Putting the Middle Kingdom in the Middle

Review of Restless Empire: China and the World Since 1750, by Odd Arne Westad (New York: Basic Books, 2012)

As China moves closer to the center of the world economy interest in China's future place in the international community has grown. Odd Arne Westad explores China's foreign relations over the past 250 years to offer historical insights for understanding present-day China and its possible development.

Cover of Restless Empire China and the World Since 1750 by Odd Arne Westad
Cover of Restless Empire: China and the World Since 1750 by Odd Arne Westad.

Restless Empire extends the vision of China's interaction with the outside world beyond the state level into the dimension of individuals. Lived experiences of various groups, such as diplomats, revolutionaries, missionaries, businessmen, students, and workers, are examined and considered as the crucial components of historical heritage that shape the views and expectations of most Chinese regarding their country's role in global affairs.

Further, Westad challenges the dichotomous view that contests either internal or external factors as decisive in setting the trajectory for China's modern history. Instead, Westad suggests that the boundaries between China and the rest of the world have often been fluid and blurred, especially in the mental maps of people had of those borders, the experiences of the diaspora, the experiences of different ethnicities, and through trade and the exchange of ideas (p.2). This flexibility granted the Chinese the legitimacy as well as the freedom for adaptation and change, which then nurtured the vigor that sustained China through its encounter with capitalist modernity, a process frequently featured with violence and destruction. The capability to change, Westad argues, will continue coloring the course of China's contact with the world.

Westad grounds his narrative on mastery of a vast body of scholarship both in Chinese and English, as well as on the comparative reading of archival materials collected in China, Russia, United States, and United Kingdom. Autobiographies, memoirs, diaries, oral narratives, and literature in China, Japan, Korea, India, Germany, Cuba, etc., enrich the story with diverse textures. Thus, Westad proposes that China's foreign relations never unfolded in a unilinear way. Rather, they took on a "schizophrenic" form that made its early appearance since the late 19th century.

The Qing failure in the First Opium War (1839-42) broke down the empire's 18th-century frameworks for foreign affairs. Hereafter, unequal treaties directed the interactions on the state level. However, the encounter with Westerners and their ideas did not mean only imperialism, but also brought new opportunities to individuals and families for trade, travel, and social advancement. The foreign presence also brought a revolution in thought and behavior, a metamorphosis that marked "the early breakthrough of a new form of Chinese modernity" (p. 20). By the end of the 19th century, the changes extended into political sphere.

Westad argues China's foreign relations played a crucial role in shaping its political topography in the first two decades of the 20th century. Chapter 3 explains how Japan acted as a source of support and inspiration for both Chinese constitutionalists and revolutionaries to pursue their political agenda. Britain's policy to support whoever could preserve China's unity eventually helped Yuan Shikai become the head of the newly established Republic of China. Also, the reasons for the new republic's survival through the political turbulence in the 1910s and 1920s can be traced to the fact that the main Western imperialist countries were distracted and weakened by the WWI, as shown in Chapter 4.

In Chapters 5 and 6, Westad turns to the inter-personal level to examine the encounter between foreigners and Chinese. While almost every aspect of daily life, including commercial goods, dress, education, and medicine came under Western influence, Chinese living in the early 20th century fostered a complex feeling towards foreigners. On the one hand, they felt victimized by imperialism and at the same time felt an attraction for foreign cultures and material. Such attitudes, to certain degree, could explain why the nationalism embraced by oversea Chinese did not prevent them from pursing personal gains wherever they can find. Meanwhile, strong sense of commitment to their homeland was also prevalent among the Chinese diasporic communities. 

Enthusiasm for foreign contact and capitalist modernity started cooled when the whole world was dragged into WWII. War experiences shattered the confidence in Western capitalism among educated classes, who, then, turned to search for a new economic strategy to modernize China. Mao Zedong's brand of communism offered a timely answer confirming there was a different way to modernity beyond capitalism. Chapters 7, 8, and 9 depict the course that China stepped into isolation from the outside world diplomatically and interpersonally during the Maoist years, a path that ended with fatal destruction to the country and individual life.

The last 2 chapters focus on China's return to the world community beginning with the breakthrough in the Sino-U.S. relationship in the 1970s. Westad characterizes the last two decades of the 20th century as "America's decades," as, unprecedentedly, the United States "dominated the sense of most Chinese had of "abroad'" (p. 366). In this period, we also see China's reengagement with the rest of Asia with economic development as the driving force. However, China's "schizophrenic" foreign relationship continues to shape history. The willingness to engage the global community oftentimes couples with memories of the humiliation imposed by foreign powers. Thus, Westad proposes China's international future depends on not only itself, but also on how others treat China (p. 642).

Within 11 chapters, Restless Empire lets us sail through the past 250 years, a period when China became globalized and modernized with expansive information and insightful observations. However, probably due to the space limitations of the monograph form, some of Westad's arguments call for further explanations. For instance, he suggests the concepts of justice, rules, and centrality continue to influence Chinese thinking about their international relationships. However, these broad preoccupations evolve over time and have been redefined by history. Further, although Westad tries to give equal attention to both the state and various social groups' transnational activities, in the account of the last 30 years, individuals' roles fade out and are blurred by repeated mention of opinion polls. However, these criticisms do not undermine the value of Restless Empire as a thorough, comprehensive, and lucid narrative that reliably measures the pulse of China's foreign contacts over the two and half centuries.