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The Hidden History of Chinese International Relations

International relations has long been part of China’s higher education system. Hiding this part of history has proved detrimental to attempts to develop a distinct Chinese international relations theory.

Since the early 2000s contemporary Chinese scholars have gradually reached a consensus on the evolution of Chinese International Relations (IR). According to mainstream Chinese thought, Chinese IR formally commenced in 1964 when three Chinese universities established IR-focused departments and it subsequently evolved in a progressive process. This consensus on the disciplinary history of Chinese IR is historically untenable because IR has existed as a field of scholarly inquiry in China’s higher education since the late 1920s.

The institutional setting provided by Chinese universities is only one criterion by which to gauge the existence of IR in China. A brief review of archives of curriculum and course outlines of IR-relevant units in Chinese universities suggests that Chinese IR was a well-developed discipline before 1949. Chinese universities such as Peking University, Tsinghua University and St John’s University (Shanghai) had academic units in which international relations was taught. Although studies of international relations were institutionally dependent on political science, IR as a field had a distinctive self-image which differed from political science based on their respective research objects and the different agents under investigation.

The existence of a pre-1949 Chinese IR theory is further verified when comparing the situation before 1949 with that of the 1960s. Pre-1949 Chinese IR was more systematically arranged in course settings in the university education system. Courses were also taught by professional scholars who had formal IR-relevant educational backgrounds which provided more academic-oriented teaching and research. In contrast, Chinese IR in the mid-1960s was principally an enterprise for political education. Judging from the curriculum of these IR departments in the mid-1960s most courses offered by the departments were devoted to understanding the history of the Chinese Communist Party and the works of its leaders. As a result Chinese IR became a field in which international relations was narrowly understood through the lens of official ideology.

This reconstructed disciplinary history of Chinese IR raises a question as to why pre-1949 Chinese IR is absent in the mainstream understanding of Chinese IR. This is primarily due to the power-knowledge interaction which occurred throughout the early 1950s, in which the People’s Republic of China asserted absolute political control over all academic knowledge. In 1952 China’s higher education system underwent radical transformations, including the abolition of political science as an academic discipline. Since IR was a subfield closely affiliated with political science, these changes fundamentally interrupted the evolution of Chinese IR.

During Mao’s era, memories of pre-1949 Chinese IR discourse were silenced through the power-knowledge relationship. The taboo nature of pre-1949 Chinese IR meant that scholars faced severe punishment for even adverting to its existence. The disappearance of pre-1949 Chinese IR theory from contemporary IR discourse is due to the influence that this power-knowledge relationship still wields nearly six decades on.

The mainstream understanding of the disciplinary history of Chinese IR has dramatically influenced how contemporary Chinese scholars have approached the construction of a distinctively “Chinese School” of IR theory. These scholars give precedence to ancient Chinese thought as the main source of theoretical knowledge on modern international relations. This is because they believe that Chinese IR is only now moving forward and there is no need to learn from the poor academic performance in the past. This has resulted in an interesting phenomenon within Chinese IR: on the one hand, scholars view the English School as a role model to follow in order to construct Chinese IR theory; on the other hand, they have failed to follow English School scholars in formulating a constant and coherent academic tradition.


Lu Peng received his PhD from ANU with a dissertation on disciplinary history of Chinese IR. His research interest includes Western and non-Western IR theory, the disciplinary history of IR and China’s foreign relations. His email address is lupeng.TSU@gmail.com

This is an abbreviated version of an article “Pre-1949 Chinese IR: an occluded history” published in the Australian Journal of International Affairs. 

Published April 10, 2014