This passage is taken from a twentieth-century
book about China.
history China had believed herself the
of civilization, surrounded by barbarians.
She was the Middle
Kingdom, the center of the universe, whose
Emperor was the Son
of Heaven, ruling by the Mandate of Heaven.
Convinced of their
superior values, the Chinese considered
that China’s greatness (5)
was owed to principles of social order
over a harmonious whole.
All outsiders whose misfortune was to live
beyond her borders
were “barbarians’’ and
necessarily inferiors who were expected,
and indeed required, to make their approach,
if they insisted on
coming, bearing tribute and performing
the kowtow in token of
From the time of Marco
Polo to the eighteenth century, visiting
Westerners, amazed and admiring,
were inclined to take China
at her own valuation. Her recorded history
began in the third
millennium B.C., her bronzes were as old
as the pyramids, her
classical age was contemporary with that
of Greece, her Confucian
canon of ethics predated the New Testament
if not the Old.
She was the inventor of paper, porcelain,
silk, gunpowder, the
clock and movable type, the builder of
the Great Wall, one of the
wonders of the world, the creator of fabrics
and ceramics of exquisite (20)
beauty and of an art of painting that was
and expressive when Europe’s
was still primitive and flat . . . .
When at the end of
the eighteenth century Western ships and merchants surged against China’s shores, eager for tea and silk
and cotton, they found no reciprocal enthusiasm.
Enclosed in the (25)
isolation of superiority, Imperial China
wanted no influx of
strangers from primitive islands
called Britain or France
who came to live off the riches of the
Middle Kingdom bearing
only worthless articles for exchange. They
had ugly noses and
coarse manners and wore ridiculous clothes
sleeves and trousers, tight collars and
coats that had tails down
the back but failed to close in front.
These were not the garments
of reasonable men.
A past-oriented society,
safe only in seclusion, sensed a threat
from the importunate West. The Imperial
every barrier possible by refusals, evasions,
to foreign entry or settlement or the opening of formal
Splendidly remote in the “Great Within’’ of the
City of Peking, the court refused to concern itself with
knocking on its doors. It would admit foreign embassies who
to plead for trade treaties only if they performed the ritual
genuflections and nine prostrations in approaching the
of Heaven. British envoys, after surmounting innumerable
to reach Peking, balked at the kowtow and turned back