A Conversation in Peking




‘ARE you sure,’ asked the Chinese professor, ‘that your Christian religion makes all this difference between the Western world and the Orient? I admire many things that I have seen in America,’ he added; ‘your schools and motor cars for everyone, and your bathtubs and canned meat.’

The eyes of the old philosopher brightened as he recalled the conveniences and the plenty of the West.

‘Most of all,’ he went on, ‘I marvel at the magic by which you keep away disease; that thin, mysteriously powerful line—“public health,” I believe you call it — which wards off the evil spirits of typhoid fever and malaria and smallpox and leprosy. Some other things in your Western countries I do not admire at all, but I don’t see that any of them have much to do with Christianity.’

The discussion had started in the living room of an ancient Chinese temple transformed into a modern residence. A group typical of what one sees in present-day Peking — or Peiping, as they are now calling it — included many races: three or four Americans and Englishmen, a Japanese diplomat, and several Chinese scholars and officials.

The conversation of these men who had lived all over the world had turned to racial differences and to religious influences. The prosperous son of a missionary, who was expounding the transforming power of Christianity, had been pushed further and further into a corner by his Chinese and American friends.

‘This difference between America and China I admit,’ said Wu Ting, professor at Peking National University. ‘It is a difference that is explained by racial inheritance, by social and physical surroundings, and by modes of living, not by religion.’

‘But religion is just that part of the mode of living which has most greatly influenced Western development,’ said the American.

‘I think,’ replied Wu Ting, ‘that that statement cannot be proved. If Christianity has a transforming power, it should show itself in Chinese, or Armenian, or Siamese converts, as well as in church members in America and England. So far as China is concerned, no such change seems to occur. I know many Chinese who live flawless lives filled with love and kindness, but they are not Christians; I know also a few Chinese Christians, but I do not seem to find them any more interested in brotherly love or the Golden Rule than their neighbors who follow the ancient teachings of Confucius.’

Copyright 1930, by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.

This declaration was met by general protests.

‘Very well,’ said the Chinese philosopher, ‘I shall be satisfied if any of you can name a single Chinese convert whose way of life over a period of years can in any essential be attributed to the influence of this new religion.’

There was an astonishing absence of examples. One or two suggested recent converts whose enthusiasm was still apparent. When it came to naming persons who had accepted the new religion years ago and had reshaped their lives because of it, one after another of the examples offered had to be abandoned under the fire of Chinese cross-examination and analysis. Finally the original advocate eagerly offered the name of a general, then conspicuous, whose adherence to the new doctrines was so well known as to earn for him the title of ‘the Christian General.’

‘That example would have been more convincing two days ago,’ replied one of the Chinese. ‘Unfortunately this general has just yesterday committed one of the most atrocious massacres of defenseless prisoners known in recent Chinese history. While he still remains a conspicuous figure of war, and while he is likely to achieve high place among the generals, those considerations of love and mercy which are supposed to be the characteristic features of the Christian doctrine have unfortunately failed to affect his conduct.’

Further conversation brought into relief the Western theory that, regardless of specific, unfortunate instances, religion must influence a man’s way of life, and that very deeply.

Again said Dr. Wu: ‘I think that cannot be proved. As a matter of fact, I believe that religious creeds, oftener than not, represent the very opposite of the characteristics of the people who adopt them. They are in this sense what your psychologists would call “ compensations.” ’

The Chinese philosopher then proceeded to outline a theory of religion quite unfamiliar to his hearers. ‘It is not,’ said he, ‘a positive influence realizing its principles in the lives of its adherents; it is rather a kind of counter-satisfaction, a means of expression which may make possible the more complete adherence by a people to practices the very opposite of the doctrines concerned.’

In order to illustrate this theory, he suggested that we consider two religions, both of which started in the same section of the world and only a few centuries apart in time, and see if the nations to which Christianity and Mohammedanism have spread are today marked by the principles of the respective teachers, or whether, as a matter of fact, just the opposite is not the case.

