Restless Empire

China and the World Since 1750


By Odd Arne Westad

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As the twenty-first century dawns, China stands at a crossroads. The largest and most populous country on earth and currently the world’s second biggest economy, China has recently reclaimed its historic place at the center of global affairs after decades of internal chaos and disastrous foreign relations. But even as China tentatively reengages with the outside world, the contradictions of its development risks pushing it back into an era of insularity and instability — a regression that, as China’s recent history shows, would have serious implications for all other nations.

In Restless Empire, award-winning historian Odd Arne Westad traces China’s complex foreign affairs over the past 250 years, identifying the forces that will determine the country’s path in the decades to come. Since the height of the Qing Empire in the eighteenth century, China’s interactions — and confrontations — with foreign powers have caused its worldview to fluctuate wildly between extremes of dominance and subjugation, emulation and defiance. From the invasion of Burma in the 1760s to the Boxer Rebellion in the early 20th century to the 2001 standoff over a downed U.S. spy plane, many of these encounters have left Chinese with a lingering sense of humiliation and resentment, and inflamed their notions of justice, hierarchy, and Chinese centrality in world affairs. Recently, China’s rising influence on the world stage has shown what the country stands to gain from international cooperation and openness. But as Westad shows, the nation’s success will ultimately hinge on its ability to engage with potential international partners while simultaneously safeguarding its own strength and stability.

An in-depth study by one of our most respected authorities on international relations and contemporary East Asian history, Restless Empire is essential reading for anyone wishing to understand the recent past and probable future of this dynamic and complex nation.







For Michael
and Paula Hunt


CHINESE IS WRITTEN IN IDEOGRAPHIC CHARACTERS, not letters as most Indo-European languages are. The pronunciation of these characters differs greatly among people in China, not to mention with Koreans and Japanese, who also in part use them. The character , for instance, meaning “river,” is pronounced something like djiang in the north, kiang in central China, kang in Fujian, and gong in Cantonese.

This book uses the system of transliteration from Chinese known as hanyu pinyin (Chinese phonetics). The only exceptions are personal names well known in English in other transliterations, such as Chiang Kai-shek (who would be Jiang Jieshi in pinyin) or Sun Yat-sen. Developed by linguists working in Moscow in the 1930s, pinyin has become standard in the People’s Republic of China and increasingly elsewhere, replacing earlier systems. It is based on how people speak in north China.

In most cases the intuitive pronunciation of an English speaker comes close to imitating the sound as intended in pinyin. But in a few cases it is more difficult. Q is generally pronounced “ch,” x is “sh,” zh is “j” (as in Joe), and c is “ts.” Deng Xiaoping’s given name (Xiaoping) is therefore pronounced something like Shaoping. The city Chongqing is Chongching. Zhou Enlai’s surname (Zhou) is Joe. And Cixi, the empress dowager, is Tseshi. Accurate pronunciation is of course a bit more difficult than that. All Chinese characters are tonal as well, but no need to worry about that unless you want to study the language.


AT THE BEGINNING OF THE TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY, China is moving ever closer to the center of global affairs. As the most populous country on earth, and one of the largest, it has always commanded the attention of others, even in those rare periods in its history when it has been weak, divided, or poor. Today many Chinese and foreigners believe that China has emerged from an era of relative impotence to amass extraordinary international power. It is often predicted that within two decades it will become the world’s largest economy, overtaking the United States. The Chinese Academy of Sciences anticipates that, around that time, China will have become the world’s technological powerhouse and that it will have eradicated poverty among its more than 1.5 billion citizens, while increasing their life expectancy to eighty years.1 Meanwhile, some, especially in neighboring countries, fear that China will strengthen its military might in order to bend others to its will.

But even though China’s economic output has soared over the past thirty years, its history indicates that the march into the future may be less unilinear than some experts would have us believe. Both the period of Communist rule and China’s deeper history—the centuries of distinctive development under imperial and dictatorial rulers—have left deep historical fissures that future leaders will have to navigate in order to reach their political, economic, and social goals. Beneath the surface of today’s frenzied quest for progress lie currents and fault lines that could take China in very different directions from those we are seeing at present. These alternative paths may be positive or negative for China and the world. But with the significance that the country has already achieved in international affairs, we ignore the topography that made them only at our peril.

