Superpower Interrupted

The Chinese History of the World


By Michael Schuman

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This global history as the Chinese would write it gives brilliant and unconventional insights for understanding China’s role in the world, especially the drive to “Make China Great Again.”

We in the West routinely ask: “What does China want?” The answer is quite simple: the superpower status it always had, but briefly lost.

In this colorful, informative story filled with fascinating characters, epic battles, influential thinkers, and decisive moments, we come to understand how the Chinese view their own history and how its narrative is distinctly different from that of Western civilization. More important, we come to see how this unique Chinese history of the world shapes China’s economic policy, attitude toward the United States and the rest of the world, relations with its neighbors, positions on democracy and human rights, and notions of good government.

As the Chinese see it, for as far back as anyone can remember, China had the richest economy, the strongest military, and the most advanced philosophy, culture, and technology. The collision with the West knocked China’s historical narrative off course for the first time, as its 5,000-year reign as an unrivaled superpower came to an ignominious end.

Ever since, the Chinese have licked their wounds and fixated on returning their country to its former greatness, restoring the Chinese version of its place in the world as they had always known it. For the Chinese, the question was never if they could reclaim their former dominant position in the world, but when.



Shang 1554–1045 BC

China’s first dynasty confirmed by archeological evidence, the Shang played a critical role in the early development of Chinese civilization, including its famous and highly influential writing system.

Zhou 1045–256 BC

The long-lasting Zhou era laid the basis for Chinese culture, especially its philosophy, literary traditions, and governing ideology. The dynasty is broken by historians into two periods: the Western Zhou, 1045–771 BC, and the Eastern Zhou, 770–256 BC. During the latter period, the power of the Zhou royal court declined and became mainly ceremonial, while the country descended into an extended period of conflict between competing states.

Qin 221–206 BC

Though short-lived, the Qin forged the first unified Chinese empire that became the model for all future dynasties. It also built the original Great Wall of China.

Han 206 BC–220 AD

The Han designed the basic institutions and ideology of the Chinese imperial system, which would survive into the twentieth century. The dynasty also transformed China into a major world power by extending its influence throughout East and Central Asia and forging many of the core principles of Chinese foreign policy. The dynasty is divided into two periods: the Western or Former Han, 206 BC–8 AD, with its capital at Chang’an (modern Xi’an) and the Eastern or Later Han, 25–220 AD, based at Luoyang.

Period of Disunion 220–589

Also known as the Northern and Southern Dynasties period, China had no united central political authority during this long stretch. Instead, numerous rival kingdoms competed for influence. The northern half of the country was ruled by various steppe peoples for the first time. However, even though China was politically divided, its cultural influence spread throughout the region, leading to the formation of a Chinese world in East Asia.

Sui 581–618

Though it had only two emperors, the Sui reunified China and left posterity two major achievements: building the Grand Canal, tying together north and south China more than ever before, and introducing civil service examinations, which became one of the pillars of Chinese society in later dynasties.

Tang 618–907

The Tang ushered in one of the most glorious eras in all of China’s history. Culturally, economically, and politically, China reached a level of influence in the world not even the Han could match. Under the Tang, East Asia became a clearly defined cultural zone based upon Chinese civilization. The dynasty was also the most welcoming to foreign influences.

Song 960–1279

Another epoch of tremendous philosophical and artistic brilliance, the Song also witnessed a stage of economic advancement considered something close to an industrial revolution that entrenched China as a major engine of the global economy. Militarily inept, however, the Song failed to defend China from invading steppe armies, first losing control of northern China to the Jurchens in the 1120s and then the entire empire to the Mongols in the 1270s. The dynasty has two periods: the Northern Song, 960–1127, which controlled nearly all of China from its capital of Kaifeng, and the Southern Song, 1127–1279, which ruled over only the south from Hangzhou.

Yuan 1279–1368

Founded by Genghis Khan’s grandson Kublai, the Mongol Yuan was the first non-Chinese dynasty to control all of China. Looked upon by Chinese as a period of foreign domination and discrimination, it was also the first time China became integrated into a larger political entity—the pan-Asian Mongol Empire—leading to important cross-cultural exchanges and vibrant trade.

