French Concession and Shanghai’s History

Just when I opened a new entry before me and wondered what to write to day, Stephen left a comment, which can be a very good topic to start a discussion.

I was reading the website of the restaurant where you celebrated your birthday, to my surprise the restaurant features “French Concession” as a selling point. Since the Shanghai public concession has been abolished since last government, is people today still fond of the past history or they prefer the infrastructures left by the foreigners before the war?

Mixed Feeling about Shanghai History

Shanghai is a very unique city. Its founding was because of a treaty – the Nanjing Treaty, one was always referred as unequal treaty in China.

From the day one of the modern Shanghai since 1840s, the city was mixture of Chinese and westerns, and of cause the culture of Chinese, and western culture.

If you see Shanghai as a child, he has a Chinese mother, and a western father. The western culture is actually put into the blood of this city. The intimacy of this city and the whole western world is by culture blood line.

French Concession?

You see this connection easily by architect – the whole French concession was well kept, and the building along Bund. But most importantly, it is the way people in Shanghai behaves – the respect to contracts, hobbies about decent nice restaurants, and many westernized things. If you walk on the small streets in Shanghai, you can feel the deep connection.

The Painful Conflicts

After being in Shanghai for 14 years, I can see the struggle and conflicts in the mind of Shanghaiese. Just like an abandoned child with a foreign father, Shanghai cannot admit its connection with the western world in the last half century, especially the forming of this child is because of a rape.

People try to avoid that embarrassing history of this city, but the city itself is the evidence of that embarrassing history for China. On one hand, all students in China were taught to “hate” those countries who invaded China during 1840s to 1940s, and described that period of time as the darkest time of Shanghai, on the other hand, that was the most prosperous ages for Shanghai. Why so many people still loves the 1930 style of Shanghai?

Back to the French Concession

Today, many people in Shanghai is trying very hard to rebuild the elegance and gracefulness of the old 1930 times. But they did it without claiming anything, because it is something that you cannot claim in public. It is pride mixed shame. It is love mixed with hate. It is also a memory people try to pickup but avoid to mention.

P.S. I wrote a Chinese blog article about my observation: A mixed blood named Shanghai.

39 thoughts on “French Concession and Shanghai’s History

  1. As for Stephen’s query, I reckon the answer from most Chinese people is: that’s nothing but interest/curiosity on exoticism. Similarly, we like to visit the Palace Museum in Beijing, and it doesn’t mean we yearn for the days of Qing Dynasty.

    “Concession” is a sensitive word to many Chinese (unless it’s mentioned in articles on tourism, foods, architecture, arts, & whatnot). Who would be so cheap to cherish the history, during which there was a “Chinese and dogs not admitted” bulletin board at the entrance of the park?

  2. The current government (and its followers) always take credits for all the good things that happen in China and blame foreigners for all the bad things/fuckups.

    For example, riots are often conveniently said to be “orchestrated” by some evil foreigners or governments (reminds me of what’s happening in Iran now) who “manipulate” Chinese people.

    And then you have these leaders in Hong Kong, speaking at a National Day celebration event, try to attribute the success of the city solely to the Central government’s leadership, as if Hong Kong never existed before 1997 or 150 years of British rule had achieved nothing.

  3. French Concession is a history, but I don’t think it should construe as “painful memory”, as matter of fact, the area served as a sanctuary for many Chinese during the war years while the rest of Shanghai was obliterated by Japanese artillery during the “Battle of Shanghai”.

    Just look at Hong Kong, It has been the British Colony over 150 years, and today people there still praise the education, judiciary system and governance set up by the British and reluctant to comprise with China. It also served as a sanctuary for many Chinese during the era of “missing 20 years”. Will someone call the British ruling a “shame”? at lease not in Hong Kong.

  4. >>all students in China were taught to “hate” those countries who invaded China during 1840s to 1940s

    How many people from those times are still alive today ? Can we really blame those people’s descendants ? Can’t we accept that things change with time and look ahead instead of complaining about past issues, no matter how hard and terrible they were ? Do you think that the current generations of French, or Japanese or English people are still in the same state of mind than their predecessors, who were born at the beginning of the 1800s ?

