This chapter presents a synthesis of the diverse academic traditions in China and Europe to implement global history. Supremacy and exceptionalism have characterized the socio-economic and cultural development of European powers, mainly Great Britain, the Netherlands, France, and Germany, on one side, and, on the other side, there is the long-lasting civilization and uniqueness of Chinese culture and history which is present today in the rise of China’s economy. Such exceptionalism on both sides has been echoed in academic circles and historiographies on global history. The Sinocentric and Eurocentric perspectives reflected in many scholarly works on global history are a consequence of the exercise of power and political hegemony. In current neo-mercantilist policies in the main world economies, where China is an outstanding example, such national exceptionalism has led to a reversal of national narratives. The “New Silk Road” or “One Belt, One Road” [yīdài yīlù一带一路] implemented by the Chinese government in 2013, as well as the concept of “Chinese characteristics” [zhōngguó tèsè 中国特色], and neo-Confucian policies are the main elements of China’s current strategies to take the lead as main world power. Academic circles are affected by this national turn, and the writing, conceptualization, and methodology of global history by Chinese scholars is overshadowed by national narratives distinctly lacking in historical analysis. This chapter highlights the Sinocentric perspectives in global history, which is a replica of the Eurocentric ones. If I had not had the experience of living and working in academic ecosystems in China for the past ten years, arguably this book would have come from a different perspective.

2.1 From Eurocentrism to Sinocentrism

The cultural divergence between China and the West became more tangible when the Italian Jesuit Matteo Ricci [lì mǎdòu 利玛窦] (Po-Chia Hsia 2012; Zhang 2015) did not map China at the centre of the earth [zhōngguó 中国]. His 1602 World Map thus challenged two seminal concepts. First, it showed the real position of China according to accurate scientific methods of cartography and cosmology (Day 1995). Second, Ricci challenged the expected attitude of submission, honour, and tribute that foreigners (Westerners) as barbarians should pay in the presence of Chinese officials as superiors (Morar 2019). The subjects of the Chinese emperor believed he was the Son of Heaven [tiānzǐ 天子] as he was the protector of such a large and diverse empire securing food, stability, and liberation from natural disasters (Chang 1955; Miller 2003; Selin 2003; Waley-Cohen 2006; Rowe 2009). However, Matteo Ricci and other Jesuit missionaries confronted this profane concept according to the Catholic doctrine of Jesus Christ as the only Son of God (D’Elia 1934; Gernet 1981).

Such confrontation between western regions and the Middle Kingdom can be seen as a continuation of an event in 1524 when the Ming Court closed the so-called “Silk Road” to the west, forbidding western trade relations in China (Li 2017). Seven border garrisons [guānxī qī wèi 關西七衛] were located in northwestern regions to ban commercial relations with the west across Eurasia. “Close the door [to the barbarians in west China] and suspend the tribute trade [with them], and never have dealings with them [bìguān jué gong, yǒngbù yú tōng 閉關絕貢, 永不與通]” (Li 2019).

This was an expression of Sinocentrism (Fairbank 1989; Huang 2011) and Great Ming Empire [dà míng dìguó 大明帝国] supremacy, as well as the exceptionalism of the Ming dynasty (Brooke 2010) resuming the early origins of Sinocentrism of the Song dynasty when Taoism, Confucianism, and Daoism converged. Ricci’s map of 1602 was the material expression of the perception of the world by the Jesuits and his Chinese collaborators. Through cartography the Jesuits were putting aside the Sinocentric vision of China and the world that portrayed westerners as barbarians. This was an early attempt to decentralize China’s world position by emphasizing that the origin of civilizations was not China [zhōngguó 中国]. Ricci’s map not only argued against China’s supremacy as an Eastern power, but also challenged ethocentric beliefs in general, including the ethocentrism that was historically endemic to the Western economic empire power houses of Spain, England, and France.

Ricci’s map thus aimed to evade such ethnocentrism and can be seen in fact as an early source of mutual collaboration between Europe and China. The Jesuit missionaries and Chinese literati acted as the main actors in such global encounters between the West and China. Their perception of the world was quite divergent, and in many instances at odds, as we can see in the maps of Chinese local gazetteers [zhōngguó dìfāng zhì 中国地方志] in the way they represented and conceived the world. Ricci’s map, however, was a common project of depicting the world as being an important landmark of collaboration, mutual curiosity, and conversation between the West and China (Gallagner 1953; D’Elia 1961; Waltner 2012). China, in the map, is under a Christian cosmos, in Ricci’s own perspective—the map only gives the longitudinal and latitudinal coordinates of China, providing no coordinates for European countries (Waltner 2012) (Map 2.1).

Map 2.1
A photograph of an old World map.

Source: Ricci, Matteo, Library of Congress (hereafter LC). National Digital Library Program, and LC. Geography and Map Division. Kun Yu Wan Guo Quan Tu. [Beijing, China: Matteo Ricci, 1602] Map.

Matteo Ricci’s World Map, 1602

The five relations system [wǔlún 五伦] embodies the core of Confucian ethical principles of Chinese culture (Fung 1953). This is symbolized in Ricci’s map as the chief point of encounter between China and Europe. The long-lasting Chinese civilization, culture, and history are characterized by these principles from the period of Confucius until today. We might find the application of such principles in the current global affairs of China through the neo-Confucian policies adopted by the People’s Republic of China (PRC) (Kimet al. 2019; Guo 2017; Angle 2012) with the aim to keep all society unified respecting hierarchy and rank, economic success, and education as pillars of China’s political system and its ruling bureaucracy (Lin et al. 2006; Tu 1996). This, of course, has a clear historical precedent with the Song dynasty when scholars and officials in the Court synthesized Confucian thought with the teachings of Daoism and Buddhism (Chan 1986). The three fundamental bonds and five constant virtues [sān gāng wǔ cháng 三纲五常] aimed to guide people’s behaviour and keep society in order in traditional China.

The wǔlún 五伦 principles (see Fig. 2.1) are represented in the five relationships (ruler-minister, father-son, husband-wife, brother-brother, friend-friend) (Hsü 1970–1971; Nylan 2001). Europeans, mainly the Jesuits, praised the value of wǔlún 五伦 as a universal form that might find its replica in Christian values through tradition, justice, correctness, respect of elders, family loyalty, and personal and governmental morality (Tu 1998). Having good personal relationships [guānxi 关系] is a fundamental pillar in this system to maintaining harmony and hierarchy among the ranks of society, families, and clans (Chen 1911). Traditional Chinese scholarship has considered this interpretation of Confucianism as a trend employed by Western and Chinese scholars to rationalize Confucian thought according to Western standards of secularization (Creel 1932; Yang 1957).

Fig. 2.1
A circular diagram depicts the social order in China. It has a ruler-subject, father-son, older and younger brothers, husband-wife, and senior and junior friends from the inner through the outer circle.

Source: Author’s own elaboration

Traditional China Social Order Based on wǔlún 五伦, Five Relations System

Some passages of the Analects [Lúnyǔ 论语] of Confucius are considered to be agnostic. One might infer some ambiguities in the interpretation by these scholars and classic Chinese thought. However, the subjacent aim of pre-Song and Song commentaries and officials was to keep the unity of China (Bol 2008). In the attempt to reconcile Chinese social life and religion through a rational interpretation of Confucianism through the Sinocentric view and conceptualization of the world, one might find some resemblances of rationalization and life secularization as occurred during the European Enlightenment.

“The subjects on which the Master did not talk were…extraordinary things, feats of strength, disorder, and spiritual things.”Footnote 1

Ricci’s map could be interpreted as a projection of such universal values and virtues, an early form of universality as a convergence between European and Chinese values. In other words, it was a mutual project of understanding new forms of representation and knowledge by embracing both Confucian and Christian tradition by which Jesuits and Chinese literati were the mediators. Ricci’s map, as an example of collaboration and understanding to learn different ways and cultural forms of Europe and China, is the point of departure for this book to illustrate how global history is perceived and implemented in Western and Chinese traditions.

The ways each culture perceived the world, continued today by academic ecosystems in Europe and China, have been inherited since Ricci’s time and are reflected in and have a clear influence on historical narratives. Consequently, the practice of global history in present times has undoubtedly been impacted by such narratives. Sinocentric and Eurocentric perspectives from both Western and Eastern academic traditions have marked the development of global history and comparisons between China and Europe as regions. This chapter provides, therefore, an overview of such divergent academic perceptions that impact the way of thinking, writing, and conceptualizing global history.

Controversies that have arisen between traditional Chinese scholars and those embracing Western forms and concepts are very intense because integrating Western knowledge in China has been perceived as an element of dangerous disruption for China’s social system and civilization (Hucker 1975). For this reason, global history is conceptualized and reshaped in China in a different form compared to the discipline in Western academic traditions. It acquires a special national connotation, applying the so-called concept of “Chinese characteristics” [zhōngguó tèsè 中国特色] by which current policies of the PRC attempt to harmonize culture, politics, economics, and social life as homogenizing structures within society. This conceptualization oversimplifies the research agenda of the global historian in China imposing limits to theory, concepts, and methods, as well as the use of sources in Chinese and European archives. This is when Sinocentrism emerges as the manifest feature of global history in China. The hegemony and exceptionalism of China in current global affairs and economic growth contributes to develop a stiff national narrative within China’s academic circles.

This “Sinocentric turn” is acquiring similar connotations to the preceding Eurocentric, or Anglocentric, focus in global history during the last decades which essentially pays attention to the exceptional momentum, supremacy (Dawson 1967; Brook and Blue 1999), and economic rise of northwestern Europe (mainly Great Britain) during the first industrialization. Here, global history scholarship has mostly focused on core-peripheral economic areas fostering the great divide between the West and Eastor developed and underdeveloped world (Jones 1987; Landes 1998; Broadberry et al. 2018). Global history was thus essentially part of imperial history, in which Great Britain and its colonies were the main geographic unit to study the global movement of people, goods, and technology to establish comparisons between Europe (essentially England) and the East (Berg 2006, 2015). Any attempt to seek connections univocally needed to deal with the British empire as core economic centre. This created a serious obstacle for historians when comparing areas and regions outside the realm of the British world.

John Brewer noticed such obstacles and at the beginning of the twenty-first century he assumed such historiographic “error” claiming that global history and comparison between the Western and Eastern world should not be focused only on Great Britain and its colonies (Brewer 2004). Craig Clunas also acknowledged that the term global does not exclusively refer to the history of the great powers of Europe and their colonies, a concept that was adopted during the Cold War period (Clunas 1997).

