The ‘Minor’ Events That Had a Major Impact on Sino-American History
On June 23, 1868, both star-spangled banners and dragon-emblazoned flags welcomed the members of the first-ever Chinese mission to the United States as they entered New York City. After undergoing two Opium Wars and the devastating Taiping Rebellion, the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911 AD) embarked on a “Self-Strengthening Movement” beginning in the early 1860s, a key aim of which involved “learning from the West.” The United States, meanwhile, had just emerged from a Civil War of its own and was looking overseas for new growth opportunities.
Among the imperial envoys representing the Qing court on this occasion was an American: Anson Burlingame. Burlingame arrived in China in 1861 as a diplomatic envoy, and over the next six years developed a reputation as an honest dealer more interested in cooperation than coercion. After he retired from his post in 1867, the appreciative Qing emperor appointed him as an envoy for an upcoming mission to Europe and the U.S. In this capacity, Burlingame would use his contacts to negotiate what is now known as the Burlingame Treaty between China and the United States — the first and one of the only “equal” treaties signed between China and a foreign power in the decades after the first Opium War ended in 1842.
Today, Burlingame’s story has been largely forgotten on both sides of the Pacific, pushed aside by the momentous events and figures who dominated the Sino-American relationship in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In 2015, when Wang Yuanchong, a historian at the University of Delaware, was planning a new course on the history of Sino-American relations, he found that the majority of historians had focused on the period from the end of the 19th century to the present day — the Boxer Rebellion, the “Open Door” policy, the Korean War, ping-pong diplomacy, and President Richard Nixon’s visit to China in 1972 — while paying little attention to earlier encounters.
He decided to fill this gap in the literature. Earlier this year, Wang published “The Meeting of China and the United States: Power Diplomacy and the Rise and Fall of Late Qing, 1784–1911.” Writing in Chinese, Wang paid special attention in his book to the lesser-known stories, issues, and people that defined the early Sino-American relationship. The book covers incidents and figures such as the dumping of Fujianese tea leaves into the harbor during the Boston Tea Party, America’s role in the opium trade, and the American woman who painted the Empress Dowager Cixi’s portrait.
The neglected figures and missed opportunities Wang highlights provide new perspectives on the history of Sino-American relations, even as tensions between the two countries are once again on the rise. It has become cliché for Americans seeking to predict the future course of Sino-American relations to compare themselves to George Frost Kennan, the U.S. diplomat to the Soviet Union who authored the famous “long telegram” in 1946. Few, if any, reference the American minister to China, Frederick Ferdinand Low. In his book, Wang analyzes in detail the long report Low wrote on China’s administrative, educational, and social systems in 1871.
In the following interview with Sixth Tone, Wang discusses his research, traces the evolution of American and Chinese understandings of each other, and outlines his own hopes for Sino-American relations as an Asian American immigrant and father.
Sixth Tone: What drove you to write a book on Sino-American relations focusing on “minor” figures and otherwise forgotten events?
Wang Yuanchong: Historical narratives regarding Sino-American relations have tended to focus on “major” figures, such as emperors and presidents, provincial governors, prominent reformers, and well-known missionaries. Understanding those figures is essential to understanding the past, but they are not the whole story. As a historian, it can be challenging to balance prominent historical figures and ordinary people in our work, but the supposedly “minor” figures in my book, like Guo-Liang, an ordinary Chinese woman who was killed in 1821 by an Italian sailor on an American cargo ship, speak to the larger historical narrative. The ship that sailor served on was engaged in the illegal opium trade, and her death triggered a legal dispute between the Chinese authorities and the American side over the issue of extraterritoriality that would be resolved only after the first Opium War of 1839–42.
Similarly, the massacre of Chinese coal miners in Rock Springs, Wyoming on September 2, 1885, highlights the complicated and terrifying situation faced by Chinese immigrants after the U.S. passed the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882. In context, Guo-Liang and the Chinese miners in Rock Springs were not “minor” figures; rather, their stories are an important part of the history of Sino-American relations.
Sixth Tone: You emphasize that the story of Sino-American relations dates back even before the founding of the United States, much less the formal establishment of relations between the two. For example, you highlight the role of Chinese tea in the Boston Tea Party. Why did you choose to focus on this aspect of the relationship?
Wang: The Boston Tea Party is celebrated in the United States as an important chapter of American revolutionary history, but few people are aware that the leaves came from Wuyishan, in China’s southeastern Fujian province. Soon after the incident in Boston, the town of Lexington, where the first shot of the American Revolutionary War was fired, also lit its Chinese tea leaves on fire. The revolutionaries did not hate Chinese tea itself or oppose drinking it — though some thought that drinking tea leaves from China specifically would shackle North Americans’ free souls — they merely used tea as a symbol of the unfair sales and tax practices of the British.
Ironically, in 1784, just a year after America formally won its independence, the merchant ship “China Empress” set sail from New York Harbor with the express intention of purchasing tea leaves in Guangzhou. That journey marked the beginning of United States’ “Old China Trade,” a vital trade route that tied the two countries together even before the formal establishment of relations in 1844.
Sixth Tone: At a time of mutual unfamiliarity, one of the figures you profile, Anson Burlingame, stands out for having what you call “the heart of a global citizen.” Working as an envoy, first for the U.S., then for China, he managed to overcome rising imperialist sentiments and distrust to win the support of both the Chinese and U.S. governments. In your view, what was the reason for his success?
Wang: Prior to his trip to China, Burlingame was already an active figure in the American political arena and a progressive. An opponent of slavery, he was one of the founders of the Republican Party. During his tenure in Beijing, he established himself as an affable man who was good at managing conflicts; he became a favorite of officials at the Zongli Yamen — the late Qing government’s foreign affairs office — who viewed him as “our true friend.”