Some of this topography lies within today’s People’s Republic and some lies outside it. China’s relationships with its many neighbors and with the United States are essential to understanding its trajectories, as are the beliefs and worldviews of the Chinese people, China’s particular way of organizing the state and social affairs, and its economic and resource needs. But the boundaries between China and rest of the world are themselves not always clear or distinct. In the intersection between the internal and the external lie some of the most important aspects of China’s mental maps: borders, diasporas, ethnicities, trade, and the exchange of ideas. As often happens when dealing with great powers, the boundaries of this landscape become blurred when you look closely at them. The division lines between inner and outer fade away, and what remains is a China that is, to some extent, transnational and even global.

If border demarcations are blurred, so even more are time distinctions. The past is inscribed in China’s mental terrain in a calligraphy so powerful that it determines most of its approaches to the present. History therefore influences Chinese ways of seeing the world in a more direct sense than in any other culture I know. Today, little of this is mechanical—the Chinese do not necessarily draw explicit parallels between events of the past and those of the present. Very few Chinese—certainly of the present generation—think, for instance, about events from the Warring States period (475–221 BC) when reflecting on the current international situation. But they do carry with them concepts of justice, rules of behavior, and views of China’s place in the world that have been shaped by practices developed centuries ago. Although it is impossible to predict the future based on this past, it is necessary to understand it in order to have at least some means of navigation at hand.

THIS BOOK ATTEMPTS TO GIVE a brief overview of China’s relationship to its outside worlds over the past 250 years, but it might be useful, in the beginning, to dwell briefly on what the legacies of the even deeper past are. In doing so, we first have to tackle the big question: What exactly is this “China” that we are discussing here, historically, geographically, and culturally? Frankly, the more I have learned about China, the more elusive a clear definition becomes. Over the past two millennia it has been an empire rather than a country, but an empire with very open and very fluid borders. Its inhabitants have, until very recently, been defined by the civilization they were part of rather than by the way they look or the ancestors they have. Reading and writing Chinese script (but not necessarily speaking whatever form of the language was in vogue at Court) have been the key to this culture—whoever mastered written Chinese were inside; whoever did not were outside, or, at best, peripheral, whether they were foreigners, slaves, peasants, women, or conquered tribes.

Perhaps because of their cultural elitism, the state has always been a central concern for the Chinese. Benjamin Schwartz, a Harvard intellectual historian who rightly warned against seeing all things in contemporary China as rooted in the past, has put it well: “One of the most striking characteristics of Chinese civilization is what might be called the centrality and weight of the political order.”2 Identifying with that state and, if possible, improving it have been central to being Chinese for more than two thousand years. Even those who persistently attempted to escape from the state’s reach—whether they were Buddhists in the tenth century or anarchists in the twentieth—had to contend with the political order. There is no organizational project quite like it anywhere else in the world, including Russia, which has its own kind of state veneration, or China’s Asian neighbors, who all have taken up some of the Chinese concepts of the state.

China originated in the Yellow river valley, first as many states that collectively called themselves the Central Kingdoms, Zhongguo— today’s Chinese name for China. Then there was a unified empire under the Han dynasty, which ruled for most of the period from 206 BC to AD 220, roughly coinciding in time with the Roman empire in the west. The core parts of China have always faced eastward, toward the Yellow Sea, even after the vast regions south of the Yangzi river had been fully integrated during the Tang and Song dynasties some thousand to twelve hundred years ago. I always use a raised-relief map to explain to students how the state viewed its empire from its eastern capitals. The far west was mountains and deserts. Sichuan—the rich province in the southwest—was only accessible from the east through narrow mountain passes. The south was very far away, across rivers and valleys. The north held countless enemies, strong ethnic groups that could challenge the empire even when it was expanding. With few exceptions, the epicenter of power would therefore remain in the east, with most dynasties setting up their capitals around the Yellow river. Since the fourteenth century, the political center has moved between Beijing, the Northern Capital, in the northeast, and Nanjing, the Southern Capital, on the Yangzi, upriver from the central eastern coast. In essence, China has had its back on the middle part of the Eurasian continent, and that orientation has had enormous consequences for the country as it has approached the rest of the world.

