Our Mission in China

Our Mission in China

This is the bicentennial year for contacts between the United States and China, since it was in 1784 that the merchant ship Empress of China sailed to Canton from New York. It was an auspicious beginning, at least for the American backers of the voyage; the trip netted them 30 percent profit in their investment.

In the ensuing years Americans joined with the British in reaping diplomatic and commercial gains from the Opium Wars of 1839 and 1858, before drifting off to chart their own foreign policy. Highlights of this policy included the “Open Door Notes” of 1899, the recognition of the new Chinese Republic in 1913, the Washington Conference of 1922, the dispatch of General Joseph Stilwell to serve with Chiang Kai-shek in 1942, and the non-recognition of the People’s Republic in the decades after 1949. It is perhaps the rosy tint that comes to this story from its peripheral relationship to America’s real problems that has led Americans across the years to hail this history as a “special” one, marked by warmth and understanding on both sides. The Chinese have, in general, been rather more skeptical. In his visit to New York this January the premier, Zhao Ziyang, sensibly described the long saga as one of “many vicissitudes.”

* * *

There has been an immense amount of American scholarly attention to Sino-US relations, and scores of competent monographs have been published, drawing from the diplomatic archives of the United States and Europe; yet because of the language barrier there has been no comprehensive scholarly study that attempted an examination of the Chinese and Western-language records at the same time, so that the vicissitudes could be examined in the light of the special relationship, and vice versa. Now Michael Hunt, a historian of diplomacy at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, has made an original and bold attempt to survey the whole story of the foreign policy interplays between the two countries, from 1784 up to 1914.

Hunt is clearly a little nervous about the task he has undertaken, as is revealed by a couple of metaphors in the preface: he asks his readers if they are ready to “plow straight through this book,” and mentions how he himself “waded through a wide range of Chinese documents.” But the apologetic tone is unnecessary; his wading has left no scum upon the surface, and his guidance of the reader’s plow is firm and sure. With this volume Hunt confirms his reputation as a deft, comprehensive, and intelligent historian, and one can only hope he is already working on a second volume that will bring the story to the present.

In the first part of The Making of a Special Relationship, Hunt looks at what he calls an emergent “Open Door Constituency,” as Americans sized up the possibility of the profits to be made in the China trade, and fitted their hopes skillfully into the tough-minded foreign policy being conducted by the British. In the second, he examines the hardening of lines between 1860 and 1898, as American politicians made political capital out of the need for exclusion of Chinese immigrants, while bankers and railwaymen (in particular) dreamed of carving out new commercial empires in China once their own West was won. In the third part, covering the period from 1898 to 1914, Hunt shows how a measure of compromise was reached as insistence on the Open Door, even if it could not be adequately enforced, became a staple part of American policy along with exclusion, though most of the more grandiose expansionist schemes were dropped.

* * *

Such aspects of the story are quite well known, and Hunt claims no more than to be retelling them—though he does so exceedingly well, and his bibliographical essays at the beginning of each section of notes are exemplary, and would be useful to all teachers of the subject. But the originality and interest of his book lie in Hunt’s ability to parallel each of these features of the American story with the feelings and experiences of the Chinese themselves. Thus in Part I he offers us a succinct introduction to the earliest Chinese writings about America, and summarizes the points of origin, the expectations and the ways of life of the first emigrants who traveled from the area of Canton to the coastal cities of California in the 1850s. In Part 2 he shows how an “American policy” slowly came to be formulated by the Chinese court, under the direction of Li Hongzhang (Li Hungchang), and how important the Chinese response to the humiliations experienced by their fellow nationals in the United States was to that formulation. In Part 3 he links that Chinese experience of American racist legislation to the development of an indigenous Chinese nationalism, a nationalism that contributed largely to the collapse of the Qing dynasty in 1911 and 1912.

The narrative is uniformly so rich that it is hard to single out any particular aspects for praise over others. But two sections struck me as particularly interesting. One was Hunt’s account of the geographical region of southeast China from which most of the emigrants came, and his description of how those tightly localized lineage and dialect regions were replicated in the United States as a means of control and of social bonding.

The detailed breakdown is fascinating: Chinese from Sam Yup, around Canton city, dominated their fellow countrymen in the American butchering and garment trades; those from Sze Yup, southwest of Canton, became dominant in laundries, retail stores, and restaurants; the Hsiangshan Chinese, from south of Canton, were particularly strong in flower growing and retail fish sales. As a second example, on quite another tack, Hunt lets us follow the development of Li Hongzhang’s strategy for handling the belligerent Japanese by means of mediation, and pays particular attention to the ways that Li (on the advice of William Pethick, his secretary) relied too much on the efforts at mediation by former president Ulysses S. Grant.

One can see why and how Li over-estimated Grant’s influence, and also why he received news of Grant’s defeat in the 1880 Republican Convention “with disappointment, even some bewilderment. Was not a man who had twice served in a post, Li asked an American, best suited to fill it again?” (The Chinese communists, under Mao and his successors, were to be similarly baffled by President Nixon’s removal from office, and were to continue to court his favor long after he had lost significant influence.)

The second section that fascinated me was the one in which Hunt draws varying themes together in showing how the leadership of the Bureau of Immigration, created by Congress in 1891, “fell under the control of Sinophobes from the ranks of labor,” and how this was disastrous to Chinese hopes for a generous interpretation of the new exclusion laws. Especially under the bureau’s director Terence Powderly, son of Irish immigrants, Hunt writes, “the treatment the new regime accorded arriving Chinese was as intimidating, arbitrary, and abusive as its regulations were stringent.” The devices of this treatment included protracted and humiliating medical examinations, scrutiny of every visa for translation errors, intensive interviews to provoke inconsistencies in personal histories, rejection of women on the grounds that they were potential prostitutes and of children as potential laborers. Powderly’s successors regularly raided the homes of Chinese residents in the United States, and harried all groups of Chinese traveling to this country, among them the delegations visiting the St. Louis exposition in 1904.

