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Jonathan Fenby, author of a History of Modern China, told the BBC: "If you look at the history of China from say the Taiping through to the death of Mao in 1976, no country had as bad a prolonged period of disasters, regime change, civil war, invasion, decline," According to the BBC: “Perhaps all of that is over. But behind the mask of order and unity, China still has plenty of conflict - over land rights, corruption or injustice. There are nearly 100,000 major riots every year. No wonder Party leaders see threats everywhere and scan the horizon ready to crack down on any sign of a peasant uprising like the one which brought them to power.” [Source: Carrie Gracie, BBC News, September 17, 2012 */*]

Carrie Gracie of BBC News wrote: In Shanghai, “a century ago, foreigners unpacked a whole new fascinating way of life on the docks here. From Western ships came bicycles, engine parts and young Chinese with a vision of modernity.” In the homes of rich Chinese, Shanghai's finest wore Western dress, listened to Western music wedding guests and Chinese-style squat toilets in the marital home, only the best sit-down contraptions imported from America.[Source: Carrie Gracie BBC News, October 11, 2012]

Describing Shanghai in 1862, two decades after the first Opium War, Takasugi Shinsaku, a young Japanese man, wrote in his diary: "There are merchant ships and thousands of battleships from Europe anchored here. The boat slips are filled with masts." The Western-style architecture on the Bund was "beyond description." A fortress about five kilometers was situated on the Huangpu River. Behind the fortress walls was the old city of Shanghai and the British and French settlements lay outside this. The fortress was demolished at the beginning of the 20th century, and today a beltway runs on its former grounds. [Source: Takahiro Suzuki, Yomiuri Shimbun, December 9, 2014]

At that time the contrast between the inside and the outside of the castle walls was dramatic. "The inside was less advanced, dark and poor, whereas the Shanghai settlement was modern, developed and prosperous," said Prof. Chen Zuen, who teaches the modern history of Shanghai at National Donghua University. "There was a great contrast in living conditions inside and outside the walls.” Takasugi wrote: “When the British or French walk down the street, the Qing people all avoid them and get out of the way. Shanghai has become like a British or French territory. Japan must keep its guard up."

Takasugi was impressed by his visit to the Wen Miao (Confucian temple), located centrally within the castle walls. The land had been conceded to the British Army back then in order to protect Shanghai from rebels. Seeing that the British Army acted as if they owned the place, Takasugi jotted down in his diary, "Deplorable, indeed."

Wei Yuan in the early 19th century was the first major intellectual to insist that the mighty Chinese Empire had fundamental flaws.

Good Sources on 19th and 20th Century Shanghai and Expatriate History For information on Shanghai and China in the 19th century try the single letters column with letters about China in the British national newspapers like The Times at that time. Try the writings of people like Samuel Pollard, Grist, Samuel Clarke’s Among the Tribes in South-West China and so on, Edwin Dingle’s Across China on Foot online, masses of writings by traders and their families, visitors, diplomats, soldiers, journalists, missionaries, writers, artists. For some American attitudes of the time, no different from most of those of the British, take Justus Doolittte’s The Social Life of the Chinese , or Arthur Henderson Smith’s The Chinese Character which you can find online. There are lots of patronizing and condescending remarks about Chinese and their deviousness and corruption and concern for face and so on. [Source: Nicholas Tapp, Australian National University]

Also worth a look is Jane Hunter's seminal work, The Gospel of Gentility:American Women Missionaries in Turn-of-the-Century China (Yale University Press, 1984); Prostitution and Sexuality in Shanghai: A Social History, 1849-1949 by Christian Henriot (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001); Dangerous Pleasures: Prostitution and Modernity in Twentieth-Century Shanghai by Gail Hershatter (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997); Shanghai Love: Courtesans, Intellectuals, and Entertainment Culture, 1850-1910 by Catherine Vance Yeh, (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2006); The Sing Song Girls of Shanghai by Han Bing; Eileen Chang books (See Literature)

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George Congdon Gorham cartoon
Foreigners in China: 19th Century Tea Trade in China Harvard Business School ; Early Chinese Emmigrants to America: Central Pacific Railroad Museum ; Chinese Americans Wikipedia Wikipedia ; Taiping Rebellion: Taiping ; Wikipedia Taiping Rebellion article Wikipedia ; Books About Taiping Rebellion; Boxer Rebellion National Archives ; Modern History Sourcebook ; San Francisco 1900 newspaper article Library of Congress ; Wikipedia Wikipedia ; Cox Rebellion PhotosCaldwell Kvaran ; Eyewitness Account ; Sino-Japanese ; Wikipedia article on the Sino-Japanese War Wikipedia ;