Granted, it is a sketchy definition of a country, but here is mine: China is a culture, a state, and a geographical core, around which identities, boundaries, and definitions of purpose have shifted and adjusted for a very long time. Indeed, perhaps one of the reasons why the concept of China has been so durable is that it is so amorphous and so contentious. Generations after generations have struggled to give their own meaning to it and to its place in the world, while drawing on the history that preceded them. Over the past 250 years, the deeper historical legacies—the state, Confucian culture, geography—appear in battles over crucial terms that define and give a sense of direction to the Chinese.3

The concept of justice is one of these essential terms. It is key to the Confucian influences that have shaped Chinese politics since the early Han dynasty. To the philosopher Confucius (551–479 BC), as to his Greek contemporary Plato, justice meant a proper, harmonious relationship within a family, within a state, and between states. The sincerity of the ruler, according to Confucian tradition, is more important than any form of procedural justice. “He who exercises government by means of his virtue may be compared to the north polar star, which keeps its place and all the stars turn towards it,” Confucius said.4 In the Chinese view today, the outside world over the past two hundred years has treated China unjustly, and this grievance remains a leitmotif in China’s international affairs.

Rules and rituals are central to many Chinese systems of thought, including but not limited to Confucianism. These rules were created by Chinese elites for their own use, and to regulate conditions for those who were subservient to them. Most of the concepts clearly define hierarchies, but they also set out the mutual duties and obligations of various members of society. As the world changed in the nineteenth century, many Chinese felt that the new Western-led international society they were being forced into was characterized more by chaos than by rules. The search for general principles in international affairs has therefore been a staple of Chinese foreign policy, even though China, like all states, accepts those rules that are to its advantage more easily than those that are not.

A sense of centrality is also a crucial component of the Chinese mindset. The ease with which its neighbors have, throughout history, accepted elements of Chinese culture has served to confirm a cosmology in which China always stands at the center. With the belief in an essential role for their country in Eastern Asia came a sense of responsibility in systemic terms, of China as the indispensable nation for its region. For this reason, some Chinese have found it difficult to understand alternative visions of how the world works and how societies should be organized. There is an irony here. For most of its history, China has been open to the importing of ideas without, however, relinquishing the sense that Chinese thought has absolute universal applications. The parochialism and intolerance that sometimes come out of a belief in one’s own centrality have plagued China’s foreign affairs at crucial moments in its history.

Justice, rules, and centrality—these three crucial concepts should always be borne in mind when considering the past, present, and future of Chinese foreign policy. But they are, however, broad preoccupations rather than concrete prescripts. And although China’s written tradition can help us understand these concerns, the belief that we can fathom more of what China will do in a conflict today through studying, for instance, Sun Zi’s The Art of War—a key text of the late sixth century BC—is a far-fetched proposition.5 Present-day Chinese, whatever their background, do not set their personal priorities or those for their state and its international affairs by studying their ancient texts any more than Europeans or Americans study Plato or Aristotle before making a decision. But the social and cultural concepts developed and contested over time color their concerns and help set the agenda for people’s views of what their country ought to do.

THE HISTORY OF MODERN CHINA’S foreign relations began with the Qing dynasty, which ruled for almost three hundred years, from 1644 to 1912. Under the Qing, China saw the peak of its power. By the 1750s, it had crushed the political and military independence of all the smaller nations on its northern frontier and begun incorporating them into a much-enlarged China. It had regulated its relations with its remaining neighbors, from the Russian empire in the north to the kingdoms in Southeast Asia and in the Himalayas, according to Chinese preconditions and based on a Chinese sense of superiority. By the middle part of the eighteenth century, the Qing empire had created a world in eastern Asia that was almost entirely its own.

