- 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
It need hardly be added that neither gold nor God did the trick. The Chinese, stirred very roughly out of their two-thousand-year-old world order, took off on a path very different from that prescribed by capitalism and Christianity. To fill the social, ethical, and political vacuum left by the collapse of Confucianism, they eventually created Maoism—a new civic religion. And in place of the unequal treaties and foreign tutelage they substituted national self-reliance and the expulsion of all foreign tutors—including, finally, the Russians. As for the impact of a century of trade and religion in Sino-American relations, the one was written off by the new regime as economic imperialism, the other as cultural imperialism.
After the Communist victory in 1949 American leaders misread China’s revolutionary transformation and sought to seal off the apparent threat of a new Golden Horde, a new Yellow Peril. But by 1972 an American President had belatedly ended that effort. Ironically, but also appropriately, he had returned instead to the role of earnest visitor knocking at China’s long-closed door, as foreigners had done two centuries before.
As one reflects on the roller coaster of fluctuating American attitudes toward China and the Chinese, one wonders how the new age that began with Ping-Pong and Kissinger will be described by historians of the future. If it is an “Age of Euphoria,” it will be short-lived and its sequel unpleasant, for euphoria is flimsy stuff indeed for the bridging of the very wide gulf between Chinese and Americans. But if instead it develops into an “Age of Live, Let Live, and Learn,” the Nixon chapter could help produce new qualities of realism and understanding among both Americans and Chinese that previous chapters have lacked.