How Does China’s Imperial Past Shape Its Foreign Policy Today?

A ChinaFile Conversation

Throughout most of history China dominated Asia, up until what many Chinese refer to as the “century of humiliation”—when Japan and Western powers invaded or otherwise interfered between 1839 and 1949. Now, with China on the rise again, are Beijing’s leaders looking to establish a new hegemony by drawing on the playbook of the distant past, when China’s neighbors were forced to pay tribute? Or will China's international relations be shaped less by an antiquated tribute system with China at its core, and more by the principles of the Westphalian treaties that brought peace and the concept of co-existing sovereign states to Europe in the 17th century? —The Editors


Like any country, China’s current foreign policy shows a loose relationship between rhetoric and practice. The tendency of some international relations theorists to look to a supposed historical “tributary system” for both Chinese behavior and the reception of that behavior across East Asia is a bit puzzling, since there never was such a system. There was a set of rituals that ambassadors to the empire based in China were expected to perform, and a certain amount of rhetoric about civilization. The relationships performed were between the Son of Heaven and the outside sovereigns—not their respective societies—and Chinese records were always explicit about that. Beyond the rituals there were no prescriptions, whether commercial, strategic, or cultural, for relations between China and any country sending ambassadors. The actual policies and practices regarding the embassy nations varied enormously, from close supervision of trade and domestic politics in the case of Korea to indifference to reports and requests (as in the case of Vietnam, for example), to polite curiosity about envoys claiming to represent the Netherlands or the Vatican. The general trade policies once attributed to the effects of the “tributary system” are just as elusive in historical fact; Qing policies were rational and well-suited to the priorities of the empire, even if they did not suit the expectations of countries—like Britain—that were poorly suited to the market realities of East Asia.

This is not to say that the actual history of relations between the Qing empire (and previous empires based in China) and East Asian neighbors were not complex and sometimes momentous. The Qing empire tried consistently to manage Korea, and the Joseon court in Korea tried consistently (and with a certain amount of success) to resist. Japan by its own choice kept to itself until the late nineteenth century, though its southwestern domains were constantly engaged in a culturally-variegated pirate network that frustrated and enraged authorities both in Korea and in China. Russia was the empire that shared the most distinct conditions and concerns with the Qing, and the two empires forged a method of co-existence that has some resemblances to the present.

But such similarities are incidental. Neither Korea nor Japan shows any interest today in treating the Chinese president as a Son of Heaven. China’s plan for “one belt, one road” is wholly native to the twenty-first century. The ambition to encircle India by land and sea; to create a financial and resource exchange system for infrastructure development engaging Central Asia, Europe, the Middle East and Africa; and to construct interlocking trade and security relationships that will block the American reach across the Pacific all are completely novel in Chinese and in global history. The Xi Jinping government may be designing the post-globalization pattern of managed trans-national spheres, and pioneering a financial and strategic role that few other countries seem even to envisage. China has no need to draw on any distant past for a template of its ambitions, attitudes, or enterprises.

Chinese exceptionalism rests on several hoary myths, but perhaps the most perplexing is that of China as the ultimate pacifist nation, the victim of all and an aggressor toward none. In this narrative, China, as presently constituted, emerged fully formed from the mists of history and expanded to its current size by entirely (or mostly) peaceful means.

It is a view of regional history that often bemuses and frustrates China’s immediate neighbors, not the least Vietnam where the phrase “1000 Years of Chinese Domination” holds near as much resonance as “100 Years of Foreign Humiliation” does here in Beijing.

This exceptionalist narrative ignores the fraught history by which the former frontiers of empire became the borders and boundaries of a nation. This month, my students, undergraduates from several different U.S. colleges and universities who are studying in Beijing, are looking at the legacy of Qing imperial expansion in the 17th and 18th centuries during which the Qing Empire fought wars in both Burma and Vietnam on the pretext of enforcing regional order.

