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The “Century of Humiliation,” Then and Now: Chinese Perceptions of the International Order


  • Alison Adcock Kaufman

    1. Center for Naval Analyses, China Studies
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      An earlier version of this paper was presented at the 2009 Annual Meeting of the American Political Science Association in Toronto. The author thanks Robert Adcock, Thomas Bickford, Avery Goldstein, and Karrie Koesel for their comments on that paper. The opinions presented in this paper are my own and do not represent the views of CNA.


Chinese elites today draw on the “Century of Humiliation” (1839–1949) as a starting point for their views on how China should interact with other nations. Arguments about the nature of international competition, about the reasons that nations succeed or fail in the international arena, and about the prospects for long-term global peace and cooperation draw not just on China's experiences during that period, but on the vocabulary and debates that Qing- and republican-era intellectuals developed to understand the modern international system.

Today there are at least three views among Chinese elites of the international system and China's role in it. All three start from the implicit premise that today's international system has not changed in its essence from the 19th century: the world is composed of strong and weak nation-states that vie for dominance on the global stage. They differ, however, on whether this state of affairs is permanent and on what global role China should seek. Some assert that the international system still revolves around Western interests that aim to subjugate and humiliate weaker nations, and that China's bitter experiences during the Century of Humiliation should provide a cautionary tale about the dangers of this system. A second viewpoint suggests that the current system is acceptable now that China can play a prominent role in it. They assert that China's period of humiliation has ended, and that China should now seek to ensure the stability of the system and to assure other nations of its commitment to doing so. This view suggests that the potential dangers of a competitive international system can be mitigated by adapting existing institutions and practices. A third line of reasoning suggests that China is in a unique position to fundamentally remake the international system because its experiences of shame and subjugation have given the Chinese people an alternative vision of how international relations can and should be conducted.