Home > Analysis > New national story or not, Orville Schell and John Delury’s article whitewashes Western atrocities

New national story or not, Orville Schell and John Delury’s article whitewashes Western atrocities

If a survey is conducted in the West about the Opium Wars, very few would know about them today.  Even the few who actually know about them will likely not hold the Brits and other Western powers responsible.  The reason is because the West has been whitewashing this history.

Case in point was the 1997 Hong Kong hand-over.  The Western media spent virtually no time educating their audience how Hong Kong was forcibly taken by the Brits (and hence the hand-over).  They instead focused majority of their effort vilifying the Chinese political system and sensationalizing an imminent destruction of Hong Kong’s way of life.  This clever tactic is willful omission – by not talking about the miseries of the Chinese at the hands of the drug-pushers and Western invaders, the perpetrators were absolved of their sins.

Knowing how ignorant Westerners are of that past, it is not surprising to find the recent Orville Schell and John Delury narrative in the New York Times becoming a dominant perspective in the West.  Read carefully how they emotively assign blame to the Chinese while essentially absolving guilt from the Brits and the Western countries.

Perhaps I am a bit emotional, but I find Schell and Delury’s article in cleverly flipping right and wrong repulsive.  My critique on the right. (Also, for Black Phoenix’s earlier take, follow this link.)

A Rising China Needs a New National Story

  • July 12, 2013, 7:51 p.m. ET

To move forward, the country must move on from its emphasis on a century of ‘national humiliation’


Every July, amid festivities and fireworks, the U.S. and France mark their birth as nations. Accustomed as we are in the West to histories that begin with triumph—the signing of the Declaration of Independence, the storming of the Bastille—it may seem strange that China, the fast-rising dynamo of the East, marks the beginning of its journey to modern nationhood in a very different way: with the shock of unexpected defeat and the loss of national greatness. This paragraph is convoluted.Look, America marks July 4th with her triumph over Britain’s shackles.  The French marks their Bastille day with her triumph over their Monarchy.China’s national day is no different.  On October 1, 1949, after centuries of imperialism and finally the defeat of Japan, the Chinese got their independence.

The shock of unexpected defeat was back in the 1800’s when the ‘barbarians’ came with drugs and guns.

Are modern Chinese still shocked?  I don’t think so.

So, no, I don’t see how fireworks and parades on October 1 are expressions of “shock of unexpected defeat.”

To the brain-dead, perhaps such a convoluted perspective makes sense.

This is propaganda-speak; to make the Chinese seem irrational.

What is truly irrational is the distancing of the atrocities of the Brits and other Westerners who committed such heinous crimes against another people.  “Strange” of China and “shock of unexpected defeat” are all emotively written to assign blame to the Chinese.

They are inappropriate words to assign to the victims.

Many Chinese date the start of their modern history to Aug. 11, 1842, when the Qing Dynasty, by signing the Treaty of Nanjing, capitulated to Great Britain in order to end the disastrous First Opium War (1839-42). It was from this and many other subsequent defeats that China’s political elites—including the most progressive 20th-century reformers and revolutionaries—wove an entire national narrative of foreign exploitation and victimization. Even today, this fabric of ideas continues to hold powerful sway over China’s relations with the rest of the world. The narrative here about the Opium Wars and the Treaty of Nanjing is repulsive.To Shell and Delury, the First Opium War was “disastrous” to the Chinese as if the Chinese made the mistake to dare to confront the Brits for pushing opium.They also suggest “an entire national narrative of foreign exploitation and victimization” woven by China’s political elites.  Well, if a narrative is woven by the political elite, then what does that say about the narrative?  Perhaps illegitimate?

Of course not.  The truth is foreign exploitation.

Only morally degenerate deviant would twist truth around this way.

And, also, no, these are not mere “fabric of ideas.”  They are reality.  Chinese were killed, raped, and pillaged for more than a century!

The problem with the West is that over a century of whitewashing their atrocious past, they seem only more emboldened in whitewashing.

The simple truth that the Chinese don’t want to forget this dark period is precisely because such a period could repeat itself.

Plus, every few years they are reminded by countries like Libya and Iraq that dark age could be just around the corner.

The artifacts of China’s formative moment can be seen at the Temple of the Tranquil Seas, which sits on a narrow slice of land in the northwest part of Nanjing on the banks of the Yangtze River. It was here, in the oppressive heat of August 1842, that Chinese negotiators were forced to sit with their British counterparts and hammer out the crushing terms of the treaty. The negotiating chamber in the old temple has now been restored to something resembling its original state. A nearby exhibition covers the painful history of “China’s unequal treaties,” which imposed territorial concessions and onerous indemnities that remained in force until the 1940s. The truly “oppressive” was not the heat, but the Brits.  The truly “crushing” were not the mere “terms of the treaty” but rather the wicked Brits who imposed them on China with their more advanced guns and canons.And, what a way to describe these treaties – “China’s unequal treaties.”  These were terms a foreign invader forced unto its victims.The authors are playing with words, willing to associate negativity to weather or China; just not the Brits.
The Temple of the Tranquil Seas serves as a curious porthole into this bitter past of foreign incursion and exploitation, from which both the Nationalist and Chinese Communist parties later constructed their ideologies. As the historical exhibit’s first panel explains: “Those unequal treaties were like fettering ropes of humiliation that made China lose control of her political and military affairs…. It was one of the major causes that rendered China poor and weak in modern history…and has become a symbol of the commencement of China’s modern history.” China wants to remind her people of this dark history, and an important reminder becomes “a curious porthole?”  That history, truth, would then become “constructed ideologies?”Again, this is propaganda-speak to emotively delegitimize Chinese suffering.
For Chinese reformers, however, there was, in this record of impotence and inferiority, also a paradoxical promise of redemption. Being overwhelmed by materially stronger but culturally inferior foreign powers—Chinese leaders called them “barbarians”—may have been a profound humiliation, but it also served as motivation for China to regenerate itself as a great power. As Mao Zedong declared in founding the People’s Republic in 1949, “The Chinese have always been a great courageous and industrious nation; it is only in modern times that they have fallen behind…. Ours will no longer be a nation subject to insult and humiliation.” This is about the only paragraph in this whole article that is bearable.Still, imagine the United States is invaded by China for over 1 century and having all her wealth pillaged, citizens raped and murdered.


When the United States is finally freed from such tyranny, wouldn’t it be befitting for a president to make a similar declaration as Mao did in 1949?

This morality play continues to shape the Chinese imagination. As the last panel in the exhibit room of the Temple of Tranquil Seas explains: “It is hard to look back upon this humiliating history…. But the abolishment of the unequal treaties has shown the Chinese people’s unwavering spirit of struggle for independence and self-strengthening. To feel shame is to approach courage.” Again, this is no mere “morality play” as if there is no legitimacy to what the Chinese experienced.The only imagination this “morality play” shapes is perhaps the Chinese are much more skeptical whenever NATO announces invading yet another country for “democracy,” “freedom,” and  “human rights.” 
In this authorized version of modern Chinese history, 1842 is Year One. Every Chinese high-school student is expected to know the official narrative dividing Chinese history neatly into pre-Opium War and post-Opium War periods. It is China’s counterpart to the familiar American exercise of learning the preamble of the Declaration of Independence. What a load of crap.Again, the equivalent to July 4th for China is October 1.  The year is 1949.Notice how they blatantly calls what Chinese high-school students learns as an “authorized version of modern Chinese history.”

Schell and Delury implied Chinese students are learning propaganda.

Well, which particular account of history do they disagree with?  China has a very rich history with many dynasties.  Lots are taught.

“1842 is Year One” is a ridiculous statement.

Perhaps they ought to tell the world how much omission and whitewashing goes on in Western high-schools.

Perhaps for once the West might be a little bit repentant and think about its actions today, when it invades another country.

