The over-populated, misery-ridden East

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 

3 responses

  1. According to the font of all wisdom and source of all knowledge, Wikipedia, Stowe was a veteran journalist who won the Pulitzer Prize in 1930 and almost got another one in 1940 for his coverage of the Russian invasion of Finland. It says that They Shall Not Sleep also covered the German invasion of the USSR. So part of the question would be whether he reported the violence and bloodshed he saw in the two countries differently, that is, through different cultural lenses.

  2. Chuck,

    Yes, he did look at other parts of the war differently. He was quite the leftie, and quite pro-soviet. When he arrived in Russia the roads are even worse than the Burma road, but he blames that on the mud, not the Russians. The political commissar he meets is “rugged, with quick brown eyes” and wears the Order of Lenin and Hero of the Soviet Union. the food and hospitality are great. The China section does get better (I will post some snippets later) but it opens with what struck me as bog-standard orientalist ‘the Chinese hold life cheaply.’ vignette. Do you get the impression that things like this used to be a pretty common part of China reporting, or just me?

  3. It is interesting to note that the 1945 Chinese translation (probably the only Chinese version) skipped this part on the Yang story but maintained his criticism on the voilence and malfuction on the Burma road as well as his unveiled admiration on the Soviets. It might come out of the Chinese censorship shortly after the war. Apparently Stowe did not hold a discrimitive position toward the cheap Chinese lives which, however, became an overwhelming perception during the ensuing Korean War.

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