Our Mission in China

The Making of a Special Relationship: The United States and China to 1914

by Michael H. Hunt
Columbia University Press, 416 pp., $27.50

The Missionary Mind and American East Asia Policy, 1911–1915

by James Reed
Harvard University Press, 258 pp., $20.00

This is the bicentennial year for contacts between the United States and China, since it was in 1784 that the merchant ship Empress of China sailed to Canton from New York. It was an auspicious beginning, at least for the American backers of the voyage; the trip netted them 30 percent profit in their investment.

In the ensuing years Americans joined with the British in reaping diplomatic and commercial gains from the Opium Wars of 1839 and 1858, before drifting off to chart their own foreign policy. Highlights of this policy included the “Open Door Notes” of 1899, the recognition of the new Chinese Republic in 1913, the Washington Conference of 1922, the dispatch of General Joseph Stilwell to serve with Chiang Kai-shek in 1942, and the non-recognition of the People’s Republic in the decades after 1949. It is perhaps the rosy tint that comes to this story from its peripheral relationship to America’s real problems that has led Americans across the years to hail this history as a “special” one, marked by warmth and understanding on both sides. The Chinese have, in general, been rather more skeptical. In his visit to New York this January the premier, Zhao Ziyang, sensibly described the long saga as one of “many vicissitudes.”

There has been an immense amount of American scholarly attention to Sino-US relations, and scores of competent monographs have been published, drawing from the diplomatic archives of the United States and Europe; yet because of the language barrier there has been no comprehensive scholarly study that attempted an examination of the Chinese and Western-language records at the same time, so that the vicissitudes could be examined in the light of the special relationship, and vice versa. Now Michael Hunt, a historian of diplomacy at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, has made an original and bold attempt to survey the whole story of the foreign, policy interplays between the two countries, from 1784 up to 1914.

Hunt is clearly a little nervous about the task he has undertaken, as is revealed by a couple of metaphors in the preface: he asks his readers if they are ready to “plow straight through this book,” and mentions how he himself “waded through a wide range of Chinese documents.” But the apologetic tone is unnecessary; his wading has left no scum upon the surface, and his guidance of the reader’s plow is firm and sure. With this volume Hunt confirms his reputation as a deft, comprehensive, and intelligent historian, and one can only hope he is already working on a second volume that will bring the story to the present.

In the first part of The Making of a Special Relationship, Hunt looks at what he calls an emergent “Open Door Constituency,” as Americans sized up the possibility of the profits to be made in the China trade, and fitted their hopes skillfully into the tough-minded foreign policy being conducted by the British. In the second, he examines the hardening of…

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