To fully appreciate the trauma of these historical experiences, one must understand not just the shock of China’s defeat in the First Opium War but also the cascade of further defeats that soon followed. Historically, the Chinese had very little experience in questioning the fundamental assumptions of their culture and ways of governance. When imperial officials finally began to understand that their country had become the hapless “sick man of Asia,” in the words of Liang Qichao, a towering intellectual figure at the turn of the last century, they established an abiding view of China as having been preyed upon by its foreign rivals. While the Chinese were perhaps too proud of their civilization back in the 1800’s, but that is no excuse for the invaders.I have a better suggestion for Schell and Delury’s readers.  Talking about trauma, imagine instead your country being invaded and pillaged for over a century!You have no idea what that trauma is like.



Today, the psychological and cultural habits developed during this dismal era of Chinese history continue to color and distort China’s relations with the rest of the world, especially the U.S., which has taken the place of Great Britain as the world’s superpower. In one of his first speeches as General Secretary of the Communist Party, President Xi Jinping recollected the “unusual hardship and sacrifice” suffered by his country in modern times. “But the Chinese people have never given in,” Mr. Xi continued. It is precisely because there is a thinly-veiled “Yellow Peril” in the American and British habits that China still feels a need to remind her people of the atrocious past.It was precisely the Chinese exclusion act and America’s modern military alliances at her doorsteps that remind the Chinese if they are weak, history might repeat.To say that China’s relation with the rest of the world is distorted because of the dark past visited upon her by Westerners is a bit much.

Instead, count up all the countries been colonized or invaded by the West in the last couple of centuries.

Schell and Delury should ask how much of the West’s relations with the rest of the world have been distorted by their propaganda.

The historical memories on display at the Temple of the Tranquil Seas have had positive effects as well. One can hear their echo in China’s determination to rejuvenate itself regain wealth and power, and become a nation of consequence once again. It is this urge that Mr. Xi tries to encourage by speaking proudly of a “China dream.” Actually, countries like China that suffered tremendously at the hands of the West have pushed for the principals of coexistence.  They are also championing for the need to respect international law.These are positives, and apparently, Schell and Delury were blind to.
Still, it is time for China and the more vociferous propagandists in Beijing to move beyond declarations about China’s “one hundred years of national humiliation.” That period has come to an end. The world has changed, China and the West have changed, and a new narrative is necessary for China to achieve its declared aim of equality and a “new type of great power relationship.” While China reminds her population of the past humiliations, Schell and Delury make it sounds as if such reminders are propaganda.They simply need to put themselves in the victim’s shoes and they will understand such atrocities will never be forgotten.It is precisely Western propaganda – that when they wish to prop up political opposition within any country, they spew propaganda such as “freedom,” “democracy,” and “human rights.”

The truth is, reminding a people of the West’s atrocious past has a negating effect on that propaganda, doesn’t it?

Only when China is ready to define itself with a more constructive national story will it be able to take its place in full partnership with a nation born, in a moment of affirmation, on a distant Fourth of July. This is merely Schell and Delury’s delusion.  China will continue to remind her people as long as there are forces within West to destabilize Chinese society.As long as propaganda pieces like this article in the West whitewashes, the more China must keep reminding her people of the truth.
—Mr. Schell is the Arthur Ross Director of the Center on U.S.-China Relations at the Asia Society in New York City. Mr. Delury is a professor of history at Yonsei University in Seoul, South Korea. They are the co-authors of “Wealth and Power: China’s Long March to the 21st Century,” which has just been published by Random House.


  1. Zack
    July 28th, 2013 at 02:41 | #1

    perhaps what Schell et al fear the most is that a more powerful China will have the moral high ground to seek redress on behalf of all the colonised countries in the world; i must say, it’s a long day in coming.

    Perhaps when Chinese warships and fleets cruising up the Thames and Chinese marines are raiding London to reclaim those treasures, will we finally see justice done and served.

  2. July 28th, 2013 at 03:46 | #2

    China has some 5000 years of history…. It can surely pick any point along that history to define itself. For now, 1842 is a formative moment, and for good reasons.

    Think what the typical Chinese person thinks about everyday. Why is my life so hard compared to that of a typical Westener? Why does my country need so much more “development”? Why are my countrymen, on average, so poor compared to those in the West? The reason, inevitably, points to 1842, which began a century in which the country was repeatedly looted and raped.

    Now, the history of 1842, to be sure, isn’t wholly about loot and rape. It’s also a time for self reflection. Why did China fall into the position where it could not do anything about it being looted and raped? Why didn’t China industrialize earlier? Why couldn’t China industrialize like Japan? You see, the history of 1842, a history of rape and loot, doesn’t stop there. 1842 is thus also about why of the rape and loot – and in that struggle to understand and to surmount, also about a rebirth and revitalization for 1/4 – 1/5 of humanity.

    One day, in 3-4 generations perhaps, after China has recaptured the epitome of civilization again, 1842 may come to be seen as 7/4 is seen today, not of humiliation, but of triumph, of a proud culture, civilization, and people born (or re-born as the case may be). That day will surely come. But it will not come because of whitewashing history, of piling dirt under. It will come from a history overcome, of billions toiling to right themselves.

    1842, by any measure of humanity, was a disaster, a disgrace in human history. What it illicit need not be though. As they say, it’s not failure one should be afraid of, but the failure to respond to failure.

    Thus Bill Gates once said:

    It’s fine to celebrate success but it is more important to heed the lessons of failure.

    And Coach Wooden of UCLA once noted,

    Failure is not fatal, but failure to change might be.

    China’s struggle and ultimate triumph over 1842 will be what defines modern Chinese nationhood, not 1842 per se. Schell and others completely miss it (to be fair Schell did say this was one “positive” development, but it’s more than that, it’s an inherent part of the Chinese identity to reclaim their place in the world, not to sulk about what happened in 1842, or to just look for “revenge”) because they don’t live Chinese history. They see Chinese looking at 1842 and think we are stuck on that history when 1842 is but a beacon for Chinese to do something constructive in the midst of overwhelming destruction. It’s the “Chinese Dream” (and yes, Chinese people do dream) that few Westerners understand.

  3. July 28th, 2013 at 09:20 | #3

    You are wrong! The most important thing ever happened in Chinese history is 6.4 Tiananmen. Nothing compares to this event, not even a century that tens of millions of Chinese are raped, killed or forced to move overseas.

    Well, I am being sarcastic. Those who harp on human rights and democracy never even paid lip service to these series of event. Due to the power of their propaganda machine, Tiananmen is more well known than Opium War One, Two and Three. Yes, there are indeed three opium war in which HK island, then Kowloon, and eventually New Territory were taken from China. And these series of war only involved the British and later French empire. The current G-8 countries except Canada all invaded and plundered China.

    Of course, it is all in the past. But why do the western press and even HK protesters bothered raising the 6.4 issue yearly? They argued that a responsible government should owned up to their mistake and address past wrongs. But why the double standard, what have those government who done even more horrendous things to redress the wrong that they have committed. Like I have said, not even lip service. You know why the Japanese right wingers felt they are being unfairly vilified by China and Korea. They feel that China is almost silent on these events which are easily worse than their invasion.

    And to top it off, they feel they have not been given credit for liberating the whole of Asia and although defeated eventually inspired independence movement across invaded (the European preferred to use the term colonized) countries worldwide. This is what is in the mind of every right wingers but they can’t publicly say bad things about the western powers because they fear alienating them.

    The following is just an anecdote evidence but it is a good case study. Read the comment section and look at the responses by a poster named Yamato Damashi. I am not supporting his position but we should look at the facts presented.


