Six experts discuss how war, trade and diplomacy won (and lost) power for the east Asian giant throughout history


Zheng Yangwen

Trade made China rich, particularly from the 17th century as it absorbed much of the world’s silver

In 1600, China was “the largest and most sophisticated of all unified realms on earth”. So wrote Sinologist Jonathan Spence, reflecting the achievements of the Ming dynasty (1368–1644), when China wielded huge influence internationally, in part because of the boom in global trade. But do cultural influence, trade and wealth equate to ‘superpower’? Historians have used the term ‘dynastic cycle’ to characterise the waxing and waning of China’s fortunes. This framework may help us probe whether China has always (or ever) been the greatest global superpower.

Various dynasties have been lauded by different historians. Mark Edward Lewis labelled the Tang (618–907) a “cosmopolitan empire”, while John Fairbank called the Song (960–1279) “China’s greatest age”. The epic voyages of Admiral Zheng He (sailing 1405–33) suggested to some that the early Ming was “when China ruled the seas”, whereas Charles Hucker concluded that the reign of three great Qing emperors during the late 17th and the 18th centuries constituted “China’s last golden age”.

One source of power was trade, in three commodities in particular. Silk spread the gospel of early imperial China during the Han–Tang era, through central Asia, the Middle East and Europe. Porcelain defined China’s relationship with the world from the Tang–Song to the Ming–Qing dynastic eras; international thirst for ‘china’ was boosted in the 17th and 18th centuries when tea was added to the menu of goods traded globally, and Chinoiserie [a style of art, furniture and architecture] swept through western Europe.

Trade, then, made China rich, particularly from the 17th century as it absorbed much of the world’s silver supply. But it was also trade – particularly the growing shortage of silver – that led to the Opium Wars and the decline of the Qing dynasty in the 19th century. That marked the end of China’s last ‘golden age’, and was followed by the so-called ‘century of unequal treaties’ that led to the concession of autonomy and territories such as Hong Kong.

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Each dynasty, then, rises and amasses power, but ultimately wanes. The post-Mao ‘peaceful rise’ may have impressed many around the world, but the communist regime is unlikely to escape the inevitable dynastic decline.

Zheng Yangwen is professor of Chinese history at the University of Manchester, and author of Ten Lessons in Modern Chinese History (Manchester University Press, 2018)

Rana Mitter

China dominated minds in Asia for much of two millennia because of its ability to shape the way people lived and thought

Was China ever a superpower? If you asked many Chinese people, they might say that the Tang dynasty (618–907) would qualify. That dynasty united large swathes of territory, and also saw China influenced by, and influencing, the central Asian states around it, with emperors taking the title ‘Khan’ to show their dominance over the wider region. Nearby societies such as Japan that were not part of China’s political system were also shaped by language, religion and ideas from the mainland.

More controversial, but perhaps the most worthy of the title ‘superpower’, was the Yuan dynasty (1271–1368). Founded by Kublai Khan, its rulers were not ethnic Chinese but Mongol. His empire’s control over the states to the west of China was somewhat nominal, but did show how far Beijing’s influence could extend. Even though Kublai Khan was not Chinese, he drew on China’s traditions of Confucian thinking to shape his government – a sign of the power of that culture, even in the thinking of a conqueror.

French illumination showing Kublai Khan giving Marco Polo a letter of safe conduct
Kublai Khan gives Marco Polo a letter of safe conduct, shown in a medieval French illumination. The Mongol ruler 'drew on China's traditions of Confucian thinking to shape his government", says Rana Mitter (Print Collector/Getty Images)

The definition of China has changed hugely over the years. The small group of states centred around the Yellow river has expanded over the years to become today’s territorial behemoth that dominates the map of east Asia. Yet, for much of that time, China was divided politically. It was culture that united it, and culture that gave it its greatest power.

The territorial reach of China has rarely been its most important quality as an aspirant to superpower status. Just as the United States remains a superpower in large part because the world’s default language is English, so China dominated minds in east and central Asia for much of two millennia because of its ability to shape the way that people lived and thought, even when it had little direct political control over them.

It may be that in the 21st century, as China seeks to create a ‘new Silk Road’ through international investment in Africa and Asia, that it creates a new influential role for itself.

