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The Chinese Enigma

Sinophiles, sinophobes, and others

(Quadrant, June 2002)

The long road back

A tall and increasingly forlorn figure haunted the Staff Club of the University of Sydney for many years. He was known to be a man of the Left. He had written a book called The Chinese Road to Socialism, and had taken a stroll down that road himself. From the unforgiving furnaces of Maoism new men inspired by new non-monetary motives were being forged—or anyway that’s what Ted Wheelwright said. It was heady stuff. In those days, about thirty years ago now, Great Leaps Forward were being announced almost daily, and not only our nation’s athletes were impressed.

Mr Whitlam for example claimed in 1970 (at the height of the Cultural Revolution) that Mao had created “the most just society in modern times, eliminating the wretched poverty that characterizes all other developing nations”, and not content with this announcement, he went on three years later to add an uplifting account of a meeting with Mao Tse Tung. Although millions were dying at Mao’s hands, this well-known Australian had no difficulty benignly assimilating the Chinese leader to a vision of the tall, wise, distingué, scholarly statesman (“much bigger than most of his countrymen”) Gough saw with satisfaction each day in his bedroom mirror:

“We met in his study. It was a warm comfortable room; if it had been any smaller one might have called it a den. There were deep armchairs, and the atmosphere was lived in and engaging . . . Mao rose to meet me and showed me to the chair beside him. He was a much bigger man than most of his countrymen. He was handicapped a little by rheumatism in his feet, for which he apologised, but there was no doubt of his mental vigour and unfailing good humour. I recall a massive smiling countenance and an air of scholarly refinement, as if, for all the courtesy and attention he paid his guests, his mind was still burdened with deeper things. . .”

Interpreting, misinterpreting …

Though perhaps we shouldn’t be too hard on Mr Whitlam. As David Martin Jones explains in The Image of China in Western Social and Political Thought (Palgrave, 2001) westerners have been interpreting, misinterpreting, and reinterpreting China for the last four hundred years—and kow towing to emperors seems to go with the territory. The questions the author seeks to answer in his scholarly and enlightening survey are several. How have European commentators seen the Heavenly Kingdom over the past four centuries? What accounts for the wide variation in their views? Can we hope to see a democratic solution to oriental despotism in our time, or does Chinese political culture present an intractable case for modernization theory?

And what should be said about Edward Said? Are the issues raised by “orientalism” serious, or (as Ernest Gellner remarked) at the very least too important to be left to literary criticism? In a book taking the reader from the sympathetic appreciations of 16th century Jesuits, to the ideological curiosae of Tel Quel in the 1970s, to Samuel Huntington’s latest pronouncements today, David Martin Jones explores these and other issues, valuably bringing to our attention the contributions of numerous historians, officials, and amateur ethnographers of yesteryear.

The Jesuits at the end of the 16th century found Chinese civilization impressive. Fathers Ricci and Ruggieri of the first Jesuit visit (1582-1610) were awed by its great antiquity, and soon translations of the Confucian texts led Europe to seriously consider for the first time China’s moral and political ideas. There were perplexing problems—Chinese chronology traced the first year of the first Emperor to 600 years before the Flood: were the Chinese therefore a pre-Adamitic survival?

Before long there arose a bitter struggle over the tendency to accommodate paganism in the cause of spreading the faith, and “it is quite clear that the Jesuits went to great lengths to place a favourable construction upon Chinese culture and values.” As a result, writes Jones, the 17th-century works of Jesuit scholars like Le Comte, Couplet, Le Gobien, and Du Halde provided Europe “with an abundance of material for philosophic reflection on the nature of  government, tolerance, morality, and the rule of right reason.” If  the Chinese political system was as stable as it seemed, then after the horrors of  the Thirty Years War it was only sensible “to look to China for guidance in the areas of public morality and government.”

This early sinophilia was widely influential. Although Montesquieu, Diderot, and Condorcet were unimpressed by what they heard, Voltaire maintained that toleration was the leading principle of Chinese government; even Adam Smith found much to admire in the agricultural management of the Celestial Kingdom; while the poet Oliver Goldsmith was inspired to portray a wise and tolerant mandarin extolling the virtues of a polity where “the duty of children to their parents, a duty which nature implants in every breast, forms the strength of that government which has subsisted from time immemorial. Filial obedience is the first and greatest requisite of a state . . .”