  4. July 28th, 2013 at 11:54 | #4


    I respect this Yamato Damashi guy. To be honest, I think the discord between japan and rest of asia is caused in large part by the U.S., just as the division between north and south koreans are sowed in large part by the U.S. today. Since WWII, with Japan falling under the umbrella of the U.S., there was really no chance for real conciliation in Asia between the warring parties.

    I also think the problem between India and China also is a legacy of colonialism.

    It’s too bad for Asians really. As long as they remain politically divided, Asia will never truly achieve its full potential…

  5. July 28th, 2013 at 15:58 | #5

    I don’t think the Chinese are thinking along those lines. They never talk about revenge.

    But I do believe what binds the Global South is the fact that they are all former victims. As long as China tries to improve the current global order and make it more fair and just, there are many many countries willing to support.

    This is an opportunity for China to make a big difference.

    You are not going to hear about such a dynamic in the West, but if we look at our world decades at a time, I think we should be able to spot a general trend.

  6. danielxu
    July 28th, 2013 at 22:56 | #6

    We OZ down under celebrate Gallipoli and The Anzac when we LOST the battle again the Turks, back in WW1.
    Many young OZ going to Kokoda Track in Papua New Guinea to experience and appreciate the hardship in the battle against Japanese that we LOST too. Every year, Yeap that is a special tour for that !
    We commemorate because the battles have contributed to the awakening of Australian as a nation, not merely a follower of the Brit and Yank (still trying very hard though).

  7. qfrealist
    July 29th, 2013 at 06:02 | #7

    The plan of world domination by explotation and force was the rule of the Victorian empire. Hence the attempted overthrow of China in 1840s. Unlike India China had a 3000+ years of centralised govt culture that was stronger (and superior) than the British could have imagined. They (British) had India, China was next..but even through the opium war they never actually colonised China. Many countries fell to British colonial rule in early 1800s, esp Australia, NewZealand at the same time. The mistake (China’s) as I understand was the failure of the late Qing govt from Qian Long onwards in upgrading Chinas military to at least match the Western one. After the Manzu took over in 1644 virtually stopped any upgrade in arms unlike the West at that time (considering the technology that existed in the Waring state period probably would have given the Romans a hard time). Maybe this was more philosophical.
    At Honkong handover where was the apology for the Opium war and the destruction of the Yuan Ming Yuan? Best scene I remember was the sailing of the royal yacht with that idiot Charles (prince) with tail between his legs leaving HK forever.

  8. Black Pheonix
    July 29th, 2013 at 06:29 | #8


    It’s interesting to note how the Chinese coolies were virtually the new slaves in the Americas after the Civil War, but the Chinese coolies resisted colonial assimilation and maintain their own cultural identities, despite all of the humiliations.

    It is no coincidence that the West continues to mock and humiliate Chinese culture whenever possible, because China continues to resist Western assimilation.

    We Chinese should expect such humiliation to continue and be proud that the West knows our strength and determination in resisting assimilation.

  9. ersim
    July 29th, 2013 at 07:56 | #9

    Unfortunately dealing with the West is like dealing with a bunch of brutes, who the Roman Empire tried to “civilize”. We know the fate of the Roman Empire and how they got paid for “civilizing” these thugs and bullies. The rest of humanity has been suffering the consequences since then

  10. jxie
    July 29th, 2013 at 15:14 | #10

    I thought somebody likes Orville Schell should’ve known better, but apparently not. The First Opium War by itself was comparatively small-time, though it was the beginning. After all said and done, all war indemnities had cost China mass quantity of silver, altogether some 10% of the total silver unearthed up to 1900 by all humanity was transferred as war reparations from China to the Western powers and Japan. Given the Chinese monetary system then being silver standard, it had devastated China as a nation for decades to come, and directly and indirectly had caused hundreds of millions of Chinese deaths, if not billions.

    Also it was the beginning of dehumanization of the Chinese people. When the 8-Nation Alliance invaded Beijing, the Western invasion forces embarked upon thousands of cases of killing and raping, in some cases raping of very young girls. Reported by the Japanese press in horror that in some cases, after the raping was done, the Western soldiers would insert foreign objects into the girls’ vagina and leave them to excruciatingly painful deaths. Mind you, all of such acts were sanctioned by the invasion forces, and ultimately by the invading Western nations.

    The Japanese had the military prostitution tradition, and then didn’t engage any raping, but they watched and learned that inferior people had to be treated in such ways — you can argue that the acts during the Rape of Nanking, were merely following the Western tradition.

    The curious fact is that the acts were hardly recorded and are basically not known in the West. Sometimes you have to wonder what they had done everywhere else and had never recorded.

  11. July 29th, 2013 at 16:56 | #11

    Ah. The progressive liberal modern Elite writes a scathing and twisted history of their peers in Medieval China.

    And you are surprised that the Elite could not do more than spell China?


  12. Xiaoguang
    July 30th, 2013 at 04:51 | #12

    Whitewashing the opium wars is a coordinated effort by the west I general and the Jewish intellectuals in particular. The latter, as exemplified by Richard Burger and the like, have tried so hard to demonize Chinese for teaching history to our children. And at the same time they have not stopped building museums all over the world in order for their history to be forced upon us all the time.

  13. N.M.Cheung
    July 30th, 2013 at 09:18 | #13

    Of course it’s not surprising the whitewashing of western atrocities. Consider the genocide of native Americans, hundreds of treaties with Indians scrapped as worthless papers. You would barely able to read about in history books or teaching in schools. On another thread about the rule of law, those violated treaties directly contradicted the rule of law. Very few westerners today understand China and Chinese without empathetic immersion in Chinese culture like Edgar Snow or Norman Bethune.

  14. Black Pheonix
    July 30th, 2013 at 09:43 | #14

    With some fairness to Orville Schell, I think some Western liberals are just trying to convince their otherwise racist colleagues, “OK, we managed to civilize the Chinese, so you can stop your racism now.”

  15. Xiaoguang
    July 30th, 2013 at 14:17 | #15

    It’s a new form of opium the west is trying to force down the throat of the Chinese people. So sick to see it happen again. So many arrogant westerners even shamelessly equate Chinese with Hitlers if you don’t swallow this new form of opium.

  16. perspectivehere
    August 1st, 2013 at 18:54 | #16

    Important work being done in the historiography of the early British-China encounter:

    Universalism and Equal Sovereignty as Contested Myths of International Law in the Sino-Western Encounter
    Li Chen, University of Toronto
    August 30, 2010
    Journal of the History of International Law, Vol. 13, No. 1, pp. 75-116, 2011

    Contrary to the relevant traditional historiography, this paper argues that early modern Sino-Western conflicts were to a great extent attributable to the sustained contestation between China and the Western empires (particularly Britain) over their competing claims to sovereignty in China. It shows that the Western empires’ demand for extraterritoriality and natural rights to freely trade, travel, and/or proselytize in China originated in their assumption of universal sovereignty in the non-Christian world. The early Sino-Western encounter illustrates how the discourses of sovereign equality and universal justice, as two origin myths of modern international law and diplomacy, were constructed, deployed, challenged, and adapted in the course of Western expansion in the age of empire.

    pdf download available here:

  17. perspectivehere
    August 1st, 2013 at 19:04 | #17

    Madeline Zelin is one of the great China historians and is helping to overturn long-held myths about China before the Opium Wars.

    The Grandeur of the Qing Economy
    Madeleine Zelin, Consultant

    Some excerpts:


    The Stereotype of an “Anti-Merchant” Qing State

    A common stereotype about late imperial China — one that is actually perpetuated in the study of practically every period in Chinese history — is that the Chinese government was anti-merchant. Common reasons given to support this assertion are: that Confucianism was anti-business and anti-merchant; that Confucian scholar-officials were at the top ranks of Chinese society; that state policy impaired economic activity by not supporting it in any constructive way; and that taxes were so heavy that they squeezed the life out of merchants and their businesses. But all these things are untrue.


