Impacts of the ‘Century of Humiliation’ on China

The history of China over the last century and a half is engulfed with a large range of paradoxical experiences that vary from national disgrace to total chaos as also from disgrace to moments of excitement and big achievements. It is truly said that the present successes of China are, in fact, a result of the historical hurdles and emotional wounds that have had to triumph over the decades. The ordeal of China’s century of humiliation stretched from the middle of the 19th century till 1949, which was greatly increased by the disorientation from the glories of its past. For over a thousand years, the Chinese civilization was at the zenith of socio-cultural and economic dominance and prosperity, and its eminence was unchallenged in the world. Chinese were the forerunners in transferring technology for products such as paper, porcelain, silk, cast iron, the compass, and gunpowder. China had become superior in view of its abilities in assimilating foreign invaders who tried to disturb its political stability during the 1000 years of its prosperity but had ended up being absorbed into Chinese culture and way of life. The Chinese were able to do this in view of their ability to run a meritorious bureaucracy, respect for education, secular social set up and high standard of aesthetics. It was for this reason that China was widely respected by surrounding chieftains and potential invaders. In due course, with the evolvement of a mercantile class during this period in Europe, which was an offshoot of the Renaissance, the Europeans began to relish the technological advancements of the East Orient and the benefits of the number system and algebra techniques that were transferred from India via the Arabs, and this initiated a period when the Chinese began to face a reduction on the influence that they had in the world.

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Researchers on China have long been debating on the failure of China during this period to tap the advantages of technological achievements and modern culture. They are, however, in common agreement that China had failed to have a merchant and commercial class that would otherwise have resulted in more economic development by imbibing foreign ideas in this regard. China decided in 1846 to disallow ocean navigation and did not venture into the construction of ships, which was a true example of the autocratic and dictatorial dysfunctions set in by the Ming Dynasty from 1368 to 1644. During the 19th century, the imperialistic ambitions of the British Empire made them knock on the Chinese doors in efforts to make them purchase European products in exchange for the Chinese goods, including tea and silk, that was very popular amongst the Europeans. But the Chinese lacked the commercial acumen to exploit such opportunities, and the British found a novel way of making them dependent by introducing Indian opium, which became an instant success due to the voracious appetite of the people in China for such addiction. The British bought opium from India by exchanging its manufactured goods and then sent it to China in exchange for the Chinese goods with the result that between 1821 and 1837, Chinese imports of opium grew by five times (Lan Nike, 2003). The addiction became uncontrollable as more and more Chinese became addicted to opium, and this set the trend for the Opium Wars that commenced in 1839. These wars resulted during the time of the Qing government because of trade disputes between China and the British, primarily due to the disastrous effect the drug had on Chinese society. In consequence, ‘Unequal Treaties’ had to be signed due to Chinese subjugation by the British, whereby Chinese territories were ceded to foreign powers, and this led to the downfall of the Qing Dynasty. Hong Kong was ceded to the British, and five Chinese ports, including Shanghai, were made treaty ports whereby free trade was to be carried out between China and Europe. In this backdrop, further tragic circumstances followed for China in harsh succession. Unequal treaties had to be signed with France in 1843 and with Russia in 1858. The Second Opium war between 1856 and 1860 resulted in the destruction of the Summer Palace, and the French Sino war between 1884 and 1885 destroyed the Qing influence in Vietnam. The war with Japan in 1895 destroyed Qing influence in Korea which made the Chinese further accede in giving more international concessions from its territories.

By the end of the nineteenth century, almost 10% of the Chinese population was addicted to opium. The fall of the Qing Dynasty resulted in social disintegration, warlords emerged, and there were repeated waves of revolutions that finally culminated with the formation of the People’s Republic of China in 1949. Researchers have outlined three major reasons for the decline of the Chinese economy and social structure during the period of the “Century of Humiliation” (Ye Xu, 2004). First was the Chinese isolation from world trade during the period from 10th century to 1978 since during this period it opted for a closed-door policy. Secondly, it had been invaded on several occasions during the period 1840 to 1949 by internal revolts and by other countries that sought territorial and trade ambitions in China, and consequently, during this “Century of Humiliation”, the country was greatly weakened and its economy deteriorated severely. Thirdly, after the establishing of the People’s Republic of China, there was government encouragement to have more and more children, and the country saw a rapid increase in the population, which rose by 1200 million in forty years (Christopher Howe, 1978). Consequently, the per capita income of China is still at very low levels, and although the country’s economy is growing, individual standards of living are presently very low as per international standards.

This century of humiliation actually had a much larger impact on China than what most researchers and historians agree to. The handover of Hong Kong to China is considered to be the first sign of the end of Chinese humiliation at the hands of foreign powers. Taiwan is another example of the same. In modern China, nationalism is motivated by the inclination for the country to become grand again and to have its sovereignty totally restored (Mitter, Rana, 2004). In recent years, the rejection of the Chinese bid for the 2000 Olympics upon the insistence of the USA on grounds of human rights violations was indicative of Western interference in its affairs and in its sovereignty. It was with the awarding of the 2008 Olympics that China saw itself as having been provided with the opportunity to end its humiliation and prove to the entire world that it is a force to reckon with in becoming a modern China and that it had the potential to become a key international player again, because Olympics are considered by the host country as an occasion to prove its pride and capabilities to the world. To the average Chinese, the Olympics was not just a coming-out ceremony, but was viewed as an indicator of the end of the century of humiliation after which it would be on the thresh hold of becoming a great country again.

In the China of today, there is evidence of new nationalism emerging, there is anti-western sentiment brewing amongst the newer generations at a fast pace in view of the deep-rooted narrations about previous humiliations at the hands of the west. There are impassioned opinions of Chinese nationalism, which is now destabilizing the domination of the Communist Party on political discourses and pressurizing the government’s stability (Peter Hays Gries, 2004).

Researchers have estimated that by 2015, China is slated to become the largest economy of the world. It has already started to refurbish its imperial grandeur by having infused contemporary technology and market economies into its core structure as controlled by the bureaucracy and the Communist party. China’s mission of global triumph differs vastly with countries such as Mexico, Japan, and India, and is instrumental in changing the structure of the world business structure. It has the potential to dictate the role of its participants in world trade and economy. It is also on the thresh hold of formulating new ground rules for employment terms and patterns of consumption in addition to influencing Chinese ascendancy in redefining economic, political, and social lines of battle. Probably it is the United States that is going to be the most affected because of Chinese ascent in the world arena, since its position of supremacy is now at risk with the rapid development of China and its increasing share in world production and quantum of trade. Ultimately, in the coming years, China’s growth will vary significantly impact not only all the businesses of the world, but also individual purchase decisions. Eventually, it is now going to be a question for world economies to ask what one must do to survive in the “Chinese Century” (Oded Shenkar, 2004).


Christopher Howe, China’s Economy, Paul Elek London, 1978.

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Oded Shenkar. Chinese Century, The: The Rising Chinese Economy and Its Impact on the Global Economy, the Balance of Power, and Your Job, 2004, Wharton School Publishing.

Peter Hays Gries , China’s New Nationalism , 2004, University of California Press.

Mitter, Rana, A Bitter Revolution: China’s Struggle With the Modern World, 2004, Oxford University Press.

Ye Xu, Why did Chinese economy decline dramatically in last 200 years, 2004.

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