A Rising China Needs a New National Story
The capture of a Chinese Imperial Dragon Standard at the Battle of Chusan during the First Opium War. Painting by Malcolm Greensmith. Malcolm Greensmith Collection/The Image Works
To move forward, the country must move on from its emphasis on a century of ‘national humiliation’
By ORVILLE SCHEL and JOHN DELURY – The Wall Street Journal, July 12, 2013
Every July, amid festivities and fireworks, the U.S. and France mark their birth as nations. Accustomed as we are in the West to histories that begin with triumph—the signing of the Declaration of Independence, the storming of the Bastille—it may seem strange that China, the fast-rising dynamo of the East, marks the beginning of its journey to modern nationhood in a very different way: with the shock of unexpected defeat and the loss of national greatness.
Many Chinese date the start of their modern history to Aug. 11, 1842, when the Qing Dynasty, by signing the Treaty of Nanjing, capitulated to Great Britain in order to end the disastrous First Opium War (1839-42). It was from this and many other subsequent defeats that China’s political elites—including the most progressive 20th-century reformers and revolutionaries—wove an entire national narrative of foreign exploitation and victimization. Even today, this fabric of ideas continues to hold powerful sway over China’s relations with the rest of the world.
The artifacts of China’s formative moment can be seen at the Temple of the Tranquil Seas, which sits on a narrow slice of land in the northwest part of Nanjing on the banks of the Yangtze River. It was here, in the oppressive heat of August 1842, that Chinese negotiators were forced to sit with their British counterparts and hammer out the crushing terms of the treaty. The negotiating chamber in the old temple has now been restored to something resembling its original state. A nearby exhibition covers the painful history of “China’s unequal treaties,” which imposed territorial concessions and onerous indemnities that remained in force until the 1940s.
The Temple of the Tranquil Seas serves as a curious porthole into this bitter past of foreign incursion and exploitation, from which both the Nationalist and Chinese Communist parties later constructed their ideologies. As the historical exhibit’s first panel explains: “Those unequal treaties were like fettering ropes of humiliation that made China lose control of her political and military affairs…. It was one of the major causes that rendered China poor and weak in modern history…and has become a symbol of the commencement of China’s modern history.”
For Chinese reformers, however, there was, in this record of impotence and inferiority, also a paradoxical promise of redemption. Being overwhelmed by materially stronger but culturally inferior foreign powers—Chinese leaders called them “barbarians”—may have been a profound humiliation, but it also served as motivation for China to regenerate itself as a great power. As Mao Zedong declared in founding the People’s Republic in 1949, “The Chinese have always been a great courageous and industrious nation; it is only in modern times that they have fallen behind…. Ours will no longer be a nation subject to insult and humiliation.”
This morality play continues to shape the Chinese imagination. As the last panel in the exhibit room of the Temple of Tranquil Seas explains: “It is hard to look back upon this humiliating history…. But the abolishment of the unequal treaties has shown the Chinese people’s unwavering spirit of struggle for independence and self-strengthening. To feel shame is to approach courage.”
In this authorized version of modern Chinese history, 1842 is Year One. Every Chinese high-school student is expected to know the official narrative dividing Chinese history neatly into pre-Opium War and post-Opium War periods. It is China’s counterpart to the familiar American exercise of learning the preamble of the Declaration of Independence.
To fully appreciate the trauma of these historical experiences, one must understand not just the shock of China’s defeat in the First Opium War but also the cascade of further defeats that soon followed. Historically, the Chinese had very little experience in questioning the fundamental assumptions of their culture and ways of governance. When imperial officials finally began to understand that their country had become the hapless “sick man of Asia,” in the words of Liang Qichao, a towering intellectual figure at the turn of the last century, they established an abiding view of China as having been preyed upon by its foreign rivals.
Today, the psychological and cultural habits developed during this dismal era of Chinese history continue to color and distort China’s relations with the rest of the world, especially the U.S., which has taken the place of Great Britain as the world’s superpower. In one of his first speeches as General Secretary of the Communist Party, President Xi Jinping recollected the “unusual hardship and sacrifice” suffered by his country in modern times. “But the Chinese people have never given in,” Mr. Xi continued.
The historical memories on display at the Temple of the Tranquil Seas have had positive effects as well. One can hear their echo in China’s determination to rejuvenate itself regain wealth and power, and become a nation of consequence once again. It is this urge that Mr. Xi tries to encourage by speaking proudly of a “China dream.”
Still, it is time for China and the more vociferous propagandists in Beijing to move beyond declarations about China’s “one hundred years of national humiliation.” That period has come to an end. The world has changed, China and the West have changed, and a new narrative is necessary for China to achieve its declared aim of equality and a “new type of great power relationship.”
Only when China is ready to define itself with a more constructive national story will it be able to take its place in full partnership with a nation born, in a moment of affirmation, on a distant Fourth of July.
—Mr. Schell is the Arthur Ross Director of the Center on U.S.-China Relations at the Asia Society in New York City. Mr. Delury is a professor of history at Yonsei University in Seoul, South Korea. They are the co-authors of “Wealth and Power: China’s Long March to the 21st Century,” which has just been published by Random House.