    Just my 2 cents.

  5. I don’t think Shanghai’s history is a shame. Many don’t think Hong Kong’s history is a shame either. The so called “shame” was actually a propaganda in children’s text book intending to portray foreign influence as counterproductive or evil. In reality, thanks to the foreign influence that came in from port cities like Shanghai, China was able to progress with a flourish of new ideas. Think about it, Communist party was founded in Shanghai and its first convention was held in Shanghai. There was no other place in the old days having such a high political tolerance. Shanghai back in the 30s and 40s was the warm bed for new thinking and new ideas and even the radical ones. Compared to today’s materialistic driven academic environment and party-line reciting educational systems. I like the cultual livness of shanghai in the 30s and 40s much better than today’s.

    Only the party wants everybody to believe that old Shanghai is dark. It’s time to wake up from that brain wash.

  6. Thanks to foreign influence that came in from major port cities like Shanghai, let me drive my point one step further, the idea of communism and socialism came in from France and England. Shanghai was the warm bed for tolerating such ideas and served as a safe harbor to protect such underground movements during the 20s and 30s. Were it not for cities like Shanghai and Hong Kong, the founding of Communist party would have been indefinitely delayed. Likewise, the revolution lead the Sun Zhong Shan would not probably have the chance to gather enough momentum to bring to its fruition.

    Founding of cities like Shanghai and Hong Kong is definitely very significant to China in its recent history. Its history is not at all dark, rather, it’s bright and glorious and should be respected by most educated Chinese. The very author of “dark” theory forgot that their party came out of Shanghai due to its tolerance of ideas.

    I hope I made my point :-)

  7. I’m an impecunious Chinese man, living in a small apartment. One day, Bill Gates knocked at my door.

    Gates: Hello there.

    Me: Hello… Oh, my god! Mr. Gates! Fancy meeting you! What can I do for you?

    Gates: I’m bringing to you a very good deal.

    Me: Unbelievable! What’s that?

    Gates: I’m going to spend one million dollars to re-decorate your shabby living room. Throw all those rubbish out, replacing them with the best available furniture & home appliances on the world. I’ll turn your living room into a gorgeous palace.

    Me: Great! But why do you do this for me?

    Gates: Because I plan to send some of my staff to live here. They are doing some business in your community.

    Me: I see. And I guess the profit you get from this business is much bigger than 1 million dollars.

    Gates: Of course. I’m more of a businessman after all than a charitarian.

    Me: I can understand that. It’s still an attractive proposal for me. I’ll welcome foreign guests.

    Gates: No, no, no! Let’s make one point clear. My staff won’t be your guests. They will become hosts of this living room. They will do whatever they want regardless of your opinion.

    Me: Any other conditions?

    Gates: They will also bring some bodyguards with guns, to ensure their security, in case they have some unhappy dissension with you. Hard to accept this? Come on! It’s good for you on the other hand. I know you have a unfriendly neighbor who intends to loot you. In case he jumps into your bedroom from the balcony, I will allow you to hide in my living room.

    Me: Hmm… Mr. Gates. It’s an interesting idea. But I’ll have to think it over.

    Gates: No. Actually it’s not a proposal. I’m here to inform you that we will do this! No matter you like it or not.

    Me: Bang the door onto Gate’s face.

  8. Adam brought up a very vivid description of colonialism. Actually that’s what they have been doing for the last xxx many years in Asia, in South America, and in Middle East. Colonialism is a strategy mastered by the British and then refined and inherited by the Americans. Do you guys think Colonialism died away today? No, no, it simply morphed into a brand new form. Yesterday’s colonialism was characterized by leasing a land or grabbing a land to establish a physical colony. Shanghai was a typical colony by several countries. That form of colonialism is gone today. But hiding behind is a virtual colonialism carried out by the same players, notably American and west European power. The new way of colonialism is show placed in front of everybody in Shanghai, the glass shined buildings, the ritzy upscale shopping malls, newly established multimillionaires and billionaires… Why do I say all this prosperity is a result of new colonialism? Because when you look at how many Chinese enterprises are now firmed controlled in equity shares by foreighn multinationals, you will understand what I mean. Although most of these companies still carry a Chinese brandname, such as Tsingdao Beer, the mother company has already fell into foreign control by equity rights. That is why in the US, many people are now calling China as “Chimerica”. Is it dark and evil? If we use our old ideology to analyze it, yes, it’s definitely dark. But at the same time it brought untold wealth to China. Most of the wealth in China has been created by exporting stuff to America and Europe. Most of the big manufacturers in China are being directly or indirectly owned or controlled by the consuming countries. Today’s colonialism is not physical, but via monetary control. If you have to use old ideology to label it, today’s Shanghai may be even darker than that in the 30s.

