“China and Russia: Four Centuries of Conflict and Concord” by Philip Snow

Russian Mission Church, Beijing, mid-19th century Russian Mission Church, Beijing, mid-19th century

Philip Snow opens his engaging, and refreshingly straightforward, history of Sino-Russian relations with an observation born out ever more frequently in the opinion pages of current (at least English-language) newspapers: “Ever since they emerged from the rubble of the Second World War Western societies have looked with apprehension on either Russia, or China, or both.” Today, it’s fair to say, it’s probably “both”.

Almost 50 years in the making, the book’s origins lie in a paper on “Sino-Russian Relations from 1644 to the Present”, submitted for Snow’s Oxford final exams in the mid-’70s. Snow himself comes to the subject with an almost unique background:


As a boy in the 1960s and early 1970s I accompanied my parents, the novelists C.P. Snow and Pamela Hansford Johnson, on visits they made to Russia as guests of the Soviet Writers’ Union… In the course of these visits we met a wide range of Soviet literary figures, Sholokhov, Simonov, Tvardovsky, Yevtushenko, Aksyonov, to name just a few, from hardliners to liberals and eventual dissidents.


In the late ’70s, Snow


worked for the Sino-British Trade Council, escorting Chinese technical study groups around the United Kingdom and British trade missions venturing into remote parts of China. It was a wonderful opportunity to observe this immense land emerging from isolation and taking the first steps on its road to power and wealth.


China and Russia: Four Centuries of Conflict and Concord, Philip Snow (Yale University Press, March 2023)
China and Russia: Four Centuries of Conflict and Concord, Philip Snow (Yale University Press, March 2023)

China and Russia is an ambitious undertaking. Starting with the first Russian visit to China in 1618—the delegate, Ivan Petlin, was “suffused with awe at the glimpse of another civilisation more advanced and prosperous than his own”—it continues to the present day in (just) 500 or so pages. Snow has eschewed the tendency of some recent histories to either search for “relevance” or cut a relatively narrow slice through the material, such as focusing on the border or a single aspect of the relationship.

The book’s main strength is a wealth of detail: anecdotes, people, quotes, facts on the widest range of subjects imaginable—from battles and political maneuvering to Russian attempts to clone Chinese porcelain, the development of a Sino-Russia pidgin used along the border, Chinese and Russian proverbs, banquets, toasts and the etiquette of clothing. Everyone from poets to politicians make appearances. Even those reasonably well-read in this history will find things that might have gotten past them or perhaps set aside or forgotten, for example, the “Sixty-Four Settlements” in the mid-19th century treaties that ceded the heretofore Chinese lands on the far side of the Amur to Russia. The Qing


made a point of retaining jurisdiction over a handful of villages on the north bank of the Amur, later known as the Sixty-Four Settlements, where the Manchu inhabitants were to be allowed to continue their hunting and trapping without being subject either to Russian taxes or Russian military service. It was a ploy adopted more than once by the Qing at this period, a way of keeping a stake in the lost dominions, a tactic reminiscent of the Chinese board game weiqi (the Japanese go) in which the player sets out to create defensible nuclei in the middle of the opponent’s counters, to be enlarged later at the opponent’s expense.


Snow largely keeps to the facts but is also partial to the occasional editorial aside.


In 1861 a report to the throne from the Urga officials described the new Russian minister, Ballyuzek, as ‘arrogant and rude’. There were rumours his entourage might include (horrors) two women, who could on no account be permitted to enter Peking; ‘but they are all wearing men’s clothes so it is impossible to be sure’.



“What has been largely missing, in the English-language studies at any rate,” writes Snow,


has been an attempt to take a panoramic view of the entire four centuries of Sino-Russian contact and to tease out any patterns which might emerge from that vista.


Snow himself is somewhat reticent to nail those patterns down but the overall impression is of a relatively feckless, ambivalent and inconsistent Russia compared with a more self-aware, clear- (if often steely-) eyed China, even during those periods when Russia seemed to hold the upper hand. Whether as cause or consequence, the book is written somewhat more from China’s perspective than Russia’s.

Any group of facts can be read in several different ways and readers with deeper knowledge than mine will need to determine whether Snow has chosen his facts selectively to bolster a particular narrative. But the appearance of Russia inconstancy matches that of Chris Miller’s We Shall Be Masters: Russian Pivots to East Asia from Peter the Great to Putin (a book that might in some ways be considered a companion volume to Snow’s): Russia’s “swings” eastward, he writes“set off by a surge of optimism that soon dissipated as hopeful bubbles were burst by logistical realities, domestic disagreement, and military defeat”, paralleling Snow’s more China-specific story.

Snow doesn’t of course have to make a case for the relevance of the subject matter: it is playing out in front of our eyes in the geopolitics surrounding the war in Ukraine. Snow concludes his introduction with the obvious question: “how long will the current Sino-Russian partnership last?” Many pundits are sure they know, but one suspects Snow has a better grasp on the situation when he says “it would be a fool’s game to venture any definite prediction.” The past is prologue and this particular past, as documented in this excellent and very readable book, is four centuries long and filled with almost innumerable ups and downs, and twists and turns.

Peter Gordon is editor of the Asian Review of Books.