Just as Donald Trump was being inaugurated last January, the People’s Daily, the mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party, declared: “Western-style democracy used to be a recognized power in history to drive social development. But now it has reached its limits.” Two years earlier, China’s education minister, Yuan Guiren, told a conference of academics that they should “by no means allow teaching materials that disseminate Western values in our classrooms.”1 These statements are just two examples of an ever more evident theme of Xi Jinping’s tenure as China’s paramount leader. Behind the strident rhetoric lies a long-standing fear that somehow the “West” will take over and destroy China’s sense of itself.
The fear may be misplaced, but it is not surprising. The West and China have been intertwined for nearly two centuries, and the relationship has often been unhappy. What the Chinese call the “century of humiliation,” from the mid-1800s to the mid-1900s, lies at the heart of their political thinking about the wider world. The arrival of gunboats, missionaries, and the opium trade resulting in the Opium Wars of the mid-nineteenth century made Chinese observers believe that all Westerners had to offer was violence and commercialism.
In the early twentieth century, the Chinese writers and intellectuals who championed a “New Culture” movement advocated adoption of Western political and cultural concepts such as Social Darwinism and anarchism while simultaneously rejecting the imperialist presence of Western nations. Today, too, the Chinese government officially speaks of the need for “internationalization”—through increasing its involvement with the UN and sending thousands of Chinese students overseas every year—while also warning its educators and students about the pernicious influence of the “West,” an ill-defined concept that apparently includes liberalism and constitutional reform but not Marxism or industrial capitalism.
During much of the period from the mid-nineteenth century through the mid-twentieth century, China ceded territory and sovereignty to Britain, France, America, Russia, and Austria-Hungary, as well as its Asian neighbor Japan. In his new book, Out of China, Robert Bickers stresses the importance of this history for Westerners who wish to understand Chinese attitudes toward the wider world, although he remains skeptical of the idea—characteristic of much contemporary Chinese scholarship—that the period amounted to an “unrelenting Chinese nightmare.” His thoughtful, engaging, and well-written analysis helps to separate fact from myth when it comes to understanding the nature of Chinese nationalism.
Out of China is a panoramic examination of the increasingly powerful articulation of China’s national identity in the twentieth century and the country’s painful encounter with Western imperialism. The book picks up from the end of Bickers’s last major work, The Scramble for China (2011), which detailed the rise of Western influence in China up to the 1911 revolution that overthrew the last emperor, Puyi.…
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