Rana Mitter is professor of the history and politics of modern China at the University of Oxford. His books include China’s War with Japan, 1937–1945: The Struggle for Survival (Allen Lane, 2013).

James Millward

Chinese civilisation has comprised a great soft superpower in its value to diverse peoples

We shouldn’t talk about ‘China’ as a continuous, monolithic polity that was ‘always’ where it is today. In the nationalistic official version, ‘China’ has thousands of years of history. But of course the diverse lands and peoples of the People’s Republic of China aren’t the same as the lands of the Zhou dynasty (c1046–256 BC), any more than Egypt today under Abdel Fattah el-Sisi is the same as the Egypt of the pharaohs. There have been many monarchies ruling different parts of the east Asian mainland, just as there have been in Europe. Though we tend to call them all ‘Chinese dynasties’, they weren’t any more politically, territorially or ethnically continuous or uniform than polities in Europe following the Roman empire.

Culturally, there are great Chinese continuities. Not only have Chinese dynasties been influenced by the linguistic, legal, literary and religio-philosophical traditions of societies in first-millennium-BC northern China, so were Vietnam and Korea (conquered off and on by empires based in China) and even Japan (which was never conquered by a China-based state). Moreover, Chinese cultural influence lasted and spread even after the soldiers withdrew – thus one might say that Chinese civilisation, like that of the west or the Islamic sphere, has comprised a great soft superpower in its value to diverse peoples.

As for hard power, since the fall of the Han empire (202 BC– 220 AD) the most expansive China-based empires were those deeply influenced or ruled by non-Chinese-speaking peoples. The Tang (618–907) enrolled Turks and central Asians as soldiers and officials. Tang Turkic armies briefly conquered parts of central Asia under command of a Korean general. The Mongols assembled fragmented regions north and south of the Yangtze into the Great Yuan khanate (1271–1368) which, after the fall of the Mongol empire, became the Ming (1368–1644).

Besides the Ming lands, the Manchu Qing empire (1636– 1912) annexed Taiwan, Tibet, Mongolia and the Uyghur region. The Chinese Communist Party took over most of these new Qing conquests, but now struggles to fit them within its increasingly Han-centric idea of ‘China’. A true superpower today would recognise that the greatness of the Chinese tradition lies in its potential for inclusiveness, not its narrow chauvinism.

James Millward is professor of inter-societal history at Georgetown University, Washington DC. His books include The Silk Road: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press, 2013)

Anne Gerritsen

When we look at production and manufacturing, we see that China is, and has been for a long time, the greatest superpower

What makes any nation a global superpower? Military might? Political authority? Territorial expansion? In various forms and at different times, China boasted all of these, and therefore should be considered among the great international powers. When we look at production and manufacturing, though, we probably have to agree that China is, and has been for a long time, the greatest global superpower.

Think of tea. The consumption of tea (steeped leaves from the shrub Camellia sinensis) has a long history in China. Biomolecular mass spectrometry analyses of plant remains, presented in a recent article in Nature, demonstrate that tea was drunk by emperors of the Han dynasty in the first century BC, and was also traded along the Silk Roads to western Tibet by the second to third century AD. Its popularity steadily rose, spreading throughout Asia and to other regions, and in time tea produced in China came to be traded in vast quantities all over the world. This production to supply international demand certainly suggests a global superpower.

A white and blue kraak porcelain plate. Produced in China 17th-18th century
A white and blue kraak porcelain plate. Produced in China 17th-18th century. The industrial-scale manufacture and global export of such ceramics from the 16th century helped fun the country's rise to superpower status, says Anne Gerritsen. (DEA / A. DAGLI ORTI/Getty Images)

Another China-made product had, if possible, an even bigger impact on global trade. China, as the name suggests, is the birthplace of the type of ceramics known in the west as china. Though low-fired earthenwares and stonewares were made all over the world, only China had the kind of clays that could withstand firing temperatures over 1,300°C, creating a hard, vitreous product called porcelain.

As early as the ninth century, Chinese potters produced porcelains for domestic and overseas markets. From the 13th century, white-bodied ceramics with cobalt-blue underglaze decorations were manufactured in workshops using methods that resembled assembly-line production. Many millions of blue-and-white ceramics were manufactured and exported to Europe alone. This production of goods for global export on an industrial scale has a history that goes back at least to the 16th century. On that basis, we might say that china – rather than military might or territorial expansion – is what made China the greatest global superpower.

