What of China’s past could be a harbinger for its future?
 
Despite its incredible pace of change, China continues to carry echoes of its past. And yet, the difficulty of drawing any direct links between its past and present is demonstrated by the fact that any topic can shift in perspective depending on where you enter China’s vast chronology. What constitutes political stability, for example, has varied dramatically across almost four millennia, and in different periods it has been defined in relation to the greatness of leaders, the peacefulness of imperial successions, the suppression of peasant rebellions, and the handling of foreign incursions—whether religions, technologies, or troops.

Our appreciation of China’s economic growth will veer erratically, depending on whether we concentrate on specie and banking, the formation of cities, the creation of trade hubs, or advances in transportation and communication. Our current fascination with high-tech dynamism could be tied to an equally wide range of variants, designed to give China an aura of either preeminence or stagnation. Rarely has China been so weak as when the emperor’s ill-equipped army did battle with British forces during the Opium Wars in the mid-19th century. And yet, the sophistication of the Song dynasty’s metallurgy or the imposing power of the Ming dynasty’s fleets made China a potential global leader long before the competition among states was considered in these terms.

But today, relations among states are discussed very much like a competition or race, and few have run it as well as China in the modern era. Indeed, the prospect of China’s rise has become a source of endless speculation and debate. To speak of China’s “rise” is to suggest its reemergence. It can also imply a recovery from some kind of slump or period of quietude. But “rise” can also mean that a change is being made at someone else’s expense. Must a fall always accompany a rise? If so, then a conflict will occur almost by definition. These are difficult questions made all the more so by the fact that a country as vast and complex as China makes up at least half of the equation.

One arena, however, in which China’s past can serve as a useful prologue to the present, can be found in looking at how its territorial extent has evolved over time. This approach can show both how China has come to be the size it is, and perhaps—although this is a more contentious area—how China might change again in the future.

The China of today can be recognizably traced back to the late 16th century and the waning years of the Ming dynasty. One harbinger of what was to come was China’s earlier Korean War—in 1592. It was then that the wildly ambitious Japanese military commander Hideyoshi sent a powerful fleet and ground forces to invade Korea, hoping to consume the country and force a passage into China, the greatest prize of all. Despite the ineptitude and factionalism of the Ming court, the Chinese responded powerfully, sending a strong expeditionary force to check the Japanese advance and shore up the Korean king. They ordered major fleets from south China to sail north with reinforcements and supplies, and to interdict the Japanese supply routes. After numerous costly engagements on land and sea, and vast numbers of both civilian and military casualties, the Sino-Korean forces prevailed, and in late 1598, the Japanese withdrew.

So did the Chinese, and that was one important marker for the future: China itself would not try to conquer Korea, but China would react against another power if it interfered in the Korean peninsula, even at great cost. Such interventions by China occurred a second time in the face of renewed Japanese aggression in 1894, and once again in the face of the presumed threat of the U.N. forces sent to check the North Korean invasion of South Korea in 1950. Few probably realize that China’s current diplomatic role in the six-party talks regarding the North’s nuclear programs has a historical lineage more than 400 years old.

By the same token, a number of China’s most complex domestic grievances are rooted in conquests made by Chinese rulers during the 17th and 18th centuries. From 1644 onward, the vast region of Manchuria to China’s northeast became part of the country’s central concept of its power. In 1683, the Qing emperor ordered naval forces from Fujian province to oust renegade Chinese forces from several islands off the country’s southeastern coast. The emperor’s forces dispatched the rebels in a crisp campaign and, in the process, added the fertile island of Taiwan to the growing orbit of the Qing empire. Likewise, unrest on China’s frontier led the Qing dynasty to send military forces to Tibet around 1720, and subsequently to incorporate border areas of north and eastern Tibet into the Qing administrative structure, a process that was well underway by the 1750s. It was also in the mid-18th century that Qing expeditionary forces penetrated deep into the Altishahr regions of Central Asia, and to Kashgar, Urumqi, and Ili, leading to Chinese occupation of the vast, mainly Muslim regions of what is now called Xinjiang.

Having gained these territories in the corners of the kingdom, China has been loath to ever let them go. Even when the Qing dynasty fell in 1912, the Republican government, despite its fragility as an administrative entity, sought to hold on to the fullest extent of the empire. After their victory in 1949, the Communists did the same. Today, Muslim unrest and Tibetan nationalism are near-constant sources of tension for China’s leadership. And Taiwan, lost first to the Japanese in 1895, and then to the Chinese Nationalists in 1949, is one of Asia’s most dangerous potential flash points.

Although relations between China and the United States may be of vital importance to both, from the Chinese perspective, the relationship has been extremely brief. Indeed, there wasn’t even a United States for China to have relations with until late into the reign of the Chinese Emperor Qianlong, arguably one of the greatest leaders of the last Chinese dynasty. When relations were established, Americans sometimes behaved admirably.

Other times, they were a nuisance, or worse, a menace. Again, it depends who you are and where you settle your gaze. You can see the United States as benevolent in its development of Chinese hospitals and modern medicine. You can see it as destructive in its dissemination of partisan religious tracts by American evangelists to such people as the leader of the Taiping Rebellion. Or, you can see it as thoroughly ambiguous in the 1900s, when U.S. leaders urged the Chinese toward a more republican form of government, which quickly descended into warlordism. To be sure, the Chinese have these images, and many more, in mind when they think about their relations with the United States.

These are the memories and the territorial histories that China has to juggle as it embarks on its myriad new challenges and opportunities: as the defender of an apparently irrelevant revolutionary ideology, as a new kind of regional powerhouse, as the ambiguous heart of a global diaspora, as one of the world’s major new competitors for shrinking supplies of fossil fuels, and as the present guardian of an unprecedented amount of foreign exchange and investment. Some of these phenomena can also be tracked through the historian’s lens, but some are, I believe, genuinely new. Just why that should be is itself part of the story.

Jonathan D. Spence is Sterling professor of history at Yale University.