China and the Western World

Though China’s political fate seems uncertain and its people set in traditional ways, Lafcadio Hearn—a Japan-based journalist known for his writings on East Asian culture—predicts that China will one day pose a formidable economic threat to the West.

While crossing any of the great oceans by steamer, and watching the dance of the waves that lift and swing the vessel, you sometimes become conscious of under movements much larger than those of the visible swells, — motion of surgings too broad to be perceived from deck. Over these unseen billowings the ship advances by long ascents and descents. If you carefully watch the visible waves, you will find that each one repeats the same phenomenon upon a very small scale. The smooth flanks of every swell are being rapidly traversed by currents of little waves, or ripples, running up and down. This surface-rippling is complicated to such a degree that it can be accurately noted only by the help of instantaneous photography. But it is so interesting to watch that if you once begin to observe it, you will presently forget all about the dimension and power of the real wave, the huge underswell over which the foaming and the rippling play.

In the study of those great events which are the surges of contemporaneous history, that which corresponds to the currents and countercurrents on the wave surface is apt to occupy public attention much more than the deeper under motion. All the confusion of details and theories furnished by official reports, by local observation and feeling, by the enterprise of trained newspaper correspondents, may have special value for some future historian; but, like the ripples and the foam on the flanks of a wave, it covers from ordinary view that mightier motion which really made the event. Surges which break thrones or wreck civilizations are seldom considered in themselves at the moment of their passing. The sociologist may divine; but the average reader will overlook the profounder meaning of the movement, because his attention is occupied with surface aspects.

The foreign press-comments upon the war between Japan and China have furnished many illustrations of this tendency to study the ripples of an event. Probably no good history of that war — no history based upon familiarity with complete records, and upon a thorough knowledge of the social and political conditions of the Far East anterior to 1893 — can be written for at least another fifty years. Even the causes of the war have not yet been made fully known; we have only official declarations (which leave immense scope for imagination) and a host of conflicting theories. One theory is that Japan, feeling the necessity of opening her territories to foreign trade, and fearing that China might take advantage of the revision of the treaties to flood the country with Chinese emigrants, declared war for the purpose of being able to exclude China from the privileges to be accorded to Western nations. Another theory is that war was declared because ever since 1882, when Li-Hung-Chang presented his Emperor with a memorial about plans for the “invasion of Japan,” China had been preparing for an attack upon her progressive neighbor. A third theory is that Japan declared war in order to divert national feeling into less dangerous channels than those along which it had begun to flow. A fourth is that the declaration of war was designed to strengthen the hands of certain statesmen by creating a military revival. A fifth is that Japan planned the conquest of China merely to display her own military force. And there have been multitudes of other theories, some of them astonishingly ingenious and incredible; but it is safe to say that no single theory yet offered contains the truth. Nevertheless, it has been altogether on the strength of such theories that Japan’s action in declaring war has been criticized; and many of the criticisms have been characterized by extraordinary injustice.1

Now, the critics of Japanese motives and morals have been in the position of persons studying only the currents and cross-currents upon the surface of a swell. For the ideas of statesmen, the diplomacy of ministers, the vague rumors suffered to escape from cabinet councils, the official utterances, the official correspondence, the preparations, the proclamations,—all were but the superficial manifestations of the fact. The fact itself was that the vast tidal wave of Occidental civilization, rolling round the world, had lifted Japan and hurled her against China, with the result that the Chinese Empire is now a hopeless wreck. The deep, irresistible, underlying forces that set the war in motion were from the Occident; and this unquestionable fact once recognized, all criticism of Japan from the moral standpoint become absurdly hypocritical. Another indubitable fact worth considering is that only by doing what no Western power would have liked to attemp single-handed has Japan obtained the recognition of her rights and of her place among nations. She tore away that military scarecrow of Western manufacture which China had purchased at so great a cost, and exposed the enormous impotence which it had so long shielded.


