On "China As Equal"
To the Editor:
Due to the pandemic, I was unable to get to my university mailroom for several months, but perhaps I could still comment upon John Delury’s enlightening October 2020 essay, “China as Equal: Putting China as Rival into Historical Context.” I agree that the present situation reverses much in the historical relationship between the United States and China, and that, unfortunately, the new equality as nation-states has become intertwined with economic and strategic rivalry. But additional points enrich Delury’s analysis.
Having long taught introductory world history courses, I find that China’s strong, new global economic role has dramatically changed the way students view Chinese history. In the late 1990s I felt like I was arguing with students when I (along with my textbooks) emphasized the manifold Chinese technological achievements (silk, paper, iron plow, porcelain, etc.). There was still resistance to the idea that China has contributed to the modern world as much as other societies. Recently, students much more readily and respectfully engage in discussions and exam essays on these innovations (as well as Chinese intellectual traditions).
I would also emphasize more fully the moves by some Americans during World War II to treat China as an equal. Franklin Roosevelt’s attempt to elevate our wartime ally as one of the “Four Policemen” that would organize the postwar world has long been ridiculed by scholars for placing undue faith in the hapless Chiang Kai-shek, or, more deviously, as a stratagem for US domination of the Pacific by manipulating a weak China. Clearly, in retrospect, FDR’s effort backfired, as Chiang’s repressive regime retreated to Formosa but retained its seat on the United Nations Security Council for 20 more years. Nevertheless, this diplomatic anomaly, which among other things exacerbated tensions between the United States and Mao Zedong, arose from an intention to remedy a century of unequal treaties.
Moreover, part of that World War II impulse toward equality with China stemmed from a source Delury mentions in another capacity. He notes the influence of Pearl Buck’s novel, The Good Earth, in stirring a paternalistic feeling among Americans towards these poor but hardworking people. In the late 1930s and during the war, however, Buck, along with other Americans with long experience in China, had gone beyond this “noblesse oblige” approach. In a blizzard of books, articles and speeches, Buck argued that Americans must confront our own mistaken prejudices, accepting China and other nonwhite peoples as equals. Success was both partial and fleeting, of course: the end of the Chinese Exclusion Act, for example, was more symbolic than substantive. Nevertheless, this new thinking constituted part of what scholars have identified as a significant legacy of World War II: repudiation of the intellectual basis of racism.
Today’s US-China rivalry raises thorny questions for policymakers, human rights activists, and others (though all should reject Donald Trump’s racist characterizations of the coronavirus). For historians, the rivalry increases the relevance both of our teaching and our research.
Shippensburg University (emeritus)
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