The clash of powers and cultures: Sino-American relations during the cold war HI3020-03/05

The aims of the course are to examine the political, economic, cultural and military relations between America and China from 1949 to 1979, with a focus on the 1950s and 1960s.

The course will also:

  • analyse the international, domestic and personal factors that shaped their policies.
  • explain the change in their relations from hostility in 1950 to tacit alignment by 1979.
  • develop in students the ability to read, interpret, and evaluate primary sources.
  • develop in students the ability to write a long essay using mainly primary sources.


30 Credits

Topics covered

This course examines the ups and downs in Sino-American relations during the Cold War.

It looks at how and why Communist China and the United States were transformed from hostile enemies in the 1950s and early 1960s into tacit allies by the late 1970s.

Events to be covered include their direct and indirect confrontations over Korea, Taiwan, and Vietnam; the role of the Soviet Union in their changing relationship; and their divergent policies towards such issues as Third World revolutions, nuclear weapons, and international trade.

At a thematic level, the course will consider how ideology, personalities, domestic considerations, cultural stereotypes, and alliance politics influenced their respective policies and the dynamics of their interactions.

Students are expected to approach the subject not only from the American perspective but also from the Chinese one, by exploring both Western and Chinese (translated into English) primary sources, such as diplomatic documents, memoirs, public speeches, newspapers, and political cartoons. By placing Sino-American relations in the wider domestic and international contexts, this course will enhance our understanding of how the two great powers – and two different cultures – shaped, and were shaped by, the global Cold War.

Learning outcomes

Students who successfully complete this course will be able to:

  • demonstrate a good knowledge of the complexities of Sino-American relations during the Cold War.
  • compare and contrast their perceptions, policies and approaches towards such issues as the Korean War, trade and relations with the Soviet Union.
  • engage in the main historiographical debates about Sino-American relations and the Cold War generally.
  • evaluate the strengths, limitations and meanings of primary sources.

Students who take the dissertation element will, in addition, be able to:

  • write a well argued, clearly structured long essay (dissertation) using principally primary sources.


  • HI3020-03 (10,000-word dissertation 100%)
  • HI3020-05 Exam (80%) Essay (10%) and Reflective journal and forum posts (10%).

Essential reading

  • Chen Jian, Mao’s China and the Cold War (University of North Carolina Press, 2001)
  • Rosemary Foot, The Practice of Power: U.S. Relations with China since 1949 (Oxford University Press, 1995)
  • Robert S. Ross and Jiang Changbin (eds.), Re-examining the Cold War: U.S.-China Diplomacy, 1954-1973 (Harvard University Press, 2001)
  • Michael Schaller, The United States and China, 3rd ed. (Oxford University Press, 2002)