Rules for Destroying Countries: China and the Colonial World in the Early 20th Century

“The Allied Armies launch a general offensive on Pekin Castle,” Torajiro Kasai (1900)

At approximately the same time that J. A. Hobson was writing Imperialism: A Study (1902), which, for the first time, defined imperialism as an essentially economic policy pursued by the British state on behalf of “financiers,” Liang Qichao, a major turn-of-the-century Chinese intellectual and journalist, wrote a magisterial essay on what he called “the new rules for destroying countries” [mieguo xinfa]. The essay was published in summer 1901, just as the punitive expedition pursued by a coalition of the willing, as it were, that ended the Boxer Rebellion was winding down and the final indemnity provisions of the Boxer Protocol were being hammered out between the coalition and the Qing dynastic state. The heart of Liang’s essay is a survey of modern world history from the perspective of those who had been or were then in the process of being destroyed by it – Egypt, India, Poland, South Africa, and the Philippines. Read in light of the Boxer aftermath – which included a massacre of suspected Boxer sympathizers in Beijing and beyond, as well as the unequal treaty imposed upon the Qing – Liang’s essay can be seen as a discovery of, a meditation on, and interpretation of the modern world – of modernity one could say – as a global and tendentially unifying albeit materially disjunct temporality and uneven spatiality. That is, for Liang, the “rules” and “destruction” informed both the tendential unity and the unevenness of the modern world from the perspective of those who are their targets, even as these same “rules” – written and enforced by the strong – shape how domination can and does get imposed at a global and local level simultaneously. Liang’s injunction at the end of the essay is that the “new rules” of destruction, having been executed in various ways in the disparate locations he surveys, precisely constituted the baseline conditions and patterns of modernity as defined and compelled by the various strands of capitalist imperialism then converging upon China. It was only through a recognition of how the “rules” articulated the very modern temporal and spatial historical moment in which China participated and was enmeshed that Chinese intellectuals could fully grasp their contemporary situation, thus to potentially devise strategies to move beyond it.1 It was only a short year later that these “rules” came to be named “imperialism” [diguo zhuyi 帝国主义] – in England by Hobson and in China by a variety of critical intellectuals.

There are several remarkable things about Liang’s essay. On the one hand, the insights and the specific mode of argumentation pioneered in this essay were vastly influential in late-Qing Chinese intellectual circles across the political spectrum. Across the journalistic and essay literature of the time, the comparative global focus became ubiquitous; citations to Poland, India, Philippines, and so on, mark practically every essay on China’s current situation in this period. On the other hand, it is also remarkable how widely ignored this essay and its mode of argumentation were historiographically, not only in the vast scholarship on Liang Qichao, but in scholarship about late-Qing intellectual or modern Chinese history more generally. What led me to appreciate this essay, by contrast to its wider scholarly neglect, was Liang’s explicit conceptualization of China’s history as inextricably part of modern global history, where the concept of the global was encompassed not by a self-fulfilling dyadic West/China fantasy, but rather constituted by the multivalent products as well as by the messy processes of the restructuring of the world by capitalism, imperialism, and colonialism from the mid-19th century onwards. This focus prevented Liang – at that time, although not subsequently – from treating China as if it were uniquely unique even while it forces us to think the specificities of Chinese history outside of ready-made theoretical positions. Rather, as Liang makes clear, conceptualizing modern Chinese history as dialectically part of modern global history not only helps generate new questions of and in theories of imperialism and modernity, it also helps generate new questions about Chinese history and the history of global revolutions.

Liang Qichao’s 1901 essay, among many other writings of the period, forces us to rethink the late-Qing Chinese intellectual rearticulation of globality in terms of how these intellectuals came to understand the problem of temporal and spatial immanence. This problem is suggested by the global optic indicated in Liang Qichao’s essay: it is indicated in the mediation of globality by and through the colonized and imperialized spaces of the world, whose very revolutionary struggles and imminent destructions most visibly and viscerally helped define the contradictions of and in modernity from a non-Euro-American perspective.

It is this global optic that allows us to understand the fact that in China, from the late-Qing period onwards – that is, during the extended historical moment beginning in the last decade of the 19th century when the Qing was crumbling and when what came next was still in question – comparability or comparison became an unavoidable mode of thinking about and in China. This is so because, at a theoretical level, we can observe that comparison is an important ideological technology of modernity and a coerced necessity of the imperialism that produced it. By technology, I do not mean a tool that can be applied; rather, I mean a way of revealing (in Heidegger’s sense), not of latent essence but in the sense of making present.2 Comparison as a technology is therefore a form of mediation. It is a form of mediation specific to the modern world that imperialism wrought. Historically, comparison is unavoidable as a mode of thinking because, as Liang Qichao observed with mordant humor and knowing resignation as early as 1897: even if you are not interested in the world, the world is still interested in you. Liang’s observation around the opening years of the 20th century was situated at a moment in Chinese history when Euro-American and increasingly, Japanese capitalist-imperialism was “carving China up like a melon” [guafen; 瓜分], in the parlance of the day. Liang’s insight thus points to an important shift in China’s relation to the world as well as the world’s relation to China.