Numerous American diplomats are given careful (and occasionally scathing) scrutiny, as are many of the leading missionaries who had much to say about, and sometimes influence on, the making of foreign policy. Hunt well emphasizes the curious similarities the missionary and emigrant actors in the story had to one another:

Chinese immigrants and American missionaries, the two groups whose lives impinged most intimately on the other culture, evoked in the xenophobic imagination strikingly mirrored anxieties over sexual pollution, physical contamination, and the disintegration of the social and political fabric. The supposed proclivity of depraved missionary and immigrant alike to defy sexual taboos and to make use of drugs and potions to seduce unwary women and children and poison the community around them was a centerpiece of xenophobic literature. The mission compound no less than Chinatown was regarded as a hotbed of subversion. The despotism of Chinatown held newcomers back from assimilation, thus challenging American political and social ideals, while missionaries spread heterodoxy among the poor, the socially marginal, and the disaffected. These foreign enclaves became the lightning rods for the problems of the society. On the one side, Chinese served as scapegoats for the failure of California to provide the wealth its white settlers expected, while on the other missionaries drew down the wrath of a people plagued by hardship and unsettled by foreign aggression.

This powerfully stated view of the overlapping realities and clichés leads Hunt to his conclusion on the members of what he calls the “open door constituency”: their vision of China and its huge population as holding out “boundless opportunity to the American expansionist impulse in all its guises” had almost no grounding in economic or strategic reality, and can only be comprehended, with hindsight, “in terms of the vision that both drew from and fed back into the national fantasies of redemption and dominion.”

* * *

Given the period Hunt’s book spans—between 1784 and 1914—it is perhaps inevitable that he gives only brief attention to two actions that took place in the early years of the Wilson administration, even though they were to have considerable effect on later American foreign policy in Asia: one was the American decision to extend diplomatic recognition to the new Chinese republic, in the late spring of 1913, despite the desire of the European powers (especially Great Britain) to wait for proof of the Chinese regime’s ability to survive; the second was the American protest against the Japanese imposition of the so-called Twenty-One Demands on China during 1915. In these demands, Japan claimed extensive new rights over the Manchurian economy, over Chinese mines, and over stationing Japanese nationals as police officers in many Chinese cities. James Reed’s goal in The Missionary Mind and American East Asia Policy is to give a new perspective to the discussion by showing how what he calls “the missionary mind” figured in the formulation of these important matters of policy.

What exactly is “the missionary mind”? It is, Reed tells us, a “collective mentality consisting of a generalized sense of moral obligation toward Asia and toward China in particular.” This “mind” was “emotional,” he adds, was “often quite intelligent” and also “characteristically gullible.” It took for its focus the twin ideas of a “Christian Civilization” and a “Christian China,” but despite the vastness of these concepts it was restricted in its base; Roman Catholics were not part of it, nor were blacks, nor indeed were many East Coast Episcopalians. In fact, the “mind” of Reed’s title was largely restricted to the Methodist, Presbyterian, Baptist, and Congregational churches of the small towns of the Midwest, where the active spokesmen for the China missions kept in contact with some 5 million adult parishioners, and a further 5 million “Sunday School children and adolescents.”

How the contact between missionaries in the field and their domestic constituents was maintained is central to Reed’s argument, and he is ingenious in giving the appearance of specificity to his findings. Working from the known figures of China missionaries in various denominations and dividing that number according to the once-in-seven-years furlough system, he arrives at a figure of three hundred missionaries in any one year who both represent his “mind” and were stumping the United States to drum up support for their missions. If each of these missionaries spoke only twice a week “then there were more than 30,000 missionary addresses on China every year. The ramifications are incalculable.”

And so indeed they are incalculable, in the purest sense. Reed says that such missionary visitations “usually made an indelible impression on public opinion in provincial communities otherwise starved for information,” but in fact we have no possible means of knowing whether the impact was indelible or not. Certainly for some children, and a selection of young men and young women, a particular address at a particular moment delivered with especial force may have had an impact that lasted a lifetime. But surely many of the talks were flat or evasive. The audiences were sometimes small or distracted by other matters.

* * *

Certainly there were effective missionary pressure groups in China and in the United States, and Reed does not need such rather strained figures to prove it. Many of those who served in China were anxious to influence American foreign policy because they had faith in the Chinese republic, and in the ability of “New China” to pull itself together and develop into a democratic nation where Christian missionaries would be welcome. They thus stood opposed to many members of the American business community (“the business mind” in Reed’s parlance) who were skeptical about a Chinese republic’s achieving anything, and in any case were far more interested in Japan than in China as a prospect for burgeoning trade. Reed shows that many China missionaries, along with some sympathizers in the State Department, used the concept of the “Open Door” in China—a concept popularized by Secretary of State John Hay at the end of the nineteenth century—as their means of trying to contain both European and Japanese aggression against China. Foreign diplomats, many businessmen, and more than a few in Congress, found the whole idea of the Open Door to be either meaningless or unenforceable.

