China's Unequal Treaties: Narrating National History

Article excerpt

China's Unequal Treaties: Narrating National History, by Dong Wang. Lanham: Lexington Books, 2005. x + 179 pp. US$60.00 (hardcover).

In China's Unequal Treaties, Dong Wang examines the linguistic development and polemical uses of the term "unequal treaties" in relation to the nationbuilding process experienced by modern China. She investigates the effects of the management of collective memory on the narration and interpretation of China's recent past and the resultant manipulation of patriotism by rulers and political parties competing for authority and legitimacy.

Her arguments are spread over 5 chapters. The first examines the changing perception and behavior of the Qing rulers and scholars managing the treaty system. Although the term "unequal treaties" had not yet gained currency, some related concepts were brewing. The second chapter casts light on the dual policy employed by the Foreign Ministry of the Beijing government. The Ministry made efforts to implement the treaty regulations at the local level while contesting the legal validity of unequal treaties at the diplomatic one.

The next three chapters make this book outstanding. The third chapter teases out the influential work done by the KMT and the CCP during the 1920s to delineate the parameter of unequal treaties rhetoric as a newly invented political lexicon. Catchphrases like "national humiliations" and "imperialists' oppression" permeated the discourse of this period. Both parties made use of such rhetoric to awaken society, despite the rhetoric itself being ambiguous and legally undefined in essence.

The fourth chapter further analyzes the rivalry of the parties over the unequal treaties during the next two decades when the discourse was utilized in an intense political struggle. During this period both parties criticized the unequal treaties in chorus, but differed widely over who deserved the crown of legitimated redeemer and genuine savior of the nation. The final success of the CCP, to a certain extent, hinges on having employed aggressive and effective propaganda tactics to discredit the misconduct of the KMT government.

After unveiling the politics of unequal treaties discourse, the last chapter concludes with a focus on China's particular experience of indigenizing international law in turbulent socio-political circumstances. It emphasizes that the context of China's own culture and history at a specific period of time should be considered seriously when exploring the entangled relationship of unequal treaties rhetoric, nationalism and the interpretation of the past. Nowadays, unequal treaties rhetoric has become a fixed paradigm in the Chinese mindset.

The framework of this book connects to the well-known "China-centered approach" stressed by the eminent Sinologist Paul A. …