China in 1875

At the end of the 19th century China existed as a nation in name only. The Qing dynasty controlled only parts of China and the rest of China was divided among warlords and foreigners who controlled different parts of the country. As the Qing dynasty fell apart more and more of China was wrestled from its control. The Qing dynasty was weakened by the Opium Wars and the Taiping Rebellion. In 1900 the Boxer Rebellion occurred.

In late imperial times the agricultural land in the north was worked by people who owned the land while the land in the south was owned by landlords who didn’t work the land themselves. Peasants who worked the land in the south either paid a fixed rent in crops or a fixed rent in cash or paid their landlords with a share of their harvest. It was more of commercial operation than a feudal one. In the north peasants paid high agricultural taxes that were not abolished until 2006.

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 /]

The famed Chinese filmmaker Jia Zhanghe told the New York Times: “When I started reading a lot about history, I began to realize that China’s biggest transformation actually started in 1895, or toward the end of the Qing Dynasty. That transformation was actually a huge change because before, China didn’t have science. All of a sudden, mathematics, astronomy and geography were introduced. And China used to be a central empire, and then all of a sudden you have America and France. So China’s real efforts to become modern began back then — including how people dressed, what they ate, their education... You know the civil service examination system. In 1905 or so it was abolished because China wanted to catch up with modern science. But many people had undergone this education [in the Confucian classics in preparation for the examination], and all of a sudden the system was abolished. They had no way to make a living. So I saw what this transformation was for many people — a sort of passive sacrifice. It was very passive. Because of the transformation, the individual was sacrificed. I’m obsessed with this period, because it’s just like ours. But I wanted to use martial arts to talk about this time. [Source: Interview with Edward Wong, Sinosphere blog, New York Times, October 18 and 21 2013]

Early 20th Century China : John Fairbank Memorial Chinese History Virtual Library offers links to sites related to modern Chinese history (Qing, Republic, PRC) and has good pictures; Sun Yat-sen Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; May 4th Movement Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Chiang Kai-shek Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; New York Times Obituary Madame Chiang Kai-shek Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Website on the Qing Dynasty Wikipedia Wikipedia ; Qing Dynasty Explained ; Recording of Grandeur of Qing Empress Dowager Cixi: Court Life During the Time of Empress Dowager Cixi; Wikipedia article Wikipedia Books on Cixi; The Last Emperor Puyi Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; His Widow's Account; Puyi Biography 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

Chinese History: Visual Sourcebook of Chinese Civilization ; Chaos Group of University of Maryland ; WWW VL: History China ; 3) Wikipedia article on the History of China Wikipedia ; Books: "The Generalissimo: Chiang Kai-Shek and the Struggle for Modern China" by Jay Taylor, former U.S. foreign service officer; "Enter the Dragon: A Look at the Western Fever Dream of Insatiable Chinese Power" by Tom Scocca ; "Cambridge History of China" multiple volumes (Cambridge University Press); "The Opium War: Drugs, Dreams and the Making of China" by Julia Lovell (Picador, 2011); "China: Alive in the Bitter Sea" by Fox Butterfield; "China: A New History" by John K. Fairbank; "China's Imperial Past: An Introduction to Chinese History" by Charles O. Hucker; "In Search of Modern China" by Jonathan D. Spence; “China in the 21st Century” by Jeffrey Wasserstrom; ““Penguin History of Modern China: 1850-2009” by Jonathan FenbyThe Oxford Illustrated History of Modern China” edited by Jeffrey Wasserstrom covers from 1550 to the present day. "Shark Fins and Millet" is an excellent depiction of China in the 1930s by Polish-born journalist Ilona Ralf Sues, who met up with Big-Eared Du and Madame Chiang Kai-shek.

Energy and Inertia To Reform in China

Until 1850 or so, most Chinese believed the world was flat, with China at its center. "By the end of the 19th century the pressure from the world of ideas," wrote Yale history professor Jonathan Spence in Time magazine, "had led to strident and insistent demands for new structures of justice, new realms of freedom of aesthetic endeavor and the dissemination of information, and abandonment of autocracy for either a genuinely circumscribed constitutional monarchy or popularly passed republican form of government."