    Unlike Europe during this same period, which was composed of many small states, each with its own political system, national boundary, and tax system, Qing China was a vast continental market with no impediments to the movement of goods across provincial boundaries. In analyzing the various institutions that were in place in China at this time, it is important to keep in mind that the structure of China’s large continental empire affected economic development, economic growth, and economic structures.


    China did not have a single central market during the Qing dynasty (Shanghai, for example, was just a small town until the late 1800s), but it was big enough to have many important markets and goods moving amongst them. Some goods — particularly specialty items — moved across great distances. Medicinal herbs from the mountains in West China moved East, where they were used for medicines and salves. Cotton moved from North China to cotton weavers in Central China. Rice moved in much more localized markets because of its bulk and because it was readily available in many places. But where there was a market for a certain product, Chinese merchants were there to create the facility to move the product.

    Farming Economy with Proliferation of Markets

    China’s economy during the Qing dynasty was still largely a farming economy. Eighty percent of the population lived in the countryside at the end of the Qing dynasty, and most people had some relationship to farming or to something that was a byproduct of farming. So China at this time does not fit the image of a modern industrial economy. On the other hand, China was a place where, by the late Ming dynasty and into the Qing dynasty, there was a proliferation of markets. Approximately eighty percent of the population lived within a day’s journey of a market town and could take some of their produce to the market and become involved in marketing activities.

    Development of a Complex Market Structure

    The Qing dynasty saw not only an increase in the number of markets and market towns, but also an evolution in market structures. If marketing is viewed as a hierarchical process, wherein there are some markets that are central and collect the goods from many lower markets in the hierarchy, then China was “filling out” its hierarchy during this period. There were markets that served entire regions, markets under these that served sections of regions, and an increasing number of markets that served the producers. Simultaneously, the markets that were serving the producers were moving from being periodic markets (markets that only met a few days a week, to which farmers could come and bring their produce) to becoming stationary markets that operated every day and had stores that existed all the time, wherein people were working full time as merchants.

    Development of a Merchant Hierarchy

    The Qing dynasty also saw the development of a merchant hierarchy. There were merchants who worked only within a local marketing community, and also farmers who spent some of their time working as peddlers to bring in extra money. But there were also long-distance merchants, whose economic life blood involved extensive traveling. Even in the early Qing there is evidence of the establishment of guild halls in distant parts of China to represent and serve the interests of merchants from other parts of China who traveled there. As aliens in that particular community (perhaps not speaking the dialect of that region), these traveling merchants would need a place to stay and to meet with other merchants to conduct business.

    Taxes Paid in Money

    During the Qing period, all Chinese people had to pay part of their taxes to the government in money (usually copper coins or silver) as opposed to goods-in-kind. This meant that the farmers, especially, had to sell what they produced in order to acquire currency for their taxes. In fact, one could say that the Qing government’s tax policy was one of the factors that pushed economic growth in China during this time.

    Paper Money and Bimetallic Currency

    Although China was one of the first societies to introduce paper money (around the 11th century), for most of its history before modern times, as well as during the Qing dynasty, China also used bimetallic currency, meaning that both copper and silver were in circulation. Copper coins with an opening cut out in the middle (used to tie several coins together) were used for everyday transactions, and silver was used for larger transactions and for paying taxes to the government.

    Early Banks and Long-distance Trade

    China’s use of bimetallic currency over a large marketing area created in turn a big industry in money-changing. By the 18th century, money changers were playing many additional roles, including providing credit, particularly within local market communities, as well as developing into the earliest native Chinese banks. China had a huge market and a large number of commodities that were moving both within local marketing systems and over longer distances. But conducting this kind of business with heavy, metal money became problematic, especially if a merchant had to carry huge bags of silver on his donkey or by other means. This would also make the merchant vulnerable to any bandits he might encounter on the road. The remittance bank was developed during this period to address this problem. The remittance bank would take cash deposits from a merchant in one place and issue him a remittance certificate, which the merchant could then take elsewhere to pay someone with whom he was doing business. That person could in turn go to a bank in his area and exchange the certificate for coins. By the 18th century there was a vast network of such banks, and they were extremely important to the development of commercial activity in China.




    A major misconception about the relationship between the Chinese state and the economy is that the state controlled economic activities with a heavy hand. But if one really looks at the size of the Chinese bureaucracy and the size of China throughout its history, whether in terms of the size of the territory or the size of the population, one can see that no Chinese state could have controlled economic activity completely. More importantly, as early as the Tang Dynasty in the 7th century, the state made the decision to withdraw from control of the economy, and thereafter the Chinese state was no longer determining where a market could or could not be established.

    The Qing, a Laissez-Faire State?

    In practice the Chinese state under the Qing took a relatively laissez-faire approach to the economy, and the state did not regulate trade. Indeed, the Chinese legal system, which was one of the most advanced and sophisticated legal systems in the world during this time, left the regulation of private matters largely to the people directly engaged in the economic exchange. With certain exceptions, the state set out specific parameters for economic activity, but it was mainly within the local economic communities, within the guilds and elsewhere, that Chinese customary law for the handling of economic affairs was emerging. The emerging rules, regulations, and customs of this time suited the needs of the people who were engaged in commerce.

    An Exception: The State Monopoly on the Salt Trade

    To a large extent the Qing state concerned itself only with the movement of a small number of goods that were seen as essential for life and were also a good source of revenue for state coffers. The most important of these was salt. But the state did not regulate how salt was manufactured; it only required a license for the transport of salt. Licensing for the transport of salt was an important source of the revenue for the Qing state.

    Hereditary Occupations

    By the Ming dynasty, the Chinese state had stopped trying to control what occupations people could have. This contrasts with Japan where, until the late 1800s, people were born into a hereditary status or occupational group and were expected to do what their fathers did. By the beginning of the Qing dynasty, the only truly hereditary occupation in China was the military, and most of the people involved in this system were attached to the ethnically Manchu military structures rather than to the ethnically Han Chinese military.


    Those who would argue that China was not involved in the world economy by the Qing period have only to look at some of the consequences of China’s use of currency — both copper and silver. China under the Qing had an enormous unmet demand for silver. As the economy grew, the populace needed silver for transactions in the marketplace. As early as the 1720s, Mexican silver dollars were used in transactions in Southern China. Mexican silver had the advantage of already being in coin form and being reliable for its weight in silver, so that one did not have to go to a money changer to have him weigh the silver and take a fee for attaching a certificate. The Chinese government did not mint silver coins, so throughout this period people were using minted and raw silver coming into the country through the Philippines and other areas that were points of trade in the Southern China region. Western European nations during this time had very few commodities other than silver to sell to China in exchange for the tea, porcelain, and silk that were being imported to meet their own growing demand. Indeed, this inflow of silver from the West is one reason for the rapid expansion of China’s economy during the 18th century.


    The notion that the Chinese government feared foreign traders and did not want foreign traders on its shores is a major misconception. Although foreign trade was not a dominant source of revenue for the imperial household, it was taxed at a number of ports along the Chinese coast and was an important source of revenue for the central government. It was not until the 1760s that China really began to limit foreign trade to the single port of Canton, and there is much speculation about why this happened. Some scholars have related this to Chinese awareness of the activities of the British East India Company in India in the 1750s, when Britain was effectively colonizing India, and the Chinese government’s fear of similar foreign encroachment on its own soil. Other scholars see the creation of the single port of call for European ships at Canton as being a mutual decision, because, in fact, Canton was the only port that really could provide the kind of facilities that foreign traders needed. Canton had a sufficient number of merchants, sufficient capital to be able to bring goods from the interior in sufficient amounts to make it worthwhile for foreigners to come all the way from England to China. The trip from England to China during this time was indeed very long, and ships only came once a year. The merchants bought everything they could to fill up the ships and soon set sail again.