The use of a holistic view to analyse, compare, and assemble the socio-economic, cultural, and ecological structures and transformations of the world economy system seems more adequate to theories, methods, and empirical evidence to new global history research. The so-called polycentric (Frank 1998) approach in comparing and seeking similarities and differences among world regions might help the historian escape from the still ongoing Eurocentric perspectives (Vries 2016; Cox 2017; de Zwart and van Zanden 2018). More studies applying the polycentric approach will help to deconstruct the deeply rooted traditional and ideological Eurocentric view of Marx (1971), Weber (2001), Toynbee (1934), Polanyi (1944), Braudel (1979), Wallerstein (1980), as well as David Landes (1998) based on the exceptionalism of the West.

Regarding the “Sinocentric turn,” two features should be distinguished. The first one is the attempt by the California School at the end of the 1990s (Wong 1997; Pomeranz 2000; Duchesne 2001) to rewrite the history and economic development of the East (mainly China) and escape from the limits of the Eurocentric perspectives. The second feature has a marked national connotation presenting the “exclusiveness” of the East, mainly the Chinese world and its “unique” characteristics. Comparisons between China and Europe as regions to understand the so-called great divergence and economic development have fuelled a great controversy between Chinese and Western scholars for the real causes and economic backwardness of Qing China (Shi 2011; Pomeranz 2013; Studer 2015; Vanhaute 2019; Deng 2016; Ge 2018).

Thus, the Sinocentric focus has blurred the development of global (economic) history in China due to obvious national constraints and limits in implementing comparisons and applying theories and methods, as well as cross-referencing Western and Chinese sources. The effects of such a limited research agenda, and the exclusive focus on China and its particularities, has entailed a constant repetition of the great divergence debate and the use of debatable data and quantitative methods that has only presented the evolution of China’s gross domestic product and population indices (Dengand O’Brien 2016; Deng 2011). These unreliable indicators and data will be discussed in the following sections.

Most practitioners of global history in China are rewriting a new national history of the country. This group is made up of those who believe that global history is the history of the Western world, but do not look for connections and comparisons, or use and combine diverse historical sources. The result is a new national history of China focusing on the apogee and decline of the Qing empire, as well as its monetary, investment, and fiscal system, and Chinese communities in the rest of the world (Cheng and Lan 2009; Fan et al. 2008; Long 2003, 2006; Wang 2001). This presents a serious lacuna in the application of theories, methods, and sources to make comparisons with other European empires and western regions.

This narrative follows the mainstream and neo-Confucian policies implemented by the Ministry of Education in China. The aim is to revive Chinese history, tradition, and ancestral culture to avoid any external influence that might harm the interpretation of China’s unique past and culture. For this reason, academics who follow this trend perceive global history as an “imported western intellectual form” that might contaminate China’s history and culture (Xia 2007, 2012). However, due to the hegemonic role of China in international affairs, global history in any of its forms and conceptualizations is an unavoidable field in China’s academic circles. Global history cannot be ignored anymore in China and has become the fashionable field in many academic programmes.

2.2 The “New Silk Road” and “One Belt, One Road”: The Awaking of the Middle Kingdom in the Twenty-First Century

The “One Belt, One Road” (OBOR) [yīdài yīlù 一带一路] strategy implemented in 2013 by China’s president, Xi Jinping, aims to internationalize the sectors of the country’s economy such as industry, investments, agriculture, services, health, and education with a clear national orientation (Perez-Garcia 2016). The “New Silk Road” (Leverett and Wu 2016) is the geopolitical unit that overarches the partner countries of the OBOR across Southeast Asia, the Middle East, Europe, and also African and Latin American countries being the last two regions added to the so-called “Maritime Silk Road.” This ambitious and euphemistic policy, although with non-clear goals, aims to revive the uniqueness of Chinese civilization, culture, and history. Emphasis is placed on the historical routes of the “Silk Road” (Perdue 2003) where goods of all kinds (mainly silk, porcelain, and tea) were traded from China to western regions across the Middle East, as well as on the people, technology, and cultural exchanges and encounters that took place. The early origins, and more remarkable milestones, included Alexander the Great’s campaigns in Persia and Marco Polo’s travels to China (Frankopan 2015) (Map 2.2).

Map 2.2
A world map depicts different routes to and from China. The Maritime silk road, silk road places, silk road, silk road economic belt, and twenty-first maritime silk road are marked.

Source: Author’s own elaboration, using the Global Encounters between China andEurope: Trade Networks, Consumption, andCultural Exchangesin Macau andMarseille, 1680–1840 [GECEM] Project Database and Software QGIS v3.12 Base map from Natural Earth raster

China’s New Silk RoadGrand Strategy, Twenty-First Century

The economic rise of China in the last decades and its hegemonic role in global affairs fuelled the development of this policy to portray China’s international image through its historical roots, tradition, and culture. The “Silk Road” policy has two main targeted audiences or interpretations: (1) a domestic aim to keep the country unified through culture and history, and (2) to present China as a “soft-power” nation to the international community, with no intention to intervene in other nations’ affairs (Yang 2014; Mao and Shen 1988). This has some resemblance to the aforementioned Qing policies of Qianlong when the British embassy, headed by Lord Macartney, visited the Imperial Court at the end of the eighteenth century. At that time Qianlong’s statement to Macartney’s embassy, “there is nothing we don’t have that we need from you,” also had two targeted audiences: (1) a domestic one, since the Qing dynasty was not a Han dynasty and was therefore considered as foreigners, and invaders, but Qianlong’s message through firm power and military force aimed to keep the Qing territory unified, and (2) a foreign one, since with this statement Qianlong launched a clear message to Western powers (mainly Great Britain and France) to not intervene in China’s economy and domestic affairs (Waley-Cohen 1993; Berg 2006).

We might extrapolate this resemblance from Qing China to current politics of the PRC in which internationalization and domestic policies do not always fit, it being a serious challenge to keep the cultural and historical essences of the country, but at the same time engage with the international order. Global history and the internationalization of academic circles in China are two issues that find themselves in such crossroads. As noted earlier, global history today in China is straightjacketed within a stiff national narrative which aims to glorify the past, present, and even future of the nation by consolidating the pillars and survival of the political system. Application of historical methods such as comparisons, text analysis, and critique of primary sources, as well as theories, are totally absent in the toolset of PRC academics who define themselves as practitioners of global history in China. Such practitioners are influenced by the Sinocentric perspective, and the international scope is leftover only to “nickname” any research within the “Silk Road” or OBOR label.

As previously mentioned, the “Silk Road” as a geopolitical coordinate applied to current historical studies and global affairs in China, a somehow vague and non-clear concept, has an obvious political bias. Li Bozhong (2017) has stated that the “Silk Road” as concept is an “illusion” and a very abstract concept, which ended in 1524 when the Ming emperor Jiajing closed trade between China and western regions (Li 2019). Thereafter, in the Qing dynasty some periods of an “open-door” policy with the West did occur such as during Kangxi’s reign, but in general official trade and international engagement of China was very limited. This can be dated mainly from the Qianlong emperor, when he established the Canton system [yīkǒu tōngshāng 一口通商] (Liang 1999) to regulate foreign trade in China. The rebirth of the “New Silk Road” in 2013 (Summers 2016; Wang 2015) aims to implement an international agenda, but within a specific national orientation embracing a discourse of globalization, modernization, and consolidation of the country’s ideology.

Escaping from the Sinocentric myopias in Chinese global history narratives is the main challenge of the discipline due to the political and national implications attached to the “Silk Road” and OBOR strategy. The practice of global history by Chinese academics entails problems in the use of theory and methodology as these two basic categories are avoided or ignored due to ideological constraints. For a long time, the use of theory and methods have been avoided by PRC senior scholars due to the belief that historiographical trends, debates, and theories in global history have a Western foundation and are therefore useless. For this reason, to develop and consolidate a pure East Asian (Chinese) thought and indigenous conceptualization of history, any sort of Western theory, as well as methods, is deliberately avoided. This has been done by the older generation of historians in China, and the new generation has the same lacuna. A professional and consolidated implementation of global history implies a serious pedagogical turn that should be undertaken by researchers with institutional support (departments, faculties, universities). Surely, such a pedagogical turn might not go in line with the current policies of the PRC. A profound reform should be introduced for the development and consolidation of teaching and research programmes in global history.

A first step would be to explain and teach to the academic audience, starting with undergraduate students, but also to senior scholarship, the following questions: What is global history? How can we make and write global history? Indeed, there are conceptual misunderstandings in Chinese academic circles on the meaning and differences in global, world, transnational, or international history. In countries such as China there is a stiff revival of national history that aims to consolidate the roots and foundations of the nation according to cultural identity and policymaking of the government. Within such ideological constraints the global historian or practitioner of global history should not neglect his personal standpoints to reflect and objectively deconstruct how governments and institutions have created an intellectual system as the main foundation of national reconstruction. Only through observation, criticism, and deconstruction of national beliefs and myths can the practice of global history become sustainable. In other words, a new pedagogical turn might be possible by overcoming ideological limits of Chinese academic ecosystems, and we might better understand how global history has permeated within traditional Chinese scholarship, challenging national narratives, and introducing in a more realistic form the engagement between the academic system of China and the rest of the world.

The conceptual limits and constraints are rooted in the national and international legitimation of the political system of the PRC. The image portrayed through history, in this case national history, is essential. For domestic and national purposes, culture and history are the main strongholds consolidating and unifying the political system in the twenty-first century. In international affairs, it portrays an image of “non-aggressive” expansion which consolidates the rise and hegemonic role of China. Establishing frames and cultural categories that acknowledge this image contributes to recreating an idealistic and mythical past: “imagined communities” to revive the glory of the nation. Culture, history, and language become a form of “soft-power” policy applied to academia. “Countries that are likely to be more attractive in postmodern international relations are those that help to frame issues, whose culture and ideas are closer to prevailing international norms, and whose credibility abroad is reinforced by their values and policies” (Melissen 2005: 4; Nye 2008: 31–32).

According to such national frames of culture, language, and history, global history is confused with a wide range of histories and narratives that are not connected with the history of China. In other words, global history is mixed by academics with any sort of local, national, or continental history outside China’s borders. Therefore, the practice of global history in China becomes an encyclopaedic collection or compilation of the history of nations in a very descriptive way within a chronicler form. I will return to this point later.