‘What are the characteristic tenets of Christian teaching?’ the philosopher asked. ‘Are they not brotherly love, the avoidance of force, the lack of thought for the morrow, the disregard of capitalistic treasure, emphasis upon the spiritual rather than the material?’ And to drive home his point he recited some typical quotations from the Founder of Christianity taken from the several Gospel reports: —

‘God is a Spirit: and they that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth. — John iv. 24

‘Love your enemies, do good to them which hate you, Bless them that curse you, and pray for them which despitefully use you. And unto him that smiteth thee on the one cheek offer also the other. — Luke vi. 27-29

‘Be ye therefore merciful, as your Father also is merciful. Luke vi. 36

‘Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth. — Matthew v. 5

‘Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth. — Matthew vi. 19

‘Judge not, that ye be not judged. — Matthew vii. 1

‘Go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven. — Matthew xix. 21

‘A new commandment I give unto you. That ye love one another. — John xiii. 34 ‘And as ye would that men should do to you, do ye also to them likewise. — Luke vi. 31

‘Now what are the countries which have most completely adopted Christianity?’ the professor went on. ‘Are they not the countries of Europe and of the Americas, and are not these countries of all the world the most warlike, the most capitalistic, the most devoted to careful planning for the morrow, to efficient preparedness, and to careful execution of well-laid plans? Are they not the nations which have created the amplest stores of worldly treasure, having made acquisitiveness a principle not only in regard to physical goods, but in regard to stocks and bonds, which are but tokens of goods stored the world over? Are not the “Nordics” leaders alike in Christianity and in race prejudice?

‘These characteristics,’ said Dr. Wu, ‘of taking thought for the morrow, of laying up treasure, of methodical preparation for war, of looking down upon other human races and exploiting them — these characteristics may not be evil in themselves. I am not prepared to criticize them, for they have carried the Western nations to domination of the world. But certainly they are the very opposite of the teachings of the religion which these nations profess.’

At this point an Englishman interrupted the orderly development of the thesis to point out that it was unfair to judge so-called Christian nations by the acts of men who themselves were admittedly not followers of Christ or even members of a church.

‘But it works out just the same, even if you take only professing Christians!’ shouted one of the Americans. ‘The most famous parish in New York is a typical capitalistic corporation. It has made marvelous profits from stocks and bonds, and in the past, at least, from its ownership of abominable tenements. And did n’t preachers in England and America and Germany whoop it up for the war quite as eagerly as anyone, and with just as inflaming distortions of fact?

‘Furthermore,’ said the man, showing signs of prejudice as he warmed to the argument, ‘some of the missionaries are themselves among the worst offenders against the principles of brotherly love. I often wonder how men and women who devote their lives to “saving” the natives of foreign countries can at the same time be so arrogant and so race-proud in their actual personal relations with them.’


The critic held the floor for several minutes elaborating his theme of the un-Christlike actions of the very emissaries of Christianity. His statements, denuded of excessive emphasis and a good deal of extraneous matter, were in substance as follows: —

‘Everyone in China knows Kuling, the mountain summer resort standing, clear and beautiful, three thousand feet above the Yangtze River. Kuling is striking in setting and daring in conception; it is a triumph of Western imagination and Western skill over material obstacles. One feature, however, is most amazing of all: the resort was established and is controlled in large part by Christian missionaries to China, and the inexorable law is that no Chinese may live there!

‘One grows calloused to the arrogance of business people of the Christian nations toward the Chinese off whom they are making their fortunes and whose territory they have occupied by force: the ownership by foreigners of the valuable sections of a city like Shanghai; their control there of t he municipal government of all but the poor old section within the wall; the policing of the city with Indian Sikhs, feared and hated by the Chinese; the proprietorship of the Bund along the beautiful river front in Hankow, on which, until the Nationalist armies forced a change, no Chinese was allowed to walk unless he was carrying a white man’s bag or pushing a white baby in a perambulator. You all remember the supreme example — the sign that used to stand in the charming park in Shanghai which declared, in staring letters, DOGS AND CHINESE NOT ALLOWED.1

‘One comes to recognize such abuses as the spoils taken by the strong from the exploited weak; but there still remains, to me at least, a different kind of shock whenever one sees this same attitude of superiority taken by Christian missionaries.’