  9. “The new way of colonialism is show placed in front of everybody in Shanghai, the glass shined buildings, the ritzy upscale shopping malls, newly established multimillionaires and billionaires… Why do I say all this prosperity is a result of new colonialism? Because when you look at how many Chinese enterprises are now firmed controlled in equity shares by foreighn multinationals, you will understand what I mean.”

    Following this logic, I’m led to think that Deng Xiaoping is actually the ultimate traitor. It’s Deng who opened China up to this new form of “colonialism” after all. Or is China’s recent acquistion of African/South American/Australian ores and mines actually a Chinese attempt of colonisalisation?

  10. oen said:

    “Following this logic, I’m led to think that Deng Xiaoping is actually the ultimate traitor. It’s Deng who opened China up to this new form of “colonialism” after all. Or is China’s recent acquistion of African/South American/Australian ores and mines actually a Chinese attempt of colonisalisation?”

    My response:

    It’s not fair to label Deng for this or that. Deng pretty much had no choice at that time. He did what is supposed to be done.

    Just like the old colonialism benefitted China in surprising ways, new Colonialism may have its constructive effect toward China on a grand scale of things. It’s too early to make any conclusion one way or the other. However, one thing is certain, if China can take this opportunity of borrowing foreign expertise to gain a foothold in this global food chain, and eventually go up to the top of the food chain, then this colonialism will end up being very healthy. The risk is that China may not fully take this opportunity to learn the skills (not just technical skills, but soft skills like financing power as well as global influence) to fully leverage it to go up the ladders. If China end up remaining at the lower parts of the food chain, for example, perpetually remaining as the commodity maker rather than the innovator, then China will pan out no better than her past. Don’t be fooled the superficious ritzy glass buildings and shopping mall. All that is some construction mirage that doesn’t really tell a country’s strength. Next 10-15 years will be utterly critical to determine if China will end up in the advanced nation or remain as the low end manufacturer.

    Most advanced nation today established their wealth via multiple decades of colonizing less developed nations. China needs to play the same game. She needs to act more aggressively to become a colonizer, rather than a colonizee.

    So far, there has been no sign yet for such transition.

  11. I wouldn’t say having foreign investments in domestic industries count as a form of colonialisation, unless it reaches a point where these investors have enough economic leverage that allow them to have significant political influence e.g. choosing their preferred leader.

  12. One, you may be right to say that today’s virtual colonialization is not a pure one. You can argue that it may not even count as one. In my opinion, it is an advanced form colonialism exercised by foreign multinationals. Foreign equity control of Chinese enterprises has risen in recent years to an alarming level. It’s as if they had been planting a seed for eventual total colonization of Chinese economy. Today, it seems to most people that such total colonization is not possible. That is only because the economy is doing fine. What if in the future, when something breaks down and send the economy into a big recession or even depression, like what has happened to Japan for the last 15 years. Such seeds planted earlier could ballooned into a virtual full control. The danger is definitely there. Behind all the shallow optimism, the key concern is that Chinese economy is not totally under self control. Chinese enterprises lacks pricing power, and being sqeezed to earn meager profit on every thing they export. The exporting industry contributes more than 50% of Chinese GDP. It’s easy for everyone to understand that when a country relies significantly on foreign consumption and yet without pricing power, it is subject to foreign manipulation. That was what happened to Japan in the late 80s and early 90s. Recently, China has developed a huge bubble in asset prices (you know how expensive a condo cost in Shanghai) before she can stand on its own feet with domestic consumption. This asset bubble helps to deteriorate investment returns for most other Chinese main street industries. Critical money is being spent on boosting the asset price, rather than spent to boost China’s innovative power. All that could setup a very vulnerable environment. Any future economy crisis could allow the seeds of foreign equity control to astronomically expand.

