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China in the world order: Change of position and ideals in the past two centuries

Urmas Pappel
PhD student
Comparative Politics, University of Tartu


Qing empire

In 1793, emperor Qianlong sent a letter to the king George III of Great Britain entailing the following message:
“[O]ur Celestial dynasty possesses vast territories […] Our dynasty’s majestic virtue has penetrated unto every country under Heaven, and Kings of all nations have offered their costly tribute by land and sea.”[1]
In the end of the 18th century, emperor Qianlong could proclaim such words with sincerity – he believed he was the only sovereign, Son of Heaven, in the midst of barbarian kings, and with the Mandate of Heaven (tian ming) he ruled the only true state the world had ever seen, China. By 1793, Qianlong had reigned over the Qing empire (1644–1911) for fifty-seven prosperous years and, in three years time, was about to abdicate the Dragon Throne in favour of his son. The succeeding Manchu emperors, however, saw the rise of a very different world order that destroyed their dynasty along with the Confucian political cosmology reflected in the patronising message cited above. This new world was a world of nation-states, a world where newly founded republics were on equal footing with countries claiming ancient descent.

The concept of nation-state was all but unknown to the Chinese culture. The Confucian political cosmology did not recognise nations, or ethnic groups for that matter, but operated only in the conceptual framework of culture versus barbarism. China as the Middle Kingdom (Zhongguo) stood at the centre of the world and was the only genuinely cultured state; all other countries were peripheral, more or less barbaric, and certainly not to its equal. Political power and cultural eminence flowed from Beijing (or wherever China’s capital was at the time) to the rest of the world slightly veining in strength with each li[2] away form the centre. The manner of conducting diplomatic affairs reflected this condescending attitude. Relations with Russia and other northern neighbours were managed by the Court of Colonial Affairs (lifan yuan),[3] while communication with Korea, China’s southern neighbours, and the Western states was managed by the Ministry of Rites (li bu). As its name suggests, Ministry of Rites also superintended ceremonies of the court, sacrifices, ancestral temples and the Buddhist, Taoist and Confucian religions.[4] In effect, then, Confucian mandarins considered foreign countries as either China’s colonies or in need for administrative handling according to the rite as naturally inferior. Emissaries from all over the world were expected to pay homage to the Chinese emperor as their political overlord and the only representative of Heaven on Earth. Such conduct was completely out of sync with Western political norms and therefore ineffective in dealing with the emerging colonial powers. In 1800, the Confucian elite did not realise that the rules of the game had changed.


Nemesis – British and Chinese fleets fighting

The historic incident that made this clear, at least to the West, was the First Opium War (1839–1842). In 1839, the Qing state was still firm in its conviction that, to borrow emperor Qianlong’s words once again, they “possess all things” and “have no use for your country’s [British] manufactures”. Yet, the West needed the produce of China. English, French, the Dutch as well as other Western nations had taken a liking to drinking Chinese tea from Chinese manufactured high quality porcelain cups and pots, also knowns as chinaware. So much so, in fact, that much of 18th century silver ended up in Qing coffers largely as payment for this intoxicating brew.[5] Troubled by a serious trade deficit London had to act. Opium, growing handsomely in British India, was introduced to the Chinese market in unseen quantities in order to stop the outflow of silver. When the Qing emperor issued an edict banning the import of this “foreign mud”, Great Britain had cause to defend its interests and declared war. So, in 1839, began the First Opium War – a war that is now officially perceived as the inception of modern China. In fact, however, the First Opium War did not change much, nor was it a real war but rather a series of minor skirmishes. Only in 1861, after having suffered another defeat in the Second Opium Wars (1858–1860), was the Chinese administration compelled to found the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (zongli yamen) to better manage their relations with colonial powers. But also this war was ephemeral and the change it cause foremost cosmetic. The Confucian political cosmology remained very much the order of the day. According to the tiyong (essence and usage) principle, the most prominent philosophical current of the day, superiority of the Confucian culture had to be maintained even if some administrative and technological gadgets were borrowed from other countries.


