China Rises? China Wakes?

“Beware of China, for when the dragon wakes she will shake the world.”

Napoleon? Although there’s no evidence that he ever said it, the quote caught the essence of what westerners thought should be the case and has been endlessly recycled.

But over the last decade a lot of  loose talk about “China Rising” has been going around, getting more intense in the last couple of years.

History News Network has a collection of recent posts gathered from the internet, “HNN Hot Topics: China Rising.”

China Beat, our second most favorite blog (after this one) has run a powerful set of pieces on “Big China” books, that is, books that loudly hail or bemoan China’s rise or menace. Jeffrey Wasserstrom, has roundup, “Six Takes on Martin Jacques,” a follow up to his piece in Time Magazine online blog (Feb 8, 2010), “Big China Books: Enough of the Big Picture.” Jeff skewers the Olympic scale conclusion jumping in a gaggle of these books, especially Martin Jacques, When  China Rules the World : The End of the Western World and the Birth of a  New Global Order.

The China Beat piece also points out another recent well informed and provocative piece, Richard Rigby’s “The Challenge of China” at East Asia Forum.


  1. I’m skeptical of all the “China rising” talk, mainly because it tends to come from sources prone to glib, uninformed talk about other subjects that later turns out to be completely wrong.

    However, I think the error of the root of it is that people keep on confusing China with a really big European nation state, sort of a big France. So its taken for granted that a powerful China will throw its weight around in distant places, since that is the sort of thing that European nation states did. Never mind that the Chinese had no interest in doing this during the previous period in their history when they were more developed than the rest of the world (China and its near neighbors is sufficient).

    Second it underrates the chances that China will break up, when it went through disunited periods several times in its history, in some cases coming close to developing a European style nation state system. In fact, the cycle vigorous dynasty unites China (usually very bloodily), gathers tribute from its neighbors, declines, then breaks up has been stressed by Chinese historians as a major dynamic in Chinese history.

  2. Well put — we should be skeptical of both words in “China Rises,” since, as you point out, “China” is a concept that needs to be explained differently in different contexts, and “rises” is so abstract as to be practically meaningless.

  3. When in St Helene, Napoleon did have a few occasions to talk to English captains and envoys returning from the Far East, but the available memoirs and biographies (e.g. “The life of Napoleon, emperor of the French”, by Walter Scott ) don’t seem to mention him saying anything particularly interesting about China. He was quite interested to hear about the Ryukyu (Loo-Choo) Islands, and was particularly impressed by the pacific character of that insular state ( “Narrative of a voyage to Java, China, and the great Loo-Choo Island…”, by Basil Hall, , pp. 79-80 )

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