Good Websites and Sources on the Opium War : Emperor of China’s War on Drugs ; Good Images from the Period on MIT’s Visualizing Cultures MIT’s Visualizing Cultures , MIT’s Visualizing Cultures , MIT’s Visualizing Cultures and MIT’s Visualizing Cultures ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Websites on the Qing Dynasty Wikipedia Wikipedia ; Qing Art ; Qing Dynasty Explained ; Recording of Grandeur of Qing Court Life During the Time of Empress Dowager Cixi

Good Chinese History Websites: 1) Chaos Group of University of Maryland ; 2) WWW VL: History China ; 3) Wikipedia article on the History of China Wikipedia 4) China Knowledge; 5) e-book ; Links in this Website: Main China Page (Click History)

Books: 1) The Opium War: Drugs, Dreams and the Making of China by Julia Lovell (Picador, 2011); 2) China: Alive in the Bitter Sea by Fox Butterfield; 3) China: A New History by John K. Fairbank; 4) China's Imperial Past: An Introduction to Chinese History by Charles O. Hucker; 5) In Search of Modern China by Jonathan D. Spence; 6) The Chan's Great Continent: China to Western Minds by Jonathan Spence (Norton, 1998). 7) Cambridge History of China multiple volumes (Cambridge University Press); 8) The Last Emperors: A Social History of the Qing Imperial Institutions by Evelyn S. Rawski (University of California Press, 1999); 9) Sea of Poppies by Amitva Ghosh (Farrar Straus Giroux, 2008) is a novel set during the Opium Wars mostly in India but also in China that was shortlisted listed for the Man Booker Prize. You can help this site a little by ordering your Amazon books through this link:

British Become Involved in China

British penetration into China was different than it was into India and other places. Britain never controlled large amounts of territory. Its control was centered more on directly controlling trade under a very weak national government and relying less on trying to control local leaders as was done in India.

Intervention by the British in China was spearheaded not so much by the British government as it was by companies like Jardine and Matheson (See Below). Taipans, the heads of the big Western companies, dealt with their Chinese workers with Chinese go-betweens known as compradores.

Nicholas Tapp of Australian National University wrote: “The British Government was really only incidentally concerned in the British Empire. Most of the Empire was “won” by traders like Jardine and Matheson in Hong Kong who then ‘strong-armed’ the UK Government, often against considerable opposition (this is where the letters to The Times are interesting, as also are Parliamentary Questions of the time, in showing you how the majority of right-minded thinking British middle-classes “ particularly vicars but not confined to them - were shocked by opium and were not that into taking on more foreign territories to administer at all), into taking over some realm they had seized de facto control of." [Source:Nicholas Tapp, Australian National University]

"The British decided not to directly colonize China and used trade instead," Tapp wrote. "Colonization mostly followed trade. Look at the history of Hong Kong for what MIGHT have happened in China if all China had been in the same situation as Shanghai with its international concessions. But of course, it wasn’t." [Source: Nicholas Tapp, Australian National University]

Jardine and Matheson

The most aggressive Hong Kong opium merchants were William Jardine and James Matheson, a pair of Scotsmen who founded Jardine and Matheson, the famous Hong Kong trading company that was that was subject of the James Clavell novels Taipan and Noble House. Known as the "iron-headed rat," Jardine was a former doctor who had only one chair in his office---his own. Visitors to his office were forced to stand. Matheson was a nobleman with a more courteous demeanor. He owned the only piano in Canton and paid for English lessons for Chinese.

Jardine and Matheson got their start in the opium trade in 1832, two years after the British government closed down the East India Company monopoly. The two Scotsmen avoided uncertainties in Canton by skipping the Chinese port altogether and establishing relationships with Chinese merchants in other Chinese coastal locations with the help a of Prussian missionary who spoke several Chinese dialects and arranged for missionary ships, carrying Bibles and evangelical literature, to also drop off chests of opium. The missionary who collaborated on the scheme later wrote that opium smuggling "may tend ultimately to the introduction of the gospel."

