Ancient History & Civilisation


Change in the village—In the town—The factories—Commerce—Labor unions—Wages—The new government—Nationalism vs. Westernization—The dethronement of Confucius—The reaction against religion—The new morality—Marriage in transition—Birth control—Co-education—The “New Tide” in literature and philosophy—The new language of literature—Hu Shih—Elements of destruction—Elements of renewal

Once everything changed except the East; now there is nothing in the East that does not change. The most conservative nation in history has suddenly become, after Russia, the most radical, and is destroying with a will customs and institutions once held inviolate. It is not merely the end of a dynasty, as in 1644; it is the moulting of a civilization.

Change comes last and least to the village, for the slow sobriety of the soil does not encourage innovation; even the new generation must plant in order to reap. But now seven thousand miles of railroad traverse the countryside; and though a decade of chaos and native management has left them in bad repair, and war has conscripted them too often for its purposes, yet they bind the eastern villages with the cities of the coast, and daily bear their trickle of Western novelties into a million peasant homes. Here one may find such foreign-devilish importations as kerosene, kerosene lamps, matches, cigarettes, even American wheat; for sometimes, so poor is transport, it costs more to carry goods from the Chinese interior to the marine provinces than it does to bring them to these from Australia or the United States.18 It becomes clear that the economic growth of a civilization depends upon transportation. Twenty thousand miles of dirt roads have been built, over which, with Oriental irregularity, six thousand buses travel, always full. When the gasoline engine has bound these innumerable villages together it will have accomplished one of the greatest changes in Chinese history—the end of famine.

In the towns the triumph of the West goes on more rapidly. Handicrafts are dying under the competition of cheaply-transported machine-made goods from abroad; millions of artisans flounder about in unemployment, and are drawn into the jaws of the factories that foreign and domestic capital is building along the coast. The hand loom, still spinning in the village, is silent in the city; imported cotton and cotton cloths flood the country, and textile factories rise to induct impoverished Chinese into the novel serfdom of the mill. Great blast-furnaces burn at Hankow, as weird and horrible as any in the West. Canneries, bakeries, cement works, chemical works, breweries, distilleries, power works, glass works, shoe factories, paper mills, soap and candle factories, sugar refineries—all of them have now been planted on Chinese soil, and slowly transform the domestic artisan into a factory hand. The development of the new industries is retarded because investment hesitates in a world disordered by permanent revolution; it is obstructed further by the difficulty and costliness of transport, by the inadequacy of local raw materials, and by that amiable Chinese habit which places the family above every other loyalty, and turns every native office and factory into a nest of genial nepotism and incompetence.19 Commerce, too, is impeded by inland tariffs and coastal customs, and the universal demand for bribes or “squeeze”;20 but it is growing more, rapidly than industry, and plays the central rôle in the economic transformation of China.*

The new industries have destroyed the guilds, and have thrown into chaos the relations of employer and employee. The guilds had lived by regulating wages and prices through agreements between owners and workers whose products had no rivals in local trade; but as transport and commerce increased, and brought distant goods to compete in every town with the handiwork of the guilds, it was found impossible to control prices or to regulate wages without surrendering to the dictates of foreign competitors and capital. The guilds have therefore disintegrated and divided into chambers of commerce on the one side and labor unions on the other. The chambers discuss order, loyalty and economic liberty, and the workers discuss starvation. Strikes and boycotts are frequent, but they have been more successful in compelling foreign concessions to the Chinese Government than in raising the remuneration of labor. In 1928 the Department of Social Affairs of the Chinese Municipality of Shanghai computed the average weekly wage of the textile-mill workers as varying from $1.73 to $2.76 for men, and from $1.10 to $1.78 for women. In flour mills the male weekly average pay was $1.96; in cement mills $1.72; in glass works $1.84; in match-factories $2.11; among the skilled workers of the electric power plants, $3.10; in the machine shops, $3.24; among the printers, $4.5 523 The wealth enjoyed by the printers was doubtless due to their better organization, and the cost of suddenly replacing them. The first unions were formed in 1919; they grew in number and power until, in the days of Borodin, they proposed to take over the management of China; they were repressed ruthlessly after Chiang Kai-shek’s break with Russia; today the laws against them are severe, but they multiply nevertheless as the sole refuge of the workers against an industrial system that has only begun to pass labor legislation, and has not yet begun to enforce it.24 The bitter destitution of the city proletaires, working twelve hours a day, hovering on the margin of subsistence, and facing starvation if employment should fail, is worse than the ancient poverty of the village, where the poor could not see the rich, and accepted their lot as the natural and immemorial fate of mankind.