Following Liang, my claim is that, beginning from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, China’s situation in this emergent world of capitalist-imperialist expansion left Chinese no choice but to see and narrate themselves and continually to reconceive of China in the world and thus comparatively. China was so situated implicitly and unavoidably, by virtue of the global extension of capitalist relations of production, imperialist (semi-)colonization, and global circulations of knowledge and ideologies; it was so situated explicitly and unavoidably because the challenges keenly experienced and discussed by most Chinese intellectuals since that time always were articulated through and by comparative thinking, including by comparison to China’s newly and continually relativized past. In this sense, comparison as mediation is a historically specific modern technology of revealing the present; it is a technology of temporal and geographical challenging. The form of modern mediation to which I point here is constituted through and by the necessity of intellectually and materially coping with what Walter Benjamin called the “now-time,” a temporality that comprises a struggle between different forms of temporalization (past, present, future) within everyday life and experience. The “now-time” is the site of politics, which itself constitutes an eminently modern way of being in the world, where politics refers to a conflictual mode of and in the historicization and lived experience of time. Comparison as modern mediation is further constituted through and by a geographical imperative, where “China” becomes a comparable and yet incomparable unit of supposedly continuous historical time and space.

Politics entered everyday intellectual life in the late-Qing in the insistence on a revolutionary overturning of state power, an overturning intimately linked to a new comparative understanding of the world. Of course, China has always been situated in a world. However, it has not always been situated in the world. What I mean in this distinction is that the nature of the world and its historical valence – its logic – appeared and came to signify differently by the late 19th century. This is because the world itself had become, as it were, world-historical, for China as for everyone else. Revolution made that world, in its imperialist and colonial guise, historically visible and, importantly, narrativizable.

***

In 1897, Liang Qichao wrote what is perhaps the first Chinese analysis of the relationship between the imperialist expansion of Euro-America and Euro-American cultural production as a form of necessary narrative relation. In explaining the tight nexus between ideology (cultural production) and conquest (imperialism), Liang wrote:

I read Western newspapers and they report on…the disorder of the Chinese polity… This has been going on for the past few decades. Since September or October of last year [1896], they have even more openly and brazenly publicized how wild and uncivilized the Chinese are, how ignorant and dishonest, how empty Chinese Confucianism is. The meaning is clear: they will move to eliminate China at once.3

What Liang points to is that “China” appears in a particular light when read through imperialist ideologies of superiority and advancement, or through the culturally productive binary categories of “civilized” and “uncivilized” intended to valorize the former in its Western Christian-capitalist form and denigrate the latter in its multiple non-Western forms. China appears differently, then, when seen in the light of how the ideological production of “backwardness” by Euro-American print media and scholarship for peoples in the world – whether in Asia, Africa, or elsewhere – invites and results in the justifications for invasion and conquest. It appears differently when we see cultural (as well as economic, political, and social) backwardness as a produced ideological form rather than an existing essence. This produced ideological form, as Liang lamented, was coming to be insinuated into the quotidian lives of Western newspaper readers through their daily papers, becoming thereby a type of common-sense knowledge. In this late 19th-century moment in China – when newspapers were newly becoming a material-philosophical form for producing everyday knowledge and creating narratives of everyday life as a politics of comparison by virtue of the juxtapositional co-temporality of the paper’s spatial arrangement of contents4 – for the very first time, someone as astute as Liang Qichao could realize, to his certain dismay, that China was not uniquely targeted as the object of Euro-American derision, colonial conquest, and desire; rather, China was one of many so targeted, and indeed was merely one part of a global pattern of imperialist conquest and ideological denigration that imminently was to swallow China in its messy embrace.

