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Wednesday, October 8, 2014

What Are Chinese Students Taught About the West? (Part I)

Link: The Opium Wars

Part I

Within the diplomatic community it is well known that the Chinese (mainland) continue to harbor a certain amount of historic resentment towards the United States, Russia, and Europe.  During my career, I raised this issue with every one of my Chinese contacts.  I love history, and I have tried to get my hands around the China story.  But its a monster, let me tell you.  I decided to focus my intial foray into l'histoire chinoise on the last two centuries, give or take a few years.  One book I recommend is "Dragon Lady", 1992 by Sterling Seagrave.  The Dragon Lady of the title is none other than the Manchu Qing Dynasty's last true ruler, the Dowager Empress Cixi (Tzu Hsi).  The manner in which history was allowed to treat the legacy of Cixi is a good example of why we so exasperate the Chinese.  To many non-English speakers, it appeared that, until recently, the white, English-speaking male owned history.  Cixi ruled for 47 years, from 1861 until her death in 1908.  She was originally one of many concubines chosen for the Manchu Emperor Xianfeng, and when he died, was fortunate enough to have born his only son.

For the next half-century Cixi managed to survive all manner of internal disruptions, alongside the slow but methodical dismemberment of China by the Western Powers.  I am not an apologist for Cixi; certainly she was involved in some decisions that are both cruel and hard to imagine.  But she provided the European and American press no-end of gossip.  Since no one was in a position to speak on behalf of the Empress Dowager (actually, a few brave souls tried and failed), a number of self-described "Chinese Historians" and "Sino-Experts" turned Cixi into the most evil, corrupt, lustful creature since, well, Nero.  This perception was still accepted in the United States in 1963, when the blockbuster movie "55 Days at Peking" (an attempt to chronicle the 1898 Chinese Boxer Rebellion) introduced Cixi as the stereotypical cunning, deceptive Oriental who spoke perfect English!  Thanks to a growing number of historians and Sterling Seagrave, Cixi's reputation has been somewhat recovered.  But the average Chinese citizen can't hold a grudge just because of ol' Cixi, right?  Actually, compared to the crimes committed by the Western Powers during the Opium Wars (and after), Cixi's vilification pales.

Some historians argue that the issue for the Chinese people is not the actual events that took place, but the attitude of "West is superior to East" than took root.  Terms like "Chinese Laundry" became common.  Most Americans are unaware of the part Chinese labor played in building the transcontinental railroad, not to mention the west coast communities of San Francisco and Los Angeles.  But in my experience, it always comes back to the Opium Wars.  I believe that the majority of Chinese are convinced that the era of the Opium Wars and the arrival of Christian Missionaries is when the West decided that the Chinese people were somehow inferior to Europeans.

(To be continued with Part II)

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