Perhaps some of these evils might have been avoided if the political transformation of eastern China had not been so rapid and complete. The mandarin aristocracy, though it had lost vitality and was dishonored with corruption, might have held the new industrial forces in check until China could accept them without chaos or slavery; and then the growth of industry would have generated year by year a new class that might have stepped peaceably into political power, as the manufacturers had displaced the landed aristocracy of England. But the new government found itself without an army, without experienced leaders, and without funds; the Kuomintang, or People’s Party, established to liberate a nation, found that it must stand by while foreign and domestic capital subjugated it; conceived in democrary and baptized with the blood of communism, it became dependent upon Shanghai bankers, abandoned democracy for dictatorship, and tried to destroy the unions.* For the Party depends upon the army, and the army upon money, and money upon loans; until the Army is strong enough to conquer China the Government cannot tax China; and until it can tax China the Government must take advice where it takes its funds. Even so it has accomplished much. It has brought back to China full control over her tariffs and—within the internationalism of finance—over her industries; it has organized, trained and equipped an Army which may some day be used against others than Chinese; it has enlarged the area that acknowledges its authority, and has reduced, in that area, the banditry that was stifling the nation’s economic life. It takes a day to make a revolution, and a generation to make a government.

The disunity of China reflects and follows from the division that lies in the Chinese soul. The most powerful feeling in China today is hatred of foreigners; the most powerful process in China today is imitation of foreigners. China knows that the West does not deserve this flattery, but China is forced by the very spirit and impetus of the times to give it, for the age offers to all nations the choice of industrialism or vassalage. So the Chinese of the eastern cities pass from fields to factories, from robes to trousers, from the simple melodies of the past to the saxophone symphonies of the West; they surrender their own fine taste in dress and furniture and art, adorn their walls with European paintings, and erect office buildings in the least attractive of American styles. Their women have ceased to compress their feet from north to south, and begin, in the superior manner of the Occident, to compress them from east to west. Their philosophers abandon the unobtrusive and mannerly rationalism of Confucius, and take up with Renaissance enthusiasm the pugnacious rationalism of Moscow, London, Berlin, Paris and New York.

The dethronement of Confucius has something of the character of both the Renaissance and the Enlightenment; it is at once the overthrow of the Chinese Aristotle, and the rejection of the racial gods. For a time the new state persecuted Buddhism and the monastic orders; like the Revolutionists of France, the Chinese rebels were freethinkers without concealment, openly hostile to religion, and worshiping only reason. Confucianism tolerated the popular faiths on the assumption, presumably, that as long as there is poverty there will be gods; the Revolution, fondly believing that poverty can be destroyed, had no need of gods. Confucianism took agriculture and the family for granted, and formulated an ethic designed to maintain order and content within the circle of the home and the field; the Revolution is bound for industry, and needs a new morality to accord with urban and individual life. Confucianism endured because access to political office and scholarly occupations demanded a knowledge and acceptance of it; but the examinations are gone, and science takes the place of ethical and political philosophy in the schools; man is now to be moulded not to government but to industry. Confucianism was conservative, and checked the ideals of youth with the caution of old age; the Revolution is made of youth, and will have none of these ancient restraints; it smiles at the old sage’s warning that “he who thinks the old embankments useless and destroys them is sure to suffer from the desolation caused by overflowing water.”*27

The Revolution has, of course, put an end to official religion, and no sacrifice mounts any longer from the Altar of Heaven to the impersonal and silent T’ien. Ancestor worship is tolerated, but visibly decays; more and more the men tend to leave it to the women, who were once thought unfit to officiate at these sacred rites. Half of the Revolutionary leaders were educated in Christian schools; but the Revolution, despite the Methodism of Chiang Kai-shek, is unfavorable to any supernatural faith, and gives to its schoolbooks an atheistic tint.29 The new religion, which tries to fill the emotional void left by the departure of the gods, is nationalism, as in Russia it is communism. Meanwhile this creed does not satisfy all; many proletaires seek in the adventure of oracles and mediums a refuge from the prose of their daily toil; and the people of the village still find some solace from their poverty in the mystic quiet of the ancient shrines.