    Colonialization in the 20s and 30s was simple and easy to understand. Today’s process of secretly colonizing China is very hard to discern with a shallow eye. Most people are oblivious about that. All they feel is optimism as examplified like the October parade. However, a major undercurrent of virtual colonization is underway, and sadly, the central government so far has no policy to deter that.

  13. I agree with much of what jqian has written but I would add that what we have now is a situation where many multi-national corporations have GDP larger than many developing countries. These multi-national corporations are themselves actors within a global stage and pursue their own interests often at the detriment to the centralized states like China, United States, Japan. The own loyalty that the multinational corporations have is to seek profit for their investors.

    Global multi-national corporations often play one state against another in order to reap subsidies and advantage. In the United States, for example, competition for China and Asia is often used as a bully stick to undercut worker’s wages, social programs, and environmental protection.

    This of course does not mean that the nation state is obsolete or does not have a powerful role. And I agree just as Meiji Japan in the 19th century was able to transform itself from a potential victim of colonialism by the West to a colonialist power, China has the same opportunity today.

    In a way, our current situation is like feudalism — the centralized state being equivalent of monarchs and the multi-national corporations like vassal lords. Just as in feudal times, it is not clear where the power lies — between the nobles or the king.

  14. pduong,

    I agree with you. The interest of multinationals may not fully align with that of their home nation. You also brought up a very good point. Despite all the material progress China has made over the years, the mass mentality, including that of the ruling classes, remain in the form of feudalism. Therefore, I don’t see China’s capitalism is a true capitalism. In reality, it’s a veiled from of feudalism with the disguise as the capitalism. The way people think remain basically the same as hundreds or even thousands of years ago. A leap forward in material advancement can be much easier achieved than a leap forward in thinking. Although most Chinese seems to enjoy the modern way of living, they still desire or obey a central power, a monarchs. In Britain, such monarchy system is a symbol only, but in China, the party is the monarch and it’s control on people is real. Such system is very susceptible to corruption because fairness in distribution of wealth is very hard to achieve. When multinationals intend to play one side against another, they may have a fertile ground to play.

    I wish for a day that China can finally become a superpower. But that day won’t come until there comes a true reform of the political and economic systems that allow more or equal opportunities for majority of citizens. Until that happens, I predict there could be more troubles ahead.

  15. Thanks for the thought provoking comments. I want to say that today too much power in China is concentrated in the hands of the Government and large companies. This is also true of state owned companies which provide such a large part of the revenue of local governments and therefore have a lot of powe, as we’ve seen recently with the problems of polluting factories.

    Regarding China’s projects in Africa, they are a new experiment and I hope they work to China and Africa’s mutual benefit. Mutual benefit is the way to acheive lasting success. In that case it isn’t colonialism.

  16. Great comments by jqian. Not sure I agree with some of the details but it was refreshing to read the thought and nuance invested into the subject of historical colonialism.

  17. No need to consider the “new colonialism” simply as a great scourge. It could be a win-win mode, if only foreign shares are still under control. China, currently at the low end of the food chain, may have to play the lick-sugar-on-blade game to struggle upwards. I guess China is intentionally raising the threshold value. But once it’s reached, it will be a show time for the central government to display the advantage of this political system, by easily throwing out some new policy overnight to turn the trend.

    China as “colonizer”: The projects in Africa are well known. Seems not bad (for both sides), and have caused some jealousy. China is even making some attempt on US. Having had some bitter lessons on “Blackstone Group” & “UNOCAL”, China is starting a new try, according to a report on New York Times last Friday:

  18. “China as “colonizer”: The projects in Africa are well known. Seems not bad (for both sides), and have caused some jealousy. China is even making some attempt on US. Having had some bitter lessons on “Blackstone Group” & “UNOCAL”, China is starting a new try, according to a report on New York Times last Friday”

    I think the oppositions these Chinese companies are facing are fair enough. Don’t forget companies like CNOOC are in fact state-owned i.e. easily influenced by the decisions made by the undemocratic government in Beijing.

