BOOK REVIEW: Superpower Interrupted: The Chinese History of the World

By Michael Schumann, Public Affairs, Hachette Book Club, New York. Hardcover, with bibliography, notes, and index. 356 pp, US22.19

Reviewed by: Philip Bowring

American fascination with China is endless. It has spawned many experts on China, academic, and journalist alike. It has at times blinded its diplomats, not least Henry Kissinger. But all too often the knowledge exists in a vacuum of ignorance about China’s Asian neighbors, particularly those to the south and southeast.

Michael Schumann, a former correspondent in China for the Wall Street Journal and Time Magazine, has set out to tell the Chinese history of the world from the point of view of Chinese knowledge and experience. The book aims to identify Chinese marks on that world and most specifically “their perceptions of their role within that world.” It starts with the arguable claim that China has been a “superpower for almost all of its history” so the book needs as a matter of principle to prove that to have been the case.

Schuman does so however by reference at times to some dubious history. It is all very well for Chinese to see history in a way which ignores other peoples whose power and contributions may put China into its proper perspective. But to so by making claims based on the repetition of China’s own propaganda is not merely disappointing but will give Schuman’s mostly American readers another false view of their current adversary.

This is a pity because Schuman’s canter through Chinese history is succinct and well-written. But even if one treats core China as a single political and economic entity generally larger than others for much of the time, to insist that it was the driving force of global trade is curious given that for most of the past two thousand years it was foreigners, mainly arriving on ships, who drove global trade – ships from the Roman empire in Egypt, Japan, the Malay archipelago, the Tamil and Gujarati worlds, Arabia, etc.

Schuman simply ignores the fact that the whole of Southeast Asia, island, and mainland, from Myanmar to Mindanao was far more influenced by Indian beliefs, systems, and language than China. How come given the proximity of China? Whatever China’s political power, clearly the soft power was exercised more by Indians whose only hard power projection was by the Tamil Cholas against the Srivijaya in the early 11th century.

The book continues about the so-called Silk Road without seeming to recognize that there were only brief periods when it really did directly link China to central Asia, Persia, etc. For long, seaborne trade has vastly exceeded overland trade. He writes much about Rome’s demand for Chinese silk and the cost to its store of wealth. But Rome had massive trade with India – a hundred large ships a year from the Red Sea ports bringing back luxuries mainly from India and southeast Asia. Rome sold wine and some manufactures but mostly suffered a trade deficit made up with silver.

This seaborn trade which did not involve Chinese vessels or many Chinese goods was vastly bigger than the tiny trade which made its painful way across deserts and mountains between, say, Xian and Damascus. The first Roman known to have visited China (in 164 AD) came by ship via India and the Malay peninsula.

China’s size and population were always a draw for foreign traders, notably the Malays, Tamils, Arabs, Persians, etc who flocked to Guangzhou during the prosperous Tang dynasty. But Indian textiles, Persian artifacts, spices from the archipelago were just as important as Chinese ceramics (except that they did not survive shipwrecks so they can be ignored!).

It is hard to know from this book that Chinese themselves played almost no part in seaborne trade – and then only a secondary one – till the later Song dynasty. Underlying its only very occasional interest in the maritime world (unsuccessfully under the Yuan and briefly under the Ming) was the fact that China did not have much need of foreign trade thanks to its size and internal networks of rivers, lakes, and canals.

Schuman’s preference for Chinese myths over reality peaks with his description of Zheng He’s “treasure ship” vessels as 140 meters long, so vastly bigger than any known wooden ships before or since. No serious naval historian accepts this figure, an interpretation of a number written 200 years later in the Ming annals. In reality, there is no record of any Chinese wooden seagoing ship bigger than about 50 meters. Portuguese arriving in the region just 70 years after Zheng He noted that four-masted Javanese junks were much larger than Chinese ones. Schuman repeats the Ming annals imperial propaganda about Zheng He in ways which will gladden the hearts of Beijing officials trying to justify imperialism in the South China Sea and its self-assumptions about being the boss of Asia and assuming that so-called “tribute” was mostly just a tax that was made to rulers for permission to trade. Chinese traders paid it to Philippine datus.

With his very title “Super Power Interrupted” Schuman gives the impression that the empire created by the Manchu Qing dynasty was China’s normal state, that its current 35-year engagement with the international trading system has been the norm for much of the past 2,000 years. In reality, it has been too busy keeping itself together, keeping out “barbarians” from the north and west and trying with mixed success to impose itself on immediate but determinedly non-Han neighbors Korea, Japan, and Vietnam. Even in the trade of ideas, China can scarcely claim superiority given how much it imported from India, Persia, central Asia, and most recently the west.

Although he concludes with the observation that Asian neighbors are not as eager to accept Chinese power and “civilization” as China, always assuming its own superiority, would like, Schuman has given another boost to China’s nationalist themes, fact or fiction. It is important to know how the Chinese today see, or are told to see, their history it is crucial to give it more fact fact-checking -- even if that diminishes the book’s title.

Philip Bowring, an Asia Sentinel co-founder and editor, is the author of Empire of the Winds, a history of the Austronesian seagoing peoples.


Supporting Asia Sentinel with subscriptions will help us continue holding governments to account, investigating, and providing the most thoughtful coverage of Asia in the English language. See what you’ll get when you subscribe.

Subscribe now