Chinese Narratives--August Handgrenade 2022

John T Kuehn's picture

August 2022 Handgrenade

Chinese Narratives

By John T. Kuehn

            One of the most enduring, and powerful, myths of the current Chinese state and its leaders is the so-called “century of humiliation.”   This narrative posits that China was disrupted and thrown into chaos by the imperialistic-capitalistic West beginning in the late 18th Century with the McCartney mission to the Qianlong Emperor (of the Qing-Manchu Dynasty) and coming to an end by 1949 with the triumph of the Chinese Communist Party.  More than one century I would say…but the bulk of the humiliation narrative occurred in the 19th century, beginning with the First Opium War  (which was followed by a second in the 1860s) and then capped off by total humiliation and triumph of European Imperialistic extra-territoriality after the Boxer Rebellion.

This narrative accounts for the Asian role of Japan in this humiliation by positing Japan as another “western” power, behaving like a western imperial power.  These Japanese “humiliations” were very large indeed--the subjugation of the Ryukyus and the first Sino-Japanese War, the colonization of the former Qing tributary kingdom of Korea,  the Boxer Rebellion, followed by the Russo-Japanese war fought entirely on Qing imperial territory in Manchuria.   By the time the horrific Russo-Japanese War was over China’s biggest threat was no long western encroachments along its periphery (especially Tsarist Russia), but the Empire of Japan.  Germany probably ranks second, but was ejected and replaced by Japan during the Great War (another humiliation of sorts, occurring as the Chinese revolution continued after 1911).

The other thing this narrative tends to leave out, and which historians and Asian scholars try to emphasize, is the agency of the Chinese themselves.  The Qing’s expanded Chinese empire was racked internally by many revolts, the most destructive being those in the 19th century—the White Lotus Rebellion, the Xian Rebellion, various Muslim rebellions and then the mother of all Chinese holocausts, the Taiping Rebellion…which lasted over 20 years and claimed somewhere in the neighborhood of 20 million lives.  But even the Taiping rebellion is cut to fit the shoe…its genesis being a strange Christian cult led by “God’s Chinese Son” Hong Xiuquan.  But even this explanation seems strained when it is understood the agency of the dispossessed Hakka minority that Hong came from, and the severe constraints on social mobility in China.  Hong’s nervous breakdown and revelation had more to do with repeated failures of a Chinese institution, the imperial testing system, than they did some Chinese lettered Bible tract left by Western missionaries.  Again, note how in creating this narrative the  leaders of the PRC must remove the agency of the Chinese people and replace it with a nefarious agency from the west.  It was the “other”—not us.  And of course the Taiping were not the only rebels.  It was all of these, but was it mostly the West?

Finally they may say…”Well look, John,  it was the western encroachments that undermined the stability of the Qing system.”  And I say to them, then how does one explain the fall of previous dynasties in Chinese History?  The Han, the Tang, the Song, the Yuan (another ‘barbarian’ dynasty), and especially the Ming. Look at the Ming,   internal peasant revolts, in the same areas as the White Lotus, the Xian, and Taiping fatally undermined the Ming and allowed China to fall to the horse-mounted Jurchen tribesmen of the north (the Manchus).

So what is the counter to all this?  I await the return handgrenades from Panda-students everywhere.  As do my faithful reader-participants.  Xia Xia.

[sources,  primarily Jonathan Spence’s The Search for Modern China and God’s Chinese Son]

I agree with John Kuehn that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) sometimes exaggerates and oversimplifies in its narrative of the "century of humiliation." It particularly exaggerates the extent to which Western pressure impeded the development of the Chinese economy. But I disagree with him about some significant aspects of the story.

CCP historians do not treat the Taiping Rebellion as a result of Western influence, denying Chinese agency in it. On the contrary, they treat the Taiping movement as a noble cause, completely an expression of Chinese agency, and blame the Western imperialists for having collaborated with the Qing Dynasty in suppressing the "Taiping Revolution" (Bai Shouyi et al., An Outline History of China, rev. ed. [Beijing: Foreign Languages Press, 2002], p. 406).

More generally, CCP historians do not blame the Westerners for undermining the stability of the Qing system, because they don't like the Qing system. They do not think China would have been better off if the Qing system had remained stable.

It is true that by World War I the Japanese replaced the westerners as the most aggressive and dangerous intruders into China, but the western intrusions did not fade away as fast as Kuehn suggests. Germany's imperialist footprint in China was not second to that of Japan until it was eliminated during World War I, Britain's footprint was far larger than Germany's, and remained long after Germany's had been eliminated.