The Sino-Burmese Wars of 1765-1769 began, ironically enough for historians of the Opium Wars, when a local official escalated a trade dispute into an ill-fated attempt to expand Qing imperial power and prestige. In 1788, Qing armies intervened and occupied Hanoi when the Lê dynasty was toppled by the Tây Sơn army. Unfortunately, the commander of the Qing forces, Sun Shiyi, failed to capitalize on his early success and was forced to flee with his surviving troops back into China only a few months later.

A cynic might suggest that it’s not that China didn’t invade other countries, it’s just that it wasn’t very good at it.

In the nineteenth century, the Qing Empire would also fight wars with France and Japan when those powers aggressively challenged Qing influence in Vietnam and Korea. As Professor Crossley has noted, that influence came about through a diverse set of practices and rituals described as the “Tributary System” by John K. Fairbank and many other twentieth-century historians of China.

In the cases of the Sino-French War of 1884-1885 and the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-1895, the Qing faced bellicose and aggressive powers who were unwilling to respect existing regional power relationships and had the military means to push back forcefully against the Qing assertion of its perceived rights and responsibilities as a great power.

What happens when the inevitable challenges the exceptional? If China’s aggressive assertion of territorial claims leads to conflict again with its neighbors in the present-day, how will that be squared with the collective self-image of timeless pacifism? Will future wars be explained as a preemptive defense of inherent Chinese territory, as in the case of the border wars with India in the 1960s, or will they be intentionally and conveniently forgotten, like the Sino-Vietnamese War of 1979?

Ultimately, China’s efforts to spread its influence in the region beyond may depend on how the Chinese government can reconcile the extension of power beyond China’s borders with a self-congratulatory exceptionalist narrative of its own creation.

Of course China’s past—imperial or otherwise—is present in the shaping of China’s foreign policy today, because a) “The Past Is Vast”—the term “imperial past” encompasses two-plus millennia, in which distinguishing features and commonalities cohabit with any number of foundational pluralisms, deviations, evolutions, additions, modifications, etc.; and because b) the history of the development of the Chinese nation (the nation, that is, not the civilization) over the past two centuries has never ceased to be a story of identity-recovery, identity-definition, identity-revision, and identity debate. That continues to this day, as ChinaFile’s godfather Orville Schell and his co-author John Delury emphasized in their book Wealth and Power a few years ago, and it continues in the current leader Xi Jinping’s ongoing attempts to invoke for the populace a unique Chinese identity made up of Chinese Characteristics, Chinese Culture, etc. while at the same time he regularly heats the boiling oil to prevent an onslaught of insidious and infectious “Western Values” from infecting his people and undoing his polity.

The kicker, of course, is that “China’s Past,” or its “imperial past,” is so vast and complex that it is pretty well up to whoever invokes it to try to convince people that what he/she evokes is what matters most. In a twenty-first-century one-party state, in which “politics” have a defined role in the management of most aspects of Chinese life, the possibility of conflicting or (heaven forfend) “alternative” versions of history quickly becomes “political,” with all the inherent personal and professional implications that this can bring. Just think of the vast kerfuffle about “New Qing History,” for example.

China remains, and cannot avoid remaining, drenched in its history, far more than most other modern nation states. (Donald Trump’s hanging a portrait of Andrew Jackson in a conspicuous White House location while he sets about Making America Great Again is small beer by comparison).

As the Chinese people, China’s vast opinion-formation apparatus, and above all China’s ultimate policy-making elites ponder China’s place in the world of the present and the future, the “imperial past,” however selectively defined and employed, lives. It lives in the shared memory of facts, legends, names, and events, and it lives in the Chinese language itself, filled as the latter is with words and phrases of ancient but still-understood allusions and associations.

