Five Things That Didn’t Happen (But Might Have)

Kate Merkel-Hess at China Beat had an intriguing list last month, Five Chinese Historical Events That Don’t Get Much Attention, (2/ 11/08) which was in turn inspired by Jeremiah Jenne’s piece at Jottings From the Granite Studio about the most important Chinese historical figure most people have never heard of.

That got me to thinking – why discriminate against an event just because it didn’t happen? Very un-Daoist. So to kick things off, here are five things that didn’t happen. We don’t mean alleged “failure” to follow European models, such as the once common “failure to modernize,” but turns not taken. You’ll see that they fall into different ontological categories, since there is a lot of wiggle room when it comes to things that don’t exist.


I. The Tay Son Re-Unification of Historic Vietnam: We talk about the “unification of China” in 221 BCE as if that decided things once and for all, but there were any number of chances for re-unification not to happen:

The Han Empire might have gone the way of the Roman. Chuck Holcombe nicely discusses this arc of history in The Genesis of East Asia 221 B.C.-A.D. 907 (Hawaii 2001). S.A.M. Adshead’s T’ang China: The Rise of the East in World History (Palgrave 2004) makes a polemical but more abstruse use of the Sui-Tang “re-foundation” and the “restoration” at the height of the Tang to discuss Andre Gunder Frank’s Re-Orient: Global Economy in the Asian Age (California 1998).

The Mongols might not have unified and preserved a territory for the Ming to take over and set a standard for the Manchus to aspire to.

The Manchus might not have unified the territory now known as “China.

Or, what if the Manchu unification had been successfully challenged? In the 1770s and 1780s, the Tay Son brothers led a great rebellion which destroyed the old regimes in the north and south of what is now Vietnam by mobilizing the populace into mass armies. The Qian Long Emperor dispatched troops to support the old regime, which had been loyal to Beijing, but in the “First Tet offensive of 1789” the Vietnamese sent them packing. Tay Son dynamic rule replaced Chinese model government with a more indigenous style. Vietnamese brag that the Quang Trung Emperor thought seriously of incorporating the south of present day China, which had been ruled by Vietnamese towards the end of the Han Dynasty. There were to be two capitals, one Hanoi, the other Guangzhou.

Well, it didn’t happen. But some Vietnamese will insist, at least in mood of patriotic optimism, that only the untimely death of the Quang Trung Emperor in 1792 deprived us of a quite different map and a different history of the following century.

What if a vigorous and competitive government had controlled Guangzhou at the time of what would not have been the Opium War?

II. American Recognition of the PRC in 1949: In 1948 it became clear that Mao’s armies would control most of China. American policy did not start from the refusal to recognize the new government, only to “wait for the dust to settle.” What if the US had recognized the PRC in 1949?

I agree that the “lost chance” theory is wishful thinking if the “chance” was to become friends. Decisive factions in Beijing and Washington each saw conflict with the other as likely if not inevitable. The Korean War put the fat in the fire.

But maintaining diplomatic relations does not mean being friends: “great nations,” Henry Kissinger reminds us, “have only interests, not friends.” Would diplomatic relations have lessened Cold War fear of China that lured the US into first Korea and then Vietnam?


On the other hand, the Soviets recognized Mao, gave crucial though grudging support, and had close ties. It didn’t do much good. And they were supposed to be friends, just like Liu Shaoqui and Lin Biao were supposed to be Mao’s successors. So maybe there were some advantages to the U.S. not being there. Imagine if the American Ambassador had been trapped by the Red Guards in 1966.

But taking one consideration with another, would the two countries have been better off if there had been direct representation? You have to like the odds.

III. The People’s Liberation Army Invasion of Taiwan in the spring of 1950. The PLA was poised. The American Secretary of State and Joint Chiefs of Staff had declared Taiwan outside the perimeter of defense (though it now appears that the PRC leadership did not notice).

What stopped it? Malaria among northern troops unfit for southern duty? Truman responding to the invasion of South Korea by stationing the Fifth Fleet in the Taiwan Straights? Whatever. If the PLA had taken the island it might have been hell for Democratic candidates – it was pretty bad in any case – but diplomatic relations with the PRC would have been quite different in the 1950s (see above #2).

