American contempt for China

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 7:41 am

As it is the beginning of the semester, I went to dig up the famous quotes from Emerson and Adams on what is wrong with China. If you find yourself needing these, well, here they are.

 From Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Journal & Miscellaneous Notebooks, an entry from 1824:

The closer contemplation we condescend to bestow, the more disgustful is that booby nation. The Chinese Empire enjoys precisely a Mummy’s reputation, that of having preserved to a hair for 3 or 4,000 years the ugliest features in the world. I have no gift to see a meaning in the venerable vegetation of this extraordinary people. They are tools for other nations to use. Even miserable Africa can say I have hewn the wood and drawn the water to promote the civilization of other lands. But China, reverend dullness! hoary ideot! all she can say to the convocation of nations must be –“I made the tea.”

John Quincy Adams, addressing the Massachusetts Historical Society, 184i

The fundamental principle of the Chinese Empire is anticommercial. It utterly denies the equality of other nations with itself, and even their independence. It holds itself to be the center of the terraqueous globe, equal to the heavenly host, and all other nations with whom it has any relations, political or commercial, as outside tributary barbarians reverently submissive to the will of its despotic chief. It is upon this principle, openly avowed and inflexibly maintained, that the principal maritime nations of Europe for several centuries, and the United States of America from the time of their acknowledged independence, have been content to hold commercial intercourse with the Empire of China. It is time that this enormous outrage upon the rights of human nature, and upon the first principle of the rights of nations should cease .

This is the truth, and, I apprehend, the only question at issue between the governments and nations of Great Britain and China. It is a general, but I believe altogether mistaken opinion that the quarrel is merely for certain chests of opium imported by British merchants into China, and seized by the Chinese Government for having been imported contrary to law. This is a mere incident to the dispute ; but no more the cause of war, than the throwing overboard of the tea in the Boston harbor was the cause of the North American Revolution

The cause of the war is the kotow!- the arrogant and unsupportable pretensions of China, that she will hold commercial intercourse with the rest of mankind, not upon terms of equal reciprocity, but upon the insulting and degrading forms of relation between lord and vassal. From Grayson, Benson Lee ed. The American Image of China New York: Frederick Ungar, 1979

The point of using these quotes, of course, is to help students get beyond the pretty standard American view that before being awakened by the West China was a stagnant unchanging place that was the opposite of everything a good society should be. If you want to hear me unpack everything that is wrong with these two quotes you should drop by 232 Keith Hall at 12:20 this afternoon.

From here (and also here) I found this great image of how Americans use  China to stand for backwardness. Would it not indeed be awful if Cincinnati became like China?





The over-populated, misery-ridden East

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 8:29 pm

I was reading Leyland Stowe’s They Shall Not Sleep  Stowe was a WWII journalist, and I was interested in his time in SW China. While on the Burma Road he has a bit of an incident as he, his driver, and a Chinese named Yang rocketed along the road.

Yang was an amiable, shrewd-eyed young roughneck, reckless and devil-may-care, and his friend was of precisely the same stripe. The valleys were longer and wider now, so Yang drove at a fast pace, all the while chattering, joking, and gesticulating with his pal. Hitting it up in this fashion, we burst suddenly over a slight rise in the highway and a sickening sight struck my eyes. Exactly in the middle of the road lay the body of a man. The side of his head was bashed wide open. His face and shoulders were covered with blood. He was trying to crawl- to lift the upper part of his body on his hands. I saw all this in a split second as Yang jerked the wheel to the right and we sped past.

I grabbed the knee of the driver, who sat between Yang and me. “Stop! He’s dying! We’ve got to help him! Stop!” I cried again. Though they couldn’t speak a word of English, of course they knew what I meant. But Yang pushed his foot down on the accelerator. We were making fifty miles an hour now. I looked back. I thought I had seen pieces of brain bulging from the wound in that man’s head. Yang and his partner were jabbering to me in great seriousness now. The gist of their gestures was plain enough. Their gestures said: “If we stop we will be blamed. People will say that we ran him down. If you try to help people you only get into trouble. The only thing to do is to get away fast.” Yang drove on faster than ever. In a few minutes the two Chinese were chattering and laughing together as lightheartedly as ever. In the Orient you seldom worry about a dying man or a dying animal. Here, and most of all on this Burma Road, it is every dog for himself. Yang and his partner had simply followed a rule of the over-populated, misery-ridden East, a rule which is thousands of years old.1

