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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas
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240 occurrences of e
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XI

While it was generally alleged in the West that the
Chinese were scientifically inept and militarily weak,
it also gradually became apparent after 1860 that
China had staying-power as well. How was it possible
that the Chinese with all their adversities continued
to go their own way and to remain singularly unim-
pressed with the material superiority of the West?
Chinese immigrants proved to be industrious, willing,
and honest workers who adapted successfully to new
environments. The Chinese of the treaty ports were
also quick to learn the ways of the West. The govern-
ment in Peking, despite its obvious weakness, showed
a remarkable ability to play off one Western power
against the other to preserve China from partition.
Nationalist demands for the reform of the Manchu
government and the development of an embryonic
industrial base in the Yangtse valley during the 1860's
provoked Westerners to begin probing for the sources
of China's seemingly unquenchable vitality.

The basis for this new vision of China was not found
simply in the increased knowledge and understanding
that resulted from closer contact. It also emerged from
the belief that there was something to discover in
Chinese culture that the West did not possess at all
or possessed only to a lesser degree. Growing disillu-
sionment with the nationalistic, materialistic, capital-


371

istic, and individualistic society of the West drove
leading thinkers to seek for new values and directions.
Joseph Ferrari, an Italian parliamentarian, wrote a
comparative study called La Chine et l'Europe (1867)
which denies that China is barbarous, static, or isolated
and asserts that its civilization merits attention as an
historical counterpoise to Europe. Eugène Simon, a
French agricultural expert and consul in China, pub-
lished La cité chinoise (1885; cf. Fustel de Coulanges,
La cité antique, 1864), which idealizes China as a
peasant society where liberty in all its forms—political,
economic, religious, and intellectual—is realized.
Simon's book, which was very popular, prophesied that
all European attempts to subject China to industriali-
zation, colonization, or modernization would fail be-
cause of the astounding vitality of the rural nation and
its naturalistic civilization. On contemporaries, Simon's
book, along with Richthofen's of about the same pe-
riod, had an impact out of all proportion to its intrinsic
importance. Paul Ernst, the German poet, was inspired
by Simon to adulate the collectivist peasant culture
of China for giving a higher place to spiritual than
to material values. Later in life Ernst took most of his
illustrations and inspirations from his study of Chinese
art, poetry, and Taoism. He eventually concluded that
China offered the rest of the world a unique meta-
physical revelation.

Tolstoy began to take an interest in China following
the religious crisis he experienced in 1884. He read
widely, especially in the books of T. T. Meadows and
Eugène Simon, on the political and social organization
of China. Like Simon he was intrigued with Taoism
and the peasant society of China and in his publications
he urged the Chinese not to follow the way of the
West. He discerned a spiritual kinship among China,
Russia, and the other great agrarian countries which
set them apart from the industrialized, materialistic
West. He was especially attracted by the Taoist doc-
trine that men by their own efforts achieve harmony
with nature and that the role of government should
be kept to a minimum. He also responded affirmatively
to Confucian theories about the moral and immoral
effects of music. Tolstoy so greatly admired China that
he asserted just before his death in 1910: “Were I young
I would go to China” (Bodde, p. 29).

John Dewey first lectured at Peking in 1912, and
again after the First World War. Along with his pupil,
Hu Shih, Dewey was disturbed by the popularity of
“isms” in China. He urged Chinese and Westerners
alike to study the problems themselves, propose work-
able solutions, and avoid the panaceas of socialism,
anarchism, or bolshevism. Dewey was convinced that
socialism could have no roots in China because of its
low level of industrial development. Bertrand Russell,
a devoted pacifist in World War I, spent one year
lecturing in China during 1920. Although he was
known internationally as a socialist, Russell felt that
industrialization in China could best be promoted by
a partially nationalized system of capitalism. In the
articles which he wrote for Dial and the Atlantic
Monthly
in 1921, Russell unabashedly asserted that the
Chinese were more “laughter-loving than any other
race,” not self-assertive either nationally or individ-
ually, avaricious for money for enjoyment rather than
power, and socialist and scientific rather than capital-
istic and mechanistic in temperament. R. H. Tawney,
the British historian and member of the League of
Nations Commission (1931-32) on the reorganization
of education in China, likewise held a romantic notion
of the historical isolation of China and its effects upon
the growth of institutions, ideas, and practices.

While disenchantment grew in the twentieth-
century West over China's inability to solve its own
political and economic problems, inquiring minds
nonetheless continued to examine China's past institu-
tions for fresh ideas. Henry A. Wallace, as a progressive
American student of agriculture, was inspired by
studying the economic principles of Confucius to ad-
vocate experimenting in the United States with the
“ever-normal granary” idea of the Chinese. When
Wallace became Secretary of Agriculture in 1933, he
continued to work for a program that would provide
a constant supply of grain at all times without serious
price fluctuations. In 1938 Wallace's program became
part of the Agricultural Adjustment Act, a piece of
legislation that owed its direct inspiration to Chinese
ideas and practices. At the end of the Second World
War Wallace called for the internationalization of the
“ever-normal granary” idea as a necessary step on the
road to world recovery. In response to Wallace's sug-
gestions and the pressing needs of the time, the United
Nations created a World Food Bank to establish and
manage a world food reserve. Heavy political attacks
from various nations quickly brought an end to this
scheme.

Twentieth-century efforts at world history have self-
consciously sought to make room for China and to
integrate its civilization into the totality of history.
H. G. Wells, in his Outline of History (1920) deplores
the fact that Chinese culture has received such a
minimal treatment in world history. While he strives
to bring China into his work at each appropriate point,
his isolated paragraphs on China are sketchy to the
point of being unintelligible. Oswald Spengler's The
Decline of the West
(1918-22) treats Chinese civili-
zation as an organism with a life cycle of its own that,
after an initial flowering, fell into decay and putrefac-
tion. Arnold Toynbee in his monumental A Study of


372

History (1934-61) assigns Chinese civilization a philo-
sophical equivalence to Europe. But the actual amount
of space devoted to Chinese civilization is nonethe-
less relatively slight. Toynbee's ideas about the ori-
gins of the Yellow River civilization as a response to
a challenging environment and his chronological divi-
sions of Chinese history have been severely attacked
by specialists. In William McNeill's The Rise of the
West
(1963), China is for the first time integrated
intelligibly into the history of the human community
by the stress that is placed on its relationship to
rather than its isolation from other centers of civiliza-
tion.

Academic study of China in the West during the
twentieth century has mainly been characterized by
greater attention to command of the language, to in-
ternal developments, and to case studies of village life,
social classes, bureaucracy, and the effects of moderni-
zation and Westernization. Translations from popular
literature have focused upon the novels and dramas
of social and individual discontent. Western literary
creations about China, especially those of Alice Tisdale
Hobart and Pearl Buck, glorified the sturdiness of the
common man in meeting adversity and the satisfactions
found by Chinese of all classes in the fullness and
vitality of the ancient culture. The resistance of China
to Japanese aggression reawakened interest in the study
of China's relations with its neighbors and in the na-
tion's ability to survive in spite of foreign depredations
and internal political divisions. To the end of World
War II the belief was commonly held that the social
and cultural ties of traditional China were still solid
enough to withstand fundamental changes.