The Burlingame mission marks the establishment of friendly relations between China and America.
(Courtesy of Harvard College Library)
THE SHARED HISTORY OF CHINA AND AMERICA
The history of relations between China and the United States is usually depicted in polarising terms – one side acts, the other reacts, and in the middle is a balance of power. That does not give a complete picture, argues Professor Xu Guoqi.
China and America could hardly seem more unlike. On the one side is an authoritarian one-party state of rising economic power haunted by its recent past, on the other a noisy democratic superpower struggling to hold ground in a changing world.
But historian Xu Guoqi argues these poles are not so wide apart. In fact, the two countries also have a shared history that has played out over the past 150 years.
Professor Xu is at the forefront in focussing on ‘international’ history, where countries meet and influence each other, and he tells his story in a new book, Chinese and Americans: A Shared History.
“Both Americans and Chinese have displayed a remarkable naiveté and ignorance in dealing with each other,” he said. “Looking at their shared history can illuminate a past of cooperation and shared excitement and frustration.”
He hones in on six critical cases that show the depth and nature of Sino-American relations, starting in the 19th century when both countries were embroiled in protracted civil wars, wary of Europe and finding their feet in the international arena.
Sino-American relations are one of the most important bilateral relationships in the global community. If we emphasise a
China-centred or Western perspective, the picture will be distorted. If we bring both together with shared history as the focus, I think we will get a more balanced and reasonable story.
Professor Xu Guoqi
Chinese students’ baseball team in Hartford, 1878.
(Courtesy of Thomas La Fargue Papers, Manuscripts, Archives, and Special Collections, Washington State University Libraries)
American table tennis delegation on the Great Wall, Beijing.
(Courtesy of Friendship flowers are everywhere:
Official photos of the Chinese table tennis delegation’s participation in the 31st world table tennis championships)
Crossing the Pacific
From that background emerged Anson Burlingame, the top United States diplomat in China from 1861 to 1867 who quit to head China’s first diplomatic mission to the West in 1868. He also initiated the Burlingame Treaty, which established friendly relations between the two countries. “This was very significant because he suggested Chinese and Americans should have the freedom to go to each other’s countries to study and work,” Professor Xu said.
That paved the way for his second case, of 120 boys who were sponsored by the Chinese Government to study in the United States from 1872 to 1881. Many went on to hold senior positions in China, including the first Prime Minister of the Republic of China (ROC), Tang Shaoyi, and they maintained an openness to Western ideas. Some were involved in recruiting American constitutional expert Frank Goodnow of Columbia University to China in 1912, to help draft the ROC’s constitution and educate his hosts about American law.
The sharing of ideas also worked both ways. In 1879, Ge Kunhua was hired by Harvard University to be the first Chinese language teacher in the United States. He also sought to educate his students about Chinese culture. Although he died in 1882, he laid the groundwork for Chinese Studies in the United States and the Harvard Yenching Library.
The fifth case involved the American philosopher and educational reformer John Dewey, who arrived in 1919 just before the May Fourth Movement. He gave more than 200 lectures in the country, which were translated into Chinese and distributed widely, including by bookseller Mao Zedong.
The final case does not involve an individual but popular culture as represented by sport, through which important milestones were played out. ‘Ping-pong’ diplomacy broke the ice between China and the United States in the 1970s. China also sent its first Olympic team (consisting of one male sprinter) in 1932 to the Los Angeles Games, and in 1984 the People’s Republic of China sent its first Olympic team to Games that were again held in Los Angeles. Both times the teams met a warm reception from their American hosts.
Professor Xu, who lived in the United States for 20 years, acknowledges there have also been shared frustrations and disappointments –
the achievements of the Burlingame mission were limited by conservatism and the strength of Western imperialism, the Chinese education mission by the Chinese Exclusion Act and resistance by Qing officials to students learning Western values, Ge Kunhua’s impact by poor timing since few Americans were interested in China at the time, Goodnow and Dewey by the fact the two countries were starting to pull apart. Meanwhile, sport has become another arena for competition.
But that does not override the importance of their shared history which, unlike the Cold War, does not involve a zero-sum game. “Sino-American relations are one of the most important bilateral relationships in the global community. If we emphasise a China-centred or Western perspective, the picture will be distorted. If we bring both together with shared history as the focus, I think we will get a more balanced and reasonable story. Otherwise you can only say China is bound to collapse or become an aggressor. Neither view is correct,” he said.
Chinese and Americans: A Shared History is published by Harvard University Press.