The indifference of Asians, and maybe especially Chinese, to human life is one of the commonplaces of Western travel writing and fiction and I can think of lots of examples of this kind of thing.  This seems to extend all the way across the East. “In Casablanca, human life is cheap” but it seems to have been really prevalent in the 20th century. Stowe is not quite writing fiction here, but he is repeating the standard western literary trope that you know you are in China when you see someone die unattended by the side of the road. In this story this essential fact of Chinese culture even transcends the language barrier, as Stowe is able to translate his companion’s Chinese inhumanity without even knowing Chinese. Stowe’s account is particularly bad about this, but I am wondering if anyone has a sense of when this became so prevalent and how it changed over time. I wonder if the war may have been particularly bad, since in the warlord era or the Qing you could always talk about cruel warlords or feudal mandarins to get in your bits on Chinese inferiority, but after a while it sort of had to be the common people, as China was running its own affairs.

  1. p.16 []


Monumental Histories

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 10:46 pm

Quite by coincidence, I ended up reading three books on Chinese monuments, but not until the third did I realize that what I was reading was a history of modern monuments. The first two books I picked up relatively recently – as my “to read” stack goes – but since they were related to my Early China course this last semester they moved to the front of the line.1 The third was a review copy sent by Cornell UP to “Jonathan Dresner, Frog In A Well Blog.”2 The books are

  • John Man, The Terracotta Army: China’s First Emperor and the Birth of a Nation, Bantam Press, 2007
  • Julia Lovell, The Great Wall: China Against the World, 1000 BC – AD 2000, Grove Press, 2006.
  • Chang-Tai Hung, Mao’s New World: Political Culture in the Early People’s Republic

Why do I say these are modern monuments? The terracotta warriors, while a monumental work, were unknown until 1974, and did not become “monuments of China” for several years after. The Great Wall was a fairly obscure remnant until foreign visitors, mistranslations and reporters (including Ripley himself) raised so much interest that the Chinese government refurbished and made it accessible primarily as a nationalist beacon and tourist attraction. Though they have older stories to tell as well, they actually fit quite well into the discussion Chang-tai Hung presents of the artistic and aesthetic politics in the first decade of the PRC.

  1. If memory serves, they were both bought at Daedalus Books in Maryland. Great prices, if they’ve got what you’re looking for; dangerous place for book-hounds. []
  2. Yes, the rest of the address was there, too, but that’s boring. []


China, the Hobgoblin of Small Minds

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 3:34 pm

I had a student ask me in class, recently, about whether China, among other countries, was planning to take advantage of our coming collapse to move into a position of world domination, that they had operational plans and expected the collapse to come momentarily. I responded by pointing out that most advanced nations develop contingency plans for a wide variety of possible future scenarios, so that the existence of a plan is no guarantee of it’s probability.

Then, today, I read about this 2006 Delaware Senate debate:

Republican Senate nominee Christine O’Donnell of Delaware said in a 2006 debate that China was plotting to take over America and claimed to have classified information about the country that she couldn’t divulge.

O’Donnell’s comments came as she and two other Republican candidates debated U.S. policy on China during Delaware’s 2006 Senate primary, which O’Donnell ultimately lost.

She said China had a “carefully thought out and strategic plan to take over America” and accused one opponent of appeasement for suggesting that the two countries were economically dependent and should find a way to be allies.

“There’s much I want to say,” she said at the time. “I wish I wasn’t privy to some of the classified information that I am privy to.”

This is four years old, now: have we seen considerable progress in the takeover of the US by China? Seems to me that we’ve been holding steady, mostly. My immediate thought is that a US economic/political collapse would leave China in a strong short-term position, but an extremely weak long-term one, given the interdependence of our economies and technology sectors. But I’m not privy to classified information.


China Rises? China Wakes?

Filed under: — C. W. Hayford @ 3:04 pm

“Beware of China, for when the dragon wakes she will shake the world.”

Napoleon? Although there’s no evidence that he ever said it, the quote caught the essence of what westerners thought should be the case and has been endlessly recycled.

But over the last decade a lot of  loose talk about “China Rising” has been going around, getting more intense in the last couple of years.

History News Network has a collection of recent posts gathered from the internet, “HNN Hot Topics: China Rising.”

China Beat, our second most favorite blog (after this one) has run a powerful set of pieces on “Big China” books, that is, books that loudly hail or bemoan China’s rise or menace. Jeffrey Wasserstrom, has roundup, “Six Takes on Martin Jacques,” a follow up to his piece in Time Magazine online blog (Feb 8, 2010), “Big China Books: Enough of the Big Picture.” Jeff skewers the Olympic scale conclusion jumping in a gaggle of these books, especially Martin Jacques, When  China Rules the World : The End of the Western World and the Birth of a  New Global Order.

