Every July, amid festivities and fireworks, the U.S. and France mark their birth as nations. Accustomed as we are in the West to histories that begin with triumph—the signing of the Declaration of Independence, the storming of the Bastille—it may seem strange that China, the fast-rising dynamo of the East, marks the beginning of its journey to modern nationhood in a very different way: with the shock of unexpected defeat and the loss of national greatness.
Many Chinese date the start of their modern history to Aug. 11, 1842, when the Qing Dynasty, by signing the Treaty of Nanjing, capitulated to Great Britain in order to end the disastrous First Opium War (1839-42). It was from this and many other subsequent defeats that China’s political elites—including the most progressive 20th-century reformers and revolutionaries—wove an entire national narrative of foreign exploitation and victimization. Even today, this fabric of ideas continues to hold powerful sway over China’s relations with the rest of the world.