115 CHINA IN DIFFICULTIES
December 24, 1932
IN my last letter I told you of the destruction by the British and French of the wonderful Summer
Palace of Peking in 1860. This was done, it is said, as a punishment for a Chinese violation of a
flag of truce. It may have been true that some Chinese troops had been guilty of such an offence,
but still the deliberate vandalism of the British and French almost passes one's comprehension.
This was not the act of a few ignorant soldiers, but of the men in authority. Why do such things
happen ? The English and the French are civilized and cultured peoples, in many ways the
leaders of modern civilization. And yet these people, who in private life are decent and
considerate, forget all their civilization and decency in their public dealings and conflicts with
other people. There seems to be a strange contrast between the behaviour of individuals to each
other and the behaviour of nations. Children and boys and girls are taught not to be too selfish, to
think of others, to behave properly. All our education is meant to teach us this lesson, and to a
small extent we learn it. And then comes war, and we forget our old lesson, and the brute in us
shows his face. So decent people behave like brutes.
This is so even when two kindred nations, like the French and Germans, fight each other. But it
is far worse when different races are in conflict; when the European faces the races and peoples
of Asia and Africa. The different races know little of each other, for each is a closed book to the
other; and where there is ignorance there is no fellow-feeling. Racial hatred and bitterness
increase, and when there is a conflict between two races, it is not only a political war, but
something far worse—a racial war. This explains to some extent the horrors of the Indian Revolt
of 1857, and the cruelty and vandalism of the dominant European Powers in Asia and Africa.
It all seems very sad and very silly. But where there is the domination of one nation over another,
one people over another, one class over another, there is bound to be discontent and friction and
revolt, and an attempt by the exploited nation or people or class to get rid of its exploiter. And
this exploitation of one by another is the very basis of our present-day society, which is called
capitalism, and out of which imperialism has emerged.
In the nineteenth century the big machines and industrial progress had made the western
European nations and the United States of America wealthy and powerful. They began to think
that they were the lords of the earth and that the other races were far inferior to them and must
make way for them. Having gained some control over the forces of Nature, they became arrogant
and overbearing to others. They forgot that civilized man must not only control Nature, but must
also control himself. And so we see in this nineteenth century progressive races, ahead of others
in many ways, often behaving in a manner which would put a backward savage to shame. This
may perhaps help you to understand the behaviour of European races in Asia and Africa, not
only in the last century, but even to-day.
Do not imagine that I am comparing the European races to ourselves or to other races to our
advantage. Far from it. We all have our dark spots, and some of ours are pretty bad; or else we
might not have fallen quite so low as we have done.
We shall go back to China now. The British and French had given a demonstration of their might
by destroying the Summer Palace. They followed this up by forcing China to ratify the old
treaties and extorted fresh privileges out of her. In Shanghai the Chinese customs service was
organized under foreign officials by the Chinese Government in accordance with these treaties.
This was called the " Imperial Maritime Customs ".
Meanwhile the Taiping Rebellion, which had enfeebled China and thus given an opportunity to
the foreign Powers, was still dragging on. At last, in 1864, it was finally put down by a Chinese
Governor, Li Hung Chang, who became a leading statesman of China.
While England and France extorted privileges and concessions out of China by terrorism, Russia
in the north achieved a remarkable success by more peaceful methods. Only a few years before,
Russia, hungry for the possession of Constantinople, had attacked Turkey in Europe. England
and France were afraid of Russia's
growing strength, and so they joined the Turks and defeated Russia in what is known as the
Crimean War of 1854-56. Defeated in the west, Russia began to look towards the east, and had
great success. China was persuaded by peaceful means to cede to Russia a province in the northeast,
adjoining the sea, with the city and harbour of Vladivostok. This triumph for Russia was
due to a brilliant young Russian officer, Muravieff. In this way, Russia gained far more by
friendly methods than England and France had gained after their three years' war and insensate
So matters stood in 1860. The great Chinese Empire of the Manchus, which by the end of the
eighteenth century covered and dominated nearly half Asia, was now humbled and disgraced.
