Title

Still Mysterious

Within mainland China today the ratio of Westerners to Chinese is probably no greater than it was in Marco Polo’s time seven hundred years ago. Sino-foreign contact is so minimal that it almost meets the old Taoist stay-at-home ideal, “to live hearing the dogs bark in the next village but never go there.” Peking and Washington indeed monitor each other’s barking, but they meet only in Poland. How long can China and the USA, set as they are behind their respective defenses of Mao-inspired manpower and electronic super-weapons, continue to grow in population and in power and yet coexist in peace?

One answer to calm our fears is that modern technology, as it spreads, will give us common circumstances and a common view. This happy day seems far off, but we may still take a quizzical interest in the flow of material technology from the Western world into China. Representing Victorian “progress,” it tore the old China apart. Today it fuels Communist China’s anti-imperialism. (How indignant we could feel if only we could blame urbanization, traffic, jet noises, and even drug abuse and the wildness of youth, all on foreign invaders!) How China acquired Western technology and what she did with it is an absorbing story that bears on our future relations.

Jonathan Spence of Yale, a rising star on the horizon of Chinese historiography, is best known for his Sinological yet fascinating account of the relations between the first great Manchu emperor and one of his Chinese bond-servants who rose high serving the Manchu conquerors (Ts’ao Yin and the K’ang-hsi Emperor: Bond Servant and Master1). Mr. Spence has now produced a delightful study of sixteen Westerners, of various countries and callings, who spent time in China as “foreign advisers.” The selected sixteen range from Jesuit fathers of the seventeenth century to military figures of World War II—Chennault, Stilwell, Wedemeyer. Much of each story is told in the man’s own words, for Mr. Spence, a skilled craftsman, lets his advisers speak for themselves. The result is a fascinating popular book.

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The persistent theme of To Change China: Western Advisers in China 1620-1960 is the conflict between Western and Chinese values, specifically between the aims of the foreigners and those of their Chinese employer-advisees, at the same time as they find a common if temporary bond in technology. The foreigners’ skills are needed and appreciated, but they themselves frequently wind up side-tracked as mere technicians, unable to change China as they had hoped. Thus the Jesuit fathers Adam Schall (born 1592) and Ferdinand Verbiest (b. 1623) tried to bring China “to God through the stars” by establishing themselves in the imperial palace as court astronomers. They make some conversions and have some influence, but in the end find they have been so busy as astronomers they have advanced Christianity rather little. Similarly the Protestant pioneer, Peter Parker (b. 1804) seeks with true Yale enthusiasm to win Canton for Christ by opening a hospital and operating skillfully on scores of patients daily. China does not come his way, however. After the Opium War the Cantonese grow hostile; Parker becomes a diplomat and therefore a frustrated man.

In the 1860s the American adventurer from Salem, Frederick Townsend Ward, and Britain’s man of destiny, Charles George Gordon, both help to defend Shanghai against the Taiping rebels. Their skills in training a Chinese force and leading it in amphibious warfare in the Yangtze delta bring them Chinese honors and Western renown, but Ward is killed and Gordon is outraged by Li Hung-chang’s lack of chivalry toward the defeated rebel commanders. (Li had them beheaded.) Horatio Nelson Lay organizes the Chinese Imperial Maritime Customs Service but is soon dismissed for his high-handedness. The more astute Robert Hart, who succeeds him, builds it in forty-five years into a great international civil service. Yet the Boxer rising of 1900 finds Hart beseiged in the Peking legations like any other foreigner. Hart sees in the Boxer xenophobia “today’s hint to the future…. In fifty year’s time there will be millions of Boxers…armed, drilled, disciplined, and animated by patriotic—if mistaken—motives, [who] will make residence in China impossible for foreigners, will take back from foreigners everything foreigners have taken from China, [and] will pay off old grudges with interest.”

In the same fashion, other teachers, translators, and administrators—W. A. P. Martin, John Fryer, Edward Hume of Yale-in-China—find their abilities used but themselves, after long years of service, out of date and discarded. The Comintern organizer, Mikhail Borodin, the American hydraulic engineer, O. J. Todd, and the Canadian surgeon, Norman Bethune, experience similar transitory successes. Finally the American generals of the 1940s are followed by the Soviet technicians of the 1950s, but both wind up in Chairman Mao’s dustbin of history.

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Mr. Spence concludes that “the Westerners had presented their expertise as the wrapping around an ideological package and had tried to force the Chinese to accept both together.” It didn’t work. The Westerners became emotionally involved, while the Chinese “had a contractual view of the relationship.” The foreign advisers wanted to help, and to them that meant “making China more like the West.” The foreigners also found their personal satisfactions. China gave them opportunity, “freedom of maneuver, a chance to influence history by the force of personality.” But in the end most of them were “swallowed by their own technique” and found their expectations unrealized. Some worked all the harder; others left in anger, disgust, or disenchantment.

