Victorian and Edwardian views of China

This article from SACU's China Now magazine in 1988 surveys how the English viewed China one hundred years ago.

'Solicitously avoiding reality'

Victorian and Edwardian images of China and the Chinese supply a rich storehouse for students of cultural relativism. Not many English knew the country or had encountered its people. There were few experts to guide, and some of those who did guide were not expert.

G E ('Chinese') Morrison, The Times' influential Peking correspondent, was an Australian adventurer without reading or spoken knowledge of Chinese. English scholarship in Chinese artefacts was so sketchy as to license frauds to flourish, like Edmund Backhouse. The "School of Oriental Studies" was founded only in 1916; simultaneously, a new generation of classical Chinese scholars was emerging, led by an Assistant Keeper of the British Museum, Arthur Waley.

Waley it was who during and after the Great War was largely responsible for popularizing the range and achievements of classical Chinese poetry. Privately, he was contemptuous of the supposed Sinologists who had preceded him and who pontificated about this or that aspect of Chinese life, literature and politics; but he would not supplant them himself, preferring to cling to Bloomsbury. One of his friends, Peter Quennell, recalled that Waley refused all invitations to visit China because he was reluctant to destroy visionary images of its past which he had constructed. In this abstention at least, Waley shared the attitudes of most English towards China: reality was something they sought solicitously to avoid.

Ignorance and bliss

Those who indeed visited China were a predictable set - servicemen, diplomats, merchants and missionaries. There were never enough of the last two to advance the Victorian belief that through the evangel of commerce and Christianity, darkness would be dispelled from modern China. The Times' special correspondent in Hong Kong during the second Anglo-China war (1856-8) George Wingrove Cooke, described 'our great ignorance of China' as 'humiliating':

'Even of that great conglomerate of cities on the Yangtse we know little more than that it is the commercial emporium of central China, and that its population is variously estimated at from five to eight millions of souls. We know that it exists, and that is nearly all we know. No one has been there except native Chinamen and Jesuit missionaries'. He appealed to British merchants to break through 'the brigand bureaucracy' which enclosed China and retarded free trade; but the next half-century was to confirm that no substantial revolution occurred.

God and mammon

Aside from a number of specialist carriers, and the late-nineteenth century surge of banking, mineral and railway concessions - the first Chinese railway was not opened before 1888 - China remained basically unexploited by British businessmen and investors. Only 3 percent of British overseas investments in 1914 were located in China. Certainly, Britain enjoyed an overall surplus in the Anglo-China balance of trade but most of the high expectations were never realised since all trade with China was subject to violent fluctuations of an almost Malthusian kind, from wars, plagues and famines as well as from exchange rate disturbances in gold-silver ratios. The trade moreover was concentrated at the treaty ports; interior China was still virtually unpenetrated by westerners in 1900, and the legendary inscrutability of the Chinese survived sufficiently to warrant the joke current during the Boxer rising, that England was in conflict against another lot of Boers, with the addition of 'x', the unknown quantity.

The missionaries made even less impact than the merchants. Buddhism prevailed among Chinese religions, Confucianism and Daoism among philosophies. Even among the minority religions, Christianity scarcely made a showing: there were probably twenty times more Muslims than Christians in China in 1900. Christians never comprised more than one percent of Chinese, which the Boxer rising reduced by the subtraction of some 30,000 martyrs. Moreover, the majority of Chinese Christians were Catholic, amounting to perhaps one-and-a-half million by 1914. Protestants, by contrast, numbered 190,000 though the figure is nominal and may include mere attenders at missionary schools.

Palmerston and Cobden
'What can you say for your friends now, Richard?'
UK Prime Minister Palmerston is addressing
the Sinophile Richard Cobden with the atrocities
of the Taiping Rebellion depicted behind.

Opium and the masses

The ambition of converting China to Protestant Christianity was thus vain, though still more effort was put into it by (largely) American missionaries, who grew from 800 in 1890 to 3,000 in 1919, by which time Canterbury had sanctioned the evolution of the Chinese dioceses into an autonomous Anglican Communion (1912) and allowed the consecration of the first Chinese-born assistant bishop who spoke no English (1918). Fantasies about mass conversions had, however, in the past placed English Protestants in moral confusion. The campaign against the opium trade (not formally abolished until 1913) was spearheaded by Quakers who did not generally receive the backing of the chief Nonconformist sects because they feared to undermine a commercial and political involvement with China which might expedite missionary work.

