Perhaps more than any other term, the meaning of imperialism in China depends on the historical context. Up until the early nineteenth century, imperialism in East Asia existed in the form of the Chinese tribute system, which affirmed China’s image of itself as the “Middle Kingdom” and symbolized its role as the overlord of the Asia-Pacific region. For the rest of that century, however, as China was “carved up like a melon” by the European, American, and Japanese powers, imperialism came to be perceived as a threat, and the struggle against foreign imperialism became the basis of Chinese nationalism. China’s emergence as a regional power and its aspirations to great-power status have revived the country’s dream of “Greater China,” an imagined, but for the Chinese no less real, cultural universe that transcends the political borders of modern nation-states.
CHINESE IMPERIALISM AND THE TRIBUTE SYSTEM
At its height, the Chinese empire under the Qing (1644–1912) stretched across most of Eurasia. Furthermore, through the tribute system, China expanded its influence and power beyond its territorial boundaries, bringing much of the Asia-Pacific region within its sphere of influence. Through an elaborate set of rituals in which envoys from participating tribute states were required to pay homage to the Chinese emperor and acknowledge China’s superiority, the tribute system cloaked what was, at heart, trade relations. On condition of the envoys’ satisfactory completion of the nine-kowtow prostration, the emperor allowed their merchants to trade in a designated area for a fixed period of time. Built upon the assumptions that China possessed unique goods the world wanted—indeed, Chinese tea, silk, and porcelain were in high demand around the globe—and that China was self-sufficient, the tribute system was portrayed not as a free exchange of goods between equals but rather as a manifestation of the Chinese emperor’s benevolence toward countries that affirmed China’s view of itself as the center of the world.
For the Chinese state, the tribute system was less about consolidating China’s status as an economic super-power than about promoting China’s political and cultural superiority. For in addition to the goods exchanged, the tribute system offered an effective way to promote China’s view of itself as the “Middle Kingdom” and to spread the cultural products of Chinese civilization, namely Confucianism and the political, cultural, and social system it sustained. Korea, Vietnam, and Japan also adopted the Chinese calendar and incorporated the use of Chinese characters in their written languages. As the Chinese surveyed the world, it certainly seemed to reflect their view of China as the center of civilization.
THE WESTERN PRESENCE IN ASIA
Beginning in the early nineteenth century, however, the Chinese empire began to crumble, due in large part to the demands of the Western “barbarians,” the epithet the Chinese used to refer to anyone who had not adopted Chinese culture. Beginning with the Portuguese, who arrived on the coast of China in the early sixteenth century, other European countries soon established their presence in the Asia-Pacific region. The decision of the Ming imperial court (1368–1644), the dynasty immediately preceding the Qing, to withdraw from its self-appointed role as the protector of the Indian Ocean in order to more effectively deal with the Page 294 | Top of Articlereal threat from the Mongols on China’s northern border in the 1430s meant that when the first Portuguese ships sailed into the Indian Ocean at the end of that century, the Europeans encountered no significant naval challenge. Yet Chinese imperial power remained great enough that, at least for the time being, the Europeans who wished to trade had to follow China’s rules.
From the Canton System to the Treaty Port System
In the mid-eighteenth century, a bungled attempt by a British merchant to improve conditions for European traders resulted in the Canton system, which, among other restrictions, confined foreign merchants to a small area in the port of Canton (Guangzhou) in the southeast, limited the trading season to a few months a year, and required foreigners to deal exclusively with a select group of Chinese merchants belonging to the merchant guild called the Cohong. Not surprisingly, the European merchants found the Canton system oppressive and sought to replace it with their version of free and equal trade. The British took the lead, first using diplomacy, and, when that failed, resorting to war.
In many respects, the first Opium War that broke out in 1839 represented a crucial turning point in the Chinese understanding of imperialism. After China’s defeat in 1842, imperialism came to mean the diminution, and no longer the spread, of Chinese power and influence. Defeat in war and the unequal treaty system that resulted cost the Qing not only imperial prestige and territorial loss, but also reduced China to a semicolonial status. The Qing remained the nominal representative of the Chinese state, but real power rested in the hands of the foreign powers, which included Britain, France, Russia, and, by the late nineteenth century, Germany, Japan, and the United States. As a condition of the treaties, China was required to open up to foreign trade increasingly more ports; these “treaty ports” became the centers of the spheres of influence controlled by the foreign powers. At the turn of the century, the United States advocated an “open-door” policy in China, which prevented the spheres of influence from becoming minicolonies controlled by different foreign powers.