Global history is not a homogeneous compilation of histories. The global historian is not a chronicler of the past. Global history is an approach by which the historian is seeking for connections, comparisons, differences, and similarities across world regions and specific chronologies. The foundation of global history lies upon how world spatialities and their historical formations are conceived and structured (Subrahmanyam 1997; Gruzinski 2001; Dirlik 2005; Adelman 2017; Draytonand Motadel 2018; Bell 2014). Our critique and analysis should be based on the development and practice of global history in different academic traditions either in Western or Eastern nations. Understanding how global history has been implemented in Western and Eastern historiographies seems pertinent when using theory and empirical evidence to make comparisons and connections on historical phenomena, spatialities, and temporalities. The spatialization and temporalization of the past through concrete coordinates entails some ideological and political problems, however, as nation-states have been constructed upon expansion, military force, and the creation of borders. Questioning the map of such formation, as the ultimate purpose of global history, presents serious obstacles, and in China these are compounded by the incorrect use of concepts and lack of theories and methodologies.

Global history, as a new field in China’s scholarship, is considered directly connected to the process of globalization and is mistakenly conceived as the history of globalization. The overlap and abstract implementation of fields such as international relations, global or world history, and international history in China’s education programmes has consequently resulted in confusion. The current global hegemony of China and its economic power in which GDP is always presented as the main indicator in academic circles to link global history to the history of globalization and the rise of world powers. Under this principle the definition and differentiation of transnational, international, global, and world history are put aside.

However, it is relevant to make a distinction among these concepts. A basic and general definition should be as follows: (1) transnational history is an approach that challenges national history and the political agenda of nation-states, the origins of such construction started in the early nineteenth century when nations were unified and the ideals of nationalism developed; (2) global history seeks connections across regions and polities to compare and observe similarities and differences of socio-economic, cultural, or political structures, and therefore, study how local societies create an influence and affect the development of global events; (3) world history puts the emphasis on nations as the main geographical unit, and the wide use of civilizations and cultures in terms of organization and structure of society.

An attempt to define the term globalization and international history also seems relevant. Globalization as a postmodern term, inherited from the post-Cold War period and the collapse of the Soviet Union, is based on the political and economic agenda of governmental and supra-governmental institutions to widely expand power across nations in which mass media, technologies, and transnational companies are the main pillars to sustain power. International history, and the field of international relations, presents wide and vague area studies related to the development and modernization of nation-states and their worldwide expansion and power through institutions, policymaking, and diplomatic relations.

After making such definitions, one might realize that the practice and development of global history in China make sense given the country’s main principle of sustaining its rising political power and economy. Presenting a unique past, consolidating the rising power of the present, and advancing innovative structure and technology to overcome future problems could be considered the main pillars of the scholarship and practice of global history in China’s academic institutions.

In Chinese scholarship, few scholars acknowledge the complexity between global and world history. This has provoked ambiguous and unclear use of concepts and lacunae in applying theory to historical research. Liang Zhan-jun admitted this mistake (Liang 2006) arguing for an etymological difference between global and world history which might help in developing a clearer narrative in historical research using comparative methods.

From the 1960s to the 1990s global history research has become a fertile ground to debate the socio-economic development of modern nation-states or has, as some scholars have stated, become a “sub-discipline” in academic history departments (McCants 2018). It is characterized by using comparative analysis and moving away from the frames of traditional historical analysis, in other words, from nation-states as the main units of comparison (McCants 2018: 241).Footnote 2 Global history research does not encompass the history of the world. Bruce Mazlish defines it as the study of the process of globalization in its historical formations, and to some extent how it coincides with the history of the world (Mazlish 1998).

Global history is not the history of a globalized world or the interpretations of the world order and the narratives that emerged after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. And neither is it the history of civilizations and the classic conceptualization of world cultures, as Gordon Childe (1950) defined in the mid-twentieth century. Nor is it the compilation of historical facts and events that changed the world order across time. On the contrary, it is an approach using a wide range of comparative methods and interdisciplinary history to seek connectivites, similarities, and differences for the study of economic, socio-cultural, and political transformation of world regions (Schäfer 2004: 108).

The delay in the implementation of global history research in Chinese historiography is due to such misuse of concepts but also to inaccurate translations from English to Chinese of major works in global and world history. The opening of global/world history into China dates back to when Geoffrey’s Barraclough’s work Main Trends in History (1979) was translated into Chinese and published in 1987 (Barraclough 1955, 1979). The sentence “a universal view of history” was translated as a “global view of history” [quánqiú lìshǐ guàn 全球历史观]. Pomeranz’s seminal work, The Great Divergence (2000), was translated into Chinese in 2003. In 2000, Liu Beicheng from Tsinghua University translated Andre Gunder Frank’s ReOrient (1998).Footnote 3 Frank’s work was translated into Chinese as “Silver Capital” [báiyín zīběn 白银资本].

Later, the works by Ma Keyao, The History of World Civilizations (2004), Wang Side’s three-volume textbook General History (2009), and Liu Xincheng and Liu Beicheng’s two-volume New World History (2007) came to represent the main historiographical trend and interpretation of global and world history in China based on mere compilations of the history of cultures, civilizations, and nation-states. This historiographical trend lacks source analysis, critical views of historical facts, and a reflection on how to apply global history through case studies by balancing theory, methods, and empirical evidence. The ongoing view of global history, reflected in the above-mentioned works, is based on the approach to traditional textbooks of the West covering large geographical and chronological units.

The translation of Pomeranz’sGreat Divergence in 2003, along with Beijing’sCapital Normal University’s organization of the 20th annual meeting of the World History Association (WHA) in 2011, both represent the milestones of global and world history in Chinese scholarship. From 2011 on forward, departments and faculties in China’s universities started to establish centres of global history as well as undergraduate and master courses in the field. The most relevant institutions here are Capital Normal University [Shǒudū ShīfànDàxué 首都师范大学], Nankai University [Nánkāi Dàxué 南开大学], and later in 2014 Beijing Foreign Studies University [Běijīng Wàiguóyǔ Dàxué 北京外国语大学]. Between 2013 and 2017, Capital Normal University launched the Global History Review, the Translation of Global History Series, and the Global History Reader.

However, the mission and aim of these research institutions have a political orientation based on the constraints of the government’s policy “One Belt, One Road” [yīdài yīlù 一带一路] to rewrite the national history of China and portray the uniqueness of its civilization, culture, and past. There is a Sinocentric bias in global history following both current policies and long-lasting limits of traditional scholarship in China. The Historiography Quarterlyand The Guangming Daily [History Column] aimed to attract Western scholars such as Pomeranz, McNeill, Barraclough, Stavrianos, or Bentley to portray an international image of China’s scholarship. This goes in line with the strategy of academic journals and research institutions in China to appear in top positions of world rankings. However, curriculums to promote interdisciplinary research and programmes in global history have not yet been consolidated. Undergraduate, Master, or Ph.D. programmes have not been established even though Capital Normal University, Nankai University, or Beijing Foreign Studies University aim to promote global history research, but with “Chinese characteristics.” In other words, a new national history of China is very much present. The Sinocentric focus is predominant and, therefore, research centres in Chinese universities only consider global history as the history of nations and regions outside China, i.e. history of Japan, Russia, Germany, etc. The narrative is centred on the study of formation and consolidation of nation-states.

As a result of such homogeneous narratives that compile historical facts and events in a descriptive and non-critical narrative, global history has been treated as a product or direct connection of the “process of globalization” (Wu 2005: 22). Some Chinese scholars consider global history as a reflection of “the new context of ever more frequent communication and exchanges among peoples of today’s world” or “the emergence of global history should be seen as one of the most important achievements of post-war western historical scholarship” (Li 2000: 118; Liu 2000: 123). However, they do not question why this narrative became fashionable among academics after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Historical narratives are the result of our present day and political agenda. Wu Xiaoqun (2005) and Li Longqing (2000) statements go in line with the homogeneous national narrative and political discourse. A different approach for global history to substitute obsolete narratives based on nation-states (Liu 2000) and development of national identities, whose aim is to construct and invent an “imaginary” past (Anderson 1983), should be the turn in China’s historiography that is deeply connected with the “new world history outlook” and image of China (Wang 2003: 32).

So for academics in China who self-attribute as practitioners of global history, their work is more connected with compiling history(ies) in catalogues and encyclopaedic volumes about the history of Western countries. They borrow the global history label, but in these works there is a complete lack of application of theories, methods, and use of sources, as well as an absence of thorough reflection on comparative and connected history. In an article written in 2012, Liu Xincheng referred to the term “compilers” (Liu 2012: 493) for practitioners of global history in China. Cross-referencing empirical evidence through Western and Eastern sources to study the intensification of global contacts and cultural exchanges across world regions is the major need for the “new” global history (Perez-Garcia 2013). The historical method should be based on the use of different scales, from local to global perspective, the so-call “glocalism,” to better understand the complexities of interconnected communities through the dynamics of transcultural and transnational exchanges.

Reorienting the research agendas to focus more on the complexity of Asian economies or rewriting the history of China (Cheng 2005) to escape from the secular Eurocentrism is just one piece of the complex jigsaw of the global historian. Such stiff reorientation, mainly in Chinese historiography, is contributing to the development of Sinocentrism (Li 2011: 9), however, which is creating obstacles to making comparisons with other world regions when studying their function and role in socio-economic transformation of polities and market integration.

In addition to emerging Sinocentrism, another obstacle for the practice of global history remains within academia itself. China’s academic programmes started to become more internationalized during the 1980s with a clear orientation towards International Relations (IR) studies and public and defense policymaking. Within this context IR departments boosted their structure and logistics and promoted internationally their research programmes and projects in global studies to understand China’s role in international affairs. This meant that global history in China had a political bias as the main subject and issue in social sciences and humanities was to study the different forms and development of Marxism outside China’s borders. Marxism was, and still is considered, a Western thought and philosophy, but it was implemented in China through the idiosyncrasy of the country, with “Chinese characteristics.” Faculties were, therefore, more open due to this fact, but after the Tian’anmen crackdown in 1989, programmes in international studies closed and they did not start reopening until the early 2000s.

Political events of the twentieth century and the different periods of reforms to modernize China have meant that global history is a new and “unknown” discipline not being widely embraced as it is considered a Western cultural form. The discipline is rejected by the predominant group of Marxist scholars who oppose global history on the grounds “that [it] is not a compact, uniform normative narrative” (Wang 2002: 101). Academics of the Marxist school argue that global history is forged through a “neocolonialist strategy” by those in favour of the discipline who might pollute the sense, perception, and interpretation of Chinese history and civilization (Wang 2002; Qian 2001; Yu 2006).

This has resulted in a stiff confrontation between academics who advocate for global history, named as “neocolonialists” by the Marxist school, and the “neo-Confucianists” who have developed a new narrative with the aim to recover the ancient traditions, culture, and history of China raising a barrier against any external agent or intellectual thought that might harm such traditional forms. Such rigid and traditional thinking has fostered some prejudices such as being a global historian indicates that a scholar is being “Eurocentric” (Yu 2005), and consequently the history of human evolution, global history, and the development of modern economies means that “a world history is a philosophical attempt to deal with history in view of such a goal-guided process” (Liu 2012: 495).

This is a teleological and linear process to explain the development and conquest of the “scientific revolution” in the West, which according to the Enlightenment and modern European intellectual history should be historicized as a “quasi-theological conjuncture” (O’Brien 2013). Personally, I believe that any cultural and socio-economic conquests of any civilization is the result of a process of hybridization in which multiple elements and forms, i.e. cultural habits, technological achievements, economic transformations, state and non-state institutions, etc., are intertwined and shared across world regions, having similar features within distinctive results according to indigenous cultures and polities. This creates a world mélange of social structures integrated in a constant and reciprocal process of exchange, communication, and interaction (Bentley 2005; McNeill 1990).

However, global history in China has never been used with a proper methodological toolset to present new research and case studies comparing regions, i.e. city ports, villages, or urban areas to seek differences and similarities in the socio-economic and cultural process of development of western and eastern areas. Framing the historical context and rethinking old historiographical debates to present new hypothesis and research questions through delimited spatial and temporal coordinates is commonly absent.

The persistent idea of framing global history as an imported intellectual form from the West means that Chinese academics reject or even do not contemplate the use and learning of theories and methods of global history. Global history is presented by traditional-Marxist scholars as an intellectual implementation of the “aggression” of Western powers. Therefore, the rewriting of national history(ies) in China, whose aim is to elevate national sentiments, patriotism, and traditional identity in the twenty-first century featured by globalization, is challenged by global history. A good indicator is the low degree of academic internationalization of departments, faculties, and research institutions in Chinese universities (Perez-Garcia 2016) (see Table 2.1). Implementation of global history programmes requires internationalization in the faculty staff.

Table 2.1 Share of foreign faculty staff at major universities of China in 2018

The rate of internationalization in China’s higher education system is marginal for the area of social sciences and humanities, especially for the field of global history. This may stem from the early days of the foundation of China as a nation-state, the period of the May Fourth (in 1919) era, when students rallied against the “foreign humiliations” (Westad 2012) of China. A new era marked China’s international relations, the engagement with the outside world, and a process of hybrid cultures, socio-political actions, and state development. The mixture between the old generation, those who witnessed the foreign treaties humiliations and lived in the “Old China,” and the new generation that stood up against Western intervention to revive China’s traditions and national idiosyncrasy fostered a secular confrontation with Western powers during the twentieth century against any sort of cultural, intellectual, and socio-economic intervention. Global and world history was the intellectual and cultural expression that might harm the road to China’s modernization as a nation-state. It is still a paradox and creates controversies today in China’s cultural reforms and higher education system. This could be defined as the “global history paradox” in China.

Western theories and cultural frames in the late twentieth century and the beginning of 2000 were pushed back through ideological constraints implemented through neo-Confucianist policies and the revival of the May Fourth movement, in what could be defined as a “soft neo-cultural revolution” in China. The aim is to consolidate China’s modernization, economic growth, and hegemony as main world power in which the image projected to the outside world as a nation with a unique culture, history, and civilization is paramount to presenting China as non-aggressive or interventionist country. This is in opposition to the model that the US has developed precisely since 1919 as an interventionist country with the self-determination that the Western world and foreign nations should engage the socio-economic and political model evidenced in Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points to encourage world equality among nations. The secular confrontation among nations fuelled a constant rivalry among civilizations and the forms of writing history (Huntington 1996).

Global and world history is in the midst of this confrontation as it has been wrongly portrayed as a Western intellectual narrative, instead of being acknowledged for what it actually is: a holistic historical narrative that looks for connections, differences, and comparisons among world regions with the aim to overcome the great divide between the West and East, in which the observation of local socio-economic transformations (villages, cities) and the intensification of global exchanges can be better understood. In this way, we might find “surprising resemblances” in the formation and structures of nation-states across continents. Such an intellectual exercise and approach collides with the current national and patriotic agendas, as the fabrication of memories and national histories serves as the main tool to portray the illusionary image of a nation according to political purposes and interests in consolidating the new elites in the exercise of power.

For this reason, after the 1950s world history as a discipline was included in China’s higher education system with the aim to study and observe how Marxist theory and Marxist political systems functioned outside of China’s borders. Developing global history with “Chinese characteristics” stood up as the main objective in shifting the traditional Eurocentric (west-centric) views that were predominant in the Cold War period that politically and economically divided the world into blocks along North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) allies and the Warsaw Pact signatory countries. This view was predominant in studies about the development of the modern world, with economic transformations fostering the divide between developed and underdeveloped nations (Toynbee 1934; Polanyi 1944; Needham and Wang 1954; Huntington 1996).

Global history was encapsulated, therefore, into a politically correct frame portraying the field as the study of Western powers relegating Asian and other world economies into a secondary position. This perception has been profoundly fixed in Chinese academic circles, during and after the Cultural Revolution, and with the general public. For instance, today, Peter Frankopan’s book on the Silk Road is embraced by academic and non-academic circles in China as an innovative study in which the world history view and historical analysis is shifted to central Asia (Frankopan 2015). But the historiographical milestone shifting the observation from Western to Asian economies was Frank’s work from the late 1990s, ReOrient (1998), followed subsequently by works from the California School historians. Arguably, this shift could be connected back even further to Needham’s much earlier work on the development of modern science in China (Needham and Wang 1954). Believing that Frankopan’s work is revolutionary in terms of historical analysis on Asian economies, as it is rather a chronicle or description of events along the Silk Road (a modern construct as the Silk Road never existed), stands out as a remarkable instance which shows that critical historical analysis, and the avoidance of innovative theories and historical interpretations such as those by Frank and the California School, is still a vacuum within China’s historiography.

At Wuhan University, Wu Yujinaims to study world history through regional and global histories for the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries; however, the scales of comparisons are not clear enough (Wu 1995; An 1993; Zhang 1992; Li 1994). Wu Yujin and academics that follow this trend use Marxist theories and concepts to support the classical Chinese tradition (Marxist) to encounter an acceptance of the postulates and concepts of world history (Luo 2007), following, therefore, Chinese classic and Marxist characteristics. The practice of historizing rather than the rationale of individual theories are deeply rooted in China’s historiography. The compilation of stories and description of events stands out as historical method. During the 1980s Wu Yujin and Qi Shirong (Capital Normal University) were entrusted by the State Education Commission to develop a compendium of world history in several volumes. This was published in 1994 (Wu and Qi). These compilations and historical corpus were supported and promoted by the Ministry of Education of China. China’s open-door policies in 1978 and joining the WTO in 2001 showed the commitment of the country to engage with the rest of the world through a clear-cut cultural agenda in which global and world history in China were marked by the particularities and characteristics of the country, especially the uniqueness of its history and culture.

Following this political and historical agenda, Wu Yujin and Qi Shirong’s work was appraised as “another milestone in the development of world history in China” (Liu 1999: 483) and as “representing the highest level of world history compilation in our country in recent times” (Liu 1995: 12). Indeed, most of China’s academics acknowledged and agreed with this assessment of their contribution.

In the dawn of the twenty-first century, Chinese scholarship followed the same historiographical trend as in previous decades (Yu 2001). The conceptualization of global history and the historical narratives are still adapted to the modes, forms, and needs of the political momentum being, therefore, constrained to institutional and structural systems of universities and research centres. Global history has developed in China a model, narrative, and approach totally different in form and content compared to Western historiographies. This model defines global history with “Chinese characteristics.”

Such ideological and institutional constraint means that global history in China has a particular Chinese indigenous form and narrative which diverges with the pure theoretical and methodological essences of the field. The current neo-Confucian narrative is the main driver in developing global history in China according to the historical and cultural idiosyncrasy of the country. Any intellectual form or episteme divergent from the neo-Confucian framework is doomed to fail or fall in the absolute relegation by China’s scholarship. In today’s globalized world, China’s engagement towards global history is marching inwards through a clear-cut national dimension by projecting the peculiarities of China’s culture and history to the outside world. The national revival of China’s history should be observed through the body of ideas that have shaped the perception of China as a self-sufficient country (with all economic resources at its hands, and no need from Western nations) in which the etymological meaning of the term China [zhōngguó 中国], the centre of the world, outlines the position and aspirations of China (from the past, present, and future) as main world power (Wu and Qi 1994; Ma 1999; Qi 2001; Wang 2001).

This system of understanding China’s history and culture might help to explain why global history in China has been reduced to the study of story(ies) and chronicles of “foreign countries outside China” (Luo 2007: 330). This reductionism of global history has fostered academic fragmentation and isolation of the discipline. Global history should not be periodized according to European historical experiences (Luo 2007: 329), mainly those referring to core economies and empires such as Great Britain as the leading region of the industrial revolution. The core-periphery dichotomy to divide rich and poor world regions (Wallerstein 1980) has contributed to developing Western, mainly Anglophone, exceptionalism and the dominant position of main European powers in global history research (Landes 1998). The exceptional momentum of Great Britain and its colonies to transform and modernize its economy in the early days of the formation of nation-states and development of capitalism should not be mechanically juxtaposed or applied to East Asian, in this case China, experiences and/or global history narratives.

The main error by scholars who aim to compare economic growth and modernization between western and eastern regions has been applied to the Western (European) rationale of the Enlightenment in which the revolution of ideas, technology, society, and economy led to upper stages in the modernization of nations. Why did northwestern Europe (mainly Great Britain and the Netherlands) escape from Malthusian constraints and enjoy higher levels of economic development in the last quarter of the eighteenth century and why did East Asian economies (mainly China) fall behind? The formulation of this question has univocally led studies to directly or indirectly put the focus on Great Britain and its colonies. This interpretation has consolidated the dependency theory that explains the divide between rich and poor nations, creating, therefore, an obstacle when comparing other regions and its role in the world economic system beyond the rigid divide between developed and underdeveloped economies and the hegemonic role of Great Britain.

Implementing cross-chronological, geographical, and cultural sections for comparisons to observe local economic transformations juxtaposed to global events, should be a pertinent methodology to observe the complexity and interaction of economic regions and nodes within a polycentric approach. Spatial and chronological coordinates, as well as cultural frames, in any attempt to establish comparisons between western and eastern regions are divergent in its own essence. Therefore, looking unidirectionally at the European Industrial Revolution as main historical axis to establish comparisons is in many instances doomed to fail. When comparing long-distances territories and cultures, the historian’s observation should be centred on the indigenous institutions, local communities, and transcultural transfers through the consumption of goods, circulation of technology and information, and formation of social and family networks. This bottom-up approach to see how local forces exerted an influence on state institutions and bypassed government decrees and rules across global regions might provide more accurate conclusions when comparing the experience of world regions in the economic transformation.