One of the less important forms of Chinese humiliation was the routine presence of Western naval vessels not just along the coast of China but upriver in the interior. As late as the beginning of 1949 it was normal for a British Navy vessel to be at Nanjing, about two hundred miles up the Yangzi River from the sea. The British did not realize until April that this could no longer be considered normal. HMS Amethyst, a 1,350-ton sloop armed with four-inch guns, tried to go up the river from Shanghai to Nanjing in April, failed, and was barely able to escape back downriver in July.

August 2, 2022

I find myself in basic agreement with Edwin Moise's comments. I would add it has been reported that when, in 1972, Prime Minister of Japan, Tanaka Kakuei, met Chinese premier Zhou Enlai to discuss the normalization of relations between the two countries, Tanaka first apologized for past Japanese aggression against China. Zhou, however, responded that there was no need to apologize for, had the Chinese been united, instead of fighting among themselves, imperialist countries like Japan would never have been able to launch their aggression against China.

Aside from the magnanimity of Zhou's words, I think they also tell us just why the maintenance of unity under the CCP is so very important both to the Party and to the Chinese people as a whole. That is to say, their past bitter experience tells them that if they ever allow themselves to be divided again, foreign powers will once again take advantage of their internal discord to control them. It should also help us understand why reunification with Taiwan remains so important.

Had any other major nation and its people had the same experience would they act differently?

Edwin--I see no citations for CCP historians--that is historians inside China writing today. At any rate, the narrative as such is not so much crafted by them as by the politburo and leaders like Xi. It is echoed to some extent outside China by others, including historians. As for shoehorning the Taiping into the anti-Western narrative, I've heard it with my own ears by someone in my department.

John T. Kuehn

John--I cited a book published by the Foreign Languages Press, one of the main official organs through which the Chinese Communist Party speaks to the world. When Xi Jinping has a book he wants to put out in English, he uses the Foreign Languages Press. That press would not have published the book I cited without multiple layers of Communist Party censors having agreed that the book accurately reflected the Communist Party's view of events.

The party leaders' narrative is the one in that book. On November 11, 2021, the party issued "Resolution of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China on the Major Achievements and Historical Experience of the Party over the Past Century." It stated "After the Opium War of 1840, however, China was gradually reduced to a semi-colonial, semi-feudal society due to the aggression of Western powers and the corruption of feudal rulers. The country endured intense humiliation . . . To save the nation from peril, the Chinese people rose to fight back, and patriots of high ideals sought to pull the nation together, putting up a heroic and moving struggle." First on its list of the heroic struggles of the Chinese people was "The Taiping Heavenly Kingdom Movement."

If a colleague of yours at the Command and General Staff College gave you a narrative treating the Taiping movement as an expression of Western influence, that was an American narrative. It had nothing to do with the Chinese Communist Party's narrative.

Other parts of your original post also did not seem to me to reflect close attention to actual Chinese versions of the narrative of China's "century of humiliation."

Does the CCCP History and interpretation include and accurately state the early history of China's attempt to 'fight back,' as given here, or does it only reflect the CCCP History ?

I apologize for the scattered nature of this post. The viewpoint that John (and Professor Spence) explicates is not new. It has been a mainstay of Chinese nationalism since its invention. These thoughts are based on my own study of Chinese history over the past 50 years. Even though "my belly is stuffed with knowledge" I feel more ignorant and puzzled than when I began!

The Chinese elite saw the particular nationalist vision of the nation-state, which coincidentally empowered itself, as the most appropriate form of political organization. Their goal was to reconstruct the Qing polity as a powerful Western-style nation-state in order to survive in the world they saw in inter-state relations. This has been a goal (reasserting China's status as the dominant power in East and Southeast Asia and spreading its influence throughout the region) since the defeat in 1895 and has been the core of the foreign policy of every Chinese government. It has also been an organizing idea in Chinese schooling. "National Humiliation Days" were commemorated in Chinese schools beginning in the 1920s - one of my Chinese mentors told me (with a smile) March was a very bad month.

As the CPC abandoned the tenets of Marxism-Leninism-Mao Zedong Thought as well as liberal democracy, China has reverted to an autocratic political system. China exudes strength and confidence, but is strong externally and weak internally (外强中干 wai qiang zhong gan [outwardly strong inwardly weak]). Now, the Chinese government is the largest in the world, commands the most soldiers, has the most foreign exchange reserves, and is seen as an emerging or emerged superpower.