All of that having been said, however, crude American or other non-Chinese evocations of a sort of Hollywood version of “China’s imperial past” (I recall some wonderful film clips in Irv Drasnin’s 1972 TV special Misunderstanding China) will not do us or the Chinese any good. Our job is to identify as best we can contemporary Chinese perceptions of their immense historical legacy, pursuing that understanding through direct engagement with thoughtful Chinese counterparts, and to factor what we learn into our own perceptions and policy-making. It will not be all sweetness and light, to be sure, and the comments of those in this exchange who point to the apparent cynicism with which “the past” seems to be manipulated by present-day power-holders bear careful study. (The Chinese Communist Party, by the way, is not alone in these practices; the Kuomintang, from its first rise to power in the 1920s until very recent years, diligently evoked and manipulated the Chinese Past as well.) But to say “the imperial past” is not a meaningful component of contemporary Chinese foreign policymaking would, I think, be dangerously dismissive.

China's foreign policy increasingly looks like an effort to win back for itself an imagined position where China was the center of East Asia and other nations largely submitted to its will.

Of course, this past never existed—most countries (or more accurately kingdoms, fiefdoms, and so on, because the nation state didn't exist then) probably didn't see China that way. Instead, they sent missions to China and pretended to submit to China as a survival strategy—a way to give their giant neighbor face while allowing them to pursue their own goals.

But no matter, the key for the current Chinese leader is to give itself and Chinese people the sense that China is back in its natural place in the world order, which means as the regional hegemon and at least one of the top few countries in the world.

Why this desire to recreate past glory? In a piece I published recently in the New York Review of Books Daily, I argue that it's part of Xi Jinping's adoption of the "classic nationalist-authoritarian-traditionalist playbook." Part of this is the obvious strategy of diverting attention away from current problems, such as a dangerously slowing economy.

But it is also the external manifestation of a broader effort to recreate past values, principles, and structures in Chinese society. This comes after a century of largely trying to dismantle these guiding ideas and—perhaps coincidentally, or perhaps not—a century of violence, famines, wars, and turmoil. This strategy is part of a desire for China to go back to what seemed like a more stable and glorious past, one where China's position in the world was assured, just like ordinary people's position in society was safe, predictable and seemingly free from the turmoil of living in a globalized capitalist society.

Of course, this past never existed. It is a dream—the China Dream, perhaps, which Mr. Xi has made his signature idea. But if pushed too far it can become something else: a delusion.

I take it as self-evident that China’s past strongly shapes its views of the world, as it does its views of itself and of its place in the world. I have just published a book (last week) on this very topic, titled Everything Under the Heavens: How the Past Helps Shape China’s Push for Global Power.

China has generated a number of durable idealized narratives about its position in the world and its relations with other peoples. The essence of these narratives concerns China’s intercourse with neighbors. It is worth stating that pretty much every important power generates idealized narratives about itself. Just as clearly, none of these powers consistently live up to their self-idealization. According to myths dear to Americans, whose society was founded on the basis of slavery and the dispossession and substantial eradication of the native population, the United States is a force for liberty in the world. More recently, and prior to Trump, the United States has also long promoted an image of itself a country that is keen on openness, in ideas, in matters of immigration and in trade. None of these things have been consistently true of the United States—ever.

So how has China idealized itself? Since this conversation has largely been about imperial China, I'll limit myself to that.

China has tended to imagine itself as a benign force whose centrality, preeminence and prestige have often served as the basis for a loosely articulated Pax Sinica. This is especially true in terms of how China imagines past relations with East and Southeast Asia. In its own self-conception, China was rarely the aggressor or expansionist, and pretty much never a hegemon. Instead, other countries were drawn toward it by its wealth and brilliance, and if they submitted to it, they did so voluntarily, because this seemed to them to be the natural and proper thing to do.

In exchange, China bestowed legitimacy on appropriately deferential regimes, showered those who were interested in them with the fruits of Chinese civilization and allowed them access to its rich markets.

I argue in my book that there are strong echoes of these very idealized narratives that persist in China's dealings with its neighbors today. China would like to be preeminent in its neighborhood. It would like to attain such a position through peaceful means, using its assumed powers of attraction. But especially because this was never a consistent reality in the past, one must be ready for the possibility that China is prepared to use non-peaceful means to attain its aims in the region, and indeed there are already signs suggesting preparations for just such a thing. See, for example, recent Chinese behavior in the South China Sea.