One good example of successful missionary pressure is shown by the way that the mission community persuaded the American political world to take seriously the request made by China’s new president, General Yuan Shikai, for Christian prayer on the Chinese republic’s behalf in 1913, although skeptics noted that Yuan had not the faintest interest in Christianity and precious little in the republic. (In 1915, in fact, Yuan tried to have himself named emperor.) An intriguing example gives real weight to Reed’s point concerning the remarkable absence of knowledge of China in the US at the time. When Professor Frank Goodnow of Columbia, a political scientist, was approached by Yuan Shikai to be his adviser on political matters, one of the few people whom Goodnow could think to ask about China was the former president of Harvard, Charles Eliot. Eliot’s reputation for expertise was in fact backed by nothing more than his having taken a brief trip to China in 1912 as a spokesman for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

* * *

The two main themes suggested by these examples—the lack of people with firsthand knowledge of China, and the effectiveness (coupled with sentimentality and gullibility) of the China missionaries who seemed to make up for that lack—were to be important in Wilson’s decisions in 1913 and 1915. The two chapters devoted to these issues are the best part of Reed’s study, and he is right in suggesting that US recognition of the Chinese republic in 1913 was a major irritant to European powers, as its interference in the Twenty-One Demands was to the Japanese in 1915. Both episodes set up an unfortunate pattern (echoing the prior reiteration of faith in the Open Door) by which the United States offered expressions of support and confidence in China that it was to be unable to back up with any tangible force. Whether these were to initiate a trend that continued almost inexorably through the 1930s and 1940s and colored all American dealings with Japan and Chiang Kai-shek’s Guomindang (Kuomintang) is a more debatable point, as is Reed’s rather somber aside that the nature of these foreign policy decisions by the United States “suggest[s] some deeper flaw in the society.”

In his two chapters on 1913 and 1915 Reed draws on much valuable archival material to give a sense of the political stages by which Wilson arrived at his decisions, and at times he approaches the pace and precision that one hopes for in good diplomatic history. Yet again, because of his determination to organize his story around the work of the missionary mind, he keeps confronting the reader with remarks that pull him up short. For instance, of the congressmen returning to Washington in January 1912 after their Christmas recess Reed can only say (not without a trace of humor) that “having spent the months since adjournment in their home districts, Members of Congress were doubtless aware that a sizeable bloc of their constituents had reacted to the Chinese Revolution in what might be called the missionary manner and would be receptive to a like-minded congressional initiative.” Yet only a few pages before this passage Reed told us that American newspapers “gave great coverage to the 1911 Revolution” and that “the unfolding narrative dominated the front pages of major American dailies.” Why then was the fact that the congressmen were “doubtless aware” of the missionary responses as significant as the fact that the raw details of imperial Qing collapse and the struggle for life of the new republic were kept before the congressmen’s eyes almost daily throughout their recess?

* * *

Similarly, in the often excellent analysis of Wilson’s shifting positions during the Twenty-One Demands crisis of 1915, Reed shows that Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan had a particularly pragmatic view of the China problem, which set him apart from the “missionary mind” group. Hence Reed makes little mention of Bryan’s Christian interests and attitudes since these would not reinforce his thesis. By contrast, the head of the State Department’s Far Eastern division, E.T. Williams, who backed a strong stand against Japan, and fits Reed’s theory, is almost always introduced in the book as “the missionary Williams”; while that highly enigmatic figure Robert Lansing, serving at this time as President Wilson’s counselor, is pushed into the category where Reed wants him to be by being typed as “a card-carrying participant in the Missionary Mind.” Even if we accept that Reed is speaking “metaphorically” here, as he assures us he is, what on earth does such a phrase mean? And how does this verdict, with its ironic communist echoes, help us to understand either China or the United States?

Obviously a book cannot do everything, but Reed seems to have put himself in the unenviable position of having a preestablished thesis on the missionary mind that constantly whittles away at the effectiveness of the data he has uncovered through his research. Since he cannot be specific about the nature of that “mind,” and since he gives so little background on the realities of the actual political situation in China at the time, he keeps on looking as though he is loading his entire argument.

For the reader interested in Chinese history generally, it is surely important to remember that the 1915 American decisions against Japan were not just a case of E.T. Williams relaying the overdramatized views of the Peking minister, Paul Reinsch, to President Wilson with the conniving assistance of Robert Lansing, though that of course is part of the story; nor did they stem from the fact that Paul Reinsch himself was being manipulated by his shrewd Chinese nationalist adviser in Peking, Wellington Koo, though he almost certainly was. Reed is oddly bland about the actual force of Japan’s aggressive intentions, but surely the whole story only begins to make sense if we remember that hundreds of thousands of Chinese saw the probabilities of Japanese dominance of their polity and economy with a terrifying new clarity in 1915, and it was they themselves who raised the clamor that was heard by concerned citizens throughout the world.

* * *

Reed’s “missionary mind” seems far away from the ramified missionary minds that are the theme of Jane Hunter’s The Gospel of Gentility. In this subtle and finely written book we hear the voices of scores of women who worked in the Protestant China missions of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Jane Hunter draws most of her material from the diaries and letters written by the women themselves, and her categories grow not from preestablished schemes but from the rhythms and preoccupations of her protagonists.

By the 1890s, 60 percent of the Protestant missionaries in China were women; their careers and locations were governed either by the exigencies of their husbands’ lives or by women’s mission boards, of which there were forty-one by the end of the century. Hunter traces the backgrounds of most of these mission women to the midwestern farming heartland of the country, and she is interested in their families. She goes on to explore how many of them came from families that had borne only daughters, and how many were eldest daughters in large families, and unusually close to the fathers who educated them. Their poignant sense of a life of opportunity thwarted by gender comes through the sentences of their letters and diaries: “It will make Dad wish that some of us were boys,” says one. “Oh! I want to do something,” exclaims another. A very deep zeal for social service burned within many of them, Hunter shows, despite what she terms “the wispy rhetoric of feminine self-sacrifice” that clouds so many of their utterances.