Arthur Henderson Smith wrote in “Chinese Characteristics” (1894): China is in urgent need of reforms; of this there can be no possible doubt. It is beginning to seem, even to those of by no means optimistic habits of thinking, that reforms may be possibles-even in China. The movement thitherward is "in the air." It can not be stopped. Perhaps within the present century, China may. have passed through transformations greater than any since the days of Qin Shih-huang, the unifier of her petty states. Will she hold together? Will she move as a whole, or like some huge iceberg, break up into fractions and disappear ? ' We have faith to believe that the cohesive forces of China are stronger than the disruptive ones, and that as a vast unit China will yet take her place among the mighty nations of the earth. [Source:“Chinese Characteristics” by Arthur Henderson Smith, 1894. Smith (1845 — 1932) was an American missionary who spent 54 years in China. In the 1920s, “Chinese Characteristics” was still the most widely read book on China among foreign residents there. He spent much of his time in Pangzhuang, a village in Shandong]

A Chinese is always a part of the machine — not the machine itself. Or if he be a very important wheel and turn the rest, then solidarity impressively asserts itself in a new form. We have heard of Chinese joint-stock companies in which solidarity had a great deal too much to do. In fact, solidarity in a Chinese sense, and individual equality in an Occidental sense are scarcely compatible. This essential and significant quality of Chinese society is of great consequence in estimating the future of Chinese reformations. As long as China remains in the condition in which she has been for so many ages, solidarity is the incarnation of inertia. But if she is beginning to exhibit signs of an "awakening," there is hope that if once awake she will be wide awake. She cannot rouse herself from the lethargy of centuries in a day nor in a decade. Nor when she is awake will she bestow, let us hope, her principal energies not on material resources such as arsenals and navies, but 'rather on intellectual and moral regeneration, and the rehabilitation of the energies which once made China great, and through which alone she can hope to recover her greatness, and place herself among the foremost nations of the time.

“Three mutually inconsistent theories are held in regard to Reform in China. First that it is unnecessary. This is no doubt the view of some of the Chinese themselves, though by no means of all Chinese. It is also the opinion adopted by certain foreigners, who look at China and the Chinese through the mirage of distance. Second, that reform is impossible. This pessimistic conclusion is arrived at by many who have had too much occasion to know the tremendous obstacles which any permanent and real reform must encounter, before it can even be tried. To such persons, the thorough reformation of so vast a body as the Chinese people, appears to be a task as hopeless as the galvanizing into life of an Egyptian mummy. To us the second of these views appears only less unreasonable than the first; but if What has been already said fails to make this evident, nothing that could here be added would be sufficient to do so. To those who are agreed that reform in China is both necessary and possible, the question by what agency that reform is to be brought about is an important one, and it is not surprising that there are several different and inharmonious replies.

“At the very outset, we have to face the enquiry, Can China be reformed from within herself. That she can be thus reformed, is taken for granted by those of her statesmen who are able to perceive the vital need of reformation. An instance of this assumption occurred in a recent memorial in the Peking Gazette, in which the writer complained of the inhabitants of one of the central provinces as turbulent, and stated that a certain number of competent persons had been appointed to go through the province, to explain to fhe people the maxims of the Sacred Edicts of Kangxi, by which vigorous measure it was apparently expected that the character of the population would in time be ameliorated. This preaching of moral maxims to the people is a favorite prescription for the amendment of the morals of the time, in spite of the barrenness of results. When it fails, as it always does, there is nothing to be done but to try it over again. That it must fail, is shown by the longest experience, with every modification of circumstances, except in the results, which are as nearly as possible uniformly nil. This has been sufficiently shown already in the instructive allegory of the eloquent old man whose limbs were stone.

“But if mere precept is inert, it might be expected that example would be more efficient. This topic has also been previously discussed, and we need recur to it only to point out the reason why in the end the best examples always fail to produce the intended results. It is because they have no power to propagate the impulse which gave them life. Take for example the case of Chang Chih-tung, formerly governor of Shanxi, where he is reported to have made the most vigorous efforts to put a stop to the practice of opium-smoking among the officials, and opiumraising among the people. How many of his subordinates would honestly co-operate in this effort, and what could possibly be effected without such co-operation? Every foreigner is compelled to recognize his own comparative helplessness in Chinese matters, when the intermediaries through whom alone he. can act, are not in sympathy with his plans for reform.

