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.

I must presume to express a conviction that the character of Chinese conservatism has never been fully understood in the West, and that it is just in the peculione-sidedness of that conservatism that the peril reveals itself. Japan has certainly been more thoroughly studied than China; yet even the character of Japan was so little understood two years ago that her defeat by China was predicted as a matter of course. Japan was imagined to be a sort of miniature of China,—probably because of superficial resemblances by her adoption of Chinese civilization. It often occurs to me that the old Jesuit missionaries understood the difference of the races infinitely better than even our diplomats do to-day. When, after having studied the wonderful quaint letters of these ecclesiastics, one reads the judgments uttered about the Far East by modern journalists, and the absurdly untruthful reports sent home by our English and American missionaries, it is difficult to believe that we have not actually retrograded, either in common honesty or in knowledge of the Orient. I tried to make plain in a former paper8 that a characteristic of Japanese life was its fluidity; and also that this characteristic was not of yesterday. All the modern tales about the former rigidity of Japanese society—about the conservation of habits and customs unchanged through centuries—are mostly pure fiction. The assimilative genius of the race is the proof. Assimilative genius is not the characteristic of a people whose customs and habits have been conservatively fixed beyond the reach of change. “A mind that would grow,'' said Clifford, "must let no ideas became permanent except such as homed to action. Towards all others it must maintain an attitude of absolute receptivity,—admitting all, being modified by all, but permanently biased by none. To become crystallized, fixed, in opinion and mode of thought is to lose that great characteristic of life by which it is distinguished from inanimate nature,—the power of adapting itself to circumstances. This is true even of the race . . . And if we consider that a race, in proportion as it is plastic and capable of change, may be considered as young and vigorous, . . . we shall see the immense importance of checking the growth of conventionalities."9 The relation between the essentially mobile and plastic diameter of Japanese society and that assimilative genius which could successively adopt and remodel for its own peculiar needs two utterly different forms of civilization should certainly be obvious. But according to the same sociological law expressed by Professor Clifford, the Chinese race would be doomed to disappear, or at least to shrink up into same narrow area,—supposing it really incapable of modification. In Europe the generally received opinion about China seems to be that line conservatism is like the conservation of the ancient Egyptians, and must eventually leave her people in a state of changeless subservience like that of the modern fellaheen. But is this opinion true?

Perhaps we should look in vain through the literature of any other equally civilized people for a record like that in the Li-Ki, which tells us that anciently, in China, persons” guilty of changing what had been definitely settled,” and of using or making “ strange garments, wonderful contrivances, and extraordinary implements,” were put to death! But modern China is not to be judged by her ancient literature, but by her present life. Men who know China also know that Chinese conservatism does not extend to those activities which belong to trade, to industry, to commerce or speculation. It is a conservatism in beliefs, ethics, and customs, and has nothing to do with business. A conservatism of this sort may be a source of power; it is not likely to be a source of weakness. Whether in Japan or in India, Canada or Australia, Cuba or Chili, Siberia or Burmah, the Chinaman remains a Chinaman. But while so remaining he knows how to utilize the modern inventions of industry, the modern facilities of communication, the new resources of commerce. He knows the value of cable codes, he charters steamers, builds factories, manages banks, profits by the depreciation or the rise of exchange, makes “corners.” organizes stock companies, hires steam or electricity to aid him in his manufacturing or speculating.10 As a merchant his commercial integrity is recognized by the foreign merchants, of every nation, who deal with him. He keeps his costume and his creed, observes his national rules of propriety, maintains his peculiar cult at home; but the home may be a granite front in America, a bungalow in India, a bamboo hut in Sumatra, a brick cottage in New Zealand, a fireproof two-story in Japan. He avails himself of the best he can afford abroad when the use of the best is connected with a commercial advantage; and when this is not the case he can put up with much worse than the worst. His conservatism never interferes with his business: it is a domestic matter, a personal matter, affecting only his intimate life, his private expenditure. His pleasures and even his vices—provided he be not a gambler—are comparatively inexpensive and he clings to the simplicity of his ancestral habits even while controlling—like the Chinese merchant at the next carrier of the street in which I live—a capital of hundreds of thousands. This is his strength and in our own West, through centuries, it has been the strength of the Jews.

Perhaps China can never be made to do all that Japan has done; but she will certainly be made to do what has given Japan her industrial and commercial importance. She is hemmed in by a steadily closing ring of foreign enemies: Russia north and west, France and England south, and all the sea power of the world threatening her coast. That she will be dominated is practically certain; the doubt is, how and by whom. Russia cannot be trusted with the control of those hundreds of millions and a partition of Chinese territory would present many difficult problems. Very possibly she will be long allowed to retain her independence in name, after having lost it in fact. She will not be permitted to exclude foreigners from her interior during any great length of time. If she will not build railroads and establish telegraph lines, the work will be done by foreign capital, and she will have to pay for it in the end. She will be exploited as much as possible; and, for the sake of the exploiters, foreign military power will force order, sanitary law compel cleanliness, engineering provide against catastrophes. She cannot be compelled to change her creeds or to study Western science in all her schools; but she will have to work very herd, and to keep her cities free from plague. By remaining otherwise unchanged, she will become, not less dangerous, but more dangerous.