How have Chinese academics responded? Wang Jiafan was critical of Pomeranz’s comparative methodology. He claimed that “the most problematic part of Pomeranz’s methodology was to totally ignore the sociopolitical system as an important factor and indispensable context of economy” (Wang 2004: 8). Wang also mentioned that “Frank and Pomeranz’s ideas somehow led people to reminisce and even embellish China’s past glory while at the same time ignoring problems that were long embedded in the Chinese system” (Luo 2007: 346).

Some academics (Hao et al. 1996; Chen et al. 2004; Qi 2005; Tang 2006) have implemented narratives to develop and portray an image of China’s historical exceptionalism. This exceptionalism, following the same pattern as the European (British) exceptionalism mentioned above, has led towards a deeply rooted Sinocentrism and national turn. The Sinocentric narrative, which is not that different from the Eurocentric one in terms of locating core economies, has served to safeguard and praise the uniqueness of China’s history as an ongoing policy of the government (Wang 2004: 8). Practitioners of global history, thus, aim to develop the field through the realm of Sinocentrism. China’s historiography that deals with global (economic) history (Long 2006; Deng 2011, 2015; Li 1998, 2010; Yan 1989; Chen 2006) based their research on market integration, the structural transformation of the economy during the nineteenth century, as well as the Chinese diaspora.

However, in this historiographical trend there is a need for a more comprehensive approach that should include comparative studies to observe socio-economic transfers between western and eastern regions through the circulation of goods, people, and technology. The lack of transnational research in Chinese scholarship reinforces the thesis of the current development in China of global history with “Chinese characteristics” [zhōngguó tèsè 中国特色]. A set of studies deconstructing the formation of China as nation-state and the political transition and performance of the economy from the imperial regime to the People’s Republic of China that goes beyond exogenous factors (foreign intervention as cause of the economic decline) and pays more attention to endogenous factors (state capacity to mobilize revenues, failure of local institutions, and social uprising) is still lacking.

More studies on endogenous factors might shed light on the development of the global role of China and its relations with foreign powers, and on the structure and organization of the country to manage the economic resources and govern the peoples of such a vast land mass characterized by cultural and socio-economic diversity. Yu Pei, director of the World History Institute of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, claims for a robust national and patriotic spirit that prevails in China’s world history: “Although today’s China is very different from that of the mid-nineteenth century, patriotism remains the soul of China’s world history studies” (Yu 2004).

2.3 The Meaning of “Chinese Characteristics”

China’s economic growth in recent years has overshadowed the Western powers as an unprecedented emergence of the economy and society of the Middle Kingdom. This has led to a world economic change in which China is taking the lead and forcing existing world institutions to become obsolete as the new series of bilateral relationships and institutions developed by the Middle Kingdom have resulted in a new Sinocentric world order. The rise of China and its world influence makes the country and the rich eastern provinces and cities of Beijing, Shanghai, Hangzhou, and Guangzhou, as regions of leverage and persuasiveness to get economic and political achievements in the new geopolitical world order (Chan 2013). Trade, investment, productivity, and domestic demand (Chin 2016; Ren 2016) are the core economic features of China’s “grand plan” or the so-called “One Belt, One Road” (OBOR) [yīdài yīlù一带一路] (Wan 2016; Dollar 2015).

These economic issues are harmonized with the revival of national history and the exceptional culture and civilization of the country. Both economic and socio-cultural aspects of the rise of China in the dawn of the twenty-first century were blended in the geo-economic and cultural toolset to explicitly internationalize the structures of the country, but also to preserve the cultural essences of China’s history and its East Asian idiosyncrasy. This is the so-called internationalization with “Chinese characteristics” [zhōngguó tèsè 中国特色], a policy implemented by President Xi Jinping in 2013 (Xi 2013; Johnson 2016). History, East Asian (Chinese) culture, economics, and geo-politic strategy are mixed through the term “Chinese characteristics” [zhōngguó tèsè 中国特色]. This means that there is a willingness and commitment to engage and promote relationships with other nations but fostering at the same time stiff national and domestic policies to keep the vast territory of the Middle Kingdom unified in the era of globalization.

China’s dramatic economic growth has dwarfed the Bretton Woods institutions and the post-World War II order. Its large exports of goods, consumer markets, imports, investments, and liquidity of the credit system and the creation of the Asian Investment Infrastructure Bank (AIIB) (Xi 2016; Ransdell 2019; Wan 2016), created as the main financial institution of the OBOR, has generated a sharp response from China’s competitors (US and Japan) who consider this Chinese “grand strategy” as a new Marshall Plan (Humphrey 2015).

In November 2014 Xi JinpingFootnote 4 proclaimed that China will establish a “Silk Road” fund with $40 billion to support infrastructure, logistics, investments, and new projects in partner countries that participated in OBOR (Callaghan and Hubbard 2016). The OBOR strategy currently involves twenty-one countries initially subscribing to the AIIB (see Fig. 2.2).

Fig. 2.2
A horizontal bar graph depicts the A I I B subscriptions for the year 2014. China has the highest percentage of 30.34 % and the Philippines has the lowest percentage of 1.0 %.

Source: Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank

AIIBInitial Subscriptions in 2014 (more than 1%)

AIIB’s essential role is to sustain the economic rise of China being, therefore, a financial instrument for China’s global hegemony. Credits, “soft loans,” and circulation of information are the main tools to seek dominance beyond China’s borders, expanding the influence beyond traditional partners. Countries of the Middle East, Southeast Asia, the Mediterranean basin, Africa, and Latin America became the main strategic partners (Lichtenstein 2018). PRC scholarship in line with the government insists on the harmonious relations between China and Western powers, as well as the moral capacity, and even legitimacy, of the country to expand its rising power and world influence. These vague concepts are being constantly repeated by government officials and scholars (Yan 2014; Xing 2016) in line with Xi Jinping’s policies with the aim to present China as a “soft-power” and as a non-interventionist country. However, it is clear the opposite is happening as China seeks to be the hegemonic power.

This is the composite and broad definition of “Chinese characteristics” [zhōngguó tèsè 中国特色] applied to the current world scenario in which China plays the hegemonic role. This also provides further insight into why unidirectionally global history studies focused on China’s exceptionalism and economic role in which GDP and macroaggregate indicators dominate China’s historiography in global history. The OBOR strategy and China studies in global (economic) history go hand-to-hand in the definition and significance of “Chinese characteristics” [zhōngguó tèsè 中国特色] in the era of globalization.

The early origins of “Chinese characteristics” [zhōngguó tèsè 中国特色] could be dated to the late Qing dynasty when the state sent students abroad to learn science and technology. And in a broad sense their learning of Western concepts could be applied for the modernization of China. The pattern to emulate was the process of modernization in Japan, and the boom of its economy, that took place during the Meiji Restoration in the second half of the nineteenth century. China also began to emulate the systems of US and Europe with the aim of modernizing the socio-economic and political structures of society maintaining the East Asian (Chinese) cultural spirit (Li 2014). Although the imperial civil service examinations [kējǔ 科举 system] were eradicated when feudalism was over, traditional values of Confucianism remained. And from the outside, values and knowledge were transferred.

The foundation of Tsinghua University, first as Tsinghua College [Qīnghuá Xuétáng 清華學堂], in Beijing in 1911 was a consequence of negotiationsbetween Liáng Chéng 梁诚, Qing ambassador in the US, and Theodore Roosevelt to reduce the Boxer Rebellion (Purcell 1963) indemnity imposed by the US and use the funds to grant scholarships to Chinese students to study in the US (Pan 2009: 68). However, during the 1920s, the Soviet impact in China affected the education system and the model of modernizing the country keeping the cultural diversity and indigenous values with the assimilation of Western knowledge and experience.

Communist ideology overshadowed the progression towards modernization and the Yán’ān style of education was implemented. The Yán’ān spirit [Yán’ān jīngshén 延安精神] preceded the Long March, and a Soviet-style educational system was established in Yán’ān [in Shǎnxī 陕西province] in which the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) (Tang 2012) imposed stiff educational policies through a social reform programme that funded the creation of a university for training in anti-Japanese resistance. During the Yán’ān period the new revolutionary ideals and writings on politics by Mao served to develop the national interest and unity above everything through the set of concepts and educational reforms based on socialism with “Chinese characteristics” [zhōngguó tèsè 中国特色] (Vladimirov 1975).

Embracing Western theories and Marxist ideology campaigns, social movements and propaganda aimed to keep the nation unified and protect the Central Committee’sauthorityand Mao’s leadership (Fairbank 2006). The creation of a movement of cadre screening and education was essential (Walder 2017). This was rooted through communist values establishing a socialist education system that was consolidated throughout the PRC (Li 2014: 8; Hayhoe 1984). These ideas and concepts were instilled in the early years of Mao’s education when the new Chinese republic was founded in 1912 marking a deep influence on China’s situation and the new directions for the country (Dingle 1912; Zhou 1968; Gasster 1980).

Deciding what type of training and education should be adopted for China’s young generation, whether Western or Chinese, set the country onto a path with a crossroads. The escalade of events and turmoil provoked a swift political and cultural transformation of the structures of China’s society, starting in 1915, having as an outcome the abandonment by Chinese radicals of Western liberalismfor Marxism and Leninism as a solution to China’s difficulties (Ch’en 1983). The student demonstrations of the May Fourth Movement of 1919 moved the new generation to the political stage in which students realized they were the main actors in the change for a new nation and society.

For a group of intellectuals and writers the real revolution was a cultural revolution removing Western concepts and terms that might damage the reconstruction of the country. The goal was to “ditch the classical written Chinese language itself, always mastered only by an elite” (Westad 2012: 267) inventing new Chinese terms and forms related to foreign concepts and ideas in a way to create a new indigenous intellectual construct in Chinese society. Chén Dúxiù, a writer and founder of the CCP and Lǔ Xùn, another writer of the period, were part of this movement. Lǔ Xùn launched strong critiques and mocked the “westernized Chinese bourgeoisie and its ineffectuality in his short story A Happy Family” (Westad 2012: 268):

The family naturally consists of husband and wife – the master and mistress – who married for love. Their marriage contract contains over forty terms going into great detail, so that they have extraordinary equality and absolute freedom. Moreover, they have both had a higher education and belong to the cultured élite…. Japanese-returned students are no longer the fashion, so let them be western-returned students. The master of the house always wears a suit, his collar is always snowy white. His wife’s hair is always curled up like a sparrow’s nest in front, her pearly white teeth are always peeping out, but she wears Chinese dress. (Hsun 1960; Westad 2012: 268)

This excerpt is an illustrative example as to why the new nation of China should be the hegemonic power and society that represents East Asianvalues. Criticism of daily life and new cultural habits transferred to China through the interaction with Western societies set the platform to remove external interference in Chinese society. New radical political movements represented by the May Fourth Movement created a call for unity in society as one “big family” through strong forms of action and just state. Socialism was openly embraced as an anticolonial (anti-Western) movement in China. Subsequently, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) was founded in 1921.