Resistance to Change in 19th Century China

Chinese cruiser Haitien

Arthur Henderson Smith wrote in “Chinese Characteristics”: ““The bearing of the subject of conservatism upon the relation of foreigners to China and the Chinese is not likely tp be lost sight of for a moment, by anyone whose lot is cast in China, and who has the smallest interest in the future welfare of this mighty Empire. The last quarter of the nineteenth century seems destined to be a critical period in Chinese history. A great deal of very new wine is offered to the Chinese, who have no other provision for its reception, than a varied assortment of very old wine-skins. Thanks to the instinctive conservatism of the Chinese nature, very little of the new wine has thus far been accepted, and for that little, new bottles are in course of preparation. [Source:“Chinese Characteristics” by Arthur Henderson Smith, 1894]

“The present attitude of China toward the lands of the West is an attitude of procrastination. There is on the one hand, small desire for that which is new, and upon the other, no desire at all, nor even willingness to give up the old. As we see ancient mud huts that ought to have been gobe long ago to have reverted to their native earth, shored up with clumsy mud pillars which but postpone the inevitable fall, so we behold old customs, old superstitions, and old faith now outworn, propped up and made to do the same duty as heretofore. “If the old does not go, the new does not come," we are told, and not without truth. The process of change from the one to the other may long be resisted, and may then come about suddenly.

"At a time when it was first proposed to introduce telegrams, the Governor-General of a maritime province reported to, the Emperor that the hostility of the people to the innovation was so great, that the wires could not be put up. But when war with France was imminent, and the construction of the line was put' upon an entirely different basis, the provincial authorities promptly set up the telegraph wires, and saw that they were respected. Ten years ago, the-superstition of feng-shui was believed by many to be an almost insuperable obstacle to the introduction of railways in China. The very first short line, constructed as an outlet for the K'ai-p'ing coal mines, passed through a large Chinese cemetery, the graves being removed to make way for it, as they would have been in England or in France. A single inspection of that bisected graveyard was sufficient to produce the conviction that feng-shui could never stand before an engine, when the issue is narrowed down to a trial of strength between “wind-water" and steam. The experience gained in the recent extension of this initial line shows clearly that however financial considerations may delay the introduction of railways, geomantic superstitions are for this purpose quite inert.

"Labour saving devices as are so constantly met in Western lands, are unknown in China. In a modern hotel in the Occident, one has but to push something or to pull something and he gets whatever he wants — hot or cold water, lights, heat, service. But the finest hostelry in the eighteen provinces, like all inferior places, of accommodation, obliges its guest, whenever he is conscious of an unsupplied need, to go to the outer door of his apartment, and yell at the top of his voice, vainly hoping to be heard for his much speaking. Times have changed, and we have changed with them. In China, on the contrary, times have not changed, and neither have the people. The standard of comfort and convenience is the same now as it has been for centuries. When new conditions arise, these standards will inevitably alter. That they will ever be the same as those to which we have become accustomed, is however, to be neither expected nor desired."

In referring to certain abuses in southwest China, connected with the production of copper, Mr, Baber remarks, “Before the mines can be adequately worked, Yunnan must be peopled, the Lolos must be fairly treated, roads must be constructed, the facilities offered for navigation by the upper Yangtze must be improved — in short, China must be civilized. A thousand years would be too short a period to allow of such a consummation, unless some force from without should accelerate "the impulse." To attempt to reform China without “some force from without," is like trying to build a ship in the sea; all the laws of air and water conspire to make it impossible. It is a principle of mechanics that a force that begins and ends in a machine, has no power to move it.

