimhood. For too long, as they note in the Wall Street Journal, Chinese students and ordinary citizens have been taught that their modern history began in 1843 with China’s humiliating capitulation to Great Britain in the First Opium War. This was followed by the creation of quasi-colonial “concessions” by the European powers and later Japan–a trend accelerated by China’s costly losses in future wars against the West (the Second Opium War, the Boxer Rebellion) and Japan (1894-1895, 1933-1945). Schell and Delury write that:

it is time for China and the more vociferous propagandists in Beijing to move beyond declarations about China’s “one hundred years of national humiliation.” That period has come to an end. The world has changed, China and the West have changed, and a new narrative is necessary for China to achieve its declared aim of equality and a “new type of great power relationship.”

Unfortunately, the chances of the current government in Beijing taking their advice are slim indeed, for the very simple reason that a major part of the rationale for the Communist Party’s monopoly on power is to excise China’s supposed history of humiliations. This was the same rationale, incidentally, as the Nationalist regime that the Communists overthrew. Both ideologies grew out of the attempts by early 20th-century leaders such as Sun Yat-sen to create a modern Chinese renaissance–both Chiang Kai-shek and his rival, Mao Zedong, were profoundly influenced by Sun Yat-sen.

Ironically, Mao’s heirs have completed Sun’s mission: Today China has not only the world’s largest population but also the second-largest economy, and within a few years it will surpass the U.S. economy in total size, if not in per capita wealth. China also has the second-largest military budget on the planet, and is growing increasingly powerful in East Asia and influential as far away as Latin America and Africa. By any standard, China has done spectacularly well since it began to shed its Maoist economy straitjacket in 1979. But its leaders cannot shed their ideological commitment to China as victim–an embattled state picked upon by powerful neighbors such as Japan and the United States–without calling into question their own fitness to rule without benefit of elections.

Read Less




Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
YOU HAVE READ OF 8 FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
FOR JUST
YOU HAVE READ OF 8 FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
FOR JUST
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
YOU HAVE READ 8 OF 8
FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
for full access to
CommentaryMagazine.com
INCLUDES FULL ACCESS TO:
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
CommentaryMagazine.com.
LOG IN WITH YOUR
COMMENTARY MAGAZINE ID
Don't have a CommentaryMagazine.com log in?
CREATE A COMMENTARY
LOG IN ID
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.