Return to film guide
This section provides historical context that is key to understanding how China has interacted with the “world,” including the great colonial powers in the 19th century, Cold War superpowers and the Third World in the 20th, and the contemporary situation. I suggest that teachers become familiar with this material and use it as necessary to supplement teaching and class discussion of the film. Key terms appear in bold face.
Chinese Modernity: A Century of Humiliation
Though The Wandering Earth is a very recent production whose plot unfolds in the future, to fully understand this film and its bold geopolitical imagination, we must first acquaint ourselves with China’s 19th century fraught encounter with colonial modernity. By the 19th century, the Chinese Empire, ruled by the Qing Dynasty since 1644, grew from the boundaries of the previous Ming Dynasty, to encompass roughly the landmass we associate today with Chinese territorial boundaries (Mongolia, now an independent nation, is an exception). The Qing, themselves Manchu, northerners who took over a Han Chinese dynasty, ruled over a multiethnic empire. Qing China was a prosperous state and hegemon of regional geopolitics, the Middle Kingdom to which surrounding states paid tribute. Beginning in the 19th century, however, the Qing was beset with significant problems at home and abroad. Trade imbalances vis à vis the West, which prized Chinese tea and porcelain, alarmed Western powers who paid for Chinese goods in silver. Opium, grown in colonial India and traded famously by British merchants, proved to be an efficacious solution to reclaim the bullion from Chinese hands. Trade of this drug, however, was prohibited in China and the Chinese government grew alarmed at the high rates of addiction and economic consequences of the opium trade. In 1838, the Qing official Lin Zexu was appointed imperial commissioner and tasked with ending the opium trade. Eventually, Lin confiscated and destroyed 3 million pounds of raw opium. Lin’s continued efforts to end the opium trade eventually led to military confrontation with Britain, whose citizens were losing money and incurring punishments because of his actions. The First Opium War thus began. It ended in 1842 with a loss and humiliating conditions of defeat for China, including a war indemnity (essentially a fine paid to Britain), relinquished control of Hong Kong to the British, and the forced opening of several “treaty ports,” famously, the growing city of Shanghai, to British trade. A second Opium War broke out in 1856; Britain and France defeated China together.
Here begins China’s “Century of Humiliation.” The Treaty of Nanjing which ended the First Opium War was the start of a series of unequal treaties that forced China to acquiesce to economic incursions by Western powers hungry to profit from trade and investment in China. In cities like Shanghai, foreign powers were even granted extraterritorial rights, allowed rule over colonial “concessions,” that is, parts of China that were governed directly by other nations. Weakened internally by famine and political strife, the Qing embarked upon a series of reforms, actions intended to modernize China’s military and economy. Political and cultural reforms also followed, but modernization efforts were hampered by political disagreements and continuing conflicts that drained the Qing state’s resources. The first Sino-Japanese War (1894-95), a conflict fought over control of Korea, ended with an unthinkable loss against a state long thought to be China’s inferior. The ground had shifted dramatically for the Chinese, many of whom turned to Japan as a model for successful modernization, travelling to Japan in search of modern knowledge. The war also marked the beginning of Japan’s imperial ambitions on the Asian continent; subsequent colonial incursions in China, culminating in the atrocities of the Second Sino Japanese War and WW II, produced a long-held enmity against and sensitivity about Japanese imperialism. China thus entered the 20th century under an existential geopolitical threat and a conviction that something must be done to preserve China, now derisively known as the “Weak Man of Asia.”
How the nation was to go on was an open question—political, cultural, and economic reforms incited debate among cultural elites and anxiety throughout all classes. Some argued for the utilitarian embrace of Western science and technology while maintaining a Chinese moral essence; others agitated for more radical reform. Literature broadly, and science fiction more specifically, played an important role in these debates about China’s place in the world and in the crafting of new, modern, and strong Chinese citizens (see section 2, “Genre and Chinese Geopolitics”).