Thus, Mao Zedong’s thought and theories evoked the early uses of the expression of socialism with “Chinese characteristics” [zhōngguó tèsè 中国特色] when adopting Marxism and socialism as a Western thought and set of ideas applied to China’s idiosyncrasy and governance (Spence 1999). This goes in line with the self-sufficiency, power, and discipline imposed by Mao Zedong, and his ideas (Maoism), to institutionalize and internationalize his thinking (Westad 2012: 492). The centralization of power, recruitment of party cadres, continual ideological training, and unification of society through a comprehensive education system were central in Mao’s and the CCP campaigns to seal independent thinking and indigenous set of political theories in China as independent from the West. Scholarship has defined this set of reforms and Mao’s campaigns as a sort of logocentric movement (Apterand Saich 1994) injecting hatred and sectarianism into China’s psyche and public opinion to any form of Western expression.

Deng Xiaoping, whose background from the Hakka [kèjiā 客家] group that joined local Christian missions in southern China, after the Taiping movement, was part of the Deng clan emerging as outstanding figures of Communist China (Westad 2012: 129). Since the first encounters between China and Christianity in the late Ming dynasty until the late Qing dynasty, many Chinese valued the education provided by Christian missions acknowledging that education and literacy were the cornerstones for modernization and development of the country. At the end of the nineteenth century a great number of Chinese students trained in the US or Europe and became intensively nationalistic, most prominently, for example, was Deng Xiaoping who studied in France between 1919 and 1921. Later, in 1926, he went to Moscow which was the main destination for Chinese students to learn the doctrines of Communism. The generation he belonged to was of the late nineteenth century, the years of the Sino-Japanese War, in which China’s economy was collapsing due to, in their words, “the humiliations of our country” (Ye 2002: 19; Westad 2012: 411). Being born into a “perishing nation,” they realized that “we instinctively want to know what we shall do to save China” (Ye 2002: 19; Westad 2012: 411).

For the generation of students and intellectuals at the time of the May Fourth Movement in 1919, such as Mao Zedong or Deng Xiaoping, the belief was that the country should be rescued from the “humiliations” suffered from the First Opium War. Chinese communism was embraced to reconstruct the old empire into a modern nation-state. Blending Confucian ideals of rectitude with the planned economy and organization that this young generation of Chinese students learned from the Soviet Union was the main instrument implemented by the new Chinese leaders to modernize the country through rigid power control and advanced technology. This makes it clearer to understand that Chinese Communism is not truly based on Marxism. First, The Capital was not translated into Chinese until 1937 (Chan and Pollard 2001) due to the period of wars in China, and mainly the Sino-Japan wars. Second, in Chinese intellectuals’ minds Marxism has also being considered as a Western intellectual form and doctrine.

Such form should be adapted to China’s idiosyncrasy and indigenous peculiarities. This explained the adoption of socialism with “Chinese characteristics” [zhōngguó tèsè 中国特色] mentioned earlier. China’s Communist ideals were inspired by Leninism and the Soviet planification for the economy and organizational structures. This allowed Deng Xioping, when implementing his “open-door” policy to engage on trade and economic ties with Western countries, to reuse again the term “Chinese characteristics” [zhōngguó tèsè 中国特色] seen earlier in Mao Zedong’s social ideals. Deng Xiaoping applied it later in the 1980s to China’s economic planification defining it as a market economy with “Chinese characteristics” [zhōngguó tèsè 中国特色]. This meant that all the tools and organizational structures of an interventionist state would be employed, based on what Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping had learned from Lenin and Stalin: strict regulations to control party members and people’s lives, as well as rigid party power, militarization, and hierarchy (Westad 2012: 489–490). This went hand-in-hand with the reopening of China’s markets to Western countries, but with stiff restrictions such as tariffs, customs control, and intervention in state and non-state companies.

Deng Xioping’s reforms of the 1980s aimed to put an end to China’s isolation and political campaigns of the Cultural Revolution that sank the country in terms of economic development and modernization. After Mao’s death and once he took leadership of the country, Deng’s purpose was to import new technologies via Hong Kong and open through testing new political theory (Westad 2012: 632). A good example of such political tests was the setting up of special economic zones (SEZ) [jīngjìtèqū 经济特区] to attract foreign direct investment, such as Shenzen in 1980, followed by the coastal cities of Guangdong, Fujian, and in 1990 the Pudong areas within Shanghai’s municipality.

He made clear that the US should be the model for China’s technological achievements and modernization, but with “Chinese characteristics” [zhōngguó tèsè 中国特色] that defines China’s market economy (Liang 1994; Kim 2016). This is a mantra constantly repeated today in China by official and unofficial circles when defining the role of China in the world’s economy and globalization. Deng declared himself that a sudden shift reversing Mao’s policies and mistakes should be undertaken, paying much attention to “modernization centering on economic construction” (Deng 1981, 1983; Westad 2012: 633). But this of course set China on a path with crossroads that was manifested in the crackdown of Tian’anmen on the 4th of June, 1989 (Sandby-Thomas 2011).

Whereas Communist systems were collapsing all over the world, internal debates within China’s political circles were arguing for a change in the political system. This led to the events of 1989 with the student demonstrations in Tian’anmen Square and the brutal suppression of protesters. The protests in Beijing and other cities were seen by political leaders and Deng Xiaoping as a sign of growing foreign influence in China that could potentially put the economic reforms in peril (Lieberthal 2004). In parallel an immense opening up of China’s economy was put forward in the 1990s. China entered the twenty-first century as a market economy; the socialist economy remained as a relic (Brady 2008). However, the state keeps its control and intervention by “a party dictatorship that was still Communist in name” (Westad 2012: 654).

When appointed president of China in 2013, Xi Jinping retook the rhetoric of “Chinese characteristics” [zhōngguó tèsè 中国特色] but applied it to the internationalization of China with a clear domestic orientation covering education, the economy, and international affairs. China’s culture, history, and traditions are key issues of the ongoing policy of internationalization with “Chinese characteristics” [zhōngguó tèsè 中国特色] in which the aim is to present China as a “soft-power” to the international community contrary to the military interventionism of the US (Yang 2012). Presenting an international image and engagement through cultural aspects, attracting foreign students to learn Chinese language and culture, and fostering academic exchanges with countries to host Chinese students, as well as implementing new national policies to sustain the future of the CCP (Li 2014) and the political system, are all part of the government’s national and cultural campaigns of the so-called “Chinese dream” [zhōngguó mèng 中国梦] (Xi 2013; Wang 2010).

2.4 From “Soft-Power” to “Soft-Cultural Revolution”: Nationalism and Postmodern Neo-Confucian Practices

The concept “Chinese characteristics” [zhōngguó tèsè 中国特色], which has its roots in the reforms and new strategies implemented in the transition from imperial times to the Republic of China, and, thereafter, to the PRC, caused in the long term a backwardness in academic quality and socio-economic and political development (Miaoand Cheng 2013; Yang 2006). Even though the CCP changed the emphasis of its policies from class struggle to economic development in the late 1970s, to implement a market economy through marketization, privatization, and decentralization measures, China still faces today the challenge of being internationally and domestically competitive (Mok 2005). Neoliberal reforms introduced in education, and society in a large extension, boosted the competition of the education sector and universities, but still the quest for academic excellence and world-class status is the main priority and agenda (Li 2014: 9).

The quest for economic hegemony in China is rooted in promoting international engagement in education, investment, infrastructure, and social mobility, going in line with the “One Belt, One Road” [yīdài yīlù一带一路] grand strategy. But such engagement has a rigid domestic and national perspective. Neo-national and postmodern neo-Confucian policies are, consequently, implemented. The aim is to keep the order of society, allowing each class and social group its aim and mission in life without interfering in the national governance, and to transfer all benefits of the global engagement to the nation. Autarky and neo-mercantilist economic measures are to some extent behind the scenes of China’s world strategy. This is reflected in inbound and outbound flows of capital and investments, bank tariffs, high tax customs for imports, favouring of exports, the absence of social security benefits, and the low international profile in academic programmes. These features encapsulate that international engagement and acquisition of a world-class status is still on the horizon.

The conceptual controversy and debate regarding the differences between world history and global history goes in line with the issue of internationalization with “Chinese characteristics,” since it has a strong national component. World and global history might have a similar meaning, but they present different connotations depending on the context and academic circles and principles. This is precisely the case in China and why world history is the preferred term as it goes in line with the current national narratives linked with the neo-Confucian policies and is defined as the history of world nations outside of China’s borders. In fact, global history [quánqiú shǐ 全球史] or world history [shìjiè lìshǐ 世界历史] are usually mixed up and confused in academic debates. These debates emerge on different occasions as a consequence of the political context and “academic ecosystem” in China marked by the revival of a national narrative.

The use and conceptualization of world history [shìjiè lìshǐ 世界历史] is, therefore, in line with the ancient recurrent theme of categorizing world history in China through the concept of cóngshū丛书. This term means the compilation and mere description in encyclopaedic volumes and accounts of the national history of China and the rest of the world. This type of narrative does not present any analysis or critical thinking but is just a compilation of historical events and descriptive storytelling. This academic tradition is influenced by Song and Ming dynasty historiographies in which books of story(ies) compilations and knowledge circulated through the networks of the literati. Such tradition remains present today in Chinese academic circles, being part of the policymaking linked to “One Belt, One Road” [yīdài yīlù 一带一路] in which recovering China’s unique culture, history, and civilization is a vital component of the government to reconstruct and internationally present a new national history of China.

This vitalization of a new national narrative relates to the “soft-power” policies of China in recent years by which the main purpose is to present in international affairs the mission of the country as non-interventionist. Culture, history, and language are the main devices or tools to present such strategy. The implementation of a “soft-power” policy is attractive to China as it diverges from the military and “interventionist” policies that the US has traditionally applied since the end of World War II. This does not mean that a “soft-power” nation, as China intends to present itself, stays away from interventionism. On the contrary, “soft-power” policies also present interventionist features which are less aggressive on the surface, but still very coercive, than traditionally interventionist measures of big powers that seek global dominance.