In 1848, Jardine and Matheson set up an opium and tea trading post in Shanghai, and has been expanding ever since. James Matheson, the nephew of one of the company's founder, ran the company from 1837 to 1849, but eventually left in disgust and returned to England where he became chairman of the Executive Committee for the Suppression of the Opium Trade. By the 1980s, it was estimated that Jardine and Matheson owned about half of Hong Kong. Before the handover of Hong Kong in 1997, the company incorporated in Bermuda rather than Hong Kong but still has offices in Hong Kong and Shanghai.

Colonialism, Concessions and Shanghai

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18th century Chinese image
of an English sailor
The focal point of European intervention into China was Shanghai, a strategically located former weaving and fishing town that was carved up into separate and autonomous European districts known as concessions. Beyond the reach of Chinese laws and taxes, the concessions were self contained worlds with their prisons, police, courts, schools, barracks and hospitals. In addition to this, Shanghai had exclusive parks and gentlemen's clubs that Chinese were not allowed in. Many business were started by former opium traders. Some American enterprises claimed they sold everything.

The British set up their concession in Shanghai in 1842. The same year an American neighborhood called the International Settlement was opened. The French concession was opened in 1847 and around it grew Shanghai's red light district. Russians and Germans arrived later and a Japanese enclave was established in 1895.

In the mid 1850s Shanghai had a population of 50,000. By 1900 it had a million people. By the 1930s, it was the largest trading center in Asia; arguably the most decadent place on the planet; and a city so westernized, it had its own Chinatown.

The British and French also occupied concessions in Tianjin, a port not far from Beijing through which many goods from northern China were transported. The excuse for the occupation of Tianjin was the Arrow incident (See Opium Wars). Between 1895 and 1900 the French were joined there by the Japanese, Germans, Austro-Hungarians, Italians and Belgians

Dalian was developed first by the Russians and later by the Japanese. A fishing town until the late 1800s, it began its transformation into a major deep-water port under the Russians who coveted it because, unlike Vladivostock to the north, its waters didn't freeze over in the winter. The Japanese took over Dalian after the end of the Russo-Japanese War and for the most part completed the Russian plan for the city.

Shanghai's Expatriate Community

By the 1920s Shanghai had a expatriate community of 60,000. Most of foreigners were British but there were also sizable populations of Americans, French and Russians. Between World Wars I and II tens of thousands of European refugees fleeing Bolshevism and Nazism and equally large numbers of Chinese refugees fleeing civil strife and the Japanese invasion flooded into Shanghai.

Most of the 20,000 white Russian aristocrats that came to China after the Bolshevik Revolution in the 1920s and 30s arrived on the Trans-Siberian railroad. Many of them supported themselves with jewels they carried with them from Russia. Some lived in lavish villas but most were poor. For a time there were more white Russians than French in the French Concession.

Other groups included turbanned Sikhs from India brought in by the British to direct traffic and patrol the streets in the International Settlement; Vietnamese troops brought in by the French to keep order in their concession; and America marines, British Tommies, French marines and Japanese Bluejackets brought into protect Shanghai from possible Chinese aggression.

At this time a lot of missionairies also poured into China. Many Olympic and Western sports first came to China via missionaries. In the 19th and 20th century Protestant missionaries abroad emphasized the gospel of sport nearly as much as the Gospels themselves.

Decadence in Shanghai

Known as the "Paris of Asia," 19th-century Shanghai boasted fine restaurants, exquisite craft shops, back street opium dens, gambling parlors, smoky jazz clubs with black American musicians, and brothels with names like "Galaxy of the Beauties" and "Happiness Concentrated." It also had casinos, greyhound and horse racing tracks, scores of nightclubs and several hundred ballrooms. The French licensed prostitution and opium smoking.

At the height of Shanghai's age of debauchery it was possible to get room service heroin, buy 12-year-old female slaves, and find gangsters that worked for the police. One of the city's biggest attraction was the Great World Amusement Center, which featured prostitutes, freak shows, earwax extractors, face readers, kung fu masters, and love offices.

Old Shanghai was famous for its sing-song girls and ladies of the night. In the 1920s, an estimated 30,000 prostitutes were at work in Shanghai on any given night. One missionary described Shanghai as "an apology by God to Sodom and Gomorrah" and another called it "the Whore of the Orient." The famous German director Josef von Sternberg visited Shanghai in the 1930s. In his film Blue Angel, one of Marlene Dietrich most famous lines was: "it took more than one man to change my name to Shanghai Lily."

