I find Rick Perry problematic, much like how I find soggy French fries, inefficient bureaucracy, and Asian chicks who dye their hair ridiculous colors and act cutesy problematic. But that aside, I want to praise glorious People’s Republic of China at Perry’s expense.
In a recent interview with conservative radio host Laura Ingraham, Perry made the following side comment about China:
You know, China disregarded the world for a millennium… and they lived in their own little world. [America] can’t afford to do that.
I don’t know if the average Chinese person would be offended, but I would be if I were Chinese. This attitude about historical China – that it was a reactionary, isolationist civilization that refused to change – is one that even some historians believe.
Even a quick glance at Chinese history within the last “millennium,” as Perry puts it, would easily undermine any such claim that China “disregarded” everyone else and “lived in their own little world.” Some examples:
- China was one of the if not the largest economies in the world up until the 1700s and 1800s. Chinese products such as silk, ceramics, coins, and so forth, have been found as far as places like Italy, Arabia, Persia, India, Indonesia, Russia, Kenya, Mozambique, and maybe even Zimbabwe. Why the heck do you think all those crazy white dudes like Columbus wanted to sail to China? To be brainwashed by Chinese propaganda?
- The Imperial Chinese government allowed for various ethnic, religious, and political groups to settle in China, not counting those that were already in China. During the past millennium, people such as Muslims, Nestorian Christians, Central Asians, Southeast Asians, Persians, and other white people all moved to China, particularly because of the lucrative economic opportunities.
- China was very much involved in the political affairs of everyone around them. Up until the 1800s or so, nearby countries were forced/persuaded to pay tribute. These included states in modern-day countries such as Vietnam, Korea, Japan, Mongolia, Nepal, Indonesia, Cambodia, Thailand, Burma, and all those Stans in Central Asia. You don’t go around asking for tribute if you, well, “disregard the world.” Additionally, China did get involved in international affairs in other states. For instance, China assisted Korea in defending against a Japanese invasion in the late 1500s, of which had important historical ramifications for the three countries and even Mongolia. China also invaded Vietnam a few times, but they all failed because Vietnamese housewives beat their husbands.
- Chinese ships helping their Korean comrades. The Samurai don’t stand a chance. Notice the rockets. So much for a backwards military.
- Perhaps one of the clearest shows of Chinese power and domination during the Imperial era were the voyages of Zheng He, which lasted from 1405 to 1433. Long story, a Muslim eunuch named Zheng He (he was Muslim, but the Chinese emperor didn’t really care about that, now did he?) was appointed admiral and sailed in this huge fleet to a bunch of places, including but not limited to Southeast Asia, Indonesia, India, Persia, the Middle East, and Africa. The ships sailed by Zheng He were possibly some of the largest ships in the world until the 1800s, reaching hundreds of feet in length and holding hundreds of sailors and other personnel. Regardless, Zheng He made a good point convincing most countries he met why pleasing China was a good idea (or at least that China meant $$$ and a good business opportunities).
- Even after China stopped these voyages and put restrictions on merchants and other travelers on where they could go, that did not mean that China suddenly “lived in their own little world” and turned into a backwards reactionary state in two seconds. During the Ming Dynasty, for instance, when these restrictions were first imposed en masse, the Chinese were still willing to trade with Europe; in particular, China stockpiled on a lot of silver coming from Spanish colonies in the America (the collapse of Spain’s gold and silver markets in the early 1600s might have been one of the causes of the collapse of the Ming Dynasty). Again, this doesn’t show “disregard for the world” if you go stocking up on stuff that is mined half a world away by Amerindian and Black slaves.
So given all these blatant counterexamples to Perry’s claim that China “disregarded the world” and “lived in [it’s] own little world” for the last “millennium”, why do a lot of people like Perry – and even some academics – continue to claim that China was a stagnant, self-interested, reactionary civilization in the previous millennium, and particularly the last few centuries?
It’s quite simple, I think, and it all rests on the fact that the Chinese (and other powerful non-Western civilizations such as India, Persia, Indonesia, Arabia, and West Africa) weren’t (and aren’t) white Europeans. China didn’t go around exploring vast territories, killing most of the natives, colonizing now empty lands, and reaping in the resources. But Europe did. Since Chinese people aren’t like Europeans, the Europeans logically concluded that they must have been inferior. Respect for diverse peoples and cultures at its finest.
Though China didn’t go on mass murdering colonization rampages (that’s not to say they didn’t do very mean things themselves), they did progress in different ways. For instance, China developed a number of innovations during this time, including but not limited to gunpowder, barreled gunpowder weapons, paper currency, movable type printing, archaeology, grenades, land mines, naval mines, forensics, rockets, multi-stage rockets, bureaucratic red tape, and political corruption.
Economically speaking, China had no reason to go on crazy adventures like the Europeans. It was not necessarily because they had all the resources they needed back home; rather, it was because places like the Americas and the African coasts were too far away, and merchants were already moving back and forth between other parts of Asia and the Middle East already making good profits, so why bother waste funds sending Chinese men on risky expeditions to the middle of nowhere?
Perry’s claim that China “lived in their own world” is perhaps fueled by a Western misconception of China’s own perception of its place in the world. For a very long time, China considered itself the center of the civilized world, hence its modern name “Zhōngguó,” which means “Middle Kingdom” or “Middle Nation”. It had good reason to be, though, given all its achievements and how big it was compared to most of the states around it. Thus, when Europeans first came to China, the Chinese scoffed at them, particularly when the Europeans refused to pay respects to the Chinese officials in the Chinese way (kowtowing) for instance. So much for respect for diverse peoples and cultures. Europeans and Americans have since misinterpreted this attitude as an arrogant, self-interested one, since, of course, anybody who wasn’t going around colonizing and killing was either stupid and uncivilized or self-interested and backwards.
In fact, the Chinese were just as self-righteous, prejudiced, and conceited as the Europeans were. They just expressed their bastardom in different ways.
And that, I think, is what respect for diverse peoples and cultures boils down to: learning how and why other peoples and cultures are just the same bastards as you are.
I don’t blame Perry for his comments, though; as stated earlier, most people – and even a number of historians – still hold the same, outdated misconceptions of China, and these misconceptions won’t go away for a while. I just hope that everybody learns to respect diverse peoples and cultures. Seriously. It would make international relations a lot easier.
Anyhow, still, when it comes to Republicans, I think I’d rather trust Jon Huntsman over Perry when it comes to China. Actually, just make Teddy Roosevelt the Republican nominee again, seriously. I’d totally willingly vote Obama out of office if that happened.