First Impressions of Chinese about the West

China's introduction to Europe was a bewildering experience. R.G. Tiedemann, a lecturer at "S.O.A.S. University of London" describes how it was not just the gunboats which shook Chinese civilisation. First published in China Now magazine 1992.

First impressions

The intellectual discovery of Europe was a traumatic event for imperial China. It shattered entrenched notions of a centrality and superiority which had intensified after China's retreat into isolation in the fifteenth century, since the self-contained Chinese world order denied the existence of a civilisation other than their own there had been little inclination to find out about the outside world. Unwilling to concede that the Western barbarians were different from the peoples living on China's periphery, its scholar elite saw no need to study distant Europe. This lack of intellectual curiosity in things foreign remained a dominant theme in the history of late imperial China.

Thus, when the powerful Westerners first appeared in force, they were ill prepared to cope with this disturbing intrusion. Because their knowledge about these 'outer barbarians' was so limited and outdated, China's ruling class had no idea of the power or extent of the new forces which were threatening the empire. The prevailing view was limited and simplistic: since the European did not understand the Chinese values and norms, it was proof that they were not civilised but only motivated by crude instinctive desires.

The forceful intrusion of the West into the Chinese world at the time of the opium wars challenged this notion. It now emerged that the foreigners were also found to be cunning, intelligent and 'unpredictable' in their negotiations. Yet only a few enlightened men, such as the much maligned Lin Zexu, began to consider the West more seriously. Lin's subordinate, Wei Yuan, observed in his famous 'Illustrated gazetteer of Maritime Countries' (1844):

Do we honestly know that among the visitors from afar there are people who understand propriety and practice righteousness, who possess knowledge of astronomy and geography, who are well versed in things material and events of past and present? They are extraordinarily talented and should be considered as our good friends. How can they be called 'barbarians'?

But even this grudging concession that China was not the only civilisation had to be explained in traditional terms. Thus Wei Yuan, a reformist spirit with some admiration for Western technology, asserted that European power derived from the translation of the Confucian classics into Latin, which he claimed had helped Jesus to found the Christian religion. This seems to have been the beginning of a school of thought which believed that Chinese civilisation was the origin of all other civilisations.

Foreign Devil
The Foreign Devil or yang guizi

In some Chinese eyes Westerners were seen as hairy, foul breathed monsters rather than members of the same species.

Chinese officials travel abroad

After 1860, when China was weakened by massive internal rebellions as well as further Western aggression, a relatively small group of influential officials - the so-called 'Western Affairs group'- began to advocate policies to discover the secrets of Western wealth and power. They wanted to adopt superior technology in order to defend and preserve the traditional Confucian values. As part of this 'self strengthening' policy, the West became more accessible to literate Chinese through a variety of translation projects. But more importantly, official missions and resident ministers were sent abroad to assemble first-hand knowledge of the West. The first envoys to the outer fringes of the known world were required to keep diaries while abroad. When these were published, they provided vivid images of alien societies to a larger literate audience.

The official travellers made observations on many strange aspects of European life. For mandarins accustomed to travelling in sedan chairs or cramped and slow houseboats, the voyage in a luxury ocean liner must have been a novel experience in itself. Jerome Ch'en summarises Binchun's first impressions in 1866:

'Exceedingly clean, the Westerner spat only into a spittoon and flushed the water closet each time he used it. At dinner, ladies took their seats before men; no one overate; and everyone talked right through the meal. Soup was never sucked in audibly; nor was food chewed noisily. Everyone treasured his privacy to such an extent that his door was always closed and no one could enter without knocking on it and obtaining his permission first.'

His youthful companion, Zhang Deyi, provides much detail on a busy schedule all over Europe, with a frivolous interest in trivia. Everything delighted and astonished him, from the railway at Suez to the lifts and hot-and-cold plumbing systems in hotels. Although garbled and only half-understood, these two journals must nevertheless have been of considerable importance as the first authentic accounts of a civilisation comparable to that of China.