In the absence, then, of any extensive contacts with China, the educated English constructed their own images of the country and its people from a hazy knowledge of history, from cultural impressions, and from philosophical preconceptions. The favourable was represented mostly by the fashions for Chinese landscapes and architecture, for Chinese horticulture (clematis and rhododendron), for China tea (though overtaken by India and Ceylon), and for Chinese porcelain, silks and furniture. That China had once led in science and technology, inventing paper, printing, gunpowder, cannons, compasses, and so forth, was well known to Macaulay's schoolboy who might also allow that China's production of humanistic scholarship was astonishing, having, until the mid-eighteenth century, more books than the entire rest of the world. But there the wholehearted appreciation ended.

Bound head and foot

The mass of Chinese were illiterate and study and writing were apparently confined to a mandarin civil service, entry to which was judged by the same examination set for over a millennium until 1905. Here, surely, was a society which had somehow got stuck, indeed perhaps deliberately maimed itself. The symbol of the Chinese lady's compressed foot exercised a powerful hold upon western intellectuals as they wrestled with the riddle of China's arrested development. That, and the long, uncut talons of fingernails worn by the nobility, clearly indicating their unfitness and contempt for manual labour, inspired Thorstein Veblen to expound 'The Theory of the Leisure Class' (1899). But he noted provocatively, as he coined the phrase 'conspicuous consumption', that the wasp waist which had such vogue among well-bred western women was an equivalent deformity, an unnatural ideal of beauty sanctioned only by the requirements of pecuniary hubris.

This was why western intellectuals paid such attention to China. They were oppressed by the knowledge that once great empires, Greek, Roman, Persian, Indian, Ottoman and Chinese, had collapsed and decayed. Unlike Africa, presumed always to be savage, China was known to have been a superior civilization, conspicuous for its achievements in art and science; now it was at best a stationary state and probably regressing to barbarism. England, of course, was also a conservative society which valued its aristocracy and its continuity with the past. The trick was, how to prevent conservatism from fossilizing so that industrial and commercial dynamism might still flourish within a framework of constitutional and social stability. China, therefore, was a warning mirror for British philosophers and politicians, a standing example of what to avoid.

Yangzi gorge
Punch cartoon 1860

Parasitic stagnation

The empirical reasons for China's stagnation seemed not hard to find. The absurdly archaic language impeded communication and condemned the mass to social immobility; the degenerate religions licensed superstition and prohibited rigorous philosophical inquiry; the effete central government provoked wasteful civil wars; the parasitic nobility enthroned punctiliousness and lethargy; and the corrupt bureaucracy institutionalized evasiveness and torpor. The people themselves were sunk in the stupidity of sterile ancestor-worship and unremitting manual toil or else prone to orgies of cruelty, fits of gambling and drug-induced reveries.

This prejudicial account became systemized from mid-Victorian times as recent biological science apparently supplied the explanatory key. The social Darwinists from Herbert Spencer onwards adumbrated 'laws' of natural selection which satisfactorily explained why only western societies maintained spontaneous progress, individual initiative, civil liberties, social diversity, and wealth creation, while most oriental states became stupefied by custom. The late-nineteenth century imperialism of the western powers, therefore, according to this supposition, was but an expression and release of productive energies which might stir from their sleep and move to improvement vassal societies like China. Thus Lord Salisbury, Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary, used a Darwinian vocabulary in reference to the prospective partition of China in 1898 when he divided the world into 'living' and 'dying' nations.

Democratic flogging

This orthodoxy did not go unchallenged, although curiously Darwin and Spencer exercised the most pervasive influence upon Chinese intellectuals and radical politicians in the period before 1917 and the Russian Revolution, inspiring them with the prospect of directing a national cultural evolution. Perhaps George Bernard Shaw was not paying much of a compliment when he praised the Chinese for being 'inveterately democratic' because, in their navy, they flogged their admirals as well as ordinary seamen.