Anne Gerritsen is professor of history at the University of Warwick. Her new book The City of Blue and White: Chinese Porcelain and the Early Modern World will be published by Cambridge University Press

Chi-kwan Mark

The acceleration of globalisation since the 1990s facilitated China’s integration into the world economy

China under current president Xi Jinping is a global superpower. With the world’s second-largest economy, a permanent seat in the United Nations Security Council, a modernised armed force and an ambitious space programme, China has the potential to replace the United States as the greatest superpower in the future.

China’s quest for great power status had its origins in Mao Zedong’s era, from the 1950s. By fighting the US to a standstill during the Korean War (1950–53) and helping the Vietnamese communists to defeat the French in 1954 and then the Americans, China became a regional power to be reckoned with. Recognising China’s strategic signifi-cance, the United States pursued rapprochement with its former adversary from 1969 onwards, culminating in the establishment of diplomatic relations in 1979.

In 1978, Deng Xiaoping, who succeeded Mao as China’s paramount leader, adopted a policy of reform and opening up. Embracing market forces, Deng opened China to foreign trade and investment. Notwithstanding the 1989 Tiananmen Square student protests, which were forcibly suppressed, and the collapse of communism in the Soviet bloc in 1989–91, which created a siege mentality in Deng, China’s economic opening continued unabated. The acceleration of globalisation since the 1990s facilitated China’s integration into the world economy, particularly after its admission to the World Trade Organisation in late 2001.

If Deng’s China was an economic superpower in the making, China under Xi Jinping possesses the attributes of a global superpower. China is more confident, more ambitious and more proactive than ever. Xi thinks and acts globally by seeking to build a “community of shared destiny for mankind”. The Belt and Road Initiative is an ambitious infrastructure and investment project that aims to establish trading links across Eurasia, effectively reviving the old Silk Roads. Though some western critics see the initiative as China’s ‘debt trap’ – part of plans to dominate the world – Xi regards it as win-win cooperation that should become the norm of a new world order. How the reigning superpower, the United States, responds to the rising China will shape the future of world history.

Chi-kwan Mark is senior lecturer in international history at Royal Holloway, University of London, and author of The Everyday Cold War: Britain and China 1950–1972 (Bloomsbury, 2017)

Pamela Kyle Crossley

Imperial China never prioritised a state large enough to effect social or industrial transformation

China has returned to its historical status as the world’s most influential economy, but it has never before been anything like a superpower. Until the 18th century, China and south Asia accounted for about half of global GDP, having developed large-scale unmechanised manufactures that were exported overland across Eurasia and by sea throughout the Indian Ocean. China’s exports of silk, porcelain and tea brought it foreign silver and also shaped global patterns of transport on land and sea, along with the new European industries of shipping, insurance and finance.

In the Qing era (1636–1912), China was also one of the largest land empires of the early modern period, established through military conquest of Manchuria, Taiwan, Mongolia, Tibet and eastern Turkestan (now the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region). However, many of these territories were under indirect rule, as was much of south-west China. This period is sometimes seen as the height of the ‘Chinese World Order’ or the ‘tributary system’, believed by many to have given China central and superior status in a voluntary transnational system of harmony and prosperity. Yet this was a mirage: for the most part, China did not insist upon hegemony over these regions, and purported emissary states often did not fulfil that role.

Qing preferences for indirect rule of its own territories and a complete lack of regularity in its relationships with ostensible tributaries were related to the fact that, while Chinese rulers were content to collect the profits from international trade based on their goods, they never attempted to construct or control networks for the transport of those goods. Instead, European charter companies – especially the British East India Company – built and profited from the shipping and finance networks generated by Chinese manufactures and wealth. Unlike Britain after 1815, imperial China never achieved superpower status because it never – not in Qing times, nor before – put a priority on a state large and expensive enough to take the initiative in social, cultural or industrial transformation.

Only since 1949 has China pursued a scale of government of society that permits it to compete seriously with Europe, Japan and the United States, and only in the 21st century will it credibly claim superpower status. Nothing in Chinese history indicates how China will conduct itself in such a role.

Pamela Kyle Crossley is professor of Asian and Middle Eastern studies at Dartmouth College, New Hampshire


This article was taken from issue 17 of BBC World Histories magazine, published in September 2019