The journals of Guo Songtao and Liu Xihong, the first two Chinese ministers sent to London in late 1876, provide more detailed and contrasting observations of the totally alien civilisation that was Europe. Liu was decidedly conservative in outlook and quite bewildered by Western ways:

'Everything in England is the opposite of China .... This is because their country is situated below the centre of the earth. Over them hangs the sky above the far side of the earth. That is why their customs and systems are all topsy-turvy. Even the day and the night are reversed.'

To his credit, he was rather more objective in his observations and less bigoted and intolerant than the great majority of European missionaries, merchants and officials in China. Thus, he described with passionate detachment the social customs that were at variance from the Confucian values and norms.

Since the two ministers soon 'became the lions of London society that season', Liu had frequent occasion to observe English behaviour at parties. 'In the homes of various Ministries of this country, there are always ballrooms for solemn gatherings, as if they consider dancing an essential part of their official business.' He noted that men danced in flesh coloured tights and the ladies 'displayed half their upper body, bosom and back, and rubbed shoulders and feet in the hall with the men, with whom they often shook hands.' His conservative readers back home must have been puzzled by these Western social customs.

Elgin in Beijing
In 1860, Lord Elgin is carried in state into Beijing after the defeat of China (in the 2nd Opium War).

Spiritual pollution

While acknowledging the technological achievements of the West, Liu insisted that they were not for the Chinese.

'The sage king and wise ministers of China's successive dynasties have not been inferior to those of the West in their talents and wisdoms, but they never had the presumption to use clever tricks to scrape the heavens and dissect the earth, competing with Nature in order to attain wealth and strength.'

There was however another, more fundamental issue here. Like other Chinese conservatives, and unlike the self-strengtheners, Liu realised that it was not possible for China to accept only what it wanted from the West and reject the rest, for one change would entail another and eventually destroy the Confucian order. Hence Western things and ideas had to be rejected in their entirety.

It is remarkable that Guo Songtao came to exactly the opposite conclusion. Progressive in outlook, he was more receptive to change and viewed a totally alien culture with considerable sympathy. He observed that 'the nations of Europe do have insight into what is essential and what is not and possess a Way of their own which assists them in the acquisition of wealth and power.' Guo was impressed by the fact that it was founded on first principles of justice, order, discipline, honour and integrity. His call to emulate the positive developments in the West obviously had revolutionary implications and was unpalatable to the Confucian zealots. To admire the technology of the West was dangerous enough, but to assert the existence of a civilisation morally equivalent to China undermined completely China's claim to superiority. His diary was, therefore, condemned as 'Western poison'. An irate memorialist claimed that Guo 'is deceitful about England and wishes China to be subject to her'. In the end his diary was banned and the printing plates destroyed.

As long as obscurantism and irrational bellicosity remained a dominant characteristic of the Chinese ruling class, the reports of progressive observers in foreign lands had little impact. Thus upon his return to China in 1878 Guo Songtao went into retirement and obscurity. Nor were Western-educated men such as Rong Hong [Yung Wing], Wang Tao or Wu Tingfang in a position to bridge the gap between Chinese and Western values. Their background and unorthodox education placed them on the margins of the existing order. Similarly, when the American-returned students arrived in Shanghai in 1882, they were treated with suspicion and kept under police surveillance for two weeks before being allowed to leave for home.

By the 1890s the Chinese had acquired some knowledge of Western science and industry, less of Western law and institutions, and virtually none of Western philosophy, art and literature. During the early phase of contact cultural conditioning made it impossible to accept the notion of a developed Europe. Later the fear of losing the 'Chinese essence' precluded the adoption of viable systems. Even enlightened reformers such as Zhang Zhidong continued to insist that the supremacy of Confucianism could not be conceded to any other ideology and the policy of the Confucian empire could not be changed. It was not until the humiliating crisis of 1895 that China was forced to open her mind to new philosophies that might provide the basis for a new policy. Yet the basic contradiction of 'open door' versus 'spiritual pollution' has remained an enduring feature of Chinese society.