New Course in East Asian History



Spring 2014

HIEA 3559 (1)

New Course in East Asian History

"China and the Cold War"

Xiaoyuan Liu

The class examines China’s entanglement with the Cold War from 1945 to 1990.  In this period certain peculiar historical conditions made China a participant in as well as a stage for the so-called Cold War international confrontation.  After World War II the two superpowers’ rivalry in East Asia helped shape China’s domestic and foreign affairs, and vice versa.  After 1949, for a while the confrontation between the PRC in mainland China and the ROC in Taiwan seemed to be one of the superpower-dominated “divided-country” stories typical of the Cold War era.  The PRC however did not remain under Moscow’s shadow for long.  In the 1960s Beijing split with its Soviet ally and took a confrontational stance against both superpowers; then in the 1970s it forged a partnership with the United States and opposed Moscow.  These developments not only undermined Moscow’s hegemony in the Communist world, but also effectively redefined the Cold War in Asia and elsewhere.  In the meantime, the Maoist system within China was eroding gradually before a new era of reforms began.

The class raises several China-centered questions: Since the Cold War was a “Western” phenomenon in origin, what business did China, a major “Eastern” country, have to do with it?  When exactly did China become entangled and disentangled with the Cold War?  Why was China, unlike any other major participant of the Cold War, able to shift sides more than once in the Cold War?  For the PRC, was the Cold War an international struggle limited to those wars and crises along the Asian-Pacific coasts (what about those conflicts along the PRC’s inland frontiers)?  As far as the PRC was concerned, should the Cold War be understood only as an international struggle (what about those intra-national Maoist “campaigns”)?  When the Cold War ended, was China a “winner” or a “loser”?  And, lastly, how the Cold War period should be positioned in the long historical development of China? 

In exploring these questions, this class is not a conventional study of China’s involvement in the international Cold War.  Rather, it treats the Cold War as a period of Chinese history in which long-term threads of historical developments were obscured and arrested, or reshaped and reoriented by those so-called defining conditions of the era.  This is an effort to understand China’s Cold War history in a longer historical span and away from those perspectives typical of the Cold War era.



Corcoran Department of History
University of Virginia
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