Shorn of its sanctions in government, religion and economic life, the traditional moral code, which seemed a generation ago unchangeable, disintegrates with geometrical acceleration. Next to the invasion of industry the most striking change in the China of today is the destruction of the old family system, and its replacement with an individualism that leaves every man free and alone to face the world. Loyalty to the family, on which the old order was founded, is superseded in theory by loyalty to the state; and as the novel loyalty has not yet graduated from theory into practice, the new society lacks a moral base. Agriculture favors the family because, before the coming of machinery, the land could most economically be tilled by a group united by blood and paternal authority; industry disrupts the family, because it offers its places and rewards to individuals rather than to groups, does not always offer them these rewards in the same place, and recognizes no obligation to aid the weak out of the resources of the strong; the natural communism of the family finds no support in the bitter competition of industry and trade. The younger generation, always irked by the authority of the old, takes with a will to the anonymity of the city and the individualism of the “job.” Perhaps the omnipotence of the father helped to precipitate the Revolution; the reactionary is always to blame for the excesses of the radical. So China has cut itself off from all roots, and no one knows whether it can sink new roots in time to save its cultural life.

The old marriage forms disappear with the authority of the family. The majority of marriages are still arranged by the parents, but in the city marriage by free choice of the young tends more and more to prevail. The individual considers himself free not only to mate as he pleases, but to make experiments in marriage which might shock the West. Nietzsche thought Asia right about women, and considered their subjection the only alternative to their unchecked ascendancy; but Asia is choosing Europe’s way, not Nietzsche’s. Polygamy diminishes, for the modern wife objects to a concubine. Divorce is uncommon, but the road to it is wider than ever before.* Co-education is the rule in the universities, and the free mingling of the sexes is usual in the cities. Women have established their own law and medical schools, even their own bank.31 Those of them that are members of the Party have received the franchise, and places have been found for them on the highest committees of both the Party and the Government.32 They have turned their backs upon infanticide, and are beginning to practise birth control, Population has not noticeably increased since the Revolution; perhaps the vast tide of Chinese humanity has begun to ebb.33

Nevertheless fifty thousand new Chinese are born every day.34 They are destined to be new in every way: new in the cut of their clothes and their hair, new in education and occupation, in habits and manners, in religion and philosophy. The queue is gone, and so are the graceful manners of the older time; the hatreds of revolution have coarsened the spirit, and radicals find it hard to be courteous to conservatives.35 The phlegmatic quality of the ancient race is being changed by the speed of industry into something more expressive and volatile; these stolid faces conceal active and excitable souls. The love of peace that came to China after centuries of war is being broken down by the contemplation of national dismemberment and defeat; the schools are drilling every student into a soldier, and the general is a hero once more.

The whole world of education has been transformed. The schools have thrown Confucius out of the window, and taken science in. The rejection was not quite necessary for the admission, since the doctrine of Confucius accorded well with the spirit of science; but the conquest of the logical by the psychological is the warp and woof of history. Mathematics and mechanics are popular, for these can make machines; machines can make wealth and guns, and guns may preserve liberty. Medical education is progressing, largely as the result of the cosmopolitan beneficence of the Rockefeller fortune.* Despite the impoverishment of the country, new schools, high schools and colleges have multiplied rapidly, and the hope of Young China is that soon every child will receive a free education, and that democracy may be widened as education grows.

A revolution akin to that of the Renaissance has come to Chinese literature and philosophy. The importation of Western texts has had the fertilizing influence that Greek manuscripts had upon the Italian mind. And just as Italy, in her awakening, abandoned Latin to write in the vernacular, so China, under the leadership of the brilliant Hu Shih, has turned the popular “Mandarin” dialect into a literary language, the Pai Hua. Hu Shih took his literary fate in his hands by writing in this “plain language” a History of Chinese Philosophy (1919). His courage carried the day; half a thousand periodicals adopted Pai Hua, and it was made the official written language of the schools. Meanwhile the “Thousand Character Movement” sought to reduce the 40,000 characters of the scholars to some 1300 characters for common use. In these ways the Mandarin speech is being rapidly spread throughout the provinces; and perhaps within the century China will have one language, and be near to cultural unity again.