When the Kuomintang took over Shanghai, they imposed a 10:00pm curfew. When the Communists claimed the city in 1949, they had no problem cleaning it up. They simply marched in and told the addicts and prostitutes they had the choice of cleaning up their act or being shot.

Book: Shanghai by Harriet Sergeant (John Murray, 1998) is an interesting and readable account of Shanghai's colorful history.

Perceptions at Home of Foreign Involvement in “Decadent” China

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Opium smoking in Shanghai
There was a lot of anger in Britain over what was happening in China. On the opium wars, there are a number of angry letters in the letter columns of The Times from missionaries and well-meaning Whigs inveighing against the opium trade and all its ills. There were heated debates in Parliament about the merits and ills of supporting or being involved in the trade in any way. Read any of the very readable life-story books written by the missionaries in Shanghai or West China at the time and see how much they campaigned against the opium trade and its horrible effects. Look at the Permanent Committee for the Promotion of Anti-Opium Societies, set up in Shanghai by the Englishman Arthur Moule in 1890, of which GW Clarke was a member. Look at the Executive Committee for the Suppression of the Opium Trade and think about what that must have meant for what was going on here at that time. [Source: Nicholas Tapp, Australian National University]

Remember this was a time when old ladies in US and UK and Europe and everywhere regularly took laudanum (opium derivative) for their coughs and nerves” The drug was not illegal anywhere. It was in the 1910s that some organized international movement against this (impelled mainly by British campaigners) took momentum and resulted in banning it in the era;y 19th century. Look at Alfred McCoy’s wonderful book on The Politics of Heroin in Southeast Asia, great chapter on history of opium for a start (“Opium for the natives”).

Shanghai in the 1920s and 30s

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Victor Sassoon
‘shanghai had a veneer of foreign sophistication in the '30s," journalist Paul French wrote, "when Noel Coward sat in the Cathay Hotel writing Private Lives and partying with Douglas Fairbanks and Charlie Chaplin at Victor Sassoon's mixed-sex (in the sense of mixed-up-sex) fancy dress parties. The city was then the world's third largest financial center, rich and exotic, and London and New York were a long way away. [Source: Paul French, Foreign journalists in China, from the Opium Wars to Mao ]

Carroll Alcott was one of the most well-known journalists. He to moved to Shanghai in 1928 and broke some good stories, notably about the opium business, German gunrunners and Japanese aggression in China; and he had once famously dined with a warlord in Yantai while the blood of his recently executed enemies dripped from the floor above into his noodles and shredded beef. Alfred Meyer, the managing editor of the Shanghai Evening Post and Mercury had snapped him up to cover the Shanghai crime beat, a job Alcott revelled in, noting that a typical day involved as many as three murder trials, a gang shooting, half a dozen armed robberies, a jewel theft, and a couple of kidnappings. [Ibid]

Nightlife centered around Chinese cabarets and dance hall called wuting . A good book on the subject is Shanghai's Dancing World: Cabaret Culture and Urban Politics, 1919-1954 by Andrew Field. On the book Field wrote: “ The first five chapters recount the emergence and flourishing ofShanghai's “dancing world” (wujie, wuguo) including chapters on the role of Westerners in introducing Jazz Age dance and music culture to China, the first Chinese cabarets to operate in Shanghai during the 1920s, the designand construction of cabarets and nightclubs in the 1930s, the role ofChinese “dance hostesses” (wunu) in popularizing and facilitating the JazzAge in China, and Chinese ballroom patrons and the political culture of Chinese nationalism.

“The last four chapters trace the increasing politicization of the city's cabaret culture during the war years when the city was occupied by the Japanese military, as well as the abolition and eventual demise of the city's cabaret industry under the governments of the Chinese Nationalists in the late 1940s and the Communists in the 1950s. Chapter eight focuses on the “dancers' uprising” (wuchao) of 1948 when thousands of cabaret workers in the city organized a violent protest against the government's “ban on dancing” (jinwu).

Great figures from Shanghai in its heydays in the 1930s and 1940s include of Jazz Age moguls and gangsters, left and right wing politicians, and contemporary investors and writers.

Great figures from Shanghai cinema include the great actress Shangguan Yunzhu, revered director Fei Mu. The prominence of Taiwanese and Hong Kong figures like director Hou Hsiao-hsien and singer/actress Rebecca Pang illustrate how much of Shanghai’s creative spirit migrated to Taipei and Hong Kong after the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949.

Film: Jia Zhangke I Wish I Knew

Media Coverage of China and Spatial Configurations

street fortuneteller

According to “Arguably, more column inches were devoted to China in the second half of the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth century than since. In 1928 the Sunday edition of the New York Times was running seven and sometimes eight columns of material on China from their correspondent Hallett Abend and sending urgent telegrams instructing him to send yet more China news.”[Source: Foreign journalists in China, from the Opium Wars to Mao by Paul French,, June 19, 2009 **]

"Starting around the time of the Boxers and the Siege of the Legations in 1900, the world’s public began to want significantly more information about China, and so the world’s great newspapers started sending and hiring full-time correspondents backed up by an army of stringers. Their numbers grew and then spurted in the 1920s.” **

The book ‘space, Gender, and Visual Culture in the Sojourners' City, 1853-98" by Samuel Y. Liang “argues that modernity first arrived in late nineteenth-century Shanghai via a new spatial configuration. This city’s colonial capitalist development ruptured the traditional configuration of self-contained households, towns, and natural landscapes in a continuous spread, producing a new set of fragmented as well as fluid spaces. In this process, Chinese sojourners actively appropriated new concepts and technology rather than passively responding to Western influences. Liang maps the spatial and material existence of these transient people and reconstructs a cultural geography that spreads from the interior to the neighbourhood and public spaces. [Ibid]

“In the book the author “discusses the courtesan house as a surrogate home and analyzes its business, gender, and material configurations; examines a new type of residential neighbourhood and shows how its innovative spatial arrangements transformed the traditional social order and hierarchy; surveys a range of public spaces and highlights the mythic perceptions of industrial marvels, the adaptations of colonial spatial types, the emergence of an urban public, and the spatial fluidity between elites and masses. [Ibid]

Shanghai Gangsters and Big Shots

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Du Yuesheng
One of Shanghai's most notorious figures was Shanghai Du Yuesheng ("Big-Eared Du"), a former sweet-potato vendor who started his life of crime as a policeman collecting protection money from local opium traders. As the head of the gang that controlled Shanghai's opium trade he reportedly funneled over $20 million a year to French authorities who allowed him to run his operation unhindered in the French Concession.

By the 1930s, Du had become so influential that Chiang Kai-shek put him in charge of the "Bureau of Opium Suppression." Never one to be too complacent he lived in a house with a secret trap door that could be used for quick getaways.

Huang Jinrong ("Pockmarked Huang") was another well-known Shanghai gangster. The gangster Zhanh Ziaolin was shot by his driver, who was believed to have been acting on orders from Chiang Kai-shek's secret police. In 1935 a total of 5,590 corpses were picked up off the streets

Another personality associated with Shanghai was Victor Sassoon, a Jewish businessman of British descent from Baghdad who made millions trading opium, real estate and racing horses. His most famous quote was "there is only one race greater than the Jews and that's the Derby." His most famous possession was the Cathay Hotel, where the rich and famous wined and dined and Noel Coward wrote Private Lives.

The warlord General "Dog Meat" Zhang Zong-chang (1880-1935) controlled Shanghai until he was ousted by Chiang Kai-shek. Known to Shanghai prostitutes as the "general with three long legs," Zhang reportedly once took on an entire brothel by himself, and said he owed his strength to his daily meals of black chow meat. People in Shanghai said he had "the physique of an elephant, the brain of a pig and the temperament of a tiger" and his nickname came from his fondness for game "throwing dog meat."

Chinese in Shanghai


Some 200,000 Chinese workers helped turn Shanghai into the largest manufacturing city in Asia. Even in the foreign concessions about 90 percent of the residents were Chinese, the vast majority of them workers. Many of these "workers" were 12- and 13-year-old boys and girls who worked 13 hour days, chained to the machines, in slave-like conditions, unable to leave their heavily guarded factory compounds.

