China, the inexplicable – I found it impossible to write one article about why the Chinese government behaves the way it does, so unlike what we expect of great states. Its political attitude is shaped by other forces than those which shaped the West, found in its history, culture, experience and much more. It is a world apart, and that suggests a beginning: its geography.
Political maps are useless things – splodges of colour with no context. They show China as connected to many neighbours, but it is really a island continent cut off from the world. Its name for itself is Chung-kuo – which means ‘Middle Kingdom’, and so it has always seen itself: the one civilisation alone in the world with barbarians hovering at the fringes.
China is an island: it is surrounded by the sea to the east and south-east, almost impassable mountains to south-west and west and deserts within and to the north. Before flight, anyone who wished to enter China would have to come by sea or through the narrow gaps between the mountains and the deserts; lands sparsely inhabited. Mostly they trickled in by narrow camel caravans; sometimes with an horde of a million armed horsemen over the Gobi Desert.
Within its bounds, the Chinese learned to find all they needed to live and for their rulers to prosper, if not the people, and this led to almost complete indifference to the outside world until it was a threat. Outsiders had nothing to teach China – no cultural insights were to be gained from the nomadic Mongols and Turks to the north and west nor from the field-dwelling Manchus. They did at some point absorb from India Buddhist ideas (which India itself largely rejected) but it just fell into the mix of ancestral religion. (It was of use as a weapon: the Chinese sent Buddhist monks to Mongolia to transform it from a peerless warrior nation into a people of despicable weakness.)
Ships from Europe and from Britain sailed to China early on, but not a single Chinese junk sailed the other way, and apart from a grand expedition around the Indian Ocean by Zheng He that was never repeated, they were content with home waters, and Chinese ships never developed that world-going capacity that Western and Arabian ships did.
When the Portuguese arrived in the South China Sea, they were a curiosity. When the British and Dutch East India Companies arrived, they appear to have been seen as no more than more strange barbarians from whom China had nothing to learn. These new barbarians though were a good source of silver, paid willingly for silk and tea, but the Chinese were not willing to buy from them, until the opium started to arrive from India.
Suddenly, China met the concept of a world outside itself.