How strange their lives were! Many went to China after the deaths of husbands or parents, or else to flee unwanted marriages. Many others married in order to get away from home, an astonishing two-thirds of these (in the American Board files) having married within the year they sailed. To the strangeness of life in China was added the birth of a first child, perhaps conceived on the boat, and born and nurtured in a frightening, new environment, far from siblings or maternal support, with inadequate food and hygiene.

How swiftly and energetically they worked thereafter to re-create the American homes they had left behind. They sheltered themselves in walled compounds with their overstuffed chairs, their books, their treasured pianos (heaved by struggling porters from mission to mission station). The married women raised their families behind the veils of gentility that Hunter alludes to in her title, kept them away from Chinese children as much as possible, and out of the schools they themselves were running. (Some wonderful photos capture the mood of these Chinese mission worlds, and the details of this hard-won domesticity.) The single women worried about their “mannish” or “unstylish” images, and while living for the weekly letters to and from “home” they often refused to send the requested snapshots lest they seem too “queer.” Thus, Hunter observes in a typically perceptive passage, time in China was “frozen” for them in the “idealized family relations of childhood.” Slowly they learned to cluster together in “women’s houses,” to avoid the family tensions, and misconceptions on the part of the Chinese, that had arisen when they boarded with younger married couples. Hunter tactfully explores the deep and passionate female friendships that arose, the “diffuse sexuality” that lay behind the ebullient innocence of those letters home: “My we did cuddle up and love each other.”

* * *

One of the many other themes that Hunter explores is the validity of the opportunities that many American women found “under the guise of submission,” whether that submission was to the mission boards or to their husbands. Working as itinerating preachers, or as teachers in their own homes, these American women developed with the Chinese “an evangelism of intimacy,” and encouraged them to accept marriage and docility even as they introduced them to new possibilities of freedom of thought. Once more, passionate friendships could develop between the mission women and their converts. In one illuminating section Hunter explores some of these relationships and finds how the Chinese convert came to act toward the Western woman as a “dutiful wife, helpful in work and playful in rest.” Predictably these relationships could lead to disappointments and jealousies. They could also lead to major character changes and new opportunities for the Chinese women, some of whom were sent for advanced education in the United States by their protectors, and returned to lives of fulfillment and service.

Complicated patterns lay behind these stories—subtle blurrings of the position of Chinese men, for example, in a world where “Western women found Chinese men unmanly and Chinese men found Western women unwomanly.” As a result, Hunter argues—and corroborates with more splendid photos—Western women would go off alone on long trips with several Chinese male converts and male retainers, though of course they would never have spent a moment alone and unchaperoned with a Western man. The upshot was a curious blend of two realms that Hunter aptly terms “Domestic Empire” and “Imperial Evangelism.”

Western women missionaries discovered to their surprise the many ways that “colonial inequalities would cancel out American sexual imbalances and help them to liberation.” The trouble was, as Hunter points out, that once they were in China, “the balance tipped too far. The politics of fulfillment has rarely been democratic, and the richness of life afforded one group inevitably occurs at cost to another.” The subtleties and sadness of this paradox are admirably explored in this fine study of an aspect of the mission world in China that has never before received such probing, affectionate, detailed treatment.

Jonathan D. Spence holds the position of Sterling Professor of History, Emeritus, at Yale University, and is well-known throughout the world for his insightful views on modern China. His books...
Reviewed in This Article

The Making of a Special Relationship: The United States and China to 1914
by Michael H. Hunt
Columbia University Press, 416 pp.

The Missionary Mind and American East Asia Policy, 1911-–1915
by James Reed
Harvard University Press, 258 pp.

The Gospel of Gentility: American Women Missionaries in Turn-of-the-Century China
by Jane Hunter
Yale University Press, 318 pp.

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This article was first published in the September 27, 1984 issue of the New York Review of Books.



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In one of the central scenes in Jia Zhangke’s new film, a young man working in the southern Chinese manufacturing city of Dongguan goes to an ATM and finds that he’s broke. He’s just spent the past month betraying his friends and hopping from job to job, including one as a...

China: “Capitulate or Things Will Get Worse”


The massacre of protesters in Beijing on June 4, 1989, and the harsh repression during the months immediately following put China into a foul mood. Among ordinary Chinese, the prestige of the Communist Party, whose leaders had ordered the brutal assault, fell to a new low....

Who’s Afraid of Chinese Money?


“China is what it is. We have to be here or nowhere.” Chancellor George Osborne, Britain’s second-highest official, was laying out the British government’s view last week, near the end of his trip aimed at selling Britain to Chinese companies. Western governments used to...

Old Dreams for a New China


Ever since China’s new leader, Xi Jinping, first uttered the phrase “China Dream” last year, people in China and abroad have been scrambling to decipher its meaning. Many nations have “dreams”; in Canada, the country’s most prominent popular historian used the word to...

China: When the Cats Rule


In the Northwest corner of Beijing’s old city is a subway and bus workshop. It was built in the early seventies on the site of the Lake of Great Peace, which was filled in as part of a plan to extend the city’s subway system. In the bigger picture of the destruction of old...

The Man Who Got It Right


1.Near the beginning of Simon Leys’ marvelous collection of essays is an odd polemic between the author and the late Christopher Hitchens, fought out in these very pages. Leys takes Hitchens to task for attacking Mother Teresa in a book entitled The Missionary Position. He...

Censoring the News Before It Happens


Every day in China, hundreds of messages are sent from government offices to website editors around the country that say things like, “Report on the new provincial budget tomorrow, but do not feature it on the front page, make no comparisons to earlier budgets, list no links,...