The Chinese in Shanghai also endured opium addiction, starvation, and exploitation by pimps and gangsters. It has often been printed that there was sign in front of Huangpu Park in the British quarter that read "No admittance to Dogs and Chinese." Research has shown that this is a myth. There were rules about dogs and there were rules restricting Chinese servants but they were never placed together on the same sign. Nicholas Tapp of Australian National University, “The “dogs and Chinese placard “is a famous canard and it has been disproved that there was ever such a sign. Richard Hughes, for many years editor of the Far Eastern Economic Review, said there were a number of regulations about the parks (including Huangpu) including one that the parks were reserved for Europeans, another that no dogs or bicycles were allowed. These were in Chinese, not English. Lynn Pan (famous author on Shanghai and overseas Chinese who lives here) denied that the sign has ever existed, though she said she had seen in a museum hundreds of propaganda replica signs like this produced by the Party for propaganda purposes in the 1960s. There is a conclusive article in the China Quarterly (142. 1995) which goes into the whole history of how the false juxtaposition was spread. The regulations altered in 1903 and 1928. At one point they said only Chinese who attended as servants were admitted. At another point dogs on leads were admitted. And so on. But the shocking juxtaposition which is so horrific, and in English, and as a publically displayed sign, is just a common misapprehension. There were rules about both of these things, but along with many other rules, and not jammed together in this shocking way.” [Source:Nicholas Tapp, Australian National University]

The term "shanghaied" originated with the practice of kidnaping Chinese peasants and drunken drifters to provide cheap labor in foreign countries or to work on undermanned ships. The Chinese word ‘shanghai’, meaning to ruin someone (origin of the loan into English) has nothing to do with the word for the place Shanghai, both characters are written differently and one is in a different tone as well.

The Cantonese term for Europeans and Americans is gweilo, which literally translates to "devil man" but is often translated as "foreign devil." [Gweilo doesn’t really mean “foreign devils” at all though it is often translated that way. Gwei certainly can be translated as devil(s), but “lo” is just a rather familiar term for a person. “devil man” would be better. ] At the end of the 19th century the poet Yen-shi wrote:
Last year we called him the Foreign Devil
Now we call him "Mr. Foreigner, Sir!"
We weep over the departed but smile when a new wife
takes her place
Ah, the affairs of the world are like the turning of
a wheel

Cage with Mrs. Noble

Pearl S. Buck in Rural China

In her biography Pearl Buck in China: Journey to The Good Earth Hilary Spurling wrote: “Pearl Sydenstricker was born into a family of ghosts. She was the fifth of seven children and, when she looked back afterward at her beginnings, she remembered a crowd of brothers and sisters at home, tagging after their mother, listening to her sing, and begging her to tell stories...The siblings who surrounded Pearl in these early memories were dreamlike as well. Her older sisters, Maude and Edith, and her brother Arthur had all died young in the course of six years from dysentery, cholera, and malaria, respectively. Edgar, the oldest, ten years of age when Pearl was born, stayed long enough to teach her to walk, but a year or two later he was gone too (sent back to be educated in the United States, he would be a young man of twenty before his sister saw him again). He left behind a new baby brother to take his place, and when she needed company of her own age, Pearl peopled the house with her dead siblings. “These three who came before I was born, and went away too soon, somehow seemed alive to me,” she said.” [Source: Pearl Buck in China: Journey to The Good Earth by Hilary Spurling (Simon & Schuster, 2010)]

“Every Chinese family had its own quarrelsome, mischievous ghosts who could be appealed to, appeased, or comforted with paper people, houses, and toys. As a small child lying awake in bed at night, Pearl grew up listening to the cries of women on the street outside calling back the spirits of their dead or dying babies. In some ways she herself was more Chinese than American. “I spoke Chinese first, and more easily,” she said. “If America was for dreaming about, the world in which I lived was Asia. I did not consider myself a white person in those days.” Her friends called her Zhenzhu (Chinese for Pearl) and treated her as one of themselves. She slipped in and out of their houses, listening to their mothers and aunts talk so frankly and in such detail about their problems that Pearl sometimes felt it was her missionary parents, not herself, who needed protecting from the realities of death, sex, and violence.” [Ibid]

"She was an enthusiastic participant in local funerals on the hill outside the walled compound of her parents' house: large, noisy, convivial affairs where everyone had a good time. Pearl joined in as soon as the party got going with people killing cocks, burning paper money, and gossiping about foreigners making malaria pills out of babies' eyes. “'everything you say is lies,' I remarked pleasantly. There was always a moment of stunned silence. Did they or did they not understand what I had said” they asked each other. They understood, but could not believe they had.” The unexpected apparition of a small American girl squatting in the grass and talking intelligibly, unlike other Westerners, seemed magical, if not demonic. Once an old woman shrieked aloud, convinced she was about to die now that she could understand the language of foreign devils. Pearl made the most of the effect she produced, and of the endless questions “ about her clothes, her coloring, her parents, the way they lived and the food they ate “ that followed as soon as the mourners got over their shock. She said she first realized there was something wrong with her at New Year 1897, when she was four and a half years old, with blue eyes and thick yellow hair that had grown too long to fit inside a new red cap trimmed with gold Buddhas. “Why must we hide it?” she asked her Chinese nurse, who explained that black was the only normal color for hair and eyes. (“It doesn't look human, this hair.”)” [Ibid]