But according to David Martin Jones “the apotheosis of Chinese influence on European moral, political and economic thought” came in the political economy of Francois Quesnay, for whom China represented the model of a perfectly regulated state. Enlightened European rulers were advised to learn from China, where “ministries of scholars” preserved governments from the follies of their western counterparts :

Ignorance is always the principal cause of the most disastrous errors of government, of the ruin of nations, and of the decadence of empires, from which China has always been so securely preserved by the ministry of scholars, who occupy the foremost rank in the nation and who are as attentive in guiding the people by the light of reason as in subjecting the government to the natural and immutable laws which constitute the essential order of nations.

Much too good to be true

Of course it was all too good to be true, and when the region was opened to European trade visiting merchants and diplomats took a dimmer view of things. What they discovered on the ground in China bore little relation to the dreams of Enlightenment thinkers or the visions of English poets.  Instead of virtuous mandarins they found corrupt officials. Instead of trustworthy traders they found every kind of commercial knavery. Not surprisingly, the first positive interpretations were gradually eclipsed, and before long there was a “radical reversal of Western judgements about almost all aspects of Chinese culture.”

Lord George Macartney’s mission to the Chinese court in 1793-95 produced a variety of books, journals, and commentaries most of which tended to counteract, if not to contradict, the favourable impression created by the Jesuits. Macartney himself considered the Empire a “great machine” that could not endure. It was unlikely that China could move from “slavery to freedom, from dependence to authority . . .  without the expense of many millions of lives.” Complementing these political observations were John Barrow’s strictures in his Travels in China of 1806 on Chinese moral hypocrisy:

The strict morality and ceremonious conduct of the people are followed by a list of the most gross debaucheries; the virtues of the philosophy of the learned are explained by their ignorance and their vices; if in one page they speak of the excessive fertility of the country and the amazing extension of the agriculture, in the next thousands are seen perishing with want; and while they extol with admiration the progress they have made in the arts and sciences, they plainly inform us that without the aid of foreigners they can neither cast a cannon nor calculate an eclipse.

But the most constructive critiques came from the great scholar-administrators of the East India Company, Stamford Raffles, John Crawfurd, William Marsden, and John Bowring. The view of history they shared saw a steady progressive improvement from tribalism, to agrarianism, to modern commercial society, and assumed the paramount value of property rights, free trade, and impartial law. When they found these lacking in China—and they did—they found Chinese civilization wanting.

In recent years, under the influence of Said and others, postcolonial deconstructionists have successfully unmasked  the sinister writings of Raffles and company, Mary Quilty revealing that their analyses “merely served as the basis for enslaving ‘women and non-European races’ as a ‘positive good’.” It is one of the main purposes of this survey to expose the combined stupidity, ignorance, and malevolence of such views. In fact, says David Martin Jones, the point of the critique mounted by Raffles  and Co “was that Asian stagnation, poverty, and underdevelopment, reflected misguided legal and moral understandings that promoted despotism, polygamy, concubinage, female infanticide, and debt and personal slavery.”

Although oriental despots are at least as old as Xerxes, it seems to have been John Crawfurd’s 3-volume History of the Indian Archipelago (1820) that first gave us the phrase “oriental despotism”. And that is what Raffles, Crawfurd, and Bowring saw as the political cause of  “the weakness of moral character, the perverse customs and laws, the underpopulation and the economic and political corruption that pervaded the Far East.”As for Mary Quilty’s deconstructoid charges about the “enslavement” of non-European races, the plain fact is that Stamford Raffles declared slavery a felony when he was Governor of Java, and, in his own words, “had the satisfaction to introduce trial by jury (and) a clear and simple code of laws compiled under my authority . . . ”

Slavery, Raffles said in 1824, “could not be recognized within the jurisdiction of British authority”, and when he acquired Singapore he was delighted that this gave him “a fair opportunity of . . . acting up to our principles.” Under his leadership that island was turned “from a rat infested mangrove swamp into a flourishing multicultural free port, the second most prosperous in the Empire by 1838.”