Faking It in China


One of the most striking features about daily life in China is how much of what one encounters has been appropriated from elsewhere. It’s not just the fake iPhones or luxury watches—pirated consumer goods are common in many developing countries. In many Chinese cities,...

Chen Guangcheng in New York


Following are excerpts from a recent conversation among Chen Guangcheng, the blind legal activist who was recently permitted to leave China and is currently a distinguished visitor at New York University School of Law; Jerome A. Cohen, Professor of Law and Co-Director of the US-...

The ‘Breaking of an Honorable Career’


1.In the 1950s, the late John King Fairbank, the dean of modern China studies at Harvard, used to tell us graduate students a joke about the allegation that a group of red-leaning foreign service officers and academics—the four Johns—had “lost” China: John Paton Davies,...

Who Killed Pamela in Peking?


An ordinary winter evening in the Legation Quarter of Peking, where foreign embassies and consulates were located, January 7, 1937. Cold. The heavy sound of Japanese armored cars, out on patrol down the busy shopping streets that flank the Forbidden City. (Japan would occupy the...

Dancing in Empty Beijing


The Lunar New Year began last week as it always does, with a new moon. The empty sky seemed to empty Beijing of up to half its residents—authorities estimate that an incredible nine million people left the city, which usually has a population of eighteen to twenty million. This...

The New Chinese Gang of Seven


In traditional Chinese religion, a fashi, or ritual master, will recite a set of phrases to turn an ordinary space into a sacred area where the gods can descend to receive prayers and rejuvenate the community. The ceremony can last days, with breaks and feasts, until the rites...

Does This Writer Deserve the Prize?


On October 11 Peter Englund, permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy in Stockholm, announced that the Nobel Prize in Literature for 2012 will go to the fifty-seven-year-old Chinese writer Guan Moye, better known as Mo Yan, a pen name that means “don’t talk.” (The name is...

China: Worse Than You Ever Imagined


Last summer I took a trip to Xinyang, a rural area of wheat fields and tea plantations in central China’s Henan province. I met a pastor, a former political prisoner, and together we made a day trip to Rooster Mountain, a onetime summer retreat for Western missionaries and...

Who Was Mao Zedong?


In Kashgar’s largest bazaar a few years ago, I spotted a pencil holder sporting an iconic Cultural Revolution image: Mao Zedong and Marshal Lin Biao smiling together. But Mao’s personally chosen heir apparent had been a nonperson since 1971, when he allegedly godfathered an...

An Honest Writer Survives in China


A little over a year ago, I went with the Chinese writer Yu Hua to his hometown of Hangzhou, some one hundred miles southwest of Shanghai, and realized that his bawdy books might not be purely fictional; their characters and situations seemed to follow him around in real life too...

China’s Lost Decade


It’s hard to believe, but just twenty years ago China was on the verge of abandoning the market reforms that have since propelled it to its current position as a world power. Conservatives had used the 1989 Tiananmen massacre to reverse the country’s economic direction. Many...

News from the Dalai Lama


“I told President Obama the leaders of the Chinese Communist Party are missing a part of the brain, the part that contains common sense,” the Dalai Lama said to me during our conversation in London in mid-June.But it can be put back in. I am hopeful about the new Chinese...

Bo Xilai: The Unanswered Questions


The Chinese Communist Party has always put great emphasis on smooth surfaces, maintaining political “face” through a decorous exterior. Men at the top dye their hair black and every strand must be in place. But sometimes there are cracks in the smoothness and outsiders are...

The People’s Republic of Rumor


A group of people the other day were at the large shopping mall at a place called Shuangjing, just inside Beijing’s Third Ring Road, looking at their cell phones and comparing notes. “Don’t go to Sina Weibo—it’s too famous,” one person advised, referring to the...

‘Pressure for Change is at the Grassroots


The Chinese legal activist Chen Guangcheng arrived in the United States last month following top-level negotiations between U.S. and Chinese officials. Several weeks earlier, Chen had dramatically escaped from house arrest in his village in northeast China by jumping over a wall...

China: Politics as Warfare


Mao’s Invisible Hand is one of those books that make one feel good about scholarship. It describes inner workings of Chinese Communist society about which few nonexperts know anything—it may even surprise the experts—and it will interest anyone professionally interested in...

A Chinese Murder Mystery?


Roughly every decade, China’s political system cracks, its veil is rent, and its inner workings are laid bare. 2012, the Year of the Dragon, is turning out to be one of those periods when the country’s high priests can’t quite carry out their rituals as planned.The...

On Fang Lizhi (1936–2012)


Fang Lizhi, a distinguished professor of astrophysics, luminary in the struggle for human rights in contemporary China, and frequent contributor to The New York Review, died suddenly on the morning of April 6. At age seventy-six he had not yet retired, and was...

Debacle in Beijing


The story of a blind Chinese lawyer’s flight to the US Embassy in Beijing is likely to ignite accusations and recriminations until the US presidential election in November. But what few will acknowledge is a harsher truth: that for all our desire to effect change, outsiders...

Beijing Dilemma: Is Chen Guangcheng the Next Fang Lizhi?


The Chinese lawyer Chen Guangcheng, blind since childhood, self-taught in the law, defender of women’s rights to resist forced abortion, thorn in the side of local despots in his home district of Linyi in Shandong province, veteran of a four-year prison sentence on the spurious...

A Master in the Shadows


How should one assess the best ways to survive in a revolution? What exactly is the tipping point between obedience and outright sycophancy? When does one try to hold on to the values that gave meaning to one’s upbringing, and when is it best to just let it all go? When does...