“Pearl escaped through the back gate to run free on the grasslands thickly dotted with tall pointed graves behind the house. She and her companions, real or imaginary, climbed up and slid down the grave mounds or flew paper kites from the top. “Here in the green shadows we played jungles one day and housekeeping the next.” She was baffled by a newly arrived American, one of her parents' visitors, who complained that the Sydenstrickers lived in a graveyard. (“That huge empire is one mighty cemetery,” Mark Twain wrote of China, “ridged and wrinkled from its center to its circumference with graves.”) Ancestors and their coffins were part of the landscape of Pearl's childhood. The big heavy wooden coffins that stood ready for their occupants in her friends' houses, or lay awaiting burial for weeks or months in the fields and along the canal banks, were a source of pride and satisfaction to farmers whose families had for centuries poured their sweat, their waste, and their dead bodies back into the same patch of soil.” [Ibid]

"Sometimes Pearl found bones lying in the grass, fragments of limbs, mutilated hands, once a head and shoulder with parts of an arm still attached. They were so tiny she knew they belonged to dead babies, nearly always girls suffocated or strangled at birth and left out for dogs to devour. It never occurred to her to say anything to anybody. Instead she controlled her revulsion and buried what she found according to rites of her own invention, poking the grim shreds and scraps into cracks in existing graves or scratching new ones out of the ground. Where other little girls constructed mud pies, Pearl made miniature grave mounds, patting down the sides and decorating them with flowers or pebbles. She carried a string bag for collecting human remains, and a sharpened stick or a club made from split bamboo with a stone fixed into it to drive the dogs away. She could never tell her mother why she hated packs of scavenging dogs, any more than she could explain her compulsion, acquired early from Chinese friends, to run away and hide whenever she saw a soldier coming down the road.” [Ibid]

"Soldiers from the hill fort with earthen ramparts above the town were generally indistinguishable from bandits, who lived by rape and plunder. The local warlords who ruled China largely unchecked by a weak central government were always eager to extend or consolidate territory. Severed heads were still stuck up on the gates of walled towns like Zhenjiang, where the Sydenstrickers lived. Life in the countryside was not essentially different from the history plays Pearl saw performed in temple courtyards by bands of traveling actors, or the stories she heard from professional storytellers and anyone else she could persuade to tell them. The Sydenstrickers' cook, who had the mobile features and expressive body language of a Chinese Fred Astaire, entertained the gateman, the amah, and Pearl herself with episodes from a small private library of books only he knew how to read. This was her first introduction to the old Chinese novels “ The White Snake, The Dream of the Red Chamber, All Men Are Brothers” that she would draw on long afterward for the narrative grip, strong plot lines, and stylized characterizations of her own fiction.”


p> Book: Pearl Buck in China: Journey to The Good Earth by Hilary Spurling (Simon & Schuster, 2010). Spurling is an award-winning biographer. The book focuses almost exclusively on Buck's Chinese childhood.

Later Explorers in China

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Explorer David Neel
Western China was caught up in the Great Game. Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, western China and Afghanistan were more important in the Great Game than other Central Asian states because they formed the buffer zone between the Russian Empire and the British-Indian Empire. See Uzbekistan.

In the 1920s, Sven Hedin's Sino-Swedish excavations in Xinjiang and Manchuria unearthed 10,000 strips with writing, Han documents on silk, wall paintings from Turpan and pottery and bronzes.

In the late 1920s, Sir Ariel Stein, a Hungarian-born linguist and archeologist, trekked over 18,000-foot Karakoram Pass three times and traced the Silk Road through Chinese Turkestan and followed routes on which Buddhism spread to China from India. Stein discovered the Caves of the Thousand Buddhas near Dunhuang in northwest China and carted away 24 cases of artifacts, including silk painting, embroideries, and sculptures. His biggest finds were 1,000 early manuscripts written in Tangut, Sanskrit and Turkish, which included the world's oldest book, The Diamond Sutra .