Marx’s bales of English calico

The energy and optimism of Stamford Raffles is instructive. He showed that with enough determination and practical understanding even the most unpromising circumstances could be overcome; unencumbered by historiosophical ruminations he set about cleaning up his chosen island with a will. But back in Europe, scholars with no direct experience of China were now wavering between the gloomy and the apocalyptic. Marx saw oriental despotism as restraining “the human mind within the smallest possible compass, making it the unresisting tool of superstition, enslaving it beneath traditional rules and depriving it … of all energy.” The slaves of China lived an “undignified, stagnatory and vegetative life” interrupted periodically by savage explosions of “wild, aimless, unbounded acts of destruction.”

Quoting from Marx’s invective, Jones tells us that bourgeois commerce was going to “undermine ‘Asiatic barbarity’ in general, and the ‘rotting semi-civilisation’ of China in particular.” In a well-known passage Marx joyfully announced the

“gratifying fact that the bales of calico of the English bourgeoisie have in eight years brought the oldest and most imperturbable empire on earth to the threshold of a social upheaval, one that will in any case hold most significant consequences for civilisation.”

The outlook of both the Mills and Tocqueville was little brighter. China’s  civilization was seen as arrested, or sleeping, or inert, or mummified. Jones writes that James Mill consistently treated China as a footnote to the subcontinent throughout his History of India, and saw Chinese economic arrangements as autarchic and paralysing. John Stuart Mill said the nation had been “brought to a permanent halt for want of mental liberty and individuality.” Tocqueville wrote how

“when the Europeans first arrived in China. . . they found that almost all the arts had reached a certain degree of perfection… The nation was absorbed in productive industry; the greater part of its scientific processes had been preserved; but science no longer existed there. This served to explain the strangely motionless state in which they found the minds of the people … The spring of human knowledge was all but dry; and through the stream still ran on, it could neither swell its waters, nor alter its channels.”

In short, China was the sort of thing that gives conservatism a bad name. Its ruling class was beyond redemption. Its traditions were sterile routines. Its knowledge was formulaic. Its law was an oppressive ritual devoid of justice, while its social order was sclerotic, impacted, and embalmed. What had once been a theocracy, according to Comte, was now a pedantocracy which could barely remember what it was originally supposed to do. From Marx all the way across the political spectrum to Herbert Spencer and Walter Bagehot, scholars were in broad agreement. Spencer claimed that in Asia “the range and elaborateness of  ceremonial rule had assimilated the control of civil life to the control of military life.”

Maine said that encrusted custom prevented the essential move from status to contract. Bagehot warned of the difficulties of dealing with “one of those immense absolute monarchies which have been so common in oriental civilisation from the beginning”, and whose arrangements “were founded with singular ease and endured with marvellous tenacity.” As the English knew, the effective remedy for intransigeant absolute monarchy was dire.

The pendulum swings back

But just as the optimistic visions of the Enlightenment were too good to be true, the pessimism of these 19th-century thinkers was too profound to be entirely credible, and several writers now appeared to promote a more positive image of Chinese life. And just as the direct experience of visitors was needed to correct the philosophers of the Enlightenment, the direct experience of long administrative years in the Far East gave these new commentaries a stronger sense of the particular, the local, and the real. Herbert Giles was an administrator-sinologist who developed, with T. F. Wade, the Wade-Giles system for romanizing Chinese characters.

Whatever J. S. Mill might think, Giles stressed that although China was theoretically an autocracy, “even the meanest subject of the Son of Heaven enjoys a large measure of personal freedom.” Whatever Walter Bagehot might say, the success of imperial rule owed little to despotism, and much to “rule by moral force, coupled with the institution of public examinations.” Moreover, the penal code was slackly enforced, taxes were light, and the people were “exceptionally law abiding.”

