Tiananmen Square: China’s Human Rights Issues

Infamous photo of “Tank Man” standing up to PLA tanks during 1989 Tiananmen protests.

Week 13’s focus saw the transition to a much more familiar topic in today’s dialogue, that unfortunately being human rights issues. It was a disappointing contrast to the diplomatic and relatively tolerant image of Deng Xiaoping I was left with last week. Naturally, the highly infamous Tiananmen Square protests were the at the center of this topic. Following years of successful marketization, and the beginning of some political reforms, many in China began to desire even greater reform, especially students in the cities. Demonstrations beginning in 1989 to honor Hu Yaobang’s following his death escalated over the months into full fledged protests, numbering in the hundreds of thousands. The CCP ultimately chose to crackdown on these protests violently, sending PLA tanks and infantry to march on the protestors, and sometimes, firing into the public indiscriminately. These protests and the reactionary response of the CCP rightly drew widespread condemnation internationally, and to this day remains a turning point in public opinion on China in the West.

It was during these protests that the famed footage of the Tank Man, seen in the photo above, was captured. The photos depict a Chinese civilian, casually dressed and carrying what appear to be groceries, standing before a line of tanks. They attempt to go around him, and the operators eventually begin arguing with him, but he refuses to back down, and they remarkably refrain from simply plowing past him as was well within their capabilities. The image captured of the standoff has become an iconic symbol of nonviolent resistance. Also in 1989 was the awarding of the Nobel Peace Price to the Dalai Lama, drawing further spotlight onto the human rights situation in Tibet, where government induced migration threatened to make them into a minority in their own country, and where Tibetans fought a near constant struggle to retain their cultural identity. Unfortunately, despite the widespread notoriety and backlash surrounding these events, it seems that very little progress has been made since.

In 1994, President Clinton affirmed China’s status as “Most Favorable Nation”, a status the granted generous trade privileges to the chosen nation. His justification was that this would “avoid isolating China”, and if I’m understanding his reasoning correctly, that this connection would encourage them to improve their human rights record on their own. Some might say he is clearly avoiding the issue and only focusing on American trade interests, while others might think he genuinely believed this to be the best option. I think it’s likely that a bit of both is true. Either way, this approach did not have the desired effect in the end. China’s human rights record has not improved much, and they have only grown stronger and less swayable by international pressure since then, as the recent crackdowns in Hong Kong, the continued occupation of Tibet, and of course the plight of the Uighers can attest to.


“Dalai Lama and “Ahimsa: for Tibet: The Nobel Peace Prize Lecture, December 10, 1989” In The Search for Modern China: A Documentary Collection. Third ed. Edited by Janet Chen et. al. W. W. Norton & Company, 2014.

“Deng Xiaoping’s Explanation fo the crackdown, June 9, 1989” In The Search for Modern China: A Documentary Collection. Third ed. Edited by Janet Chen et. al. W. W. Norton & Company, 2014.

“President Clinton Reevaluates Human Rights as element of China Policy, May 27, 1994” In The Search for Modern China: A Documentary Collection. Third ed. Edited by Janet Chen et. al. W. W. Norton & Company, 2014.

Opening Up under Deng Xiaoping

Deng Xiaoping inspecting troops with President Jimmy Carter during his visit to the US.
From Wikimedia

Week 12 covered the beginning of post-Mao China. with the opening up of the nation under Deng Xiaoping. Prior to Deng’s rise to power in 1978, Chinese leadership was hotly divided between the Mao’s leftwing faction, and a rightwing faction lead by Zhou Enlai. When these two died in the same year, it was ultimately the rightwing faction that came out on top in the ensuing power struggle, despite Mao designating Hua Guofeng among the leftwing faction as his successor. (Moise 200) Zhou Enlai and the rightwing faction opposed the strict restrictions that Mao had implemented during the Cultural Revolution up to that point, and wasted little time in pursuing reversive policies once they’d consolidated power. Similarly as to when China first opened up for the first time in the previous century, albeit under different circumstances, they began by creating special economic zones with eased market restrictions in select appealing coastal cities. As Nixon had done earlier in the decade with his revolutionary visit to China and meeting with Zhou, Deng travelled to the United States to meet with Jimmy Carter and tour the country. This honey moon period did not proceed without bumps indefinitely, however, as tensions over territorial sovereignty issues.