Although the Qing retained nominal control of China, it had surrendered many of the rights of a sovereign nation to the imperialist powers whose spheres of influence dotted the Chinese landscape. Among the concessions the imperialist powers wrested from the Qing state that undermined Chinese sovereignty was the right of extraterritoriality, which exempted foreigners from Chinese law. Through the most-favored-nation clause, which all treaty powers insisted on incorporating into their agreements with China, the Qing state had to extend to each country all the rights and privileges granted to all other treaty powers; the clause also guaranteed the automatic extension of any future concessions China would make in treaties with other countries.
The Many Faces of Imperialism
On the one hand, the treaty ports served as a physical reminder to the Chinese of their second-class status in their own country. On the other hand, they were the source for many of the ideas and innovations that shaped China’s development. Chinese translations of Western texts proliferated. Western political models inspired Chinese reformers. Scientific studies and technical handbooks helped the Chinese to build a modern infrastructure for industry. And legal treatises influenced the late Qing and Republican architects of China’s modern legal system and law codes.
Missionary activities in China also represent a mixed blessing. In the Treaty of Tianjin (1858), Western missionaries acquired the right to proselytize in China, but their activities were not limited to religious conversion.
Alongside the churches built by missionaries stood schools and hospitals, providing Chinese converts access to education and health care they would otherwise not have been able to obtain in their own communities. Missionaries also sought to raise women’s status by campaigning against the practice of footbinding, by educating young girls, and by providing women with new opportunities for work and travel. Many Chinese, however, viewed the missionary presence in their country with hostile suspicion and regarded Chinese converts as traitors.
The Zongli Yamen
As a sign of the dramatic shift in the balance of power in China’s relations with foreign countries, a new institution was created to formally manage foreign relations, yet another concession to Western imperialism. The Qing state preferred the tribute system through which China had conducted its foreign policy; in that system, the Lifan Yuan (variously translated as Court of Colonial Affairs or Office of Border Affairs) had supervised relations with peoples outside China. However, China’s military weakness in the face of foreign imperialism made it impossible to maintain the traditional model of tribute relations with its assumption of Chinese supremacy and Western barbarity. In 1861 the Qing reluctantly agreed to the establishment of the Zongli Yamen (Office of General Management) to direct foreign affairs. Overall, the Zongli Yamen functioned as an effective institution for dealing with the West until its replacement by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, yet another concession to the foreign powers in the Boxer Protocol of 1901.
THE GROWTH OF CHINESE NATIONALISM
In the eyes of a growing number of Chinese, nationalism came to be defined in ethnic terms, pitting the Han population against the Manchu rulers. Some, like Zhang Binglin (1868–1936) and Sun Yat-sen (Sun Yixian or Sun Zhongshan), turned against the Qing when it became clear to them that the Manchu rulers were not genuinely committed to reform. Others, like Zou Rong (1885–1905), blamed the Manchus for failing to strengthen China and resist foreign invasion.
Many Chinese expressed their nationalism through hatred of all things foreign. Latent hostility toward foreigners erupted into open violence with the Boxer Uprising (1898–1901), a peasant-based movement that spread through much of the North China Plain. In 1905 another antiforeign movement began in response to the American government’s mistreatment of Chinese entering and residing in the United States. In reaction to what they considered a national insult, Chinese merchants in a number of cities boycotted all American goods. The boycott lasted three months, and signaled the growing maturity of Chinese nationalism.
A decade later, it would be Chinese students who would lead a movement that would become synonymous with Chinese nationalism. Having absorbed into its empire regions formerly within the Chinese sphere of influence, Japan sought through the infamous Twenty-one Demands in 1915 to make China into a Japanese protectorate. Although unsuccessful, Japan’s aggressive stance sparked a nationwide protest against Japanese imperialism and a boycott of Japanese products that surpassed previous mass movements against European and American imperialism. On May 4, 1919, Chinese students marched through the streets of Beijing to protest the Allied decision reached at the Versailles peace talks to transfer to Japan control over the Shandong Peninsula, an area that had—in Chinese eyes—been illegally seized by Germany in 1898. Expecting the return of the Shandong territory after Germany’s defeat in World War I (1914–1918), the Chinese felt betrayed by the Versailles settlement and alarmed by the growing Japanese presence in China. As the threat of Japanese imperialism grew in the next few decades, Chinese nationalism would become inseparable from anti-imperialist sentiment directed toward Japan.