Archibald Colquhoun was a former Deputy Commissioner to Burma who served as special correspondent of The Times in the Far East. In his 1898 book China in Transformation he admitted that the central bureaucracy was disfigured by corruption and lack of initiative. But away from the political centre he found that local self-government was alive and well. With the decadence of the civil administration, however, local institutions were forced to robustly defend themselves against tyranny. That is why open rebellion was becoming a regular occurrence. In Colquhuon’s view the lack of effective popular representation is what legitimated an increasing recourse to violence. Thus, he wrote, “the ultimate remedy in the West, is the proximate remedy in the East, for want of any adequate intermediate machinery of redress.”

This might be so, but it could hardly solve the problems of government. And although a collection of ‘China hands’ were now providing “increasingly detailed accounts of the geography, industry, government and diplomacy of the decaying Celestial Empire”, the unblinkable fact was that this decay could not be stopped. The forces acting on China were those of industrial modernization, forces the Manchu dynasty could neither direct nor delay. After 1900, for fifty years, the image of a giant awaking from its slumbers continued to be used over and over, but what would it do when it awakened? The words of a Chinese official in 1860 were portentous: “You had better let us sleep on; if you awaken us, we’ll go further and faster then you like.”

In the second half of his book David Martin Jones,  Senior Lecturer in the Department of Government at the University of Tasmania, (now at the University of Queensland, RS) considers the American discussion of modernization and what it means, concluding with the latest thoughts of Francis Fukuyama and Samuel Huntington. The salience of familism, bureaucracy, and centralised top-down rule make China a test case for modernization theory. Familism in particular is seen as threatening since it colonises modern organizations like a virus, nepotistically corrupting from within.

In retrospect, much American modernization theory seems to this reviewer trite and truistic (education, democratisation, and institutional pluralism were regularly discovered to be essential to modernization). You might have read everything Lerner and Pye and Rostow and others ever wrote (and I certainly haven’t), but did any of them contemplate the well-educated and technically trained scions of  the Islamic bourgeoisie adopting a form of religious nihilism and revenging themselves on Manhattan?

Today these authors seem a bit unimaginative. They appear to have been largely blind to ressentiment as a byproduct of the modernization process: such things were simply not on the agenda. They seemed unaware that the arrival of Hegel’s “unhappy consciousness” among the newly educated would prove every bit as damaging as the more tangible incapacities of the illiterate.

Couldn’t they have foreseen that without a very deep cultural and cognitive transformation, and a decisive move beyond tribal allegiances, nations which were formerly well-run, prosperous, and tolerably healthy, and which in West Africa in 1960 had much of the infrastructure for modern life, might in forty years descend into irretrievable political chaos and economic ruin? American optimism is a splendid thing. Most of the time it is beneficial, and there are parts of the world where more of it is sorely needed. But it can lead to disappointment on a cosmic scale.

The documents contradict Edward Said

The author of this valuable, wide-ranging, and occasionally acerbic study judiciously alternates between optimists and pessimists, between the understandings of the sinophiles looking on the bright side and the sinophobes who usually feared the worst. Much of his documentation directly contradicts the travesties popularised by Edward Said: his book is therefore required reading for those infected by Saidian doctrine.

Over a period of four centuries an immense body of knowledge about Asian societies, much of it more objective than might have been expected in the circumstances, was built up by European scholars, missionaries, and administrators, and David Martin Jones does us all a service in these denigratory times by bringing them to our attention, and honoring their contributions as they properly deserve to be honored.

Yet in 2002 a key background issue still remains unanswered: will civil society as known in the West finally emerge in China? Are its rulers ever going to accept freedom of association as the basis of political life? Or going to grant the civil rights and judicial independence which indispensably accompany it? Or is a modern version of oriental despotism to persist for ever?

But then your true enthusiasts, like Mr Wheelwright and Mr Whitlam in years gone by, never allowed dismally despotic foreground cruelties to distract them from uplifting futurological views. Perhaps we might close by supplementing their observations circa 1970 with those of Julia Kristeva about the same time, if only because the ecstasy she embodies seems so curiously close to their own essential point of view. In China, she wrote in 1974, “the die is cast. . . for a socialism without God or Man, which will accompany, at a distance, the perilous, unprecedented renaissance of a new humanity which is gathering momentum.”

And maybe it is. China-watching is an inexact science. We shall see.

Posted in For the Record.

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