One of Deng’s most important long-term goals was to complete the unification of all Chinese territory under the PRC. In particular, this meant the reunification of Taiwan with the mainland, the transfer of Hong Kong’s sovereignty from the UK to China, and the assortment of Chinese sovereignty over Tibet. The first two were especially important to both Deng and the rest of China for the symbolism of these territories as the final reminders of the Century of Humiliation. Predictably, most of the people within these three territories did not share this sentiment, nor did their supporters in the West. Thus, Deng would have to balance this goal with his other desire to continue improving relations. (Vogel 485-491)

Ultimately, Hong Kong was transferred peacefully from the UK to China shortly after Deng’s death, though his efforts to reintegrate Taiwan and resolve Tibetan unrest were largely fruitless. Nevertheless, my impression of Deng is one of a skilled and reasonable diplomat, at least in this context. He seemed in my view to possess a genuine desire to negotiate in good faith. He partook in multiple rounds of dialogue with foreign leaders to further his objectives peacefully and cooperatively wherever possible, and was willing to make rather generous concessions to those living in these territories. Deng spearheaded the “one country, two systems” policy and made numerous overtures to convince the people of Hong Kong he was sincere, including addressing them unscripted and transparently to explain his plans, and offering allow Hong Kong to continue under the system they currently had for as many as one thousand years. In Tibet, Deng loosened restrictions on various cultural practices, and showed remarkable respect for the Dalai Lama.


Dillon, Michael. China: A Modern History. London: I.B. Tauris, 2010.

Moïse Edwin E. Modern China: A History Third ed. Harlow, England: Pearson/Longman, 2008.

“Special Economic Zones (SEZs).” In A Dictionary of Contemporary History – 1945 to the present, by Duncan Townson. Blackwell Publishers, 1999.

Vogel, Ezra F. “One Country, Two Systems: Taiwan, Hong Kong, Tibet.” In Deng Xiaoping and the Transformation of China. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2011.

Nixon’s Visit

Wikimedia: President Richard Nixon and First Lady Pat Nixon touring the Great Wall of China during his visit.

Week 11 covered one of the more well-known events (at least from my educational background) covered by the span of this course, President Richard Nixon’s visit to China in the early 1970s. This marked a monumental shift in Cold War politics. The Sino-Soviet split of the previous decade, which saw the breakdown of the friendship between the USSR and communist China, coupled with this cooling of relations with the United States was sure to give the latter a significant advantage over the USSR with regard to influence in the Pacific and East Asia.

It was amusing to read about how China used Pandas as diplomatic bargaining tools. I was only vaguely aware of this “Panda diplomacy” previously, and I did not know that Nixon’s China visit is actually what largely set this practice in motion in modern times. The symbolism of Pandas as gracious and highly esteemed gifts loosely reminded me once again of China’s traditional worldview, with China at the center of the world and having the best things, such as silk (though they might be right as far Pandas go). The high demand for Pandas in zoos around the world following this, and China’s recognition of that fact, also echoed themes from the first weeks of the course of China dismissing the need for trade with the West because China already had “everything”.

Returning focus to Nixon’s visit, I’ve often heard that in the absence of Watergate, many policies of Nixon’s presidency were actually fairly good, and I believe there is good reason to consider his stance on China as such. Almost any decision a politician can make can be met with the question “is this action truly beneficial, or just meant to look good?” Notwithstanding the notably different circumstances, I can’t help but draw parallels to President Obama’s attempts to cool relations with Cuba and President Trump’s attempts to reach out to North Korea. These two more recent diplomatic policies have a cursory similarity with Nixon’s visit to China, and in both cases, questions about the sincerity and efficacy of these overtures were at the forefront. In Nixon’s case, I’m inclined to believe it was more than just a publicity stunt. Despite having fallen out with the USSR, China remained a communist country. If anything, I would expect that Nixon would probably be more likely to predict the public would be unfavorable. Nixon was rather willing to overlook China’s system of government in exchange for greater cooperation against a rival that was more dangerous in the eyes of the US.


Cunningham, Maura Elizabeth. “Panda-monium at the Bronx Zoo: A History“. Mauracunningham.org. February 8, 2018. (8 min read)

Richard Nixon and Zhou Enlai, “Toasts at a Banquet Honoring the Premier“, February 25, 1972.

Richard Nixon: Speeches, Writings, Documents. Edited by Rick Perlstein. James Madison Library in American Politics. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010.