As a rising nation, the American presence in China in the mid-19th century was not as aggressive as that of Britain or France. Its policies toward China were fairly ambiguous, in sharp contrast to other colonial powers, which gave Burlingame a degree of diplomatic flexibility. Indeed, when Burlingame was commissioned as China’s envoy to Europe and the United States, he was able to negotiate a treaty with the U.S. on behalf of the Qing government that both sides considered fair — a rarity in China’s dealings with the West in the 19th century.
Curiously, today, the Chinese and American historical narratives rarely mention the Burlingame Mission. The vast majority of Chinese and Americans have never even heard Burlingame’s name. This mutual ignorance of an important example of historical cooperation is likely due to the nation state-focused historiography of the 20th century, but I hope that more people will one day learn about Burlingame and his work.
Sixth Tone: As you note, the status of the U.S. as a rising power gave it leeway to adopt a less confrontational strategy toward China. One oft-cited example of this is American lobbying for an “Open Door” policy toward China in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, which limited direct territorial encroachments and forced all European powers to treat each other according to the same set of rules. Yet you reject this positive view of the “Open Door” policy as an example of American-Chinese friendliness. Why?
Wang: Even after the United States occupied the Philippines during the Spanish-American war, its military and political presence in China and the Asia-Pacific region still couldn’t match that of Britain, France, Russia, Germany, or Japan. In order to prevent these countries from encroaching upon American commercial interests in China, the U.S. government adopted the traditional diplomatic strategy of attempting to balance international powers against each other. It is generally accepted that the “Open Door” policy was conducive to achieving a superficial balance among the powers in China as well as maintaining the nominal integrity of China’s territory and administration. It is for this reason that American politicians like Mike Pence have upheld it as a positive historical legacy and an example of American fair dealing.
But we should be aware that the concept of the “open door” came about at a historical turning point, in which the United States was moving rapidly towards a more imperialist stance internationally. The policy’s central objective was protecting American commercial interests, not helping China. In proposing the “Open Door” policy, American Secretary of State John Hay first acknowledged the interests of other powers in China: In effect, he was using China’s interests as a bargaining chip with other Western countries. But even without this policy, the Western powers wouldn’t have allowed a single state to control China. Take, for example, Russia, Germany, and France forcing Japan to return the Liaodong Peninsula after Japan’s triumph over China in the Sino-Japanese War of 1894–95.
The “Open Door” policy amounted to little more than a tacit diplomatic understanding or union between the invading Western powers whose expansion in China was not in any way restricted by international law. Where the United States was concerned, the policy was introduced less than a year before the U.S. Marine Corps entered the Forbidden City as part of the Eight-Nation Alliance — a point that American politicians rarely mention, much like the involvement of U.S. merchants in the opium trade.
Sixth Tone: You cite Frederick Ferdinand Low’s oft-neglected 1871 report from China as one of the highlights of your courses on early Sino-American relations. What in the report resonates with your students? What lessons do you think it has for contemporary China watchers on both sides of the Pacific?
Wang: Low made astute observations on the Chinese state, its culture, and society in the late Qing period. It’s intriguing that Low didn’t embrace the stereotypical description of China that was popular among Westerners at the time, in which a despotic China was inherently inferior to its Western counterparts and needed to be ‘modernized’ by Western civilization. Rather, Low’s interpretations highlighted the complexity and diversity of China. His portrait of the dynamism of late imperial China, a gigantic country full of unknown stories, is what excites my students the most.
In particular, Low’s report provides a remarkable window through which students can see how an American diplomat who arrived in the early 1870s knowing little about the Chinese Empire enthusiastically observed, perceived, and interpreted what he found in Beijing. Many of his observations resonate today, such as the tough educational system, population pressure, and focus on modernization. Low had an open mindset, and that’s as important now as it was then.
Sixth Tone: One illustration in your book shows your daughter standing in front of a portrait of the Empress Dowager Cixi painted by the American artist Katharine Carl. What do you want your daughter and the next generation of Chinese Americans to see in this picture?
Wang: Carl painted that portrait in 1904. The painting, which shows Cixi in all her elegance and majesty, was later presented to Theodore Roosevelt, then acquired by the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery in Washington, D.C. Many American and foreign visitors to this gallery have come to know the Chinese empress through this giant oil painting, which has shaped their image of women in the Chinese imperial court, and even that of Chinese and Asian women more generally.
As a historian, I hope my daughter’s generation can see the historical context behind the painting and its connection to individual identity. My daughter was born in New York State and is now in the second grade. She’s a typical second-generation immigrant. Before the COVID-19 outbreak, we would take her back to China every summer vacation. Although she can speak Chinese, she is more comfortable using English. As she gets older and continues to study in the United States, I think she’ll become more and more estranged from Chinese culture and written Chinese. “China” will gradually become an abstract concept to her, one she learns about from written and oral narratives, works of television and film, and news reports, and she will gradually assimilate popular perceptions and interpretations of China in American society.
However, she is ultimately a person of Chinese descent, as well as an Asian, and this identity is extremely important in American society. She will have to grapple with these identities all her life — and the United States, whether it likes it or not, will have to take its Chinese population and China-related issues seriously in the decades to come. When she grows up, how will she, as a Chinese American woman, interpret this portrait of a Chinese empress painted by an American? I look forward to hearing the perspectives that her generation of Asian Americans will offer.
Translator: Lewis Wright; editor: Kilian O’Donnell.
(Header image: Empress Dowager Cixi poses for a photo with the wives of foreign envoys in the Garden of Nurturing Harmony. Courtesy of the Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery Archives/Smithsonian Institution)