The application of “soft-power” policy is perhaps, in the eyes of Chinese policymakers, more pragmatic as they aim to achieve their goals by apparently using non-coercive means. China dominates the whole spectrum of the current international relations by applying such pragmatism. This can be observed nationally and internationally. In domestic terms it goes in line with the political agenda of keeping society in order, in which each social group and individual should follow his mission in life, obey superiors, and acknowledge group and communal ideals. The aim is to maintain social order and unify the country. Neo-Confucian policies are implemented to keep order in society through stiff regulations in education and political campaigns. This could be defined as a “soft-cultural revolution” implemented by China’s government in the global era to avoid national fragmentation in society. Internationally such implementation can be observed through the expansion of cultural and educational programmes establishing partnerships between Chinese and Western universities.

China has used a wide variety of measures and reforms with the aim of expanding its political influence beyond its frontiers. Culture, language, and history are the main catalysts to successfully implement “soft-power” policies in what can be defined as a new “academic diplomacy.” This “academic diplomacy” consists in developing a consolidated network of Confucius Institutes across the world whose main role is to act as cultural delegations or “embassies.” Confucius Institutes can be found in more than 140 countries.

From the early 1990s until today, there has been a growing flow in academic exchanges of students and scholars between China and the rest of the world. Internationalization of academic activities has become crucial and, consequently, Chinese universities play a crucial role in adopting and implementing the reforms devised by the government. Besides climbing in world universities’ rankings, such reforms in Chinese universities serve to train the new party cadres and give vigour to the structure of the party and political system in the new global era. Xi Jinping made a clear statement on this saying at the CCP’s 19th Congress in 2017 that “Government, military, society and schools—north, south, east and west—the party is leader of all” (Feng 2017). One year earlier he had claimed that “Chinese universities must be the stronghold of the Party and Communist system” (Phillips 2016).

From 2016, when this statement was made, until today, the control of sectors such as education, investment, and joint ventures between Chinese and overseas partners has increased. The aim is to avoid any sort of interference of Western values in Chinese society (Feng 2017). This is part of the “soft-cultural revolution” model by which the central government in Beijing aims to revive the orthodoxy of Marxist-Leninist values in society, mainly in universities. The government has created CCP departments in some universities to supervise the political thinking of faculty staff (Gan 2017; Feng 2017).

China’s government has established as a priority to defend its mission beyond its frontiers making the Western community understand and acknowledge the worldview of the Middle Kingdom for the twenty-first century. Under a world traditionally dominated by Western values, the shift towards a Sinocentric perspective clearly overshadows the current international order. The central government of Beijing through the “soft-power” policies intends to present to the world through international activities, summits, and partnerships that there is no harm in China’s intentions and its economy and society is engaged in an international agenda. Chinese political elites avoid the use of the terms hegemony or supremacy to show there is no danger behind China’s rising power. In the current multipolar world, Chinese officials are keen to show the power of China as a peaceful one.

The use of vague and arcane concepts such as “harmonious coexistence” is usually present in political spheres, and at official levels, wherein the Chinese government has progressively implemented in recent years neo-Confucian policies to remove any sort of distorted or negative image of China. The Song dynasty’s Sinocentrism, when Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism converged, has influenced the policymaking of the Chinese government during the past few years whose main aim is to revive the neo-Confucian teachings of the Song dynasty as a “form of blind obedience to the ruler” to remove any sort of domestic frictions or Western intrusions into China’s political affairs.

The application of neo-Confucian policies has not thwarted the central government of Beijing from leaving the Marxist-Leninist ideals which China embraced in the first half of the twentieth century by fostering socialism with “Chinese characteristics” [zhōngguó tèsè 中国特色]. In fact, the current campaigns of the “Chinese dream” [zhōngguó mèng 中国梦] (Wang 2010) follow this trend promoting national and patriotic ideals. The so-called “five principles of peaceful coexistence,” intertwining neo-Confucian teachings, aim to direct China’s domestic and international policies, keep social order in China, and mark the direction of China’s international relations: (1) mutual respect for each other’s territorial integrityand sovereignty; (2) mutual non-aggression; (3) mutual non-interference in each other’s internal affairs; (4) equality and cooperation for mutual benefit; and (5) peaceful coexistence.

2.5 The “Western Mirror” in China’s Economic History

“China is a resilient dinosaur” (Deng 2000). This metaphor used by Kent Deng illustrates well the economic development and history of China as a long-lasting civilization. The rise of the Chinese empire, as with other European and Eurasian empires, based its strength on military force and expansion of its borders. The acquisition of new land westwards in the dawn of the Qing dynasty by increasing the size of the territory, population, wealth, and agrarian resources, along with an increase in productivity and trade made for some improvements in the local economies of China’s regions. However, big powers, big empires, required an efficient administration and bureaucracy. In other words, the state capacity in providing a competent and well-organized response to local socio-economic affairs is the paramount pillar to show the robustness of the institutions of the state. The state capacity of late Ming and Qing China will be further explored in the next chapter mainly through examining the tax system and administration reforms.

There is a twofold explanation in understanding the economic development and state capacity of China during the Qing dynasty. First, there are endogenous factors related to transformation of the institutions of the Manchu (non-Han and foreign) dynasty based on military power expansion and autarky. Second, there are exogenous factors with regard to the increasing foreign trade in China and engagement with Western powers. The second one has been regarded as a major cause of China’s impoverished economy during the nineteenth century after the Opium Wars.

Nevertheless, some questions should be formulated to review such scholarly trends that have dominated the studies of China’s economy. For instance, what was the real impact of foreign (western) communities or the role of the so-called “foreign invasion” in China’s economic decline during the Qing dynasty, mainly at the beginning of the nineteenth century? Was it a conjunction of factors connected to the incompetence of Qing rulers to create a proper administration, favouring a parallel / non-official administration? This could be possible due to the handicapped Qing rulers’ failure to manage the flows of inbound American silver prompted by foreign trade in China. This silver was accumulated in the hands of local elites, and even local officials and governors of south China provinces, creating a new rich elite that was favoured through this engagement in foreign trade. Consequently, a parallel administration, a state inside the state was created. This explanation partially deals with the traditional view that China’s economic decline was due to the “invasion” of foreigners, but mostly with creation of rich local elites in southern regions of China, mainly in Guangdong and Fujianprovinces.

Deeply exploring endogenous causes of the economic development in Qing China through the implementation of new domestic policies is crucial. A different and plausible thesis that can be presented is that the three foreign (non-Han) emperors (Kangxi, Yongzheng, and Qianlong) were incapacitated by revenue scarcities to deal with the population growth pressure that arose after 1683, and their bans and decrees on foreign trade aimed to restrain trade networks led by local Chinese elites and gentry. Internal and civil uprisings such as the White Lotus Rebellion, the Taiping Rebellion, or the Boxer Rebellionshould be observed as a consequence of revenue shortages and the incapacity of Qing institutions to eradicate corruptionand contraband. The epitome of an interventionist state is represented by a large bureaucracy that seems to be inefficient at managing revenues and distributing wealth among the population. Such inefficient systems in the mid-long run spark internal and civil uprisings.

In 1683 the Kangxi emperor established four maritime customs posts with the aim to control overseas trade: Jiang/Jiangsu customs [jiāng hǎiguān 江海关], Zhe/Zhejiang/Ningbocustoms [zhè hǎiguān 浙海关], Min/Fujian customs [mǐn hǎiguān 闽海关], and Yue/Canton customs [yuè hǎiguān 粤海关].Footnote 5 The Canton customs connected Canton with Macao as a geostrategic location to control foreign trade and its networks with local Chinese elites. During the early eighteenth century, the Yongzheng emperor continued Kangxi’s maritime customs system. Thereafter, the Qianlong emperor established the one single port for foreign commerce, the Canton system [yīkǒu tōngshāng 一口通商] (Liang 1999), as a result of several factors: (1) the Qing state’s incapacity to collect maritime customs revenues in several locations; (2) the geostrategic location of Canton due to its regional economic development; (3) strong interventionism of the state; and (4) control of trade through officials institutions with the aim of eradicating contraband.

These three foreign emperors, particularly Qianlong, mirrored mercantilist and autarkic policies of European states such as Louis XIV and the French Bourbon dynasty ruling Spain from the eighteenth century onwards. Bypassing official channels of state tax revenues and failure in the payment was a common feature in the ports of the Spanish empire most evident in the tax evasion of the almojarifazgos [royal tariffs levied in the ports of the Spanish empire] (Schurz 1939; Atwell 1982; Chaunu 1960; de Sousa 1986, 2018). Spanish and European galleons, as well as Chinese junks trading in Manila commonly practiced such tax evasionand contraband in Southeast Asia and the South China Sea, through the trade nodes of Macao-Canton, for the exchange of Chinese goods for American silver (Flynnand Giraldez 1996).

With its roots in the sixteenth century, this was the main praxis that continued throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The difference in the eighteenth century is that within the Enlightenment period and the arrival of the French Bourbon dynasty to the Spanish throne, Spanish ministers aimed to solve the problem by codifying new decrees and rules to forbid contraband, illegal trade, and the introduction of foreign (Chinese) goods such as silks and textiles that were causing damage to national centres of production.

But of course, such stiff mercantile policies had a negative effect on local economies due to the high dependency on foreign trade. For the case of Qing China, it triggered hatred towards foreign communities as they were deemed by Qing rulers, mainly Qianlong, as the cause of the decline of China’s economy due to interference from Western powers. Qianlong could be identified in China as the archetype of European mercantilism, and also a physiocrat monarch, due to a supremacist attitude, self-sufficient economic standards, and development of national production that the imperial Court established. The imperial decrees, tariffs, and bans aimed to raise capital accumulation, foster national production in local factories, increase exports, and reduce imports.

The survival of the Qing dynasty was based on military force and territorial expansion. The new frontier of the empire depended upon the reaffirmation of its sovereignty over new territories and tributary states, as well as control of commerce and rigid socio-economic and political supervision of institutions. The number of officials and supervisorsrose in provinces, prefectures, and villages. The state revenues to sustain such a big, and underpaid, bureaucracy, were insufficient. Consequently, local officials jointly with urban and rural communities engaged in illegal trade creating over the years non-official institutions and solid networks that in real terms managed the political and socio-economic daily life, mainly in the southern provinces.