  18. perspectivehere
    August 1st, 2013 at 21:49 | #18

    So much for the myth that China did not have an effective system of commercial law prior to the Opium Wars:


    “When Laws Meet Economy: Commercial Law in Ming-Qing China is a collection of revised articles by Chiu Peng-sheng, currently an Associate Researcher at Academia Sinica and formerly a Harvard-Yenching visiting scholar, 2002-2003. In response to the stereotypical impression of commercial law in Chinese history, as absent or underdeveloped, the author sets out to show that commercial law not only existed, but also underwent significant change in the last five centuries of late imperial China. Rather than simply selecting elements that are similar to European commercial law, and thereby demonstrating the existence and function of such law in China, the author instead achieves his goal by examining the laws that positively defined the relationships between commerce and merchants. To be more specific, the author investigates these laws in terms of (1) commercial lawsuits handled within the framework of Ming-Qing regulations and laws, and (2) the practice and legal reasoning of those whose roles in the study, implementation, and adjustment of regulations and laws were critical to the development of the market in Ming-Qing China. These legal professionals included officials of the Ministry of Justice, private secretaries (muyou, 幕友), and legal masters/litigation brokers (songshi, 訟師). Scholars and students will benefit enormously from reading this informative and well-researched book. The author offers his insights into the workings of the Chinese legal system by careful analysis of a number of neglected cases and understudied books. He situates the cases in contexts in which social sentiment, economic development, and institutional mechanisms changed the involved parties’ attitudes toward commercial activities. By examining these materials, the author shows how merchants and people in the legal profession were limited by the conditions set by commercial law, and how they could also contribute to the change of those conditions. In other words, the author achieves his ambitious goals.”

  19. August 1st, 2013 at 22:05 | #19

    perspectivehere, you are a treasure trove of information.

  20. perspectivehere
    August 2nd, 2013 at 02:18 | #20

    @YinYang Thanks!

    Sounds like an interesting book that deserves to be read:

    China and Orientalism: Western Knowledge Production and the P.R.C.
    By Daniel Vukovich

    Daniel Vukovich’s webpage at HKU

    Reviewed by Maggie Clinton
    MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright January 2013)

    “There is no doubt that the Great Leap Famine in China more than half a century ago was the worst man-made calamity of modern times,” proclaims James C. Scott in a recent issue of the London Review of Books.[1] Given modernity’s destructive achievements and the fact that ranking them is necessarily subjective, Scott’s confidence that the post-Great Leap famine takes pride of place readily invites disagreement. Yet the compulsion to make a claim such as Scott’s at all, Daniel F. Vukovich argues in China and Orientalism: Western Knowledge Production and the P.R.C., is symptomatic of a Sinological-orientalist power dynamic that continues to inform Western representations of China and its past. Taking as his point of departure Edward Said’s well-known formulation of the East as a discursively constituted space of alterity and lack, Vukovich traces the ways in which China Studies has persistently demonized Maoist China as the totalitarian other of an idealized liberal, democratic West and coded post-Mao China as fitfully and imperfectly “becoming-the-same.” As Vukovich emphasizes, characterizations of post-Mao China as slowly exiting what Dipesh Chakrabarty has called the “waiting room of history” have been spurred by the global rise of neoliberalism and China’s real subsumption within a capitalist world order (3). Within our neoliberal present, assertions such as Scott’s about the post-Great Leap famine purport to reveal the truth of the Maoist revolution as a whole, signaling why the revolution must be discarded and disavowed if China is ever to become fully “normal.”

    Vukovich’s book astutely engages with recent “Western” representations of China’s past and present. The book’s seven chapters analyze ways in which the China field, which Vukovich understands “in its broadest sense as knowledge about China produced outside of China,” has yet to adequately decolonize its categories of understanding or frames of analysis (6). Taking Sinological-orientalism to be visible in its “system of dispersion” (Foucault’s term for regularities discernible among apparently discontinuous statements, texts, and objects), Vukovich parses scholarship and journalism about the Great Leap Forward and the 1989 Tiananmen demonstrations, academic reception of Chinese feature films, a novel by Don DeLillo, and the “China reference” ubiquitous in much contemporary theory (126). The book’s well-demonstrated main argument is that contemporary orientalist discourse concerning China, rather than maintaining China’s essential difference, now casts the polity as increasingly similar to an idealized West. This similarity, however, remains “structured by a hierarchical difference” which maintains the “positional superiority” of both the inquisitor and the West itself (2-3). Sinological-orientalism concomitantly denigrates Maoism as having diverted China from a normal development path and treats it as a ghost haunting China’s present which must be exorcised if normalcy (i.e., sameness with the liberal, capitalist, democratic West) is to be achieved. This not only disregards the Maoist period’s social welfare achievements and its committed anti-colonialism, it also presumes that the Chinese have approached the end of history (to which the West has already arrived) and must no longer entertain any alternative. Ultimately, Vukovich’s book sounds a welcome call to take Maoist China seriously as, paraphrasing Zhang Xudong, an “irreducibly complex world of life,” and reminds those who write about China’s present and past to critically reflect on the historicity and politics of their own representations (117).

    Chapter 1, “Sinological Orientalism Now,” addresses the historical emergence and general contours of the discourse of “becoming-the-same.” Chapter 2, “Uncivil Society, or, China and Tiananmen, 1989” argues that rubrics deployed by “China watchers” to interpret the 1989 demonstrations have functioned to maintain the positional superiority of the West by casting participants as inadequately conforming to liberal democratic norms. Chapter 3, “Maoist Discourse and its Demonization” examines ways in which scholars have failed to take Maoism seriously on its own terms. The following chapter, “Accounting for the Great Leap Forward,” picks up this thread by assessing how recent writing on the post-Great Leap famine has trumpeted questionably-derived death tolls at the expense of developing a rigorous methodology to explain how the Leap–presented here as a benignly intended strategy for egalitarian rural development in an impoverished, decolonizing country–ultimately resulted in catastrophe. Chapter 5, “DeLillo, Warhol, and the Specter of Mao,” traces the circulation of “truisms” about Maoism through Don DeLillo’s novel Mao II, while chapter 6, “Screening Sinology,” looks at how Chinese films of the 1980s and 1990s are frequently interpreted as transparent windows on Chinese reality and scoured for anti-CCP positions. Finally, chapter 7, “The China-reference and Orientalism in the Global Economy,” considers how contemporary theorists, including Antonio Negri, Michael Hardt, and Giorgio Agamben, feel compelled to reference China without the corresponding intent “to actually say something insightful or even thoughtful or accurate about China, but to help prove the truth of said theorists’ theoretical and political claims” (128).

    While readers may bristle at Vukovich’s acerbic tone, it need not distract from the book’s overarching points. Particularly compelling is Vukovich’s point that the Maoist revolution stood at the intersection of the Cold War and decolonization, that anti-communist interpretive frameworks reformulated rather than supplanted colonialist discourse, and that these frameworks are still deployed due to continued existence of the Communist Party-state (whatever its stance on capitalism). Drawing from an illuminating 1988 essay by William Pietz on classic statements of “totalitarianism” and its alleged non-Western roots (George Kennan’s “oriental mind,” etc.), Vukovich addresses how the concept of totalitarianism incorporated older notions of “oriental despotism” (20-23). This concept rears its head in scholarship about Chinese Communist “court politics,” the ostensibly feudal behavior of student demonstrators in 1989, and in the astonishing regularity with which mass revolutionary action is reduced to a game of follow-the-leader. Vukovich retorts that totalitarianism

    necessarily assumes a striking lack of human agency on the part of hundreds of millions of ‘brainwashed’ Chinese ‘under’ Mao. As if all Chinese said and did whatever they were told to do; as if there were a massive uniformity of experience across so much diverse, complex social space; as if there were such an oriental surfeit of power that this was even possible. (23)

    Vukovich also insightfully addresses how a racialized concept of totalitarianism informs the chronologically confused depiction of Maoism in DeLillo’s novel Mao II, as well as efforts to equate Maoism with fundamentalist Islam (50-51). Such gestures not only conflate radically opposed political agendas but also unreflexively conjure the specter of non-white subjects collectively haunting an imperiled West. Against such ahistorical modes of inquiry, Vukovich proposes that we at the very least begin by taking Maoist categories of self-understanding seriously–for instance, by recognizing the salience of the “two-line struggle”–and by remaining open to the prospect that the society under investigation can and will challenge our “a priori assumptions, conclusions, and discourse” (3, 107-108).

