Generally acknowledged wisdom is that understanding the past is an invaluable asset when building a future. The idea, of course, is that events of the last couple of thousand years have set the foundation for the current state of the world.
Understanding history is particularly important to those who follow the constant give and take that shapes global relationships. Past events have shaped the attitudes that define how individual countries engage one another. The relatively short but brazen history of the US leads directly into that country's determined stance towards global affairs.
At the other end of the scale, the rather long but conflict-ridden history of west Africa goes some way toward helping us understand why that particular part of the world is still hit by trouble.
The history of China's own relationship with the outside world is longer and more complex than many others. It is a patchwork of curiosity, isolationism, intellectual creativity and almost unforgivable self-sufficiency. It is a 3,000-year story throughout which the only constant is conflict.
Harry Gelber, a Cambridge-trained historian with a number of books under his belt, attempts to lay out the long and twisted history of China's interactions with the outside world in his latest book The Dragon and the Foreign Devils.
Gelber starts his story way, way back, before the China we know today was even a concept. Throughout 442 pages of interesting and surprisingly light storytelling, he weaves a narrative that flows naturally into the emerging power status of the China we know today.
"In reality, then, China is a medium power, albeit one very likely to become a significant global actor eventually," Gelber writes. "For the time being, it would be a mistake to confuse the possibility of a great China tomorrow with the realities of China today. It has accepted the shift, in not much more than a century, from an empire at the core of its own world order to being, formally, a modern Western-style nation state."
The one constant that emerges throughout Gelber's story is that China is a country that knows change more intimately than perhaps any other. Revolutions and takeovers, wars and coups, have been the order of the day since well before the Mongols ruled the country and created their own dynasty.
At the same time, the history of China's rulers has been one of immense variety.
There have been inspired emperors that lived up to the mandate of heaven and created a government infrastructure that, in some ways, survives to this day at a time when European city-states had no discernible political structure. Other emperors, however, took debauchery and indifference to unprecedented heights bankrupting a country that was the leading world power at several points in history.
Gelber takes history seriously but presents it rather lightly and makes it easy to read. As far as history books go – and this one often comes across as a textbook – The Dragon and the Foreign Devils is a nice read.
What Gelber does provide that other histories of China often do not, is a running reflection of the impact the country has had on the outside world and vice-versa.
Regardless of whether one or the other accepts it, China never quite succeeded in being the isolationist state it often sought to be. It is far, far too big for that and populated by a wide range of people.
Around AD1200, the Mongols took over running the government of China but even before that they had helped shape China's attitude towards foreigners. Mongol control of a wide swath of western Asia allowed for smoother trade and easier communication between east and west. At the same time, the threat of invasion that the Mongol hoard represented led to the construction of the most iconic and telling Chinese structure: The Great Wall.
Through its contacts with the outside world, Chinese emperors became so convinced of their own relative superiority that they later sought to limit contacts with the outside world. The outside world, on the other hand, never really agreed with this idea.
One expedition after another continued to influence China and its emperors and later, much more aggressive Western fleets with technology that had grown to surpass that of China, managed to dictate their own terms and take over entire cities. Qingdao, Shanghai, Hong Kong and Macau were all taken over by Europeans that themselves did not understand China or its people.
The 20th century was one of virtually constant turmoil leading up to and including the 1978 opening up to the outside world.
The next few decades are, hopefully, predictable. China's economic growth will continue and its political influence will continue to expand. The only constant will likely be change. That is not unique to China but it will permeate the world. The question is what kind of shape that change will take.
Gelber ends his book with a telling note: "… as the American writer Philip Roth says somewhere, history is really only the path by which the unexpected becomes the inevitable."
Another historic look at China's relationship with the outside world, and within itself, can be found in The Tao of Deception: Unorthodox Warfare in Historic and Modern China by Ralph D. Sawyer.
The subject matter is different. Sawyer's book is a highly focused study of strategy and warfare but it is definitely not for the uninitiated. The writing is nowhere near as clear and smooth as in Gelber's book and the complex subject matter make this book a somewhat inaccessible read for those without some grounding.
The Tao of Deception does include some unique insights, as any book with this level of research should, but those insights are not easy to get at.
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