During the “Century of Humiliation” from 1839 to 1945 China was taken to its knees by foreign imperialists. The country was carved up, exploited, looted, raped and dethroned as the world’s greatest superpower. Only in 1949 when the communists triumphed over the Kuomintang in the civil war did China become whole again and begin the road back to its former greatness.
This is the Communist Party’s narrative of history. It’s the message that’s taught in textbooks and reinforced in the media, museums and movies every day throughout China. The elephant in the room that this narrative ignores of course is what happened for the first 30 years of communist China. And it also ignores the damage done by wholly domestic forces during the Century of Humiliation. The below charts show the relative death tolls inflicted on China by domestic and foreign forces over the past two centuries.
The first breaks down the major deadly events.
Getting an accurate count on these events is notoriously difficult*; especially when looking back to the 19th century. But even when we look at the range of estimates the picture is pretty obvious. The next chart shows when we combine these events into a simple Chinese vs. foreign-caused death comparison.
Here’s what it looks like when you just compare deaths caused by the Communist Party’s policies to the events of the Century of Humiliation (This graph doesn’t include the Communist Revolution).
In just 27 years the Communist Party managed to kill significantly more Chinese than all the foreign aggressors did in the previous 106 years combined.
Now in many ways these graphs miss the point. Killings were only one of the grievances over the Century of Humiliation. The damage done to the Chinese psyche was caused more by foreigners stealing territory, imposing unequal treaties, looting cultural relics, exploiting Chinese people, and of course, the heinousness of Japan’s war crimes. But making other considerations goes both ways. During the party’s first 30 years it took the personal property and land of millions, destroyed countless historical relics, denounced and humiliated people for the crime of being intellectual, and enabled violence often every bit as vile as what the Japanese committed. But these death tolls simply provide one objective measurement of the damage caused to China, and they have some important implications.
The nationalism derived from the Century of Humiliation legitimizes the party’s rule and unites the people against a common enemy. China’s education system emphasizes the greatness of China’s 5,000 year civilization and in many ways promotes the idea that Chinese are exceptional people by nature. Take this question from a college entrance exam:
25) Since reform and opening up, China has successfully embarked on improving national conditions and adapted to the road of peaceful development. Adhering to the path of peaceful development is in line with China’s historical and cultural traditions. This is because______
- A. The Chinese nation is a peace-loving nation
- B. Peace and development is the trend of the times
- C. In foreign exchange the Chinese people have always stressed “loving neighbors” and “finding common interests among diversity “
- D. Chinese culture is a culture of peace. Longing for peace has always been a spiritual characteristic of the Chinese people [A,C, & D are "correct"]
China was the greatest nation in the world and only lost its footing because of incompetent leadership and war-warmongering foreigners who don’t share China’s peaceful values. The party kicked out the imperialists for good (according to its version of history) and still takes an aggressive stance on any whiff of foreign insult or interference with China. Therefore, the Communist Party is “The inevitable choice in China’s social development.“
However, to acknowledge that much of what derailed the country in the first place was home-grown violence would take a lot of wind from that idea’s sails. So would the implication that the rescuer (the CCP) did far greater damage to the country than those it needed rescuing from.
These numbers also matter for low-level foreign relations. Chinese businessmen have been known to invoke the Century of Humiliation as leverage with Western counterparts in getting a better deal. You’ll sometimes even hear common street vendors use historical grievances to justify overcharging foreigners. There remains a strong sense that China is still poor because foreigners set China’s progress back a century. So when there’s a chance to balance the scales a little bit, some try to seize their due compensation.
In the coming months as the party begins its difficult power transition (which just became even more complicated) and tries to grab whatever legitimacy it can, we can probably expect to see even more international events covered in China from an angle that harkens back to the humiliating century. And we might even see an uptick in coverage of scarcely-newsworthy events that portray foreigners in China as exploiters or aggressors. It would be a travesty to deny the damage that foreign powers did to China in the past two centuries, but when talking about setting back China’s development, these numbers suggest that foreigners’ role was slim next to certain other “parties.”
*The main sources for these charts are listed on necrometetrics.com here and here and were compared to a few other independent estimates to get a reasonable range. Some of the “various internal uprisings” have very scant data with only a single (likely unreliable) number though and should be taken accordingly.