The Socialist Period (1949-1978)
The Republic of China was founded on January 1st, 1912, after internal and external pressures eventually led the Qing Dynasty to fall in the 1911 Xinhai Revolution. This at once young and ancient nation was almost immediately plunged into further turmoil. Apart from the Nanjing Decade (1927-1937), when the Nationalist government (led by the Nationalist party, the Guomindang) ruled China from Nanjing, there was relatively little central control over the vast country. In 1921, the Chinese Communist Party was founded in Shanghai with the help of the Soviet Union. The conservative Nationalists were hostile to radical politics and persecuted Communists, the two coming together briefly to fight against the Japanese. By the time WW II was over and the Japanese threat vanquished, the enmity between the two camps reverted to Civil War. Despite backing by the United States, the Nationalist government lost the war and retreated to Taiwan, a large island off the coast Southern China then recently liberated from Japanese colonization. On October 1st, 1949, the People’s Republic of China was founded at a spectacular ceremony in Beijing, which was reestablished as the national capital. The “Century of Humiliation” had ended with a peaceful China unified and ruled by Mao Zedong and the Chinese Communist Party.
During the socialist period, China’s geopolitics were defined both in relation and in opposition to binaries of the Cold War. China took part in the Korean War, its “volunteer” army fighting on North Korea’s side to repel an allied invasion of the north. An initial close relationship with the Soviet Union, whose assistance was key in China’s postwar reconstruction and industrial development, soured by the late 1950s. Stalin’s death and the USSR’s revisionism irked the Chinese leadership and a final break occurred in 1961. The break with the Soviet Union decoupled China from the bipolar contest between the US and the USSR, and Chinese leaders and diplomats pursued relationships with the Third World. The Chinese participated, for example, in the Bandung Conference, a meeting of Third World nations held in Indonesia in 1955 to explore anticolonial geopolitical possibilities. Chinese diplomats worked throughout Southeast Asia and Africa, promoting an image of China as a leader of world revolution and anti-imperialist struggle. An echo of this socialist engagement can be seen in the contemporary film Wolf Warrior 2, a “Chinese Rambo” figure who saves the day in an unnamed African country. Imagery that speaks to socialist China’s global imaginary can be found on Chineseposters.net (“Foreign Friends” and “Foreign Imperialists”). Vol. 7 no. 8 of Black Panther magazine, available here, offers a fascinating look at how American racial liberation movements engaged with the socialist world in the 1970s. [Note: the n-word and violent imagery appears frequently in Black Panther] Black Panther leader Huey Newton’s 1971 visit to China, covered in this issue, underscores the nation’s commitments to socialist cosmopolitanism. President Nixon’s visit to China in the very same year, in turn, was a first step toward normalizing diplomatic relations with the United States, a government long vilified by the Chinese state as an imperialist aggressor.
Throughout the socialist period then, China’s position in the world is characterized by both idealism and pragmatism. Socialist internationalism was maintained through shared anticolonial politics and visions of world revolution (thus the friendship with the Black Panthers), but China’s self-positioning as a leader among Third World nations underscored that even socialists believe in hierarchies (China as the leader of world revolution). Meanwhile, a break with the USSR ultimately left China to negotiate its own relationship with the United States (Nixon’s visit), thus navigating the complex politics of the Cold War deftly.
Postsocialism, Xi Jinping, and Tianxia
Following Mao’s death, China entered a period known as “Reform and Opening” (1978-1989). After the “Four Modernizations” (agriculture, defense, industry, science & technology) were announced in 1978, China’s economic system began shifting towards a consumer economy that valorized private enterprise. Both material goods and cultural products from abroad trickled into China, some legally and some smuggled on new technologies such as VHS tapes. “To get rich,” the new leader Deng Xiaoping proclaimed, “is glorious.” While China avoided the dramatic “shocks” that ravished postsocialist Eastern Europe, the economic situation of the 1980s was uncertain. Coupled with frustration over corruption and censorship, social anxieties brought on by reform culminated in the 1989 protests in Tiananmen Square. After the violent suppression of these iconic protests, China’s future direction was not clear. Despite opposition from more conservative forces in the party, Deng Xiaoping embarked on a “Southern Tour” in 1992. In visiting China’s southern, coastal provinces, he legitimated special economic zones that had been set up in the 1980s to promote investment. Throughout the 1990s, China increasingly integrated into the world economy, finally joining the WTO in 2001. It is during this period that China became known as “the Factory of the World,” due to the extensive export-oriented manufacturing that had developed in southern provinces.