The spectacle of the power of Japan and the helplessness of China startled the Western world like the discovery of a danger. It was evident that the Japan of 1894 could execute without difficulty the famous menace uttered by Hideyoshi in the fourteenth century “I will assemble a mighty host, and, invading the country of the great Ming, I will fill with the hoar frost from my sword the whole sky over the four hundred provinces.” The idea of a China dominated by Japan at once presented itself to English journalists. It would be quite possible, they declared, for Japan to annex China, since the subjugation of the country would require little more than the overthrow of an effete dynasty and the suppression of a few feeble revolts. Thus China had been conquered by a Tartar tribe; she could be subdued much more quickly by the perfectly disciplined armies of Japan. The people would soon submit to any rulers able to enforce law and order, while not interfering too much in matters of ancient custom and belief. Understanding the Chinese better than any Aryan conquerors could do, the Japanese would be able to make China the most formidable of military empires; and they might even undertake to realize the ancient Japanese prediction that the Sun’s Succession was destined to rule the earth. On this subject the St. James Gazette was particularly eloquent; and a few of its observations are worth quoting, as showing the fancies excited in some English minds by the first news of the Japanese triumphs:—

“The Japanese dynasty would make no startling changes; China would still be China, but it would be ‘Japanned China.’ An army and a navy, an organization by land and sea, would grow up under the hand of the Mikado. In ten or fifteen years’ time a Chino-Japanese government would have an army of two millions of men armed with European weapons. In the twenty-five years the available force might be five times as great, and the first couple of millions could be mobilized as quickly, let us say, as the armies of Russia. If such a power chose to start on a career of conquest, what could resist? Nothing at present in Asia, not even Russia, could stand against it, and it might knock at the door of Europe. The combined Western powers might resist the first shock,—might overcome the first five millions of Chinese riflemen and Tartar cavalry; but behind that would come other five millions, army after army, until Europe itself was exhausted and its resources drained. If this seems a wild dream, consider what a Japan-governed China would be. Think what the Chinese are; think of their powers of silent endurance under suffering and cruelty; think of their frugality; think of their patient perseverance, their slow, dogged persistence, their recklessness of life. Fancy this people ruled by a nation of born organizers, who, half allied to them, would understand their temperament and their habits. The Oriental, with his power of retaining health under conditions under which no European could live, with his savage daring when roused, with his inborn cunning, lacks only the superior knowledge of civilization to be the equal of the European in warfare as well as in industry. In England we do not realize that in a Japanese dynasty such a civilization would exist: we have not yet learned to look upon the Mikado as a civilized monarch, as we look upon the Czar. Yet such he is, undoubtedly. And under him the dream of the supremacy of the yellow race in Europe, Asia, and even Africa, to which Dr. Pearson and others have given expression, would be no longer mere nightmares. Instead of speculating as to whether England or Germany or Russia is to be the next world's ruler, we might have to learn that Japan was on its way to that position.”

The reference to Dr. Pearson shows, as we shall see hereafter, that his views had not been carefully studied by the writer. But the possibilities suggested by the Gazette may be said to have really existed, presupposing non-interference by Western powers. Interference was, of course, inevitable; but the danger imagined from Japan reappears in another form as a result of the interference. China under a Russian domination would be quite as dangerous to the Occident as under a Japanese domination. Russia is probably a better military organizer than Japan, and would scarcely be more scrupulous in the exploitation of Chinese military resources. If the Japanese believe that their dynasty will yet hold universal sway, not less do Russians believe that the dominion of their Czar is to spread over the whole world. For the ‘Western powers to allow Russia to subjugate China would be even more dangerous than to suffer Japan to rule it. But while it would have been easy to prevent the annexation of China by Japan, it will not be easy to prevent the same thing from being done by Russia. A host of unpleasant political problems have thus been brought into existence by the late war. What is to be done with China, now practically at the mercy of Russia? Is her vast territory to be divided among several Western powers, as Russia desires ? Is her empire to be repropped and maintained, like that of Turkey, so as to preserve peace? No body can answer such questions just now. Nothing is even tolerably certain except that China must yield to Western pressure, and that she will be industrially exploited to the uttermost, sooner or later. Meanwhile, she remains a source of peril,—the possible cause of a tremendous conflict.

