The Roots of Chinese Xenophobia - during Most of the Twentieth Century, Chinese Schools Taught History as a Series of Guo Chi, or National Humiliations Caused by Foreign Powers

By Hickey, Dennis Van Vranken | The World and I, July 2002 | Go to article overview

The Roots of Chinese Xenophobia - during Most of the Twentieth Century, Chinese Schools Taught History as a Series of Guo Chi, or National Humiliations Caused by Foreign Powers


Hickey, Dennis Van Vranken, The World and I


In 1900, the American public reacted with horror to newspaper accounts describing a siege of hundreds of foreign diplomats and civilians who were trapped inside a diplomatic compound in Peking, China. The atrocities committed by some members of the Chinese population--in this instance instigated by a group known as the Boxers--seemed incomprehensible and barbaric to many in the international community.

Almost one century later--in 1999 to be exact--the American public once again expressed surprise and bewilderment as news stories depicted Chinese mobs attacking the U.S. Embassy in Beijing. In both cases, strong evidence suggested that the Chinese government tacitly condoned the sieges. At the same time, however, it appeared that the assaults enjoyed widespread popular approval.

When seeking to explain these and other ugly incidents, Western news reports traditionally dismissed them as symbols of Chinese irrationality and xenophobia. More recently, they are ascribed simply to a particularly virulent and nasty brand of nationalism. Unfortunately, little effort is directed toward uncovering the reasons why the Chinese sometimes seem xenophobic, angry, or irrational.

The Chinese paradigm

The concept of paradigms is borrowed from Thomas Kuhn, who employed them to describe advances in science. A paradigm may be defined as a basic assumption in a field of science. The acceptance of these assumptions is shared by practitioners in a given field and usually is not subject to widespread discussion or debate. Over time, paradigms may shift, but this change often comes very slowly.

Some scholars have suggested that the concept may be applied to the orientation of a nation and its population. A country's foreign policy paradigm is shaped by critical events. For example, the Japanese sneak attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 culminated in a paradigm shift in American policy. Following the attack, the United States abandoned isolationism and adopted an interventionist and internationalist approach to foreign policy--an approach that many believe remains intact today.

A series of cataclysmic events led China to adopt a distinctly different outlook. Beijing eyes much of the global community with deep suspicion and distrust--particularly the most powerful states in the international system. When provided the opportunity, it believes, these governments will use their power to bully, dismember, and humiliate China.

The Chinese also suspect that many of the problems confronting their country--particularly troubles relating to territorial sovereignty and economic development--may be traced to the actions of foreign powers. It is noteworthy that the central tenets of this paradigm were shared by the governing elites in both the Republican and communist eras of China's modern history.

Why do the Chinese hold such a dark view of international politics? Why does the population sometimes appear xenophobic and paranoid to outside observers? Why does Beijing suspect that foreign powers work to keep the country divided and weak? This article seeks to address these questions.

The national humiliations

During most of the twentieth century, Chinese schools taught history as a series of guo chi, or national humiliations. Consequently, the Chinese tend to see numerous events--ranging from the accidental American bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade to the midair collision between a Chinese warplane and an American spy plane near Hainan Island--as major embarrassments.

Less dramatic incidents--ranging from trade disputes to quarrels over the location of the Olympic Games--are also considered prime examples of guo chi. To the Chinese, it's simply a matter of history repeating itself. A review of some of their country's major defeats and humiliations at the hands of foreign governments may help readers understand this perspective. …

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