Why Britain needs to understand its history with China

2024-June-9 09:39 By: GMW.cn

I was told when I started learning Chinese over 30 years ago that the Chinese people had a strong understanding of history. It was true, as a British person living in China in the 1990s and then working in Beijing as a diplomat in the early 2000s, that I often heard about Chinese views on the role that Britain had played in the development over the modern history of their country. It wasn’t a very flattering portrait. Despite this, I almost always found the people in China I talked about our history with positive on their views of Britain today. The past, as they often said, was the past.

At least they had some idea of that past. In Britain, people have a relatively clear idea of our national story about our own development, and to some extent our relations with other European powers. However, research on the wider world often remains the domain of the specialist. Those that do speak about Britain’s imperial past, and its empire, either tend to condemn it, or defend it, with a sometimes fractious and noisy argument over what position to take.

Britain clearly has a story it can tell itself about China. It is one of the most important bilateral relationships in the world, and has shaped modern history not just of the two countries involved, but of the rest of the world, too. Britain and China encountered each other at a key point of modernity, with very different world views, economies, technologies and political systems. This has led some historians to describe this as a clash of two civilizations, as it brought, in the peak period of the Industrial Revolution, the then most advanced economy against a China which was espousing very different practices and standpoints.

Reflecting on this need for a wider British understanding of our China story, I decided to spend a year’s sabbatical writing a book on this from 2022. The last telling of Britain’s history with China, going back to the very start of the relationship and carrying it on to the present, J. B. Eames’ “The English in China" came out, to my astonishment, in 1909. Since then, there has been plenty of work, much of it illuminating and excellent, on the 19th and 20th centuries. But what was missing was an attempt to supply a continuous narrative that we could stand back from and identify particular deeper themes and structures. The history I ended up writing, "The Great Reversal: Britain, China and the Struggle for Modernity” is to be published this July by Yale University Press. This traces Britain’s first knowledge of China back to the 16th century and the time of Shakespeare down to today. Through the East India Company and other merchants, British ships went to China from the 1600s onwards. Trade was undertaken largely for silk, then of course for tea, which became an immense part of the relationship from the 1700s onwards. Chinese ideas about gardening, along with flowers and plants brought from the country, had a material impact on the British landscape, as did the technology of porcelain, which British manufacturers copied and adapted.

China was not a remote place in many ways over much of the last 400 years. It was somewhere people knew about and were interested in, and which figures like Samuel Johnson, William Wordsworth, and Charles Dickens in different ways wrote about. Jane Austen’s brother served in the fleet based near Canton in the 1800s. There were connections through business, through scholarship, and almost every other field. The first professorship of Chinese was established in London in 1836 at UCL; the first English Chinese dictionary was compiled by the great Robert Morrison in the 1810s; one of the first British person recorded as learning Chinese was a man called James Flint in the 1750s.

The richness of this history surprised me as I learned more about it. So too did the depth of the relationship. From the 18th century, when the first trading depots were established by British merchants in China, there has been an almost continuous flow of communication between both countries. China fought in the First and Second World Wars as an ally of Britain. And Britain, uniquely, maintained a diplomatic presence in Beijing from 1950, being the first European country to recognize the People’s Republic in early January 1950.

Britain’s China story is not a simple one. What struck me as underpinning it through the last 400 years were four great areas of imbalance. These were the economy, the military, the technological and the geopolitical. In all of them, until recently, Britain enjoyed advantages. It had the larger economy till 2005, and the larger military until at least the 1980s, along with more advanced technology and a wider network of global partners and relations. But in the last three or four decades, each of these areas has shifted dramatically, and in most cases decisively, in China’s favor. China now has an economy three times the size of the UK’s. It has the world’s largest navy in vessel terms, and is producing world class AI and other forms of research. Finally, through programs like the “Belt and Road”, the fact that it is the largest trading partner of over 120 countries and regions, China has a geopolitical reach that is now greater than Britain’s.

Britain needs to know that one of its great advantages in much of the last 400 years was about knowledge production. The views of most of those who engaged with China were empirical. In the early era they went to China to understand, rather than judge. They wrote works from the late 18th century onwards that wrestled with trying to understand this (to them) new but ancient and very different place. British people also need to understand that their China story is part of their national story. It shows many of the positive and negative things about their national traits. But it also shows the ways in which China and Britain profoundly influenced each other, not just in terms of politics and diplomacy, but also in terms of supplying us both with fresh ideas, stimulation and perspectives. These ranged from the tea that British grew to love to drink, the technology for porcelain, many of the flowers that are in our gardens, and the design of the gardens – all things either from, or influenced by China.

China has always been interested in the British that really did pay attention to it, and having some understanding of how long we have been engaged in this is important. There are many things that one can say about Britain and China, but one thing we definitely can’t say is that we don’t know each other. We do, and we have done for a long time.

Contributed by Kerry Brown, Director of the Lau China Institute and Professor of Chinese Studies, King's College, London

Editor: GSY
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