The principle of national sovereignty remains sacrosanct, but the willingness to grant autonomy posits indirect rule of the periphery but autonomy will be decreased if threats to Chinese dominance or sovereignty are believed to be on the rise. In fact, the current government policy in Tibet, Xinjiang, and Hong Kong has decreased autonomy on the periphery. The Beijing government worries about foreign threats to internal order. As the possibilities of reunification become closer to reality, part of the foreign threat becomes an internal threat. The Communists, as the Qing before them, view domestic threats as they do foreign threats; in fact, the danger of domestic treason is paramount. The heart of the problem was, and is, maintaining control over the intellectual and economic center of China Proper, the lower Yangzi and Jiangnan.

The attitude toward outsiders has not changed. It combines fear and mistrust, admiration and envy. The key to Communist concern is the same as Imperial concern, the desire to control the populace to preserve internal order. The fear is that heterodoxy will be disruptive and lead to disorder. The social controls broke down in the century after the First Opium War (1839-1842). They were reimposed after the founding of the People’s Republic and intensified by China’s isolation between 1949 and 1979 and are being reimposed by Xi Jinping.

The cement binding China together today as the flame of Communist ideology dims is Han nationalism. The party has deliberately stoked and shaped Chinese nationalism, and many residents now feel pride in the Communist authoritarian development model. The party’s thought work to this end has come to include, in addition to censorship, fashioning textbooks, television documentaries, museums, and other media that spread seriously distorted versions of Chinese history. In a related effort to guide the public’s thinking, the word democracy has been twisted beyond recognition and stripped of the values that have traditionally defined it. The Party preaches equality, while presiding over incomes as unequal as anywhere in Asia. In a single generation, the party elite has been transformed from a mirthless band of Mao-suited, ideological thugs to a wealthy, business-friendly thuggish ruling class.

The possible key to analyzing Chinese foreign policy and domestic political behavior may be to refuse to choose between “how much China has changed or how much it has stayed the same,” but to pay attention to the continuities in areas that seem most transformed and the ruptures in areas that seem resistant to transformation. In using "national humiliation" and nationalism Chinese authorities have forged a multifaceted and sophisticated set of policies that are comprehensive, encompassing the political, legal, social, and media spheres to undermine democratic development. They are creating a long lasting imperial autocracy.

The Chinese leadership struggles with a domestic political problem, one of its own making: an ever more strident Chinese nationalism. The regime has stoked nationalism to replace the old Communist values in which few in China still believe. But the more the leadership encourages nationalism, the more it has to worry about being itself accused of caving to foreigners. The ultimate fear is that, some day, nationalism could turn against the leadership itself.

As one looks at Chinese history since 1500 there may be a Ming-Qing parallel for contemporary China. The experience of these last two dynasties shows that arbitrary, violent, repressive autocracies that enjoy the faithful support of their privileged victims can work quite well. At present, the regime believes it is following a strategy that works. China’s leaders believe that money plus violence equals stability because twenty years ago “the West was not afraid of us and now they are,” so why change a successful formula?

"The more I learn, the less I know". Lewis Bernstein commenting upon a state of affairs that is quite possibly more universal, having some of this same experience.

Besides this observation, thanks for an excellent short analysis; well explained on recent history of China and its relationship to Communism through emphasis upon "Nationalism'. One question might remain: does this really entail a complete abandoning of the international messianic worldview of Communism, or can it be said to have 'transferred' to the periphery expansionism noted as more 'traditional' China concern for regional dominance?

This and a few other questions which may be worthy of a book would seem actually deserved.

Final point, the idea of 'fear' of China in the West seems far more a result of history of technology and its specific expression in terms of nuclear weapons and ergo, military history's advancement into a nuclear age. This latter point coming into the forefront primarily in the 1960s for US and Western democracies. It also was not a historic condition of those earliest Founders of Communism; Marx, Engels, Lenin did not anticipate nuclear war or weapons, at least to my own limited knowledge.