From the most ancient times Chinese multiplication has been checked at intervals by calamities of such magnitude that, to find any parallel for them in Western history, we must recall the slaughters of the Crusades and the ravages of the Black Death. Enormous famines, enormous inundations, frightful revolutions provoked by misery, have periodically thinned the number of China’s millions. Even in our own era there have been disasters too large for the imagination to realize without difficulty. Tai-ping rebellion cost twenty millions of lives, the later Mohammedan revolt in the West more than two million five hundred thousand; and comparatively recent famines and floods have also swept millions out of existence. But whatever Western power rule China hereafter, that power will have to oppose and to overcome, for reasons of self-interest, all those natural or unnatural checks span multiplication which have hitherto kept the population at a relatively constant figure. The cholera and the plague most be conquered, the inundations must be prevented, the famines must be provided against, and infanticide must be prohibited.

As for the new political situation in the East, the guarantee of the Chinese indemnity to Japan by Russia, the rumors of a European combination to offset Russia’s financial diplomacy, the possibilities Anglo-Japanese alliance, the supposed project for a Russian railway through Manchuria, the story of a secret Russo-Chinese compact, the state of anarchy in Korea following upon the brutal murder of this queen, the tangle of interests and the confusion of perils,—all this I confess myself utterly unable to express any opinion about. At this writing nothing appears clear except that China will be controlled, and that Japan has became a new and important factor in all international adjustments or readjustments of the balance of power in the Pacific.

VIII.

No successful attempt has yet been made, by any one familiar with the Far East, to controvert the views of Dr. Pearson. Not one of the many antagonistic reviews of his work has even yielded proof of knowledge competent to deal with his facts. Professor Huxley indeed suggested—in a short appreciative note appended to his essay, Methods and Results of Ethnology11—that future therapeutic science might find ways to render the tropics less uninhabitable for white races than Dr. Pearson believed. But this suggestion does not touch the question of obstacles, more serious than fever, which a tropical climate offers to intellectual development, nor the question of race competition in temperate climates, nor any of the important social problems to which Dr. Pearson called attention. Religions criticisms of the book have been numerous and hostile; but they have contained nothing more noteworthy than the assertion that Dr. Pearson’s opinions were due to his want of faith in Providence. Such a statement amounts only to the alarming admission that we should hope for some miracle to save us from extermination. Various journalists on this side of the world have ventured the supposition that a Western domination of China might gradually force up the standard of Chinese living to such a degree as would leave Oriental competition no more to be dreaded than international competition at home; and they have cited the steady increase of the cost of life in Japan as a proof of the possibility. But even could it be shown that the cost of living in Japan is likely, say at the close of the twentieth century, to equal the average cost of life in Europe, it were still poor reasoning to argue that the influence of Occidental civilization most necessarily produce similar results in China, under absolutely different conditions and among a people of totally opposite character. What distinguishes the Chinese race from every other civilized race is their inherent power to resist, under all imaginable circumstances, every influence calculated to raise their standard of living. The men who best know China are just the men who cannot conceive the possibility of raising the standard of Chinese living to the Western level. Eventually, under foreign domination, the social conditions would certainly be modified, but never so modified as to render Chinese competition less dangerous, because the standard of living would not be very materially affected by any social reforms. On the other hand, it is not difficult to imagine conditions at home which would rapidly force down the living-standard, and manifest themselves later in a shrinkage of population. That the future industrial competition between Occident and Orient must be largely decided by physiological economy is not to be doubled, and the period of the greatest possible amount of human suffering is visibly approaching. The great cause of human suffering, and therefore of all progress in civilization, has been pressure of population but the worst, as Herbert Spencer long since pointed out, has yet to come: “Though by the emigration that takes place when the pressure arrives at a certain intensity temporary relief is from time to time obtained, yet as by this process all habitable countries must become peopled, it follows that in the end the pressure, whatever it may then be, must be borne in full.”12 In such an epoch the races of the Occident can only maintain their standard of living by forcing other races out of existence; and in the mere ability to live they will probably find themselves overmatched.

What Chinese competition would then mean cannot be imagined without a clear understanding of one ugly fact which distinguishes modern civilization in the West from ancient civilization in the Far East,—its monstrous egotism. As Professor Huxley has shown, the so-called “struggle for existence” in Western society is not really a struggle to live, but a struggle to enjoy, and therefore something far more cruel than a contest for the right to exist.13 According to Far-Eastern philosophy, any society founded upon such a system of selfish and sensual intercompetition is doomed to perish; and Far-Eastern philosophy maybe right. At all events, the struggle to come will be one between luxurious races, accustomed to regard pleasure, at any cost, so the object of existence, and a people of hundreds of millions disciplined for thousands of years to the most untiring industry and the self-denying thrift, under conditions which would mean worse than death for our working masses,—a people, in short, quite content to strive to the uttermost in exchange for the simple privilege of life.