The China Beat piece also points out another recent well informed and provocative piece, Richard Rigby’s “The Challenge of China” at East Asia Forum.


Imperial Visits and Attitudes

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 1:02 am

I just learned of the Japanese Emperor and Empress’ visit to Hawai’i [via]. It’s not the first time that a member of the Japanese Imperial family has visited the islands, though you would hardly know it from the gushing “historic” reports of the media. Though this is the first visit by Akihito as Emperor, Akihito has visited the islands before, as have other members of Japan’s now-symbolic dynasty. In addition to the Advertiser’s photo gallery, there are some excellent shots on Flickr by “731photo” and “onecardshort”, as well as one picture from the US Pacific Command.1

The continuing connection between the Hawai’i Japanese immigrant community and Japan was a matter of strategic concern from the beginning: The Kingdom of Hawai’i wanted to use Japan as a counterweight against US power; the Republic of Hawai’i used the threat of Japan — which was actively concerned about the treatment of Japanese in Hawai’i — to support the annexation of the islands by the US; in the Territorial era, disputes about immigration and about labor organization often involved the Japanese consulate.2 Chinese Old Man Statue 2 And it’s also true that the Japanese government considered Japanese emigrants to be an extension of the nation3 , and tried, in a fairly blunt fashion, to influence foreign opinion through the overseas communities. By the 1910s and 20s, discussion in the media and halls of power of the Hawaiian Japanese community as a potential “fifth column” was pretty common, and that view was also common on the mainland. It took an immigration ban, a war, Japan’s crushing defeat and entry into the US security system, and the “blood sacrifice” of Nikkei serving with distinction in the US military to overcome those fears, and transform the Japanese immigrant community and their descendants into simply “ethnic” Americans. So, a little over twenty years past the end of WWII, fifteen past the end of the US occupation, the centennial of Japanese immigration into Hawai’i could be celebrated with public monuments, publications and events.

This history is why I was so disturbed to read about PRC policy which sees overseas Chinese as intelligence and lobbying agents. There’s a reasonable argument to be made — as Ichioka does — that Japanese government policy towards emigrants gave support to anti-immigrant attitudes in the US and elsewhere. It’s true that other governments treat emigres as resources to some extent, and urge their citizens overseas to represent the nation well, but the level of coordination, and open encouragement distinguishes pre-war Japanese policy and current PRC policy from the rest of the pack. I don’t think we’re on the verge of a “Yellow Peril” panic in the US at this point, but there’s no question that this has lead to serious negative consequences for individuals, and could lead to wider problems in the future.


  1. That it’s a better shot of the Admiral than of the Emperor is, I suppose, not surprising. []
  2. See Gary Okihiro, John Stephan, also Morris-Suzuki []
  3. see also []


The twentieth anniversary

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 11:39 am

I have, as it turns out, very little to say that I didn’t say five years ago, but I’ll reproduce it under the fold. Reading this year’s crop of remembrances, and Philip Cunningham’s first-person history, I don’t think my views have changed all that much, except that I see the movement more in the context of the decades before — periodic reformist movements which invariably met with repression whether or not the reforms were eventually pursued — and it’s much less shocking to me now than it was then. Still tragic. And the history since has been, by comparison, oddly quiet.


Following Younghusband to Lhasa

Filed under: — Scott Relyea @ 5:50 pm

Just a quick post of a wonderful website I stumbled upon doing a bit of background research for a point I needed to make in the chapter I’m currently working on (yes, Googling a dissertation!)

Field Force to Lhasa 1903-04

These are the letters of Captain Cecil Mainprise, who ventured to Lhasa in 1903-4 as part of the Younghusband Expedition. In another example of ‘history-as-it-happens’ (similar sites have been highlighted in past Frog posts) a relative of the captain is posting the letters throughout this year, 105 years later, on the day that they were written.

Now that I’ve found him at the Phari Fort today, it’s a journey I plan to follow until they reach Lhasa in August, and beyond.



Zhou Confucianism? Ming Quality Control?

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 1:26 pm

In an absolutely fascinating article on the modern petition redress system1 focusing on attempts by regional officials to prevent petitions from reaching a national office, the Financial Times sidebar, “Confucian Accountability” says

China’s petition system dates back to the Zhou dynasty 3,000 years ago. It embodies a Confucian tradition that idealises an authoritarian yet benevolent ruler who puts the concerns of his subjects above the interests of corrupt officials.