I think Marxist-Leninist- Mao Thought (international communism) is dead except as a rhetorical prop. Today the Chinese state is an imperial autocracy - it has reverted to a Ming-Qing model. Remember, this model was a reaction and adoption of China's status under the Yuan (Mongol) as a part of a world empire. They began to see themselves and refer to themselves as the "Great Ming" and the "Great Qing." The Chinese leadership consciously or unconsciously draws upon a several thousand year old set of socio-political traditions. These traditions, never static, evolve, adjusting to the political realities of China’s place in the world.
Two different streams feed these traditions, each drawing on distinctly different cultural origins. One was the steppe civilization of the pastoralists, while the other was the settled, agricultural civilization of the people who called themselves Han. Even though personalities and governmental systems change, the fundamental problems and dilemmas facing Chinese leaders remain the same.
Much of what passes for analysis of China’s international relations has a foreshortened historical perspective and relies on narrating a history of events without consciously linking them to any other wider framework. Ma Duanlian, a 13th century historian wrote, “order and disorder, rise and fall, are facts that have no continuity and no reciprocal relations.” The history of events in and of themselves is not very interesting. The only history worthy of the name is studying a particular topic that encompasses a series of events in which it would be possible to discern a sequence, a continuity or evolution of some kind. History is valuable because its long range perspective enables one to perceive long term patterns despite frequent discontinuities.
The boundaries of the Chinese state have expanded and contracted over time. The Ming polity consisted of the "Eighteen Provinces" of China Proper. It did not include the Northeast, Mongolia, Western China or Tibet. They built the Great Wall to channel their interactions with the pastoralists - it was a defensive measure forced on them because of their inability to procure adequate cavalry remounts. Moving the capital from Nanjing to Beijing recognized the danger of the "menace from the steppe." The Qing, a foreign conquest dynasty based in the Northeast (Manchuria) ended the steppe menace by expanding imperial rule to Central Asia and Tibet. In the 18th century (about the time of the American Revolution) the dynasty, collaborating with the Russian Empire, eliminated Dzungaria (a rival steppe state), by the simple expedient of ethnic cleansing (extermination). A foreign conquest dynasty ended the steppe threat, which lasted approximately 2900 years, to the Chinese state.
The "West", however defined, did not always fear the Chinese state or Chinese culture. In fact in the 17th and 18th century there was a vogue of chinoiserie expressed in art and culture. Philosophers like Leibniz advocated that the Chinese send moral missionaries to Europe. The Industrial Revolution was one of the forces that created an overweening Western arrogance toward Asia. One of social science’s conceits has been its view that the "West" was and is the world’s change engine; that the Western experience provides the only appropriate set of norms for societal change, and the rest of the world consists of aberrations of one sort or another. According to this perspective, only the West has a history replete with change and example, the other peoples of the world lack event laden histories, have an unchanging past, and were wrenched out of the ruts of their timeless tradition by the West’s disruptive dynamism.
This superior attitude is still inherent in some Western scholarship and in popular views of China and is based on the assumptions that the “Westerner” is rational, virtuous, mature, and normal while the “Asian” is irrational, aberrant, undeveloped, and inferior. Much of Western scholarship apprehends Asians as objects who have failed to conform to Western expectations of the human and the rational. Hegel, Marx, and Weber, the founding fathers of social science, were all particularly interested in demonstrating the unique development of the West, stemming from an ontological view of the truly human, in contrast to nature, which could not be found, for example, in Asia. They all believed that Asia did not have a history. This view is currently challenged in Asia and Africa by a so-called Chinese model of authoritarian development. (Yes, I am on a soap box, riding my hobby horse.)
Western fear of China - the Yellow Peril, which in the 1950s was combined with the "Red Menace" - is notable in popular culture but goes back to the popular racism in the US and Western Europe in the 19th century. We can talk about racism in the American West (California, Oregon, Idaho, Washington), the racist social structure in European Asian colonies and in Chinese, Japanese, and Korean Treaty Ports. Popular literature and the mass media (newspapers, magazines, and motion pictures as well as radio and television) stoked these feelings. Chines, and Asians in general, were exotic and devious, motivated by hatred of the "white race."
Also, remember that China (Chinese intellectuals) underwent a series of shocks. Given that they understood they were living in a Social-Darwinist world they adopted an illiberal statist nationalism - anti-democratic, repressive, and militarist. In China these nationalist appeals took strong hold after a series of failures between 1894 and 1901, marked a break in Chinese intellectual continuity and ultimately forced the Qing to reform in the light of Western models. The dilemma of Chinese intellectuals, schooled for a public role, was they found what they loved (the Chinese humanist tradition) was not useful to save China and what was useful (Western ideologies) was unlovable. In adopting them they separated into two broad thought patterns - one disdained everything Western and used Western instrumentalities to reform and strengthen China, while their opponents accepted western models uncritically and blames Chinese tradition for China's backwardness (this is a gross over simplification).
I hope I've answered your queries and provided some insight, but I think I've tried to stuff 10n pounds of knowledge into a 5 pound bag. If I've confused, let me know and maybe I can untangle it. Stranger things have happened.