    The book is at its strongest when it reads sources and phenomena against Sinological-orientalist grains. For instance, in chapter two Vukovich offers a brilliant interpretation of the poetry that adorned worker placards during the 1989 Tiananmen demonstrations. Rather than attempting to see in the protests the emergence of “civil society”–a formation and concept Vukovich finds wanting everywhere in the world–he invites us to reflect on the significance of working class participation and how workers themselves framed their own actions. Their expressed desire to “expel the dictators” should not be seen as anachronistic in 1989 but as a very urgent response to an increasingly “ignoble existence” that belied the very idea of civil society (39). In chapter four, Vukovich suggests ways of understanding the famine that followed the Great Leap Forward that neither inflate Mao’s role nor rely on problematic accounting methods to reach an outsized death toll. He instead helpfully points us to scholarship by Carl Riskin, Utsa Patnaik, and others who have located the roots of the famine in ill-coordinated planning and the too-rapid eclipse of extant market structures. Equally insightful are the readings in chapter six of the films To Live, Yellow Earth, and In the Heat of the Sun, which caution against rushing “to code [such] films as either for or against the government and/or Maoism” as well as the assumption that “to be good they must be ‘subversive'” (119).

    Although Vukovich circumscribes his study to the Maoist period and after, China and Orientalism would have benefited from a deeper inquiry into the historical roots of the trope of China’s “becoming-the-same.” While he convincingly argues that this trope has become dominant within our neoliberal, post-Cold War present, it is also the case that ideas about China’s prospective homogenization with the West have had a strong and enduring place in U.S. discourse, arguably more explicitly than in the French civilizing mission briefly mentioned in the book (5). This idea was at the core of the turn-of-the-twentieth-century American missionary enterprise (that the heathen Chinese could eventually, with proper white-Christian guidance, become modern, rational, capitalist subjects). It was also a notion deftly promoted at midcentury to a U.S. audience by Guomindang spokespeople such as Soong May-ling, who found an eager mouthpiece in Henry Luce’s Time-Life empire. Moreover, becoming-the-same was also at the core of postwar modernization theory, with its denial of coevalness, explicit anti-communism, and expectation that, given proper conditions, recently decolonized populations could one day catch up with the First World. Though Vukovich raises this latter point, he might have more directly addressed the fact that becoming-sameness appeared during the Cold War and well before, and how we should account for the dominance of this trope at different points in time.

    Finally, even though Vukovich does not confine his study to American scholarship or cultural production, since many of his examples are drawn from the U.S. context his book could have benefited from a more substantive engagement with extant literature on American orientalism, including works by Christina Klein, Karen Leong, and Mari Yoshihara. This would not only have created a welcome bridge between China Studies and American/Asian-American Studies, but would have illuminated links within Sinological-orientalism’s “system of dispersion”–such as the popular-cultural mediations between Don DeLillo and academic writing about Maoism. These issues aside, China and Orientalism constitutes a challenging and illuminating book that will hopefully be read and discussed widely.


    [1] James C. Scott, “Tyranny of the Ladle.” The London Review of Books 34 no. 23 (Dec. 6, 2012), 21.”

  21. perspectivehere
    August 2nd, 2013 at 08:12 | #21

    Conflict between religions and the Chinese government is usually portrayed as a consequence of Chinese Communist Party’s atheism and anti-religious stance. The solution often put forward is that China should allow more freedom of religion, and the more freedom of religious practice is allowed, the more progressive and like the rest of the world China will become.

    Yet, it is interesting to note, as Professor Tanya Storch does, that traditional China regulated religions in much the same way as it does today.

    China’s religious regulations was designed to ensure that no religion would disrupt social order and overturn the state.

    Traditionally, China had multiple religions – the author notes that it was a multi-religious society many centuries before this occurred in the West, which had been mono-religious theocracies, and later fighting religious wars before settling down to a situation in the last two centuries where (like China of centuries earlier) multiple religions exist in a society which ruled by an essentially secular state which permits the practice of multiple religions.

    Perhaps this shows that the West today has become more like traditional China – multi-religious but with a strong state which intervenes when a religion threatens social order.

    Is Communism to be Blamed for China’s Religious Policy?
    Tanya Storch

    “Western scholarship on East Asia and World historians generally may benefit from a fresh approach to analyzing religious policies of the People’s Republic of China. Currently, they seem content to repeat familiar accusations that China’s repression of religious freedom is rooted in communist doctrine.

    However, this approach does not give sufficient attention to the history of Chinese law which, since the Tang dynasty (618–907), aimed at preventing powerful religious movements from rising and forming competitive institutions, similar to the Catholic Church of Europe.

    This essay offers five comparative cases show that the Chinese government’s approach to religion is differs little from that employed throughout Chinese history. It has always, as today, viewed religions as being equally in need of government regulations, specifically, when it concerns the amount of land they possess; the amount of people they attract; proselytism in public places; and anti-government messages in their teachings.

    Such regulations appear to most Westerners to be specifically antireligious because our societies have inherited the notion of the “sacredness” of the Church. Chinese civilization, however, is different from the Western model and is based on the notion of the “sacredness” of the government.

    Reconsidering the Roots of Contemporary Chinese Religious Policy

    The People’s Republic of China government has been continuously accused by the West for its violations of human rights, especially, the right to religious freedom….

    The question we need to ask ourselves at this point is this – Is it possible that Chinese and European cultures have radically different views on how much government intervention into religious affairs of its citizens is necessary for a stable society? The author of this article believes that the answer to this question is yes.

    When dealing with Chinese religious policies, one must be constantly reminded that the Chinese and European societies developed differently as far as the balance between the power of the organized religion, such as the Church, and the power of a political government is concerned.

    Europeans, for many centuries, allowed the Church to dominate their lives, including most important issues of social and political governance. By the contrast, government institutions in China, having experienced the power and danger of the organized religion, committed themselves to regular preventive measures against a possibility of the rising of the Church.

    Using a specific analogy from world history can be helpful here.

    After the Dominican priest Savonarola (1452–1498) had seriously challenged the Medici’s government in the Republic of Florence, Medici learned to respect the Church and protect the dynasty by relying on, and sometimes, usurping its power.

    By contrast, after the Yellow Turbans in China nearly destroyed the Han dynasty’s government in the late second century, the following dynasties responded by adopting laws precluding religious organizations from becoming so powerful that they would be able to rise against the government.

    These, what might be called, anti-religious laws establishing the government as the highest moral, intellectual and social authority in the country, were developed by the Tang 618–907), Song (960–1279), Ming (1368–1644) and Qing (1644–1911) dynasties.

    During the same time period in Europe, it was the Church that reigned supreme over all issues of human moral social behavior, exercising a great deal of control over its political establishments at the same time. And it is precisely because of this dramatic difference in the historical evolution of our two societies, I argue, that the problem of “religious freedom” is particularly difficult for the Chinese-Western relations.

