Book review: “Sinicization and the Rise of China: Civilizational Processes Beyond East and West” by Peter Katzenstein (ed.)



Sinicization and the Rise of China: Civilizational Processes Beyond East and West. By Peter Katzenstein (ed.) Routledge, 2013. 313 pages. R$ 153, 51 (kindle,


Sinicization: sinicisation, sinofication, or sinification, (Chinese: 汉化; pinyin: Hànhuà), also called chinalization (Chinese: 中国化; pinyin: Zhōngguóhuà), is a process whereby non-Han Chinese societies come under the influence of Han Chinese state and society. Areas of influence include alphabet, diet, economics, industry, language, law, lifestyle, politics, religion, sartorial choices, technology, culture, and cultural values. More broadly, "Sinicization" may refer to policies of acculturation, assimilation, or cultural imperialism of neighbouring cultures to China, depending on historical political relations.


When China will reclaim the world's economic leadership, Martin Jacques predicted in "When China Rules the World" five years ago, the future of global affairs would very much look like the past - dominated by China. Its impact would be not only economic but also cultural and political, leading to a global future of ‘contested modernity’. Aaron Friedberg, on the other hand, suggests in "Contest for Supremacy" that the United States must seek to assimilate China and transform it into a liberal democracy. John Ikenberry writes in "Liberal Leviathan" that China can integrate into a Western-led system.

In the edited volume "Sinicization and the Rise of China: Civilizational Processes Beyond East and West", Peter Katzenstein and the other authors complicate popular conceptions of civilizational interaction by focusing instead upon hybridity and plurality. "We need to move beyond the sharp distinction between East and West", Katzenstein writes.

Japan may provide a useful example. At the height of the country's power, in the 1980s, Japanization did not mean only, as the Japanese had expected, making Asia more like Japan, but also, making Japan more like Asia. The same, Katzenstein argues, will happen to China and the phenomenon of Sinicization: It is always a give an take. History suggests he is right, as it is marked not by rigid cultural entities that impose specific ideas on each other, but a far more complex and messy process of mutual influence, even in cases of extreme power asymmetry. The colonizer is as much influenced by the colonizer, even though the former's history books may not admit it.

To foreign observers, Chinese society may seem utterly opaque and resistant to outside influence. Yet the changes China has undergone over the past decades are remarkable and very much a product of broad and multi-faceted dialogue with the rest of the world. Thousands of foreign advisers played a key role in modernizing China throughout the second half of the nineteenth and all of the twentieth century - from Europe, Japan, or, after World War II, from the Soviet Union. In several instances, foreigners occupied key positions - like heading the nation's tax collection - showing a degree of openness unthinkable in the West. In the 1920s and 1930s, Eugene Chen, born in Trinidad in 1878, served as China's foreign minister, although he spoke no Chinese. Interestingly enough, Jean Monnet, who would later become one of the founders of the European Union, worked in China for several years in the 1930s, as chairman of the Chinese government's committee to facilitate the availability of credit for companies that wanted to invest in China. Just like these foreigners influenced China, their own ideas were shaped by China.

This also renders many debates about the civilizational origins of certain ideas (such as human rights) or technologies rather futile. Civilizational interaction, according to Katzenstein, can be best described by the history about the origins the 'Chinese fortune cookie’:

In the nineteenth century, fortune cookies were a Japanese invention. Nobody then thought about marketing them: In the 1920s and 1930s, American-Chinese would go to Japanese confectionary stores in California to buy Japanese fortune cookies. Japanese cookies became fully Chinese in the 1940s, most likely because of the internment of American-Japanese after Pearl Harbor. Japanese-run shops were closed or relocated, and the little scraps of wisdom were no written in English rather than Japanese. By the 1940s, fortune cookies were common in San Francisco and modern California, enjoyed especially by GIs on leave who soon demanded them nationwide. By 1946, “Chinese fortune tea cakes” as they were then called, were removed from the Office of Price Administration control list. Fortune cooked found their way into American restaurants and later to restaurants in Europe and all over the world – except for China. (…) Full of unintended consequences and historical twists and turns, it reflects diverse practices spanning East and West.

The Daoguang emperor of China, who reigned from 1820-50.

Indeed, what is true for civilizational interaction is most likely to be true about global order as well. New orders rarely emerge from scratch or destroy existing structures completely. Rather, the old parts live on and become the materials out of which restructuring develops when formerly peripheral players become central actors in the new system. A glance at the creation of Post-World War II order confirms this: Rather than being a completely novel organization that broke with the past, the UN can very much be seen as an adaptation of existing structures, such as the League of Nations. In the same way, China -- a country that seems certain to occupy a more prominent role in a more multipolar post-Western global order -- is unlikely to undo the rules, norms and structures that exist today. Rather, it will modify them according to its interests, yet building on the past -- just like any great power with system-shaping capacity, such as the United States, has done before. While this compilation of essays is far too theoretical to be read by policy makers, it has a highly relevant message, which occupies a welcome middle ground in the current acrimonious debate.

Read also:

China’s Grand Strategy to Become No. 1

The Politics of China’s Amazonian Railway

Book review: “Will China Dominate the 21st Century?” by Jonathan Fenby