In “The Philosopher,” a chapter in the 1922 travel book On a Chinese Screen, W. Somerset Maugham comments, “He was the greatest authority in China on Confucian learning.”
The philosopher mentioned above tells Maugham:
“I took the Ph.D. in Berlin, you know,” he said. “And afterwards I studied in Oxford. … But his study of Western philosophy had only served in the end to satisfy him that wisdom after all was to be found within the limits of the Confucian canon. He accepted its philosophy with conviction. If Confucianism gained so firm a hold on the Chinese it is because it explained and expressed them as no other system of thought could do. He loathed the modern cry for individualism. For him society was the unit, and the family the foundation of society. He upheld the old China and the old school, monarchy, and the rigid canon of Confucius. He grew violent and bitter as he spoke of the students fresh from foreign universities, who with sacrilegious hands tore down the oldest civilization in the world. ”
“But you, do you know what you are doing?” he exclaimed. “What is the reason for which you deem yourselves our betters? Have you excelled us in arts or letters? Have our thinkers been less profound than yours? Has our civilization been less elaborate, less complicated, less refined than yours? Why, when you lived in caves and clothed yourselves with skins we were a cultured people. Do you know that we tried an experiment which is unique in the history of the world? We sought to rule this great country not by force, but by wisdom. And for centuries we succeeded. Then why does the white man despise the yellow? Shall I tell you? Because he has invented the machine gun. That is your superiority. We are a defenseless horde and you can blow us into eternity. You have shattered the dream of our philosophers that the world could be governed by the power of law and order. And now you are teaching our young men your secret. You have thrust your hideous inventions upon us. Do you not know that we have a genius for mechanics? Do you not know that there are in this country four hundred millions of the most practical and industrious people in the world? Do you think it will take us long to learn? And what will become of your superiority when the yellow man can make as good guns as the white and fire them as straight? You have appealed to the machine gun and by the machine gun shall you be judged.”
The decade of the 1850s gives a most revealing picture of the Chinese sense of things falling apart. The Taiping Rebellion, convulsed China in the 1850s. It was a utopian movement which wants to go backwards and forwards at the same time and arrive at a historical paradise.
From 1859-1860, the Second Opium War racks China. The British extract more concessions from the Chinese by the Treaty of Tientsin, a tremendous new humiliation for the Chinese. As part of British “shock and awe” of that time the Summer Palace in Beijing is burned down.
In Chinese society, to add to this misery, there is a tremendous conflict in China between the Hakka (客家, “Guest People”) with the Punti (本地, “Native/Original People”) called the Hakka–Punti conflict, and is referred to in the movie The Hawaiians, based on the James Michener novel.
All of this Chinese turmoil and national weakness is itself taking place in a global context that is threatening. Commodore Perry and his “Black Ships” sail into Edo Bay (now Tokyo Bay) in 1853, to dictate terms to the Japanese which amount to “trade or die” (an American “shock and awe”).
In 1857-1858, India convulses with the Indian Mutiny, which has been described as the opening chapter of the Indian Independence Movement. The Indian Mutiny, also known as the Sepoy Mutiny, was put down with shocking brutality. The Chinese watching the event, feel rage about the insouciant attitude of Westerners towards non-Western people.(A recent masterpiece Human Smoke by Nicholson Baker shows you the same insouciant attitude in the Bengal Famine of the 1940s and with Churchill’s dismissive comments about the human misery.) The Chinese who were studying news reports coming out of India suddenly learnt that control of India in 1858 was transferred permanently from the East India Company to the Crown, showing that the British could change the rules of the game at will.
In the 19th century Chinese and Japanese thinkers came up with two definitive slogans, which they used to orient themselves.
“Western Technology, Eastern Ethics.” What is the balance point between West and the East? Xi Jinping (习近平) is also trying to find a balance. How American must a Chinese Silicon Valley have to be?
“Rich Country, Strong Army.” How fast could China become a rich country with a strong army, without provoking a global backlash—think Chinese leaders since Mao.
Certain opaque and chaotic phenomena in Chinese history haunt the Chinese mind. Mao was reading Chinese historians all his life to try to understand these phenomena. Chinese schoolboys are trying to understand the rebellion called the An Lu-Shan (安禄山) of 755-763, which takes place in the middle of the Tang Dynasty and plunges China into chaos. Leaders, scholars and schoolchildren of China want to decipher the events of this very classic rebellion in Chinese history and to understand what they are always trying to understand: how things go bad. An Lu-Shan was of Turkish and Sogdian origins, which created another kind of nervousness: turmoil in China coming from non-Chinese ethnic groups. Chinese brutality toward both the Tibetans and the Muslims within China echo these anxieties. This classical rebellion is interpreted by Chinese as the beginning of the end of the Tang Dynasty, the first Chinese Golden Age. China’s preoccupation with stability comes from its insecurity about national turmoil such as the An Lu-Shan Rebellion case, which could merge with foreign threats creating a nightmare for China.
China was conquered by the Mongols who created the Yuan Dynasty circa 1300 A.D. China was conquered by the Manchus from 1644-1911. The Japanese assaulted China in the 1930s. Europeans colonized and broke China into pieces in the 19th century. The ultimate symbol of China’s defeat was the two Opium Wars—1839 and 1859—by the British. The tremendous humiliation suffered by the Chinese is masterfully conveyed by Arthur Waley’s classic book, The Opium War Through Chinese Eyes.
Quest to Understand
China and Charles Darwin, by James Pusey, captures the perplexity of the Western intellectual impact on China in the last few lines of the book. “But Charles Darwin honestly entered those mixtures in Chinese heads and made them different. So his influence was real. Chinese of course confused Darwin’s ideas and were confused by them, and of course they got confused in Chinese directions, but small wonder. Every people has gotten confused. For the fact of the matter is, when all is said and done, that no one knows what to make of evolution.”
Many Western ideas and philosophies are troubling and destabilizing for the Chinese such as, individualism before society and family; marriage based on romantic love alone; a society based on innovate-or-die.
The Chinese quest for such modes of stability has a perennial quality.