This leads to a question posed by Wang Gungwu, who is quoted thusly in my book:

“In the nineteenth century China had to be forced to ‘enter into the family of nations.’ China joined an international system in which all members were equal, at least in theory; in fact, it was difficult for China not to feel that it had been admitted as a less-than-equal member. China’s bending before superior force was a rational decision which the Western powers could approve of, but there has always been some doubt as to whether it was simply a decision of strategy and whether the Chinese ever believed that equality really existed in international relations. [And] the Chinese may wish to go back to their long-hallowed tradition of treating foreign countries as all alike but unequal and inferior to China.”

Another interesting question for me when I think about China’s attractive powers is to compare imperial China at various high points of its history with present day China and assess whose soft power was greater? Today’s China unquestionably has the lure of markets and trade and the associated promise of wealth that go with them. But in the imperial past, in addition to these attributes, it could also boast leadership in philosophy, religion, astrology, medicine, science and technology, writing and literature, access to the examination system and more. Will China in the future be able to roll out a panoply of soft power attributes of comparable breadth and prestige to compliment its financial and hard power? If so, where will the ideational elements of this soft power come from? If not, what are the implications of being a new great power with a rather more narrowly based soft power foundation that in the past?

Rather than asking how the imperial past shapes the present, we also might consider how people in the present selectively craft a usable past for purposes ranging from soft power to leisure entertainment. In the mid-1960s, a stage spectacular titled The East is Red encapsulated the official view of China’s imperial past. In song, dance, and narrative voiceover, the performers presented a bleak history of misery, feudalism, and imperialism that had to be overturned in order for China to achieve a bright industrial future. In 2008, the Beijing Olympics opening ceremony enacted a very different vision: the past as a rich and cosmopolitan stage for global engagement and domestic social harmony—a proud heritage providing a platform for China’s peaceful rise. In the 1960s and more recently, the imperial past has been choreographed selectively into performance art. In the imperial past, historical writing almost inevitably entailed censure or praise for political or moral purposes (or both). Here, in the contrast between The East is Red and the Olympic Opening Ceremony we see a reversal of verdicts on the imperial past—from past as shackles to be cast off, to past as abundant resource to be mined.

Today, the imperial past is celebrated as glorious heritage in front of audiences both foreign and domestic, and in contexts including Confucius Institutes abroad and tourist venues at home. While the central government sets the agenda and narrative, local governments and ordinary people (including tourists) also articulate visions (and versions) of the imperial past. In the 1990s, signage at tourist venues inevitably presented famous sites as manifestations of the genius of China’s working classes. Today, those same sites are celebrated as the former playgrounds of emperors, officials, and literati. Cultural heritage has become a global commodity and also a consumable domestic resource in a developing service economy. We see this especially in tourism.

In the early 1990s, tourism was managed by the local Overseas Chinese and foreign office, and tourism was imagined as a source of foreign currency. By the end of the 1990s, tourism had been reclassified as a domestic industry. New regimens of work and leisure (the arrival of the regular two-day weekend and longer holidays) and greatly improved transportation infrastructure have contributed to a surge in domestic leisure travel. Ironically, local officials have sought to manufacture scenic sites to lure tourists, developing local “brand identities” even as China’s cities have become increasingly homogeneous in their appearance. New shopping centers and scenic sites in the “classical style” (often with names and associations from the imperial past) proliferate; famous gardens, once enclosed within government offices, schools, or factories, open anew to the public, creating additional venues for ticket sales and local branding. Old vernacular architecture by contrast continues to disappear. The imperial past has become a commodity, with local variants on a glorious national theme. Messages honoring the emperors and literati and high-ranking officials of the imperial past in fact affirm the prosperity, splendor, glory, stability, and indigenous antecedents of the present.