Will China collapse every year

The collapse of the Chinese world

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The collapse of the Chinese world

With the invasion of the West during the 19th century, the imperial family and the elite of civil scholars were confronted for the first time with the fact that their definition of China and the world was different from that of Europe. The western powers did not face the emperor as tributaries. They demanded that China open up to the world market and lift its regulations on foreign traders. From the end of the 18th century onwards, the British crown repeatedly sent envoys to the Chinese imperial court. They refused to kowtow and thus clearly showed that they did not want to submit. Instead, they made demands, threatened violence and tried to get the emperor to submit. Such an occurrence had long been unthinkable.

Until the early 19th century, China was the world's largest economic power. As soon as they set foot on Chinese soil, European merchants had to accept strict rules and restrictions; in the end they were only allowed to conduct their trade in the port of Canton. The Europeans only had to oppose such coveted export articles as tea and silk with their increasingly scarce silver. The first opium war (1839–1842) between Great Britain and China ended this Chinese superiority: after its military defeat, China was forced to open its markets and import opium - and to conclude the so-called "unequal treaties". They replaced the tribute system and ruthlessly asserted the economic interests of the western colonial powers.

The unequal treaties profoundly shook China's self-image of the centrality and universality of its culture: two systems had collided, and the Chinese one had proven to be the weaker. China had to submit to the demands of the major European powers. The country had become a great poor house, a colossus that would not budge and that could not hold its own in competition with the Western powers.

Extensive debates ensued among Chinese scholars. They were looking for a way of defending China's position in the world against Europe and at the same time paving the way for the country into the modernity that Europe had mapped out. A paradox for which, however, an intellectual solution was found. The American sinologist Joseph R. Levenson summarized it in the words: "The intellectual history of modern China is essentially the process in the course of which the tianxia (everything under heaven) became a guojia (a land)." that comprised everything became a country that was one of many. China said goodbye to its universal claim and henceforth defined itself in particular. It wanted to be part of the world - but under the sign of something special and uniqueness. China, it was now said, has gone through a development in its history that differs from that of all other regions of the world. It has produced its own social and intellectual structures.

In the face of an unsuccessful present, this argument opened the memory of a glorious past and - more importantly - a path into the future that was to be European in its aim, but genuinely Chinese in its course. Modernization was a means to an end: China should regain strength. And if you could no longer see yourself as the center of the world, the new China should at least have a say in the world in concert with the great powers. The old central position has been reformulated to become the prime position.

China's intellectuals did not see the fact that the country was delayed on its way to modernity as a disadvantage: It was possible to learn from the modernization experience of other countries and possibly shorten the time required for the modernization process. What had taken the Europeans centuries to do was now to be reproduced in the shortest possible time and the level of development of the Western powers reached as quickly as possible. However, it was initially unclear how: through reforms or through a rapid, violent overthrow?