All these advisers were supremely confident, either in themselves or in what they represented. They had something to offer China. “Many Westerners,” says Mr. Spence, “still share these assumptions…. But for China the cycle is over…. China which once surpassed the West, then almost succumbed to it, now offers to the world her own solutions.” Thus we can close the book on the two and a half centuries during which China had something to learn from the West.

But will the book stay closed? Will the new China, modern and competent, now go it alone? One may hope so but still wonder. Mr. Spence has given us his men’s careers with such fascinating first-person detail that he has left his own comments rather marginal. Undoubtedly his sixteen people are representative of their kind. One can think of many others like them: other Jesuits, other Protestants (Robert Morrison, Arthur H. Smith), other educators and administrators (J. Leighton Stuart, Roger S. Greene), recent workers in Peking (Rewi Alley, George Hatem). But if we accept Mr. Spence’s pattern, we must ask what are its special features, other than those of Western technological superiority and China’s determination to catch up in her own fashion?

First I would suggest that the Spencerian pattern of Chinese response to Western technology but not to Western values is a symptom of a quite specific situation, The point here is China’s cultural imperviousness. This is due not only to her enormous mass and continuity in established ways, which together create a formidable inertial momentum. It is due also to a paradox: that China’s backwardness in material technology in the nineteenth century was due, in a curious way, to her early technical superiority over the West. Early China’s material supremacy was indicated not only in her well-known inventions like porcelain, silk, paper, printing, gunpowder, and a great many other things, but also to her inventions in political institutions. The early growth of bureaucracy, the establishment, for example, of the T’ang dynasty censorate and the examination system, all contributed to a strong political entity, the Chinese state and culture, with an inveterate ideal of unity and a compelling sense of Chinese identity. China was the center. There was no need to go abroad, for the main opportunity was at home. Foreign trade was unimportant. Under imperial Confucianism the polity dominated the economy. All this added up to a great sense of self-sufficiency and superiority. In short, China was her own oecumene.

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The one disturbing element on the outer horizon—the fact that the Middle Kingdom was periodically overrun by mounted archers from Mongolia—had been a perpetual motif from earliest times. It meant that the Western advisers of recent centuries were the inheritors of a tradition. The Chinese within the Wall had long since learned how to use “barbarians” against “barbarians,” how to “use the strong points of barbarians to control them.” They had also learned how to live under foreign conquerors from beyond the Wall. Non-Chinese might be accepted as invader-conquerors, as were the Mongols and the Manchus among many others, but they remained foreigners, unless and until they became Chinese in thought and conduct. China was not a country that took in immigrants on any other basis. But China increasingly in the last thousand years has taken in foreign conquerors willy-nilly, and foreign conquerors have known how to use other foreigners. The great-great-grandfather of all Mr. Spence’s foreign advisers was Marco Polo, that employee of the Mongol, Khubilai Khan, who helped him rule the Middle Kingdom.

The role of foreign adviser had developed in tandem with that of the Chinese adviser who helped the foreign invader of China. Hundreds of these Chinese appear in the record. The Inner Asian “barbarians,” for all their striking-power, still needed bureaucrats to run the country. The prototype of these men is the famous Yeh-lu Ch’uts’ai, who advised Genghis Khan. (He is one of the flock of historic individuals who are said to have advised one emperor or another that “the empire can be conquered on horseback but it cannot be ruled on horseback.”)

All this use of foreigners—be they powerholders who are advised by Chinese how to govern, or other foreigners who advise the governors—shows the Chinese style in adjusting to outside contact and foreign influence. In this stay-at-home style, little effort is made to send Chinese abroad to acquire the foreign technology at its source. It is noteworthy that not only the Jesuits but also Parker, Martin, Fryer, Lay, Hart, Ward, and Gordon were all used as foreign advisers in China before Chinese statesmen got around to sending their first batch of Chinese trainees abroad to the Connecticut Valley under the famous Yung Wing in 1872. This was symptomatic of a defensive, not an expansive, empire, of a self-sufficient, not an adventurous and acquisitive, society. For contrast, one has only to think of Japan, where the youthful ex-samurai Ito and Inouye saw London long before the Restoration of 1868 and, indeed, partly for that reason brought it about.

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Still another perspective must be applied to Mr. Spence’s record: the foreign advisers in China from 1620 to 1960 were frustrated in part because the Chinese themselves were being repeatedly frustrated. In fact, frustration is the chief feature of Chinese history since 1840; and it is not yet at an end. Note how little and late has been the adoption of Western science and technology throughout this period. The opportunity to catch up with Western science offered by the early Jesuits was not seized. The hospitals of Parker and Hume were not soon imitated. H. N. Lay’s navy was refused, later navies were sunk in 1884 and 1894, and where is the Chinese navy today? It took Hart thirty years to get even the Imperial Post Office established. W. A. P. Martin’s modern university never really came into being until 1917 at Peita. It was not only Mikhail Borodin who was frustrated in the 1920s; the Communist revolution was held up for twenty years. Neither the American military of the 1940s nor the Soviet military of the 1950s was able to implant a professional officer corps—a fact which is no doubt to China’s credit but must be recognized as a frustration of her military power. No doubt the Chinese atomic and hydrogen bombs are symbols of her coming of age, but the material level of the people as a whole is woefully far behind that of the Soviet citizenry, to say nothing of the Japanese, who had an equal start.

