On the 22nd November 2003, an electrical power worker from the Chinese province of Henan, Wang Letian, walked around his home city of Zhengzhou wearing a traditional Chinese costume called the Hanfu. Wang intended to promote traditional Chinese culture by generating interest in traditional Chinese garb. At the time, Wang’s actions were unusual, with the Hanfu being largely confined to film sets and tourist attractions. Nevertheless, Wang received significant attention in China, and has often been cited as the originator of the current Hanfu craze sweeping China today.
Wang’s goal of promoting Chinese traditional culture appears to have been fulfilled in recent years, with the costume becoming a mainstay of social media platforms popular with Chinese millennials. The popularity of the costume coincides with a wider discussion over the state of China’s identity, which marks a break from the previous focus on China’s economic development. This has often sought to emphasise the uniqueness of China’s identity as well as presenting China as a civilisation state rather than a nation-state in the Westphalian sense. By delving into China’s past, the rise of the Hanfu movement and the debate over China’s identity thus symbolises the contradictory nature of the legacies of China’s imperial dynasties, most notably the Ming and Qing dynasties, as well as the role that these have played in shaping the present Chinese perception of China.
1935 was not a good year for Mao Zedong’s Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Having almost been wiped out by the encirclement campaigns waged by the Chinese Nationalists (KMT) of Chiang Kai Shek and barely surviving the Long March to Shaanxi Province, one could be forgiven for thinking that the days of Chinese communism were numbered. Even fewer could have predicted that nearly fourteen years later, Mao, with his nationalist foes now vanquished to the island of Formosa, would be standing in Tiananmen Square declaring the founding of the People’s Republic of China.
Much of the reversal of the CCP’s fortunes can be attributed to the ideology and strategies formulated by Mao and his German educated strategist, Zhu De, which combined Marx’s theories on communist revolution with traditional Chinese texts such as The Water Margin and Sun Tzu’s The Art of War to a context far removed from Marx’s prognosis for revolution.  These ideas would form a significant part of China’s contribution to the post-colonial world and influenced both guerrilla movements across the globe and the counter insurgency planners that sought to defeat them. These strategies also would influence the thinking behind Chinese foreign policy during and after the Cold War. Continue reading “The Post-Colonial People’s War: The Legacy of Maoism”→
The rapid economic and military ascent of China has been one of the major geopolitical developments over the past four decades, with the reforms initiated by Deng Xiaoping entering its 40th anniversary this year. This has seen China go from a ramshackle, quasi-feudal empire into one of the Great Powers of the 21st century.  What has been the driving force behind this push has been China’s historical experiences, most notably those of the 19th and early 20th centuries, known to the Chinese as the Century of Humiliation (百年国耻), where China lost both its territory and its prestige to the imperial powers of the day.  These experiences have also been a tool in China’s relationships with the wider world as well as a unifying force within China, the legacy of which persists in the light of current tensions. Continue reading “How the Century of Humiliation Influences China’s Ambitions Today”→
The Yellow Peril – symbolised by British author Sax Rohmer’s Chinese mastermind Fu Manchu, the self-described ‘Yellow Peril incarnate in one man’ (1913) – is possibly the most influential paradigm informing the image of China and East Asia in Western popular consciousness . This image depicts China as an implacable oriental opponent of the Western world, a uniform mass with little or no individuality and prone to extreme cruelty. While the perception of the China threat, such as fears over a full blown Sino-American trade war or fears over Chinese ‘student spies’, might appear to be a more recent development, it actually follows a path long trod in the European imperial imaginarium and perpetuated through American strategies in Asia during the 20th century . These same policies have played an important role in influencing and proliferating the Yellow Peril paradigm. Continue reading “Yellow Peril: The Rise of an Imperial Scare”→
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. Continue reading “Why the UK Must Teach More Chinese History”→
In the vein of its rich history in Central Asia, China’s quest for economic development has seen it return to the region that was once spanned by the Silk Route. While Central Asia has served as the cross roads between Eastern and Western civilisation for centuries, it also once provided the chessboard upon which the Great Powers of the past had battled each other for land and influence. In sum it is one of the most strategic regions of the world, whether it be the Great Game of the nineteenth century or the superpower conflict of the 1980s.
In line with the power politics of the past, the region has seen a new Great Game where today’s strongest nations compete for the region’s natural resources. With the close of the twentieth century, Central Asia re-entered the spotlight as a result of the War on Terror and, more recently, China’s Belt and Road Initiative (一带一路). In light of these developments, the imperial struggles of the past two centuries take on a new importance, as they continue to influence the perceptions of China’s return to the region. These perceptions, real or imagined, have fuelled the struggles of the Great Powers in the region and China’s involvement is simply the latest chapter in a centuries long struggle. Continue reading “China’s New Silk Road: Central Asia and the Imperial Legacy of the Great Game”→
Where once China sought communist revolution, it now seeks global economic expansion. As a result, the African continent has been one of the major areas of Chinese foreign economic investment. Numerous studies of China’s Africa policy have appeared in recent years, a number of which accuse China of exploiting resource rich African states or behaving like an imperial power in the continent, most notably Peter Hitchens’s assertion that China is building a ‘slave empire’ in Africa .
These views on Chinese policy also reflect the changes in the perceptions of China in the Western mind. The crude stereotypes of the Yellow Peril that dominated Western culture in the late 19th and early 20th centuries have given way to a fear that China will follow in the West’s imperial footsteps. In other words, the legacy of imperialism underpins today’s perceptions of China’s foreign policy as well as Chinese identity.
Chinese engagement in Africa illuminates the influence of the imperial experience. The initial form of Chinese policy in Africa came as ideological and military assistance to the various anti-colonial movements of the 1950s in their struggles against the once dominant European empires that had been ravaged by the Second World War. During this period of decolonisation, Beijing formed strong ties with a number of African nations that would become increasingly important to Chinese economic goals once the Cold War subsided. Should these goals be seen as neo-imperialism? Continue reading “China’s Neo-Imperialism in Africa: Perception or Reality?”→