“Superpower Interrupted: The Chinese History of the World” by Michael Schuman

Terracotta army

During a one-year sojourn in London in the 1970s, my secondary school O-level history curriculum covered about a century from mid-1700s on. A decade into a discussion of the Napoleonic Wars, the history master (for such he was called) mentioned, almost in passing (and, in retrospect, probably for my benefit), that after marching through a swamp, a detachment of British soldiers had burned down the White House. “That’s the War of 1812!”, I interjected, finally twigging to what we had been discussing. “That’s what you call it,” was the reply. The “war” that engendered the National Anthem was to the British a mere police action in a far more important conflict.

Michael Schuman generalizes this experience in the opening words of his book, Superpower Interrupted:


There is no such thing as world history, at least not one that holds the same meaning for everyone. Which world history is important to you depends on who you are, where you live and where you come from… The ideas in your head have been put there by the narrative of your world history…


Schuman wants to tell Chinese history as Chinese learn it:


the story that has shaped the Chinese view of the world, and more importantly, their perception of their role within that world. It is a story that few in the West really know… Only when we know this Chinese history of the world can we understand China today.


Seeing Chinese history as the Chinese see it, then, is not some abstract exercise, but a crucial step in understanding China, especially now as what has come to be known as “China’s rise” causes bemusement and consternation.

Schuman’s thesis is captured in his simple (but clever) title: not only is China restoring a status quo ante, it is one it considers the normal and proper state of affairs:


The biggest question of the twenty-first century is, What does China want? The answer … is, at its heart, quite simple: China wants what it always had. China was a superpower for almost all of its history, and it wants to be a superpower again.

The question “What does China want?” is often code for “What will China do?”

Superpower Interrupted: The Chinese History of the World, Michael Schuman (PublicAffairs, June 2020)
Superpower Interrupted: The Chinese History of the World, Michael Schuman (PublicAffairs, June 2020)

Schuman’s version of Chinese history seems not unlike other versions: it runs through the dynasties, highlighting main players and turning points, with digressions on culture, trade and philosophy. For those with even a passing knowledge of the subject matter, there is no real “aha!” moment. But Schuman is an accessible writer, clear and colloquial (perhaps even to a fault: he writes how Chinese armies would get “their butts kicked”). For those new to the subject, or those who want a brush-up (which was the Yongle Emperor?), Schuman’s is in the running for an “if you only read one book on Chinese history…” accolade.

Part of his technique is telegraphed in the title: the application of modern concepts like “superpower” to pre-modern epochs in a way that is evocative if, strictly-speaking, perhaps anachronistic. When Schuman argues, completely credibly, that Chinese culture allowed China to maintain influence well beyond any actual power it may have held, particularly during periods of weakness and disunity, he calls it “soft power”, something modern China has had less success in restoring:


The pillar that had been most important of all to sustaining China as a superpower—the civilizational—is also the least reconstructed… No longer does the educated elite of Asia look upon China’s civilization with awe and wonderment and copy its rituals and institutions.

Modern Chinese have a direct linguistic, political, cultural and philosophical line to antiquity.

It is nonetheless the case, as Schuman notes, that modern Chinese are perhaps the only people in the world who have a direct linguistic, political, cultural and philosophical line to antiquity. In the West, with the partial and not really comparable exception of the Bible, political inspiration and models mostly go back a couple hundred years, if that. In the English-speaking world, this is a particular problem, for this period overlaps the time when power and influence, soft and hard, were progressively coalescing around first Britain and then the US. When Schuman writes of the befuddlement of the Chinese faced with Western barbarians who wouldn’t follow the rules, one can hear modern echoes with the roles reversed.

There is a hint of a subtext in some of Schuman’s phrasing that if the West were more self-aware, it might find China less inscrutable. The idea that the United States adheres to the “concept of equal status between nation-states, regardless of differences in size and wealth” and hasn’t routinely “demanded and expected … deference” might seem risible to countries in Latin America, for example. Those with longer memories might remember Britain behaving in a similar way. And while an “‘us versus them’ story has all the trappings of the traditional Chinese worldview”, it could just as easily reflect an “America First” policy.

Superpower Interrupted is about context rather than predictions.

The question “What does China want?” is often code for “What will China do?” The process of viewing the Chinese present through the lens of a Chinese view of the Chinese past leads to some expected conclusions (which Schuman is not the first to reach):


… the Chinese realm of the twenty-first century bears much more resemblance to its imperial predecessors than meets the eye… Xi himself appears a reincarnation of the empire-building emperors of old … he is today a shadowy, imperious figure, cloistered in the modern equivalent of palaces and an object of public veneration, his every utterance treated as near-divine wisdom.


Given that the several millennia of Chinese history include failure as well as success, these observations, whatever their accuracy, have little predictive value. Superpower Interrupted is about context; Schuman almost entirely eschews crystal ball gazing. Thankfully: the West has had its sages too, one of whom once said “It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future.”

Peter Gordon is editor of the Asian Review of Books.