If you go into most bookshops in the States for example, there’s a cottage industry of books on the US and China, the US and the Middle East, you go to the UK, there’s a sort of similar cottage industry of books on the UK and France, and France and Germany. But there’s very little on Japan and China, and this is a highly consequential relationship—the world’s second and third biggest economies, Asia’s two superpowers, and with a really difficult, emotional, scarred history …

Americans have been present in the Pacific since the dawn of the Republic. At the time of George Washington’s inauguration in 1789, the country consisted of just 13 states huddled along the Atlantic seaboard, but in the geography of sail navigation Boston and New York were just as close to China as were London, Liverpool, and other European ports. More importantly, the United States was by far the largest whaling country in the world, and with the Atlantic increasingly “fished” out, the whales were in the Pacific. The “Canton trade” with China and the whaling grounds of the northern Pacific made the nascent United States the second most important trading country in Asia (after England).

Only several poems by the now forgotten 1930s Shanghai poet Shao Xunmei (1906-1968) have previously been rendered into English, making our translation of his two major volumes a first. We have long considered Shao well worth translating, owing as much to his colorful artistic persona as to his verse. The former mostly flowered during his studies at Cambridge in the mid-1920s, when he was exposed to Western poets like Baudelaire and Verlaine. However, it was mainly AC Swinburne who became Shao’s avatar in both art and life, as our translations below show. Cambridge also introduced Shao to the comfort of English shoes, which he wore with a traditional Chinese scholar’s silk gown—a true cultural hybrid!

In mid-19th century China, after suffering multiple humbling defeats by imperial powers, a movement to modernize China’s military developed. The idea was that the national essence or culture of China could be better defended with superior Western methods and technology than outdated Chinese methods—seen as the extension of a static political culture. That the methods and technology were Western did not matter—they were not tied to the imperial aims which produced them; they could be adapted by anyone, and were essentially culture-less.

The rise of China in the wake of the slow relative decline of the United States has been the overarching narrative of global studies since the beginning of this century. Is this narrative correct? China’s growth is slowing as it reaches middle income status and the United States is still overwhelmingly more wealthy and powerful than China. If China will someday “overtake” the United States, it will not happen for decades or centuries, depending what is meant by overtaking. But even this more guarded account of US decline is colored by an outdated, state-centric view of human society. The twenty-first century world-system is centered on the United States but not contained within it; individuals all over the world participate in hierarchies of distinction that are fundamentally American in ideology and orientation. Whether or not they agree with US policy, support the US president, or are even able to enter the United States, success-oriented individuals choose to live in an American world—or accept global social exclusion. This is just as true in China as anywhere else, and perhaps even more true for Chinese individuals than for anyone else.

“It is a common rule of propriety that culturally inferior foreign peoples should respect the Central Kingdom.” So begins a 1374 letter from Ming China’s founding Hongwu Emperor to a regional ruler in Japan. It continues: “One principle in both ancient and modern times has been for the small to serve the great.”