China has been known by many names throughout history, but the most traditional name China used to refer to itself is – ‘Zhonggou’ meaning the Middle Kingdom or the Central Kingdom. The name implies the belief that, from a cultural and historical point of view, China is the ‘center’ of the world. China has divided into several independent states thousands of years ago but was united by an emperor. As China became more united, the middle kingdom referred to the actual middleness of these states. With time the term is used for the entire country as a whole rather than a small area where the emperor used to live.
Today, China is retaking this historical position and is a significant player in the international order. It is pushing and asserting its leadership on this historical ground. To understand the nature and mindset of contemporary China, we need to look back into her history full of culture and prosperity, and the subsequent humiliation by Western powers.
Ancient China was well ahead of its time, and this is an understatement. The Chinese had already built powerful bellows around 2500 years ago when the Western people did not even understand the processes involved in melting scrap metal, which could lift the temperature of furnaces high enough to allow multi-ton iron projects to be started. During the reign of the Tang Dynasty, gunpowder was invented in 850 AD; it then spread across the rest of Eurasia, after which it soon came into contact with the Europeans and the Middle East. Gunpowder’s invention in China is still heralded as one of the Four Greatest Inventions of all time since this accidental invention has now become the staple means of security for nations worldwide. The other three of the four greatest inventions are the compass (206 BC), paper making (105 AD), and movable type printing (960 AD). Another invention that has made humanity’s survival more organized was the invention of the mechanical clock during the reign of the Song Dynasty which, albeit famous, did not go down history as renowned as the other four prominent Chinese Dynasties: Shang, Zhou, Qin, and Han.
Ancient China had a system of independent states for over five hundred years, between around 770 and 221 BC. After a relatively peaceful and philosophical Spring and Autumn period, several states were at war to gain control over China. The warring states period ended with Qin’s conquest, the emperor from which the name China arrives. Qin emerged victoriously and was able to unify all other states under one china, so this conquest is described as the process of unification. Since then several dynasties have ruled China, remaining unified as an empire.
The idea of the Mandate of Heaven was used by Han emperors to create a powerful, centralized monarchy. The Chinese during the era of the Han dynasty had also introduced the concept of civil service or at least a prototype of the exams which would judge applicants based on their command over history, literature, and philosophy. They also built the silk road to protect their Empire from nomads of inner Asia, whom they considered barbarians or uncivilized.
Mongol Empire invaded China in 1279 but was defeated by the Mings, who were again able to unify China. During their period China embarked on maritime expeditions to India, Indonesia, Arabia, and Africa. Trade with the Europeans was done in exchange for silver.
The succeeding dynasty and the last dynasty was the Qing Dynasty which was founded in 1644. They expanded the Chinese Empire by conquering Xinjiang, Tibet, Taiwan, and Mongolia. But this was the time when western countries were also strengthening.
However, this was the period when western imperialism was expanding and gaining control. Qing Dynasty clashed with western powers which ultimately led to its downfall and also the end of the dynasty rule in China.
CENTURY OF HUMILIATION
The Qing Dynasty came into power in the 17th century. Britain was fascinated with Chinese tea and other products and decided to expand trade ties with China to purchase these products. The Chinese, however, refused the bid, claiming that their Empire owns everything and that there is no need to import the products of the outside barbarians in return for their goods. However, via the city of Canton (Guangzhou), a small amount of trade with foreign countries was still carried out, and the Canton system acted as a way of managing and regulating trade with the West. Britain was dissatisfied with the scheme and wanted the restricted exchange to scale up. Opium from India was one thing that the British decided to offer, and China could not refuse it. China soon became addicted. The East India Company was exclusively responsible for the trade of opium. The Qing emperor soon realized the serious consequences, and he decided to send Commissioner Lin Zeu to Canton to stop the trade of opium. This inevitably led to a conflict known as the First Opium War and the beginning of the century of humiliation between Britain and China.
