Skip to main content

A Cycle Of Cathay

July 2024
16min read

President Nixon’s visit to Peking starts one more surprising turn in an American-Chinese “affair” nearly two centuries old

Richard Nixon’s twenty-thousand-mile pilgrimage to the center of Chinese civilization—“the week that changed the world,” as he put it—may not actually have changed the world, though it quite probably did turn a new page in world history by making it unlikely that the international politics of East Asia, at least, will ever be the same again.

But whatever their global effect, one thing the Kissinger-Nixon bold strokes of 1971-72 most strikingly did do was to open a new chapter in that small but curious subdivision of world history, the 188-year-old tale of Chinese-American relations.

To put the matter simply, America’s existence is relatively short and special, China’s existence extremely long but also special; and these two very different peoples—Americans and Chinese—have had an increasingly intense and complex relationship with each other over much of the past two centuries.

Americans have tried, variously, to trade with China, to “open” China, to convert China, to exploit China, to punish China, to assist China, to modernize China, to defend China, and most recently to “contain” and isolate China. The reverse of the relationship—Chinese feelings, at various times, about America the intruder, the exploiter, the imperialist, the friend, the hope, the disappointment, and the archenemy—has been less intense, since Americans were only one foreign element among many in China, though nonetheless significant.

Historians have found it especially hard to explain the persistence of a virtual China obsession among influential groups of Americans from our earliest days right up through the week of the Nixon trip. They have found it even harder to explain the notable swings, the violent ups and downs, in American attitudes toward China.

One shrewd observer of both China and America, the M.I.T. political scientist Harold R. Isaacs, has identified at least six separate phases of U.S. response to China. The eighteenth century and the first years of the nineteenth, he concludes, were an “Age of Respect"—when Americans were in awe of the Confucian empire’s splendor, its exports, and even its elaborate system of governance. This was followed, between the Opium War and the turn of this century, by an “Age of Contempt” —when Americans were generally more struck by the backwardness, weakness, and conservatism of the decaying empire. Then came an “Age of Benevolence,” roughly between 1905 and 1937, as the empire tried to reform, collapsed, and gave way to a republic under such Western-oriented leaders as Sun Yat-sen and Chiang Kai-shek. In this period Americans sensed a great opportunity to serve as guides for the emerging new China.

With the coming of the Sino-Japanese War, Isaacs continues, a new “Age of Admiration” took hold— a period in which China’s struggle against the Japanese invaders fired American imaginations; Madame Chiang Kai-shek’s triumphal visit to the United States in 1943 was the high-water mark of that phase. It was quickly followed, however, by an “Age of Disenchantment,” from 1944 to 1949, when the glaring deficiencies of the war-weary Nationalist government were revealed in its abortive effort to turn back the Communist revolution. Finally, after 1949, an “Age of Hostility” toward China’s new Communist rulers set in, intensified by both a sense of betrayal and the passions of the Korean War.

Reflections on the Sino-American relationship bring one back, inevitably, to the context of the Nixon trip: not just China’s experience of Americans (and vice versa) but China’s experience of foreigners in general, foreigners’ experience of China, and, specifically, the traditions of executive tourism on Chinese soil.

To begin with the last point, the President’s journey was only the latest in a very long record of visitations by foreign rulers and their emissaries to the Middle Kingdom and sometimes, if they were lucky, to the Forbidden City itself. Despite Mr. Nixon’s good fortune, it has not been an entirely happy chronicle.

Take the case of one Thomas Pires, an early Portuguese ambassador who sought in 1517 to pry open the Chinese door. Pires got off on the wrong foot initially by firing a courtesy salute with cannon in Canton harbor, for which the unflattered Chinese officials promptly demanded an apology. He then came ashore accompanied by a blast of trumpets, for which another apology was immediately demanded. And he politely offered gifts to the authorities—which were duly noted as “tribute” from Portugal, a place listed as somewhere “south of Java.”

