What is the ‘Century of Humiliation’, often referred to in discussions about China? How has it shaped the foreign policy of China and its outlook towards the world?

The ‘century of humiliation’ is the period referring to the century between the first opium war in 1839 to the victory of the Chinese communist party in 1949. This was the period when the Chinese suffered defeats at the hands of Western powers, Russia and Japan. The events marked China’s abrupt transition from a powerful and unified state to a weak and humiliated state.

How it shaped China’s foreign policy and outlook towards the world:

  • It is central to the idea of Chinese nationalism. It taught them that if China falls weak, it will be humiliated again.
  • It is central to the education policy. Its impact is so great that the syllabus of history textbooks is divided into before and after the opium war.
  • The Chinese communist government declared the end of the ‘century of humiliation’ after it came to power in 1949 by defeating the nationalists.
  • The Chinese government still uses the experiences during that period to interpret the dynamics of international relations today.
  • This narrative helps the Chinese Communist government legitimize itself despite curbs on freedom.
  • Based on this experience, the CCP wants China to dominate the world and transform the world order into one that is more conducive to its own interests.
  • As per this narrative, the revenge on the ‘century of humiliation’ will be complete when a China-centric order is established and Taiwan is reunited with the PRC.

However, some have argued that ‘century of humiliation’ is a propaganda of CCP, as the events in China were no different from events in other parts of the world during the colonial period. But it cannot be denied that it occupies a dominant space in the public imagination in China.


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