U.S.-China relations back to the American Revolution, with John Pomfret

Society & Culture

To accompany the December 15 Sinica Podcast with veteran Washington Post correspondent John Pomfret, read our introduction to his latest work, which covers the long history of U.S.-China relations going back to 1783.

In recent years, U.S.-China relations often seemed like a battle of epic proportions: A Western incumbent, dominant for generations, facing a massive force from the East, charged by its own sense of destiny.

But it wasn’t always this way. In his new book, The Beautiful Country and the Middle Kingdom, John Pomfret, a veteran correspondent for the Washington Post, stakes out the dynamics between Meiguo (the U.S., literally “Beautiful Country”) and Zhongguo (China, literally “Middle Country”) from the very start of their history of over 200 years, beginning with the early days of America’s life as a nation. He joins Kaiser and Jeremy on this week’s Sinica Podcast to discuss.

Things looked very different back then, Pomfret says. A bundle of colonial revolutionaries had just announced their independence. But despite losses suffered on the battlefield, the British Empire had other weapons at its disposal.

Built on the slave trade, America’s economy at the time was dependent on cotton and agriculture, but with no textile production as of yet, the nascent country relied on exports to make a profit. To choke the territories back into submission, Britain’s vast fleets closed off all the ports. America’s future appeared grim.

Then some Americans came upon an idea — “a Hail Mary,” Pomfret says. They would break the embargo by sending their ships to China. The first expedition set out in 1783. When the ships arrived, the captain had to “spend a lot of time trying to convince the Chinese that the Americans were somehow different from the British,” Pomfret explains. But the envoy ultimately prevailed and economic ties were forged. From that first trip, “[China’s] influence on us was deep and abiding,” Pomfret says. More than two centuries ago, trade with China ensured the survival of a fledgling United States.

In this way, Pomfret charts the intertwined trajectory of the two nations, often through the stories of people who, inadvertently or with great intention, shaped its course. In this week’s Sinica Podcast, among many others, he introduces an unlikely Siamese pair who were among the first Chinese to achieve the American Dream; a Chinese merchant who influenced the model of federal deposit insurance; and a long-haired stoner from California who may have provided the spark for thawing U.S.-China relations.