Beheading by Japanese 1894

More than thirty years and another military defeat later – this time by the hands of the Japanese in the First Sino-Japanese war (1894–1895) – was China’s political elite finally ready to let go of the self-deceiving belief in cultural pre-eminence. Although for centuries Japan had refused to acknowledge China’s supremacy and had not sent tribute to the emperor,[6] in the eyes of Beijing, Japan was still part of their cultural dominion and considered a respectable state. After all, Japanese were Confucian too. This is why the defeat in the First Sino-Japanese War had a much greater effect on the Chinese political Weltanschauung than the multiple conflicts with Western powers in previous decades. Western aggression was not deemed worthy of much attention – barbarians (mostly from the north) had come and gone before the English and the French reached China’s shores, and China had always endured their misbehaviour with grace. In due time, the Westerners were expected to tire and leave, or realise the superiority of China’s culture and adapt to Confucian ways. But when Japan followed Western example and destroyed China’s puny modern navy in a dispute over Korea, China’s old political cosmology crumbled. The Chinese intellectual mindset entrenched in Confucian hierarchy could not possibly fathom the fact that Japan, perceived as a filial “son”, had dared to rise up against its “father”. From then on, Japan became the primary “other” in the mind’s eye of the Chinese intellectuals and populace at large,[7] and the nation-state was slowly recognised as the basic concept of China’s new political cosmology. Only by becoming a modern nation among others, it was believed, could China face up to its colonial aggressors. By the end of the 19th century, China had lost most of its sovereignty and become what the current official discourse dubs a semi-colony. Backhouse and Bland write a mere sixty years after the First Opium War, “[h]ow swift and complete has been the process of the Great Celestial Empire’s decline and humiliation”.[8]

The Treaty of Nanjing, signed in 1842 between China and Great Britain to end the First Opium War, opened up four new “treaty ports” in addition to the customary Canton (Guangzhou) where all trade with China was restricted to previously, and conceded the island of Hong Kong “to be possessed in perpetuity” by Victoria and her successors.[9] Other foreign powers followed suit. The French, Germans, Russians, Americans, Japanese and several others pressured Beijing to sign altogether more than a hundred “unequal treatise” granting them rights to proselytise and conduct trade in the Qing territory. By the early 20th century, foreign powers effectively controlled close to ninety treaty ports in China, including some as far inland as Hankou on Yangzi’s midstream. In order to protect their interests, Western states and Japan took considerable areas in the treaty ports under their jurisdiction. In these so-called concessions the legal codes of the respected colonial nationalities superseded all Qing regulations. In addition to providing protection to the concerned nationalities concessions also served as legal oasis to free-thinking Chinese to escape repression of the Qing authorities and print books and pamphlets of new and sometimes heretical ideas. Nationalism, liberalism, social-Darwinism and communism undermined the Confucian philosophy further and eventually destroyed all what was left of its political cosmology.

Opium war3

Opium smoking

Also Christianity made great headway as colonial powers protected missionaries’ right to proselytise. Open preaching of the Christian doctrine was granted by the 1858 Tianjin treaty with Britain;[10] soon after similar agreements were signed with other foreign powers as well. Yet despite this legal protection trust towards Christianity was low and Christians continued to be constantly harassed and killed. The Boxer rebellion (1900) in the province of Shandong, one of the most notorious uprisings in China’s recent past, was in part a reaction against Christianity. Long gone were the times of Jesuit missionaries (16th to 18th century) who mingled with Confucian elites and introduced arithmetic, optics, modern astronomy and map making to China. That being said, there is no doubt that the 19th century Christian missionaries of different nationalities and denominations helped to change China for the better. They worked within the masses, not the elites, erected cliniks, hospitals and poorhouses, and thought Chinese children how to write, do maths and speak foreign languages, thereby paving their way for studies abroad. Many among China’s new elite, including the first president of the Republic of China Sun Yatsen, were Christian as opposed to Confucian.

With the establishment of treaty ports came the influx of unseen numbers of Westerners merchants. European and American entrepreneurs opened mines and factories, constructed rail roads, telegraph and power lines, all in hope of making a profit off the large Chinese populace. By 1914, foreign investment in China totalled some 1.61 billion US dollars.[11] The treaty ports flourished. By the early 20th century, Shanghai, divided into the French Concession and the Foreign Settlement, was a bustling city with a distinct Western flavour – it was home to China’s first stock exchange, several international banks, hotels and hospitals, Western restaurants and lavish colonial-style villas still part of Shanghai’s identity today.

Other regions were changing too. In Manchuria, home to the Manchus of the Qing dynasty, Russian influence was particularly strong. Tsarist Russia had already claimed dominion over vast territories to the north of Amur river and east along the Japanese sea – territories that the Chinese state once had perceived as their own. The Trans-Siberian railway from Moscow to Vladivostok (started in 1891) brought the Far East even closer to Europe than the Suez canal had done thirty years prior. In 1896, the Qing government gave Russian investors the right to construct a rail line straight across Manchuria, stopping in Harbin, to Vladivostok, shortening the distance eve further. With the lease of the Guandong peninsula and the important harbour towns of Port Arthur and Dalian, Russia’s dominance over Manchuria appeared solid. In 1904 and 1905, however, the Japanese more modern and better equipped military defeated the Tsarist forces, including their Baltic see fleet of forty-five ships sent in as a last resort.[12] In consequence Russian presence started to wane and in 1919, after a coup d’etat in St. Petersburg and parallel to the decline of Western interests in China, Soviet Russia relinquished all imperialist policies in Manchuria,[13] thus officially ending the Russian colonial interests in the North Eastern corner of China. The power vacuum in Manchuria was subsequently filled by the Japanese who, in 1935, established the Manchukuo puppet regime with the last Qing emperor Pu Yi at the helm. This was only the beginning of Japanese encroachment of Chinese territory.