Social Classes in Early 20th Century China

In late 19th and early 20th China, the Manchu dynasty was on its last legs and it support was disappearing the nobility still existed. Wolfram Eberhard wrote in “A History of China”: Alongside it was a still numerically small middle class, with little political education or enlightenment. “The political interests of these two groups were obviously in conflict. But after 1912 there had been big changes. The gentry were largely in a process of decomposition. They still possessed the basis of their existence, their land, but the land was falling in value, as there were now other opportunities of capital investment, such as export-import, shareholding in foreign enterprises, or industrial undertakings. It is important to note, however, that there was not much fluid capital at their disposal. In addition to this, cheaper rice and other foodstuffs were streaming from abroad into China, bringing the prices for Chinese foodstuffs down to the world market prices, another painful business blow to the gentry. [Source: “A History of China” by Wolfram Eberhard, 1951, University of California, Berkeley]

“Moreover, the class solidarity of the gentry was dissolving. In the past, politics had been carried on by cliques of gentry families, with the emperor at their head as an unchangeable institution. This edifice had now lost its summit; the struggles between cliques still went on, but entirely without the control which the emperor's power had after all exercised, as a sort of regulative element in the play of forces among the gentry. The arena for this competition had been the court. After the destruction of the arena, the field of play lost its boundaries: the struggles between cliques no longer had a definite objective; the only objective left was the maintenance or securing of any and every hold on power. Under the new conditions cliques or individuals among the gentry could only ally themselves with the possessors of military power, the generals or governors. In this last stage the struggle between rival groups turned into a rivalry between individuals. Family ties began to weaken and other ties, such as between school mates, or origin from the same village or town, became more important than they had been before. For the securing of the aim in view any means were considered justifiable. Never was there such bribery and corruption among the officials as in the years after 1912. This period, until 1927, may therefore be described as a period of dissolution and destruction of the social system of the gentry.

“Over against this dying class of the gentry stood, broadly speaking, a tripartite opposition. To begin with, there was the new middle class, divided and without clear political ideas; anti-dynastic of course, but undecided especially as to the attitude it should adopt towards the peasants who, to this day, form over 80 per cent of the Chinese population. The middle class consisted mainly of traders and bankers, whose aim was the introduction of Western capitalism in association with foreign powers. There were also young students who were often the sons of old gentry families and had been sent abroad for study with grants given them by their friends and relatives in the government; or sons of businessmen sent away by their fathers. These students not always accepted the ideas of their fathers; they were influenced by the ideologies of the West, Marxist or non-Marxist, and often created clubs or groups in the University cities of Europe or the United States. Such groups of people who had studied together or passed the exams together, had already begun to play a role in politics in the nineteenth century. Now, the influence of such organizations of usually informal character increased. Against the returned students who often had difficulties in adjustment, stood the students at Chinese Universities, especially the National University in Beijing (Peita). They represented people of the same origin, but of the lower strata of the gentry or of business; they were more nationalistic and politically active and often less influenced by Western ideologies.

“In the second place, there was a relatively very small genuine proletariat, the product of the first activities of big capitalists in China, found mainly in Shanghai. Thirdly and finally, there was a gigantic peasantry, uninterested in politics and uneducated, but ready to give unthinking allegiance to anyone who promised to make an end of the intolerable conditions in the matter of rents and taxes, conditions that were growing steadily worse with the decay of the gentry. These peasants were thinking of popular risings on the pattern of all the risings in the history of China—attacks on the towns and the killing of the hated landowners, officials, and moneylenders, that is to say of the gentry.

“Such was the picture of the middle class and those who were ready to support it, a group with widely divergent interests, held together only by its opposition to the gentry system and the monarchy. It could not but be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to achieve political success with such a group. Sun Yat-sen (1866-1925), the "Father of the Republic", accordingly laid down three stages of progress in his many works, of which the best-known are San-min chu-i, ("The Three Principles of the People"), and Chien-kuo fang-lueh ("Plans for the Building up of the Realm"). The three phases of development through which republican China was to pass were: the phase of struggle against the old system, the phase of educative rule, and the phase of truly democratic government. The phase of educative rule was to be a sort of authoritarian system with a democratic content, under which the people should be familiarized with democracy and enabled to grow politically ripe for true democracy.

