How did 19th century Americans think about their contact with Qing China? And how is that still important for U.S. policy towards China today?
China has long occupied a large space in the American worldview. Kendall A. Johnson’s new book The New Middle Kingdom: China and the Early American Romance of Free Trade (reviewed extensively by Dael Norwood at H-Net) suggests that Americans understood their roles in China in literary terms; specifically, they framed their activities in self-consciously romantic language, a framing that helped them associate individual heroism with empire, the spread of free markets, and the expansion of Christianity.
Johnson’s research focuses primarily on print sources, particularly the ways in which American merchants, missionaries, diplomats, and other adventurers described their relationship with China. Johnson suggests that such narrative treatment of China helped formulate early American nationalism, up to and including the need to offer a sense of national purpose the disparate regions of the U.S. after the Civil War.
And we can extend the metaphor. To some extent, the United States is still captured by the romantic notion of a “mission” with China, even as China itself has grown beyond the relationship in many important ways. Johnson ends with the 19th century, but it is not difficult to detect aspects of the romantic and literary in American accounts of China from the 20th and even the 21st century. Sterling Seagrave’s The Soong Dynasty (one of the more popular American books on Chinese politics) consciously adopts the frame of a family soap opera; Edgar Snow’s Red Star Over China is high, heroic adventure; Barbara Tuchman’s Stilwell and the American Experience in China has overtones of tragedy. But that the American language for thinking about China now reflects many different genres may have more to do with the fracturing of the American literary audience than with China itself.
The most important lesson (and one that Johnson emphasizes) is that China has long been important to the American imagination in ways that many other countries have not, and that this relevance has been filtered through an enduring sense of heroism and missionary purpose. We can follow this thread into the 20th century; in some ways a romantic concept helped characterize the entire U.S. approach to China during and after the Cold War. The 1950s-era McCarthyism was premised on the notion that the United States had “lost” China through the sabotage of a villainous few. And it is perhaps why President Trump’s use of moralistic language to depict nationalist trade practices on the part of the PRC seems so resonant with the American public.