Historical Hidden Gem: African Americans and China

W.E.B Du Bois with Mao Zedong, from University of Massachusetts Amherst Libraries.

For  week 10’s assignments, we were directed to a vast bibliographical database of literature pertaining to the history of black civil rights and China. This topic has been neglected in the past by historians, as some of the sources will admit. Before these readings, I hadn’t even been aware of W.E.B Du Bois’s relationship with China and the Communist Party. I chose a 2013 review I came across here by Gao Yunxiang exploring Du Bois’s, and his wife Shirley Graham Du Bois’s visits to China, and their interactions thereat. This source also described their views and others’ regarding each other, and the evolution of these views through time.

            This review, like the other required readings, described the meeting of W.E.B Du Bois and Mao Zedong. There is no doubt that both parties stood to gain politically from this meeting. The CCP by increasing civil unrest in the United States while boosting their legitimacy to African countries in pursuit of support, and Du Bois by pressuring the United States to further reform in the short term and helping to unite China and Africa against European imperialism in the long term. However, I also believe that there was also genuine well intent in this visit. Gao points out that during the Du Bois’ travel, “border officials asked if they wanted to keep the visit quiet to avoid irritating the American State Department”, despite the fact that this would surely lessen some of the visit’s political impact. (Gao) This review begins, however, by describing some of Du Bois’s earlier views on China and Asia, particularly during and leading up to World War II. For much of this period, Du Bois supported a pan-Asiatic alliance to cast down European and US imperialism in the region. He urged Japan and China to set aside their quarrel and cooperate, being the main two powers in the region. Later, he went as far as to reluctantly support Japan’s actions in the 1930s as necessary to bring about such change. As Gao describes it, Du Bois justified Japanese aggression by arguing that European imperialism was a greater evil and that Japan was most capable of carrying out this pan-Asian revolution.

            These views are certainly controversial, but they do offer an interesting perspective often overlooked in this period. However, I must admit that I disagree with this sentiment, as Japan had no interest in doing as Du Bois hoped. In my opinion, Du Bois also overlooks that Japan imitated and even collaborated with Western powers in its imperial ambitions long before the 1930s. Even so, I also admit that I can make this conclusion with the advantage of historical hindsight that Du Bois did not have, and that his experiences with racism and firsthand observation of Asian imperialism that I lack could quite reasonably have led to his controversial views.


Gao, Yunxiang. “W. E. B. AND SHIRLEY GRAHAM DU BOIS IN MAOIST CHINA.” Du Bois Review: Social Science Research on Race 10, no. 1 (2013): 59–85. doi:10.1017/S1742058X13000040.

Johnson M.D. “From Peace to the Panthers: PRC Engagement with African-American Transnational Networks, 1949-1979.” Past and Present 218, no. Suppl.8 (2013): 233–57.

“Statement by Mao Tse-Tung, Chairman of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China, in Support of the Afro-American Struggle Against Violent Repression, April 16, 1968” In Afro Asia: Revolutionary Political and Cultural Connections between African Americans and Asian Americans. Book Collections on Project Muse. Edited by Bill Mullen and Fred Wei-han Ho, 94-96. Durham: Duke University Press, 2008.

W. E. B. Du Bois and Mao Tse-Tung, ca. 1959. W. E. B. Du Bois Papers (MS 312). Special Collections and University Archives, University of Massachusetts Amherst Libraries

The Last Dynasty Falls: Rise of the Nationalists and Communists

Map of major Chinese Warlord coalitions following Qing collapse, from Wikipedia

This week in the course, we looked at the interregnum period, so to speak, of China. Beginning with the fall of the Qing in 1911, the last of a long line of Chinese imperial dynasties spanning nearly three thousand years. This period was dominated by the rule of numerous disorganized warlords vying for control of different fragments of Qing power. This period also saw the beginnings of the Nationalist and Communist movements in China that would dominate Chinese politics through the first half of the twentieth century, and continue to today.