    In order to initiate a dialogue in this area, a better understanding of the history of Chinese society by general public is required. This is where a comparative study of laws designed by the Chinese government for the regulation of its people’s religious activities can be very useful for it will make us realize that the religious policies of today, which Western scholars associate strictly and almost exclusively with the Communist ideology, and religious policies observed in this country over the past fourteen hundred years are consistent in expressing the same idea about the role of government in its citizens’ religious practices.

    I hope through this research to convince my audience that the seemingly “draconian rules” of modern China cannot be conveniently blamed on the Chinese Communist Party alone because they are, in essence, a continuation of one of the oldest traditions of civil government.

    Comparative cases

    In traditional China, citizens’ religious activities were regulated by the state through the local state officials who based their decisions on criminal law known to us through such collections as The Tang Dynasty Code with the Commentaries and Explanations (Tanglu shuyi), published in 653; Criminal Code of the Song Dynasty (Song xingtong), published in 963; Laws and Regulations of the Qingyuan Era Selected according to the Categories 0f Crimes (Qingyuan tiaofa shilei), published in 1202; and similar codes developed by the later dynasties.

    In the 20th century, during the Cultural Revolution, all traditional religions were abolished; thus, laws regulating them did not need to exist. The stated goal of eliminating all religions was maintained by the Communist leaders until 2001, despite the fact that some activities were allowed during the late eighties and early nineties.

    After the PRC joined the World Trade Organization in 2001 and Jiang Zemin publicly declared religion to be a positive force in the life of Chinese people, capable of assisting national development, the attitude toward traditional and foreign religions changed dramatically.

    This change resulted in passing specific laws to regulate citizens’ religious activities. Specifically, in March of 2005, the State Council adopted Regulation on Religious Affairs (RRA) which represents the first comprehensive national regulation devoted to religious issues. Although these new regulations are not as systematically organized as criminal laws in the aforementioned codes of the Tang and Song dynasties, the two sets of policies, the old and the new ones, exhibit striking similarities when we read them in comparison, especially if we concentrate our attention on the areas the government considered to be crucial to its centralized power, such as control over land and buildings ownership allowed to religious organizations, amounts of people allowed to converted to each specific religious community, as well as some other concerns, including the restriction on travel and public proselytism for the members of the clergy, young people’s conversions and religious institutions’ accountability to promote moral and patriotic system of education developed by the state.

    The following five comparative cases between the past and present policy, because of consistency in similarity between the old and new regulations, are intended to push our public and academic audiences toward reexamining the prevailing “communist” theory of the current religious policies of China.”

    [Professor Storch then compares 5 cases:

    1: Laws regulating land purchases and building of religious facilities;

    2: “Religious passport” and its role in controlling the religious population and securing the flow of taxes and forced labor

    3: Religious organizations must accept names and titles approved by the government

    4: Religious activists need government permission to travel and proselytize

    5: Government is the ultimate moral authority.]

    She then presents this conclusion:

    “Modern laws in China regulate religious activities in accordance with the traditional views, establishing government as the ultimate land-owner and moral authority in the country whose responsibility is to protect citizens against all sorts of social imbalances, including massive religious movements.

    The dichotomy between the power of the Church and power of the state, which dominated centuries of European history and is still effective today, is unfamiliar to this society.

    Manifestations of this omnipresent position of the government appear to many critics of Chinese religious policy as purposely and specifically anti-religious and arising from communist critiques of religion, but it is argued here that their origins lay in ancient patterns of Chinese authority which envision the state as the most “sacred” element of Chinese society.

    Viewed in this light, what often appears as Chinese anti-religious policy, past and present, is merely an expression of the need to control religious activity in the service of a higher moral authority: the state itself.

    As shown in the five comparative cases, the primary function of the current policy is the same as in the past—to ensure that a religious organization similar to the Church does not rise and create competition to the work of the central government.

    The legislation which has been analyzed through the comparative studies does not indicate that religions are considered evil or useless just because they are religions. It does indicate, however, that the power of massive, and overly zealous religious movements is recognized as a serious threat to the governance, and therefore, in need of limitations through the proper regulatory systems.

    In particular, in the past and in the present, all religious organizations must submit to regulations through the amount of land they can own and the number of people they can attract. They are also regulated through the limitations imposed on proselytism in public places, use of public resources for religious purposes and age censor. Finally, they are regulated through the limitations imposed on the types of religious rituals and contents of scriptures and prayers. If the latter contain teachings about the cosmic divine order which prohibits citizens from respecting and obeying the laws of the government, these are not tolerated.

    It might be argued, therefore, that most of the regulations, which the Western public perceives as specifically anti-religious, are aimed at a different goal—to protect the government against the rise of the Church and massive religious movements which can disrupt the social order and overturn the government.

    Since the time of Confucius himself (551–479 B.C.E.), the existence of central authority was justified by two functions: to satisfy people’s basic economic needs, such as food and shelter; and provide people with moral education, including respect for the family and government. We may disagree on whether, from our point of view, China has the best form of leadership, but from the Chinese perspective, it does exactly what it is expected to.”

    Tanya Storch, Ph.D. – Associate Professor of Religious Studies at the University of the Pacific in Northern California. She has written more than twenty articles in the field of East Asian religion and spirituality, including contributions to Religion, Law and Freedom: A Global Perspective (Westport, Connecticut, London: Praeger, 2000) and Religions and Missionaries in the Pacific, 1500-1900. (Aldershot, England: Ashgate Publishing, Ltd., 2006).

  22. perspectivehere
    August 2nd, 2013 at 11:07 | #22

    There has recently appeared online a good essay written by an undergraduate scholar as an honor’s thesis on the origins of the Opium War. This essay focuses on the motivations of the merchants and traders in pushing for war to resolve their commercial impasse with the Chinese government. He makes the claim that the Opium War was really about opium profits for the traders (and not about principles as “free trade” although such principles are made to seem what is at stake so as to draw in public support for government intervention.)

    His essay is well-worth reading, although I think it would be improved if it gave more insight on the harm that opium caused to its users. Moreover, it makes a further and startling claim that opium kick-started mass consumer capitalism in China. It’s an intriguing point that I’m not sure I agree with – extensive commercial trading was already very active for several centuries in China’s domestic economy by the late eighteenth century, and the opium trade merely grafted on top of existing commercial distribution networks for other commodities.

    Here is an excerpt:

    The Gentleman’s Speculation: Merchants, Opium, and the Birth of Capitalism in Asia
    Elias Magic Kahn Rothblatt Class of 2012
    Wesleyan University

    “As the opium trade would only increase in scale following the Opium Wars and China would repeatedly find itself on the wrong side of treaties granting further privileges to foreign trading nations, some Chinese unsurprisingly began to see the increasing economic and social maladies as the direct result of Western capitalist domination, and the Opium Wars as the key moment when this domination was cemented. In this vein, the wars have taken on a heightened significance since 1949 when Mao’s government assumed control of China. Since then, the Opium Wars have been used as a rallying cry for generating both nationalism among the Chinese in resistance to any foreign challenge and obedience to the communist state.

    In this thesis, I will attempt to show that the true legacy of the opium trade and Opium Wars extends well beyond the significance it has assumed in the national historiographies of Great Britain and China. By focusing on the merchants involved in the opium trade, who, it bears mention were of many different nationalities, not just Chinese and British, and on the capitalistic nature of their trading endeavors, one begins to see why opium as such was so attractive to merchants of that time and why it was the primary vehicle for the introduction of capitalism to Asia. It becomes clear that opium was a highly unique commodity due to its addictive nature: having already been introduced into Chinese society for medicinal use, a pathway existed for its steady penetration of Chinese society until it became the first major consumer product in the region. Opium would stimulate the creation, not just of China’s, but also of most of Southeast Asia’s culture of mass consumption, paving the way for capitalism to take hold in the region. Ultimately, it would be the opium trade that would not merely end the Cohong monopoly in China, but simultaneously allow the creation of a capitalist class across Asia, by allowing merchants of many ethnicities to begin the process of pooling capital.