  19. I agree with Xie that when people are inside a bubble, they usually think it’s normal and can find tons of reason why the current trend is justified. A bubble can only be obvious after it busts. America’s lesson is a great one. Back in 2006, there were no shortage of experts and economists touting for a 10 more year of housing boom. They justified their optimism by the the onslaught from a generation of baby boomers reaching peak earning power and able to purchase luxury homes and second or third homes. They even suggested that China’s growth would prevent USA from going into any serious economic setback. National Association of Realtor’s chief economist even published a best-seller titled something like “Did you miss the boom…”, suggesting that an even bigger housing boom would follow in next decade. Well, unfortunately, none of these optimism saved us from the reality. Many places in the US has experienced price drop by 50% or more. And baby boomer’s so called “strong demand” didn’t pan out.

    Today, similar kind of optimism is flooding Chinese. Just like how people felt during 2005 and 2006 in the USA, an urgent feeling to catch the last train before it’s too late, people in China today are experiencing the same kind of emotional torments. If they don’t buy, the price will go up and they may be forever shut out of the housing market. This kind of feeling is natural and it can often blow the bubble bigger. Many many people are finding justifications for today’s move, such as “Mother-in-law’s demand”, “Urbanization trend”, “Government will never allow price to fall”, “Generational pitch-in for purchase of one properties”, etc.

    Although the stimulus money is working wonders to the continuous growth of Chinese GDP, the side effect of an asset bubble will become a long term threat to the economy. If we care to look around the globe and review the history for last 100 years. No prior property bubbles ended up well, most ended up devastating the players and investors. I hope China could become an exception to the rule. The current Chinese bubble may not burst immediately, but it may suck too much money in that should have been spent elsewhere for innovation and raising food chain level. Therefore, the stimulus money is not well spent, it helps to create a black hole for every body and their money to fall in. At the same time, funds are lacking in private enterprises and people are having no appetite to invest in real mainstream business, simply because the return is not as good as that from investing in housing.

  20. @Adam, your story with Gates ended with self esteem, too sad!

    150 years ago, a British merchant name Taipan asked the Admiralty to take the island of China call Hong Kong as his trading post. Taipan built his warehouse at East Point and started trading with China, he hired more workers than the local government, he built infrastructure for all the people to enjoy, he built horse racing club, hotel and skycrapers, he turns Hong Kong from a fishing villager to a international conglomerate. Today, the same Taipan still hire 250,000 people working for the company.

    Without colonization, do you think China will give extra freedom to the people of Hong Kong under “one country, two systems”?

  21. Agree with stephen, colonialism did benefit the colonizing hosts. At the same time, it forced changes upon their targets. Target nation often feel bullied. But think about it, without such bullying, will they ever change? Last 100 years of changes in China have been forced upon by external influences and forces. Much of these changes were not desired for in the eyes of the ruling classes at that time. Chinese has a long inherent nature of mistrust toward foreigners and their ideas.

  22. Let’s talk about the constructive outcome from colonialism.

    Colonialism is not a new thing for the last 200 years. It’s part of the human recorded history since the Egyptian times. Greecian was the major colonizing force at its time. Later, it was itself becoming a target by the Roman empire. The same pattern can be said about Eygpt. Asian had its colonizing glories as well, the most notable one was Gengis Kang. Colonialization is a part of human nature, strong nations try to leverage the resources of weak nations. Just like capable persons can establish companies that would leverage the labour from less priviledged workers in the name of providing employment. The idea is exactly the same, just that the scale is different.

    Blind self esteem would not solve a thing. The only way to protect self nation to not become a victim of being colonized is by becoming a colonizing host.

    Mao’s saying “We will never invade or meddle with other nation’s affair…” has brainwashed our poor countryman into possessing only self esteem, but lack of desire to leverage other people’s resources. In this world, if you don’t leverage others, others will leverage you. The world has never been a fair play although the western colonizing hosts always try to leverage weaklings in the false name of “fair play”. The so called fair play is only a disguise. Colonization is deep inside a strategy to leverage other nation’s resources to help the host nation. Today, American empire’s goal is to force China to become a low end manufacturer, becoming their factories, so that dirty manufacturing process won’t happen on the streets of Los Angeles, but on mainstreets in China, thus locking China down into the lowest step in the food chain.