Humiliation as a Stimulus to China’s Rise

In a review of “Losing Face, Leaping Forward ‘Wealth and Power,’” by Orville Schell and John Delury. Joseph Kahn wrote in the, New York Times, “The humiliations China has suffered at the hands of foreigners over the past century and a half are the glue that keeps the country together. Even $3 trillion in foreign exchange reserves has not healed the psychological trauma of 1842, the year of China’s defeat at the hands of the British in the first Opium War. After that conflict, China was dismembered, first by the European powers, then, more devastatingly, by Japan. Chinese troops expelled the Japanese, and the country was reunified more than 60 years ago. But it is determined to keep the memory of the abuses it suffered from fading into history. [Source: Joseph Kahn, New York Times, July 18, 2013 ~/~]

“Shame often acts as a depressant. But Schell and Delury argue that for generations of influential Chinese, shame has been a stimulant. In one sense, the evidence is not hard to find. The inaugural exhibition at the National Museum of China in Tiananmen Square, splashily reopened in 2011, was called “The Road to Rejuvenation,” which treated the Opium War as the founding event of modern China. And it then told a Disneyesque version of how the Communist Party restored the country’s greatness. At the museum of the Temple of Tranquil Seas in Nanjing, the site of the signing of one of the most unequal of China’s treaties with foreign powers, is inscribed this phrase: “To feel shame is to approach courage.” Humiliation has been a staple of Communist Party propaganda. ~/~

“Schell and Delury acknowledge the cynicism behind the party’s use of shame as a nationalist rallying cry. But their book makes the case that such feelings represent a deep strain in the Chinese psyche, which the country’s current leaders have inherited as part of their cultural DNA. To love China means to share a passionate commitment to overcoming the loss of face suffered in the 19th century, to ensure that the defeats of the past will never be suffered again.” What the book “offers readers is the idea that the most important Chinese intellectuals and political leaders, from the Empress Dowager Cixi to Deng Xiaoping, were united in the national quest to avenge humiliation. They all felt shame, and used it as the path to “wealth and power.” ~/~

“Many of the steps they took were disastrous. Over a century and a half China has stumbled through imperial rule, warlordism, republicanism and Communism. Its leaders have reigned through feudalism, fascism, totalitarianism and capitalism. But for Schell and Delury, none of those conflicting systems or ideologies in the end defined China, or even the leaders who imposed them. Instead, the constant through China’s recent history is the persistent search for something — anything — that would bring restoration. ~/~

“The reformers of the early 19th century were the first to declare that China was “big and weak,” and though the statement was true, at the time it bordered on heresy. The solution the early reformers proposed was “to self-strengthen,” which would be achieved by adopting selective Western technologies and methods. By the turn of the 20th century, after a series of even more severe setbacks, prescriptions from scholars and advisers grew bolder. Liang Qichao, who founded the Sense of Shame Study Society, felt Chinese culture bred timidity. He wanted to destroy China’s Confucian “core” and rebuild the country from scratch with imported Western ideas. That was the template China’s Nationalist leaders, Sun Yat-sen and Chiang Kai-shek, followed for years as they struggled to figure out which Western political, cultural and economic formulas could reinvigorate their country. ~/~

“Much of Mao’s brutally destructive legacy — the mass killings of class enemies, the famine-inducing Great Leap Forward, the catastrophic Cultural Revolution — should be viewed,” Schell and Delury “suggest, less through the prism of radical Marxism than as an attempt to exorcise Confucian passivity. Mao especially wanted to eliminate the traditional ideal of “harmony” and replace it with a mandate to pursue “permanent revolution,” an inversion of Chinese cultural traditions he believed essential to unleashing the country’s productive forces. Schell and Delury do not say that Mao intended to pave the way for Deng and his acolytes, including Zhu Rongji, whom they present as the most successful implementer of Deng’s ideas. But they do seek to show that Deng’s pursuit of market-oriented reforms might well have met far more resistance if Mao had not bequeathed him a blank slate — that is, a ruling party exhausted by bloody campaigns and a people purged of their ancient notions of order. Deng’s tactics may have been the polar opposite of Mao’s, but their goals, realized partly under Deng and rather spectacularly by his successors, were precisely the same.” ~/~

Book: “Losing Face, Leaping Forward ‘Wealth and Power,’” by Orville Schell and John Delury. 2013]

Image Sources: 1) Western image of Chinese Columbia University; 2) English sail0r, Brooklyn College; 3) Opium smoking, Normal Opium museum.; 4) Victor Sasson, Columbia University;; 5) Chinese gangster, Columbia University;; 6) David Neel Wason archives

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated June 2015

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