IV. They Never Said It. Yogi Berra has a book, “I Really Didn’t Say Everything I Said.” OK, this is a different category from events that didn’t happen, but a blog is show biz, not a blue book.

It’s almost too easy to list the great things people didn’t say about China, or at least that nobody can find a reliable source for. Did they not say it? You can’t prove a negative, but I like the odds.

Here’s a few:

A. Napoleon: “Behold the Chinese empire. Let it sleep, for when this dragon wakes, she will shake the world.” Any number of books use the line, ranging from Jack Belden’s China Shakes the World to Nicholas Kristoff and Cheryl WuDunn’s China Wakes, which uses the Napoleon quote on the cover.

B. “We will lift Shanghai up, ever up, until, God willing, it will be just like Kansas city (American Senator Kenneth Wherry).”1 I searched the online archives of Time Magazine, the NY Times, and Washington Post for combinations of terms “Wherry,” “Shanghai,” “Kansas City,” and “uplift” to no avail. I cannot prove that Wherry did not say this or that no Senator ever said it, but I await a citation.

C. “No Dogs or Chinese (sign at the entrance to park in colonial Shanghai).” Robert Bickers and Jeff Wasserstrom have demonstrated that there was no sign with these words, though the results may have been the same as if there had been.2

D. And the all time favorite, “May you live in interesting times. (Old Chinese Proverb).” The Wikipedia article summarizes and supplement the research conducted by Stephen deLong, “Get a(n interesting) Life!, which traces usage to a 1950 story in Astounding Science Fiction, now supplemented with a possible use as early as 1936 by an Englishman to a friend about to leave for China.

V. Zheng He’s Eighth Voyage. This is tricky. Old Zheng, in spite of possibly singing soprano, was one of the great explorers of all time and his seven voyages from 1405- 1433 one of the great feats. Nonetheless, Gavin Menzies 1421 hypothesis is empty, so to dismiss his claim that Zheng discovered the New World does not produce a legitimate “thing that didn’t happen.”

But Zheng He’s eighth voyage didn’t happen, which is remarkable. Edward Dreyer’s Zheng He: China and the Oceans in the Early Ming Dynasty, 1405-1433 (2006)3 is readable and sound. He quite rightly doesn’t talk about what China “failed” to do but he does share some ideas about why they didn’t keep on exploring. If the Chinese had maintained their great armadas, “Vasco da Gama and his successors would have found a powerful navy in control of the Indian Ocean.”


“Wu Wei”? “Do nothing and nothing will be undone”? No way? Somebody said recently “just because it didn’t happen doesn’t mean I can’t remember it.”

What if these “things that didn’t happen” had happened? Would things had been different? Well, as they used to say down on the farm, “If!? If my foot was your grandmother, would you kiss the old lady?” 4


  1. Neither Stephen J. Whitfield, The Culture of the Cold War (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2nd ed., 1996). , p. 43 nor James C. Thomson, Jr., Peter W. Stanley and John Curtis Perry, Sentimental Imperialists: The American Experience in East Asia (New York: Harper & Row, 1981), p. 308, give a source; T. Christopher Jespersen, American Images of China, 1931-1949 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1996), p 164, cites Eric Goldman, Crucial Decade and After (Knopf 1966), p. 116, which does not give a specific reference, simply “Princeton University Archives.”  

  2. Robert Bickers Jeffrey N. Wasserstrom, “Shanghai‘s ‘Dogs and Chinese Not Admitted’ Sign,” China Quarterly 142 (1995): 444-466.  

  3. Sadly, Ed recently passed away, but left us a great deal of solid and useful scholarship.  

  4. Only in the original, the part of the anatomy wasn’t “foot.”  


  1. We were just talking about #II in my 20c China class: I used the “who lost China?” debate as a way to talk about what the US did do, and how few other viable options there were in the context of the Cold War. Given how intense the Cold War was becoming in the US, it doesn’t seem plausible to me that Truman recognizes the PRC at that point.

    Even if #I happened, that doesn’t necessarily preclude China in its present configuration; in fact, it could be leverage for a takeover of Vietnam, at least rhetorically. Look at the Koguryo debate with Korea….