The unlikely story of the Qing empire originates in the beginning of the seventeenth century. At that time, a motley crew of princes from north of the border began to take power in parts of the territory belonging to the Ming dynasty, which had ruled China since 1368. The professed goal of the invaders was to conquer all of the country and restore Confucian rectitude, which they believed had been lost under the Ming emperors, whom they saw as unrighteous and decadent. The leaders of the conquering army came from a Tungusic tribe which in the past had been known as Jurchen and now called themselves the Manchu. As they expanded southward, they were joined by many Mongols, Koreans, and Chinese, as well as people from smaller tribes in the northeast, the territory we now call Manchuria. In 1636, they created a separate polity, a state and a dynasty they called Qing, meaning bright or pure. By 1644 they had taken the Chinese capital, Beijing, and began to pacify the rest of the country. The last Ming dynasty pretender was hauled back from Burma and executed in 1662.

The Qing’s announced goal was to rule according to ancient wisdom as set out in the classic works of Confucianism. The Ming had failed, they declared, because its rulers had become lax and equivocal; they had seemed weak and without a sense of direction for generations. Now the Manchus, the outsiders, had arrived in order to rectify China and bring back its greatness. But as with many political leaders who appeal to traditions and values, the Qing emperors’ message hid the fact that they were setting out to remake China in their own image, as a great multicultural dynastic state with universalist pretensions. Their forms of organization were modern, in the sense that they were different from anything that had existed before, stressing coordinated use of economic, technical, and ideological resources. Their armies, through which they ruled, had more in common with those of the Ottoman, Russian, or even the Austro-Hungarian empires than with those of the Ming; they relied on highly mobile cavalry, firearms and artillery, and well-developed logistics. Their intention was to form a super state in which peoples of all ethnic backgrounds and faiths should find their obedient place.6

In spite of its ideological and military power, the Qing might not have been such a success were it not for the longevity of two remarkable emperors: Kangxi (Abundant Prosperity), who ruled from 1661 to 1722, and his grandson Qianlong (Heavenly Greatness), who ruled from 1736 to 1796.7 Between them they governed China for more than 120 years and solidified Qing rule to an extent that few who were living in the 1650s would have thought possible. They also embedded their personal characteristics in the empire they created. Kangxi was mercurial and dynamic, curious about the outside world but fiercely protective of his power and that of the Manchus. Qianlong was cultured and hard-working, but he was not as intelligent as his grandfather and was therefore more doctrinaire on civil and political matters. Both were knowledgeable about the peoples they ruled and about the world that surrounded them, and adept at the diplomatic and military tools needed to navigate a complex region.

By 1750, the fourteenth year of Qianlong’s reign, the Qing empire had consolidated its rule over all of China and was expanding its imperial government into Central Asia, Tibet, and Mongolia. Unlike their predecessors, the Manchu emperors regulated the empire’s foreign relations, so that all smaller states in the region, from Korea to Burma, explicitly recognized the preeminence of the Central Kingdom and of the Qing. At home the empire was at peace, with considerable economic expansion, especially in agriculture (although China also had a large manufacturing sector, some of which specialized in porcelain and silk for export). Irrigation and transport were well developed, and markets had begun to emerge, dealing in everything from land to tools to candlesticks for the afterlife. It was an increasingly specialized society, in which written contracts and agreements between individuals and families were taking on major roles.8

The impact of the state could be seen in all walks of life. A bit like the absolutist kings of the French prerevolutionary era, the Qing aspired to control every aspect of the lives of their subjects and to regulate those they could not directly control. Like their European counterparts they of course failed in many of these pretensions, but they did set a pattern in ideological terms that the Qing state continued to adhere to up to its collapse in the twentieth century. This pervasiveness of the state was closely linked to dreams of expansion. Qianlong believed that Qing rule was in form universal, in the sense that its principles should be applied by all peoples who were culturally advanced enough to appreciate and use them. It was this universalism, more than anything else, that in the late eighteenth century drove the empire to engage in costly military expeditions at its frontiers. These excursions would, by the early nineteenth century, empty the imperial coffers and contribute to a general sense of exhaustion and malaise.