Realizing this problem, the Manchu emperors launched the above-mentioned decrees and policies over foreign trade and communities, creating an “external enemy,” thus granting privileges to local gentry and new rich Chinese elites who made their fortunes through foreign trade and accumulation of American silver. Blaming external communities for the own faults of the state and not realizing that the “enemy,” or cause of the decline of the Qing economy was of a domestic nature, pushed the Middle Kingdom into a long-lasting spiral of political, social, and economic instability that lasted until the end of the Qing dynasty.

From the Qing dynasty, during the republic period, and up to the founding of the PRC, China has used a “Western mirror” to provide a narrative of the causes of the decline of its economy during the nineteenth century, having the Opium Wars as a cornerstone and the progressive modernization and political changes of the country. The Meiji Restoration in Japan was observed in China as a process of “Westernization” or conquest of East Asia by foreign powers. The Tongzhi Restoration in China, though it failed in the attempt to modernize the country, had some resemblances to the Japanese experience. The French Revolution of 1789 was used as a pattern more than one hundred years later by Sun Yat-sen’srevolutionary campaigns of 1911 to put an end to the Qing empire (Deng 2000). And next of course, there were the Marxist-Leninism ideals with “Chinese characteristics” [zhōngguó tèsè 中国特色] with the Communist uprising and the founding thereafter of the PRC with the aim of unifying the nation and modernizing the country without any features of capitalism.

The inference of Western powers in China’s economy has been widely present in scholarly research. However, by ignoring the fact that the decline of China’s economy during Qing times was also due to endogenous factors through the consolidation of Chinese local elites and the creation of trade networks, any historical analysis is incomplete. Local gentry, officials, and bureaucrats, whose fortunes were made by silver accumulation and engagement in trade activities beyond the official realm, were the strongholds of a non-official system and parallel institutions. They were a state inside the state.

Shanxi bankers, Huizhou traders, the so-called sangleyes [Chinese traders in the Philippines], the Hong traders of Canton and their Chinese and Western partners in Macao, were the main social actors that integrated such economic networks and the non-official system in Qing China. The policies of Qing (Manchu) emperors towards these trade and local (Han) communities were soft. This was likely due to the fact the majority of these traders were of Han origin (the Qing dynasty in the eyes of Han was a foreign dynasty), and therefore, any fear of social and civil uprising was always on the minds of the Qing emperors. Granting concessions such as not supervising activities, reducing (or exemption of) taxes, and enforcing smuggling activities was the negotiation made between Qing officials and trade elites of the southern provinces of China.

The growing number of institutions, appointments of bureaucrats and officials, issuing of imperial decrees by the Court of Beijing, and imposition of tariffs to control local and foreign trade had in the mid-long run a negative effect on the state’s capacity to manage economic resources, as well as on the economic development and modernization of the territory. Tight control of the socio-economic life of villages and towns, as well as supremacist and self-sufficient attitudes through rigid imperial edicts shows that the state was incapable of managing the extended webs of trade in southern and eastern provinces of China (i.e. Jiangsu, Zhejiang, Anhui, Fujian, and Guangdong) which triggered the rampant corruption that involved local institutions and officials whose salaries and resources were very low. As institutions and official appointments grew, corruption and illegal trade continued to increase (Acemogluet al. 2002, 2005).

With the arrival of the Qing dynasty, the conquest of the new western frontier by the Qing, not the Chinese, as Peter Perdue very well outlined as “many of the participants were not Han Chinese” (2010: xiv), marked the changing moment in the configuration of the map of the Middle Kingdom and its road to the formation of a nation-state in the twentieth century. The incorporation of territories gained by the empire such as Mongolia, Xinjiang, and Tibet, dramatically enlarged the size of the Middle Kingdom. Population trebled in size (Ho 1959; Elvin 1973; Cao 2001), non-Chinese minorities were Sinicized and incorporated into the empire’s borders, and a grand scale economic and military programme to control new regions and local economies was launched (Elegant 1980; Spence 1999; Waley-Cohen 2006).

This was a crucial factor that aggravated the problem of the unification of the territory and the capacity of the Qing state to manage the new resources provided by the conquered regions. It was also important to make the non-Chinese minorities, as well as the Han majority, to feel identified with the political programme of a Manchu (foreign) dynasty ruling the vast geography of the empire. State unification was at stake and political campaigns were launched, taking into account that “nationalism” or “nation-states” as a modern Western concept that developed during the nineteenth century was not enrooted in the Middle Kingdom, and therefore landlords, traders, and local communities did not identify themselves with the grand scale of a nation (as we know is the case today), but identified with their own interests in terms of capital accumulation, family honour, and prestige.

The Middle Kingdom (Qing empire) was not orientated to overseas expansion to acquire new territories (colonies) as opposed to European empires whose military and economic power was based on the acquisition of overseas colonies (i.e. the Americas, Africa, Asia) (Toynbee 1934; Polanyi 1944). However, the Qing empire was orientated to overland expansion; it can be inferred that the new incorporated lands through the Manchu campaigns, Turkistan, Mongolia, Tibet, and even Taiwan, were the “colonies” of the Qing empire. These Qing empire “colonies” could be the counterpart of the overseas colonies of the European empires, as any empire per se based its supremacy and military force on the conquest of new lands.

Thus the Qing experience in building a powerful empire by expanding its lands and borders should not be seen as that different to the European experience in building empires. Therefore, Qing China during the second half of the seventeenth and until the end of the eighteenth century could have had a “reversal fortune” experience due to the institutionalburden (Acemoglu et al. 2002; Feuerwerker 1958; Levy 1954). The conquest of new regions, the implementation of institutions from the imperial Court of Beijingin superior prefectures [ 府], secondary prefectures [zhōu 州], subprefectures [tīng 廳], and villages [cūn 村] in the incorporated lands was a form of domination and centralization of power from the capital. This was a secular and endogenous cause of the economic decline of Qing China as the western expansion as a form of colonialism by the Manchu emperors was not accompanied by the proper administrative reforms to face the dramatic growth in population, wealth distribution (local officials and bureaucrats’ incomes were low), and technological breakthroughs (Rawski 1989; Rawski and Li 1992).

The Qing empire in the Middle Kingdom was composed of deep rooted layers of civilization and culture. With more than fifty ethnicminorities, the transcultural features of the territory depended upon the constant movement of people and goods that challenged the rigid political and Sinicized programme of Qing rulers whose aim was to unify the territory through a standardized cultural and “imagined” identity. On the contrary, the true concept of empire in Qing China could be defined as a “multipolar ethnic empire.” In other words, the Middle Kingdom under Qing rulers was a polycentricstate in which the main regional nodes that dynamized the economy were in southern and coastal areas with no dominant space despite the fact that the political centre was in the imperial Court of Beijing.

Western communities mainly led by Jesuits, and European traders (from Portugal, France, Spain, Italy, England, Sweden, among others), in coalition with the sangleyes and local elites of Manila, as well as Chinese traders from Macao and Canton, all shaped a dense network of information not only to exchange goods and silver, but also to bypass the strong control of Qing emperors. This complex system of communication, trust, and partnership based on the medieval formof commenda (this term will be further explored in the next chapter) was extremely difficult to control by the central government of Beijing and its appointed local officials (who were also engaged in this system) in the southern provinces.

The Qing expansion to the west and the incapacity to administrate the newly incorporated lands, as well as local communities, could be pinpointed as one of the main causes of Qing China’s economic decline beyond the traditional narrative of the Opium Wars and foreign interference. Further attempts during the nineteenth century to modernize China were mirrored through Western experience and Japan’s Meiji Restoration. The Tongzhi Restoration in China to modernize the economy was doomed to fail because of the political and social outrage of keeping the East Asian (Chinese) essences versus any sort of Western “invasion” by incorporating or assimilating Western technologies, values, and thought.

Likely such phenomenon presented in the traditional bipolar form of “Orientalism” (Said 1979) versus “Occidentalism” acquired a special form and connotation in China through Sinocentrism, deeply rooted since the Song dynasty, versus Eurocentrism. Such long-lasting confrontation between Western and Eastern values in which the exercise of supremacy and power by both Western and Eastern polities triggered the inferiority complex [qíngjié 情结] established in the public psyche of China’s communities from imperial times up to today in which the collective perception of China’s backwardness, social uprisings, and wars during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries were mainly caused by Western powers and foreign communities (Li 2002).

Such an inferiority complex commonly takes place in regions that have passed from being colonies to independent states. Some resemblances of this socio-economic and political process might be found in Latin American states by building their national identity during the nineteenth century (the Bolivarian political campaigns in Venezuela, Bolivia, Mexico, Colombia, among other nations, is a good example) and reinventing until the present day their culture, history, and geography. It is a clear instance of “imaginary” communities and reinvention of the past through continuous political programmes and campaigns by the ruling elites to legitimize their present sovereignty and control the future of the nation by creating an official version of history and a general narrative in the collective imaginary.

Maoism in China as a form of Marxism and Socialism with “Chinese characteristics” [zhōngguó tèsè 中国特色] was adapted from Western political thought and ideology. Sun Yat-sen and Chiang Kai-shek respectively adapted Western forms to China’s national movement which were utterly criticized by their CCP counterparts as elements that could contaminate the prospects of unification within the rising nation.

The subsequent triumph of Communism in China and the foundation of the PRC erased any sort of Western thought and elements visualized in the education and scholarly research. In the words of Kent Deng the field of Chinese economic history has been dominated by the West: “not only because of the systematic, effective destruction of Chinese academia under Maoism in the 1950s–1970s but also in terms of analytical tools and methods in use, including Marxism, as well as the sheer volume of scholarly works” (Deng 2001: 1).

As a continuation with the imbedded cultural and educational trends in PRC scholarship, today one might find a stiff resilient attitude in academic (traditional) Marxist circles to embrace and implement global history. Global history is viewed as a Western form and theory which goes against the new patriotic narratives adapted to national Chinese (or better to say PRC) “indigenous” culture, frames, and categories. The consolidation of these frames and categories aims to construct a robust patriotic identity as the process of “globalization” after the fall of the Berlin Wall and collapse of the Soviet Union is seen, mainly by countries non-aligned with the US and main Western powers, as potentially harmful to national history, as well as to local traditions and cultures.

The current use of global history in some cases, mainly in regions of Asia, Latin America, or Africa goes in line with the revival and unification of nations through the construction of a patriotic identity. An illustrative example is the Manila galleon project by UNESCO in which China, the Philippines, Mexico, and Spain were competing for the bid. Finally, the bid was granted to Spain and Mexico, as the Manila galleons that navigated across the Pacific were under dominion of the Spanish empire having as major ports Acapulco (New Spain, today’s Mexico) and Manila (the Philippines).