Late May, 1841. A Chinese army, desperate to retake Canton from British forces, launches fire ships at the British ships parked in its harbor. In a show of technological might, the steam-powered warship Nemesis sails out of harm’s way as the rest of the fire ships uselessly slam into Canton harbor. This marks the beginning of the end of China’s domination of East Asian affairs, which it had enjoyed for centuries. By October, the British had consolidated control over the coast, annihilating the Qing navy and taking the cities of Chusan and Ningbo. By July, they were sailing up the Yangtze river, threatening to cut off vital supply lines to the imperial capital at Beijing. The Chinese sued for peace. The Treaty of Nanking was signed on August 29, 1842; Western powers forced China to open its ports to trade after decades of strict protectionism, pay the equivalent of £21 million in reparations, and grant Westerners extraterritorial rights within its territory.
Thus began China’s “century of humiliation,” a period that lasted roughly from the end of the First Opium War to the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949. In 1850, Christian militants rose up in the bloody Taiping Rebellion, which saw the deaths of 20 to 30 million civilians and soldiers and was only put down as the British and French intervened to prop up a Qing government from whom they could extract trade concessions. Western perception that the Qing weren’t abiding by the Treaty of Nanking meant that war broke out with the British and French again in 1856, resulting in further Qing concessions. Anti-Western sentiments boiled over in 1899 with the Boxer rebellion, which was put down by the infamous Eight Nation Alliance; China fought Japan twice with great loss of life, in 1894 and 1937, with events such as the Battle of the Yalu River and the Rape of Nanking still fresh in China’s collective memory.
This period, marked by conflict, corruption, and chaos, fragmented the Qing dynasty from one of the largest and most economically vibrant empires on Earth to shards of land under Western spheres of influence. Hence, the tragedies of this period are central to the construction of China’s modern national identity. To this day, the government meticulously maintains the ruined state of Yuanmingyuan, which was burned and looted by British and French forces during the Second Opium War, as a warning against decadence; modern Chinese politicians repeatedly evoke the conflict in speeches; and Chinese filmmakers crank out anti-Japanese war films faster than Michael Bay can produce Transformers sequels, constantly reminding the public of the suffering the Chinese people experienced under two successive Japanese invasions.
As Stephen M. Walt argues in “Great Powers are Defined by Their Great Wars,” no decision-making body or individual in any government is immune to the influence of the past. Architects of foreign policy all over the world would be wise to recognize how this pertains to China, that learning China’s past is integral to understanding the actions of its present.
One prominent topic brought up again and again about the “century of humiliation,” is China’s numerous naval failures in the era. Chinese professors and strategists repeatedly point to the failures of the Qing Navy as justification for a 21st century naval buildup. Movies such as Jia Wu Feng Yun, which tell the story of the defeat of the Qing navy at the hands of a much smaller but modernized Japanese navy, became instant classics in the PRC. The loss of the First Sino-Japanese war (referred to in China as the Jiawu war) about half a year after the events depicted in the movie ended Qing domination over Korea, and tipped the power balance in Asia away from China for the first time since the Mongol conquests of the 13th century. This was the beginning of anti-Japanese attitudes in China, which still manifests itself in mass protests and television.
To formally challenge Japan and other adversaries, however, the traditionally land-focused Chinese military needed a navy. It comes as no surprise to the modern historian that China is making serious investments in maritime power. Less than a year ago, the People’s Liberation Army Navy’s (PLAN) newest aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, embarked on its first seagoing voyage, and their first homebuilt carrier could be delivered as soon as next year. This is all to complement an already formidable submarine fleet and anti-ship missiles that can present a viable deterrent to the U.S. Pacific Fleet. The numbers don’t lie, either; the PLAN may, by some estimates, outnumber the U.S. navy by 2020. Even though carriers may not be as good of an investment as they were during the Second World War, and the Liaoning itself can hardly challenge the U.S.’ far more advanced Nimitz-class carriers, any perception of China’s increased naval strength can act as a great source of national pride to Chinese citizens, an indication that China is once again becoming the regional hegemon of East Asia, a gradual avenging of the Jiawu war.
Along with building ships, China has also been investing in long-term strategic infrastructure to increase force projection. As part of a “String of Pearls” strategy to project force in the Indian Ocean, China has been befriending and constructing ports in a variety of Asian and African countries, the latest of which has been in Djibouti. The opening of a Chinese base there earlier this year has been the first time since Zheng He in the 15th century that China has established a significant naval presence in the East African region. This effort makes even more strategic sense with Beijing’s unveiling of its “One Belt, One Road” project, which seeks to establish overland and maritime trade routes similar to the ancient Silk Road and Indian Ocean trade routes. The national memories of this new project go back even further than the Opium War, to the memory of the Han and Tang dynasties, which were significant in facilitating Eurasian trade. Once again, the Opium Wars all but ended this commercial dominance, as military failure and unequal treaties weakened China’s ability to trade on their own terms.
Just in 2014, the Chinese navy held a ceremony in remembrance of the 120th anniversary of the Jiawu War at the location of a key naval battle, the Battle of the Yalu River, in which the Qing Beiyang Fleet was wiped out by a smaller but technologically superior Japanese force. During the ceremony, a PLAN cruiser spread rose petals on the exact location of the battle as then-Chief Commander Wu Shengli, a proponent for Chinese naval modernization, said, “The importance of maritime power has long been estimated, which directly caused us to fail in the Jiawu War. Having the ceremony in the old battle waters is a way to remember this tragic part of history.”
China has, of course, remembered this part of its history well. An article in the People’s Liberation Army Daily, published around the time of the Jiawu War anniversary ceremony in 2014, mentions the “ghost of Japanese militarism” reawakening in East Asia in addition to discussing the present conflict in the South China Sea. Speaking of which, who could forget China’s ignoring of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) in 2016, which Beijing justified on “historical claims,” evoking China’s former trade and naval dominance in the region.
When it comes to reclaiming China’s preeminence in East Asia, simply having the guns, tanks, and warships to be one is not enough; restoring historical borders and historical influence are central in Beijing’s — and indeed the Chinese people’s – goals for the nation. In Mandarin, China is referred to as “Zhong Guo” — Middle Kingdom, if one was to take a literal translation. For centuries, the Chinese have seen themselves at the center of the world, extracting tribute from lesser kingdoms and creating inventions such as the compass, paper, and gunpowder as Europe was still recovering from the collapse of the Roman Empire. This memory has endured for a hundred years of societal decadence and military failure – and it most certainly isn’t going away anytime soon.