Could China’s ‘Humiliation’ Have Been Avoided?

1250 words - 5 pages

The First Opium War marked a major transition in Chinese history as it brought the nation into a modern, Eurocentric interstate system and global economy. China would become exposed to Western imperialism, and such foreign aggression and encroachment epitomizes what the Chinese call the “Century of Humiliation” – the beginning of the period being attributed to this war. The question that is posed today is whether China could have avoided humiliation. I believe that the answer is no, and such an event was inevitable due to the irreconcilable cultural traditions of China and the West. Also see how tradition may have placed China at a disadvantage

First, it is important to address the ...view middle of the document...

These incompatible traditions of east and westwould plague sino-western relations, as the Chinese refused to see Europeans as equals, but instead dealt with them as “barbarians”, demanding that they acknowledge China’s supremacy and standard of civilization which included abiding to traditional codes of chinese justice (concept of group responsibility) and ritual practices. Diplomats were constantly frustrated by this, best illustrated in Lord Macartney’s failed mission in 1793 to negotiate trade when he refused to kowtow. The situation for foreign merchants was also frustrating. The Confucian view placed merchants as the lowest class as their role to them really consisted of just buying and selling what others made (no intellectual or physical effort). Coupled with the fact that China feared “barbarian influence” from foreign trade threatening its already declining Qing dynasty, merchants were therefore restricted to enclaves and were to abide by tough rules. To add further fuel to the fire, China’s perception of being the Middle Kingdom also entitled it to feel self-sufficient, and therefore required and I quote from a letter to George III “no need to import the manufactures of outside barbarians in exchange for our own produce. But as the tea, silk and porcelain which the Celestial Empire produces, are absolute necessities to European nations and to yourselves, we have permitted, as a signal mark of favour, that foreign hongs [merchant firms] should be established at Canton, so that your wants might be supplied and your country thus participate in our beneficence” superior-vassal. The Chinese would only want silver in return for their produce, and this ultimately led to a trade deficit favouring the Chinese, and going against the western tradition of commerce as capitalist free trade.

It is important to realize that the concept of sinocentrism and the Chinese world order had been cultivated and carried out over many centuries. As suggested by Suisheng Zhao, such political domination was often accompanied by political isolation – “Culturally, the system reinforced the preeminence of Confucian culture, which precluded the Chinese from accepting other cultures to an appreciable extent. It built up an attitude of superiority for the Chinese that made it difficult for them to adjust themselves to new and different systems” and we can see the difficulties the chinese had in accommodating the west. Indeed, it would have been hard for both China and the west to cooperate when they were both very much entrenched in their own traditions – So, hegemonic nature of chinese culture essentially gave rise to false security among emperors that world hierarchy was universal and that there were no other hierarches or sources of power in the world – this is because china rarely had a significant rivalry with anyone else – such...

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