Another American, recently returned from ‘God’s country,’ suddenly joined the conversation. ‘While I was visiting Kentucky last winter I met a Southerner whom I had known years before. He was the kind who would have starved rather than eat with a Negro, who would to this day kill his sister before he would see her dancing with a mulatto.

‘“Where have you been all these years?” I asked him.

‘“Oh, didn’t you know?” he answered. “I am just home on a furlough; my sister and I are foreign missionaries.”

‘“Splendid,” said I. “Where is your field?”

‘And he replied: “Central Africa.”

‘Can anyone explain this to me? Why does a man of this stripe choose Africa as a place to carry the gospel of brotherly love — and when he gets there why does he treat the natives as a race apart while he frantically tries to bring them into Heaven so that he can live with them forever?

‘Do you suppose this fervor for black and yellow souls on the part of the “honorable white master” comes from a desire to make sure of a supply of coolie labor for whatever menial tasks may turn up in Heaven? To polish the golden streets, to carry the spiritual burdens, to mind the troublesome little angels? Or can these superior whites be looking forward to a color line in Heaven? Can they be expecting that there will be segregated districts for Chinese and Negro and Indian souls, while special mountains of pearl are reserved for the white ghosts? What will that Kentucky missionary to Africa do if a Negro angel steps up to welcome his sister into Heaven?’

We all exclaimed in protest against these unjust and frivolous questions. But the speaker declared very earnestly that he did n’t mean to be frivolous, that he was seriously confused by the contradictions in the lives and aims of these missionaries. And he went on to explain that he was not straining the point in his references to human life in Heaven. Missionaries, he bade us remember, are the very people who believe in such a community of the saved. Professing Christians in reciting the Apostles’ Creed still declare, ’I believe in . . . the Resurrection of the body,’ and ‘the Communion of Saints’ has with them a tangible basis of fact. Orthodox evangelists in China as elsewhere accept with absolute literalness the Old Testament Heaven, with the continuance of a very human sort of existence for the elect.

‘ Just so,’ said the American who had first put in his oar. ‘The attitude of white church people toward Chinese and Indians and Filipinos has been to me a never-ending source of wonder. Human nature is a strange and inconsistent thing at best. But of all the spectacles I have seen in the East the most bizarre is that of Christians holding their noses, as it were, while between outstretched thumb and finger they piously lift Chinese coolies and Malay natives into their own Heaven.’

‘Maybe’ — a new member of the group was speaking— ‘Dr. Wu’s theory would explain it. Many of these missionaries are just plain, smallminded people, full of Nordic prejudice. They proclaim the Golden Rule and equality before the Lord, and many of them devote their careers to the spread of this and similar Christian precepts. But they don’t give up their prejudices. Like the business man, the missionary draws the bar of race against social intercourse. I don’t want to run down men who have abandoned comfortable lives in the West for the sake of an ideal. I don’t mean to say that missionaries have not worked hard and done very great good, especially with their hospitals and schools. It’s just that so many of them lack that instinct of brotherhood which was the central teaching of their Messiah. Take this Southern missionary to Africa — it’s not unnatural he was prejudiced. Despising blacks more than all others, in some queer mental or emotional throw-over he devotes his life to saving their souls. But watch him when one of his black brothers in Kentucky invites him to dinner!’

At this point one of the Chinese officials called attention to the recent tragic results in China of this arrogant attitude. ‘What our friends have just commented upon,’ he said, ‘has been felt and resented in China for many years. Of course, missionaries are not all alike. I have known some who have lived right among the poorest of the people they have come to teach, who have shared their meagre homes and food and have helped in all their daily tasks. But the general impression of Westerners, missionaries as well as civilians, throughout China is that from a race-proud eminence they look down upon the “natives” and are interested only in converting them to the new religion.

‘You can imagine,’ the official continued, ‘the resentment against this attitude which has been seething in China and which has now flared up in riots and wars. You must remember that bitterness when you read of attacks on missionaries, the burning of churches, and the pillaging of homes. These bands of angry Chinese have nothing in particular against Christianity. Of course the marauding armies are interested in loot for themselves, but they remember besides that foreign missionaries came to their country, took the choicest property for their comfortable homes, treated native servants none too kindly, and made it very evident that they despised China and everything Chinese. These uprisings against foreigners, and in certain instances directly against missionaries, are the answer of the Chinese masses to decades of foreign exploitation and arrogance.’


