#11 event report: Remembering European Imperialism: The Memory of ‘Humiliation’ in Contemporary China


October 27, 2011, Bridge Cafe (Wudaokou)

Speakers: Prof. Dr. Erik Ringmar 林瑞谷, Zhi Yuan Chair Professor of International Relations,Shanghai Jiaotong University


Professor Erik Ringmar addressed the ThinkIN China community on the historical event of the destruction of Yuanmingyuan and its impact on Chinese and Europeans. Professor Erik Ringmar has lived and taught at Chiao Tung University in Taipei for several years that he used intensively to study Chinese history and traditions.

From both the history written in his book and experiences in daily life, Professor Ringmar pointed out a the commonphenomenon amongst Chinese and European people, that is, the shame and humiliation brought about by the destruction of Yuanmingyuan, an imperial park where the Chinese emperors received the foreign delegations and their tributes, as well as the full headlong prostration—koutou. This ritual shows the respect and subject to the Chinese emperor, while from Europeans’ perspectives it represented a humiliation of themselves. Yuanmingyuan elicits the shared emotion from two different sources: Europeans feel shamed at what they did; the Chinese are shamed at what they did not do for their country, namely prevent the destruction of this imperial site.

Professor Ringmar suggests that neither Chinese nor Europeans should be ashamed of this historical event and that both must liberate themselves from the version of history which has been and continuously is being recreated by the political power to force them to feel this way.

In the following, professor Ringmar explained his viewpoint.. According to his argument, the identity transfer between China and Europe as well as their people are the main point of concern. The destruction of Yuanmingyuan is the pivotal turning point for China: before Yuanmingyuan was destroyed, the emperor and its people still embraced the self-confidence and the China-centric world view; after that, the history of China was flooded with humiliation and subjection. The identity transferred from the superiority to inferiority and has resulted in a inferiority complex ever since. On the contrary, the Europeans (which, in Ringmar’s argument is a synonym for the West and thus includes the Americans) have since been characterized by a superiority complex.

To destroy Yuanmingyuan, the imperial palace, was the best way to wipe out the shame that was suffered by Europeans in this place. The subsequent history in the world—the past 150 years—has been profoundly shaped by the new identities. It was the superiority-complex that created problems both for Europeans who are not inherently aggressive, barbarian and genocidal and for others, such as the Chinese who suffered from a long history of humiliation. Similarly, it was the inferiority-complex that made Chinese prop up the revolutions and reforms inside, as well as keep the memory of the European imperialism and the ensued humiliation as the spur and driving force to move on and rise.

Both Chinese and Europeans are suffering from the respective complexes and are trapped in the above explained identities which are misconceived and destructive. The two regions and their people need to forget the past and let go of it, especially the Chinese should forget the imperial compound of the national history during the patriotic education campaign that shapes the inferiority and pushes the Chinese to feel ashamed. If so, China and Europe could treat each other as equals and develop smoothly and successfully.


At the end, the Q&A session showed that Professor Ringmar’s speech spurred a lot of debate on the value and importance of history, the necessity of responsibility for the victims, as well as the different interpretations of identities. The audience was quite interested in the speech topic and engaged in a hot debate with the professor.

A core point to discussion was the concept of nation, whether or not it was applicable to the late Qing state and if the people living in late Qing China understood themselves to be citizens of a Chinese nation.

(report by Jiang Wei)