China’s rise and the Napoleonic prophecy

“China is a sleeping giant. Let her lie and sleep, for when she awakens she will astonish the world.” These were the some of the last sentiments shared by arguably one of the smartest emperors of the nineteenth century; Napoleon Bonaparte.

For centuries this prediction, nay ‘prophecy’ went unheeded and chalked off as the ramblings of an egotistical monarch who had neither the divine credentials to make such predictions nor the mental fortitude to comprehend the complexities of future global power dynamics.

Little did they know that despite his final defeat and exile to Elba, Napoleon was quite an astute man when it came to understanding power politics. He is one of the earliest known examples of people who had what we have now come to know as an ‘eidetic memory. ’He is quoted to have once said;

“Different subjects are arranged in my head as in a cupboard. When I wish to interrupt one train of thought I shut that drawer and open another. Do I wish to sleep? I simply close all the drawers, and there I am – asleep.”

Legend has it, Napoleon could draw maps of vast territories from memory and he would often use this unique trait to craft amazing strategic battle plans to surprise and vanquish his enemies. He reportedly once led 40 000 soldiers through the Great Saint Bernard’s Pass in the hostile Alps in order to gain victory in Italy by surprising his enemy who – like most mere mortals –had not  considered the possibility of Napoleon navigating through such hostile insurmountable terrain. 

The little corporal, as he was affectionately known in Europe, is also said to have personally signed a whopping 33 000 documents issuing various orders across his empire and to his ambassadors in other parts of the world during his reign. He reportedly demanded to be apprised on every intricate detail of his territory and all geo-political strategic issues daily.

Napoleon’s original statement has been lost in translation over time as some people have quoted him as saying China is a sleeping ‘giant’ while some have quoted him as saying it is a sleeping ‘lion’, some have even quoted him as saying China is a sleeping ‘dragon’. However all these translations converge around the part where he says “Let her lie and sleep, for when she awakens she will astonish the world.” So whether to him China was a sleeping ‘giant’, ‘lion’ or ‘dragon’ the eerie accuracy of his prophetic prediction is still quite awe-inspiring.

During his time, China was still living under the ‘Tian Xia’ system and although it was already quite large both in territory and population, it had no interest in military conquest and opted to live in harmony with its Confucian neighbours. Napoleon, a great student of history, is said to have made his predictions after he had noted how China had acquired knowledge, innovated and adopted new technologies for millennia up to Qing Dynasty. The ‘sleeping’ aspect in the prophecy was an allusion to the complacency of the Qing Dynasty that had been too China-centric and oblivious of the changes happening in the world. Napoleon’s prophetic prediction about the implications of the ‘rise’ of China is testament to the kind of military strategist and Emperor he was.

It was a long hard road from then until now, China endured some trying times before the metaphorical giant could rise from her deep slumber. A full century of humiliation at the hands of foreign imperialists was maybe what was required to wake the giant. The good thing however, is that it appears the giant is not interested in bullying others but neither will it tolerate nor cow to external forces ever again.

The world now watches as the current world hegemon – intimidated by the giant’s impact on the global balance of power – grasps at straws to put the giant back to sleep again.

In 2014, President Xi said; ‘the lion (giant) has woken up but it is peaceful, pleasant and civilised.’ Now, 5 years later, China still ‘astonishes’ the world with her peaceful rise and in so doing, fulfilling one of the most accurate political prophecies of our time.

Carter Chapwanya
Carter Chapwanya
Carter Chapwanya is a published author and currently a Political Science PhD candidate at Shandong University.