Ming 1368–1644

The Ming reconquered China from the Mongols and claimed to reestablish authentic Chinese rule in China. The two most famous achievements of the Ming were the building of the Great Wall of China as we know it today, and the dispatch of “treasure fleets” led by Admiral Zheng He, one of the most adventurous escapades to promote Chinese global influence in all of China’s history.

Qing 1644–1912

China’s final imperial dynasty, the Qing was formed by another group of invaders from the north, the Manchus. Voracious conquerors, the Qing expanded the Chinese empire to its greatest geographic extent. But the Qing also fell badly behind the rising West and became prey to European imperialism, leading to the end of the imperial system with the abdication of the last emperor in 1912.


Ban Gu, Historian. His history of the first two centuries of the Han Dynasty, which he compiled in the first century AD, includes some of the earliest formulations of a foreign policy strategy for China.

Chiang Kai-shek, Politician. He took over the Nationalist Party after Sun Yat-sen’s death and tried to unify China, but lost a civil war to Mao Zedong and the Chinese Communists and fled to Taiwan in 1949.

Cixi, Empress Dowager of the Qing Dynasty. Lording over the Qing court in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries AD, the conservative policies and misrule of this onetime concubine are often blamed for contributing to the downfall of the dynasty.

Confucius, Philosopher. Born in the mid-sixth century BC, he is considered China’s greatest thinker, whose ideas came to shape everything from China’s imperial governing system to education to family life.

Daoguang, Emperor of the Qing Dynasty. Reigning from 1821 to 1850 AD, he lost the Opium War with the British in the early 1840s and was forced to agree to the “unequal” Treaty of Nanjing.

Deng Xiaoping, Politician. A luminary of the Chinese Communist Party, he led the economic reform movement in the 1980s that rebuilt Chinese global power, but he also ordered the infamous crackdown on pro-democracy protesters on Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in 1989.

Faxian, Buddhist Monk. His travels between China and India around the turn of the fifth century AD left us an early account of pan-Asian trading routes.

Gaozong, Emperor of the Song Dynasty. He rallied Song Dynasty loyalists after its defeat by the Jurchens and became the first emperor of the Southern Song in 1127 AD.

Guangxu, Emperor of the Qing Dynasty. Briefly allied with radical reformers in the late nineteenth century to resurrect the sagging fortunes of the Qing in its conflicts with the West. His plans were dashed by the Empress Dowager Cixi, who sidelined him and took control of the royal court in 1898.

Huizong, Emperor of the Song Dynasty. Ruling from 1100 to 1125 AD, his disastrous policies led to the Song Dynasty’s defeat by the invading Jurchens and the loss of north China.

Jia Yi, Statesman. A Confucian scholar of the second century BC, his thought was highly influential in forging imperial Chinese foreign relations.

Kang Youwei, Scholar. He led a radical reform movement in 1898 that aimed to strengthen the Qing Dynasty against European imperialism.

Kangxi, Emperor of the Qing Dynasty. The long reign of this famously open-minded but militaristic Manchu royal—officially from 1662 to 1722 AD—was one of the most glorious in all of Chinese history.

Li Yuan / Emperor Gaozu of the Tang Dynasty. A military officer, he established the Tang Dynasty in the early seventh century AD.

Liang Qichao, Scholar. As an activist, journalist, and thinker, he had tremendous influence over political reformers in China in the early twentieth century.

Lin Zexu, Official. Appointed a special commissioner to deal with European traders in Guangzhou, his belligerent attempts to stop the import of opium inadvertently led to the First Opium War in the early 1840s. He is now considered a nationalist hero for standing up to the West.

Liu Bang / Emperor Gaozu of the Han Dynasty. He led a rebellion against the Qin Dynasty and founded the Han Dynasty in the late third century BC.

Mao Zedong, Politician. He was the Communist leader who founded the People’s Republic of China in 1949.

Mencius, Philosopher. Espousing his ideas in the fourth century BC, he is the most influential scholar in the Confucian school (after Confucius himself).