Geopolitically, the 1990s saw increased tension with Taiwan, where direct presidential elections were held for the first time in 1996. China launched ballistic missiles over the island to intimidate voters, but the crisis abated when US naval groups arrived in the area. Meanwhile, Hong Kong, ceded to Britain after the First Opium War, returned to China in 1997, albeit under an agreement that guaranteed the former colony relatively autonomous governance till 2047. The 2008 Beijing Olympics were a major coup for China, allowing the nation to showcase its tremendous economic development and to curate spectacular cultural content like the opening ceremony of the games. The first hour of the opening ceremony, available here, is a spectacular pageant of China ascendant that is well worth rewatching.
Xi Jinping, China’s current leader, took on the mantle of power in 2012, presiding over an increasingly confident nation. Soon after assuming leadership, Xi began promoting the “Chinese Dream,” a loosely defined set of ideas about Chinese prosperity and national rejuvenation. In pursuing this “dream,” Xi has proved to be an autocratic leader at home and a strident power player internationally. The architect of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), an international development project that promotes regional connections through infrastructural projects, Xi has advanced an ambitious international agenda for China. In a sense picking up from the socialist internationalist diplomacy of the Mao period, China’s contemporary overtures towards the Third World aim to replace the influence of development financed by the West. China has established a significant presence, for example, in Africa. Its first overseas military base was established in Djibouti, a small nation in the Horn of Africa, in 2017. While Chinese officials describe Chinese investment in Africa in positive terms, suggesting that Chinese assistance is free of the ideological baggage of Western imperialism, Western powers are skeptical and describe Chinese investment as exploitative neocolonialism.
China’s recently more strident international stance is referred to as “Wolf Warrior diplomacy” after the action film franchise. While “Wolf Warrior” diplomats act aggressively to the delight of hawkish nationalists in China, one of Xi Jinping’s key foreign policy slogans is a “community of a shared future for mankind,” a project of peaceful international cooperation helmed by China. This contemporary Chinese cosmopolitanism is often associated with tianxia, literally “all under heaven,” a Chinese cultural concept inherited from classical political thought that champions harmonious coexistence. The very use of the term tianxia also alerts us that contemporary Chinese political thought engages strongly with classical philosophies, including, of course, Confucianism. While there is a tendency in the West to understand Chinese political language cynically as rhetoric that covers up reality, it behooves us to consider carefully what tianxia means and how this idea differs from notions of global peace like “Pax Americana.” As the comparative literature scholar Weihua He writes in an analysis of The Wandering Earth:
“With its implicit acknowledgement of the existence of difference, tianxia does not seek a homogenized world by posing itself as an enlightening project and endeavoring to impose its own values upon others. Instead, harmony is the ultimate ideal, which aims at the peaceful coexistence of various political communities” (532).
In other words, as He suggests, Chinese foreign policy embraces an “alternative cosmopolitanism.” Unlike the international interventions undertaken by Western powers in the name of spreading liberal values, Chinese cosmopolitanism focuses on harmonious coexistence. Despite this utopian vision, it is important to remember that contemporary embraces of tianxia, like socialist Chinese overtures to the Third World, remain strongly sinocentric and hierarchical. To mitigate some of the tension arising from this dialectical situation, the government chooses to translate its diplomatic mission, daguo waijiao, as “major-country diplomacy,” rather than the more common “great power diplomacy” (Dai & Luqiu 256). “Great powers,” of course, immediately calls to mind imperial ambitions that China itself struggled against during its modernization process. Now, ascendant as a “major country” on the world stage, China must negotiate anxieties about its rise while articulating its place in a multipolar world. Recent events, including the Chinese spy balloon found floating over the US, calls for a ban of TikTok, Chinese and American posturing on Taiwan, as well as China’s diplomatic successes in Iran and ambivalence towards the war in Ukraine illustrate just how central China has become to both US and world politics.