Magazine article Foreign Affairs

History with Chinese Characteristics: How China’s Imagined Past Shapes Its Present

Magazine article Foreign Affairs

History with Chinese Characteristics: How China’s Imagined Past Shapes Its Present

Article excerpt

History With Chinese Characteristics: How China’s Imagined Past Shapes Its Present

Everything Under the Heavens: How the Past Helps Shape China's Push for Global Power BY HOWARD W. FRENCH. Knopf, 2017, 352 pp.

The Beautiful Country and the Middle Kingdom: America and China, 1776 to the Present BY JOHN POMFRET. Henry Holt, 2016, 704 pp.

On November 15, 2012, the day he became general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, Xi Jinping stood onstage at the Great Hall of the People, in Beijing, to reflect back on his country's 5,000 years of history. After citing China's "indelible contribution" to world civilization, Xi called for "the great revival of the Chinese nation." And he acknowledged that others had "failed one time after another" to realize that goal. Implicit in Xi's remarks was a promise: unlike his predecessors, he would not fall short.

Xi's narrative of rejuvenation has resonated deeply among today's Chinese. It places the country not only at the center of the international system but also above it, casting the nation as one that inspires emulation by the force of its advanced culture and economic achievements. It also evokes historical memories of a time when China received tribute from the rest of the world, was a source of world-class innovation, and was a fearless seafaring power. And it implies that in the past, China did not need to use force: its virtue alone engendered deference from others.

Xi is not the first contemporary Chinese leader to call for national revival. Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin, and Hu Jintao all embraced the theme of rejuvenation or invigoration to remind the Chinese people of past glories in an attempt to bind them to modern China. Xi has, however, surpassed his predecessors in the sheer scale of his efforts to achieve the goal of national revival. He has put in motion a massive infrastructure plan, the Belt and Road Initiative, which is designed to revive the ancient Silk Road and the maritime spice routes that flourished as early as the Han dynasty, thus reinforcing the claim of Chinese centrality. He has also articulated the idea of a "new type of great-power relations," whereby China would enjoy the status of a global power on par with the United States. And he has revived the country's centuries-old claims to the South China Sea and other disputed areas.

Beyond providing China's leadership with a legitimating rationale at home, this narrative also has the benefit of suggesting to the rest of the world that the current situation-in which the United States is the reigning Pacific power, the global leader in innovation, and the country with unrivaled soft power-is merely a historical aberration. Xi's rhetoric suggests that China today is simply reclaiming its proper place in the global order and righting the scales of history.

Because of the confidence with which Xi, other officials, and Chinese strategists assert their historical right to future greatness-as well as the Communist Party's lack of a vibrant tradition of historiography-this story has gone largely unchallenged. Yet two fascinating new books-Howard French's Everything Under the Heavens and John Pomfret's The Beautiful Country and the Middle Kingdom-suggest that there is much more to the story. French's book raises important questions about the accuracy of the rejuvenation narrative, and Pomfret offers a nuanced study of China's relations with the United States. Both books use their historical findings as a jumping off point to explain contemporary China and advise U.S. officials formulating policy toward it.


French pays greatest attention to China's relations with its neighbors. He doesn't dispute the basics of the rejuvenation narrative, portraying China as the preeminent power in Asia for the roughly 1,300-year period from the beginning of the Tang dynasty, in 618, to nearly the end of the Qing, in 1912. As French describes, under the principle of Chinese centrality known as tian xia (all under heaven), China loosely governed the region through a hierarchical order of relations in the form of the "tribute system" (although, as French notes, the Chinese did not use that term). …

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