This new perception, that cultural production and consequential justification was helping produce not just a new world but the new world of capitalist-imperialist-colonial expansion, was a shatteringly novel idea. It is here, then, that Liang’s aforementioned “New Rules” essay must be situated. Liang writes that in each case – Egypt, India, Poland, South Africa, the Philippines – non-state and state foreign actors have used the modern methods of indebtedness, planting advisors in governmental roles, financial manipulations, intervention in domestic politics, and monopolization of commercial routes and finances as ways to insinuate themselves into a country and its systems, thus to facilitate its eventual take-over. Liang warns: one does not have to be directly invaded by a military force to be wiped out; one can be eaten away from the inside and outside simultaneously, and thus be “erased from the map,” as he put it.5

He alerts his readers that China is just then undergoing this type of what he calls “formless dismemberment,” through the Boxer indemnities indebting China to Britain, Japan, and the United States; the acceptance into the Qing polity of foreign advisors; the ceding of railway and mining rights for commercial expansion; along with the expansion of the special privileges accorded to foreigners in the treaty ports and other areas. In other words, while China continues to have in name a sovereign government – the Qing dynasty – in reality China is being wiped out.6

A landmark essay, “New Rules for Destroying Countries” sees the world in its globalizing form, as a unity-in-process under the incessant drive of capitalist expansion manifested in imperialism and colonialism, underpinned by newspapers and cultural depictions. At the same time, this very same process also disunifies and creates global unevenness.

The rapid spread of the perception that the new world was governed by new rules and that the new rules defined and shaped the new world – as well as the past – led, in short order, to the widespread recognition by intellectuals that China was not exceptional in this world-in-process; to the contrary, it was soon recognized that China was but one particular place situated in a universal trend towards a forced global existence. The resultant co-eval albeit uneven temporal and spatial structures produced through and by this new world henceforth helped shape and structure the nature of Chinese intellectuals’ encounters with their present as well as their re-encounters with (or, reinterpretations of) the Chinese past and their creations of hopes for the future. This new world historical logic became, in other words, the basis for a certain kind of experiential existence that was both particularly Chinese and global at the same time.

The then-gathering storms of anti-colonial and/or nationalist revolutions became a mode of connecting the particularities of China to the world at large. This was a comparative mode that not only situated China in the new world of new rules – those rules of capitalism, imperialism, colonialism, global knowledge production; and the counter-rules of ethnic-racial-national revolution, state building, among others – but that also situated China in an uneasy and constantly evolving position relative to its own cultural and political past. In the latter regard, by the late 19th and early 20th centuries the Chinese present – in all its messy disruption and subjugation – seemed to have been alienated from its past: that is, the past could not predict this present, and even less could it prognosticate a desirable future. In this sense, the globalized present became the standard grounds for comparison. This present thus was not and could never be again an exclusively Chinese present. Rather, it was a temporal order thoroughly infused by and with the world historical conjuncture that had subordinated China and so many others to its differentiating logic. Indeed, the coerced insertion of capitalism into China over the course of the 19th century produced by the end of the century the coexistence of different and uneven forms of economic, cultural, and temporal practices, within China and between China and other places. Internally, these unevennesses could include the “advanced” urban spaces of industrialization, consumption, and leisure such as Shanghai alongside the newly relativized “backward” rural spaces of poverty, illiteracy, and bound-footed women; the “civilized” spaces of the Euro-American-Japanese-Chinese, capitalist-bourgeois-comprador order, as juxtaposed to the “uncivilized” anarchy of Chinese usurious landlord disorder; and so on. These endlessly created and reproduced comparative unevennesses – products precisely of the world historical conjuncture – were lived as the everyday experiential existence of Chinese (and others) from this time forward. It is for this reason that by concentrating on how this experience of created unevenness was actualized – in politics, economy, culture, society – we can conclude that the logic of the world historical in its revolutionary form after the late 19th century necessarily produced the experience of lives that only ever could be lived poly-rhythmically, as it were; lives that only ever could be lived by contrapuntal comparison. This was a necessary condition, not a contingent one.

During this period, and with reference to attempts in the non-Western world to establish independent polities via revolutionary endeavor, emerging political possibilities included the reform or the overthrow of the dynastic system and the reconfiguration of the Qing Empire into a ethnically-homogeneous (Han-centered) or multi-ethnic nation-state ruled by a Republican Government and a new set of commercial, cultural, and social logics, all of which required the rethinking of past socio-political practices and ideologies, now renamed “traditional” and slated for historical obsolescence or nostalgic, ahistorical recovery. After a decade of attempts at state reform, the Qing was indeed overthrown in 1911, having been deemed by its opponents incapable of embodying the appropriate state for a new Chinese nation in the new world under the new rules.

