Fateful Ties: A History of America's Preoccupation With China

Gordon H. Chang

Spanning fascination and fear, ideas about China have long been embedded in America’s conception of itself and its own fate.

Excerpted from Fateful Ties: A History of America's Preoccupation with China by Gordon H. Chang (footnotes omitted). Copyright © 2015 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. Used by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reprinted, reproduced, posted on another website or distributed by any means without the written permission of the publisher.

Ties of Opportunity

The Chinese are “the wisest of nations.”

Benjamin Franklin, 1785

The twenty-first century, it is often heard today, will be China’s century, a time when China will ascend to become the world’s dominant nation in economic and, possibly, political influence. Whether that will come about remains to be seen, but it might be more correct, from a historical perspective, to say that China could resume the top position it once held in the world’s economy, a position it had relinquished for 200 years. In the sweep of history, at least Chinese history, two centuries is the short term.

This perspective may help contemporary readers appreciate the place China occupied in the world at the time Europeans first came to America and the subsequent rise of the colonies to nationhood from the late fifteenth to the early nineteenth centuries. It provides a broad context within which to appreciate the importance of China to America in its formative years and beyond and challenges us to step back and consider the long view in America-China relations. Examining 300 years of these relations provides us with perspectives on trends and patterns beyond what we gain from focusing on the cacophony and overload of the here and now.

For the millennium before the early 1800s, China likely possessed the most productive economy in the world. From the 1500 to the 1800s, the period usually considered the to be the rise of the Atlantic world and the ascendancy of Europe over the rest of the world, the Chinese empire produced up to one-third of the world’s annual domestic product, a far greater share than any Western nation. China per capita was not wealthy, but as a collective, China wielded immense productive power and remained the object of European desire for hundreds of years.

At the start of the eighteenth century, few could have predicted the spectacular rise of Europe over the rest of the world during the next 150 years. From all appearances, it was China that would remain the great economic center of the world. It possessed an ancient, influential civilization; dominated the vast area of East Asia; and was poised to expand its imperial boundaries. During the eighteenth century, the Chinese empire would double its territory through the incorporation of lands we now call Mongolia, Xinjiang, and Tibet. Its population would almost treble in size, from an estimated 150 million in 1700 to an enormous 400 million in 1842, making it by far the most populous country in the world, a status it may never relinquish. The population increase was founded on a highly productive agricultural economy, remarkable domestic order, internal and external stability, and effective governance.

The seat of power was the Imperial Palace in Beijing, the capital of the Qing (Ch’ing) dynasty, so named by the Manchus, a Tungusic semi-nomadic people who had conquered China in 1644. They all but assumed the existing system of government and Chinese cultural and social institutions that had developed over the centuries, even as they attempted to maintain their distinct ethnic identity in the grasslands north of China proper. The emperor, the Son of Heaven, ruled over the empire, having absolute though elaborately prescribed and delineated powers, duties, and responsibilities. He governed through a sophisticated, though relatively small, administrative bureaucracy that reached down through the provinces and then loosely into localities. Actual state power from the center was often more nominal than actual, especially over everyday life. Late imperial China was more a highly developed “cultural entity,” or civilization-state than a well-organized bureaucratic structure, as we now think of the modern nation-state. A formalized body of classical literatures that Europeans called Confucianism comprised the moral and ideological foundations of official behavior and thinking. It was in many ways the actual glue that held together the empire, with its enormous population, ethnic diversity, and land reach.

The Manchus tried to maintain their distinctive language and social customs in their isolated Manchuria homeland. Though they became increasingly Sinicized over time, they never lost their separate identity, which became a source of tension with the majority Han people whom they had conquered. Under Manchu rule, China largely assumed its present borders. The Qing expanded the boundaries of the empire into central Asia to incorporate Tibet, Turkestan, and Mongolia, in addition to Manchuria. Taiwan became part of the empire, and neighboring countries from Nepal to the Ryukyus became tributary states. The empire became vastly multi-ethnic and diverse in culture, religion, and ways of life. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Chinese culture and learning also reached grand heights under the Manchus, who vigorously cultivated Confucian scholarship and traditional Han painting and ceramics. The population almost trebled in size from the sixteenth century to the early nineteenth century, making China by far the most populous country on earth.