Pessimistic as Dr. Pearson’s views seemed to most readers at the time when his husk was first published, they now command more attention than was accorded to them before the late war between China and Japan. They are forcing new convictions and new apprehensions. It is certain that the conditions of society in Western countries are not now ameliorating; and it is not difficult to believe that this decay of faith, the substitution of conventionalism for true religion, the ever-growing hunger of pleasure, the constant aggravation of suffering, only the signs of that senescence which precedes the death of a civilization. It is possible that the races of the Occident have almost exhausted their capacity for further development, and even that, as distinct races, they are doomed to disappear. Nor is it unnatural to suppose that the future will belong to the races of the Far East.

But a more optimistic view of the future is also possible. Though there be signs in Western civilization of the disintegration of existing social structures, there are signs also of new latent forces that will recreate society upon another and a more normal plan. There are unmistakable growing tendencies to international union, to the most complete industrial and commercial federation. International necessities are rapidly breaking down old prejudices and conservatisms, while developing cosmopolite feeling. The great fraternities of science and of art have declared themselves country of class or creed, and recognize only the aristocracy of intellect. Few thinkers would now smile at the prediction that international war will be made impossible, or doubt the coming realization of Victor Hugo’s dream of the “United States of Europe.” And this would signify nothing less than the filial obliteration of national frontiers, the removal of all barriers between European peoples, the ultimate fusion of Western races into one vast social organism. Such fusion is even now visibly beginning. The tendency of Western civilization in its present form is to unite the strong while crushing the weak, and individual superiority seeks its affiliations irrespective of nationality.

But the promise of international coalescence in the West suggests the probability of far larger tendencies to unification in the remoter future,—to unification not of nations only, but of widely divergent races. The evolutional trend would seem to be toward universal brotherhood, without distinctions of country, creed, or blood. It is neither unscientific nor unreasonable to suppose the world eventually peopled by a race different from any now existing, yet created by the blending of the best types of all races uniting Western energy Far-Eastern patience, northern vigor with southern sensibility, the highest ethical feelings developed by all great religions with the largest mental faculties evolved by all civilizations; speaking a single tongue composed from the richest and strongest elements of all preexisting human speech; and forming a society unimaginably unlike, yet also unimaginably superior to, anything which now is or has ever been.

To many the mere thought of a fusion of races will be repellent, because of ancient and powerful prejudices once essential to national self-preservation. But as a matter of scientific fact we know that none of the present higher races is really a pure race, but represents the blending, in prehistoric times, of races that have individually disappeared from the earth. All our prejudices of nationality and race and creed have doubtless had their usefulness, and some will probably continue to have usefulness for ages to be; but the way to the highest progress can be reached only through the final extinction of all prejudice,—through this annihilation of every form of selfishness, whether individual or national or racial, that opposes itself to the evolution of the feeling of universal brotherhood. The great Harvey said, “Our progress is from self-interest to self-annihilation.” Modern thought endorses the truth of that utterance. But this truth itself is older by thousands of years than Harvey; for it was spoken, long before the age of Christ, by this lips of the Buddha.


Those made by a portion of the London press. How little the real condition of Japan was known up to the time of the war may be inferred from the fact that a leading English journal declared ten thousand Chinese troops could easily conquer Japan because of the absence of national feeling in the latter country!

& Co. In the Revue Bleue and other French periodicals some phases of the question had been previously treated by able writers, but in so different a manner that the whole of Dr. Pearson’s wok appears as a totally original presentation of the subject.

3 Hereditary Genies, “On the Comparative Worth of Different Bores,” pages 329-332, edition of 1892. Concerning the physical development of the Greek race, I would recommend the reader to glance at Taine’s extraordinary grouping of evidence bearing on the question, in his Philosophic de l’Art and in L’Ideal dans l’Art.

Mr. Mahaffy has written a book to prove the English boy superior to the Greek boy; but his argument involves the denial of facts accepted by equally good authority.

4 Principles of Biology, vol. ii. chap xii.

5 I take the figures accepted by Lombroso. See his Man of Genius.

6 Long before Dr. Pearson. Herbert Spencer had noticed these limits, He had also observed, “With serial organisms, so with individual organism, the evolution of superior types does not entail the extinction of all inferior uses.” Sociology, vol. ii. But Mr. Spencer has never girdle detailed attention to the special problems first studied in detail by the author of National Life and Character.

7 Probably at the open ports only. I take these figures from the Japan Daily Mail, which republished them from the Kokuminno-Tomo. I personally know, however, that in some provinces there has been yet practically no rise in wages worth mentioning. The cost of skilled labor in the open ports has increased greatly.

8 See the Atlantic Monthly for October, 1905.

9 Lectures and Essays, “Some Conditions of Mental Development.”

10 At the time of the great silver depreciation a clever trick was reported from one of the Chinese open ports. Some Chinese forgers were able to put into circulation a considerable quantity of unlawful coin; but when the coin was examined it proved to be true metal! Nevertheless, a handsome profit must have been made, because of the temporary difference between the market price of silver and the value of the money.

11 Collected Essays, 1894.

12 Principles of Biology, “Human Population in the Future,” vol. ii. chap. xiii.

13 Evolution of Ethics, Prolegomena. xiv.

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