The 'Century of Humiliation,' Then and Now: Changing Chinese Perceptions Of the International Order

29 Pages Posted: 13 Aug 2009 Last revised: 6 Oct 2009

Date Written: 2009


China’s elites have long grappled with the legacy of the “century of humiliation,” the period between the beginning of the First Opium War in 1839 and the end of the Chinese civil war in 1949. The events of this period dealt an intense shock to China’s worldview and self-image, as it faced the intrusion of foreign powers that, for the first time, had both the inclination and the ability to force open China’s economy and topple its millennia-old political system. Where before China’s leaders had had little concept of an “international” arena, they were now exposed to a global system of power relationships whose dynamics – though almost entirely out of China’s control – would determine its fate. They came to believe that this system was one in which competition and struggle among nations are natural and unavoidable phenomena.

In the 60 years since Mao's revolution ended the “Century of Humiliation," China has become quite adept at working within the international system that once threatened to subjugate it entirely. Today, the PRC’s participation in the global diplomatic, political, military, and economic arenas showcases a nation-state that is an apparently willing and increasingly successful participant in existing international arrangements. At the same time, however, public statements suggest that China’s elites continue to harbor a degree of dissatisfaction with the current international system, and they continue to reference China’s legacy of past “humiliation” as a justification for their suspicion about the intentions of other powers.

This paper focuses on how China’s intellectual and political elites in the late Qing Dynasty and today have assessed the nature of the international system and China’s aspired role in it. I argue that where once China accepted that a competitive world system was "natural" and strove to learn how to prevail within it, today’s elites simultaneously seek to become competitive while also questioning the need to do so. Hence, while China’s elites today strive to show that their nation has accepted the values necessary to hold a leading position within the existing international system, many of them also urge that, in the longer run, the world should consider alternate arrangements. They argue further that China’s prior experience as a “humiliated” nation make it uniquely suited to guide the world into a more peaceful, non-competitive future, although the exact outlines of that future remain hazy.

Keywords: China, Qing Dynasty, PRC, Century of Humiliation

Suggested Citation

Kaufman, Alison, The 'Century of Humiliation,' Then and Now: Changing Chinese Perceptions Of the International Order (2009). APSA 2009 Toronto Meeting Paper, Available at SSRN:

Alison Kaufman (Contact Author)

CNA Corporation ( email )

4825 Mark Center Drive
Alexandria, VA 22311-1850
United States


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