THE BEAUTIFUL COUNTRY AND THE MIDDLE KINGDOM: America and China, 1776 to the Present.

AuthorHarris, Peter
PositionBook review


America and China, 1776 to the Present.

Author: John Pomfret

Published by. Henry Holt and Co, New York, 2016, 704pp, $9.99.

John Pomfret's historical portrait of relations between China and the United States, and among Chinese, Americans and Chinese Americans, is sweeping, panoramic and replete with fascinating detail, much of it still relevant today.

Published shortly after Donald Trump's election as US president, and some time before Xi Jinping's affirmation as China's paramount leader in the Chinese Communist Party congress held in October 2017, the book was written too soon to explore the still-unpredictable nature of Sino-American relations in the Trump-Xi era. But its fast-moving narrative and extended cast of characters are more than enough to remind us of the fact that for centuries Americans and Chinese have been locked in an intricate relationship of admiration, contempt, love and hate, mutual dependence and sometimes studied indifference. So whatever new economic, financial, political, military and security stresses and strains may emerge between Washington and Beijing in the months and years to come, and however extraordinary China's rise--or rather return--to pre-eminence in recent years has been, we gain a sense from the book that in many respects we have seen many of these stresses and strains before.

(By the way, if you are not a Chinese speaker and are confused by the title of the book, 'Beautiful Country' or 'Beautiful State' is the Chinese for America, Mei guo. Pomfret seems to suggest that this reflects a benign Chinese view of the United States, but that is not particularly so. Early Chinese reformers gave pleasant-sounding names to various Western states, and these have stuck. For example England in Chinese is Yingguo, 'Heroic State', and Germany is De guo, 'Virtuous State'.)

Pomfret considers his subject in several parts. The first two are in some ways the richest. The first describes the emerging relationship in the late 18th and 19th century. It tells how China was a source of inspiration to America's founders. Madison and Jefferson admired Chinas ability to prosper in isolation, and Thomas Paine compared Confucius to Jesus Christ. Early American traders were awed by the country's wealth and size, and some by its good government. This admiration from a distance was soon turned into more nuanced experiences at first hand. These began in the 1830s when one of the world's...

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