The United States and China: A History from the Eighteenth Century to the Present

The United States and China

Author(s):  Dong Wang

ISBN:          7980742557826

Publisher:  Rowman & Littlefield

Year:           2013

Price:           £54.95

Reviewed by Mathew T. Brundage, PhD Candidate, Kent State University, United States.

Dong Wang’s The United States and China: A History from the Eighteenth Century to the Present is an ambitious historical narrative that chronicles over two centuries of the Sino-American relationship.  Giving equal weight to the pre- and post-1949 eras, Wang aims to provide a broader context of how these two “empires” have arrived at their contemporary status. The text begins with three seemingly competing propositions: that the Sino-American diplomatic relationship has always been a contest between two states in a changing global context; that China is “catching up” and clashing with the United States’ post-WWII desire for international hegemony; and that China has always challenged the role the United States has played globally and regionally. Wang is admittedly attempting to combine the western-centric approach of John King Fairbank, the China-centered approach of Paul Cohen, and  the global/ international approach of William Kirby, with the purpose of showing that their interpretive models have more areas of convergence than scholars realize.

The United States and China is a thoroughly grounded chronological narrative, interspersed with brief arguments meant to reframe traditional understanding of the Sino-American relationship. Wang divides the text into three periodizations beginning with the arrival of the first American ships in Canton in 1784 through the end of the Qing Dynasty, followed by the establishment of the Republic of China through the revolution and into the 1960s, and ends with the beginnings of “rapprochement” in the 1970s to the near-present.  Individual chapters focus on the major problems and events that shaped the relationship during those periods. The book begins with the first American trade ship from the United States, the Empress of China, and how private capital, British competition, and the continued influx of opium into China molded the “old trade” and the first steps of the Sino-American relationship. Chapter 2 illustrates one of Wang’s main historiographic counterarguments, that the United States was not content to play second fiddle to the influence of the British in China in the nineteenth century, and that Americans aimed to mobilize the gains made in the Treaty of Wanghia as a means to secure an “open door” for their own benefit. Likewise, China hoped to play foreign nations off of each other with the hope of securing its own interests as the power of the Qing continued to diminish. The third chapter follows the complex issues of Chinese immigration in a global context, noting how local, regional, and national cultural and legal shifts in the United States often overshadow the narratives of Chinese agency within the immigration systems as well as overlooking the judicial decisions that preserved what rights they had. Following the dynamic relationship between American missionaries and Chinese converts, according to Wang in Chapter 4, missionaries faced a moral dilemma in attempting to ensure their own security by cleaving closely to American interests, while the opium trade undermined Chinese support of their endeavors and influence.

The second segment of the book traces the emergence of a more complicated relationship throughout much of the twentieth century. Chapter 5 outlays the conflicts that emerged from Wilsonian idealism and Chinese internationalism in the face of the realities of post-WWI agreements. Chapter 6 continues with the massive shifts in the relationship during WWII, the reemergence of the Chinese civil war, and the rift in Sino-American connections due to the establishment of the People’s Republic and the exile of Chiang Kai-shek and the Guomindang to Taiwan. Focusing on four case studies of “agents of encounter” – Wellington Koo, Pearl S. Buck, Edgar Snow, and Chen Xujing – chapter 7 shows that their individual experiences shaped and typified the major trends from within the larger international discourse. And Chapter 8 merges a fairly basic recounting of Sino-American conflict During the Korean and Vietnam Wars, and throughout multiple crises over the status of Taiwan, with the development of an “equilibrium” in the relationship as the Sino-Soviet rift encouraged greater cooperation between China and the United States (p.193).

The final third of the book traces the long-term reorientation of the relationship as the power of the United States grew in the waning years of the Cold War and as China returned rapidly to the global stage economically and politically. Chapter 9 emphasizes the impact of domestic politics and the use of intermediaries by both sides as the keystone to the reestablishment of official connections. Chapter 10 traces the responses to Sino-American  rapprochement and the questions of whether or not to support the recognition of the PRC by some American mission groups, while others on both sides of the Pacific concerned themselves with attempting to understand the economic impact that China’s reemergence on the global marketplace was going to have. Chapter 11 examines the early 1990s through the present as an era of weathering tensions. Most favored nation negotiations, repercussions to the Tiananmen Square protests, human rights concerns, continuing debates over Taiwan, the accidental bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, and the landing of a damaged American spy plane in Hainan represented the problems in the relationship before the post-2001 “upward spiral” of improved connections (p. 288). The final chapter traces the most recent developments in the relationship. The gap between political and economic versus social ties between the two countries continued to lag, economic expansion in the face of massive trade imbalances continued, and competing soft power pressures over human rights issues and the Chinese image abroad left questions as to the future direction of American and Chinese relations.

As a result of the construction of the book, much of the direction focuses on establishing the basic building blocks of major events in the relationship.  For example, Wang provides perhaps one of the clearest and most concise explanations of the establishment and mobilization of the Qing dynasty’s four-tiered bureaucracy at Canton, meant as a way to deal with and control foreigners within their boundaries in the late-eighteenth and early nineteenth century. This level of detail permeates the entire work, including resolving the seemingly hypocritical logic in the American calls for maintaining an “open door” for trade, while simultaneously advocating for immigration restrictions. Perhaps the most significant contribution to existing narratives is the assertion that, despite the overt political rhetoric throughout the twentieth century, American and Chinese leaders persistently maintained official and unofficial avenues of communication which resulted in a more cooperative relationship. What emerged were continuous policies that transcended seemingly divergent presidencies and premierships in regards to their approaches to one another and against the more inflammatory perceptions of outside interests.

Within the larger chronological model of each chapter, the text transitions between analyzing the impact of local, national, and international events on this unique relationship.  Wang succeeds in showing that the Sino-American relationship was often as much a product of being hemmed in by global changes – shifting economic centers, World Wars, political rifts – as it was one nation reacting to the actions of the other. She openly challenges the notion that American immigration policies were a zero-sum endeavor. The same legal mechanisms that enforced exclusion policies (treaties, laws, etc.) were also used by the Chinese to gain entry and protection, especially in the realm of guarantees of 14th Amendment citizenship rights of children born to Chinese immigrants in the United States (United States in U.S. v. Wong Kim Ark). The longue dureé focus on political, economic, and missionary influences proves to be insightful on those topics, but often overshadows other aspects of the relationship. The analysis of the cultural relationship between Americans and Chinese gets some lip service, almost enticingly so, but those threads are mostly left by the wayside in service of the larger, overarching narrative aims. As such, The United States and China can serve as an excellent introduction for undergraduate and graduate students to the tumultuous relationship that has endured over two centuries. The extensive further readings included at the end of each chapter only serve to add to that value. Wang concludes by presaging the future relationship of China and the United States through a historical lens. She argues that the “complex fluidity” of the relationship has always existed, but that “historical cures” for contemporary ills have always and will always be found (p. 332). While not outright overturning the traditional narratives that have dominated the discourse of Sino-American relations, Wang’s success lies in relocating the debate somewhere between the many perspectives, forcing historians of to reconsider long held understandings in the face of patterns that emerge from studying the entirety of Chinese-American relations.

Suggested citation:

Brundage, Mathew T. (2014). Review of “The United States and China: A History from the Eighteenth Century to the Present”, by Dong Wang, East Asian Integration Studies, Vol. 7, no.21, Internet file: