America has been many things to many people: a city on a hill; a beacon of freedom; a melting pot. Now, the worry is that we’ve become a piggy bank. So declared President Trump in May, as part of his explanation of new tariffs to be imposed on Chinese goods. It is a major escalation in a trade war that has been one of his administration’s signature policies.
No economist believes that protectionist measures will be good for the US in the short run. The administration’s own advisor concedes that “both sides will pay,” and, sure enough, the Dow Jones index tumbled nearly 700 points after Trump’s declaration. He seems to suggest that economics is a zero-sum game, in which one party must lose for the other to win—an idea that was already discredited in the eighteenth century, with the decline of mercantilism. In particular, the notion that reducing Chinese imports will help American manufacturing (the reason Trump usually gives for the tariffs) is obviously wrong. There’s a whole world full of other low-wage economies who will pick up the slack first, and the harm done to American companies that do business in China will more than offset any benefit.
To the extent that there is a case to be made for the policy, it lies in the diplomatic long game. Both before and after China entered the World Trade Organization in 2001, it has been cavalier in its disregard for issues ranging from intellectual property to workers’ rights. And in the current geopolitical context—many have predicted that the twenty-first century will belong to China, just as the twentieth belonged to America—there may be some strategic sense in a war of economic attrition.
If we’re playing the long game, though, it would help to look back as well as forward. America has been trading directly with China since a privateer re-christened the Empress of China set sail from New York harbor on February 22, 1784—George Washington’s birthday. In its hold were some thirty tons of ginseng root, one crate of furs, and 17,700 silver dollars (it was supposed to be a rounder number, but one of the financial backers embezzled some of the cash at the last moment). The vessel arrived at its destination in August. The supercargo, Revolutionary War veteran Samuel Shaw, successfully traded in Canton for chests of tea, lengths of silk, barrels of spices—enough to turn a tidy profit upon the ship’s return.
He also brought back porcelains, some of which bore the insignia of the Society of the Cincinnati, which had been founded in 1783 by patriot officers (Washington purchased some of these wares, now preserved at Mount Vernon). As had long been the custom with orders for coats of arms, Shaw provided a design for the Chinese artisans to copy; of one of their early efforts, he wrote, “it is difficult to regard it without smiling.”1 He also subscribed to the common prejudice of his day, that “the Chinese, though they can imitate most of the fine arts, do not possess any large portion of original genius.” 2
Of course, Shaw made plenty of mistakes too, among them carrying a letter from Congress that began: “Most Serene, Serene, most puissant, puissant, high, illustrious, noble, honorable, venerable, wise and prudent Emperors, Kings, Republicks, Princes, Dukes, Earls, Barons, Lords, Burgomasters . . .”—language that the Chinese, long experienced in European etiquette, would have found completely ridiculous. Indeed, one historian has said that the inaugural voyage of the Empress, though courageous and enterprising,was “replete with blunders and embarrassments.”3 Cultural exchange is like that.
Even so, from the American perspective, it was the beginning of a beautiful friendship. Once they had clearly distinguished themselves from the English—the Chinese began calling them the “flowery flag devils,” having recognized that the Stars and Stripes did in fact represent a new country—the Americans were able to build a regular and extremely profitable trade, enriching cities like Boston and Salem. Equally satisfyingly, they were able to cut out British merchants who had previously provided tea and other luxuries. (For what it’s worth, tariffs against European imports enjoyed wide support in this period, as a way of promoting nascent American manufacturers.) An emblematic survival of this exchange is a Chinese porcelain cup and saucer, now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, on which is depicted the signing of the Declaration of Independence. This scene, too, is clearly based on a provided model. The result—America’s foundation story, depicted somewhat awkwardly by people half a world away—encapsulates what globalization is all about. America did indeed achieve a measure of economic independence through the China trade, but it incurred new dependencies in the process.
And what of the Chinese perspective? It’s not a question Americans tend to ask, either in decorative art history or in politics. But there is good reason to. Once trade was established, American merchants found success with new commodities: otter and beaver furs, sandalwood (initially taken from the islands we now call Hawaii), and . . . opium. Though the British were by far the dominant mercantile power in the region, and the most active smugglers of the drug into China, there was plenty of American involvement in the illicit trade, too. As a wave of addiction swept the country, the Chinese government took measures to stem the tide, triggering the first Opium War.
When “gunboat diplomacy” brought the war to a conclusion—deeply humiliating the Chinese—the US saw its opportunity. In 1844 it negotiated the Treaty of Wangxia, cited to this day by the Chinese as one of the so-called “unequal treaties” (bu pingdeng tiaoyue) that codified the imposition of Western imperialism. How many people in the US know this today? How many have so much as heard of the Taiping Rebellion, which unfolded in the wake of the Opium War, and pitted Christian revolutionaries (who were influenced by Western missionaries) against the dynastic Qing government? By the time it ended in 1864, that horrific conflict killed at least 20 million people—perhaps forty times as many as America’s own Civil War, which occurred at the same time.
When trading partners know little of one another’s story—or of their own role in that story—the occasional misunderstanding, the inevitable awkwardness, can become something much more destructive. All the more so when fierce feelings of unforgiving nationalism come into play. Given China’s past experience of American behavior, it seems very likely that the present trade war will exacerbate distrust and xenophobia there, just as it seems to be doing here. Historians have an important role to play in setting the record straight. We might start by admitting that without the China trade, America would never have gotten to where it is today; and that, for a long time anyway, China got the bad end of the bargain. Whether we like it or not, wars, economic and otherwise, are fought over the past as well as the future. And, as the Chinese adage goes, “The palest ink is better than the most capacious memory.” 4
1 Quoted in Peter D. Eicher, Raising the Flag: America’s First Envoys in Faraway Lands (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2018), p. 16. 2 Jean McClure Mudge, Chinese Export Porcelain for the American Trade, 1785–1835 (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1962), p. 53. 3 John R. Haddad, America’s First Adventure in China: Trade, Treaties, Opium, and Salvation (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2013), p. 8. 4 Arthur H. Smith, Proverbs and Common Sayings from the Chinese . . . (Shanghai: American Presbyterian Mission Press, 1902), p. 34.