Qing China is often presented by historians, even today, as insular and inward looking. But nobody within their region who came up against Kangxi or Qianlong in real time would have viewed them as looking inward. The Qing were continuously expanding outward. They focused primarily on their land borders, though Kangxi conquered Taiwan in 1683. By 1750, the Qing operated in three distinct spheres of foreign affairs: Central Asia, where the theme was expansion; coastal Asia, where the theme was trade and tribute; and Russia, where the theme was diplomacy. Policy on all of these fronts was coordinated to leave the Qing emperors time to fully impose their rule on China, while exterminating those enemies at the frontiers whom Beijing thought capable of threatening its rule. Having themselves taken China by force, the Qing wanted to prevent any new contenders from doing the same to them.

The dramatic Qing penetration of Central Asia is a story of intense conflict and, eventually, of genocide. In the early eighteenth century, Zungharia was a mighty khanate led by Mongols, covering all the territory between western Central Asia and the Mongolian heartland, down to the Tibetan borders, an area roughly similar to modern India in size. It had been intermittently at war with the Qing for more than seventy years. In the 1750s Qianlong unleashed what he called “the final solution” to the Zunghar problem. After having defeated Zungharia in battle, he ordered his army to kill all of the Zunghar elite whom they could lay their hands on, causing what has been called the eighteenth-century genocide par excellence. Then he incorporated most of eastern Zungharia and the minor khanates to its south into China, creating one region that Qianlong, triumphantly, referred to as China’s new frontier (Xinjiang).9

Along the Asian coastline, the Qing were equally forceful but less violent. In the south and east, China was surrounded by states that all stood in some form of tributary relationship to the emperor in Beijing. (The only exception was Japan. The Qing regarded it as a tributary state but in reality had no authority over it.) Countries from Korea to Nepal had dynamic affiliations with China based on some form of ritual subservience, such as the regular paying of tribute to the emperor.10 All of these relationships were different in character, though, and there was no overall “tributary system,” unlike what some historians have claimed. Instead it makes sense to talk of a Sino-centric system, in which Chinese culture was central to the self-identification of many elite groups in the surrounding Asian countries. China was a constant reference point in their orientation (much like the United States is now for Europeans). But the states that paid tribute were generally good at using the relationship for their own purposes. Very often the suzerainty of the emperor was invoked by smaller countries to secure trading privileges for themselves, sometimes disguised as tribute, or assistance from China in local power struggles.

Until the arrival of the British and the French in the nineteenth century, Russia was China’s only imperial neighbor. But in spite of the Qing determination to respect Russian territory to the north, it was a very unequal relationship. Distance and overall strength did not favor the Russians, so they were careful not to provoke quarrels with the Qing. The treaty of Nerchinsk in 1689 (the twenty-eighth year of the mighty Kangxi’s reign) drew a borderline more or less straight east from where the northern Mongolian frontier is today. It gave China the whole Amur basin and what is now the Russian maritime province, including the island of Sakhalin. The agreement helped to keep the peace and allowed licensed trade along the borders. It gave the Qing free hand to expand westward in return for renouncing rights to what they considered the frozen wastes of the north. The treaty with Russia was China’s first with a European power and was for the Qing a useful introduction to the practice of European diplomacy. They already had decent introductions to the subject from two of Kangxi’s top diplomatic advisers, the French Jesuit Jean-François Gerbillon and his Portuguese colleague Tomas Pereira.11

Aside from Russia and eastern Asia, in 1750 the rest of the world mattered less to China in security terms than it did in terms of cultural knowledge. Kangxi had received at Court Asian islanders, Indians, Arabs, and Persians and ordered his scholars to expand their knowledge about these foreign domains. For a while some of his favorite companions were European Jesuit priests, such as Gerbillon and Pereira, who could present the latest findings on astronomy, military affairs, architecture, and painting. Kangxi guarded against any proselytizing by them or by Muslims or Buddhists that could undermine the primacy of the Qing state. But while Christian preaching had been prohibited in 1721, after a narrow-minded decree from Pope Clement XI had forbidden Chinese Christians from participating in the state rituals of the Qing, Jesuits stayed in China up to the suppression of the Jesuit order in 1773. Some even stayed on after that, such as Qianlong’s European translator Jean Amiot, who died in Beijing in 1793, only six years before the emperor’s own death.

