The Value of History

schouten.pngSchuyler Schouten, a Senior Director at Kissinger Associates, argues for the importance of studying Chinese history.

US-China relations, once the province of a small group of experts in each country, now unfold through countless daily interactions in a range of fields.  Whatever role you may play in a bilateral relationship of defining importance to the future, spare a thought for the past.  The study of Chinese history offers a useful complement to any professional skillset.


Americans are by nature forward-looking—an outgrowth of our status as a new venture in the “New World.”  This trait is reinforced by our diverse origins: where no common past beckons, a shared future seems a more natural focal point.

In China and in several of its key neighbors, the past is an integral aspect of the present.  It is the guidepost against which the rise and fall of national fortunes are regularly and instinctively measured; a vital element of political and foreign policy maneuvers; and an intangible psychological aspect animating endeavors as diverse as athletics, architecture, space exploration and infrastructure investment.

No country is a rote copy of its past.  Nor are Chinese people of today, living in a country networked and open to the world as never before, confined to aspiring to replicate the golden ages of their ancestors.  In many respects, China is testing and debating new models and syntheses that would represent a departure from any previous era.

Yet as recent experiences with Russia and Egypt make clear, revolutions do not erase the cultural and historical patterns in which they took shape.  And the basic imperatives of statecraft and social organization have remained surprisingly consistent in China over the past two millennia—much more so than in, for example, the Rome of year 0 and the Italy of today.  Even Mao Zedong, the revolutionary leader who set out to uproot China’s traditions, told Richard Nixon in 1972 that he had “only been able to change a few places in the vicinity of Beijing.”

Where Americans dismiss “19th-century rules” as inapplicable to a 21st-century world, many Chinese—including reformers—perceive China as subject at least in part to a cycle unfolding over dozens of centuries.  Even where they seek to transcend history, they assess that they ignore its patterns at their peril.  China’s transformative champion of “reform and opening up” Deng Xiaoping regularly referenced the Comprehensive Mirror to Aid in Government, an 11th-century classic recounting the previous 1,400 years of dynastic history.

The basic concept of history related in such records was cyclical.  Chinese dynasties thrived when they established virtuous governance and a centralized bureaucracy in the Han-Chinese heartland, and at least a form of suzerainty over the culturally-kindred areas surrounding it.  From this base they would use primarily diplomacy and economic incentives to make the Chinese capital the hub of a regional system of trade and political legitimacy.  When the central government lost its aura of unchallengeable authority and mastery over events—often through a combination of environmental catastrophes, official corruption or regional fiefdoms, foreign military incursions, and rebellions by heterodox religious sects—dynasties fell, and a contest ensued to restore the structure of Chinese authority and influence.

Though the dynastic system ended in 1912, a semi-official grand narrative building off it suffuses contemporary Chinese public life.  It holds that the last downturn in China’s fortunes began in the 1840s, and that political, economic, and cultural endeavors in China today should all in some sense relate to bringing the cycle back around to an era of unity, prosperity, and national prestige.  China’s President Xi Jinping has forecast “the great revival of the Chinese nation” following “the 170 or more years of constant struggle since the Opium Wars.”  He leavens his speeches with quotations from Confucian and Legalist philosophers from a pivotal era of Chinese unification over two millennia ago.

A more systematic familiarity with Chinese history would not mean that readers are resigned to conducting their affairs on traditional Chinese terms or affirming the maximum Chinese position on contentious issues.  Americans have their own deeply-felt goals and principles, and an Asia-Pacific role widely welcomed in the region (and affirmed in recent US-China joint presidential statements).  Still, a sense of history can prove useful in intuiting the basic objectives that Chinese counterparts in any field are pursuing and the issues on which they are likely to take a tough line.  It can also illuminate Chinese domestic debates, in which historical events or figures sometimes stand in allegorically for contemporary ones.

For example, the complex maneuvers regarding the Diaoyu or Senkaku Islands (sometimes dismissed in the American debate as “a bunch of rocks”) are inexplicable without at least passing familiarity with the medieval Ryukyu Kingdom, the Meiji Restoration, the 1894-1895 Sino-Japanese War, World War II and the 1971 Okinawa Reversion Agreement.  The tangled sensitivities surrounding Sino-Vietnam relations make more sense in light of northern Vietnam’s millennium as a rebellious dominion of classical China.  Hong Kong’s democracy protests build on a legal tradition inherited from the British era and adopted by locals as their own; Beijing’s response, as the Economist recently suggested, is informed by a wariness of instances of domestic discord on the mainland that spiraled into devastating conflicts.

Equipped with some of this background knowledge, it is easier to understand the vital importance, and occasional delicacy, of the American role in the Asia-Pacific—and to avoid the sense of surprised indignation that too often colors US-China relations.  As Henry Kissinger advised in On China, reflecting on Chinese history and his own unparalleled decades of ongoing dialogue with high Chinese officials, US-China relations pose a new conceptual challenge for both countries.  In navigating it, “Americans need not agree with the Chinese analysis to understand that lecturing a country with a history of millennia about its need to ‘grow up’ can be needlessly grating.”

A familiarity with the Chinese perception of history can also help in identifying areas of common interest.  The central importance of agriculture, water-supply, and environmental stability in past Chinese eras—and the problems encountered by governments seen as failing to provide them—indicates that environmental and energy issues could provide an area for significant cooperation.  A familiarity with the upheavals occasioned by the Yellow Turban Rebellion of the 2nd century, or the Taiping and Dungan revolts of the 19th—examples of more than academic curiosity in China—would suggest that Beijing is watching carefully the recent surge of religious-extremist violence in the Middle East and Southwest Asia, and may be open to at least quiet cooperation to combat it.

The tradition related by Chinese history is not only the stuff of high policy; it can surface in any of the endeavors that readers are likely to undertake.  As a matter of basic courtesy as well as tactical effectiveness, it helps to have a sense of how colleagues and counterparts see the world and what kind of enterprise they regard their generation as engaged in.  However you seek to contribute to US-China relations, consider taking a cue from a principle embraced by classical Romans and Chinese alike—and “use history as a mirror.”


Schuyler Schouten is a Senior Director at Kissinger Associates, an international advisory firm headed by former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. Schuyler’s work focuses on policy research and geopolitical analysis, with a particular focus on Asia and the Middle East. He was principal research associate to Dr. Kissinger for his best-selling book, On China, an examination of Chinese foreign policy and US-China relations.

This article appears in the November 2014 issue of China Hands.

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