By Rachel Parsons
Observers know the close but sometimes tense relationship between the United States and China is complex, but not many Americans realize just how long it has existed. Author and veteran journalist John Pomfret sheds some light on that lengthy history in his latest book.
“It’s like the Buddhist cycle of reincarnation,” Pomfret said at a panel last month sponsored by USC’s US-China Institute. “Where every 20 years or so we fall in love with each other and every 20 years or so we fall in hate with each other.”
His latest book “The Beautiful Country and the Middle Kingdom” examines the history of the two countries from the earliest days of the formation of the Unites States. After the Revolutionary War the US was shut out of British ports and it needed to build economic ties to survive.
“The idea of trade with China was extremely important for the continued existence of the United States,” Pomfret said. “In 1783 we were blocked from all British ports so the founders thought, go to China to trade. And it made the foundations of the American industrial revolution.”
This early interaction would grow into what Pomfret called “a cosmic symbiosis,” an entangling of economic and cultural interests that sometimes benefited both sides and sometimes created mutual suspicion.
Throughout the lecture, he told the large, complicated history through a series of small, personal stories he found in his research and placed those against a human backdrop, rather than a purely analytical one.
“One of the ideas that I tried to play with in the book is to try to combine the story of Chinese in America with the story of China and America because in the academic world they’re often kind of divided … and the story of Chinese in America in is really important in China because the Chinese respected that so many came to America and did so well.”
It went the same, at times, for Americans—especially single American women who went to China in the 19th century, often in a missionary capacity, and became successful, respected professionals when they were denied those opportunities at home.
These cycles are mirrored in economic policies as well. Today’s political talk of high tariffs and protectionism is nothing new, Pomfret pointed out. Both countries have instituted the same policies in different periods, taking lead from one another for two centuries now.
It is knowledge of this past that provides context for today’s headlines and how the relationship evolves in the future.
“Nothing happens in a vacuum,” Clayton Dube, executive director of the USC US-China Institute, said after the talk. “It’s important to have historical perspective on issues.” Dube added that the important idea, in his view, is that there is no need for war if both sides have historical understanding.
Pomfret has firsthand understanding as well as academic. He lived in China several times from the early 1980s until last year. He has seen the contemporary trend in political and social change in person.
“In ‘88 it was a very different country than it is today. And in a lot of ways it was freer because people were debating all sorts of ideas … people were discussing politics, which can’t be talked about
Lyly Gan, a 28-year-old from China currently working in the United States, came to the lecture with the same firsthand knowledge. Speaking for a young, educated generation who can travel outside China, she hoped to see China strike a better balance.
“We have to come out from the self-centered box,” she said. “We feel there needs to a bridge.”