The 120-year-old cliché that explains the Chinese-American relationship.
In 1997, roughly 20 years after China emerged from the isolation of the Mao years, the Economist bemoaned the popularity of a quote attributed to Napoleon Bonaparte. “Let China sleep,” he allegedly pronounced, “for when she wakes she will shake the world.” From 1977 to 1997, China’s GDP more than quadrupled, its foreign policy grew more confident, and in 1995, in a show of aggression, Beijing fired missiles across the Taiwan Strait to intimidate the government in Taipei. “To observers of China, dazzled by its startling economic growth and ever-increasing power,” the Economist wrote, “Napoleon’s aphorism has seemed irresistibly apposite.”
Yet in the almost two decades since, the quote that the Economist complained “launched a thousand articles” inspired a thousand more. The Economist itself deployed the cliché in September 2015; the Christian Science Monitor evoked it in April; a long September piece in the Atlantic titled “The World According to Xi Jinping” ended with the warning “What happens when China wakes up?”; the New York Post used it in an October 2014 editorial about that year’s pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong. Financial Times journalist James Kynge wrote a 2006 best-seller called China Shakes the World. In a 2008 article about clichés, Financial Times columnist Gideon Rachman complained “Napoleon’s quote about China has launched a thousand articles.” As global markets started to fall in early January 2016, in part because of renewed worries about China’s economic slowdown, the Wall Street Journal ran a video titled “China Shakes the World.” And so on.
China has its own version of the quote, referring to the country as a “sleeping lion,” and it may be an even bigger cliché there than in the West: China’s most popular search engine, Baidu, returns roughly 1.7 million results for “sleeping lion,” with the vast majority of the top results referencing the Napoleon quote. “Domestically, this expression has spread very wide,” the intellectual Tian Fangmeng wrote in the Chinese edition of the New York Times, “from shoddy patriotic essays written by middle schoolers to weighty international affairs analyses by experts.” Even President Xi Jinping himself used a version of the quote in a March 2014 speech in France.
How did the phrase manage to lodge itself in the Chinese and American collective conscious — not just for the last few decades, but for the last 120 years? The reasons are murkier than the cliché’s surface-level meaning, and they’re also far more revealing about the two countries’ fraught relationship.
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Fittingly, the phrase’s most common origin story is likely apocryphal. Wherever the quote came from, it almost certainly wasn’t from Napoleon. “He is generally supposed to have said it during his exile on Saint Helena [from 1815 to his death in 1821], but it does not appear in the principal source for that period,” David Bell, a Napoleon scholar at Princeton University, told me. French historian Jean Tulard said that the quote doesn’t appear among Napoleon’s writings; Philip Dwyer, a Napoleon expert at the University of Newcastle in Australia told me, “I have seen the reference many times, but no one ever cites a source.”
The Economist, in its brief critique of the quote in 1997, proudly claimed to have “got in relatively early” with this cliché by publishing a special feature in 1992 titled “When China Wakes” — two years before New York Times journalists Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn’s best-seller China Wakes and roughly five years before former French diplomat Alain Peyrefitte’s best-seller China Has Woken. Alas, the Economist was decades late. In his 1988 book of predictions, 1999: Victory Without War, Richard Nixon titled his chapter on China “The Awakened Giant.” Peyrefitte’s best-seller seems a response to When China Wakes, a 1966 book by prominent French journalist Robert Guillain. Kynge’s book shares its title with journalist Jack Belden’s 1949 account of the Chinese Revolution. Even complaining about the cliché is not new. “Every time during the last half-century or more that the sleeping Chinese dragon flicked his tail, there were American watchers anxiously sure that it was at last coming awake,” American journalist Harold Isaacs wrote in 1958. “A quick scanning of a variety of periodical and book indexes turns up the titles of some sixty magazine articles and thirty-odd books, published at various times between 1890 and 1940, in which China, or the giant, or the dragon, has awakened, is waking, or is stirring, rising, changing, or being reborn.”