Thomas Pires eventually got to his goal, the imperial throne in Peking (though as Sino-Portuguese relations turned sour, he had the later misfortune to die in a Canton prison). Pires thereby became the first Westerner of the modern era to undergo a ritual that required, it seems, considerable athletic prowess: the performance of the kowtow (or k’o t’ou ), a ceremonial approach to the emperor that involved three kneelings interspersed with a total of nine full prostrations (“head-bangings”). It was a performance that undoubtedly left its performers both breathless and humbled.

All this was basically ceremonial recognition of what was, to the Chinese, obvious: that China was the center of the known earth, an advanced and ancient civilization adjacent to the much more backward peoples of north, central, and southeast Asia, and that access to China’s benevolence and material goods required submissiveness and good manners in the Chinese style.

Of course, the proud and sturdy Englishmen of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries who sought to open China to trade and diplomacy regarded such ceremonies as distinctly un-English. But even when they refused to undergo them, lesser pitfalls still lurked on the road to Peking. There is no evidence, for instance, that Lord Macartney, the Briton who tried to force diplomatic relations on the Chinese empire in 1793, could read the inscriptions on the stately pennants that the Chinese placed on his vehicles as he journeyed to the capital: “Ambassador bearing tribute from the country of England.” Macartney’s visit was thereby recorded as a mission of homage from a vassal state; the Ch’ien-lung emperor commended George III for his “respectful spirit of submission” but pointed out that “our celestial empire possesses all things in prolific abundance” and therefore needed no foreign contacts. Years of increasingly violent misunderstanding ensued, until the Opium War clarified the issue. In it, British naval firepower as of 1842 forced the Chinese to open several new ports besides Canton to “barbarian” traders.

As for official Americans, very late arrivals on the scene, their habit was generally to let Europeans run interference for them. An American executive who finally made it to Peking was former Massachusetts congressman Anson Burlingame, who became Washington’s first full-fledged minister to China in 1861. Burlingame’s virtue was good will, his failing a silver tongue. He was so genial and persuasive that he was appointed, on his retirement in 1868, China’s first official envoy to the Western world and embarked, with two Chinese colleagues, on an extended mission to America, Britain, France, Germany, and Russia (where he suddenly expired in 1870). In this curious role Burlingame established (and indeed pre-empted) the euphoric tradition of Sino-American relations. “China,” he declaimed to a rapt New York audience in 1867, “is willing to trade with you, to buy of you, to sell to you. … She invites your merchants, she invites your missionaries. She tells the latter to plant the shining cross on every hill and in every valley. The imagination kindles at the future which may be, and which will be, if you will be fair and just to China.” Hard on the heels of Burlingame’s words came the Tientsin massacre of foreign missionaries and thirty years of Chinese antiforeign agitation that culminated in the Boxer Rebellion. But the Burlingame syndrome of great expectations survives to this day.


By 1879, when ex-President Grant, travelling around the world one month out of office, became the first American Chief Executive (present or former) to visit China, things in Peking had loosened up a good deal. Gone, for Western visitors at least, were the kowtow and the concept of tribute, for the Chinese empire was now effectively shackled by the unequal treaties imposed by the West in the aftermath of their repeated use of superior military force. General Grant seems to have come and gone without incident.

Misunderstandings did persist, however, in the later record of Sino-American visitations. There is, for instance, the case of General Patrick J. Hurley, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s personal representative to China, who arrived at the Yenan airstrip to confer with Mao Tse-tung in 1944 and, on emerging from his plane, delivered himself—in Oklahoma fashion—of a Choctaw war whoop. At which the party of welcoming officials is said to have dispersed temporarily in alarm. General Hurley’s idiosyncrasies had a more lasting effect on history: he careened onward to bungle and destroy a promising American relationship with the Chinese Communists and then, through reckless charges as he resigned in 1945, sowed the first seeds of the poisonous “Who Lost China” debate back home.