Qianlong, Emperor of the Qing Dynasty. Ruling from 1736 to 1795 AD, this colorful emperor was one of China’s most aggressive expansionists. He is also known for writing a famously condescending letter to King George III of England after receiving a British embassy in 1793.

Qin Shi Huangdi, First Emperor of China. Also known as King Ying Zheng, the ruler of the Qin Dynasty created the first unified Chinese empire in 221 BC.

Shang Yang, Philosopher. He espoused a doctrine of authoritarian rule in the fourth century BC that held great sway over government in early China.

Sima Qian, Historian. His epic history, written around the end of the second century BC, is one of the main sources of information about early China as well as the foreign peoples around it.

Sun Yat-sen, Politician. A revolutionary and advocate of democracy in China, he formed the Kuomintang, or Nationalist Party, and became the first president of the Republic of China in the early twentieth century.

Taizong, Emperor of the Tang Dynasty. Ruling from 626 to 649 AD, the second emperor of the Tang Dynasty launched a series of successful military campaigns that greatly expanded the power of the Chinese empire.

Wang Fuzhi, Philosopher. Though he lived and wrote in the seventeenth century AD, his fiercely nationalistic ideas first gained widespread popularity among political reformers in the late 1800s.

Wen, Emperor of the Sui Dynasty. He founded the Sui Dynasty and reunified China in the late sixth century AD after a long period of disunion.

Wen Tianxiang, Statesman. A fierce loyalist to the Song Dynasty, he resisted the Mongol conquest in the late thirteenth century AD and was executed by Kublai Khan.

Wu, King of the Zhou Dynasty. He defeated the Shang Dynasty and established Zhou rule and is considered by Chinese as one of the greatest rulers in China’s history.

Wu, Emperor of the Han Dynasty. Ruling from 141 to 87 BC, this sovereign was one of the most important in China’s history. He was instrumental in creating the imperial system and, through his foreign adventures, connecting China to the world.

Xi Jinping, Politician. He became general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party in 2012 and president of China in 2013.

Yongle, Emperor of the Ming Dynasty. Ruling from 1402 to 1424 AD, the third emperor of the Ming is most famous for dispatching the great “treasure fleets” of Admiral Zheng He.

Yuan Shikai, Statesman. A senior official and military leader during the late Qing Dynasty, he tried and failed to reestablish the imperial system after its fall in the early twentieth century.

Yue Fei, General. His feisty defiance against the invading Jurchens in the mid-twelfth century AD made him a much-beloved nationalist hero in China.

Zhang Qian, Explorer. His travels in the second century BC connected China to Central Asia and formed the beginnings of the Silk Road.

Zhao Kuangyin / Emperor Taizu of the Song Dynasty. He was a respected general who founded the Song Dynasty in the late tenth century AD.

Zheng He, Admiral. One of China’s greatest explorers, he led seven expeditions of the great “treasure fleets” across Southeast Asia and into the Indian Ocean in the early fifteenth century AD.

Zhou, Duke of, Statesman. The duke was instrumental in forging the Zhou Dynasty in the eleventh century BC and in traditional Chinese thought is considered a model for government ministers due to his wisdom and selflessness.

Zhu Yuanzhang / Hongwu, Emperor of the Ming Dynasty. A rebel leader, he chased the Mongol rulers of the Yuan Dynasty out of China and formed the Ming Dynasty in 1368.



The empire, long divided, must unite; long united, must divide.

The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, a Chinese novel

There is no such thing as world history, at least not one that holds the same meaning for everyone. Which world history is important to you depends on who you are, where you live and where you come from. It shapes what you believe, how you eat, pray, and marry, the society around you, your view of the world, and your place in that world. The ideas in your head have been put there by the narrative of your world history—the myths, legends, stories, books, and poems that tell of heroes and villains (both real and imagined), critical moments, turning points, defining philosophies, conquests, discoveries, revelations, revolutions, battles won, battles lost, great men, great women—and the not so great.

You share this world history with many other people, but not everyone. The person sitting at the next table at a restaurant, or passing you by in an airport terminal, may have an entirely different batch of beliefs, forged by entirely different books, events, and people from his or her history of the world. The overlap between your world history and someone else’s depends, in part, on distance. If you’re sitting in New Jersey, for instance, the world history that has formed your views probably means a lot less to another person in Yokohama, or Kolkata, or Addis Ababa than it does to someone in Los Angeles, Toronto, or London.