In the West, the phrase seems to have first gained traction in the late 19th century as the idea of China as a military threat or a paradise for Christian missionaries gained wider circulation. When, the early questioners asked, would China wake up to its vast potential, either for raising an immense army or for converting to Christianity? In a 2011 article, German sinologist Rudolf Wagner cited an influential 1895 article from British Field Marshal Garnet Joseph Wolseley as an early example of the trope. “China certainly relishes its slumber,” Wolseley wrote during the late Qing dynasty, roughly 25 years before China’s central government crumbled and more than a half-century before the Communists took over in 1949. “[O]nce awakened, China will become a Frankenstein monster. This monster will be calm and do nothing as long as it is left to sleep, but once woken it will fight tooth and claw and will be a plague for others.” (That anxiety about China as a great, misguided beast that inflicts retribution on its master runs all the way up to 21st-century worries about technology transfer. “We have built up a Frankenstein that now threatens us,” Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.) said in 2007 about giving the Chinese military technology.)
In 1899 Chinese scholar Liang Qichao, whose writings later influenced Mao Zedong, compared China to “a strange monster that looked like a lion” but “without a spark of life.” In English, Liang wrote, the creature would be called “Frankenstein,” but in Chinese it was translated into “sleeping lion.” In a 2014 essay about the “sleeping lion theory,” Shi Aidong, a researcher at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, postulated that Liang may have brought the term from English into Chinese.
The quote has continued to resonate, on both sides of the Pacific, over the past 120 years — from the corruption and complaisance of the late Qing dynasty to the fracturing of China in the 1920s and 1930s and the corresponding loss of national identity; from Mao’s China’s midcentury awakening to communism but obliviousness to the outside world; to China’s resurgence and increased international engagement over the last few decades.
Why have high-profile commentators in both China and the United States been attracted to the same metaphors to describe China for more than a century? Because it has allowed both countries to defer reckoning with China’s present importance. “When China wakes” or even “China wakes” implies a China transitioning from sleep to consciousness. A “sleeping lion,” or “sleeping giant,” as another version of the cliché has it, permits a certain degree of complacency. It allows Americans to cling to the idea of American exceptionalism, to displace into the future the anxiety about the loss of global prestige — the relative weakening of the U.S. global order and the relative strengthening of a Chinese one.
At the same time, it allows for many elites in Beijing to still adhere to former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping’s famous advice to “keep a low profile and bide your time.” Beijing sometimes prefers that the outside world treat it as a country less deserving in global responsibility than its heft would suggest. In January 2015, a Chinese Communist Party official told me, “People have way too high expectations for China.” The official, who agreed to talk on condition of anonymity, compared China to a child. “Reporting on China as if it were an adult” is problematic — it’ll seem to have so many problems. But consider it a child, and “you’ll see that it is actually just a normal child, growing bigger. And that’s the way China is for now.”
Over the last few years there has been growing awareness in China and internationally that the “sleeping lion” might have awoken. In March 2014 in Paris, Xi said, “Napoleon said that China was a sleeping lion and when this lion awoke, it would shake the world…The lion that is China has awoken, but it is a peaceful, amiable, and civilized lion.” In April 2014, the BBC quoted retired Chinese Gen. Xu Guangyu as saying, “It’s just as Napoleon said. When China wakes it will shake the world. And the Americans can’t bear it. We’ve woken up and we’re recovering our might.” And in late 2015, retired Chinese Col. Liu Mingfu told the New York Times, “China was once called the sleeping lion in the East, but now we have been awakened, and Xi Jinping is the leading lion of the lion packs, who dare to fight anytime.” (His tone was calmer when addressing a Chinese audience: “China, this ‘sleeping lion,’ is already awake,” Liu wrote in the publication Defense Reference. “And it has already shaken the world.”)
But when Xi used the phrase, it drew a large backlash in China and internationally for presenting the country as too aggressive. Who has ever seen a peaceful lion? He never publicly used that metaphor again. Each time someone predicted China’s rise, “the great recumbent figure relapsed into its semicomatose state,” the journalist Isaacs wrote in 1958. “But the prophets erred only in time, not in their expectations.” Whether Beijing manages to maintain social stability, build a sustainable economy, and appease a population of 1.4 billion will determine how China affects the rest of the world. But as we observe that process, we should find a better and newer metaphor to describe it.
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