China’s Falling Star


In China, the year is traditionally divided into periods based on the moon’s orbit around the earth and the sun’s path across the sky. This lunisolar calendar is laden with myths and celebrated by rituals that allowed Chinese to mark time and make sense of their world.So too...

The Chinese Are Coming!


The day after the Russian parliamentary elections in early December, the Chinese publication Global Times, an English-language newspaper and website managed by People’s Daily, the official organ of the Communist Party official, ran an editorial on how little credit the West...

He Told the Truth About China’s Tyranny


Better than the assent of the crowd: The dissent of one brave man!—Sima Qian (145–90 BC)Records of the Grand HistorianTruth will set you free.—Gospel according to JohnThe economic rise of China now dominates the entire landscape of international affairs. In the eyes of...

The New York Review of Books China Archive

Welcome to the New York Review of Books China Archive, a collaborative project of and The New York Review of Books. In the archive you will find a compilation of full-length essays and book reviews on China dating from the Review's founding in 1963. We encourage you...

China Gets Religion!


This autumn, China has been marking the one hundredth anniversary of the collapse of its last imperial dynasty, the Qing, with a series of grand celebrations. The government has released an epic film showing how the revolution of 1911 prepared the way for the Communists’...

From Tenderness to Savagery in Seconds


Much nonsense has been written about the Nanjing Massacre, also known as the Rape of Nanking. We know this much: in December 1937, the Imperial Japanese Army, after taking the Chinese Nationalist capital of Nanjing, went on a six-week rampage, looting, murdering, and raping large...

The High Price of the New Beijing


One recent weekend, I went for a walk through the alleys around the Qianmen shopping district, once Beijing’s commercial heart and still home to nationally known traditional shops. One of its chief side streets, Dazhalan, had been turned into a Ye Olde Pekinge-type street: its...

The Past and the Future


Concerning the Past:I have maintained that China should move forward with the reform of society. In many speeches before 1988, I openly expressed my advocacy of reform in China.I acknowledge that the following are my principal views:Marxism—whether viewed as a philosophy, a...

Kissinger and China


It is hard to fit Henry Kissinger’s latest book, On China, into any conventional frame or genre. Partly that is because the somewhat self-deprecatory title conceals what is, in fact, an ambitious goal: to make sense of China’s diplomacy and foreign policies across two and a...

Will There Be a ‘Duel of Dalai Lamas’?


On March 10 the Fourteenth Dalai Lama made front-page news throughout the world by saying,As early as the 1960s, I have repeatedly stressed that Tibetans need a leader, elected freely by the Tibetan people, to whom I can devolve power. Now, we have clearly reached the time to put...

Quality of Life: India vs. China


1.The steadily rising rate of economic growth in India has recently been around 8 percent per year (it is expected to be 9 percent this year), and there is much speculation about whether and when India may catch up with and surpass China’s over 10 percent growth rate. Despite...

The Worst Man-Made Catastrophe, Ever


When the first waves of Chinese graduate students arrived on American campuses in the early 1980s, they were excited at entering an unfettered learning environment. After the recent ravages of the Cultural Revolution, political science students had few inhibitions about studying...

China: From Famine to Oslo


1.Each year around the “sensitive” anniversary of the Beijing massacre of June 4, 1989, Ding Zilin, a seventy-four-year-old retired professor of philosophy, is accompanied by a group of plainclothes police whenever she leaves her apartment to go buy vegetables, or to do...

How Reds Smashed Reds


July and August 1966, the first months of the ten-year Cultural Revolution, were the summer of what Andrew Walder, a sociologist at Stanford, calls “The Maoist Shrug.” Jiang Qing, Mao Zedong’s wife, told high school Red Guards, “We do not advocate beating people, but...

The Question of Pearl Buck


The announcement by the Swedish Academy in November 1938 that Pearl Buck had been awarded the Nobel Prize for literature was met with sarcasm and even derision by many writers and critics. They were not impressed that this was the third choice by the academy of an American writer...

The Party: Impenetrable, All Powerful


In the next few weeks, an event will take place in Beijing on a par with anything dreamed up by a conspiracy theorist. A group of roughly three hundred men and women will meet at an undisclosed time and location to set policies for a sixth of humanity. Most China watchers will...

The Message from the Glaciers


It was not so long ago that the parts of the globe covered permanently with ice and snow, the Arctic, Antarctic, and Greater Himalayas (“the abode of the snows” in Sanskrit), were viewed as distant, frigid climes of little consequence. Only the most intrepid adventurers were...

The Triumph of Madame Chiang


Charlie Soong, born in 1866, was a new kind of figure in Chinese history, an independent-minded youngster with an openness to the world who came to Boston from Hainan Island at the age of twelve to work in a store. At fourteen he stowed away on a Coast Guard cutter, was baptized...

Specters of a Chinese Master


1.Luo Ping, who lived from 1733 to 1799, was perfectly placed by time and circumstance to view the shifts in fortune that were so prominent in China at that period. He grew up in Yangzhou, a prosperous city on the Grand Canal, just north of the Yangzi River, which linked the...

The Mystery of Zhou Enlai


Through the ups and downs of the unpredictable Chinese Revolution, Zhou Enlai’s reputation has seemed to stand untarnished. The reasons for this are in part old-fashioned ones: in a world of violent change, not noted for its finesse, Zhou Enlai stood out...

China: Humiliation & the Olympics


The IncidentOn a snowy winter day in 1991, Lu Gang, a slightly built Chinese scholar who had recently received his Ph.D. in plasma physics, walked into a seminar room at the University of Iowa’s Van Allen Hall, raised a snub-nose .38-caliber Taurus pistol, and killed Professor...

