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The impact ofpolitical situation and division of the sphere of influence on the choice of the symbolic signifiers that represented the modern China

Throughout history, the Western world’s interpretation of the image of China has kept oscillating like a pendulum between two extremes. The economic and social development of the East and that of the West, along with the changes in the international politics, have acted as indispensable factors in bringing about those changing interpretations.

In his legend of the Khitai Empire, Marco Polo primarily equated the Oriental myth with China. “Mysterious,” “fabulous,” “magnificent” and “a paradise on earth” were the most frequently used symbolic signifiers to represent the image of China. The great geographic discovery corroborated the Western fantasies about the Oriental myth, making the Chinese empire a paradise of fashion and taste, a spiritual homeland of freedom and tolerance, a political paragon of enlightened and advanced governance. However, it was interesting to notice that the West’s admiration and preference for the East were paralleled by its own desire for political and economic expansion. Those two conflicting mentalities interwove to create a powerful tension that pushed forward the evolution and the development of the Chinese and Western history. During the middle of the 18th century, the rising political and economic forces in the Western society impacted on this tension by thrusting the image of China to the negative extreme.

A Voyage round the World published by George Anson in 1742 and De I’esprit des lois, or On the Spirit of the Laws, published by Montesquieu 1748, introduced such ideas as “decline,” “horror” and “tyranny” into the Western system of symbols about the image of China, thus gradually altering the positive image of China as a nation of ancient civilization. Compared with the pattern of economic development based on colonialism and the modern political system in the Western world, China seemed to stand for “historical stagnation,” “the decay of civilization,” “despotism” and “barbaric enslavement.” In the meantime, the Chinese economy started to undergo continuous downslides. Such a situation informed the entire history of China from the middle of the 19th century to the early 20th century. Indeed, the Chinese empire, which had remained arrogant and overbearing and refused to take seriously its peripheral “uncivilized states,” had declined.

The debacles incurred by China in two Opium Wars fully reflected the decay and the powerlessness of the Qing government. The ensuing result was that important changes happened in the international pattern of Eastern-Western relations. With the reversal of their respective roles, the Chinese empire was deprived of all its dignities with its disgraceful defeats in those two wars and the signing of a whole series of unfair treaties.

If the late 18th century could be characterized as an incipient phase of negative Chinese images, then the 19th century witnessed the height of the negative antiChina sentiments. As a country rejected by the Western world, China was exposed to increasing waves of criticisms, ridicules, censures, and contempt. Those growing negative sentiments in the West were obviously related to the fact that Western countries had completed their social and industrial revolutions. Constructing negative images of China became a strategy that answered to the Western society’s need for colonialist economic expansion and to its desire for the conquest of the entire world. In order to speedily force open a massive market of quick profits and infinite temptations, “it was necessary to shape a negative and evil image of China in order to cover up the iniquitous nature of the drug trafficking, the Opium Wars, and the colonial rule and, more importantly, to provide a justifiable pretext for colonial invasion and plundering.”11 <>

The image of China that had been portrayed since the end of the 19th century has become ever tarnished and a number of above-mentioned signifiers combined to project a modern China that was “decayed,” “dying,” “evil” and “unenlightened,” a country which seemed to barely survive thanks to the “salvation” of the Western colonialism.

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