So the tradition of high-level visitation to China is an uneven one, and Mr. Nixon—who graciously ended what Hurley had begun—can be grateful to have come and gone without giving or receiving major insult or injury.

But there is, of course, a far more important context to America’s recent rediscovery of China than the fate of high-ranking official visitors, and that is the complex matter of what is called, in the new idiom, people-topeople relations.

From its earliest phases and throughout, the AmericanEast Asian relationship was primarily the product of Americans who travelled to Asia in nongovernmental roles. To be sure, Asians came to America, too—as laborers in fairly large numbers, until they were eventually excluded, and also as students, diplomats, and immigrants—and their presence helped shape events on both sides of the ocean. But the dominant fact was the American thrust toward Asia, a thrust impelled by what some have termed the “acquisitive spirit.”

What was to be acquired? Initially, from the 1780’s, and to some extent throughout, Asian goods—wealth from the China trade. Early, too, from the second decade of the nineteenth century, Asian converts for Christianity. Toward the end of the century two additional objectives joined the acquisition list: Asian customers for the products of American industry as well as Asian concessions for investors, and—for some dreamers of American empire—Asian bases to sustain American trading vessels and an expanded navy.


Traders, missionaries, industrialists, investors, entrepreneurs, navalists—these were the people who went west to Asia. And with them, very soon, came their protectors, the agents of the state: consuls, diplomats, and service attachés. With commerce and evangelism came the flag, and with the flag came the state.

It is hardly surprising that from earliest times the focal point was China. India belonged to Britain, and much of Southeast Asia fell within European colonial spheres. Japan, until midcentury, was tightly closed to intruders. Furthermore, Southeast Asia and Japan were fringes on the larger fabric of Chinese civilization. China was the heartland, very old, often powerful, fabled from time to time in the West. For readers in early America the most recent works on China were those of the eighteenth-century French philosophes. China was the center of Asia’s population, culture, and trade in exotic goods.

People-to-people relations with China seem to have begun in 1784, just after the end of our war for independence, when the Empress of China , six months out of New York, arrived off the Portuguese colony of Macao, near Canton, on August 23 to become the first ship of American registry to participate in the China trade. Upon her return to New York in May, 1785, she had netted a profit of 25 per cent on an investment of $120,000 —not enormous, but a clear promise of things to come.

What that vessel and its successors joined was a system of tightly controlled access to China that had evolved since the early eighteenth century. Contemptuous of merchants and suspicious of “barbarians” (i.e., foreigners), China’s Confucian rulers had sought to restrict the sea barbarians to Canton as they did their overland counterparts, coming across Central Asia in the Marco Polo tradition, to designated market points in the north and northwest. At Canton, American traders from New York and New England—especially from Salem and Boston—joined trading representatives, or factors, from a half dozen or more European nations in inhabiting a series of “factories,” or combined bachelor quarters and warehouses. These were in a riverfront section to which foreigners were confined outside the walled Chinese city. (Foreign wives were confined considerably farther away, in Macao; incentives to linger in Canton, once the trading season was over, were thus minimal—unless, of course, one wanted to escape one’s wife.)

This Canton system of trade provided adventure for the young, the restless, and the brave, profits for merchant investors, and delights for those back home who had a taste for Chinese silks, porcelain, and teas. Much of the happy lore of the old China trade dates from this era. Not only did the foreigners have much to win—and sometimes lose. Chinese middlemen—the famous Hong (or business-firm) merchants, who “secured,” or acted as guarantors for, each’arriving foreign ship; the Co-Hong (or officially licensed merchant monopoly); and a wide assortment of compradors (accountants and foremen), “linguists” (interpreters), and supervisory officials—also developed deep and complex stakes in this regulated trade as well as in its darker side, smuggling, and also had much to win and lose.

