- Historic Sites
A Cycle Of Cathay
President Nixon’s visit to Peking starts one more surprising turn in an American-Chinese “affair” nearly two centuries old
August 1972 | Volume 23, Issue 5
Of course, the proud and sturdy Englishmen of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries who sought to open China to trade and diplomacy regarded such ceremonies as distinctly un-English. But even when they refused to undergo them, lesser pitfalls still lurked on the road to Peking. There is no evidence, for instance, that Lord Macartney, the Briton who tried to force diplomatic relations on the Chinese empire in 1793, could read the inscriptions on the stately pennants that the Chinese placed on his vehicles as he journeyed to the capital: “Ambassador bearing tribute from the country of England.” Macartney’s visit was thereby recorded as a mission of homage from a vassal state; the Ch’ien-lung emperor commended George III for his “respectful spirit of submission” but pointed out that “our celestial empire possesses all things in prolific abundance” and therefore needed no foreign contacts. Years of increasingly violent misunderstanding ensued, until the Opium War clarified the issue. In it, British naval firepower as of 1842 forced the Chinese to open several new ports besides Canton to “barbarian” traders.
As for official Americans, very late arrivals on the scene, their habit was generally to let Europeans run interference for them. An American executive who finally made it to Peking was former Massachusetts congressman Anson Burlingame, who became Washington’s first full-fledged minister to China in 1861. Burlingame’s virtue was good will, his failing a silver tongue. He was so genial and persuasive that he was appointed, on his retirement in 1868, China’s first official envoy to the Western world and embarked, with two Chinese colleagues, on an extended mission to America, Britain, France, Germany, and Russia (where he suddenly expired in 1870). In this curious role Burlingame established (and indeed pre-empted) the euphoric tradition of Sino-American relations. “China,” he declaimed to a rapt New York audience in 1867, “is willing to trade with you, to buy of you, to sell to you. … She invites your merchants, she invites your missionaries. She tells the latter to plant the shining cross on every hill and in every valley. The imagination kindles at the future which may be, and which will be, if you will be fair and just to China.” Hard on the heels of Burlingame’s words came the Tientsin massacre of foreign missionaries and thirty years of Chinese antiforeign agitation that culminated in the Boxer Rebellion. But the Burlingame syndrome of great expectations survives to this day.
By 1879, when ex-President Grant, travelling around the world one month out of office, became the first American Chief Executive (present or former) to visit China, things in Peking had loosened up a good deal. Gone, for Western visitors at least, were the kowtow and the concept of tribute, for the Chinese empire was now effectively shackled by the unequal treaties imposed by the West in the aftermath of their repeated use of superior military force. General Grant seems to have come and gone without incident.
Misunderstandings did persist, however, in the later record of Sino-American visitations. There is, for instance, the case of General Patrick J. Hurley, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s personal representative to China, who arrived at the Yenan airstrip to confer with Mao Tse-tung in 1944 and, on emerging from his plane, delivered himself—in Oklahoma fashion—of a Choctaw war whoop. At which the party of welcoming officials is said to have dispersed temporarily in alarm. General Hurley’s idiosyncrasies had a more lasting effect on history: he careened onward to bungle and destroy a promising American relationship with the Chinese Communists and then, through reckless charges as he resigned in 1945, sowed the first seeds of the poisonous “Who Lost China” debate back home.
So the tradition of high-level visitation to China is an uneven one, and Mr. Nixon—who graciously ended what Hurley had begun—can be grateful to have come and gone without giving or receiving major insult or injury.
But there is, of course, a far more important context to America’s recent rediscovery of China than the fate of high-ranking official visitors, and that is the complex matter of what is called, in the new idiom, people-topeople relations.
From its earliest phases and throughout, the AmericanEast Asian relationship was primarily the product of Americans who travelled to Asia in nongovernmental roles. To be sure, Asians came to America, too—as laborers in fairly large numbers, until they were eventually excluded, and also as students, diplomats, and immigrants—and their presence helped shape events on both sides of the ocean. But the dominant fact was the American thrust toward Asia, a thrust impelled by what some have termed the “acquisitive spirit.”
What was to be acquired? Initially, from the 1780’s, and to some extent throughout, Asian goods—wealth from the China trade. Early, too, from the second decade of the nineteenth century, Asian converts for Christianity. Toward the end of the century two additional objectives joined the acquisition list: Asian customers for the products of American industry as well as Asian concessions for investors, and—for some dreamers of American empire—Asian bases to sustain American trading vessels and an expanded navy.