Sunyatsen1 (1)

Sun Yatsen

Political and social turbulence continued up to 1949, and, as some would argue, even thereafter. Successive rebellions had weakened the Qing state and finally caused its downfall in 1911, when the Xinhai uprising took China by storm. On the first day of 1912, Sun Yatsen as head of the Chinese Nationalist Party (Guomingdang) and the provisional president proclaimed the founding of a republic, the Republic of China, thereby ending a more than two-thousand-year period of dynastic rule. The dynastic period (221 BC–1911) of China’s history had not been continuous, but cyclical – periods of strong unified states alternated with usually briefer periods of rebellion and fragmentation when no one emperor reigned over the Middle Kingdom. That said, not since Qin Shihuang who unified the country in 221 BC and proclaimed himself China’s first emperor had anyone truly questioned the principle of the Mandate of Heaven and the need for an emperor.

Many problems that plagued the Qing state did not cease with the establishment of the Republic. For one, as the unequal treatise were not abolished, the privileges of colonial powers were preserved through most of the Republic period (1912–1949). Only in 1943 did Great Britain and the United States revision their treatise with China, thereby officially ending the treaty system.[14] Additionally, just as the Qing state before, the Nationalist political apparatus was plagued by corruption which seriously weakened its capacity to manage country’s social and economical issues and deal with the growing communist insurrection. Commerce, constantly disrupted by fighting and mismanagement, developed parallel to vice. In the notorious 1920s and ’30s, Shanghai attracted the best China could offer, but also the worst: rampant corruption, organised crime, racketeering and prostitution mixed with high politics was inexorably part of the life in “Paris of the East”. Corruption eventually proved to be the downfall of the Republican regime.

Also bloodshed and social uproar continued throughout the period. China was politically unstable and fragmented, torn apart first by warlords, then by the feud between nationalists and communists, and then by an all-out attack of the Imperial Japanese army. During the warlord era (1916–1928), China was divided into approximately ten effectively independent political entities in perpetual struggle over hegemony; only the very south remained under the control of president Sun and subsequently his protégée Chiang Kaishek. Even after the successful Northern Expedition unified the country under Nationalist rule in 1928, Communist insurrection continued to threaten state unity.


Nanjing massacare – japanese soldier beheading the captive

The Japanese Empire was the third major party adding turmoil to the entire region of East- and Southeast Asia. Japan had began encroaching Chinese territory already with the annexation of Manchuria in 1935, but all-out war commenced in 1937. Shanghais was occupied the same year, followed by a bloodbath in the Nationalist capital Nanjing where an estimated 300 000 people died in result of fighting, starvation or torture. Known in Japan as the “Nanjing incident” and in China as “Rape of Nanjing”, this historic event is still one of the most powerful collective traumas of the Chinese nation, and a constant thorn in the side of Sino-Japanese relations. During the massacre, foreigners’ presence in Nanjing was paramount for the protection of Chinese civilians. Missionaries, doctors and businessmen from different Western nationalities established an International Safety Zone where hundreds of thousands of Chinese civilians found refuge.[15] Despite its undeniable atrocity, however, the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1949) turned out to be a blessing in disguise for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) as it paved the way for the leftist takeover.

The CCP, established in Shanghai in 1921, had a very modest beginning. For most part before 1949, the CCP was a renegade band of revolutionary visionaries protected by a guerilla army. Initially the CCP tried to instigate revolution in urban areas by building up proletarian support, but this initiative failed. After a crackdown on their activists in 1927, CCP’s power base was concentrated in various rural areas of Southern China, all controlled by different CCP cells owing nominal lenience to the Shanghai headquarters. Under constant harassment by the Nationalist forces, CCP’s strategy was to use all means necessary to survive: nimble military tactics and makeshift economic policies in concert with communist ideology, if possible. After several campaigns to eradicate the fledgling communist movement, the CCP, now supported by Moscow, found respite in Northern China. From there the CCP managed to resist both Nationalist and Japanese aggression and, thanks to successful economic policies and land reform, substantially grow their power base.