The history of the world comes in strands, each weaving its own story. These strands occasionally bump into each other. Religions are spread, technology shared, goods exchanged. But to a great extent, for much of history, the strands continued along their own course. Before the age of instant digital communications, jumbo jets, and bullet trains, the strands would cross paths with much less regularity; those that were geographically distant from each other would hardly intersect at all. A philosophical notion, a talented king, a disastrous war that seemed earth-moving to people on one strand may barely register in another. Much of humanity had no clue that a strand of the Americas even existed until Christopher Columbus accidentally tripped over it in 1492.

When you grow up in “the West”—Europe and its offshoots, like the United States—your version of world history usually starts in ancient Greece, with its philosophers, playwrights, and poets. Homer, Aristotle, Socrates, Sophocles, and the gang. And the myths, of Zeus and the gods, Hercules, Perseus. Athens and the roots of democracy. The narrative moves rather effortlessly into Rome. Its law, its republic, Caesar and the empire, Constantine and the spread of Christianity. After that comes the ascent of the Church, Charlemagne and the Holy Roman Empire, the epoch of castles and knights. Next we enter the Age of Discovery, the Reformation, the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution—the building blocks of the worldwide dominance of the West. The formation of nation-states and rights of man. Cervantes, Shakespeare, and Dickens, Rousseau, Adam Smith, and Locke. Newton, Darwin, and Freud. George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and the birth of the American republic. Along the way, other strands make cameo appearances: Alexander’s conquests into Asia; the Crusades and the confrontation with Islam; the invasions of Huns, Mongols, and Ottomans; the slave trade with Africa. But for the most part, events following other strands of history were tangential to this core narrative, even inconsequential. The Maurya, Gupta, and Mughal empires reached great heights in India, the Incas and Aztecs in the Americas; the Vedas were written, the Buddha preached, the temples at Angkor built; the Polynesian peoples spread themselves across the Pacific—and someone sitting in France wouldn’t have noticed, or probably cared much if he did.

The reverse is true for those people living through other strands. We in the West know how Caesar died, that Napoleon met his Waterloo, and Columbus sailed the ocean blue. We learned this stuff in school, or at home, or on television. But much of the rest of the world did not. They learned another history in school from different textbooks; they read their own myths and epic poems; they prayed different prayers to different gods; they emulated different people, studied different philosophers, and talked of different wars. And because of that, they see the world from a different perspective.

Like the Chinese. To them, the narrative above, of Greeks and Romans, Jesus and Luther, the Iliad and Hamlet, might as well have taken place on another planet. The Chinese have been following their own strand of world history, populated with its own characters, founded on its own literature composed by its own philosophers and poets, with its own great battles, heroic moments, catastrophes, great men and not so great men. And just as we in the West are products of our world history, the Chinese are a creation of theirs.

This book tells the story of that Chinese history of the world. It is not an all-inclusive history of China. You won’t find lists of emperors and their comings and goings, or a comprehensive discussion of political or social change, or an in-depth exploration of Chinese culture. You can find that easily elsewhere. What unfolds in the coming pages is the story that has shaped the Chinese view of the world, and more importantly, their perception of their role within that world.

It is a story that few in the West really know. And that’s a problem, especially as China grows more powerful on the global stage. We tend to talk about China through the prism of our own world history. Diplomats, academics, politicians, and journalists in Washington or London or Paris muse on how to fit China into our world. But that’s not at all how the Chinese see things. They have their own notions about where they fit in the world and what the world should look like based on their history, a very long one at that. Only when we know this Chinese history of the world can we understand China today.

The biggest question of the twenty-first century is, What does China want? China is without question the rising power of the age. What that means for the current global order, crafted and led by the United States since the end of World War II, is the topic of think-tank studies, Congressional hearings, vats of newsprint, and dinner conversations from Washington to Tokyo. What exactly will China do with its new power? Will China become a partner to the West and its allies, or will it wish to change the world, to promote new values, institutions, and patterns of trade and finance? Will it play by our rules, or write new ones?

