Path to Harmony

The United States and China

The young and the old are rarely thought of as natural friends, but the relatively young United States and the much older China began to pursue a relationship soon after the former achieved its independence in 1783. Over the following two and a half centuries, both countries have sought to develop a stable bond based on national interests, trade, cultural exchanges, diplomacy, and the equality of nations. Although there have been significant diversions in the path to that end, the United States and China now engage as the world’s two most powerful and wealthy countries while acknowledging their distinct identities.

America’s entrée into China followed the route of other Western nations that preceded it through trade. The exchange of diplomats, students, scholars, and military personnel further opened avenues with benefits to both countries.

An essential contribution to early U.S.-China relations was the Qing Dynasty’s appointment of Anson Burlingame as its representative to Washington, D.C., in 1867. Burlingame had previously been the U.S. minister to China and thus was well-versed in the interests of both governments. The Chinese Educational Mission (1872-1881) further facilitated U.S.-Chinese interactions by sending a select group of boys to schools in New England, with the expectation that they would contribute to China’s modernization after their return home.

China’s international visibility was greatly enhanced in 1896 by the official mission of her leading statesman, Viceroy Li Hongzhang, to the United States and other countries. While in Washington, D.C., Li advocated unsuccessfully for the repeal of U.S. laws that restricted the immigration of Chinese laborers. Chinese had begun emigrating in large numbers from Guangdong Province during the nineteenth-century Gold Rush. They stayed on to improve America’s infrastructure and agriculture, including building the first Transcontinental Railroad and developing the Bing cherry and the frost-resistant orange. Many early Chinese immigrants progressed from sojourner to citizen.

During World War II, the U.S. helped sustain China’s resistance to Japan’s advances, primarily as military advisors and instructors, but also by General Claire Lee Chennault’s 1st American Volunteer Group, popularly known as the “Flying Tigers.” After the war, official relations between the two nations experienced a hiatus from the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949 until efforts towards normalization in 1971.

Today, connections continue to develop in new and novel ways. Just as twentieth-century Chinese adopted modern, Western ways, particularly in cosmopolitan Shanghai, Americans developed a taste for things Chinese, notably Chinese food (often adapted to American tastes). Chinese students have long studied English, but the widespread instruction of Mandarin in American schools is a recent phenomenon, illustrating that the two countries continue to learn from each other.

U.S.-China relations mirror an expression by Confucius in the fifth century B.C.: “To have friends come from afar: is that not happiness (有朋自远方来不亦乐乎)?”

Dr. Raymond Lum
Librarian for Western Languages (Ret.)
Harvard-Yenching Library, Harvard University