These were the days when—as Samuel Eliot Morison has written—“Boston was the Spain, Salem the Portugal, in the race for Oriental opulence.” Every Salem housewife had ambitions for a chest of hyson tea, a China silk gown, and a set of Canton chinaware. These were also the days of sudden and great prosperity for individuals and firms alike. By 1803 the Boston house of Perkins and Company had a representative in Canton and became, for a while, the oldest surviving American firm. In the next three decades the consolidation of various houses, including that of Perkins, led to the establishment of the leading American business in nineteenth-century China, Russell and Company, of Canton, originally founded by Samuel Russell of Middletown, Connecticut, in 1818— a firm that finally went under in 1891. Individuals as well as companies prospered. Between 1807 and 1827 the Canton agent of the Perkins-Sturgis-Forbes group, one John P. Gushing, with only two clerks to his establishment, did a business of millions of dollars a year—and returned a very wealthy man in 1830 to his Summer Street, Boston, mansion and his Belmont estate, attended by a retinue of Chinese servants. To cite one other individual of many: Warren Delano, one-time agent for Russell and Company, made not merely one but two major killings in the China trade in separate decades— and thereby gave his grandson, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, both a solid inheritance and a special sense of kinship with China.

A recurrent question, however, for the early American traders was how to pay for the much-desired tea, silks, and chinaware—and what to sell to the Chinese in exchange. For a while the answer was furs—especially from the North Pacific sea otter, whose skin was much prized by the Chinese upper class. For a time, sandalwood from Hawaii also found a market. By 1792 the trade route from New England to the Pacific Northwest coast to Canton and back to New England was fairly well established. But after 1815 a great change took place in such trade: a shift from silks and china to rapidly increasing quantities of teas transported to America and Europe.

At the root of the shift was the fact that tea, first known to Europe in the seventeenth century, had become in the course of the eighteenth century the British national beverage—an antidote, perhaps, to the clammy English climate. For a while heavily taxed (the cause, it will be recalled, of American boycotts, the Boston Tea Party, and thereby America’s early turning toward coffee), it was nonetheless plainly a very great comfort that came to border upon addiction. After 1815, with the Napoleonic wars over, demand and supply could soar, with much to be carried, both to the United States and Europe, in American bottoms.

With that shift to tea in both cargo and volume, however, the need for something to provide in exchange became more acute. For a while Spanish silver dollars displaced sea-otter skins and sandalwood, declining in both supply and demand. But from 1827 onward, opium —long smuggled in, though not in large quantities—began to replace the Spanish dollars. Opium was compact, easy to conceal, didn’t spoil—and the Chinese demand for it was sharply on the rise. Americans joined with their British cousins in importing the drug into China from India and the Near East. And the Chinese, both merchants and officials, connived with the foreigners to make the trade possible. (One must note, in passing, that history is at least symmetrical and retributive, now that the West, in the 1970’s, finds itself assailed by massive illicit drug shipments from the Near East and Southeast Asia.)

The drug trade did create friction with the Chinese government, however, and, aside from the opium problem, deep tensions of various sorts were developing within the Canton system by the 1830’s—tensions deriving mainly from an inherent clash between the freetrading ethic of an expansionist Great Britain, the leader of the Western thrust, and the self-isolating ethic of a proud and complacent government in Peking. One or the other eventually had to give, and in an unevenly matched combat over the proximate issue of opium import into China, it was the Chinese who gave way before the superior firepower of the foreigners.

America was not, at this juncture, a combatant. But when the first of the unequal treaties was imposed by Britain in 1842, United States commissioners moved in to demand their nation’s share of the spoils on a “most-favored-nation” basis— meaning that they demanded henceforth any and all rights achieved by other powers, regardless of how they had been obtained. (The last vestige of these treaties was not finally given up by Washington until a century later, in 1943.)

