See China Right In Front Of You

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The Dragon

The Dragon

Need an enemy ? Hesitate no longer, fellow Westerner, I have your pick : China.

Sure, times have changed, most of the world isn’t trying to defeat communism anymore, since it pretty much killed itself. Sure, China wasn’t targeted as the latest “Axis of Evil”. Sure, China hasn’t been accused of fostering terrorist – so far – and no report has been made about imaginary “weapons of mass destruction” hidden somewhere between the Huanghe and the Changjiang.

But still, for most people China is this wild dragon, about to take on the world economy, training, copying and producing night and day in the not so unrealistic hope to catch up with the rest of the world. China has gotten big, as predicted long time ago.

China has always fascinated the western world. Trade routes under the Yuan, religious influence under the Ming with the Missionaries, free trade and colonial imperialism under the Qing, the Western world has had a love-hate history with the big dragon.

Despite the existence of a few trade roads (the “silk road” among others), it’s only under the Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368) that communication between the East and the West begun. The Mongol Empire was based on a huge network of roads. They allowed travels, freight traffic and cultural exchange. On the other side of the world, Middle Age Europe was longing for trade and in search of a religious ally : both Empire were bound to meet. Marco Polo, the famous Italian merchant, spent over 15 years in China and even worked for the Emperor, Kubilai Khan. In the spirit of crusades and looking for an ally against the Islamic Empire, European also tried to spread Catholicism. A few Franciscan stayed in China and Montecorvino is even proclaimed archbishop in Beijing. But after his death in 1328, the Christian influence lessened.

Not much Occidental influence was left in China after the fall of the Yuan Empire. Nonetheless, merchants and missionaries wrote about China and got the country famous in the Western world.

It’s only under the Great Discovery (15th and 16th centuries) that the West came into contact with China again. Europe was driven by a good economy, missionary zeal, and many technical progress (compass, better ships…). One more time, it turned to China. In 1556, the Portuguese got Macao. But until the 19th, trade with Asia was one-way since China wasn’t willing to imports goods from Europe.

At the same time started again the religious mission in China. Under the Yuan, the goal had been to find an ally in China, a country which welcome every kind of religion. But under the Ming, Europe lived for religious proselytism. Roman Catholicism had lost a lot to the Lutheran reform and a lot of mission are founded to recruit new Christian first in Europe, then throughout the world. China was then slugged, caught into a government conflict – a perfect time to receive new influences.

Another step in the relationship between China and Europe was the Jesuit mission, embodied by Matteo Ricci, an Italian Priest. Ricci brought a lot to China and initiated a culture dialogue. He was mostly welcomed and acknowledged, more for the new techniques he helped to develop than for its religion. Ricci was also influenced by China and made a lot of accommodations to Chinese sensibilities to convert locals. Eventually, the Pope proscribed against such methodologies and controversy raged in Europe (the Chinese Rites Controversy). It could be described as the first clash between to cultures : was it better to convert a small number of people to “true” Catholicism, or to convert a large number and to adapt the religion to ancient beliefs and to the country ? How would “God” translate in Chinese ? Was the Mass to be given in Latin or in Chinese ? The Jesuit mission eventually ended in 1773, but much happened thanks to it. Both sides benefited the exchange :

  • China benefited scientific advancement (Summer Palace architecture, astronomy researches…)
  • Europe was politically inspired by China. Indeed, China is for European the first example of a rich, powerful and advanced country… without Catholicism. The Age of Enlightenment’s philosophy was partially inspired by this example. Vauban also advise Louis XIV to have census report… as the Chinese have done, since the Han Dynasty !

But over the century, China’s diplomatic system – and there wasn’t a system per se – hasn’t changed much. China was the “??”, ruling over Asia, center of its world. And since under the Ming a tribute system had been institutionalized, based on China’s supremacy – that was it for diplomacy. No Ministry was specifically mandated to deal with foreigners : border’s trade depended on the Ministry of Borders, missionaries dealt with the Imperial House, traders dealt with the Rites Ministry. And the West had a hard time to understand this fragmented system. The Qing Dynasty did accept foreign trade, but one more time, on a limited mode. Traders, for instance, were consigned in specific harbors, and all trade has to go thought Gonghang, specialized Chinese middlemen.

The European Powers started to dislike this “close door policy” and were growing frustrated. As early as 1729, England got into opium trade : imported from India, a British Colony, it was used to buy Chinese goods, then forwarded in Europe. Chinese opium consumption soon became a social issue, but the trade benefits England, which just had attempted to establish, one more time, an embassy and got turned down. England eventually picked a casus belli and started the Opium Wars.

The Qing Dynasty, already in internal turmoil, couldn’t resist. The Nanjing Treaty was signed on August 29th, 1842 – the first of a long series of unequal treaties. Five harbors (Guangdong, Shanghai, Amoy, Fuzhou and Ningbo) were opened to foreign trades, the Cohong system was suppressed and Hong Kong was simply taken over by England. The countries which didn’t take part in the war all ask China for the same privilege : the most favored nation clause takes effect.

This short war symbolized the brutal integration of China in a new world order, invented and dominated by the USA.

