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.