• PHAM Duong

Welcome to "On China"

Greetings from youngsino.com! This is Pham Duong, a Sinologist at Yenching Academy of Peking University. Such a sheer pleasure to accompany you all on the journey to explore one of the oldest and most alluring civilizations of the world: China.

I have a good reason to kick-start my blog series with a welcoming post for this ostensibly most fundamental and interesting category among all - On China. Many of you might have heard this name somewhere: from Henry Kissinger it is. On China is a scholarly work with very special insights and anecdotes from the man who is probably the most renowned American diplomat in the 20th century and it remains my favorite book among those written by him. The name per se is self-explanatory and it fits my purpose well. No doubt. Nevertheless, it is more than just merely for the sake of convenience.

The US-Sino trade war, and recently the “war of words” amidst the COVID-19 pandemic between these two great powers that triggers tremendous social disharmony make a China studies major like me disheartened. The circumstance urges me to ponder what the real mandates are for people like me. Gradually, I managed to figure out my own answer from three people. One, Professor John King Fairbank. Two, Ambassador of the US to the Republic of China John Leighton Stuart. Three, Diplomat Henry Kissinger. Each of them I feel related to for a distinct reason. Of course I am more than willing to share with you the three golden lessons I learnt from them.

1. Professor John King Fairbank and the lesson of "interest"

Professor Fairbank is a renowned scholar known as the founder of modern China studies in the US who dedicated his life to enriching the then very primitive understanding about China of the Western world. When at Harvard, he was allured to China when researching into Sino-European relations, he once told:

“China appealed to me at age twenty-two as something interesting that no one else seemed to be doing”

My meager knowledge would never stand a chance of being comparable to that of Professor Fairbank, and much as I disagree with him on many issues as a scholar, I feel related to him for a very simple reason: he makes me realize that sometimes, interest in something is just an interest, nothing more. One does not need to justify it: China came into Fairbank's life out of a spontaneous charm! There has always been a question lingering in my head all along: why am I having that much affection for a country that is not my homeland? Professor Fairbank gave me the answer.

Photo: East Asian Tributary System - a concept initiated by Professor Fairbank

***Some of Professor Fairbank's scholarly works can be found here.

2. Ambassador John Leighton Stuart and the lesson of "history"

The other day, I was having an online class with professor He. She very nicely gave us a captivating presentation in which she talked about the history of China towards the dusk of the Republican era. The thing that captured my attention the most was the story of Ambassador John Leighton Stuart. He was the first President of Yenching University and did make great contributions. He even solicited funds from the public for the school in times of difficulties. Unfortunately, the university was later closed during Mao period, however, some of its faculties were merged into Peking University. My beloved alma mater - Yenching Academy - has the honor to bear the name in remembrance of Yenching University. Allow me to call him Professor John Leighton Stuart. At the dawn of the CCP’s ruling of China back to 1949, there was a time when dialogues related to potential diplomatic relations did happen between the CCP and the US.

Photo: Ambassador of the US to the Republic of China John Leighton Stuart

Professor Stuart, at the time the incumbent Ambassador of the US to the Republic of China, was assigned the task of conducting direct negotiations with later-PRC Foreign Minister Huang Hua - a Yenching alumni. Despite very close personal linkages between them, the efforts were in vein. Professor Stuart was recalled to the US in 1949 and resigned in 1952. Before the class, a mood of melancholy had been descending on me, partly due to the fact that I take the prejudiced hatred towards China from the Vietnamese society to heart greatly. I felt left out, torn apart and on top of that, helpless with the reality. On hearing the story of Professor Stuart, I wondered whether he had evert felt the same. Did he regret? However, I gradually came to accept the fact that history is history. When it comes to relations, either between people or countries, even civilizations, it is more than just a “love and hate” story. Interests dictate.

3. Diplomay Henry Kissinger and the lesson of "another"

Here comes the story of the man whose book make the name of this category - Diplomat Henry Kissinger. Kissinger made his name for more than just his involvement in the US-Sino rapprochement project under Nixon administration, however, it cannot be denied that he is most remembered for his laying the groundwork for the historic trip of President Richard M. Nixon to Beijing in 1972 that later led to the normalization of Sino-US relation and changed the political landscape of the century. Yet, what I admired the most from him lies behind his attitude towards the understanding of China. In retrospect, Henry Kissinger now in his 90s, in the 50th anniversary of the Wilson International Center for Scholars, shared with us:

“We are two countries that believe they have an exceptional nature in the conduct of policy: we on the basis of the political system of democratic constitutionalism; China on the basis of an evolution that goes back at least to Confucius and centuries of unique practice.”

He later noted:

“I would say our hope was that the values of the two sides would come closer together”

Photo: Zhou Enlai and Henry Kissinger in China 1971

What can we learn from his words? That China is “another”, not “the other”. For long, the world has been dictated by the realist, capitalist, Western-centric and Cold-War political mindset, to the extent that the West boldly rule out the possibility of the potential existence of “another model”. It is not at all difficult to find an example. The article from which I excerpt Mr. Kissinger’s sharing is the one.

“Kissinger, instead of considering how to change China’s world outlook, apparently thought America also had to do some adjusting to accommodate China”


“As he does in every public utterance, Kissinger sees China today as the embodiment of an ancient civilization with hallowed principles of governance — not as a modern communist dictatorship whose founder scorned the very culture Kissinger now posits as its operating principle”

and even

“Were he not an icon in the self-proclaimed realist school of national security studies, it might be said of Kissinger’s unchanging views on China that he has learned nothing and forgotten nothing”

said Joseph Bosco, the author of the article.

For the West, conceited as they are, China appears as a deviant and has naturally become “the threat” (For further clarification, check Pan Chengxin's article). What is more ironic and dangerous is that even in this era of interconnectedness, us, as humans are still much obsessed with drawing lines, separating “us” as “the superior, the civilized, the right” from “them” as “the inferior, the barbarous, the wrong”. The study of China also resonates with such a mindset, with scholars who confined their understanding of this country to ideology clashes and refutation of Communist values, rather than acknowledge differences and seek for rationales of the Chinese model from the realm of history, philosophy, and culture. Henry Kissinger taught me, and every Sinologists and probably IR scientists a vital lesson: the lesson of an alternative.

Unlike others, as Sinologists, we have the chance to expose ourselves to the civilization of China itself, as a matter of fact, no other but us should shoulder the responsibility of building the bridge between the world and China, and obviously, vice versa. China with is aggrandizing role has undoubtedly become an important player in global affairs. The clashes between China and the US we are witnessing right now reflect this fact. Hence, as Sinologists, we learn to understand China, to understand a vital actor, not to fight against it nor to educate it, but to reconcile it with the rest of the world, in the sense that different values are respected, equality is ensured, and peace is made.

I might not be a raconteur, but rest assured that this blog will regale you with amusing stories about China which would definitely provide you with fresh perspectives, as well as insightful analysis of Chinese politics, economics, society, history, philosophy, culture, and more. This blog will be updated on a weekly basis and should you have any suggestions for topics to be covered or recommendations for the blog, feel free to contact me in the contact section.

We shall see each other in the next post.

Ps: Timeline of Sino-US relations can be found here.

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