Momentous as all this may seem, the new political questions stirred up by the fall of China from her position as the greatest of Far-Eastern nations are really surface questions. The most serious problem created by the late war is much broader and deeper. No international war or any other possible happening is likely to prevent the domination of China by some form of Occidental civilization; and when this becomes an accomplished fact we shall be face to face with the real danger of which Dr. Pearson’s book was the prediction. All future civilization may be affected by such domination; and even the fate of the Western races may be decided by it. The great Chinese puzzle to come is neither political nor military; it cannot be solved either by statecraft or by armies; it can be decided only by the operation of natural laws, among which that of physiological economy will probably be the chief. But just as English critics of the late war ignored the real cause of that war, the huge westward surge of forces that compelled it, so do they now ignore the fact that the same war has set in motion forces of another order which may change the whole future history of mankind.


The Far-Eastern question of most importance was first offered for English sociological consideration in Dr. Pearson’s wonderful volume, National Life and Character, published about three years ago.2 While reading a number of criticisms upon it, I was struck by the fact that a majority of the reviewers had failed to notice the most important portions of the argument. The rude shock given by the book to the Western pride of race, to the English sense of stability in especial, to that absolute self-confidence which constantly impels us to the extension of territory, the creation of new colonies, the development of new resources reached by force, without any suspicion that all this aggrandizement may bring its own penalty, provoked a state of mind unfavorable to impartial reflection. The idea that the white races and their civilization might perish, in competition with a race and a civilization long regarded as semi-barbarous, needed in England some philosophical patience to examine. Abroad the conditions were otherwise. Far-seeing men, who had passed the better part of their lives in China, found nothing atrocious in Dr. Pearson’s book. It only expressed, with uncommon vigor and breadth of argument, ideas which their own long experience in the Far East had slowly forced upon them. But of such ideas, it was the one that most impressed the Englishman in China which least impressed the Englishman in London. A partial reason may have been that Dr. Pearson’s arguments in 1893 appeared to deal with contingencies incalculably remote. But what seemed extremely remote in 1893 has ceased to seem remote since the victories of Japan. The fate of China as an empire can scarcely now be called a matter of doubt, although the methods by which it is to be decided will continue to afford food for political speculation. China must pass under the domination of Western civilization; and this simple fact will create the danger to which Dr. Pearson called attention.

It is true that the author of National Life and Character did consider the possibility of a military awakening of China; but he also expressed his belief that it was the least likely of events, and could hardly be brought about except through the prior conversion of all China to th warrior-creed of Islam. Recent events have proved the soundness of this belief; for the war exposed a condition of official cowardice and corruption worse than had ever been imagined,—a condition which could not fail to paralyze any attempt to rouse the race out of lethargy. With the close of the campaign the world felt convinced that no military regeneration of China was possible under the present dynasty. Spasmodic attempts at revolution followed; but some of dices exhausted themselves in the murder of a few foreign missionaries and in foolish attacks open mission statements, with the usual consequences of Christian retaliation,—executions and big indemnities; and ether uprisings, even in the Mohammedan districts, have failed to accomplish anything beyond local disorder. Nothing like a general revolution now appears possible. Without it the reigning dynasty cannot be overthrown except by foreign power; and under that dynasty there is not even the ghost of a chance for military reforms. Indeed, it is doubtful if this Western powers would now permit China to make herself as strong as she was imagined to be only two years ago. In her present state she will have to obey these powers. She will have to submit to their discipline within her own borders, but not to such discipline as would enable her to create formidable armies. Nevertheless, it is just that kind of discipline which she will have to learn that is most likely to make her dangerous. “The future danger from China will be industrial, and will begin with the time that she passes under Occidental domination.