The texts we read involved a number of Westerners staying in China during this period. In contrast to the danger faced by foreigners years earlier during the Boxer Rebellion, these observers, by all accounts, seemed quite safe and at ease in comparison to missionaries and their families we’d focused on during the Boxer Rebellion. By this time, the Great Powers had a strong influence over China, politically, and especially economically. One of the Western visitors to China during this period was an American civil engineer named O. J. Todd. Todd was commissioned by the government to engineer the Yellow River such that flooding was more controlled. Though the Chinese have been utilizing the oft-occurring floods of the Yellow and Yangtze Rivers for centuries, the instability of this intergovernmental period left the Chinese people vulnerable to them. A number of independent organizations and individuals including “Western missionaries, the International Red Cross, and a number of individuals like Todd” were willing to provide aid. (Spence 206)

I wonder about what Todd’s motivation for rendering his services was. On the one hand, Todd was among the aforementioned group who provided aid to China during these disasters when the governments of the Western nations wished not to do so. On the other hand, much of his enthusiasm seems to stem more from the fact that he would get recognition and prestige from being one of the first to engineer the Yellow River with modern technology, rather than benefit the people living there. He also takes on a patronizing tone when speaking of the Chinese, and it wasn’t unexpected to see, making remarks such as “the feeble efforts of the natives” when referring to the Chinese means of controlling the river and stating of his work there, “[it would be] the Western engineer who would show this patient, plodding people.” (Spence 205-207)

 Something that once more stands out to me is the seeming change in attitude towards foreigners in China only a few decades after the Boxer rebellion. Granted, they certainly weren’t welcomed with open arms, but the fact that they seemed to be able to conduct their business relatively freely.


Spence, Jonathan D. To Change China: Western Advisers in China, 1620-1960. New York: Penguin Books, 1980. First published 1969 by Little, Brown, and Co.

Snow, Edgar. Red Star Over China. 1st rev. and enl. ed. New York: Grove Press, 1968, First published 1938 by Random House.

Chinese in America: A Tragic Beginning

Chinese laborers employed by the Central Pacific Railroad. From the Smithsonian

This week, we focused a little more on the Western side of the course, taking a look at the history of Chinese immigrants to the United States. As I myself identify in part with the Asian American community (half Filipino), this topic connects with me personally. As such, hearing and reading about this treatment in detail was challenging, even though my family comes from elsewhere in Asia. Like most ‘new’ groups of immigrants, the Chinese in the mid to late Nineteenth Century faced discrimination, and in many cases, blatant inequality. Though I’d learned about such laws as the Chinese Exclusion Act targeting Chinese and other immigrants in high school, it wasn’t explored very deeply, and I must admit I hadn’t remembered much about it.

The Chinese Exclusion Act, passed in 1882, completely barred Chinese laborers from emigrating to the United States, effectively suspending all Chinese immigration. This was a reversal of the policies of Lincoln/Seward/Burlingame who sought to foster friendlier relations with the Qing, and negotiated treaties granting favorable immigration rules for Chinese nationals. Despite the invaluable contribution of Chinese laborers to the United States even at this early stage to the construction of the critically important trans-continental railroad and the California gold rush, they were seen by Californians as “heathens” with an “impenetrable language” that would prevent them from ever being able to fully integrate them into America, and even made them dangerous. (Molina 2)

I was struck that despite all of this, the Chinese community here still seemed to advocate for American democracy, despite the fact that they themselves had, at that time, not at all been among the benefactors of the system. In the documentary we watched, I was moved by how an advocate in the Chinese American community, Norman Asing, pleaded with Governor Bigler of California to reverse some of his state policies targeting the Chinese, and how he cited the Constitution and lauded American values to make his point, rather than denouncing the system itself. Something he would be well within his rights to do as it had done nothing for him thus far.

Today, though we’ve come a long way, these attitudes have not been completely eliminated. Something I learned in sociology sophomore year was that Chinese and other Asian American ethnicities have been touted as the “model minority” for purportedly integrating the most thoroughly, and for successfully attaining high socioeconomic status/success compared to Latino and African American minorities. This notion is mostly inaccurate however, and is often used as little more than justification for opposing more support for government intervention in systemic issues. Especially in light of the coronavirus and our increasingly frosty relations with China, anti-Chinese sentiment seems to be peaking through once again.


The Chinese Exclusion Act”. Directed by Burns, Ric and Li-Shin Yu. Public Broadcasting Service, 2018. https://video-alexanderstreet-com.muhlenberg.idm.oclc.org/watch/the-chinese-exclusion-act.

Molina, Natalia. “Chapter 1: Interlopers in the Land of Sunshine: Chinese Disease Carriers, Launderers, and Vegetable Peddlers”. In Fit to Be Citizens?: Public Health and Race in Los Angeles, 1879-1939. American Crossroads, 20. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006.

