Simon Schama: China's on-off American romance

Roundup: Talking About History

[The writer is an FT contributing editor]

Finding something American to sell to the Chinese, whether democracy or widgets, has always been a problem. The first merchant vessel to sail from New York to Canton in 1784 was on a tea-buying voyage, but the cargo it had to exchange was ginseng. American ginseng was consumed by the Chinese for its yin: the female properties of cool, while the native product was thought more yang-heavy. A population explosion may have made it difficult for domestic production to keep up with demand, hence the opening for American ginseng merchants who made a nifty profit.

Thus was born a trading connection in which, for long stretches, the Chinese assumed they had the upper hand. They required silver in return for tea, without which, some believed, western barbarians would go blind and develop intestinal tumours.

As barbarians went, the Americans seemed a milder version of the British pest. It helped that British merchants initially shut US competitors out of the opium trade, and that American missionaries inveighed against the evils of the drug traffic. So the image of the US benefited from being perceived as less vicious than the Brits.

Anson Burlingame, Lincoln’s envoy to China, reciprocated by leading a mission back to the US on behalf of China, beating the drum for a “great awakening” of the sleeping giant with which, he argued, America would have a naturally cordial connection. Non-imperialist America would provide the kiss of life (and capital) to modernise China; 400m peasants would be brought into the modern market and, as thrifty savers, would accumulate enough disposable income to become consumers of American industrial products. A perfect loop.

At first the truth was the opposite. It was Chinese labour, pushing the railroads through the Sierra Nevada – work too dangerous for anyone else to attempt – that completed the transcontinental unification of the American market. Their reward was pogroms unleashed on Chinatowns on the west coast: forced evictions, burnings and murders; and legislation prohibiting Chinese immigrants from becoming American citizens.

Yet the mysterious attraction of yang and yin continued to draw the two continental empires towards each other in an enduring, if bitterly unequal relationship. Following the revolution of 1911-12 that polished off the Manchu empire, American writers, politicians and businessmen all patronisingly cheered on a democratic China, liberated from its self-destructive torpor and restored to the hard-working ingenuity that had made it one of the world’s great civilizations.

American enterprise and capital poured into republican China. Sun Yat-sen was hailed as the Chinese George Washington. Of course, business was not in China to do charity. The British American Tobacco Company made a killing by marketing cigarettes to the millions from whom opium had been locked off. Standard Oil did well with kerosene no longer needed in an electrified United States.

Profits may have been pushed too hard. As Chiang Kai-shek’s nationalist party, the Kuomintang, became aggressively anti-imperialist, American motives came to seem as predatory as those of the Europeans.

But what brought America and China back into each others arms was Japan. In Shanghai people still say they have more in common with America than either do with Japan. And Chiang’s assumption – sealed in the treaty of 1943 (which finally made it possible for Chinese immigrants to become US citizens) – was America would always support “Free China”...

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