    It was Amitav Ghosh’s historical novel River of Smoke that would originally start me down the path this thesis has taken. His novel is exceptional in a few ways. First, Ghosh approaches the research for his book as a historical anthropologist. Many of the dialogue and details in the book are lifted directly from historical sources. This allows the book to be read with a critical eye, as an ethnography of sorts. Second, by narrating his characters voyages from India to China, Ghosh draws a connection between the two regions that is all too rarely encountered in scholarly sources. Finally, the crucial significance of River of Smoke for this thesis is how the novel personalized the merchants of the opium trade and, in doing so, opened my eyes to the wider significance of the events….

    From Fairbank to Fay to Lovell a picture of the standard western interpretation of the Opium Wars begins to emerge. This interpretation revolves around the notion that these wars were a clash between two entirely different civilizations, and that China, stuck in the antiquity of its traditions, was simply unprepared for the realities brought about by the industrial revolution and the resultant changes in ideology. This interpretation has evolved in a way that obscures, if not excludes from adequate consideration, an examination of the key components of the opium trade, namely merchants and opium itself, and has incorporated Chinese sources into its canon, but still downplays the role of the merchants and the result of their involvement on the growth of capitalism in China.

    In a lecture delivered at Wesleyan University on April 3, 2012, Ghosh mentioned a rather striking facet of his novel River of Smoke: that its climactic passage is set inside a chamber of commerce. In this passage, the Canton Chamber of Commerce has called an emergency meeting to respond to Lin’s demand that Western merchants surrender their opium and that Hong merchants pay for their disobedience to the edicts of the Emperor with their life. Two distinct factions begin to form at the meeting. One, angered by Lin’s heavy-handed tactics and unwilling to suffer the economic damage that would accompany the surrender of the opium, is willing to put the Hong merchants’ lives in jeopardy in order to force Lin’s hand:

    ‘What I propose,’ said Slade, ‘is that we stand fast and show
    that we are not to be budged. Once they understand this,
    Howqua and Mowqua will sort out the matter soon enough.
    They will dole out a few cumshaws and grease a few palms
    and that will be the end of it. Their heads will remain on their
    shoulders and we shall still be in possession of our goods. If
    we show signs of softness we will all lose: this above all is
    a moment when we must cleave to our principles.’

    ‘Principles?’ retorted Mr. King in astonishment. ‘I fail to see
    what principle can underlie the smuggling of opium.’

    ‘Well then, you have chosen to blind yourself sir!’
    Mr Burnham’s fist landed loudly on the table.
    ‘Is freedom not a principle as well as a right?
    Is there no principle at stake when free men
    claim the liberty to conduct their affairs without
    fear of tyrants and despots?’

    Here the second faction, led by Mr. King, argues that the Hong merchants are their close friends and long-time business partners, and that one cannot place any monetary value on the life of a friend. The debate between these two factions rages on, with Mr. Burnham going as far to suggest that it is the Chinese “effeminate” nature which makes them so weak as to be susceptible to opium addiction and unable to appreciate the importance of free trade. This passage is especially illustrative of the unique circumstances in Canton that allowed the merchants to play such an important role in the opium war.

    Ghosh uses the juxtaposition of the values of free trade and the supposition that the Chinese lack masculinity to show how the Canton merchants were able to use prominent European ideological movements to serve their purposes. The comment on masculinity is largely reflective of the nature of the nearly all-male world inhabited by the country traders in Canton, a theme Ghosh expounds upon throughout River of Smoke. The presence of female foreigners in the small region outside of Canton proper to which the foreigners were relegated, called Fanqui town (or foreigner town), was strictly forbidden. In such a society, masculinity became the paradigm through which power was expressed, the most powerful members of this society assuming the status of a “man among men.” Given that it was a merchant society, power accompanied a man’s success in business and success in business came from the opium trade. When this success was challenged by the Chinese suppression of the opium trade, then, these merchants found it beneficial to espouse the rhetoric of free trade. Thus, it becomes easy to see how, when these the Chinese blocked these merchants’ opium business, they suddenly became some of the staunchest supports of free trade within the British Empire. What I am suggesting, but cannot prove, is that the issue of “free trade” during the First Opium War took on a local meaning that was colored by the special circumstances in which Western traders found themselves in Canton at that time.

    The fact that they were willing to risk the lives of their business partners further suggests that they were primarily concerned with their own enrichment rather than some deep-seated ideological commitment to the morality of “free trade. This supposition is further supported by the beliefs of the second faction which— led by Charles King, a representative of the non-fictional American firm Olyphant & Co. which never traded in opium due to their moral objection to that commodity—is never blinded by the promise of opium-related profits and argues passionately to not risk the lives of the Hong merchants.

    Ultimately, even with the support of the committee’s chairman, Mr. Wetmore, Mr. King’s faction is unable to carry the support of the other members. Unofficially, the deciding vote is cast by Bahram Modi, Ghosh’s Parsi opium trader protagonist, who chooses to align himself, and therefore the large and diverse constituency of India-based traders, with those who refuse to respond to Lin’s demands. In making this decision, Bahram relies on a type of clan morality: “He had to think first of those who were closest to him, did he not? And what conceivable good could result for them if he brought ruin upon himself?…Indeed he could think of no duty more pressing than this, even if it meant that the bridge to heaven would forever be barred to him.” He weighs the potential that his decision will mean the death of one of the Hong merchants against the possibility of failing to provide for those closest to him and chooses to hold onto his opium.

    In the end, it is Elliott’s promise to indemnify, in the name of the British government, the entirety of the British traders’ opium, which leads to the country traders surrendering their opium in the novel. Bahram’s choice to hold on to his opium is proven wrong, as the British government offers no guarantee over the opium of non-British citizens and it is too late for Bahram to repair his broken conscience. Elliot’s decision to guarantee the opium, and later the British entry into the war, are all direct consequences of the discussion between the country traders who made up the chamber of commerce. Therefore, the importance of the country traders, a group who were primarily interested in enriching themselves at nearly any cost, in the larger discussion of the causes of the opium war is central to Ghosh’s depiction of the causes of the war….”

  23. Black Pheonix
    August 3rd, 2013 at 15:12 | #23

    Schell’s analogy of China’s celebration of history to US’s “July 4” is somewhat flawed.

    (1) China actually does not celebrate the start of Opium War as some kind of “national humiliation day”. In fact, PRC celebrates its formation at the end of the civil war on October 1, 1949. That day is for celebrating peace, not the continuation of war, and serves as a reminder of what price China had to pay for peace.

    (2) in contrast, US’s celebration of “July 4” 1774, “Independence Day”, is actually a celebration of humiliation and Start of a War. Because the American Revolutionary War began around that time, and did not end until Treaty of Paris in 1783, almost 9 years later.

    Perhaps Schell did not realize the irony of his own comparison, but China does not celebrate “humiliation”, US does.

  24. Black Pheonix
    September 2nd, 2013 at 11:18 | #24

    Turn about is inevitable.

    UK is now “Addictions Capital” of Europe.


    Almost 300 years after England began to export opium addiction to China, now, England is on the receiving end.

  25. Black Pheonix
    September 3rd, 2013 at 06:43 | #25

    Oddly enough, the new drug of choice in addictions in UK and US is increasingly heroin, which is derived from opium poppy.

    The new comeback trend of heroin is so bad, that many US municipal hospitals are experiencing new cases of addiction and overdose almost DAILY.

    The comeback is attributed to new cheap manufacturing processes of heroin. (and perhaps renewed increase of poppy supply from Afghanistan).

    The War on Terrorism apparently shot the War on Drugs in the foot.

    Incidentally, India is the largest producer and consumer of heroin, over $1.4 billion in value annually.

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