The Taiping Rebellion: A Forgotten War

Banner used by the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom, from Wikipedia. (Dragon seems to be taking the form of a cross)

Our topic in this week’s class was the Taiping rebellion, a conflict in which a Christianized opposition movement called the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom lead an uprising against the Qing dynasty. This war was similar to, and contemporary with, the American Civil War, though the Taiping rebellion would end up dwarfing its American counterpart in scale. It’s worth mentioning just how surprised I was to learn about this conflict in the way I did. One of the first things I read that I can confirm with my own experience, is that this war is seldom taught outside of China, and despite the scale of the event, most people are not aware of its occurrence, and it is often not even regarded by most people as among the important events of this period in world history. Yet this conflict resulted in 20 to 30 million deaths. (Meyer-Fong 2) The American Civil War, by comparison, resulted in slightly over 620,000 deaths, which itself is more American lives lost than in any other war. It is simply astounding that this conflict is so seldom talked about outside of this specific course topic, despite it resulting in the greatest loss of life of any war short of the World Wars, and likely the greatest loss by a single country ever in a single conflict.

In the main reading for this week, historian Tobie Meyer-Fong discussed the changing perceptions of the Taiping rebellion across different points in time, as well as in different countries and by different groups. The communists of the Cold War era touted the Taiping as “predecessors”, and went to lengths to draw comparisons between the Taiping and themselves, particularly along the lines of property redistribution and patriotism in resisting the non-Han Chinese rule of the Manchu Qing dynasty (Meyer-Fong 13).

It wasn’t exactly surprising that this event is mostly glossed over in general Western history lessons. We tend to have a US/Euro-centric view of history, with China often framed as a nation that was closed off to the rest of the world until they were forced to open up during the Boxer Rebellion. To an extent, it is true that they were more of an isolationist countries than, for instance, Japan, which largely embraced Westernization in the nineteenth century. On the other hand, China was undoubtedly still heavily involved in world politics despite their isolationism, as British intervention in the Taiping rebellion was tied in part to their decision not to remain neutral in the US Civil War. Furthermore, the very name for the conflict commonly used in the English language, the Taiping ‘Rebellion’, is a direct result of Britain and America siding with the Qing dynasty (Meyer-Fong 11); the rebels were widely referred to as a Revolutionary Movement by supporters in contemporary times, rather than as a rebellion.


Meyer-Fong, Tobie S. What Remains: Coming to Terms with Civil War in 19th Century China. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2013.

Review of The Taiping Heavenly Kingdom: Rebellion and the Blasphemy of Empire, by Thomas H. Reilly. Church History 74, no. 4 (2005)

Opium War: The Start of the Century of Humiliation

British frigates destroying Chinese war junks, depicted by E. Duncan 1843 (from Wikimedia)

            This week’s topic was the First Opium War, perhaps one of the most famous and arguable consequential imperialist conflicts of the 19th century between a Western power and China. Building off last week, the state of British trade power in the east during the mission of Macartney and shortly after was not exactly where they wanted it to be. The British relied on this trade for valuable commodities, such as tea and silk, that only the Chinese could supply. On the revere, the British were restricted in where they could trade, and the demand for their manufactured goods was much lower than British demand for China’s aforementioned goods. To offset this trade imbalance, the British East India Company illicitly set up a system whereby it secretly arranged for the selling of opium to the Chinese population. Funds from this drug trade, which was illegal in China, were used to purchase the goods desired by the British, equalizing the trade imbalance significantly. Using their technologically more advanced military, the British gained the upper hand, eventually forced a number of treaties on the Qing ending the Canton system and creating highly favorable trading conditions for the British. These treaties eventually led to greater and greater concessions demanded of the Chinese over the next century that would completely subdue her to Western ambitions, beginning the so-called Century of Humiliation.