    Mao’s non-aggressiveness mentality is actually a poison that caused Chinese to focus on squeezing their own fellow citizens. It’s time we learn to leverage outward, not inward! I am seeing signs that our people are learning. But not enough.

  23. Arise all who rufuse to be slave!

    This is the first lyric of the National Anthem, but who is the slaves and who is the slumlord?

  24. @ jqian

    I tried to convince myself that your point of view is correct, but I failed here: Should China have accepted Japan’s proposal of “Greater East Asia Co-prosperity Sphere” in 1930’s, instead of fighting the 8 years anti-Japanese war? And if a time travel machine put us back into those days, we should stop General Zhang Xueliang from triggering the Xi’an Incident if we got a chance? If the war had started, we should send intelligence to Japanese army to help them win the war? Because having Japanese controlled China (they may also win the war against America if majority of their troops were not bogged in China), we would lead a much better life than it is today. All those “traitors” are actually martyrs? What would you do if you were back there?

    Comparatively, it will be much easier for me to buy the “White-Haired-Girl should marry evil landlord Huang Shiren” opinion.

  25. @Adam, perhaps you can think objectively.

    Two and half century ago, if the British did not defeat the French at Plains of Abraham, today we may be blogging in French. Just like the Forest Gump once said “Life is like a box chocolates, you never know what’s in it”

  26. We should think objectively, i.e., raise our vision on a level that goes beyond personal clingingness to a certain nation or ethnicity. If we limit ourselves in thinking that’s biased to our own ethnicity, then it’s very hard for us to understand the picture. The big picture is that colonialism has been a major part of human history since day one, not a new concept at all. Colonialism will be with us as long as there continue to exist nations with distinct needs. In a resource scarce world like today, the intension to colonize will get stronger. I am characterizing colonization as a general concept, not just limited to a narrow version of physical occupation. Today and future’s colonialism may still resort to the old format, but more likely transformed into a virtual format, such as economic colonization (like what’s happening in China?) or political colonization (puppet leaders established by their hosts), or maybe other new formats. As long as there is resource shortage, there will be desires for colonization. Colonization serves a very good course for the host nation because it can resolve resource, energy, man power and even intelligence needs by leveraging their colonies, no matter they are in physical form or virtual form. USA and European nations have successfully transformed China into a new colony of making low end commodities, freeing themselves of having to hire and spend resources for making them. For example, USA can simply send US dollar to China to pay for these products, in the end these US dollar returns to the US in the form of US treasury purchase. Today’s colonization is done in the disguise of free trade. But in reality, nothing is free. By designating China into a low level in product supply, China lost the chance to have any say in pricing power.

    Despite such success in America or western nations new colonization scheme, why didn’t they cause any animosity inside Chinese mass psychology? Because such “free trade” format of colonization is done at surface level benefiting both the hosts and the target nations, creating untold amount of new wealth into the hands of target nations. How would people in China generate animosity when they live in a nice apartment and drive a new car, and yet still see their housing price continue to rise, leading to a sense of genuine enrichment? This is hard. But in reality, if China gets too comfortable at making toys and shoes, forget about whoever controls the world controls the pricing power, they may fall into a trap that may prove hard to climb out in the long run.

  27. Colonisation is an animal instinct. It happens in animal kingdom and human’s world. But what intrigued me was when the Ancient China was at the height of its might (Ming dynasty). It never occurred to the then emperor or kingdom the need to conquer the rest of the world. Instead successive emperors build walls to protect its border. The West is now harbouring the fear that China late coming to the power equation is a threat to world peace while they are happy rejoicing the colonial glory past. This is hypocrisy to the hilt.

    Mind you USA today is still a western colony to the native Americans. Most native Americans had been exterminated and they have even lost their culture and language, the US said that is assimilation, where as what happened in Tibet is genocide.

  28. Once again I have to agree with jqian. At this point in history, the rules are still written by the former colonial powers of the last century — europe and united states.