The struggles to secure this outcome were informed by an onrush of new philosophies and new knowledges inchoately selected from among the various and competing (il)liberalisms of 19th-century France, Britain and America; revolutionary theories of France, the United States, and Russia; pan-Asianist and cultural discourses derived from a centralized modernizing Japan; nationalistic state theories of Germany; and, importantly, the anti-colonial revolutionary practices in the Philippines, Hawaii, Cuba, India, and South Africa, among others. These new forms of thinking broke down the unity of the previous systems of knowledge and helped provoke a crisis not only in the sphere of dynastic political legitimacy but also in the sphere of socio-intellectual and cultural certitude. What counted as proper knowledge, as useful knowledge, as knowledge about the world was utterly transformed. The foremost social philosophy at this point, Spencerian Darwinism, introduced the concepts of “race,” conflict, and struggle as fundamental structuring categories and logics of internal social and external international relations. In this new light, the world and China were rethought in terms of the necessary, not accidental hierarchies and violences of encounters rather than in the more comforting (if already long anachronistic) neo-Confucian terms of mutual reciprocity and ritual observance. Meanwhile a certain coalescence of ideologies and philosophies led to a conviction that the Chinese nation needed to be conjoined to a different kind of state. Yet what precisely that state should be and who should comprise the nation (educated men? Propertied men? All men? Educated men and women? All living within the territorial borders of the former Qing dynastic empire now named the Republic of China? Revolutionary men and women? Proletariat and peasant? Capitalist and landlord?) remained unresolved and sources of ongoing social and political struggle throughout the ensuing century.

This unresolved problem of politics – at the simultaneous levels of the social and the state – took on a number of different cultural expressions. For example, one problematic of nationalism as an intellectual reorientation at the turn of the 20th century was precisely how particular temporalities – local ones, that is – got marked or recognized as differential, and thus how global as well as political/economic unevenness became visible as a basis of comparability. Revolutionary connections – real or, in the late-Qing Chinese case, mostly imagined – made this imperialist/anti-imperialist comparability possible across a large and heterogeneous terrain. That is, by paying attention to the historical process of the rendering visible of global temporality as a form of modern and uneven spatial totalization – of imperialism and capitalist expansion – we can see how places and activities as disparate as the Cuban or the Philippine revolutions, the incipient Indian anti-colonial movement, the Egyptian and Turkish nationalist movements, and even the Boer War could be understood and explicated by Chinese intellectuals and theorists as vital aspects in the re-articulation of their own dynastic collapse in a broader historical frame. Our task today, just as the historical task was back then, is to see and introduce social practice, understood as material experience intertwined with material structures, into the idea of global imperialist/anti-imperialist connectivity. In this way, imperialist globality and its modern revolutionary premises cannot be understood primarily as a question of the powers and illusions of a constitutive subjectivity that focus on the re-suturing of domestic interiority in the modular form of nation-statism; rather, imperialist globality poses questions of the local and global temporalization of history, for which revolution is a constitutive element. In this sense, the historical problematic of imperialism can only be posed within the problematic of global and revolutionary modernity, through which time and space are brought into immanent relationship with one another. With a recognition of these issues, we can reconfigure how to read the production of globality in the texts of Chinese intellectuals in late-Qing China and in so doing, we can really see Liang’s mode of articulation and argumentation, and appreciate in and through it the mediating structures of the colonial and imperialized world in the simultaneous formation of a modern Chinese global and national consciousness.

This brief essay is slightly reconfigured from a paper delivered at the “Global Revolutions” conference, University College, Dublin, in October 2016. The author is grateful to everyone at that conference for their comments.


  1. Liang Qichao, Mieguo xinfa lun [New Rules for Destroying Countries], Yinbingshi wenji [Collected Writings from the Ice-Drinker’s Studio – Collected Essays], 8 volumes (Taiwan: Zhonghua shuju, 1984), 6: 32–47. For an extended discussion of this essay in late-Qing China, see my Staging the World: Chinese Nationalism at the Turn of the Twentieth Century (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2002). 

  2. Martin Heidegger, The Question Concerning Technology, trans. William Levitt (New York: Harper, 1977). 

  3. Liang Qichao, “Lun baoguan youyi yu guoshi” [On the advantages of newspapers for state affairs], Yinbingshi wenji 1: 100–03. 

  4. Benedict Anderson, in his Imagined Communities, writes a good deal about the “meanwhile,” or the co-temporality presented by print media and novels. See Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (London: Verso, 2006). I have an extended argument in the Introduction to Staging the World about the problem of co-spatiality from which the point I make here is derived. 

  5. “Mieguo xinfa lun,” 36. 

  6. “Mieguo xinfa lun,” 47. 

Author of the article

is Professor of History at New York University. She is the author of The Magic of Concepts: History and the Economic in Twentieth-Century China (Duke UP 2017), Mao Zedong and China in the Twentieth-Century World: A Concise History (Duke UP 2010), and Staging the World: Chinese Nationalism at the Turn of the Twentieth Century (Duke UP 2002). She is co-translator and co-editor (with Xueping Zhong) of Cai Xiang, Revolution and its Narratives (Duke UP 2016) and (with Lydia Liu and Dorothy Ko) of The Birth of Chinese Feminism: Essential Texts in Transnational Theory (Columbia UP 2013).