Economy of China in Early 20th Century China

Wolfram Eberhard wrote in “A History of China”: “Difficult as was the internal situation from the social point of view, it was no less difficult in economic respects. China had recognized that she must at least adopt Western technical and industrial progress in order to continue to exist as an independent state. But the building up of industry demanded large sums of money. The existing Chinese banks were quite incapable of providing the capital needed; but the acceptance of capital from abroad led at once, every time, to further political capitulations. The gentry, who had no cash worth mention, were violently opposed to the capitalization of their properties, and were in favour of continuing as far as possible to work the soil in the old style. Quite apart from all this, all over the country there were generals who had come from the ranks of the gentry, and who collected the whole of the financial resources of their region for the support of their private armies. Investors had little confidence in the republican government so long as they could not tell whether the government would decide in favour of its right or of its left wing.” [Source: “A History of China” by Wolfram Eberhard, 1951, University of California, Berkeley]

Opportunities of capital investment included “export-import, shareholding in foreign enterprises, or industrial undertakings. It is important to note, however, that there was not much fluid capital at their disposal. In addition to this, cheaper rice and other foodstuffs were streaming from abroad into China, bringing the prices for Chinese foodstuffs down to the world market prices, another painful business blow to the gentry.

Silk had to meet the competition of Japanese silk and especially of rayon; the Chinese silk was of very unequal quality and sold with difficulty. On the other hand, through the influence of the Western capitalistic system, which was penetrating more and more into China, land itself became "capital", an object of speculation for people with capital; its value no longer depended entirely on the rents it could yield but, under certain circumstances, on quite other things—the construction of railways or public buildings, and so on. These changes impoverished and demoralized the gentry, who in the course of the past century had grown fewer in number. The gentry were not in a position to take part fully in the capitalist manipulations, because they had never possessed much capital; their wealth had lain entirely in their land, and the income from their rents was consumed quite unproductively in luxurious living.

Education and Intellectual Life in Early 20th Century China

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First Shanghai train
Wolfram Eberhard wrote in “A History of China”: “No less complicated was the intellectual situation at this time. Confucianism, and the whole of the old culture and morality bound up with it, was unacceptable to the middle-class element. In the first place, Confucianism rejected the principle, required at least in theory by the middle class, of the equality of all people; secondly, the Confucian great-family system was irreconcilable with middle-class individualism, quite apart from the fact that the Confucian form of state could only be a monarchy. Every attempt to bolster up Confucianism in practice or theory was bound to fail and did fail. Even the gentry could scarcely offer any real defence of the Confucian system any longer. With Confucianism went the moral standards especially of the upper classes of society. Taoism was out of the question as a substitute, because of its anarchistic and egocentric character. Consequently, in these years, part of the gentry turned to Buddhism and part to Christianity. Some of the middle class who had come under European influence also turned to Christianity, regarding it as a part of the European civilization they had to adopt. Others adhered to modern philosophic systems such as pragmatism and positivism. Marxist doctrines spread rapidly. [Source: “A History of China” by Wolfram Eberhard, 1951, University of California, Berkeley]

“Education was secularized. Great efforts were made to develop modern schools, though the work of development was continually hindered by the incessant political unrest. Only at the universities, which became foci of republican and progressive opinion, was any positive achievement possible. Many students and professors were active in politics, organizing demonstrations and strikes. They pursued a strong national policy, often also socialistic. At the same time real scientific work was done; many young scholars of outstanding ability were trained at the Chinese universities, often better than the students who went abroad. There is a permanent disagreement between these two groups of young men with a modern education: the students who return from abroad claim to be better educated, but in reality they often have only a very superficial knowledge of things modern and none at all of China, her history, and her special circumstances. The students of the Chinese universities have been much better instructed in all the things that concern China, and most of them are in no way behind the returned students in the modern sciences. They are therefore a much more serviceable element.

