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.

What America and Australia have been obliged to protect themselves from, all Europe may have cause to fear before the close of the next century. Once China has been penetrated by the forces of Western civilization, her population will begin to display new activities, and to expand in all possible directions. Chinese competition will have to be faced, probably, very much sooner than had been expected.


A very significant fact bearing upon this problem has been furnished by the influence of Occidental civilization in Japan.

Although the author who declared the Western type of society to be, in many respects, "one of the most horrible that has ever existed in the world’s history" was certainly more than half right; although it is true that we see “boundless luxury and self-indulgence at one end of the scale, and at the other a condition of life as cruel as that of a Roman slave, and more degraded than that of a South Sea islander;" although our civilization be one which opens the gate of fortune to aggressive cunning, and closes it as long as possible against the highest qualities of character and of intellect, nevertheless that civilization enormously multiplies the chances for energy, for talent, for practical abilities of almost every description. While crushing and destroying in one direction, it opens a hundred ways for escape in another. Though the feeble, the stupid, and the vicious are brayed alive, the strong, the clever, an self-controlled are not only aided, but are compelled to better themselves. The condition of success is not merely that effort shall be constant, but also that the force of the effort itself shall be constantly increased; and those able to fulfill that condition without a mental or a physica break-down are tolerably certain to win at last what they wish,—perhaps even more than they wish. While the effort exacted is large, the return is, in the majority of normal cases, more than proportional. Life must be lived upon a bigger scale than in the past; but the means so to live can be earned by the more vigorous. Although, by the law of antagonism between individuation and genesis, the higher raves ought to be the less fertile races, other conditions being equal, they are not so, having been able to create for themselves conditions unknown in previous eras, and opportunities still undreamed of by races accustomed to simple natural living. Hence the phenomenon that a non-Aryan race, able and willing to adopt Western civilization, or even to submit contentedly to its discipline, will begin to multiply more rapidly under the new conditions, even while those conditions entail forms of suffering previously unknown. Upon certain stages of development the opportunities of life will be increased even more than the difficulties; for previous resources will be enlarged, and new area found and developed, while countless means of conquering natural obstacles will be furnished by scientific knowledge to those capable of using them.

Penetrated by the influences of Western civilization, the population of Japan began almost simultaneously to expand. Within twenty-two years it has increased more than twenty-five per cent. In the year 1872 it was 33,110,825. In 1892 it was 41,388,313. It is now over 42,000,000. And this increase has been in despite of repeated epidemics, and great losses of life due to floods and earthquakes. Improved sanitation, enforcement of hygienic laws, attention given to drainage and to systems of water supply have certainly helped the increase, but could not alone explain it. The explanation is to be sought rather in the greatly widened opportunities of life furnished by the sudden development of the country. During the same period the increase in the total volume of the expert and import trade has been 534 per cent. The total of customs duties has more than quadrupled. Wages are said to have risen 37 per cent.7 Among facts showing agricultural development is the increase in the area of cultivated land. That of land under wheat and bailey is put at 58.5 per cent, and of land under rice at 8.4. Improved methods of agriculture may help to account for the increase of rice production by 25.5 per cent during the last fifteen years alone. In the same period of fifteen years, the increase in silk production has been 300.2 per cent, and in that of tea 240.3. In the year 1883 there were 84 manufactories using steam or hydraulic power. In the year 1893 there were 1163; in cotton-spinning the development has been enormous,—1014 per cent in a single decade.

I think that the myriad new opportunities to earn a little more than a good living which this immense expansion implies should suffice at themselves to account for that increase of population which is even now offering a new problem to the Japanese government, and which has been only temporarily met by the acquisition of Formosa and the Pescadores, by the project for a Japanese Mexican colony, by the shipment of laborers to Hawaii and to other places, and by the overflow into Australia, where the Japanese labor question threatens to become as unpleasant as was the Chinese question in Dr. Pearson’s time. The whole meaning of this increase of population will best appear when I remind the reader that, in one sense of the term the Japanese are by no means a fertile race. Large families are comparatively rare,—a family of nine or ten children being quite uncommon, and the birth of twins so rare as to be considered an anomaly. Nevertheless, the Japanese population has increased over 25 per cent, while that of England has increased only about 7 per cent. This, of course, is temporary, and a check must eventually come; but the period of that check is apparently still far off.

Imagine, then, the consequence of a corresponding commercial and industrial development upon a Chinese population of four or five hundred millions,—probably more fertile than the Japanese, declared by the Japanese themselves superior in all the craft of commerce and the secrets of finance, matchless as mere mechanical workers, and capable of living and multiplying under conditions according to which the Japanese artisan would refuse to live! Compel China to do what Japan has voluntarily done, and the increase of her population within one century will probably be a phenomenon without parallel in the past history of the world.


Here, however, there come up some doubts to be considered. Can China be forced to develop herself as Japan has done ? And is not Western industrialism likely to be protected from Chinese competition by the irreducible character of Chinese conservatism? Japanese development has been voluntary, patriotic, eager, earnest, unselfish. But will not the Chinaman of the year 2000 resemble in all things the familiar China to-day?

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