The United States at this time could hardly offer a greater contrast to China. In 1790, the first official census counted a population of less than 4 million people, a mere 1 percent of China’s population. The newborn country was weak politically and poor economically, though it had great natural riches and the potential for expansion. The Euro-American population was spread out thinly along the eastern seaboard, with few venturing into the extensive lands beyond the Appalachians. The U.S. population was a social polyglot of Europeans and Africans (mostly slaves) and their descendants born in the New World. Native peoples continued to control broad stretches of the territory but were not considered part of the American family. American political identity was counted in single years, not millennia. Its central government was immature, experimental, and untested. Its military was barely able to meet its security needs or support the activities of its merchant vessels on the high seas. Trade is what made a few Americans wealthy, but the country produced very little that others wanted to purchase, other than some rough foodstuffs, furs, timber, and other raw materials. Yet the country’s elite possessed an extraordinarily high level of confidence and energy. Their ambition far exceeded what their material circumstances should have justified, allowed, or predicted. But their hunger was great and their visions grand. They were poised to lead one of the most dramatic national transformations in modern times. The territorial, economic, and social growth of the United States in the first half of the nineteenth century would be astonishing. And it was the desire to engage the trade of the Pacific, especially that of China, that helped stimulate the voracious appetites and fill the burgeoning coffers of the New England elite.

China, in contrast to America, was fundamentally self-sufficient in food production, handicrafts, and luxury goods. Trade with others constituted a very small portion of the economy, which meant that aside from a few merchants in certain localities, imports or exports meant little for most Chinese, peasant and official alike. In China’s long historical experience, the desire of outsiders for what China had to offer was always greater than what the Chinese hoped to receive from others. Trade and international commerce, which became central to the modern European and other imperial powers, was usually of negligible interest to the Chinese elite. If anything, foreign trade was usually considered a minor irritant to state authorities, one that required means to control bothersome outsiders. Traditionally, the Chinese court tightly regulated foreign intercourse, both commercial and social. At times, the court tried to ban trade altogether in order to minimize undesirable influences. The idea of extensive free trade between Chinese and others, conducted by relatively autonomous individuals or firms, was virtually unknown and certainly not considered a positive good. Under the Ming and early Qing, however, the combination of a virtual commercial revolution from below and the challenge from abroad would profoundly alter the landscape.

In contrast, Europeans, from the Venetians and Iberians to the Dutch, were keenly interested in trade, which for centuries was seen as the key to power and wealth. Europeans vigorously traded among themselves, throughout the Mediterranean and beyond to the “Orient.” In 1511, the Portuguese, the first Europeans to arrive by sea, established an outpost in China for trade when they received a permanent lease of Macao in 1557 in exchange for their help in suppressing irksome pirates. The British took a more aggressive stance in trying to open China to Western commerce. Five English ships arrived in 1637, and more began to appear regularly in China’s ports in the mid-seventeenth century. The British East India Company came to dominate trade with China for 100 years, during which time the Chinese court permitted trading ships to enter China’s ports with little restriction. In 1757, however, Beijing reversed the policy after British activity, including unruly port behavior, angered the Chinese authorities. The court established what became known as the Canton system to regulate and limit seafaring trade along China’s long coast. In that year, the court closed all Chinese ports to Western traders except for the one southern port at Guangzhou (Canton). For the next eighty years, until China’s defeat in the First Anglo-Chinese War, known popularly as the Opium War, European traders and Westerners generally were confined to a single walled compound in Guangzhou. There, European traders were subject to strict, though at times only laxly enforced, Chinese controls. Trade could be conducted only during certain times of the year and foreigners were confined to a prescribed area of just several blocks from which they could not freely leave. Foreign women were completely forbidden to reside in the quarter. The traders were subject to Chinese taxes and could conduct business only with a small number of officially designated Chinese merchants, the gonghang (cohong), a court-designated monopoly. The Chinese recognized no political representation from European governments. The so-called hong merchants were responsible for handling the foreign traders and supervising the quarter where they resided.

