Opinion / Chen Weihua

Century of humiliation still cuts deep into the collective psyche

By CHEN WEIHUA (China Daily) Updated: 2016-08-19 08:52

In recent years, African-Americans have taken to the streets across US cities following the fatal shootings or other brutality against black people by police officers. Marches organized by the Black Lives Matter movement were quite noticeable during the recent 2016 Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia on July 25-28.

It may be hard for people to understand the reaction or overreaction of African-Americans if they haven't studied the history of slavery and racial discrimination in the United States. Likewise, it is impossible to correctly interpret the action, reaction and overreaction of Chinese if people haven't studied that part of its history it calls the "century of humiliation".

Although the situation today is entirely different from the 17th and early 18th century or even the 1960s, it cannot mask the fact that African-Americans still face discrimination, as evidenced by the low income and poor education in their communities and the much higher incarceration rate than the nation's average.

To many African-Americans, the struggle for equality and against racial discrimination is far from over. That explains why they tend to overreact if certain words and deeds remind them of the bitter history of slavery.

The National Museum of African American History and Culture, set to open on Sept 24 in the National Mall in Washington, will help people better understand that mentality.

For many Chinese, the "century of humiliation" started with the First Opium War (1840-1842) and lasted until 1949 when the People's Republic of China was founded.

After defeating China in the First Opium War, the British forced the Treaty of Nanking on China. Under the treaty, China ceded the island of Hong Kong to Britain and opened treaty ports. A subsequent treaty granted British extraterritoriality, meaning British were immune from the punishment of Chinese laws. Such unequal treaties were later imposed on China by other Western powers.

The Second Opium War (1856-1860) allowed the British to force more opium trade on China and opened more treaty ports. The looting and burning in 1860 of the Old Summer Palace, known to Chinese as Yuanming Yuan, by British and French troops left indelible marks on the Chinese collective memory.

Likewise, the First Sino-Japanese War (1894-1895). China, which was defeated, was forced to sign the Treaty of Shimonoseki in which China ceded Taiwan and part of the Liaodong Peninsula to Japan. China was also forced to pay a huge war indemnity that was several times Japan's GDP at the time.

While China was among the victors of World War I, the German concessions on Shandong peninsula were transferred to Japan as a result of the 1919 Treaty of Versailles, instead of returning to China.

This Monday, Aug 15, marked the 71st anniversary of the Japanese surrender in WWII. The Japanese invasion of China caused the deaths and injuries of some 35 million Chinese, including the 300,000 unarmed Chinese soldiers and civilians in the Nanjing Massacre.

That was why when Chairman Mao Zedong declared in 1949 that the Chinese people have stood up it resonated so strongly with Chinese who remembered the bullying by Western powers.

Unlike the US, whose history in the last 150 years has been seizing land and expanding territory, for China, it has been a bitter memory of that "century of humiliation".

That explains why Chinese took to the streets to protest against the US following the EP-3 spy plane collision in 2001 and the bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade in 1999, and that is also why Chinese took to the streets when the Japanese government in 2012 nationalized the Diaoyu Islands, territory belongs to China.

The author is deputy editor of China Daily USA.

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