Why Does the West Depict China In Its Own Image?

Over the past two centuries, the West has intricately crafted an image of China to serve its own economic and geopolitical interests. The distorted, yet widely believed, image that the West has imposed on China is merely a reflection of the West's own history.
September 15, 2023
Associate researcher at the Institute of Modern History, Academia Sinica (Taipei)
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It has come to my attention that an increasing number of friends from Latin America, Africa, and the South Asian subcontinent have become interested in China and have raised questions. Having studied and conducted research in the West, I would like to take this opportunity to share my perspectives on dominant Western discourses about China.

The first topic I want to discuss is the image the West has created for China. As is well known, starting from George Macartney until today, the West has spent over two centuries creating a deeply rooted image of China, including China’s technological backwardness, China’s “autocratic” system, China’s “improper” possession of its present-day territory, and the “historical error” of the goals and outcomes of the 20th century Chinese revolution.

These four images have not only penetrated deeply into the minds of Westerners, but have also gradually spread to the regions surrounding China that were colonized by Europe. Finally, they have directly influenced China’s intellectual circles. The first two have become common sense among modern Chinese, while the latter two have impacted China’s relations with neighboring countries, ethnic politics within China, and the perceptions of some Chinese people at certain times since the 20th century.

For the people of modern Latin America, Africa, and South Asia, China is farther in terms of spatial and psychological distance than Europe, the United States, and other parts of Asia. Their understanding of China naturally draws from Western sources as the West controls communication and speech. However, these portrayed images of China are distorted. To understand why they are distorted, we should first examine the West’s intentions in shaping China’s image.

The first is the so-called technological backwardness, which is a rhetoric Westerners use to depreciate the Chinese system under the logic that “technology is the foundation of the system.” But in fact, from the 16th to the end of the 18th century, China lagged behind Europe in some technologies but not in others, and even led in some technologies. However, Chinese people who have deeply internalized European discourse have often lamented being “beaten for backwardness” for over a century, which invisibly rationalized Western invasion.

Second, to fully realize Western interests in engaging with China, the West has intentionally portrayed the Chinese system as one that effectively serves Western interests. Before this goal can be achieved, it is deemed necessary to intervene and interfere in Chinese politics. For this reason, it is necessary to depict China’s monarch-bureaucrat-county system as analogous to Europe’s medieval church and feudal system. This relatively establishes the superiority of the Western system and provides legitimacy for Western intervention in Chinese politics.

Third, China’s vast territory and massive population pose huge obstacles to Western intervention in Chinese politics. For this reason, the West has depicted China since the Qing Dynasty as an “empire,” portraying the formation of China’s territory as the result of Qing expansionism. In this way, the scope of Qing territory itself can be questioned, and the Republic of China and People’s Republic of China as nation-states could lack legitimacy in inheriting that territory.

Fourth, the 20th century Chinese revolution further restricted the West’s plundering of China’s resources, giving the West more motivation to undermine China’s territorial legitimacy.

On one hand, the West depicts the 20th century Chinese revolution and state-building as a continuation of “feudalism + autocracy.” Their rationale is that the Chinese people’s national liberation war consolidated dictatorship, while defeated Japan was more progressive, civilized, and democratic than China. So how could this Anti-Japanese War, in which “backwardness overcame progress,” “barbarism overcame civilization,” and “dictatorship overcame democracy,” be just?

On the other hand, the West accuses China that despite portraying itself since the mid-19th century as a “victim,” China is actually an imperialist expansionist. This argument holds that regions the Qing acquired during its reign, namely Mongolia, Xinjiang, Tibet, and Taiwan, did not originally belong to China. Hence the People’s Republic of China would lack legitimacy in inheriting those lands, leading to the conclusion that contemporary China’s governance of these areas amounts to racial oppression. The real purpose this narrative serves is to provide excuses for current Western political circles to split China by promoting color revolutions.

Through examining the West’s motives, we see that their real intention is actually to cover up its own technological backwardness in the Middle Ages, its history of feudal and religious persecution, its colonial history of racial oppression and genocide, and its capitalist and imperialist history of exploitation. So the West actually imagines and describes China in its own image.


Associate researcher at the Institute of Modern History, Academia Sinica (Taipei)
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