For the benefit of those who have not read his book, it may be well to reproduce some of Dr. Pearson’s opinions about this peril, and also to say a few words about the delusion, or superstition, which opposes them. This delusion is that all weaker peoples are destined to make way for the great colonizing white races, leaving the latter sole masters of the habitable world. This flattering belief is without any better foundation in fact than the extermination of some nomadic and some savage peoples of a very low order of capacity. Such extinctions have been comparatively recent, and for that reason undue importance may have been attached to them. Older history presents us with facts of a totally different character, with numerous instances of this subjugation of the civilized by the savage, and of the destruction of a civilization by barbarian force. It would also be well to remember that the most advanced of existing races is very far from being the highest race that has ever existed. One race, at least, has disappeared which was immensely superior, both physically and morally, to the English people of to-day. I quote from Francis Galton; “The average ability of the Athenian race was, on the lowest possible estimate, nearly two grades higher than our own,—that is, about as much as the ability of our race is above that of the African sieges. This estimate, which may seen; prodigious to some, is confirmed by the quick intelligence and high culture of the Athenian commonalty, before whom literary works were recited, and works of art exhibited, of a far more severe character than could possibly be appreciated by the average age,—the calibre of whose intellect is easily gauged by a glance at the contents of a railway bookstall . . . . If we could raise the average standard of our own race only one grade, what vast changes would be produced! . . . The number of men of natural gifts equal to those of the eminent men of the present day would be increased tenfold [2433 to a million, instead of 233]." Mr. Galton goes on to prove that, could we raise the average ability to the Athenian level, or two grades higher, the result would be that for every six men of extraordinary ability whom England can now produce, she would then produce thirteen hundred and fifty-five.3 Perhaps so gifted a race will never again appear upon earth. Yet it has utterly disappeared. Probably the remark will be made that its disappearance was due chiefly, as Mr. Galton seems to believe, to moral laxity. Well, the very title of Dr. Pearson’s book ought to have indicated to these who reviewed it superficially that he was considering the probable results of moral laxity upon modern civilization. One of our dangers is to be sought in the ever-increasing greed of pleasure and the decay of character. The mental and the moral capacities of so-called higher races are showing, Dr. Pearson believed, those signs of exhaustion which would indicate that the maximum development of our civilization has almost been reached. The fact is certainly significant that the most naturally gifted of all European races, the French, is showing itself, like the Athenian race, relatively though not normally infertile. There are doubtless other causes for this, such as those considered by Mr. Spencer 4 but the decay of character can scarcely be the least. For all Occidental civilization this will be one of the perils from within. The peril from without will be the industrial competition of the Far East.

Before we consider Dr. Pearson's views, another remark may be offered about the exaggerated belief of the Western races in their own unparalleled superiority. Monstrous as may seem to some the fancy the non-Christian Oriental race may be able to dominate Christendom in the future, we have to face the fact thanon-Christian and an Oriental people financially rule Western civilization to-day. The world’s finances are practically in the hands of a race persecuted by Christianity for thirteen centuries,—a race undoubtedly modified in the Occident by large interfusion of Western blood, but nevertheless markedly preserving its Oriental and unmistakable characteristics. And the recent anti-Semitic manifestations in Europe represent the modern acknowledgment of Aryan inability to cope with particular powers possessed by that race. I might even cite from a remarkable German study, published about ten years ago, and written to prove that whenever the percentage of Hebrews in a Gentile population begins to exceed a certain small figure, then "life becomes intolerable for the Gentiles." But I wish to call attention to general rather than to special superiority. The intellectual power of the Jew is by no means limited to business. The average of Jewish ability surpasses that of the so-termed Aryan in a far greater variety of directions than is commonly known. Out of 100,000 Western celebrities, the proportion of Jews to Europeans in philology, for example, is 123 to 13; in music, it is 71 to 11, in medicine, it is 49 to 31 in natural science, it is 25 to 22.5 In departments of genius as diverse as those of chess-playing and acting, the Jewish, superiority is also powerfully marked. It has been said that the Jewish capacity was developed by Christian persecution, but, not to mention the fact that such persecution selected its victims rather from the best than from the worst of a Jewish population, this explanation would place within comparatively recent times the evolution of mental powers which have distinguished the race from the most ancient times. Jewish capacity was rather the cause than the consequence of persecution. Ages before Christianity (as might be inferred even from Genesis and from Exodus, or from the book of Esther) the race had been hated and persecuted because of its capacity. That capacity was restrained by special legal disabilities in Rome. It provoked murder and pillage even under the tolerant role of the Arabs in Spain;' and the attitude of Mohammedan races toward the Jews in Africa and in Asia has been, on the whole, scarcely more tolerant than that of Christian nations.

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