The answer to these questions is, at its heart, quite simple: China wants what it always had. China was a superpower for almost all of its history, and it wants to be a superpower again.

Of course, the goals of China’s political leaders today are not the same as they were in 1000 AD, let alone 1000 BC. Still, there are some startling consistencies in China’s attitudes toward the world over the epic course of its history—more than three thousand years of it based on verifiable written records alone. This history has fostered in the Chinese a firm belief in what role they and their country should play in the world today, and for that matter, into the distant forever. In their view, the Chinese have a right to be a premier power in the world, and they want to return to their proper position at the apex of the global order.

This perception is, to a degree, based in actual history. China for most of its existence was the biggest, baddest, richest, most advanced civilization in East Asia. The Chinese were writing exquisite poetry before their neighbors were writing anything at all. (And when the Koreans, Japanese, and others started writing, they borrowed the Chinese script.) The Chinese were pioneers in state formation, technological innovation, philosophy, literature, and economic organization. These features of advanced Chinese civilization spread throughout the region, turning East Asia into a cultural zone distinct from the rest of the world, where people from Japan to Vietnam and beyond read Chinese books, copied Chinese legal codes and education methods, followed Chinese diplomatic norms, and, in elite circles, studied the Chinese language. To the Chinese, this Chinese world was the world. Though they knew of, and often respected, other great civilizations well beyond their borders—the Romans, the Persians, the Indians—these other societies were too far off to directly challenge China’s primacy on its East Asian turf or, just as importantly, the perception the Chinese held of their primacy.

Over the centuries, challengers did emerge. At times, China was a tremendous military superpower, able to project force deep into inhospitable deserts, steppe, and mountains, matching any exploits the Roman legions ever managed. They were also major innovators of arms and armaments—most famously, gunpowder. But the reality is China was not always militarily dominant, despite its advantages in manpower and wealth. Chinese armies got their butts kicked by Turks, Mongols, and all sorts of other nomadic tribesmen, the Vietnamese, Japanese, Tibetans, British—the list goes on.

Being a superpower, however, requires much more than a good army. Look, today, at the United States. Yes, America is the world’s top military power. But that doesn’t mean it wins every war; just ask the fine fighting men and women who served in Korea, Vietnam, or Afghanistan. Those defeats or stalemates may have dented American pride and prestige, but they did not significantly undercut America’s position as the world’s superpower. The sources of American power run wider and deeper than the force of arms. The United States remains the world’s largest economy and a leader in critical technologies. The dollar is the currency of choice for trade and finance throughout the world. The gyrations of the Dow Jones Industrial Average, or the decisions taken by the Federal Reserve, determine the movements of global stock markets and currency values. Most important of all, perhaps, is America’s unrivaled cultural clout. English is the global lingua franca of business, trade, diplomacy, and education worldwide. Everyone watches Hollywood movies and listens to American pop music. And American ideals—“life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” free speech, democratic elections, equality of all—have become the standards for the world, copied by many other nations, and the envy of the unfortunate who live in countries that have not.

For nearly its entire history, China also possessed these other pillars of power, which allowed it to retain its superpower stature through the many ebbs and flows of events. The Chinese economy has been the largest in the world, or close to it, throughout much of human history. It has been the engine of long-distance trading networks going back more than two thousand years. We in the West tend to equate the emergence of a truly global economy with the rise of Europe. But China was the beating heart of a global economic system that existed centuries before the Portuguese, Dutch, and British took control of East-West exchange. And for centuries after the ascent of Europe as well, China maintained its position as the world’s premier economy and a driving force of global growth and trade. Recall that when Christopher Columbus sailed into the unknown he was not searching for Mexico, but China.

That was because China played a unique role in the world economy. Not only was it a gargantuan consumer—since it was always among the most populous places on the planet—it was also unrivaled in its capacity to produce stuff the world craved. We marvel today at the scale of Chinese manufacturing as if it is something new; it is really just a return to the norm. China was a manufacturing hub as far back as Roman times. And more importantly, Chinese wares were usually of the highest technology. Many of its customers in foreign lands simply had no idea how Chinese goods were made. Europeans were often not able to reproduce these manufactures for centuries after the Chinese were already churning them out on a mass scale. So desirable were Chinese exports that they were among the world’s first truly iconic, global consumer items—the Apple iPhones and Nike sneakers of their age.