Out of the unequal treaties there evolved, by 1860, an entirely new system of Sino-Western relations. Not only were foreigners given access to a large number of Chinese treaty ports on the coast and inland up the Yangtze River; they were also granted territorial concessions. In such ports, where foreign laws now prevailed, the outsiders were given immunity from Chinese law wherever they went; their diplomatic protectors were allowed to reside in Peking at last; and their merchants and missionaries were permitted unrestricted access to the Chinese hinterland.

Although Americans had played the role of bystanders in the days of the Opium War, their cousinly instincts got the better of them in the later years of the century. In June, 1859, for instance, Commodore Josiah Tattnall, USN, instructed merely to observe while the British and French taught the recalcitrant Chinese a lesson off the approaches to Tientsin, grew alarmed at the successful Chinese resistance, went to the relief of the wounded British admiral, and ordered his men to help man the British guns. “Blood,” he announced, in a sentence that has outlived his name, “is thicker than water.” Forty-one years later the Commodore’s instincts of consanguinity were confirmed by the participation of several thousand American troops in the German-led international expedition to put down the Boxer Rebellion and punish the Chinese government. And thereafter, for decades, American Army and Marine units were to be routinely stationed on Chinese soil, at Peking and Tientsin, while American gunboats patrolled the Yangtze River.

Large American fortunes had been built on the China trade before and after the Opium War, and the new treaty-port system promised even greater rewards. Indeed, the 1850’s—the days of the clipper ships—were a brief moment when American tonnage in the China trade actually exceeded that of Great Britain. This was also a decade in which American vessels participated heavily in a trade even more reprehensible than the shipment of opium: the traffic in Chinese coolie laborers, abducted or otherwise procured in the South China region and shipped for hard labor and, more often than not, early death in Latin America. To recall only one appalling event in this grim chapter: there is the case of the Waverley , an American ship with a human cargo en route from China to South America, in whose hold 260 Chinese died of suffocation in September, 1855. Meanwhile, opium itself was being shipped by fast American steamers into Formosa as late as 1872—there to be smuggled into mainland coastal markets.

The 1850’s were a special case, a peak in the trade relationship. Thereafter America’s Civil War and postwar industrialization turned that nation inward for a while. Yet the new lure of the allegedly limitless China market would fascinate American entrepreneurs from the 1880’s onward. And when that still mythical market seemed about to be closed off in 1899-1900 because of new European incursions into China, Washington pressed for the famous open-door policy so that Americans would not be completely frozen out.

Meanwhile, before and after, American adventurers risked their fortunes in the newly evolving multinational cultures of the treaty ports- most notably Shanghai, near the mouth of the Yangtze River. A modest Chinese town prior to the Opium War, Shanghai had grown by the turn of the century into China’s greatest seaport. Dwarfing the old Chinese city was a French concession of spacious tree-lined boulevards (after World War I the street names would be Avenue Pétain, Avenue Joffre, Avenue Foch). There was also a Japanese concession across Soochow Creek and a thriving International Concession under British domination, with a famous riverfront (called the Bund), parks, Sikh policemen, a racecourse, hotels, department stores, and teeming night life. Shanghai and lesser treaty ports were curious SinoWestern enclaves, utterly alien from traditional and village China.

As it turned out, the fabled China market was never to materialize. American trade with Japan always exceeded the China trade in the twentieth century. But the vision of four hundred million (or five hundred, or six hundred million) customers never lost its hold.

The greatest beneficiary, however, of the new and easier access to China after 1860 was not the merchant community but that other major segment of the American transpacific thrust, the Protestant mission movement.

American hopes for China’s conversion to Christianity had their roots in early nineteenth-century revivalism in New England and New York State. Although individual missionaries, early arrivals at the Canton factories, played a significant role from time to time as interpreters of China back home and as aides to U.S. diplomats abroad, their impact on China remained infinitesimal in terms of converts. By the late iSoo’s and the first three decades of the twentieth century, however, the mission movement had proliferated into a multiple effort to transform Chinese society through education, medicine, and technology as well as the more traditional route of evangelism, all in the course of trying to “win China for Christ.”