    As it is right now, the West subsidizes its lifestyle with cheap East Asian labor — clothing, cars, electronics, computers, all types of manufactured goods China has become a low wage sweatshop for the West which has “donated” its old polluting industries… So at the same time that the Western consumer receive cheap products, the Chinese low wage workers receive the “benefit” of smoggy air, dirty rivers, deforestation, and all the waste products of modern industry.

    In this way, the “new colonialism” is more effective than the old colonialism. Even during the old colonial period, there were always people in China who benefited from the colonial occupation and even became rich. So it is not surprising that there are Chinese people who now benefit from Western investment.

    The only difference is that whereas in the past the West had to use the threat of military force to impose its will against the colonial subject, now the same exploitation can be done without such obvious tactics and is more subtle (No more “No Dogs or Chinese” signs in Shanghai these days).

    If China is not careful, it will always be a “developing country” much like latin america for the last hundred years –in other words, a virtual colony of the West.

    The description above is not necessarily a criticism of what China has achieved. Because it is a poor developing countries, it has to play the rules of the game as written by the West. The question is now whether it can avoid the trap that jqian pointed out of becoming basically a low wage slave to the West. If so, then it may be able to rewrite the rules to its own advantage.

    One thing is certain though, in the world politics and economics, nothing stays the same. The European powers weakened themselves after two world wars, which allowed the US and former Soviet Union to emerge as dominating powers. Right now, perhaps the United States, with its pre-occupation in the middle east with its two wars (afghanistan and iraq) is committing the same slow national suicide.

    If China can capitalize on the mis-steps of the other powers, it may well become the superpower of the 21st century.

  29. “But what intrigued me was when the Ancient China was at the height of its might (Ming dynasty). It never occurred to the then emperor or kingdom the need to conquer the rest of the world. Instead successive emperors build walls to protect its border.”

    Are you sure? I’ve read history textbooks that boast about how the border extended to Hungary in Yuan dynasty. Many highly-regarded emperors in Chinese history are also known for their eagerness in conquering their neighbours (and they did).

  30. The tributory missions during Ming dynasty by Zheng He and his fleet went as far as Africa is a colonisation attempt, nobody can deny that.

  31. @one, that is Yellow Peril during Mongolian horsemen era, and European historian never mix that piece of history with China.

  32. Actually, during the Ming dynasty China invaded and conquered Vietnam but after 20 years of occupation it was forced to withdraw and had to settle for a tributary relationship.

    Given that the Ming were unsuccessful in subduing Vietnam, it probably made them cautious about expanding to other parts of Asia.

    Also China always had to deal with the tribes in the North in Mongolia and Manchuria and that also kept them occupied. In the West, with tibet and Xinjiang, expansion would have been difficult because of mountainous geoography and poor climate for agriculture (compared with river valleys of yangtze and yellow river).

    Chinese history is o no different from the history of other nation. China emerged as a state in the North and assumed its present size through colonial expansion. What we think of now as southern China was occupied by non-Han kingdoms thousands of years ago. Over time through conquest, assimilation (forced and unforced), provinces like Fujian, Guangdong, Guangxi became annexed and now are considered “China proper”. This process is still going with respect to the land in the west (ie. Tibet and Xinjiang).

  33. @pduong,

    You are right on the point! The formation of today’s China is in fact a result of its own colonization effort. The instinct to colonize is nothing more than an animal’s desire to expand its territory and control. Yes, Tibet/XinJiang is a most recent example.

  34. 1. @ jqian & pduong: good points on the “new colonialism”. Well worth reading.

    2. Could any foreign friends (or someone have good knowledge on the West) help to clarify some questions for me:

    * I’m curious whether Alphonse Daudet is a well-known writer in Europe? Are students (at least in France) required to learn his article “The Last Class”? (Here is a trilingual version in France, English & Chinese: ).

    * Has American people changed their appraisement on Nathan Hale?

    * Has French people changed their appraisement on Joan of Arc?

    * What’s your comment on the movie “Brave Heart”? Something of stereotyped mindset?

