China and Foreign Devils

CHINA IS A piece of meat," Sun Yat-sen once said. "And the whole world wants to take a bit of it." At the 1973 Chinese Communist Party conference sixty years later, Chou Enlai echoed this statement of the Father of the Republic, but added that those who might seek to nourish themselves on China's wealth will find that the piece of meat has grown tough. This new toughness may well be the greatest change the People's Republic has caused--one Nationalist who visited China last year grudgingly admitted, "For the first time in over a century, Chinese can hold their heads up and look other peoples in the eye."

Since the Opium War with Britain in the 1840s, pride has not come easy for Chinese, but before England's appalling imperialist attack, China had thought themselves to be the center of the world, the self-sufficient Middle Kingdom. Chinese had looked on their relationships with outside powers as one-sided: They even resented the intrustion of foreign music into the Royal Court as an unnecessary outside influence.

China's trade relationship with England seemed no different. By the emperor's decree, only Canton could be used as a port of call. This allowance was seen as a favor. Chinese believed that they needed nothing the British could offer and, according to one wide misconception, that the English could not live without tea or rhubarb, without which they would surely die of constipation.

In exchange for all they took from China, the English gave the Chinese people opium. British ships would anchor off Kowloon or slip up the forbidden coast and run the drug ashore with small launches. In the late 1830s, the famous Commissioner Lin Tse-hsu launched an effective campaign to end this illegal trade. A death penalty for opium dealing was extended to foreigners and Lin sent an urgent plea to England.

Lin's impassioned letter to Queen Victoria contained more moral advice than economic threats, although he had already confiscated a massive shipment of the illegal drug. He warned of the wrath of Heaven, referring to incidents of Britishers who had died after entering China illegally and smugglers who had slit their own throats. He expressed his optimism that once the English leadership knew of the opium trade, they would end it.


England's reponse was the introduction of a successful modern war against China, a crushing humiliation that decisively established opium as a way of life in China for the next century. It also instilled a deep hatred for the English that, in some quarters, has not yet died. The English rationale for ignoring Lin's plea was that it was China's responsibility to curb addiction. More importantly, the British realized that curtailment of the trade would cause economic chaos in their India investments.

This was only the beginning of trouble for the tottering Manchu dynasty. In October 1860, English and French troops occupied Peking and burned the Summer Palace--almost a ritual of earlier barbarian invasions--after the Imperial Court arrested British envoy Harry Parkes. Each year brought more evidence of China's military inferiority. A most humiliating defeat came in 1894 with the Sino-Japanese War. Losing to their despised neighbors finally awakened China's educated class to the Middle Kingdom's vulnerability in much the same way as the American, English, French and Dutch bombardments in 1863 and 1864 aroused Japan.

The final years of the century brought a violent scramble for trading concessions among Britain, Germany, Russia, France, Japan and Italy, with the United States finally forcing an "open door" arrangement, guaranteeing all the powers equal access to trade.

The response to military failure was rapid, but ineffectual. China looked to the West, saw American science and European reforms, and tried to imitate both. Poetry, the medium of the crumbling Confucian society, became both more worldly and more patriotic. This period was known as The Hundred Days of Reform. It ended when the empress dowager imprisoned the emperor in September of 1899.

In 1900, angered by criticism from reformers, the empress dowager threw her support to the Boxers, fanatical militia forces that were inspired by superstition and attributed all of China's ills to "foreign devils" and their Christian converts. On June 20, the Manchu regime declared war on the foreign powers; by August 14, the allied forces of eight powers took Peking.

Such a collosal military defeat could only grow out of superstition and total ignorance of Western capabilities. The Boxer fiasco was the death blow for Imperial China and its Confucian tradition. A powerful new faction emerged, led by Sun Yat-sen, and in October 1911, it brought revolution to the Chinese. The overthrow of the imperial power came with surprisingly little bloodshed--the enemies were still from without. Chiang Kai-shek and Mao Tse-tung, two aids of Sun, worked with their leader for unity in the Middle Kingdom. The process was completed by Mao in 1949 with the October 1 founding of The People's Republic.

One ancient dictum that has survived is the strategy of using "barbarians to control barbarians," especially since the growth of Sino-Soviet tensions. China now seems to be ready to use this tactic more agressively than it ever did during the Empire.

The crucial question becomes not how much the Chinese can offer the old colonial powers, but how many of the scars have been forgotten since the time of the Revolution. Ideology dictates that Chinese have no conflicts with any nation's people, only with the leaders that hand down imperialist policies. Such a policy offers the greatest hope for a world without agression.

After 25 years, the opium addicts of the colonial era serve as an example of imperialism's brutal effects and the Chinese people remain mindful of the exploitation that once made it humiliating to be Chinese, if only to guard against future "barbarian" attacks. China has become a proud nation and it will never again offer itself to the West to be carved up.

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