            The readings for this week provide us with some of the justifications each side had for their stance on the conflict. The Chinese position was understandably expected. It was well understood by them that opium had harmful effects, and an alarming number of people were beginning to suffer addiction. In a letter to the young Queen Victoria, Lin Zexu pleads with the British to put a stop to this. This correspondence was rather fascinating to me. Despite the gravity of the situation, Lin’s letter is cordial at the surface, filled with compliments in the opening as past writings we’ve seen have been. Lin writes, “The kings of your honorable country by a tradition handed down from generation to generation have always been noted for their politeness and submissiveness.” (Lin 202) Later, Lin makes a very reasonable argument as to why the opium trade must stop, citing the harm it was causing to China’s people, which he would not expect the British to allow of its own people. (Lin 203) Additionally, he argues that it is a very poor way for the British to repay the Chinese for their “grace” in allowing tea, silk, and other valuable goods to flow into Britain. Finally, Lin reveals that he’d discovered that the opium was not even produced anywhere in Britain, but in British holdings in south and southeast Asia,

“We have further learned that in London, the capital of your honorable rule, and in Scotland, Ireland, and other places originally no opium has been produced. Only in several places of India under your control, such as Bengal, Madras, Bombay, Patna, Benares, and Malwa, has opium been planted from h ill to hill and ponds have been opened for its manufacture.” (Lin 204)

The letter ends with the information that the death penalty has been instated for the sale and use of opium for both Chinese citizens and Westerners—warning the Queen what should happen if it continues.


Almack, William. Journal (July 1837- July 1841), MS Add.9529. Cambridge University Library, Department of Manuscripts and University Archives.

Lin Zexu. “Letter to the English Ruler”, in Sources of Chinese Tradition: From 1600 through the Twentieth Century, Vol. 2, 202-205. Edited by Wm. Th. de Bary and R. Lufrano. Columbia Univ. Press, 2001.

Robert Blake. Jardine Matheson: Traders of the Far East. London: Weidenfield and Nicholson, 1999, p. 46.

Miscommunication and Misunderstanding: Embassy of Lord Macartney

HMS Hindostan, one of the two ships of the embassy, by Thomas Luny

This week, we read about the infamous diplomatic mission of Earl George Macartney to China in 1793, one of the first such exchanges between the two countries, and one which had a lasting significance. Lord Macartney led a delegation from Britain seeking to establish a permanent embassy in China and to request favorable trade privileges from the ruling Qing dynasty. To that end, he sought an audience with the Qianlong Emperor bearing gifts from Britain and his request on the King’s behalf. Despite the civil reception, the mission ended in failure, with neither of Lord Macartney’s goals being fulfilled, and both parties being left miffed.

The failure of Macartney’s embassy can ultimately be attributed in large part to miscommunication and a misunderstanding of both parties of each other’s goals, views, and cultures. From the onset, there were disagreements on the issue of trade. During this time, the Chinese regulated trade according to the so-called “Canton System”, in which European merchants could only trade in the city of Guangzhou (Canton). One of the main goals of the British was to achieve for themselves trading rights to expand into Chinese markets beyond Guangzhou. Chinese officials were “evasive” on the subject, however (Hevia 109), and when Macartney did receive an answer, it was an unequivocal no. Macartney had hoped that upon seeing the expensive and technologically novel gifts he had brought, the Emperor would be impressed enough to grant Macartney his requests. This proved not to be the case. As Qianlong later explained in his first edict to King George III, “…we possess all things. I set no value on objects strange or ingenious, and have no use for your country s manufactures.” (The First Edict 89) Citing China’s great wealth and the tribute received by surrounding states, Qianlong argued that China already received all the goods they could ever need, and whatever they gave to the British or any other Europeans was generous enough. This quote also shows rather bluntly that he was not impressed by Britain’s industrial goods. In the second edict to George III, Qianlong further drives home the argument that Britain needs the trade far more than China, citing Chinese goods such as tea and silk as “absolute necessities to European nations and to [Britain].” (The Second Edict 90)

The greatest point of misunderstanding between the two parties came down to the equality in rank between the two nations, and ultimately, a difference in worldview that neither side could reconcile. For thousands of years, the Chinese worldview was that the Emperor ruled with the “Mandate of Heaven”, and that China, particularly the capital, was the center of the universe. The further from the Chinese you went, the weaker this divine connection and the more uncivilized were the people. Another aspect of this worldview was that these faraway peoples would naturally be attracted to the ‘center’ (the Emperor) and be compelled to offer tribute. It is in this context that the Chinese saw the British. The British, meanwhile, believed that their advanced navy and lucrative manufactured goods should be enough to make the Chinese readily agreeable. When the time came for Macartney and the Emperor to meet, an issue arose as to how Macartney should greet him during the official ceremony. The Chinese court believed that Macartney should perform a kowtow (in which the ambassador kneels and bows his head to the emperor nine times). This, however, was a move traditionally performed by China’s tributary states paying homage to the Emperor as a superior. Macartney insisted that the British King was the Emperor’s equal, and that he be viewed as such. Consequently, he wished to do the same for Qianlong as he would for George III, that being to drop to one knee. The Chinese accepted Macartney’s substitution of the kowtow, but did not recognize George III as an equal in the end, as the Emperor’s edicts make clear.


