Three Chinese Histories of Globalization
Delivering the inaugural lecture for the UCLA Center for Chinese Studies speaker series "Beyond the Headlines: China and the Global Future," Wang Gungwu of the National University of Singapore shows how China's image of and role in globalization have changed as the country has become less closed off and more of an active participant in world affairs.
Published: Monday, March 16, 2009
To pre-modern Chinese, "If anybody wanted to be civilized, they should be more like the Chinese and that should solve their problem."
In the latter half of the 20th century alone, China experienced Mao Zedong's Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution, and Deng Xiaoping's market reforms, said Wang Gungwu, showing how difficult it will be to predict China's course. Still, delving into the country's long history can inform discussions about its future.
"By capturing some themes from the past, these themes might give us some thought, some clues, about how China might respond to the very uncertain future that not only China faces, but the whole world faces today," Wang said.
Wang, a historian at the National University of Singapore and chairman of its East Asian Institute, gave the inaugural lecture for the UCLA Center for Chinese Studies speaker series "Beyond the Headlines: China and the Global Future" on Feb. 26, 2009. Wang showed how China's image of and role in globalization have changed as the country has become less closed off and more of an active participant in world affairs.
Wang used three contemporary trends as a backdrop: the changing world economic order, the integration of China into the international system, and the increasing number of Chinese using the Internet. He spoke of three evolving aspects of globalization as seen from China, or three "globals": the economic, political, and "universalist" globals.
To become the world's third-largest economy, China had to leave behind its longstanding indifference toward international trade and become a major player and shaper of it. Although China historically engaged in long-distance trade through the Silk Road and maritime trade routes, such trade was of marginal interest to Chinese rulers and elites; and foreign trade was overseen within the tributary system, the Chinese imperial method of diplomacy with subservient regional powers, Wang said. The Ming dynasty, which ruled from the mid-14th to mid-17th century, even enforced a policy against private foreign trade.
The lack of concern about international commerce persisted until the British East India Company and others forced China to deal with it in the 19th century.
"When the breakthrough of the West came from the Opium War, the Chinese confidence was broken and they had to re-imagine a different image of the economic globalization," said Wang. Still, the country maintained a resistance to change and moved slowly into a globalized era.
The themes of resistance to change and acceptance of change echo in China's political sphere, Wang said. For centuries, China's imperial and tributary systems nurtured its sense of superiority over other polities, but the rise of Western colonialism and imperialism in Asia and China's defeats in the Opium War and the first Sino-Japanese War in the 19th century led to the end of the tributary system and forced China to accept an international system of nation-states. Even then, Wang said, the Qing dynasty thought the tributary system might be revived, as illustrated by China's failed attempt to establish official diplomatic relations with Thailand.
"I was struck that the negotiations for diplomatic relations with Thailand dragged on until about [the] 1920s and [were] still left uncertain simply because the Chinese found it difficult to find the right language to provide the continuity of the Sino-Thai relationship from the past," Wang said.
Although China could recognize other great world powers as equals, it struggled to respond when Thailand's king wanted to be addressed as emperor, like the rulers of China's and Japan's dynasties.
China also had to contend with international norms propagated by the West as universal. It continues to question the international system's simultaneous recognition of the sovereignty of nation-states and of self-determination for groups within nation-states, for example.
All of these issues, pertaining to the economic and political aspects of globalization, interact with what Wang called China's "universalist global"-- its world of ideas, ideals and ways of life. In the pre-modern era, he said, this integrated worldview could be summed up in the word tianxia.
"What this tianxia stood for -- and I'm not referring only to Confucianism, but to all the aspects of ancient Chinese thought -- was that this was the universal set of values, and the Chinese had acquired it, mastered it and owned it," Wang said. "[If] anybody wanted to be civilized, they should be more like Chinese and that should solve their problem."
The main features of this worldview persisted until the first century and the Han dynasty emperor Ming's support of Buddhism.
"This is the only time that Chinese opened their minds to a different and alternative universalism," Wang said. "They took it so much to heart that it became Chinese…. It is so much digested by the Chinese that the Sinic Buddhist element is so Chinese that many other Buddhists don't recognize it as Buddhist anymore."
The incorporation of Buddhism in the Chinese worldview, Wang said, gave the Chinese sufficient confidence to resist other universalist ideas such as the monotheistic faiths of Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
"So nothing offered them was of any interest for the next thousand years or so, till the 20th century," Wang said.
Even then, Chinese intellectuals would pick and choose the portions of universalist ideas that easily fit their worldview. Wang gave the scholar Kang Yuwei and the revolutionary Mao as examples of Chinese who borrowed and "digested" Western ideas to create new but Chinese ways of thinking.
"The acceptance of science as universal seemed to have no problems to Chinese at all because it didn't seem to challenge some of the other universals that they had believed in," Wang said, and pointed out that the acceptance of science became the basis from which the new China emerged.
The Internet is giving more Chinese people access to information from around the world, Wang said, while also stressing that they generally access this information in Chinese rather than English.
"When I use the example of the Internet, the range, access to knowledge, to information, is now so wide. How do the new generations of Chinese choose? What will they choose? What will inspire them? What will finally be the trigger that will set them off to create something that is new and satisfies" them? Wang said.
"My own sense is that all these images are changing in front of the eyes of the new generations of Chinese, especially the intellectual leaders and political elites. I suspect all three ["globals"] will converge in some way ultimately, and out of that some kind of new consensus, new political culture, will emerge. But the key is, that something will remain Chinese," Wang said.