A Cycle Of Cathay


Richard Nixon’s twenty-thousand-mile pilgrimage to the center of Chinese civilization—“the week that changed the world,” as he put it—may not actually have changed the world, though it quite probably did turn a new page in world history by making it unlikely that the international politics of East Asia, at least, will ever be the same again.

But whatever their global effect, one thing the Kissinger-Nixon bold strokes of 1971-72 most strikingly did do was to open a new chapter in that small but curious subdivision of world history, the 188-year-old tale of Chinese-American relations.

To put the matter simply, America’s existence is relatively short and special, China’s existence extremely long but also special; and these two very different peoples—Americans and Chinese—have had an increasingly intense and complex relationship with each other over much of the past two centuries.

Americans have tried, variously, to trade with China, to “open” China, to convert China, to exploit China, to punish China, to assist China, to modernize China, to defend China, and most recently to “contain” and isolate China. The reverse of the relationship—Chinese feelings, at various times, about America the intruder, the exploiter, the imperialist, the friend, the hope, the disappointment, and the archenemy—has been less intense, since Americans were only one foreign element among many in China, though nonetheless significant.

Historians have found it especially hard to explain the persistence of a virtual China obsession among influential groups of Americans from our earliest days right up through the week of the Nixon trip. They have found it even harder to explain the notable swings, the violent ups and downs, in American attitudes toward China.

One shrewd observer of both China and America, the M.I.T. political scientist Harold R. Isaacs, has identified at least six separate phases of U.S. response to China. The eighteenth century and the first years of the nineteenth, he concludes, were an “Age of Respect"—when Americans were in awe of the Confucian empire’s splendor, its exports, and even its elaborate system of governance. This was followed, between the Opium War and the turn of this century, by an “Age of Contempt” —when Americans were generally more struck by the backwardness, weakness, and conservatism of the decaying empire. Then came an “Age of Benevolence,” roughly between 1905 and 1937, as the empire tried to reform, collapsed, and gave way to a republic under such Western-oriented leaders as Sun Yat-sen and Chiang Kai-shek. In this period Americans sensed a great opportunity to serve as guides for the emerging new China.

With the coming of the Sino-Japanese War, Isaacs continues, a new “Age of Admiration” took hold— a period in which China’s struggle against the Japanese invaders fired American imaginations; Madame Chiang Kai-shek’s triumphal visit to the United States in 1943 was the high-water mark of that phase. It was quickly followed, however, by an “Age of Disenchantment,” from 1944 to 1949, when the glaring deficiencies of the war-weary Nationalist government were revealed in its abortive effort to turn back the Communist revolution. Finally, after 1949, an “Age of Hostility” toward China’s new Communist rulers set in, intensified by both a sense of betrayal and the passions of the Korean War.

Reflections on the Sino-American relationship bring one back, inevitably, to the context of the Nixon trip: not just China’s experience of Americans (and vice versa) but China’s experience of foreigners in general, foreigners’ experience of China, and, specifically, the traditions of executive tourism on Chinese soil.

To begin with the last point, the President’s journey was only the latest in a very long record of visitations by foreign rulers and their emissaries to the Middle Kingdom and sometimes, if they were lucky, to the Forbidden City itself. Despite Mr. Nixon’s good fortune, it has not been an entirely happy chronicle.

Take the case of one Thomas Pires, an early Portuguese ambassador who sought in 1517 to pry open the Chinese door. Pires got off on the wrong foot initially by firing a courtesy salute with cannon in Canton harbor, for which the unflattered Chinese officials promptly demanded an apology. He then came ashore accompanied by a blast of trumpets, for which another apology was immediately demanded. And he politely offered gifts to the authorities—which were duly noted as “tribute” from Portugal, a place listed as somewhere “south of Java.”

Thomas Pires eventually got to his goal, the imperial throne in Peking (though as Sino-Portuguese relations turned sour, he had the later misfortune to die in a Canton prison). Pires thereby became the first Westerner of the modern era to undergo a ritual that required, it seems, considerable athletic prowess: the performance of the kowtow (or k’o t’ou ), a ceremonial approach to the emperor that involved three kneelings interspersed with a total of nine full prostrations (“head-bangings”). It was a performance that undoubtedly left its performers both breathless and humbled.

All this was basically ceremonial recognition of what was, to the Chinese, obvious: that China was the center of the known earth, an advanced and ancient civilization adjacent to the much more backward peoples of north, central, and southeast Asia, and that access to China’s benevolence and material goods required submissiveness and good manners in the Chinese style.