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China’s ‘Century of Humiliation’: How period between First Opium War in 1839 and victory of CCP in 1949 shapes China’s view about the world

The 'Century of Humiliation' was marked by numerous wars where the Chinese suffered defeat at the hands of Western powers, Russia and Japan. It is estimated that the Chinese control of its territory shrank by a third and its millennia old imperial system collapsed.

The Chinese Communist Party has been a belligerent force in the world scene for decades now. Apart from its totalitarian control of its own territory, it also lays claim to territory beyond its borders based on historical precedent, that sometimes dates back to the 14th Century. Very recently, in the wake of its furtive disputes with India and Japan, it also laid claim to the Russian city of Vladivostok.

The Chinese claim to Vladivostok is a stark reminder of the extent to which the ‘Century of Humiliation’ plays a very crucial role in shaping China’s foreign policy and its actions on the international scene. The ‘Century of Humiliation’ occupies a very important place in the national imagination of the Chinese. The period refers to the century between the First Opium War in 1939 to the victory of the Chinese Communist Party in the Chinese Civil War in 1949.

The period was marked by numerous wars where the Chinese suffered defeat at the hands of Western powers, Russia and Japan. It is estimated that the Chinese control of its territory shrank by a third and its millennia-old imperial system collapsed. The period was also marked by internal rebellions, uprisings and civil wars. To say that it was a pretty bad time to be a Chinese would be an understatement.

Vladivostok, as mentioned above, was annexed by the Tsarist Regime in Russia through the Treaty of Peking in 1860. Until then, it was ruled by the Qing Dynasty of China. Besides Vladivostok, China also lost the Kowloon Peninsula to Britain. Even after a hundred and sixty years, such emotional wounds have not been forgotten.

One American commentator noted, “The Chinese have one very broad generalization about their own history: they think in terms of ‘up to the Opium war’ and ‘after the Opium war’; in other words, a century of humiliation and weakness to be expunged.” Others have noted, “Chinese nationalism is not just about celebrating the glories of Chinese civilization; it also commemorates China’s weakness.”

Alison Kaufman, senior Asia policy researcher at the CNA Corporation, stated in one of her papers, “The Century of Humiliation presents not just a cautionary tale about past experiences, but a source of beliefs about how the world works. Both explicitly and implicitly, Chinese elites still use the vocabulary and questions developed during that period to interpret the dynamics of international relations today.”

She added, “Contemporary arguments about the nature of competition among nations, the reasons that nations succeed or fail in the international arena, and the prospects for long-term global peace or cooperation are conducted through terms and assumptions developed during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.”

During the ‘Century of Humiliation’, China was forced to open up its ports, cede territories, suffered Japanese incursions and massive internal rebellions. Kaufman states, “The events of this period marked China’s abrupt transition from a powerful, proud, and unified state to one whose
territory was “carved up like a melon” by foreign powers and whose army had been humiliated.”

The Chinese Communist Victory declared the end of the ‘Century of Humiliation’ when it acquired power in 1949. In the words of one politburo member, “the establishment of new China… put an end to the situation in which old China was split up, the nation was subject to humiliation, and the people experienced untold sufferings.”

David Scott, an expert on China, remarked, “Instead, for about one hundred years, China limped along in the international system, neither one thing nor the other. It was the most populous state on the globe, accounting for one-quarter of the world’s population, yet it also conceded territory and sovereignty rights to a plethora of outside countries, including even small European countries like Belgium and Portugal with a fraction of its population and size. China was neither a colony nor sovereignly independent. It was in the “Community of Nations,” yet humiliatingly seen as the “Ward of [Western] Civilization.” Part of the “international system” and its power distributions, it was not necessarily part of “international society” and its shared norms.”

The ‘Century of Humiliation’ narrative also helps the Chinese Communist Part to ramp up support for itself among the Chinese citizens. The end of the dark days coincide with the victory of the CCP and hence, the Chinese are predisposed towards viewing the CCP in good light. However, it also should be admitted that it is not far from the truth because it’s truly under the CCP that China has risen from the depths to become a potent force in world politics.

Today, China has greater ambitions and wishes to transform the world order into one that is more conducive to its own interests. It seeks to correct what it perceives to be injustices meted out to them in the past but also seeks to ensure that it is never in a position where it is forced to suffer such humiliation again.

Some have opined that the ‘Century of Humiliation’ is a myth that has become China’s “chosen trauma”. They argue that it is propaganda that has been adopted by the Chinese Communist Party to dredge up nationalistic fervour among its population and consolidate support for itself and legitimise its rule. Whatever it may, it cannot be denied that it occupies a dominant space in the public imagination. So much so that Chinese and Taiwanese textbooks to this day divide their history as before and after the Opium War.

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