With its modern ships and technology, Britain was able to defeat China. The defeat of the Qing Dynasty came as a massive blow. The Nanking Treaty was concluded by both countries in the aftermath of the war, under which Hong Kong acceded to Britain. By providing additional privileges to extend its trade and settlement ports in China, the treaty strongly favored Britain. China was unhappy with the unequal arrangements, and the Second Opium War (1956-1960) between the two nations soon broke out, but more Western powers, including France, Russia, and the USA, supported Britain this time. Trade rights were also sought from China by the other forces involved.
Japan also fought with the Qing Dynasty in 1894 over the dominance of Korea. China was once again defeated because Japan invaded and seized control of Taiwan. Internally, the people of China, were not satisfied with the status quo and anti-foreign feelings contributed to a youth uprising, known as the Boxer rebellion. the rebellion was also suppressed by the armies of many foreign countries. All these factors led to the Qing dynasty’s eventual collapse in 1911. This ended the long history of the rule of the dynasty in China.
The Republic of China was founded after the fall of the Qing Dynasty under the leadership of the Nationalist People’s Party, also known as the Kuomintang(KMT), led by Chang Kai Shek. China was forced into World War II soon after its establishment and lost the Shantung Peninsula to Japan. Young people were upset, and communist ideologies were gaining prominence. Among those attracted was Mao Zedong, who later led the KMT against the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). The two parties claimed to be the real Chinese government, which kicked off a civil war in China.
Fast forward to the Sino-Japanese War II when Japan invaded Manchuria in 1933, both the parties fought together against Japan. Also were supported by the Allied Powers who condemned this action of Japan. Consequently, Japan invaded Pearl Harbour in 1941 and ultimately the USA retaliated by dropping atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, ending the Second World War. But the civil war in China continued. CCP emerged victoriously and the Nationalists had to retreat to Taiwan. And the Republic of China- mainland China became the People’s Republic of China, China that we know today.
MODERN CHINA AND THE MIDDLE KINGDOM MENTALITY
In 1949, Mao Zedong founded the People’s Republic of China. Mao believed that only if it discarded its past could China be free and powerful. He blamed its weakness on Chinese society and tried to introduce a new spirit of Chinese nationalism with it. Under Mao, Chinese policies had a vision and purpose to expand influence by improving the domestic economy and military so that it could be stronger to strike back against the great powers that have victimized China in the past century. The drastic measures resulted in anarchy but kept China was independent and unified as well.
The CPC still respected Mao after he died, but the majority of the party did not consider his choices to be right. While they understood that a man like Mao needed to unite China under the rule of one government, they were unable to turn China into a world power. His successor, Deng Xiaoping, then brought extreme changes by opening up the Chinese economy, which changed China drastically. . Chinese economy began to grow at double-digit rates. . He advocated the ‘hiding and binding’ strategy, which implies that China should maintain a low-key role and continue to expand its development. This approach helped China to develop when big powers, including the United States, developed trade ties with China.
When President Xi Jinping came into power, things took a turn. He is known for his assertion and authority, unlike the previous strategy of hiding and biding. He vowed to restore China, to its ancient prominence and glory, which is expressed in his actions.
China became a central player in the international arena under Xi Jinping. With national pride, Xi seeks to set legitimacy. Under Xi, China is engaged in aggressive actions in the seas of South and East China, reversing the U.S. security alliance in the Asia Pacific, and has launched the Belt and Silk Road Project to be the core of the world as a way to return its ancient dominance. The rise which was peaceful two decades ago is now aggressive, and the world is trying to confront this new global power. By supporting the Chinese dream, Xi has made it clear that China will be stronger and prosperous in the future, and he will make this happen in his way!
History teaches us a lot and should not be ignored. Ancient China was the oldest civilization in the world, and perhaps the most advanced. The main inventions were made long before they reached the west, but they were used by the west to conquer the east and the rest of the world. It can be inferred that China was incapacitated by the West like other colonies, but China has not forgotten its ancient origins, unlike others. There seems to be no reason for Chinese geopolitical aggression today when the world has changed and is in a different setting. What appears, though, is that history repeats itself, and it all comes down to the nature of man and the nature of his thought. Today the world is cultivating anti-China sentiments, but one thing looks certain, how much slower the process gets, China will continue on its path of gaining its ancient supremacy.
Understanding Chinese Mindset : A Historical Perspective