Western Powers from distant Europe had defeated and humiliated it; an internal rebellion had
almost upset the Empire. All this shook up China completely. It was obvious that all was not
well, and some effort was made to reorganize the country to meet the new conditions and the
foreign menace. So this year 1860 might almost be considered the beginning of a new era when
China prepares to resist foreign aggression. China's neighbour, Japan, was similarly occupied at
this time, and this also served as an example. Japan succeeded far more than China, but for a
while China did hold back the foreign Powers.
A Chinese mission, under an American named Burlingame, who was a warm friend of China,
was sent to the treaty Powers, and he succeeded in getting somewhat better terms from them. A
new Sino-American treaty was signed in 1868, and it is interesting to find that in this the Chinese
Government agreed, as a favour and a concession to the United States, to permit the emigration
of Chinese workers to the States. The United States were busy then developing their western
Pacific States, especially California, and labour was scarce there. So they imported Chinese
labour. But this became the source of fresh trouble. The Americans began to object to cheap
Chinese labour, and there was friction between the two governments. The United States
Government later stopped Chinese immigration, and this humiliating treatment was greatly
resented by the Chinese people, who boycotted American goods. But all this is a long story
which brings us into the twentieth century. We need not go into it.
The Taiping Rebellion had hardly been crushed when another revolt broke out against the
Manchus. This was not in China proper, but in the far west, in Turkestan, the centre of Asia. This
was largely inhabited by Muslims; and the Muslim tribes, under a leader named Yakub Beg, rose
in 1863 and drove out the Chinese authorities. This local revolt has interest for us for two
reasons. Russia tried to take advantage of it by seizing Chinese territory. This, of course, was a
well-established European manoeuvre whenever China was in difficulties. But, to every one's
surprise, China refused to agree, and ultimately made Russia disgorge. This was due to an
extraordinary campaign by the Chinese General Tso Tsung-tang in Central Asia against Yakub
Beg. This general
took matters in a most leisurely fashion. He marched slowly, allowing year after year to pass by
before he reached the rebels. Twice he actually halted his army long enough to plant and reap a
crop of grain to provide for its use ! The problem of providing food supplies for an army is
always a difficult one, and this must have been formidable when the Gobi desert had to be
crossed. So General Tso solved it in a novel way. He then defeated Yakub Beg and put an end to
the rebellion. His campaign in Kashgar and Turfan and Yarkand, etc., is said, from a military
point of view, to have been a wonderful one.
Having settled satisfactorily with Russia in central Asia, the Chinese Government soon had
trouble in another part of their wide-flung but disintegrating empire. This was in Artnam, which
was a vassal State of China. The French had designs on it, and there was fighting between China
and France. Again, to every one's surprise, China did rather well, and was not cowed down by
France. There was a satisfactory treaty in 1885.
The imperialist Powers were sufficiently impressed by these new signs of strength in China. It
seemed as if she were recovering from her weakness of 1860 and before. There was talk of
reform, and many people thought that she had turned the corner. It was because of this that
England, when annexing Burma in 1886, promised to send every ten years the customary tribute
But China was far from having turned the corner yet. There was still a great deal of humiliation
and suffering and disruption in store for her. What was wrong with her was not merely the
weakness of the army or navy, but something which went far deeper. Her whole social and
economic structure was going to pieces. As I have told you already, it was in a bad way early in
the nineteenth century when many secret societies were formed against the Manchus. Foreign
trade and the effects of contact with industrialized countries made matters worse. The appearance
of strength which came over China after 1860 had little reality behind it. There were some local
reforms by energetic officials here and there, especially by Li Hung Chang. But these could not
touch the roots of the problem or cure the disease which enfeebled China.
The chief reason for the outward showing of strength by China during these years was the
presence at the head of affairs of a strong ruler. This was a remarkable woman, the Empress
Dowager Tzu Hsi. She was only twenty-six when power came into her hands, as the nominal
Emperor was her infant son. For forty-seven years she ruled China with vigour. She chose
efficient officials and impressed them with some part of her own vigour. It was largely due to
this and to her that China made a braver show of strength than she had done for many a year.
But meanwhile, across the narrow seas, Japan was performing wonders and changing out of all
recognition. To Japan, therefore, we must now go.