“The intellectual modernization of China goes under the name of the "Movement of May Fourth", because on May 4th, 1919, students of the National University in Beijing demonstrated against the government and their pro-Japanese adherents. When the police attacked the students and jailed some, more demonstrations and student strikes and finally a general boycott of Japanese imports were the consequence. In these protest actions, professors such as Ts'ai Yuan-p'ei, later president of the Academia Sinica (died 1940), took an active part. The forces which had now been mobilized, rallied around the journal "New Youth" (Hsin Qing-nien), created in 1915 by Ch'en Tu-hsiu. The journal was progressive, against the monarchy, Confucius, and the old traditions. Ch'en Tu-hsiu who put himself strongly behind the students, was more radical than other contributors but at first favoured Western democracy and Western science; he was influenced mainly by John Dewey who was guest professor in Beijing in 1919-20. Similarly tending towards liberalism in politics and Dewey's ideas in the field of philosophy were others, mainly Hu Shih. Finally, some reformers criticized conservatism purely on the basis of Chinese thought. Hu Shih (born 1892) gained greatest acclaim by his proposal for a "literary revolution", published in the "New Youth" in 1917. This revolution was the logically necessary application of the political revolution to the field of education. The new "vernacular" took place of the old "classical" literary language. The language of the classical works is so remote from the language of daily life that no uneducated person can understand it. A command of it requires a full knowledge of all the ancient literature, entailing decades of study. The gentry had elaborated this style of speech for themselves and their dependants; it was their monopoly; nobody who did not belong to the gentry and had not attended its schools could take part in literary or in administrative life. The literary revolution introduced the language of daily life, the language of the people, into literature: newspapers, novels, scientific treatises, translations, appeared in the vernacular, and could thus be understood by anyone who could read and write, even if he had no Confucianist education.

“It may be said that the literary revolution has achieved its main objects. As a consequence of it, a great quantity of new literature has been published. Not only is every important new book that appears in the West published in translation within a few months, but modern novels and short stories and poems have been written, some of them of high literary value.

“At the same time as this revolution there took place another fundamental change in the language. It was necessary to take over a vast number of new scientific and technical terms. As Chinese, owing to the character of its script, is unable to write foreign words accurately and can do no more than provide a rather rough paraphrase, the practice was started of expressing new ideas by newly formed native words. Thus modern Chinese has very few foreign words, and yet it has all the new ideas. For example, a telegram is a "lightning-letter"; a wireless telegram is a "not-have-wire-lightning-communication"; a fountain-pen is a "self-flow-ink-water-brush"; a typewriter is a "strike-letter-machine". Most of these neologisms are similar in the modern languages of China and Japan.

“There had been several proposals in recent decades to do away with the Chinese characters and to introduce an alphabet in their place. They have all proved to be unsatisfactory so far, because the character of the Chinese language, as it is at this moment, is unsuited to an alphabetical script. They would also destroy China's cultural unity: there are many dialects in China that differ so greatly from each other that, for instance, a man from Canton cannot understand a man from Shanghai. If Chinese were written with letters, the result would be a Canton literature and another literature confined to Shanghai, and China would break up into a number of areas with different languages. The old Chinese writing is independent of pronunciation. A Cantonese and a Beijinger can read each other's newspapers without difficulty. They pronounce the words quite differently, but the meaning is unaltered. Even a Japanese can understand a Chinese newspaper without special study of Chinese, and a Chinese with a little preparation can read a Japanese newspaper without understanding a single word of Japanese.

“The aim of modern education in China is to work towards the establishment of "High Chinese", the former official (Mandarin) language, throughout the country, and to set limits to the use of the various dialects. Once this has been done, it will be possible to proceed to a radical reform of the script without running the risk of political separatist movements, which are always liable to spring up, and also without leading, through the adoption of various dialects as the basis of separate literatures, to the break-up of China's cultural unity. In the last years, the unification of the spoken language has made great progress. Yet, alphabetic script is used only in cases in which illiterate adults have to be enabled in a short time to read very simple informations. More attention is given to a simplification of the script as it is; Japanese had started this some forty years earlier. Unfortunately, the new Chinese abbreviated forms of characters are not always identical with long-established Japanese forms, and are not developed in such a systematic form as would make learning of Chinese characters easier.

Why the Industrial Revolution Happened in Europe Not China

In his book “A Culture of Growth: The Origins of the Modern Economy,” Joel Mokyr, who teaches at Northwestern University, argues that the Industrial Revolution occurred in Europe and not China, which in previous centuries was more advanced scientifically than Europe, because Europe developed a unique culture of competitive scientific and intellectual advancement. He told the Washington Post: “China has a glorious past in its scientific achievements. And yet they were never able to turn it into economic growth as the West did. If you look at Europe and China in the 19th century, Europe is advancing at breathtaking speed. It’s building a rail network, steamships, factories. By the early 20th century, China looked like it was going to be completely occupied by imperialist powers.... “Why?” People have given different answers, and I’m giving mine. One way of thinking about it is culture. But to state, “Hey, the Chinese have a different culture because they were Confucianists, and the Europeans were Christian,” I don’t buy that for a second. It’s much more subtle and complicated. The way I would phrase it is that culture is not independent of political and institutional circumstances. [Source: Ana Swanson, Washington Post, October 28, 2016]