In the waning years of the dynasty—back in the “Age of Contempt”—American churchmen had often found the Chinese to be obdurate, vicious, and degenerate as well as simply unreceptive. As even a fairly enlightened mission leader and historian, S. Wells Williams, had written in 1858, “We shall get nothing important out of the Chinese unless we stand in a menacing attitude before them. They would grant nothing unless fear stimulated their sense of justice, for they are among the most craven of people, cruel and selfish as heathenism can make men, so we must be backed by force if we wish them to listen to reason.”

But after 1905, and especially after the revolution of 1911, the missionaries were filled with warm sympathies and high hopes for their Chinese protégés, freed at last from the bonds of Confucianism and ready, it seemed, for Christianity as well as democracy. Such sympathies and hopes were shared, it should be added, by a succession of American statesmen in Washington, from William Howard Taft and Woodrow Wilson right on into the 1940’s. It is ironic that these optimistic predictions flourished against a background of decades of legislation that systematically excluded Chinese from immigration and citizenship.

What is important to the Sino-American relationship is not merely the outlook of missionaries and their considerable impact as trainers, through their schools, colleges, and hospitals, of a new generation of Chinese. What is also important is the role they played—and they were some five thousand strong by the mid-1920’s —as conveyors of images of China to their congregations and countrymen back home. Likewise significant were the views they helped to shape among large groups of Americans who came to believe in China as the most promising field abroad for American altruism and the export of would-be benevolence.

It is therefore hardly surprising that when, in the 1930’s, a Chinese leadership emerged that was republican (at least in form), to some extent Christian (Chiang Kai-shek became a Methodist in 1931), and both antiCommunist and anti-Japanese, it would stimulate those deep-rooted hopes for the American role in China that both traders and missionaries had developed over more than a century of contact.

With the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December, 1941, those hopes of private citizens and nonorficial groups were suddenly transformed into government policy—an open-ended alliance between Washington and the embattled Nationalist wing of the Chinese revolution. But that Nationalist wing, more a faction than a government, was already in deep trouble. And it was to fall victim, before long, to the renewed and invigorated assault of its old Communist rivals.

So trade and religion—gold and God—in all their complex ramifications seem to lie at the root of America’s people-to-people relationship with China.

It need hardly be added that neither gold nor God did the trick. The Chinese, stirred very roughly out of their two-thousand-year-old world order, took off on a path very different from that prescribed by capitalism and Christianity. To fill the social, ethical, and political vacuum left by the collapse of Confucianism, they eventually created Maoism—a new civic religion. And in place of the unequal treaties and foreign tutelage they substituted national self-reliance and the expulsion of all foreign tutors—including, finally, the Russians. As for the impact of a century of trade and religion in Sino-American relations, the one was written off by the new regime as economic imperialism, the other as cultural imperialism.

After the Communist victory in 1949 American leaders misread China’s revolutionary transformation and sought to seal off the apparent threat of a new Golden Horde, a new Yellow Peril. But by 1972 an American President had belatedly ended that effort. Ironically, but also appropriately, he had returned instead to the role of earnest visitor knocking at China’s long-closed door, as foreigners had done two centuries before.

As one reflects on the roller coaster of fluctuating American attitudes toward China and the Chinese, one wonders how the new age that began with Ping-Pong and Kissinger will be described by historians of the future. If it is an “Age of Euphoria,” it will be short-lived and its sequel unpleasant, for euphoria is flimsy stuff indeed for the bridging of the very wide gulf between Chinese and Americans. But if instead it develops into an “Age of Live, Let Live, and Learn,” the Nixon chapter could help produce new qualities of realism and understanding among both Americans and Chinese that previous chapters have lacked.


We hope you enjoy our work.

Please support this 72-year tradition of trusted historical writing and the volunteers that sustain it with a donation to American Heritage.