By 1750 the Qing dynasty had reached the peak of its position in Asia. It was, as its emperor liked to emphasize, secure against invaders and broadly self-sufficient in terms of agricultural supplies. Its forms of interaction with the rest of the continent were decided in Beijing, and even though its imperial court could not determine the policies of other courts, it often had a decisive influence on them through diplomacy, education, or culture. The Qing capital was recognized as the center of the eastern Asian region, the city to which outsiders were drawn and from which important judgments on thinking, taste, and style emanated. Moreover, its elite was firm in its conviction that the Qing political system was the only rational way of administering the empire, and that it served as a model for how states should be organized not just in Asia but worldwide.

COMPLETED IN 1750, the Gardens of Perfect Brightness (Yuanmingyuan) in northwestern Beijing were the great symbol of Qing power and its universalist urges. Qianlong commissioned the vast pleasure park to demonstrate his esthetic knowledge and the power of his empire. Five times bigger than the Forbidden City (the massive palace complex in central Beijing where the imperial family lived), the park was intended to show everything under heaven, a kind of eighteenth-century World’s Fair. In its sprawling collection of palaces and gardens, there were Chinese-style buildings from various dynasties and structures and landscapes from the Chinese hinterlands, Korea, and Southeast Asia. But strangest for Chinese visitors were the buildings at the back of the park, which had been designed by the Milanese painter and architect Giuseppe Castiglione in Italian baroque style. The main edifice, a large building overlooking the central fountain, was called the Hall of Calm Seas. It housed the emperor’s collection of European works of art, including the French clocks that particularly fascinated him.

The Yuanmingyuan symbolized the pretensions of the Qing and the centrality of their capital until it was plundered and destroyed by British troops when they invaded Beijing during the Opium Wars in 1860. When I first came to the Chinese capital as a student 120 years later, the ground where it had stood was almost empty, except for a few scattered anti-imperialist billboards at the entrance (“Beat Down All Imperialists and Their Running Dogs!”) and skimpy vegetable plots of poor peasants. For me, it was a good spot for an afternoon’s stroll and the ideal place to meet friends and girlfriends, providing shelter from the prying eyes that populated Beijing. But some local people refused to go there because it was ridden with ghosts of a past best forgotten.


  • "A rich history of the past 250 years of Chinese foreign policy."—Ian Johnson, NewYork Review of Books
  • "A fine example...of the way history can begin to make sense of [China] for an outsider."—Guardian (UK), Best History Books of 2012
  • "A wonderful book.... Westad upends, but ever so politely, a slew of misconceptions about China that have been concocted by his academic predecessors both in the West and in Asia."—John Pomfret, WashingtonPost
  • "A readable introduction to a vast topic, Restless Empire traces the development of modern China and provides context for understanding the country's future place in the world."
    New Yorker, Page-Turner blog
  • "Westad's clear account is extraordinarily useful, both for the context in which he puts it and for the use he makes of recent scholarship."—Commonweal
  • "To understand why the map that appears in the Chinese passport has angered diplomats outside China, Odd Arne Westad's perceptive accounts of the Sino-Indian War of 1962 and of more recent squabbles over islands in the South China Sea are essential reading"
    Times Literary Supplement
  • "[A] lucid and engaging book.... This fine survey is the best guide to appear yet on the knotty entanglements of China's pasts and futures."
    Literary Review (UK)
  • "China's relationship with the outside world since 1750 has been varied and complex. Westad explains all."
    Denver Post
  • "Westad's Restless Empire is thorough, fast-moving, and consistently clear. It gives an excellent introduction to the vagaries of China's foreign relations over the last 250 years."
    Jonathan Spence, author of The Search for Modern China
  • "Written by one of the most distinguished scholars on China, this book brings clarity and insight into complex historical issues."—Jung Chang, author of Wild Swans and co-author of Mao: TheUnknown Story
  • "An essential guide to modern China's often violent encounter with the rest of the world."
    Frank Dikotter, author of Mao's Great Famine

On Sale
Aug 28, 2012
Page Count
544 pages
Basic Books

Odd Arne Westad

About the Author

Odd Arne Westad is the Elihu Professor of History and Global Affairs at Yale University and author and editor of fifteen books, including The Global Cold War, recipient of the Bancroft Prize, and Restless Empire, recipient of the Asia Society book award. He lives in New Haven, Connecticut.

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