  • "This brisk chronicle delivers meaningful context for readers looking to go beyond the daily headlines about China."—Publishers Weekly
  • "For those new to the subject, or those who want a brush-up (which was the Yongle Emperor?), Schuman's is in the running for an "if you only read one book on Chinese history..." accolade."—Asian Review of Books
  • "Of considerable interest to students of world trade, geopolitics, and history."
    Kirkus Reviews
  • "Schuman takes the reader on an illuminating, 3,000-year journey deep into the country's history, as the Chinese see it, and offers a thoughtful understanding of the historical roots of its national objectives."—Irish Times
  • "Michael Schuman takes the reader on an invaluable journey deep into the hinterland of the Chinese psyche, tying Xi Jinping's modern ambitions to the country's centuries-old narratives. From the rise and fall of dynasties to painful interactions with neighboring barbarians and unsavory westerners, Schuman's scholarship vividly describes China's exceptionalism and how it underlines the ruling communist party's objectives to this day."—Richard McGregor, author of The Party: The Secret World of China's Communist Rulers and Xi Jinping: The Backlash
  • "Schuman skillfully narrates more than three thousand years of history through a Chinese lens that places China at the center of the world and Chinese civilization above all others. Superpower Interrupted provides crucial insights into Xi Jinping's Chinese Dream of national rejuvenation that seeks to restore China to its rightful place as world leader. Superpower Interrupted is essential reading for all those who want a deeper understanding of the historical roots of China's national objectives."—Bonnie Glaser, Center for Strategic and International Studies
  • "Superpower Interrupted is a concise and elegant survey of China as a dominant power in Eurasia. Michael Schuman provides an illuminating perspective on the Middle Kingdom's rise, fall, and reemergence as a geopolitical superpower and the evolution of its ties with the rest of the world. Those wondering how a rejuvenated China will conduct itself in world affairs will do well to read Superpower Interrupted for its deep insights and rich historical knowledge."—Minxin Pei, Claremont McKenna College, author of China's Crony Capitalism
  • "Timely, eloquent and lively throughout, Michael Schuman has written a book that covers China's long past--and hints at its future."—Peter Frankopan, Oxford University, author of The Silk Roads
  • "This is the best book about China I have read in a long, long time. Michael Schuman elegantly walks us through Chinese views of the outside world and reveals why China even today has an antagonistic relationship with the West."
    James McGregor, author of One Billion Customers: Lessons from the Front Lines of Doing Business in China
  • "All too often, foreign commentators talk about China mainly as a foil for their own concerns. Michael Schuman looks at China on its own terms, revealing how their own history has shaped how the Chinese see their place in the world and their future. If you want to understand the 'Chinese Dream,' Superpower Interrupted is a great place to begin."—Patrick Chovanec, School of International and Public Affairs, Columbia University
  • "As noted historian Jonathan Spence argued some twenty-two years ago, the West has long been guilty of seeing China through the same lens that it sees itself. Michael Schuman provides a fascinating antidote to this bias, examining China's worldview through its own lens. Is history on China's side? Schuman offers some tantalizing hints to the answer of that critical question."—Stephen Roach, senior fellow Yale University, former chairman Morgan Stanley Asia
  • "In his extraordinary book, Michael Schuman has provided the West with a much needed gift--a look at how the long history of China has shaped the China of today. Anyone who wants to really understand China needs to read Superpower Interrupted."—David Rubenstein, co-executive chairman, The Carlyle Group

On Sale
Jun 9, 2020
Page Count
384 pages

Michael Schuman

About the Author

Michael Schuman has been a foreign correspondent in Asia for 23 years, first with The Wall Street Journal and then as Time magazine’s international business correspondent based in Hong Kong and Beijing. He currently writes on a freelance basis for several publications: as a columnist for Bloomberg View and BusinessWeek and features for the New York Times and Forbes.

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