  2. What a great post, Charles. I love it.

    As for Zheng He, what if instead of an eigth voyage he had simply extended one of the earlier ones? Following Dreyer’s lead, what if seventy years before Columbus sailed the ocean blue, Zheng’s armada had made a what’s the term these days?…a port call off the coast of Spain or Venice? Or perhaps had sailed up the Thames to visit the English? Nothing hostile, just a friendly visit.

  3. Assertions are empty if key evidence and research is ignored. China’s maritime program that led to the European Age of Exploration is amply analyzed in The 1421 Heresy, ISBN: 1-4208-7349-0 and DVD Pre-Columbian Chinese Exploration of the World, 978-0-9799239-0-6. When hard evidence is presented and proof is offered, they cannot be sidestepped just to advance a preferred agenda.

  4. You are very welcome. My comments were meant to elicit a response if disproof to my findings can be substantiated. That is how the spirit of research should be honored.

  5. Apologies, Anatole, your comment was rather general and I certainly agree with what you said in it. I also appreciate your continued reading of our blog and your comments on Alan’s piece “Menzies and the problem of the “Smoking Gun” document” (1/14/2006).

    Readers who want a more detailed exposition of the 1421 Heresy thesis can consult which explains that “Historian/researcher Chao C. Chien, writing under the penname Anatole Andro… [finds] the evidence overwhelmingly suggests that not only had the Chinese circumnavigated the world, they reached its extremities perhaps even before the Ming.” There is a link to a synopsis of the book which includes wonderful maps and drawings.

    Readers who want a detailed response to the book can see the review by Captain P.J. Rivers .

  6. Point taken, though Wikipedia does say “male soprano.” But perhaps this is arguing over nothing, or another absence?

  7. I have another thing that didn’t happen: the continuation and eventual hegemony of Mohist thought. It’s not too far fetched. Confucianism was revived under the Han at least in part for political purposes. What if the rulers had decided that Mohism was a better basis for state legitimacy? What if there had been official support for Mohist learning and Mohism was designated as the official curriculum for the examination system? Our most fundamental understandings of “Chinese culture” would be profoundly different…..

  8. What if Central Asia had been incorporated into the Chinese cultural sphere rather than the Islamic? What if the Divine Wind hadn’t sunk the Mongols — would China now be arguing that Japan was ‘sacred national territory’? What if the Americans had purchased Taiwan in the late 1860s? What if Koxinga had lived long enough to incorporate Luzon into the Cheng empire of the 1670s? Man I love this stuff

    CAN OF WORMS: What if the Chinese had invented western-style science before westerners did?


  9. Another what-if is that instead of allowing the Chiang`s KMT regime to impose complete rule over Taiwan, the US acted in a way to ensure that it only carried out its assignment of taking the surrender of Japanese forces and to place the question of the future of former Japanese colonies, such as Taiwan and Korea in a UN trusteeship pending a decision through plebiscite or other democratic procedures by their people. Such an alternative may have both foreclosed (or perhaps followed) the eruption of the February 28th “Incident“ (popular uprising) of 1947 and the subsequent massacre and, since if Chiang did not control Taiwan, a PLA invasion since, if Chiang and the KMT regime were not in Taiwan, there would have been no reason to continue the KMT-CCP civil war to its shores.

  10. Over 5000 years of history, The Asian history was always tied to Chinese history. Never, once it was peaceful. During the unification, or implosion, violence was the ruling party’s motto. The emperor or the communist polibuto never cared and never will a squad of human life. The recent rise of China is the same. If we think this rise of power will happen withoug blood shed, we are blind and ignore the fact that has been the source of major violence in Main Asia for 5000 years. So, China will have subs, carriers, nukes and so on and will continue to amass them until the world domination. United China had no enemy, So, Today’s communist polibuto emperors will not have enemy in the future until China implodes. China will dominate the world, one sub, one carrier at a time if it takes 1000 years. Most of Eastern or Western countries will not have the vision, patience, money or will to follow China. So, we all should be ready to deliver our virgin daughters to emperor like most Asian countries did thousands years ago. or We create internal problems for China to implode.
    One day, China will take over Taiwan, and Senkaky islands and expand to pacific and take more.. remember, Panama military base is already theirs. So, be ready.. the question is not “if” but when. maybe in 200-300 years. maybe

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