Christopher Columbus carried a letter of introduction from his Spanish sovereigns to China’s emperor. Thus, the discovery of America was an accidental consequence of the European desire to reach the riches of Asia.
The American Colonies shared this yearning, writes Chang (History/Stanford Univ.; co-editor: Chinese American Voices: From the Gold Rush to the Present, 2006, etc.) in this thought-provoking history of our 400-year preoccupation with China. One of the major causes of the American Revolution was the strictness of the British navigation laws, which allowed no direct trade between America and Asia; in fact, the tea dumped during the Boston Tea Party was Chinese. Chang reminds us that in 1800, China was by far the world’s richest nation. Intrigued by this vast, ancient culture, many leading Americans (Franklin, Jefferson, Emerson) believed it “could serve as a model for their own visions of an enlightened society ruled by reason.” They “believed China held promise for them not just for material enrichment but for ideas and social practices that Americans might adopt.” By 1850, other observers concluded that it was backward, idolatrous and resistant to change. Worse, the arrival of Chinese immigrants produced a nasty racism, and the shameful 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act remained law until 1943. Nonetheless, encouraged by travelers and missionaries, the romantic view persisted, although the goal was now that a morally superior “America would uplift China and remake it in its own spiritual and worldly image.” This closeness peaked during World War II, crashed with the 1949 communist takeover, revived with the restoration of relations after Richard Nixon’s 1972 visit, and vanished after 2000 when it became clear that China, a superpower for a millennium, planned to reassume that role. The American-China romance was largely one-way.
An intriguing exploration of a significant, if peculiar, aspect of American history.