Why the UK Must Teach More Chinese History

Zheng He, the eunuch admiral.

Tom Harper
University of Surrey

The Sovietologist E.H. Carr once asked “what is history?” in his book of the same name. It is a question that may need to be asked again in light of plans by Oxford University to introduce exams in non-Western history. Such a move is cast against the background of the apparent backlash against the traditional notions of imperial history as symbolised by the protests over the philosophy courses of the School of Oriental and African Studies for focusing on European thinkers at the expense of Asian and African philosophers.

These Oxford initiatives should not be considered as merely simplistic, politically correct gesture politics. Instead, with the rise of the Eastern powers, most notably China, it has become imperative to reconsider the limitations of the current Eurocentric curriculum. As the influence of China grows, so too does its historical experiences with imperialism, as epitomised by Xi Jinping’s utilisation of China’s imperial past as a source of national pride. In order for UK universities to stay afloat in changing waters and to cast off the shackles of their Eurocentrism, they will need to start placing a greater emphasis on Asia – and China, in particular.

Understanding Chinese history is necessary for tracing the historical path of the modern day. However, even when this is attempted, it is too often through the lens of the European imperial powers. It is also too often conveyed as an inevitable clash of civilisations, as recently portrayed in Graham Alison’s The Thucydides Trap, invoking the classic geostrategic paradigm of Athens versus Sparta when examining the conflict between democratic and authoritarian states.

The contemporary rise of Chinese power provides a compelling reason for studying it. As China’s power grows, so too does interest in China’s geopolitical experiences, as epitomised by the rise of the China Dream, which has often utilised terminology from this era in order to define China’s role in the present day.

So how might the established historical experiences of China be more effectively studied? One way is by comparing the perceptions of China’s engagement with African states. The common Western perspective has attempted to draw parallels between Chinese policy and the European imperial past, whereas the Chinese narrative strives to separate the two while emphasising the mutual experience of exploitation from this era. In this sense, as well as emphasising the rise of China’s experiences, the case of China in Africa has also led to growing studies of the non-Western perspective on traditional Western experiences.

The ideals of the China Dream, or Chinese exceptionalism, in the words of William Callahan, are indicative of the rise of the Chinese experience. This notion has abandoned the traditional assumptions that China will converge with the Western world and instead opts for a more ‘Chinese future’ rooted in concepts from China’s imperial past. The utilisation of China’s past can also be seen in the use of the eunuch admiral Zheng He as a symbol of Sino-African ties as well as Zhao Tingyang’s advocacy of a ‘moral international order’, known as Tianxia (天下), grounded in Confucian morality.

Both of these are echoes of the Chinese imperial experience, which has grown alongside China’s power and influence. Western politicians invoke this image, as well, with Phillip Hammond citing the history of Sino-British trade relations in order to integrate Britain into the Belt Road Initiative. This in turn suggests that both the Eastern and Western experiences will gain equal traction as the Chinese experiences of world order gain prominence alongside the traditional experiences of the Western Great Powers.

The imperative for these changes also comes from the established assumptions about the Eastern powers. This assumes that they will follow the path of Western nations, whether it be the view that China will be a threat akin to that of Germany in the early twentieth century, or that it will be another Soviet Union awaiting its inevitable collapse. And yet, to paraphrase Martin Jacques, these assumptions treat China as though it were a Western power. While some of these aspects may be applicable, particularly in regards to the tensions between China and the United States reflecting the Great Power rivalries of the past, there are others that may not most notably the attempts to draw parallels between China and the Soviet Union, which too often ignore the significant differences between them.[1]

Another compelling factor for the study of Chinese history is the potential lessons we can take from it. While the European experiences of the past have often been held up as the gold standard for decades, whether it be the rise of the West or the two world wars, China can also provide its own experiences to learn from. An example can be seen in the perils of isolationism and a need to keep afloat in a changing world, an issue that has become particularly apparent in the light of Brexit and Trump. Added to which we need to recognise that we now live in a world that is far removed from the bygone days that the advocates of both these developments purport us to be in.

This can be seen in the collapse of China’s final dynasty, the Qing (清朝). For much of China’s history, the Chinese led tributary system dominated Asia, although by the time of the Macartney embassy’s trade mission to China in 1791, the rapidly industrialising European powers were making this less true.[2] Never the less, the Qing kept this delusion alive until the losses of the nineteenth century. Already there is a potential parallel with the somewhat unrealistic revitalization of notions of a more global Britain, which is often accused of being rooted in a past long since disappeared. Thus, China’s past can provide a potential precedent for Britain and Europe.

In line with the shifts in the global order, the identity of China has also rendered the study of Chinese history an increasingly important objective for the Western world. This can particularly be seen in the more culturalist perception of China’s role which is in line with the more recent Chinese perceptions of its role. Once the source of China’s ideological shame, the older, civilizational identity of China has been revived in the years after the Cold War. This can be seen in the pursuit of cultural soft power (文化软实力), which draws upon this culture to win international hearts and minds as well as this more traditional culture serving as a source of national pride. It would appear that the history of China’s golden age is playing a greater role in the perception of China’s identity and thus for the wider system, as illustrated by the rise of the China Dream.

At the same time, the darker aspects of the relationship between China and the West, such as the Opium Wars of 1841, may also become of increasing prominence, especially in regards to the mutual suspicion between them. This could be seen in the differing interpretation of the poppy. For Britain, it is a symbol of remembrance while for China it is a symbol of the country’s humiliation. This was underlined in 2010 when Beijing became upset over a British delegation to Beijing. Why? Because the delegation, which included then Prime Minister Cameron, was wearing poppies. The episode symbolises the two opposing historical interpretations of the same events.

In sum, by studying China’s past, we can move beyond the Eurocentric discourse that has become ever more limited in recent years. The ‘common knowledge’ of UK Higher Education that has long been deemed to be ‘universal is far too Eurocentric in nature focusing upon the experiences of the European powers and the Americas. While these lessons are important, they alone are not sufficient in exploring a turbulent world order where Asia is playing an increasingly prominent role. The experiences of China will likely gain the same tractions as those of the European powers of the previous two centuries.


[1] Jean Christophe Defraigne, Is China on the Verge of a Weltpolitik? A Comparison of the Current Shift in the Balance of Power between China and the West and the Shift between Great Britain and Wilhelmine Germany, in Interpreting China as a Regional and Global Power (Palgrave Macmillan, London, 2014).

[2] Frederic Wakeman Jr. The Fall of Imperial China (The Free Press, New York, 1975).

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