In 1858, a second opium war weaken China and the declining Qing Dynasty a bit more. Meanwhile, the Manchu Empire was collapsing under a politic, military and economy (the “high level economic trap”) crisis. Insurrections, such as the Taiping Rebellion (and the Nian, the Hui, Yakub Beg revolts…) raged. In this context of continuous recession, the foreigners powers entered China easily and increased their privileges. All that was totally going against China’s traditional system and the country was forced to enter the modern era and to follow the movement of industrial nations. The continual reference to the Unequal Treaties marked Chinese history: it is only by recovering Hong Kong that Deng Xiaoping will wash the honor of China.

In 1894, China fought against Japan in Korea and lost the war. In April 1895, the Shimonoseki Treaty was signed. China lost Dalian and Taiwan to Japan, and Korea became independent. Territorial imperialism accelerate foreign penetration in China. The powers obtained the construction of railways, zones of the economic and political influences in their leased territories with lease (Germany with Qingdao and Jiazhou, Russia with Lüshun and Dalian, Guangzhou in France…). It is the break up of China.

China reacted strongly to this new invasion. More than ever, Chinese were aware that its survival depends on changes. Economy, language, education all underwent reforms. The Qing Dynasty was eventually abolished, but the new Republic didn’t bring much improvement and quickly turned into dictatorship, unable to get rid of the western powers’ grip on China.

Between 1910 and 1920, China underwent its biggest intellectual revolution, carried out by the youth and the returned students from abroad.The evolution of ideas was the answer of the intellectuals to the failure of the Republic, which brought neither peace nor order. The phenomenon reached its apogee in 1919. The causes of this transformation are multiple: disappearance of the dynasty and the old class intellectuals, demonstration against the Japanese imperialism, disappointment of the parliamentary democracy and dictatorship of Yuan Shikai… Chen Duxiu initiated the movement, followed by Mao Zedong, Hu Shi and other intellectuals. All political theories were studied, from communism to liberalism. Intellectually speaking, the May 4th generation is open-minded – it is acknowledged the Occident values were to be accepted in order to save China. This is social Darwinism: the nations are in fight, only the strongest will survive. This “struggle for life”, is here applied to international relations. The peak of this movement is reach on May 4th 1919, when thousand of Chinese demonstrate against WW2 settlement at the Versailles Conference. China had taken part in WW2 with the allies in hope of regaining control over the territories stolen by Japan, in vain.

Soon after was created the first China Communist Party. In July 1919, USSR gave up its concession and gave them back to China (Karahan Declaration). At the same time, Maring (a soviet) forced the birth of the first CCP and had it adopt the Kominterm strategy. China views socialism as a reject of European values. It also like Lenin’s theory, in which imperialism is regarded as the last stage of capitalism, where capitalist powers are bound to kill each other. Marxism gave China a future : the world isn’t centered on Europe anymore.

It’s only after Mao took power in 1949 after the civil war that China had its destiny in its own hands. However, the international context wasn’t the best. The world was falling into the Cold War, and the containment doctrine became the rule. Around the young PRC, the situation in edgy : Korea (fights between the North and the South), Malaysia, Indochina (Vietminh guerrilla against France), Taiwan… To ensure its security, China had to find an ally : USSR. The treaties signed were more of a motus vivendi and the symbol of a common opposition against the USA and their allies than a real partnership. A lot divided both countries, starting with ideological antagonisms. The partnership didn’t last long : in 1956 started a long period of crisis between the two powers, which only ended in 1979.

Meanwhile, as the relations worsened with USSR, China befriended Occident, and as early as 1956 started political and economical treaties. No major crisis happened until 1979, as China was pretty much isolated from the world and working for itself. In 1979, when Deng Xiaoping took power, he redefined the “Chinese modernization plan” : it is now time for intensified international relationship.

China didn’t create nor got into any major international crisis since the Tiananmen events in 1989. Relationship with Japan and Taiwan are occasionally bustling… But China has one major goal now : catch up with Occident. And more…

But Occident can’t stand to lose its edge, especially to an underdog. Europe was the center of the world for centuries. North America is now setting the world to its image. What’s next ? World powers are bound to change hands. It’s only natural that western societies don’t want to lose their edge, but it’s also necessary to acknowledge our weaknesses, and the fact that we are only advanced in the world we shaped.

China is taking over the economic market, China is more and more advanced technologically speaking and the society is quickly adopting new values. One more time, China is enjoying its power in Asia and bonding with the West. But instead of dealing with the situation, we are of bad faith. The only reason why China is doing so good now ? Because it exploits its workers and copies our products, of course ! Because it bribes industrials and disregard our values. Because it cheats, because… China had the guts to change, to adapt to a new world, to make a dozens revolutions and to create its own way.

We are standing there.

We want to be kings of a kingdom we created.


About Author

French woman in English Canada. World citizen, new mom, traveler, translator, writer and photographer. Looking for comrades to start a new revolution.


  1. My God Zhu !
    You can’t just forget about your chinese studies can you ? ^___^
    This presentation of the early exchange between West and China is really well done ! Yeah I didn’t finish the whole article…. Too lazy tonight. Hehehe
    Maybe some other day >.<

  2. I read the whole thing, it was very interesting. But you have a serious error here, “May 4th 1919, when thousand of Chinese demonstrate against WW2”, which must mean WWI 😉

    Saskboy’s last blog post..Testing, not Studying, is the Key to Remembering

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