9780393320510 / 0393320510

The Sextants of Beijing: Global Currents in Chinese History


Publisher:W. W. Norton & Company



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About the book:

The West has long regarded China as monolithic and self-isolated, hopelessly mired in its traditions. By presenting examples of China's open-mindedness, pragmatism, and willingness to experiment with foreign ideas, The Sextants of Beijing explodes this myth. Qianlong's famous rejection of the Macartney mission of 1792, which attempted to establish trade relations between Britain and China--"We have never valued ingenious articles, nor do we have the slightest need of your country's manufactures"--has usually been taken at face value and interpreted as backward-looking arrogance. In fact, when Qianlong issued that statement, he was nevertheless attempting to acquire European-style artillery, following a history of aggressive pursuit of foreign trade going back to the Han dynasty (about 2,000 years ago, that is).

For much of its dynastic history, China has been ruled by its aggressive northern neighbors. This has made China extremely wary of foreign influences and hypersensitive to anything externally imposed, a sensitivity still evident in China today. Joanna Waley-Cohen, professor of history at New York University, analyzes the historical experience that has led to China's raw nerves. She describes China's relations with the West over the last four centuries, beginning with the Jesuit missions, through the Opium Wars and China's near dismemberment by the colonizing European powers, to its rejection of heavy-handed Soviet aid. While clarifying China's ambivalent attitudes toward the West, she shows conclusively that the nation's restraint and reserve should not be defined as isolationism. --John Stevenson

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