Under the stimulus of a popular language and an eager people, literature flourishes. Novels, poems, histories and plays become almost as numerous as the population. Newspapers and periodicals cover the land. The literature of the West is being translated en masse, and American motion pictures, expounded by a Chinese interpreter at the side of the screen, are delighting the profound and simple Chinese soul. Philosophy has returned to the great heretics of the past, has given them a new hearing and exposition, and has taken on all the vigor and radicalism of European thought in the sixteenth century. And as Italy, newly freed from ecclesiastical leading-strings, admired the secularism of the Greek mind, so the new China listens with especial eagerness to Western thinkers like John Dewey and Bertrand Russell, whose independence of all theology and respect for experience and experiment as the only logic, accord completely with the mood of a nation that is trying to have its Reformation, Renaissance, Enlightenment and Revolution in one generation.* Hu Shih scorns our praise of the “spiritual values” of Asia, and finds more spiritual worth in the reorganization of industry and government for the elimination of poverty than in all the “wisdom of the East.”37 He describes Confucius as “a very old man,” and suggests that a better perspective of Chinese thought would appear if the heretical schools of the fifth, fourth and third centuriesB.C. were given their due place in Chinese history.38 Nevertheless, in the midst of the swirling “New Tide” of which he has been one of the most active leaders, he has kept sufficient sanity to see the value even of old men, and he has formulated the problem of his country perfectly:

It would surely be a great loss to mankind at large if the acceptance of this new civilization should take the form of abrupt displacement instead of organic assimilation, thereby causing the disappearance of the old civilization. The real problem, therefore, may be restated thus: How can we best assimilate modern civilization in such a manner as to make it congenial and congruous and continuous with the civilization of our own making?39

All the surface conditions of China today tempt the observer to conclude that China will not solve the problem. When one contemplates the desolation of China’s fields, blighted with drought or ruined with floods, the waste of her timber, the stupor of her exhausted peasants, the high mortality of her children, the unnerving toil of her factory-slaves, the disease-ridden slums and tax-ridden homes of her cities, her bribe-infested commerce and her foreign-dominated industry, the corruption of her government, the weakness of her defenses and the bitter factionalism of her people, one wonders for a moment whether China can ever be great again, whether she can once more consume her conquerors and live her own creative life. But under the surface, if we care to look, we may see the factors of convalescence and renewal. This soil, so vast in extent and so varied in form, is rich in the minerals that make a country industrially great; not as rich as Richtofen supposed, but almost certainly richer than the tentative surveys of our day have revealed; as industry moves inland it will come upon ores and fuels as unsuspected now as the mineral and fuel wealth of America was undreamed of a century ago. This nation, after three thousand years of grandeur and decay, of repeated deaths and resurrections, exhibits today all the physical and mental vitality that we find in its most creative periods; there is no people in the world more vigorous or more intelligent, no other people so adaptable to circumstance, so resistant to disease, so resilient after disaster and suffering, so trained by history to calm endurance and patient recovery. Imagination cannot describe the possibilities of a civilization mingling the physical, labor and mental resources of such a people with the technological equipment of modern industry. Very probably such wealth will be produced in China as even America has never known, and once again, as so often in the past, China will lead the world in luxury and the art of life.

No victory of arms, or tyranny of alien finance, can long suppress a nation so rich in resources and vitality. The invader will lose funds or patience before the loins of China will lose virility; within a century China will have absorbed and civilized her conquerors, and will have learned all the technique of what transiently bears the name of modern industry; roads and communications will give her unity, economy and thrift will give her funds, and a strong government will give her order and peace. Every chaos is a transition. In the end disorder cures and balances itself with dictatorship; old obstacles are roughly cleared away, and fresh growth is free. Revolution, like death and style, is the removal of rubbish, the surgery of the superfluous; it comes only when there are many things ready to die. China has died many times before; and many times she has been reborn.

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