But J A Hobson's indictment of Imperialism (1902) was marked by a refusal to accept Chinese 'inferiority'. Like many a Ruskinian affronted by the materialism of western industrialized societies, Hobson was attracted by China's arcadian aspect: the simple needs and quiet dignity of its peasantry, their religious tolerance, respect for learning, aesthetic craftsmanship, all untroubled by an inquisitorial central state 'China may be described properly as a huge nest of little free village communes, self-governing, and animated by a genuine spirit of equality'. Hobson drew this utopian picture for two reasons: one, to shame those western imperial nations which seemed set to rape and partition China; two, to warn that if ever this healthy, land-bred, low-paid Chinese labour was harnessed by capitalist organization the living standards of western industrial workers would suffer:

'The pressure of working-class movements in politics and industry in the West can be met by a flood of China goods, so as to keep wages down and compel industry, or, where the Power of the imperialist oligarchy is well set, by menaces of yellow workmen or of yellow mercenary troops...'

Migrants and labour

It was at this point that images of China held by both informed and ignorant Englishmen converged. China's largest domestic product and most sinister export was people: cheap, docile, even servile labour. Punch might joke that the real Yellow Peril which England faced was fog, but its humour was not shared by the trade union delegation which, having visited the Federation of American Labour (FAL), reported to the 1902 TUC that 'the menace of the Asiatic degraded labour is a very serious matter' and that the FAL 'has done splendid work for exclusion of Chinese'. The last was a reference to the 1882 Exclusion Act, the fruit of the California Workingmen's Party; likewise, they understood that the Federation of Australia in 1901 was based upon the White Australia dogma. By contrast, the TUC criticized the British Colonial Office for not guarding Canada in the same way and especially for the introduction of Chinese to work the Transvaal mines in the aftermath of the South African war, thus 'ruining the prospects of white labour'. The TUC alerted the workmen of Britain to realise what it would mean to have 'a horde of Chinamen introduced to take their place'.

In fact, the Chinese-born in England and Wales in 1901 - a mere 545 - was less than in 1881 (when they numbered 665), though they were to grow to 1,319 in 1911 and to 2,419 in 1921. But the threat the Chinese posed was not thereby circumscribed because in a number of trades and locations Chinese competition was highly visible. The straw plait industry suffered from cheap Chinese imports, and seamen's unions were concerned about the employment of Chinese crews in the Far Eastern trade. Many Chinese seamen, it was suspected, jumped ship in England, thus escaping detection by the census enumerators and magnifying their actual settlement in the 'Chinatowns' of London's Limehouse, and in Liverpool, Cardiff and Bristol. These communities were predominantly male and, as Bret Harte's jingle poetry complained, 'the heathen Chinese' possessed ways that were more peculiar than pleasant.

Wishy-washy prejudices

A vicious legend arose about the diseased, promiscuous, hypnotic oriental, who ate cats and rats, gambled inveterately and was addicted to opium. Their laundries - chief on-shore Chinese employment before catering superseded it after 1945 - were commonly assumed to be mere facades for unspeakable vices; in any event, they deprived poor white working-class women of an important source of supplementary income and, significantly, were targets for destruction by riotous seamen during the 1911 transport strikes. The Chinese were thus super-added to the anti-alien platform of those beleaguered domestic trades which had first mounted an agitation against the pauper East European Jewish immigration from the 1880s.

What gave the Chinese a special salience was the perversion of romantic fiction into a thriller literature, led by M. P. Shiel's The Yellow Danger (1898) and extended by 'Sax Rohmer' (pen-name of Arthur Henry Ward) in The Mystery of Dr Fu-Manchu (1913). This elevated the issue to a hysterical level of world conspiracy, racial purity, and sorcery combined with science.

A low journalist, Ward informed his biographer that, though he knew something about Chinatown, he knew nothing about the Chinese. This, in its way, was fitting. It is proof of a general proposition about people, that they never let ignorance stand in the way of their expressing opinion. And it suggests, for those who want to unravel the psychopathology of English attitudes to the Chinese, that they will probably find more answers to their questions in England than in China.