Mr. Spence sees his Western advisers as part of a Western expansion which was essentially aggressive and may as well be called imperialism. Granting all that, should we not look also at the other side and see that China’s cultural impermeability was at first as big a fact as Western aggression? From this point of view China’s ethnocentricity, her self-concern and inveterate self-absorption, meant that Western technology could come in only slowly and Western values hardly at all. Part of this peculiar situation no doubt traces back to the overriding Chinese problem of unity, in particular the necessity of orthodoxy, a united view and a collective will, all needed to keep the Chinese state intact. This habitual Confucian drive to maintain the social order meant that outside stimuli were ipso facto disequilibrating. The latest example has been Chairman Mao’s Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, a movement to save China by reviving spiritual unity, togetherness, and revolutionary ardor, rather than to maximize material production by technical expertise.

To Change China illustrates how China’s self-absorbed cultural vitality contributed to the exhilaration and emotional involvement of her foreign advisers. Playing a distinct role, given their place in the Chinese social order, they were all part-way participants in the great drama of Chinese life. Each had his own cultural sanctuary, his inner spiritual resources or at least his prospects of returning to Sussex or Connecticut in case of need. Most fascinating of all was to be a member of the Chinese ruling class, if only temporarily. The Jesuits were an elite who sought out their counterparts, but most of the nineteenth-century Englishmen and Americans were either from middle-class Britain or democratic America. In either case they had that most enjoyable imperialist experience—to be privileged in fact without the moral odium of asking for it.

The successors to Mr. Spence’s advisers, as importers of Western technology, have been the Chinese students trained abroad, a breed now no longer being produced on the Mainland, but only in Taiwan and overseas. They are studied in massive and useful detail in Y. C. Wang’s Chinese Intellectuals and the West 1872-1949.2 Professor Wang asserts that “by its very nature Confucian society was a closed system that sought stability at the expense of material progress.” He sees the Western-trained technical specialists as a new elite who have taken the place of the old Confucian “scholar-moralists.” Tracing the slow stages by which the Chinese empire gradually began to send students abroad, he summarizes the careers of great numbers of this new elite and notes the ills that beset them—cultural alienation, hare-brained Westernization, wholesale condemnation of the national heritage, and estrangement from rural China, where the Chinese people still lived in their crumbling villages. Thoroughly upset by their experience of cultural ambivalence, the new technicians in Western ways attacked the old learning and the old order in general. At first they were rebuffed and put down, but as they gradually gained influence, Mr. Wang sees China becoming more and more demoralized and slipping into revolution. Many of the Westernized leaders are a sorry lot: Sun Yat-sen, for example, was remarkably ignorant and his thinking suffered from “inconsistency arising from intellectual indigestion.” He had few moral scruples and he never really confronted the peasant problem. Meanwhile those Western-returned students who avoided politics were better educated but remained “politically weak.” Neither the political nor the academic wing of the May Fourth Movement, after its split about 1921, could lead China out of the intellectual wilderness.

Mr. Wang concludes that Western education produced specialists and technicians but prepared no one to supplant the scholar-moralists who had held the old China together. The new elite could not stretch their Western technology to reach the village masses. Consequently they were unable to create a new order and became, in the end, an easy prey to totalitarianism. “Democracy in the Western sense of the term never had a chance in China”—the gap between the Chinese and Western traditions was simply too great.

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All this interaction of Western ways with Chinese civilization is surveyed by a leading German Sinologist, Professor Wolfgang Franke, in a remarkably cogent little volume translated from the German, China and the West. As a leading specialist in the Ming period when China was still herself, Mr. Franke is able to take a long view in this well-informed survey. Having spent part of his life in pre-Communist China, he is also aware of the way Western technology came to China first and foremost in the hands of the Westerners themselves and gave them their privileged position under the treaty system. He conveys some of the dismay and anger accumulated by modern-minded Chinese over the twentieth-century vestiges of semi-colonialism in their homeland. Foreign rule in the treaty ports, the Jim Crow treatment of Chinese in their own major cities, foreign exploitation, arrogance, and condescension now bulk larger and larger in the retrospection of this whole country. “An individual can scarcely be thankful to someone who has destroyed his faith and his ideals; instead, he is angry and hates him. The same is true of a whole people.” As a Sinologist and a son of a Sinologist, Mr. Franke is well able to trace the evils of “cultural imperialism” that developed even in this academic field. “Every manifestation of Chinese civilization was measured and judged by standards drawn exclusively from Western development, but assumed to be absolute.” Mr. Franke concludes that just as China “was forced into an encounter” with the Western world, so today the West is now “faced with a challenge to accept an encounter with a new China.” Technology is still the most feasible channel of contact.


  1. Yale University Press, 1967.
  2. University of North Carolina, 1966.