Via Cameron Campbell’s Facebook feed I found a link to How Social Darwinism Made Modern China: A thousand years of meritocracy shaped the Middle Kingdom from The American Conservative It is…odd. The author (Ron Unz) is arguing that the Chinese have been becoming genetically more intelligent due to the long term effects of economic scarcity and competition. Unz claims that his type of thinking will automatically be rejected by the Soviet-style totalitarian system of intellectual conformity that dominates American life, banishing the racialist truths that would be self-evident to anyone but an American. He’s actually right about that. Every time I tried to think about his argument the chip that they implanted in my skull freshman year give me a little electrical shock.
A lot of the piece is just looney. We get a suggestion that “the socially conformist tendencies of most Chinese people might be due to the fact that for the past 2,000 years the Chinese government had regularly eliminated its more rebellious subjects.” I’m pretty sure that if the Chinese people had been selected for non-rebelliousness from the Han Dynasty on we would be seeing some signs of this by, say 1850.
The thing that makes the piece interesting is that it is actually pretty good. It’s a re-written undergraduate paper, but Unz has read a lot of stuff since then. He is essentializing the Chinese, but in a way that shows a some engagement with the literature.
The cultural and ideological constraints of Chinese society posed major obstacles to mitigating this never-ending human calamity. Although impoverished Europeans of this era, male and female alike, often married late or not at all, early marriage and family were central pillars of Chinese life, with the sage Mencius stating that to have no children was the worst of unfilial acts; indeed, marriage and anticipated children were the mark of adulthood. Furthermore, only male heirs could continue the family name and ensure that oneself and one’s ancestors would be paid the proper ritual respect, and multiple sons were required to protect against the vagaries of fate. ….
Nearly all peasant societies sanctify filial loyalty, marriage, family, and children, while elevating sons above daughters, but in traditional China these tendencies seem to have been especially strong. [emphasis mine]
See? Chinese peasants are peasant-y, but then so are most peasants. China is different than other places, but not that different. He has read and thought about some stuff, and has even read, or at least cited, some staggeringly dull stuff on Chinese historical demography. He suggests that the exam system may have led to increased competitiveness, but then concludes that not enough people participated for that to be the case. He suggests that culture may matter, and while he does not really follow up on this he does at least mention it. This is a cut above the Yellow Peril stuff you ordinarily get on the Internet.
This made me think a bit about how this is different from the earlier Yellow Perils. He is arguing that Chinese have, for the last several centuries, becoming smarter and more competitive. Is that what the original Yellow Peril was? For me that mostly means going back to Jack London.1 In The Unparallelled Invasion London suggested that the Americans might have to exterminate the Chinese in self-defence, but the reason for this is not their intelligence but their industry. Mark Twain also agrees that the Chinese were hard workers.
They are a harmless race when white men either let them alone or treat them no worse than dogs; in fact they are almost entirely harmless anyhow, for they seldom think of resenting the vilest insults or the cruelest injuries. They are quiet, peaceable, tractable, free from drunkenness, and they are as industrious as the day is long. A disorderly Chinaman is rare, and a lazy one does not exist.
- Roughing It
London is, of course, a good Social Darwinist, who thinks that history is a constant process of racial competition.
The history of civilisation is a history of wandering, sword in hand, in search of food. In the misty younger world we catch glimpses of phantom races, rising, slaying, finding food, building rude civilisations, decaying, falling under the swords of stronger hands, and passing utterly away. Man, like any other animal, has roved over the earth seeking what he might devour; and not romance and adventure, but the hunger-need, has urged him on his vast adventures.Whether a bankrupt gentleman sailing to colonise Virginia or a lean Cantonese contracting to labour on the sugar plantations of Hawaii, in each case, gentleman and coolie, it is a desperate attempt to get something to eat, to get more to eat than he can get at home.2
So London has the proper old racialist ideas, and at least in one case he suggests that this is genetic. Check the bold bit (mine) below in The Tears of Ah Kim
Honourable, among labourers, had Ah Kim’s rating been as a towing coolie. In Hawaii, receiving a hundred times more pay, he found himself looked down upon as the lowest of the low–a plantation coolie, than which could be nothing lower. But a coolie whose ancestors had towed junks up the eleventh cataract of the Yangtse since before the birth of Christ inevitably inherits one character in large degree, namely, the character of patience.
The Yangzi does not have 11 cataracts, or at least not before you get to the Three Gorges, although Egypt of course had a lot of them. Still there is at least a suggestion of improvement through breeding.
Ah Kim is actually pretty modern
Ah Kim himself, a generation younger than his mother, had been bitten by the acid of modernity. The old order held, in so far as he still felt in his subtlest crypts of being the dusty hand of the past resting on him, residing in him; yet he subscribed to heavy policies of fire and life insurance, acted as treasurer for the local Chinese revolutionises that were for turning the Celestial Empire into a republic, contributed to the funds of the Hawaii-born Chinese baseball nine that excelled the Yankee nines at their own game, talked theosophy with Katso Suguri, the Japanese Buddhist and silk importer, fell for police graft, played and paid his insidious share in the democratic politics of annexed Hawaii, and was thinking of buying an automobile. Ah Kim never dared bare himself to himself and thrash out and winnow out how much of the old he had ceased to believe in. His mother was of the old, yet he revered her and was happy under her bamboo stick. Li Faa, the Silvery Moon Blossom, was of the new, yet he could never be quite completely happy without her.
In general, (and I look forward to a real Londoner correcting me here) Jack does not seem to be saying that the Chinese have been selected to be genetically superior to others. They are hard-working, phlegmatic3 but not all that bright. Like Fu Manchu you need to keep them away from the superior technology that the West has, but which does not seem to be really Western in the sense that it is the product of a more intelligent race that only they can use. Unz seems to be not taking the Chinese seriously and using them more as an attempt to convince Americans to get back to their racialist roots. Still, I think this ‘The Chinese are genetically modified super-folk’ might be an important meme going forward.
- I’m not actually writing a monograph on western thought about Asia here, just thinking about stuff [↩]
- from The Human Drift. I wish the people here http://www.jacklondons.net/jackLondonWritings.html would make a single Kindle edition of all his stuff . There are lots of Chinese in there [↩]
- and I swear I saw Ah Choon grin at me with philosophic resignation as he cleared the rail and went under. (From The Heathen) [↩]