Hevia, James Louis. “4: King Solomon in All His Glory.” In Cherishing Men from Afar: Qing Guest Ritual and the Macartney Embassy of 1793, 84-115. Durham: Duke University Press, 1995.

Platt, Stephen R. “How Britain’s First Mission to China Went Wrong: Why the Macartney Mission Went Awry.” LA Review of Books, China Channel, May 18, 2018.

The First Edict [from Qianlong to King George], September 1793″ and “6.5: The Second Edict, Sept. 1793”. In The Search for Modern China: A Documentary Collection, edited by Janet Y. Chen, Pei-kai Cheng, Michael Elliot Lestz, and Jonathan D Spence, 87-93. Third ed. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2014.

Week 2: First Encounters of East and West

Tomb of Matteo Ricci, from Wikimedia Commons

For the second week of class, we had our first major reading assignments relating to Chinese interactions with Europe. The focus of this week’s readings were the interactions between the Catholic Jesuit missionaries and the courts of the Chinese Ming and Qing dynasties. These texts included accounts from both the Chinese and the Europeans and provide an interesting account of the information exchanged between these cultures, and the attitudes they held towards each other. I hadn’t realized that this level of exchange (including mathematical and astronomy techniques) between China and Europe had occurred at this seemingly early time period in their relations.

The impression I get from both the Chinese sources and Western sources leans on the positive side, which is surprising considering the sinocentric worldview of Chinese courts up until then, and especially considering the idea of Western cultural supremacy that would dominate Western thinking in later centuries. But Matteo Ricci goes as far as to say that the world has no greater King than the Chinese Emperor, and goes on to compliment other aspects of Chinese culture, such as their wealth and medicine, as being equal to or greater than their European counterparts (Ricci 32-33).These feelings seem to have been reciprocated, at least by Li Zhi, who complimented Ricci’s dedication to mastering Chinese speaking and writing (Zhi 1). Even more surprisingly, Li praised Ricci’s personality, calling him “sharp” and “down to Earth” (Zhi 1). I was also particularly interested in the exchange of astronomical methods from Verbiest to the Qing court. I was slightly confused as to where the alternate calendar had come from, but it was peculiar to read that the debate over the calendar was between two foreigners, a European Jesuit and a Muslim, between whom the rest of the Chinese court chose sides. Once Verbiest demonstrated the strength of his method by correctly calculating the sun’s position at certain times and dates on numerous occasions, he was placed in charge of handling all affairs relating to the calendar, which again, surprised me with how receptive one culture was to the other.

My previous experience with Chinese history is limited, but fairly recent, as I took HST269 (dealing with ancient to early modern Chinese history) last fall. One of the last things we covered in that course were early relations between China and the West. One of the interactions we talked about then was that of Lord McCartney of Britain and Emperor Qianlong. Though they were cordial enough face to face, there was a dispute between the two over the hierarchy of their countries’ monarchs. Lord McCartney insisted that King George III of Britain should be recognized as an equal of Emperor Qianlong, while the Emperor in turn thought the King beneath him, as all foreign monarchs were according to the traditional Chinese worldview. This interaction took place in the late 1700s, and I kind of had the impression that there hadn’t been very much interaction long before this time, until Marco Polo in the 1200s.


Li, Zhi. A Book to Burn and a Book to Keep (hidden). Translated by Rebecca Handler-Spitz, Pauline C. Lee and Haun Saussy. Translations from the Asian Classics. New York: Columbia University Press, 2016.

Matteo Ricci: Five Letters from China. Edited and translated by Gianni Criveller, Beijing: Beijing Center for Chinese Studies, 2011.

Verbiest, Ferdinand. Ferdinand Verbiest and Jesuit Science in 17th Century China: An Annotated Edition and Translation of the Constantinople Manuscript (1676). Edited and translated by Nikolaïdis Efthymios and Noël Golvers. Sources of Modern Greek Literature and Learning, 2. Athens: National Hellenic research Foundation, Institute for neohellenic research, 2009.

Spence, Jonathan D. Emperor of China: Self-Portrait of Kʻang Hsi. New York: Vintage Books, 1975.