Mao Zedong

At the same time, Nationalists’ power was waning. Although Japan surrendered in 1945, the Nationalist forces which carried the brunt of the fighting were left seriously weakened. Neither did the Nationalist government know what to do next. “As they took back city after city from the Japanese, and seemed to have the goal of reconstructing a united China once more within their grasp,” writes Spence, “their carelessness, their inefficiency, and often their corruption” simply augmented their popular support.[16] When the civil war commenced once again with full brutality, the Communists gained the upper hand. From their northern base the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) managed to overpower their Nationalist counterpart and take one province after another. By 1949, the CCP controlled most of the country (only Tibet was “liberated” in 1950). On October 1st that year, Mao Zedong proclaimed the founding of the People’s Republic of China, thereby ending a period of what the current state discourse dubs “one hundred years of national humiliation” (bainian guochi).[17]

The Western menace did not cease with 1949, however, as Beijing continued to feel threatened first by the “capitalist” powers of Europe and America and then, from 1960s onwards, by the Soviet Union. Yet this threat was no longer colonial in nature. Unequal treatise that had seriously belittled China’s stature in the world for the past century were now abolished; no part of the former Qing empire remained under foreign rule (Taiwan was de-facto a separate political entity and Mongolia gained independence under the auspice of the Soviet Union). Although the New China was still an isolationist oddity during the upcoming decades, it nevertheless fell into the “universal” framework of international relations – it had adopted the internationally recognised norms and practices of diplomatic conduct, and become a nation-state, albeit with some imperial characteristics.[18] Whether China will remain a “team player” and not challenge the fundamentals of international relations is another matter that are best left for some other time.



Backhouse, E.; Bland, J. O. P. Annals & Memoirs of the Court of Peking: From the 16th to the 20th Century. London, William Heinemann, 1914.

Brunnert, H. S.; Hagelstrom, V. V. Present Day Political Organizations of China. Peiping, Imperial Russian Legation, 1911.

Chang, Iris. The Rape of Nanking. London, Penguin Books, 1998.

Fairbank, John K.; Reischauer, Edwin O.; Craig, Albert M. East Asia: Tradition & Transformation. Boston, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1989.

Flynn, Dennis O.; Giráldez, Arturo. Cycles of Silver: Global Economic Unity through the Mid-Eighteenth Century. Journal of World History, Vol. 13, No. 2, 2002.

Terrill, Ross. The New Chinese Empire: And What It Means for the United States. New York, Basic Books, 2003.

Spence, Jonathan D. The Search for Modern China. New York, London, W. W. Norton &Company, 1990.

Suzuki, Shogo. The importance of “Othering” in China’s national identity: Sino-Japanese relations as a stage of identity conflicts. The Pacific Review, Vol. 20, No. 1, 2007.

Wang Zheng. Never Forget National Humiliation: Historical Memory in Chinese Politics

[1]    Backhouse, E.; Bland, J. O. P. Annals & Memoirs of the Court of Peking: From the 16th to the 20th Century. London, William Heinemann, 1914, pp. 323-325.
[2]    Li is an ancient Chinese measure of distance roughly equal to 500 m.
[3]    Lifan yuan has also been translated as Office of Border Affairs or Department of Tributary States.
[4]    Brunnert, H. S.; Hagelstrom, V. V. Present Day Political Organizations of China. Peiping, Imperial Russian Legation, 1911, p. 125.
[5]    Flynn, Dennis O.; Giráldez, Arturo. Cycles of Silver: Global Economic Unity through the Mid-Eighteenth Century. Journal of World History, Vol. 13, No. 2, 2002, p. 409.
[6]    Spence, Jonathan D. The Search for Modern China. New York, London, W. W. Norton & Company, 1990, p. 119.
[7]    Suzuki, Shogo. The importance of “Othering” in China’s national identity: Sino-Japanese relations as a stage of identity conflicts. The Pacific Review, Vol. 20, No. 1, 2007.
[8]    Backhouse, E.; Bland, J. O. P. 1914, p. 322.
[9]    Spence, Jonathan D. 1990, p. 159.
[10]  Spence, Jonathan D. 1990, p. 307.
[11]  Spence, Jonathan D. 1990, p. 180.
[12]  Fairbank, John K.; Reischauer, Edwin O.; Craig, Albert M. East Asia: Tradition & Transformation. Boston, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1989, p. 556.
[13]  Spence, Jonathan D. 1990, p. 180.
[14]  Fairbank, John K.; Reischauer, Edwin O.; Craig, Albert M. 1989, p. 804.
[15]  Chang, Iris. The Rape of Nanking. London, Penguin Books, 1998, pp. 106-108.
[16]  Spence, Jonathan D. 1990, p. 485.
[17]  Wang Zheng. Never Forget National Humiliation: Historical Memory in Chinese Politics and Foreign Relations. New York, Columbia University Press, 2012, p. 3.
[18]  Terrill, Ross. The New Chinese Empire: And What It Means for the United States. New York, Basic Books, 2003.