Andrew Wilson: Tells teachers how today's China's more insecure than Qing dynasty

Historians in the News

Andrew Wilson of the U.S. Naval War College explained how the image of a weak backward China adrift in a modern world, bullied by Western powers, dominates China's historical memory and national identity. Its early encounters with the West are viewed through the prism of the Qing Dynasty's (1644-1911) nineteenth-century humiliations, exemplified by a series of Western military victories enshrined in"unequal treaties." But in China's earliest encounters with the West, the Ming (1368-1644) and early Qing held the economic, technological, and military advantages. Both of these narratives--China as the"Sick Man of Asia" and China as a regional hegemon--need to be understood.

The fall of the Qing in 1911-12 was the result of a series of body blows to China's power, key among them the Boxer Rebellion of 1899-1900, a foreign relations blunder for the Qing, which incited it by blaming flood and famine in North China on Western rail and telegraph lines that were disrupting the region's fengshui. After the rebellion was suppressed by foreign intervention, the Qing court was made to accept permanent garrisons of foreign troops in the capital and along the routes between Beijing and the sea.

Other defeats included a war with Japan in 1894-95 over China's traditional sphere of influence in Korea that ended in Japanese victories on land and sea and the 1895 Treaty of Shimonoseki, in which China lost control of Taiwan, Korea, Manchuria, the lower Yangzi region, the Southeast coast, Burma, and Tibet. That war was preceded by the loss of another traditional buffer, Vietnam to French control in the Sino-French War of 1884-5. There had also been the Arrow War (1856-60), or Second Opium War, which ended when a combined Franco-British army invaded Beijing, forced the imperial family to flee, burned the Summer Palace, and imposed a punitive settlement on the Qing. These defeats and humiliating concessions began with the Opium War of 1839-42, occasioned when Qing authorities tried to halt the British opium trade that was draining its silver. The 1842 Treaty of Nanjing opened four additional ports, ceded Hong Kong, and set the model for all subsequent treaties. The defeat called into question whether a China-centered balance-of-power system could survive.

And yet in 1799, at the end of Emperor Qianlong's reign, the empire stretched from Mongolia to the borders of Vietnam, Taiwan to Central Asia. Qianlong was the most powerful monarch of the eighteenth century, and the Qing the most powerful land power of the age and most sophisticated state to that point in history. But Qianlong failed to foresee that Great Britain would emerge from the Napoleonic Wars capable of projecting the military and economic power that would so weaken the Qing's gravitational pull.

Even back in the sixteenth century, the Chinese state, then ruled by Han Chinese, thought very much like Qianlong. Europeans made their first forays into East Asian waters in the early sixteenth century and by the 1580s had established extensive trading enclaves. They were drawn there because China was driving the world economy and because they now had the European and American silver to pay for Chinese luxury goods. But they were still far from being great Western powers. They were bit players in a regional drama that culminated in the the Imjin War (1592-98) between Ming China, its Korean ally (the Choson dynasty) and Toyotomi Hideyoshi's Japan. This was the first globalized war, and the ultimate victor was Ming China.

China today is no longer a failed state, nor is it a regional hegemon. Its economic pull is powerful, but it has neither the hard nor the soft power that the high Qing or the late Ming states enjoyed. But whereas Qianlong and the late Ming viewed their empire as at the apex of the family of nations, Chinese today have been conditioned to see China as a victim and to view with skepticism rosy projections of the benefits of further relaxing what we view as anachronistic claims of sovereignty and authoritarianism.

Read entire article at Trudy Kuehner, reporting on a teachers' conference, CHINA'S ENCOUNTER WITH THE WEST, held by the Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI)

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