  35. Interesting discussion.

    A few days ago, my irritation with some aspects of Chinese culture got to the point that I actually entertained the notion that colonialism may have been good for China, and that if it had been more successful, China would be more advanced than it is today. This was the first time that I had ever given that thought any serious consideration, if not the first time that the concept even entered my mind. I was surprised to stumble upon this being discussed in the comments here, and felt that I should throw in my contribution.

    Since we Americans like to brag about ourselves , let me begin by saying that colonialism is not widely respected in America. This notion that colonialism may be good for the ones colonized is practically unheard of. I don’t know what they teach in the top American and British Universities, since I was born and raised working class, but in the social circles in which I move, colonialism is just considered wrong. I’d be surprised it this was not the dominant opinion in all the western democracies.

    Racism is also considered very wrong where I’m from. Although I have found people with racist attitudes in the workplace, they have been the exceptions in my experience. All of my friends and family consider racism as backwards and ignorant – the refuge of the weak and petty. Nationalism is considered just about as bad as racism.

    Even though there are laws against discrimination based upon race where I come from, I don’t think that the problem of racism is something that you can legislate away. Racism is not just a a criminal action, it is an idea and an attitude.

    Racism – the idea – is supported by the premise that everything has unchanging characteristics which are already known. Apply this premise towards people and what you get is racism. What a racist thinks that they “know” about people according to their race is a shallow stereotype based on generalizations formed in the past, which never takes into account the complexity of life in a rapidly changing world. The attitude is “since you are of race X, I know what you are like. Race X has always been this way, and I can’t believe that they could ever be different.”

    It is this root idea – that the world is known and immutable – which China must overcome before ever hoping to have anything near, say, America’s influence on the world stage. Not only because it leads to racism, but it also discourages development. If everything is known and immutable, that squashes natural curiosity and extinguishes the creative spark. Even in areas where new paths are forged, it leaves people timid, unsure that they can succeed by moving forward along the paths that they themselves create. Maybe that is why some Chinese businesses emulate successful western companies to the point of copying their trademarks with only just enough modification to avoid an infringement lawsuit. China is never going to produce world class brands with those sort of practices.

    The premise under discussion is that the colonialists brought ideas, methods, and attitudes, which raised the quality of life of the colonies. Social and intellectual assets were offered by the colonists in exchange for resources and labor. Consider this idea dispassionately, without rushing to judge the motives of the colonizers. The colonizers may have had their political, social, and personality faults, especially among the ruling class who had little motive to upset the status quo, but the advantages they had to offer in exchange were the fruit of the scientific method, and that is where the development which they had to share sprang from.

    Science destroys the concept of a known and immutable world. It is a process that begins with realizing that we don’t know everything, and ends up by incidentally providing material and social benefits. Science changed the shape of the western world before the colonizers “invaded” parts of Asia in the early 20th Century. It is changing the face of the entire planet today.

    China’s culture and civilization are very old. I heard that my ancestors were still running through the forest when China already had a vibrant civilization. However, life is safer and more fulfilling today for more people than ever before. Most people are trying to move away from what is for the vast majority an unhappy past. That goes for Chinese as well. No one gets a free ride by resting on the laurels of past generations’ accomplishments. Ideas and culture everywhere are always open to judgment.

    I’ve seen the attitude among many Chinese that it’s China, Chinese culture, and the Chinese people against the world. If you hold onto this belief, I’m afraid that that is what you will manifest. You will interpret situations in such a way as to reinforce that belief, and will be more likely to indulge yourself when opportunities to act upon it arise. If you leave no other role for others to play in their relations with you, and may eventually find yourself the unhappy owner of a “self-fulfilling prophecy”.

    I was raised to care about others, regardless of race or nationality, and I still do. But after living here for a couple of years, I’ve grown tired of much of the closed-mindedness I see in Chinese people. I’m ultimately selfish, just like you, and I seek my own pleasure. I’ve never enjoyed racism, nationalism or closed-mindedness, so I write to oppose them. I hope that my appeal to your self-interest is effective. I would like to have many more happy social experiences here, without the unpleasantness and awkwardness that excessive concern about race, nationality, and cultural tradition produce. Yeah, I’m selfish, but I don’t feel bad about that; I wish you well.

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