“China and Europe are different in many ways, but one is that after the Mongol conquest in the 12th century, China remains a unified empire run by a single Mandarin bureaucracy. There is nothing that competes with or threatens China. China does get invaded by Manchu tribes in 1644, but they don’t change the structure of the state. They learned to speak Chinese, dress like Chinese and eat like Chinese. “In Europe, no one ever succeeds in unifying it, and you have continuous competition. The French are worried about the English, the English are worried about the Spanish, the Spanish are worried about the Turks. That keeps everybody on their toes, which is something economists immediately recognize as the competitive model. To have progress, you want a system that is competitive, not one that is dominated by a single power.

“I think that is the major difference. It isn’t just that China doesn’t have an Industrial Revolution, it doesn’t have a Galileo or a Newton or a Descartes, people who announced that everything people did before them was wrong. That’s hard to do in any society, but it was easier to do in Europe than China. The reason precisely is because Europe was fragmented, and so when somebody says something very novel and radical, if the government decides they are a heretic and threatens to prosecute them, they pack their suitcase and go across the border. Europe creates a competitive world that encourages intellectual innovation. There’s the Reformation, which says the religion you had until now is wrong. The same happens in astronomy, chemistry, medicine, mathematics and philosophy. Eventually, it filters down to how we make textiles and shoes, and how we grow corn.

“I want to make clear, very few serious historians think China failed. China wanted stability and security, and they achieved that for a long time. The Europeans don’t want stability. They want progress. Of course, China’s stability gets disrupted by Europeans showing up with more powerful ships and guns. Eventually, China crumbles under the onslaught of European modernity. It’s quite a tragic story.

“China was extremely innovative in its heyday, which is basically under the Song dynasty, which ended in 1279. At that time, European and Islamic travelers realized that China was leading the world in technology. And China does have kind of an Enlightenment. And yet, in the end, they did not turn that innovation into sustained economic growth. “I believe the fundamental reason is China’s position as a single empire, and also its bureaucracy, which is a unique and peculiar animal. On the one hand, it is very progressive, because it is a meritocracy. In Europe, the people who were in power were the sons and nephews of other people in power. But in China there’s an examination, and the people who did the best rose in the Mandarin civil service. So you’d think, “Wow, that’s very progressive.” Except if you look at what they were studying for these exams, they were simply regurgitating the classics. It was the perfect tool to keep reproducing from the same mold generation after generation. “In Europe, something different happens. People study classical knowledge, Ptolemy and Hippocrates and Archimedes, and they begin to say, “Most of this stuff is wrong.” You couldn’t do that in China. If you said “This stuff is wrong,” you failed your exam. But in Europe, the ability to challenge received wisdom is irrepressible.

Foreign Media Coverage of China and Pearl S. Buck

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Explorer David Neel
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.” **

Pearl S. Buck was born in Hillsboro, West Virginia but moved to China when she was five month old and spent much of the early part of here lfe in o Zhenjiang Province near Nanjing. Nanking. ,In her biography “Pearl Buck in China: Journey to The Good Earth Hilary”, Hilary Spurling wrote: “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.” [Source: Pearl Buck in China: Journey to The Good Earth by Hilary Spurling (Simon & Schuster, 2010)]

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.

Aurel Stein and 20th Century Explorers of the Silk Road

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.

The most prominent of these Western explorers was Sir Aurel Stein (1863-1943), an explorer, linguist and archaeologist who made four expeditions to Central Asia in the early 20th century. Stein was a Jewish and born in Hungary. He pioneered the study of the Silk Road and looted Buddhist art from caves in the western Chinese desert. Accompanied by his dog Dash, he carted away a treasure trove of ancient Buddhist, Chinese, Tibetan and Central Asia art and texts in a number of languages from the ancient city of Dunhuang and gave them to the British Museum.

Image Sources: Ohio State University, Columbia University; Wikipedia

Text Sources: Asia for Educators, Columbia University ; 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 August 2021

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