During this discussion Dr. Wu Ting had remained immobile.

‘If you are finished,’ he said when a pause occurred, ‘ let me go on with the general argument.’ And he proceeded to do so.

‘Take another religion by way of comparison — that of Islam. This religion started in the same part of the world as Christianity did. Its Prophet, Mohammed, traveled paths near those where the Founder of Christianity had walked a few centuries before. Yet, while the Christian religion spread westward to the efficient, capitalistic, warlike nations, Mohammedanism, for the most part, spread east and south.

‘ Mohammedanism, as contrasted with Christianity, emphasizes efficiency, materialism, and war. It dictates in detail the tasks which must be performed by the devotee. The times of prayer practically control the Mohammedan’s rising and retiring; careful directions as to the washing of hands and body and as to foods to be eaten and avoided regulate such material items as sanitation and diet. Islam exalts the principle of private property. From the beginning it was built about warfare. The army is a regular part of Mohammedan organization — an institution for the conquering of unbelievers and for the suppression of internal rebellion. The Koran gives minute directions as to the distribution of booty and the handling of conquered peoples. Consider such typical sayings of Mohammed as these: —

‘Your lives and property are sacred and inviolable amongst one another until the end of time.
‘ The practice of religion is founded upon cleanliness, which is one half of faith and the key to prayer.
‘And give full measure when you measure out and weigh with a true balance.
‘The sword is the key of heaven and hell; a drop of blood shed in the cause of God or a night spent in arms is of more avail than two months of fasting and prayer.

‘Yet Islam, this efficient, warlike religion, full of detailed instructions for the handling of worldly goods, for personal hygiene, and for conquest by arms, has spread during the centuries to the southern and eastern peoples, to Africa, the Near East, and Asia, to people who were and are unhygienic, inefficient, and dishonest in the Western sense, unorganized in preparedness and war as compared with Europeans, uninterested in treasure houses of goods and chattels as contrasted with Westerners.

‘Except for the first military successes of the Arab horsemen, Islam, with all its warlike trappings and efficient régime, has not much affected, below superficial observance, the life of the people to whom it has spread. It has not raised its followers in North Africa and Western Asia from sloth, dirt, disease, and inefficiency. And Christianity has had equally little success in making European and American nations peaceful, philosophic, or unworldly.

‘The directions of the spread of Christianity and Mohammedanism are to be explained not by any willingness of the peoples who adopted them to follow their teachings, but rather by the tendencies of these peoples to use the principles as a compensation for their own recognized shortcomings in these respects.

‘The Easterners realized perhaps subconsciously the lacks which come with inefficiency and with a happy-golucky socialism. They therefore accepted a simple mechanism of religion which would care for their habits in eating and bathing, in fighting and in holding property, without too much anxious concern on their part, and which would enable them, by expressing a theoretic interest in all these matters, then to go about their lives free to pursue the exact opposites.

‘The nations of Europe and America on the other hand, failing to find complete satisfaction in their jealousies and wars and in their capitalism and busy planning for the future, have welcomed an opportunity to declare loudly their belief in the very opposite of those things to which in reality they devote their lives.'

‘Well, anyway,’ the son of a missionary interposed, ‘all you say goes to show that people turn to religion because they want something they do not find in the rest of their lives. You call it compensation: I should prefer to call it aspiration or idealism. To me it is gratifying to see successful business men turning to the meek and patient Messiah, to see army colonels and other race-conscious Nordics attending the Christian church.’

‘Call it what you please,’ said Dr. Wu, ‘so long as you don’t pretend that it transforms life,’ and went on to make some pointed comments upon the World War and the treatment of Negroes by Christian mobs in America.