There’s the obvious point, that the Zhou dynasty predates Confucianism by a half-millenium or more. Confucius never dealt with the issue of petitions2, nor can I recall any pre-Han thinker postulating such an active (and literate) role for commoners. All of them, though, put the welfare of the people and the state above that of individual (especially dishonest) officials. One of the principle concerns of the more institutionally-minded figures (Mozi, Xunzi, Hanfeizi) is how to pick honest officials, and root out (or work around) dishonest ones, but none of them argue for violating the chain of command, even in extraordinary circumstances. They want a monitoring system which works well in normal circumstances, not something which encourages disorder.

The sidebar continues

After the 1911 republican revolution, petitioning was abolished by the Nationalist government. The Communists reinstated it soon after their 1949 revolution.

Experts say petitioning remains basically unchanged from the system in place 500 years ago in the Ming dynasty, when the formal evaluation of government officials began to take into account the number of petitioners who travelled to the capital from their region.

Since the Nationalist government was a democratic/republican system, presumably petitioning wouldn’t be necessary. I’m a bit surprised that the article didn’t take a slightly more critical approach to the idea that petitioning was a normal process over the last sixty years and only recently has started to break down. I can’t imagine that petitioning for redress in the era of Mao or Deng wasn’t fraught with danger for the petitioner, from the problem of unauthorized travel to the assumption that Party officials are always in the right. The responses that the article describes — detention, harassment, false imprisonment under the guise of mental illness — are classic Communist party tools for handling dissension, used widely in the Soviet Union as well as in China.

The last point in the sidebar — the use of petitions as a metric of administrative quality — is central to the article: the extralegal attempts by local officials to suppress petitions and petitioners is rooted in systemic self-protection, the avoidance of the appearance of trouble. Modern transportation technology, as the article notes, makes travel easier for petitioners, and has contributed to the rise in numbers. But, of course, the nature of modern society is such that it is also much easier to identify, track, monitor petitioners now than it was even fifty years ago, much less five hundred. The problem of danson minpi (“honoring officials, despising the people” as the Japanese put it) was intense during the latter half of the 20th century in China: the scaling up of suppression efforts to match the scaling up of petitions is pretty much par for the course, but the information environment is very different now, and the question of government legitimacy more intense.

  1. via, where the discussion quickly veered into the surreal, with participants unsure whether China’s petition system made it a more responsive and fair political system than the republicanism of the US. []
  2. One of the many issues Confucius never dealt with. []


When America looked East (or maybe West)

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 1:27 am

Speechwars.com lets you see how many times American presidents have used various words in their State of the Union addresses. This is not a perfect representation of American interests, since some Presidents are more prolix than others and just from my own perusal of the site the SOTU seems to be getting more vague over the years. Still China turns up a lot (353 times) and it is sort of interesting to look at why. The handful of early references use ‘China’ to mean the ends of the earth or are brief mentions about foreign relations. Grant mentions China a lot in 1870 and 71, usually coupled with Japan (only 222 total mentions! hah!) and the “nations to our South” as the solution to American economic problems. China Market stuff seems to take precedence in the late 19th Century, although the theme of Chinese as barbarians seems common as well.1 The biggest spike of interest comes from 1900 to about 1912, when China got more individual mentions than it would in the 1940’s as our wartime ally or than it gets today as the sugar daddy who buys all our paper.

The big jump came in 1900, when McKinley gave a long recounting of the Boxer uprising, which was of course America’s first major act of cooperative imperialism, just as the Spanish-American war2 was the first3 unilateral act. I got the impression he was trying to justify his “soft” policy on indemnities to an American public who were going to have to learn that there with other ways of dealing with non-whites besides killing 90% of them and putting the other 10% on reservations.

Teddy Roosevelt seems quite the Friend of China. In 1905 he promised to keep out Chinese laborers but insisted that “we must treat the Chinese student, traveler, and business man in a spirit of the broadest justice and courtesy if we expect similar treatment to be accorded to our own people of similar rank who go to China.” (What, gunboats are not enough?) In 1908 Roosevelt uses China as an example of the perils of deforestation, implicitly saying that China was part of the human community and that we could learn lessons (even cautionary ones) from them.

Fortunately Taft comes along right after that to get us back on the dollar diplomacy track. He spends a lot of words in 1910 assuring us that American capital is right there building railways and exploiting China along with the best of them. He gives the fall of the Qing a brief notice in 1912, but only to assure us that the loans will keep on coming.

After Taft China flatlines for a good decade, however. Not much chance of making a buck in warlord China, and it was not a good example of how American policy was civilizing the globe. So 1900-1912 looks like a time when America and China were both coming out into an international world at the same time.

Via Fallows

  1. I just sampled the speeches rather than reading them all line by line []
  2. Cuba got a spike of mentions just before 1900 []
  3. Yes, not the first. It’s a blog post []

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