The Passions of Joseph Needham


It is now a little over four hundred years since a scattering of Westerners first began to try to learn the Chinese language. Across that long span, the number of scholars studying Chinese has grown, but their responses to the challenges of Chinese script have been generally...

Casting a Lifeline


Sixty pages or so into Ma Jian’s novel Beijing Coma, the hero, Dai Wei, is troubled by the memory of a harrowing anatomy lecture that he attended as a university student. Taught by “a celebrated cardiovascular specialist,” the class observed the dissection of the fresh...

Sentimental Education in Shanghai


1.In April 1924 Rabindranath Tagore arrived in Shanghai for a lecture tour of China. Soon after receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913, Tagore had become an international literary celebrity, lecturing to packed audiences from Japan to Argentina. His message—that...

The Quiet Heroes of Tibet


Earlier this year, shortly before boarding the new Chinese train from Beijing to Lhasa, I met Woeser, a Tibetan poet and essayist (she uses only one name). Unusual among Tibetans in China, who tend to avoid talking to foreigners, she spoke frankly about Chinese rule over Tibet....

Mission to Mao


“This was the week that changed the world” was Richard Nixon’s summing up at the end of his trip to China in February 1972.1 The hyperbole was justified, for this visit to China by an American president was a turning point in the cold war. Hitherto, the Soviet Union and...

China’s Great Terror


Long before August 1966, when immense chanting crowds of young Chinese Red Guards began to mass before Chairman Mao in Tiananmen Square, alerting those in the wider world to the onset of the Cultural Revolution, senior figures in the Chinese leadership began to seek their own...

‘June Fourth’ Seventeen Years Later: How I Kept a Promise


The weekend of June 3, 2006, was the seventeenth anniversary of the Beijing massacre and also the first time I ever received a summons. It happened, as the police put it, “according to law.” Twice within twenty-four hours Deputy Chief Sun Di of Department 1 of the Beijing...

Liu Binyan (1925-2005)


Liu Binyan, the distinguished Chinese journalist and writer who died of cancer on December 5, 2005, in exile in New Jersey, at the age of eighty, was an inveterate defender of the poor and the oppressed, a man with a powerful analytic mind. But the trait that most determined his...

On Leaving a Chinese Prison


Jiang Qisheng, a former student of philosophy and a human rights activist, was arrested in 1999 for commemorating the victims of the 1989 Tiananmen massacre. After four years in prison, he was recently released. He wrote the following statement upon accepting the Spirit of...

A Little Leap Forward


The Communist dynasty is collapsing in China, and in retrospect one of the first signs was a Chinese-language computer virus that began spreading when I was a reporter in Beijing in the early 1990s. The virus would pop up on your screen and ask a question about the hard-line...



1.To stand somewhere in the center of an East Asian metropolis, Seoul, say, or Guangzhou, is to face an odd cultural conundrum. Little of what you see, apart from the writing on billboards, can be described as traditionally Asian. There are the faux-traditional façades—...

China: The Anaconda in the Chandelier


In China’s Mao years you could be detained and persecuted for talking with your neighbor about your cat. The Chinese word for “cat” (mao, high level tone) is a near homonym for the name of the Great Leader (mao, rising tone), and a tip to the police from an eavesdropper who...

Found Horizon


1.Traveling recently by bus from Shigatse to Lhasa, squeezed in between a heavily made-up bar hostess from Sichuan who was vomiting her breakfast out the window and a minor Tibetan official in a shiny brown suit who asked me about Manchester United football club before noisily...

East Is West


Chang-rae Lee has an extraordinary talent for describing violence. Here is his account of the gang rape and murder of a Korean sex slave (“comfort woman”) in a Japanese army camp during World War II:I ran up the north path by the latrines, toward the clearing, as it was known...

Divine Killer


“If there was anything Mao wouldn’t want to see, it was tears. Mao said on one occasion, ‘I can’t bear to see poor people cry. When I see their tears, I can’t hold back my own.’ “Another thing which upset Mao was bloodshed.” —From Mao Zedong: Man, Not God by...

China in Cyberspace


1.It is not widely known that the People’s Republic of China and Taiwan are now at war. The battles are not being fought on land, however, or at sea, or even, strictly speaking, in the air; they take place in cyberspace, where nobody so far has ever died. The soldiers in this...

The Jiang Zemin Mystery


1.Since the Chinese Communist Party leaders will not allow themselves to be criticized in the press or on television, critics have had to find other means to express their political grievances. Historically speaking, one of the most telling ways to make a protest known has been...

Sex and Democracy in Taiwan


Fairly or not, sex scandals in politics have acquired a peculiarly Anglo-Saxon ring. The French boast of taking a more sophisticated view of the private lives of public men—that is to say, those lives are shielded from public scrutiny. Germans smack their lips when their...

Selling Out Hong Kong


1.And so it finally came to pass, at midnight, June 30, 1997, in the brand-new Hong Kong convention center, resembling, local people say, a giant cockroach: the red flag of the People’s Republic of China, snapping in the breeze of wind machines, went up, and the Union Jack came...

Holding Out in Hong Kong


1.The Master said: “If seeking wealth were a decent pursuit, I too would seek it, even if I had to work as a janitor. As it is, I’d rather follow my inclinations.”—Confucius: Analects1Flicking through the April issue of the Hong Kong Tatler, a glossy high life magazine...

China: The Defining Moment


The evolution of the People’s Republic of China since its founding in 1949 has been tumultuous and bloody, and marked by the suffering of millions. It has been anything but peaceful. Yet it is precisely the prospect of “peaceful evolution,” which in Peking has the special...