‘ By the way,’ said one of the Englishmen who had not previously spoken, ‘when I last visited the United States I heard a good deal about a man who was doing a lot to help the Negroes — building schools for them and helping them get decent living quarters and medical care. Yet this man was not a Christian. Queer, is n’t it, that with all the Christian teaching of the Golden Rule and brotherly love it should be a Jew who conspicuously exemplifies these doctrines in his service to Negroes. No doubt a great many Christians also have helped the Negroes, with lovingkindness as well as with money, but as many Christians, I ’ll venture to say, have been in mobs that lynched them. Anyway, this Jewish philanthropist stands out as one of the great American benefactors of the Negro.’

‘Fascinating,’ murmured Wu Ting, and began to discuss Judaism. He said that, while he didn’t pretend to know much about Jews or the Jewish religion, one thing that had always struck him was that they spoke of themselves as ‘the chosen people,’ and their prophets emphasized their essential separateness from all other groups.

The Jews, he went on to explain, still proclaim themselves followers of their ancient prophets, and they have never accepted Jesus as a teacher or Messiah. Yet Jews are really the most charitable of peoples. In western Europe and America they are among the liberal contributors to general causes as well as to their own charities and hospitals. And as a matter of fact they probably do not really wish to be separated from other people. In Europe for centuries they have been forcibly isolated and segregated. Therefore, by way of compensation, they keep declaring that they are a separate, chosen people of God. Thus in a social evil they try to find a religious good.

‘Right!’ cried one of the Americans. ‘I don’t believe Jews want to be segregated any more than any other group does. They probably use their old religious slogan of a select people simply to compensate themselves for a situation which has been forced on them. I don’t see Jews avoiding other groups when they get a chance to mingle. They go to schools and colleges wherever they can. They are keen enough to move into Christian or gentile neighborhoods. They intermarry quickly enough. Why, they even change their names, so they won’t be thought to be Jews. I can’t believe they hold to this “chosen people” idea very sincerely — whenever they can get a chance to drop it. But so long as they are segregated, this is a comforting doctrine to chant by way of defense and compensation.’

At this point the Japanese diplomat arose and, apropos of nothing in particular, announced with a polite bow: ‘There has been a great revival of Buddhism in Japan in recent years.’

‘Just so,’ answered Dr. Wu; and, sitting with half-closed eyes, he went on. ‘Buddhism — a great religion. We cannot now take the time of the schedule-worshiping Westerners to elaborate its doctrines and philosophy. All of you who have lived in the East or who have studied at all know it anyway. It is essentially the religion of calm detachment from the world, of the “way of life” which looks toward peaceful contemplation and poise.

‘And, as our friend has indicated, Buddhism to-day is in a state of active renaissance, of conscious energetic promulgation nothing short of a crusade in just one country — Japan. Interesting, is n’t it? For Japan, I need scarcely add, is the one country of the entire East which has become notoriously bustling, feverish, materialistic, efficient, and successful. The Japanese army is as efficient as that of Germany at the beginning of the century. Japanese railways are among the bestmanaged in the world; you can safely set your watch by trains as they come and go through the stations. The national currency exchanges throughout the world at par even with sterling. Tokyo rivals New York and London in active business, clattering trains, trade in all commodities, and in stocks and bonds. The stop watch to-day rules the country.

‘Millions of Japanese people, as they turn their backs upon centuries of the simple way of life, of calm and contemplation, seek compensation in shouting their adherence to the quiet, eternal Buddha.’

No one volunteered any further comments, and there was silence for a time.

‘Creeds,’ said Wu Ting, evidently by way of summing up his thesis, ‘creeds do not represent the expression of the real beliefs and desires of the people who adopt them. Nor do religious precepts affect very much the lives of the worshipers. Oftener than not religious tenets are the exact opposite of the characteristics of those who profess them. They are not a positive expression of belief or emotion, but a compensation for recognized or unconscious contraries in life and ideals.'

Such was the doctrine of the Chinese philosopher. But as he rose to go to his home a smile played about his features.

  1. Listeners should not interrupt a conversation, but anyone who has lived in the East can readily conjure up a few of the difficulties which would follow the withdrawal of every artificial barrier between the races. The barriers may be difficult to defend on theoretical grounds, but they undoubtedly do have their practical uses. — THE EDITOHS