Academic journal article Forum on Public Policy: A Journal of the Oxford Round Table

America's Changing Views of China: Through the Eyes of Janus

Academic journal article Forum on Public Policy: A Journal of the Oxford Round Table

America's Changing Views of China: Through the Eyes of Janus

Article excerpt


The history of United States' relations with China began within five years of the founding of the United States. From our first contacts in 1784, until today, our image and thus our relations with China have followed a dualistic pattern. This pattern is like the two faces of the Roman god Janus. One face is seen as benevolent, the other face is en as malevolent. This paper will discuss the history of these two faces so that we can understand how United States-Chinese relations have gotten to this point in history and what might be the future of those relations.


Steven W. Mosher quoting Thomas Friedman writes "Men have never taken the world just as it comes. We need to explain the world to ourselves, and to do so, we have used stories, myths and fables-to record our experiences and shape our values. In most cultures, these narratives are tied together in what has been called a 'super story'." (1).

The history of America's perceptions of China is based on two such super stories. Stories I like to think of as the two faces of Janus. This presentation is a history of those stories. I will direct most of my focus to the pre-Communist period when the foundation of the 'Super Stories' took place, and comment only briefly on how these stories continued in the period after 1949.


Three basic characteristics can be found in the history of America's perceptions of China. The first characteristic is dualism. The images, or 'super stories' Americans have created of China are like the two-faced Roman god Janus. First the eyes of one face, the Confucian face, open and we see China as wise and benevolent. Then the eyes the other face of Janus opens, and the face of Fu-Manchu appears: sinister, barbaric, villainous, a dragon threatening to devour all that is within its path. Harold Isaacs writes that "... two sets of images rise and fall, move in and out of the center of peoples minds over time, never wholly displacing each other, always coexisting, each ready to emerge at the fresh call of circumstances, always new, yet instantly garbed in all the words and pictures of a much written literature, made substantial and unique in each historic instance by the reality of recurring experience." (2).

The second characteristic is the relative ease with which American opinion shifts back and forth between the two faces of China. Perhaps no issue has seen such a see-sawing of American opinion as that of China. What makes the issue even more complicated is that often during periods of transition, the dual images are held simultaneously and we see both faces of Janus at the same time. Today is such a period. This explains the confusion in many American minds over which is the true face of China.

The final characteristic is that these popular images are often created by what Steven Mosher calls "culture brokers". (3) The images which these Culture brokers produce are often distorted, since these individuals and groups often have hidden agendas or simply lack a direct, in depth, knowledge of China and its culture. Consequently they often present a picture of China and its culture which is far from the reality of China. (4)

The study of our changing views of China is one of considerable importance for Americans. China, while on the opposite side of the world from the United States, has played a special role in the history of the American economy, American diplomacy and even more importantly, the American psyche. (5) The tea dumped into Boston Harbor was from China and America's first Most Favored Nation treaty (MFN) was with China.

Just as important as what our views of China say about China is what these views say about our vision of America. A writer often reads his own experiences into the subject. (6) Our views of China, therefore, are often distorted not simply because they are often based on incorrect facts, but because they often reflect the views and hopes we hold for ourselves. …

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