The Role of the Comintern
Under the influence of the Communist International (Comintern), established by Russian Bolsheviks in 1919 for the explicit goal of fomenting proletarian revolution on a worldwide scale, the nationalist basis of Chinese hostility toward imperialism would be elevated to a global struggle against capitalism. The Comintern helped to found the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in 1921 in preparation for a worldwide communist movement, but the Comintern recognized that conditions in China were not yet ripe for a proletarian revolution. For the moment, the CCP was to unite forces with the Guomindang (GMD), the official representative of the government of the Republic of China, to rid the country of the imperialism and warlordism that threatened the existence of the young Chinese republic.
Ironically, given the Comintern’s diatribe against imperialism, the leading role Comintern advisers assumed in directing China’s affairs bespeaks of an alternative form of imperialism. Comintern advisers guided policy with the interests of the Soviet Union—not China—in mind. While ostensibly there to help the Chinese, the Comintern presence was to ensure that China remained within the Soviet sphere of influence.
In the face of the resurgence of Japanese expansionist activities in the 1930s, the CCP’s staunch opposition to imperialism inspired what has been described as “peasant nationalism” (Johnson 1962). The CCP’s consistent policy of resistance drew into the CCP Page 296 | Top of Articlefold many students, intellectuals, and members of the middle class who had formerly supported the GMD. While the GMD’s appeasement of Japanese imperialism cost it popular support, the CCP effectively directed widespread feelings of anti-imperialism into a nationalist movement that helped the CCP to defeat Japan in 1945 and the GMD in 1949.
With the establishment of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1949, the imperialism that had threatened Chinese sovereignty for well over a century finally came to an end. However, the legacy of imperialism persisted: in historical narratives that portrayed China as a victim of foreign imperialism; in the urban landscape of areas that had once been international concessions; in the political rhetoric that categorically labeled all things foreign as evil; and in the underdevelopment of vast sectors of the Chinese economy. Certainly, more than a century of battling imperialism had left scars, both physical and psychological, on China and its people. But in the post-1949 era, as the CCP matured and emerged from the shadow of the Comintern, a new chapter began in China’s relationship with imperialism.
FROM COLD WAR TO “GREATER CHINA”
In a world dominated by the Cold War, history and geopolitics indicated that China would align with the Soviet Union against the United States in the ideological conflict between communism and capitalism. The “lean to one side” stance that would characterize China’s foreign policy until the mid-1950s, however, was not inevitable. Shortly after its founding, the PRC had hoped to establish diplomatic relations with the United States. However, the latter’s military presence in the Taiwan Strait following the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950 and the conclusion of a mutual defense treaty between the United States and Taiwan in 1954 hardened the PRC’s attitude toward the United States. Differences of opinion on the Taiwan issue also contributed to increasing tensions between China and the Soviet Union.
As relations with the Soviet Union began to cool, China’s foreign policy in the mid-1950s signaled a new emphasis on improving relations and forging alliances with the nonaligned countries in Africa and Asia. The Bandung Conference in 1955 came to symbolize the spirit of mutual cooperation, commitment to peaceful coexistence, and opposition to imperialism that informed China’s foreign policy. A modest foreign-aid program and a failed attempt to convene a conference of third-world countries in Algiers in 1965 attest to China’s ambition to lead the developing world.
The late 1960s witnessed escalating tensions between China and the Soviet Union over border skirmishes. Chinese leaders interpreted the Brezhnev doctrine, proclaimed in 1968 to justify the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, as a thinly disguised rationale for Soviet interference in the domestic affairs of countries in the communist world. In the hopes of gaining a powerful ally in the face of what appeared to be Soviet imperialism, China made overtures to the United States that would eventually lead to the normalization of relations between the two countries in 1979.
In many respects, the 1970s signaled an important shift in Chinese perceptions of the world and China’s place within it. In 1971 China gained membership in the United Nations, with a permanent seat on the Security Council. Despite its rhetorical commitment to developing countries and communism, China aligned itself with the developed countries and the institutions of global capitalism, joining the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and the World Trade Organization. When the collapse of the Soviet Union left the United States the sole superpower, China improved or established relations with countries in the Middle East, Central Asia, and Latin America, forming alliances to check American hegemony. Some of China’s neighbors, however, interpreted China’s actions as expansionist and took steps to protect themselves. Indonesia, for instance, set aside its long-standing differences with Australia and signed a mutual defense treaty in 1995.
As a result of the reforms launched under the leadership of Deng Xiaoping beginning in 1978, China has become an economic powerhouse in the Asia-Pacific region. Whether or not China will recapture its place of supremacy during its golden age of empire remains uncertain, particularly within today’s global system of sovereign nation-states. At the very least, the recovery of Taiwan and other areas considered to be part of China remains a top priority. Whatever the future holds, all signs indicate that the twenty-first century will be the Pacific century, with China playing a dominant if not central role.
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