The Beginning of the End


Failed rebellions are often like failed marriages: former partners and their friends blame the other side for what went wrong; old tensions are magnified; the past is rewritten; feuding camps are formed. This pretty much sums up the situation among the survivors of the Beijing...

In China’s Gulag


Near the end of The Gulag Archipelago, Solzhenitsyn includes a chapter he calls “The Muses in Gulag.” Most of the chapter describes the absurdity and uselessness of the Communist Party’s Cultural and Educational Section, but he also briefly reflects on the relationship...

Unmasking the Monster


In 755 the Tang dynasty poet Tu Fu wrote about the corruptions of court life:In the central halls there are fair goddesses; An air of perfume moves with each charming figure. They clothe their guests with warm furs of sable, Entertain them with the finest music and pipe and...

History on the Wing


Golden Inches is a charming memoir of an American couple who built up the YMCA in Chengtu and Chungking. Their careers on America’s farthest Western cultural frontier in Szechwan province give us a sense of the day-to-day texture of Chinese-American relations during the golden...

From the Ming to Deng Xiaoping


When I began teaching Chinese history at Harvard in 1936 my first students turned out to be the brightest I would ever have—Theodore White as an undergraduate and Mary Clabaugh as a Ph.D. candidate. Mary Clabaugh was a Vassar graduate from Tuscaloosa who came to study...

The Last Days of Hong Kong


1.“Everything you need to know about a new life abroad…. It’s all in the pages of The Emigrant.”—Advertisement for a new Hong Kong periodical, 1989May 1983: It was exactly seven months after Mrs. Thatcher stumbled and fell on the steps of the Great Hall of the People in...

Keeping the Faith


On June 4, the day after the People’s Liberation Army opened fire on the citizens of Beijing, the distinguished Chinese astrophysicist and dissident intellectual, Fang Lizhi, reluctantly sought refuge in the American embassy in Beijing with his physicist wife, Li Shuxian. They...

Stories from the Ice Age


Since the Tiananmen Square killings it has become fashionable within the Chinese leadership to refer to dissident intellectuals as “scum.” That was Mao’s view, too. In 1942, the chairman, his armies besieged by both Chiang Kai-shek and the Japanese army, took time off for...

Why China’s Rulers Fear Democracy


To try to understand is not to condone or forgive. Quite the contrary. In this bicentennial year when a euphoria for democratic rights seemed to be sweeping the world, why was it stopped in Tiananmen Square? Why do China’s rulers attack their students like enemies when in our...

The End of the Chinese Revolution


When Deng Xiaoping suppressed the Beijing Spring last month, he thought he was putting down a new Cultural Revolution. Pirated notes from a Party meeting in late April quoted him as telling his colleagues:This is not an ordinary student movement. It is turmoil…. What they are...

The Price China Has Paid: An Interview with Liu Binyan


Liu Binyan is a sixty-two-year-old writer and journalist who is regarded as the preeminent intellectual advocating reform in China today. During the mid-1950s and again throughout the post-Mao period, he has strongly criticized Communist party officials for abusing their power...

Roots of Revolution


The books by Frank Ching and Zhang Xianliang are vastly different in content, aim, and style, as opposite as yang and yin. Yet each casts light on the Cultural Revolution. Considered together, they may even begin to explain it.Mao’s venomous “class struggle” against his own...

Passing the Baton in Beijing


Succession has become an omnipresent problem not only in China but throughout Asia. Long-lasting regimes under aging rulers are entering their twilight zone in North Korea, Burma, and Indonesia, and face a period of weakness and uncertainty, for the moment...

China: How Much Dissent?


In the year 278 BC an aristocrat and poet named Qu Yuan took his own life by throwing himself into the waters of the Milo River. Qu Yuan had once been the powerful adviser to the ruler of the Chu kingdom, specializing in legal affairs and diplomacy, but the monarch was tricked...

Sitting on Top of the World


Remoteness is often a condition of status and an attitude cultivated by parties to inequality. Chinese peasants, for more than twenty centuries subjects not citizens of the realm, were being literal when they said, “Heaven is high and the emperor far away.” Their world was...

Rules of the Game


On September 18, 1931, a very small bomb caused a very minor explosion on the South Manchurian Railway just north of Mukden, a railway controlled by the Japanese and crucial to their economic domination of Manchuria. The explosion was denounced as the work of Chinese saboteurs....

Bringing Up the Red Guards


Revolutionaries are Monkey Kings, their golden rods are powerful, their supernatural powers far-reaching and their magic omnipotent, for they possess Mao Tsetung’s great invincible thought. We wield our golden rods, display our supernatural powers and use our magic to turn the...

Peanuts and the Good Soldier


In 1927, the province of Shantung was under the control of the warlord Chang Tsung-chang, a ferocious ex-coolie with a taste for white mercenaries and white women. His forces included a Russian brigade with four armored trains; he himself went to war with a trainload of forty-two...

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...

A Mao for All Seasons


A psychologist and an expert on the Far East, Mr. Lifton believes that the most fruitful way to look at Mao Tse-tung and the Cultural Revolution is to combine the investigation of psychological motives with historical analysis in what he calls the “...

The Great Wall


China is so distant, big, and complex that each Marco Polo nowadays tells a different tale. The authors of the three books under review—a cool Swedish journalist, a passionate Chinese true-believer, and a philosophical Frenchman—give very different impressions of Chairman Mao...

How to Deal with the Chinese Revolution


The Vietnam debate reflects our intellectual unpreparedness. Crisis has arisen on the farthest frontier of public knowledge, and viewpoints diverge widely because we all lack background information. “Vietnam” was not even a label on our horizon twenty years ago. It was still...