This is the system Americans encountered as they began their own China trade. Though irritating to the acquisitive Westerners, who had long traded largely unencumbered among themselves elsewhere, the restrictions were tolerated because the profits of the China trade far outweighed the inconveniences and control. The Canton system aimed to regulate foreign commerce, but it was also a way of controlling foreigners, especially those who came by sea from across the great oceans. Westerners were hugely distant in linguistic, moral, cultural, and social ways from the Chinese and from the other peoples from Eurasia and East Asia, such as Persians, Arabs, Turkic peoples, and South and Southeast Asians, with whom the Chinese had interacted through the centuries. Chinese cultural and commercial interaction with others beyond their borders had often been extensive and mutually beneficial.

Formal political relations were a different matter, and by the eighteenth century, the Chinese court had developed a sophisticated and effective system for organizing interstate relations with its neighbors in Asia. The Chinese developed what we would now call an international system, or at least a regional system, a way of regularizing foreign relations with explicit and implicit rules, norms, procedures, expectations, and etiquette. Unlike the system that developed in Europe with many competing, small states of relatively equal power, China’s overwhelmingly dominant economic, military, and territorial position in Asia grounded and defined the East Asia system. It was a system that explicitly accepted inequality in status, the supremacy of the Chinese emperor in all affairs, and the authority of the Confucian moral and philosophical world view as interpreted by the imperial court. This system functioned well, at least from the perspective of the Chinese court and the so-called tributary states, for hundreds of years. At its height, the system included some 100 tributaries. By the early nineteenth century, the main tributary states were Korea, the Ryukyus, Annam, Siam, and Burma. By the end of the century, other powers would remove these states from the Chinese sphere and incorporate all of them into their own empires.

For Beijing, the traditional political order embodied the moral universe of civilization. Those outside this order were considered uncultured peoples who were lacking in propriety, morality, and proper knowledge. Europeans accepted the outsider status accorded them by the Chinese interstate system when they visited. Seventeen European missions traveled to Beijing from 1655 to 1795, and all but the last, under Lord Macartney in 1795, performed the required kowtow (koutou) before the emperor, a ritual prostration of emissaries that acknowledged his supremacy. Macartney considered it a humiliation of his sovereign and refused to do it. He agreed only to lower himself to one knee, as he said he could do as a sign of respect to his own king. Fifty years later the British invaded China and humiliated the Chinese in the first Opium War, fought to open the door to British opium and goods.

Before the American Revolution, fewer than a dozen Anglo-Americans had been to China, and an undetermined number of Chinese, South Asians, and other deckhands lived in ports such as Philadelphia after sailing to and from Asia. The British had controlled the international China trade through the East India Company and prevented subject Americans from directly engaging in the very profitable business. London’s restrictions became a major irritant in the colonial relationship, because China and its imported products had become an integral part of the everyday lives of many early Americans. Their homes, both grand and modest, contained a wide array of Chinese crafts, silk, textiles, silverware, furniture, decorative wares, ceramics, and fine porcelains. Chinese craftsmen could produce items of elegance and rarity, signs of sumptuary wealth. Wealthy Americans would custom design wallpaper and dinnerware and Chinese artisans on the other side of the globe would embellish porcelain with the ordered family regalia or scenes of American homes and towns. George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and other American gentry held Chinese wares in the highest esteem. The Chinese also could produce modest objects for the homes of the less privileged, such as everyday home decorations and eating utensils. China had developed the most sophisticated and productive system for export trade in the world. As much as a fifth of the contents of an early-nineteenth-century home in Salem, Boston, or Philadelphia came from China. The China trade was a major source of wealth for many of America’s leading import merchants, and they were not happy with London’s enforced role of intermediary between its colonies and China.

This was because London ensured that British homeland merchants and the Crown would principally benefit from the trade between America and Asia. London’s control particularly hampered the efforts of merchants in the colonies. The 1651 Navigation Act and subsequent legislation prohibited direct trade between North America and Asia. The British East India Company, the only enterprise the Crown authorized to conduct trade with Asia, brought items from China to London, where they were offloaded and taxed. These goods, in turn, could then be redirected to the American colonies, but with prices substantially higher than if the goods had come directly from the original sources. The system ensured that the British Crown, concerned about the cost of maintaining its growing empire, directly benefited from all the trade between China and the colonies.

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