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THE PROBLEM OF CHINA – tekijä: Bertrand…

THE PROBLEM OF CHINA (alkuperäinen julkaisuvuosi 1922; vuoden 1922 painos)

– tekijä: Bertrand Russell

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363554,227 (3.64)-
This comprehensive study of China's history and national character was published in 1922, after Russell had spent a year as Professor of Philosophy at the University of Beijing. It is an insightful, and in some ways even prescient, take on a country that seems destined to stand beside America as a superpower of the 21st century.… (lisätietoja)
  1. 00
    On a Chinese Screen (tekijä: W. Somerset Maugham) (Waldstein)
    Waldstein: Russell and Maugham make for a fascinating comparison. They saw China circa 1920 from different points of view. Russell is more objective and more concerned with political and social questions, while Maugham is more subjective and more concerned with individuals (mostly but not only Europeans). Both write extremely clear, readable and witty prose.… (lisätietoja)

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Shockingly good considering how little knowledge was available to Russell at the time. It’s quite depressing to read the last lines of this book and realize that most of Russell’s worst fears have come to pass since 1949. China’s military and economic strength, built on the back of imported techniques, have not been reconciled with a renewal of older Chinese civilization, but have instead mostly accompanied the thorough destruction of everything in which Russell found reason for hope. Rather than developing a model from which the West can learn, the modern Chinese government has taken all the vices of Western civilization to excess while excising much of what’s actually admirable. Here’s hoping that the Chinese people can one day take back their country and fulfill the dream of giving “mankind as a whole new hope in the moment of greatest need.” ( )
  Roeghmann | Dec 8, 2019 |
Bertrand Russell

The Problem of China

George Allen and Unwin, Hardback, 1972.

8vo. 260 pp. Foreword by Bertrand Russell, 9 November, 1965 [p. 5]. Appendix dated "June 21, 1922".

First published, 1922.
Second impression, 1966.
Third impression, 1972.



I. Questions*
II. China before the Nineteenth Century
III. China and the Western Powers
IV. Modern China
V. Japan before the Restoration
VI. Modern Japan
VII. Japan and China before 1914
VIII. Japan and China during the War
IX. The Washington Conference
X. Present Forces and Tendencies in the Far East
XI. Chinese and Western Civilization Contrasted*
XII. The Chinese Character*
XIII. Higher Education in China
XIV. Industrialism in China
XV. The Outlook for China


*Reprinted in Selected Papers of Bertrand Russell (1927).


By some strange whim of history, Bertrand Russell and Somerset Maugham published books on China in the same year of the Lord 1922. Reading them back to back is a rare opportunity to compare two great and greatly different writers on a fascinating subject at the same point in history.

Both authors had solid first-hand experience of China. Russell spent a year there in 1921 as Professor of Philosophy at the University of Peking. China played major role in Maugham’s Far Eastern sojourn between August 1919 and April 1920. Both wrote some of the finest English prose from the last century, lucid, witty and oh, so readable. Both could write a shopping list and it would be well worth reading.

So much for the similarities. The differences are far greater. Russell, though he does not neglect cultural matters, is vastly more concerned with social and political questions. He provides plenty of historical background and contemporary information. Maugham cares next to nothing about society and politics. He is almost exclusively concerned with individual characters, and they are mostly, though not entirely, Western expats in China. Subjectivity is a very subjective matter, but I would say Russell is noticeably more objective than Maugham. This does not necessarily reflect on the quality of their observations.

The Problem of China is now 94 years old. Whatever topical interest it might have had, it has long since gone. But it says something about the value of the book as a historical snapshot that Russell lived long enough to write a foreword for the second impression – 43 years after the first. This third impression was published seven years later, full 50 years after the book had first appeared and two years after Russell’s death.

To begin with, the historical overview is splendidly done. It is totally engrossing and it makes you think of China as one of the absolute peaks in human history. I doubt it’s much dated, either. Russell quotes prodigiously from carefully sourced and scholarly tomes. He is consistently stimulating, for example on the difference of outlook that the ideographic system might have conferred upon the Chinese as opposed to their alphabetical brethren of the West. Most fascinating is his discussion of the harmful effect of “filial piety”, namely obedience to the family rather than the state and “perhaps the weakest point in Confucian ethics”. All this and much more is presented with a solid dose of the inimitable Russelian humour. For example, the so-called First Emperor, who was disturbed that China had existed before him and rather fond of book burning, was “something of a Bolshevik”. And Russell having been imprisoned for pacifism during the Great War, one should not be surprised to find passages like this:

The times of Jenghis Khan remind one of the present day, except that his methods of causing death were more merciful than those that have been employed since the Armistice.

Nobody can accuse Russell of being afraid to express unpopular opinions. He deserves credit for his courage there. That doesn’t mean, of course, that one has to agree with him. But, as I always say, disagreements with a great writer are just as productive, if not more so, as agreements. Bad as filial piety is, Russell maintains, “it is certainly less harmful than its Western counterpart, patriotism” which “leads much more easily to militarism and imperialism.” This is not as simplistic as it sounds; note that Russell refers to patriotism only in comparison with filial piety. At other places, however, he is prone to jumping to hasty conclusions that fit just a little too conveniently with his own politics. For instance:

…in the long run, the Chinese cannot escape economic domination by foreign Powers unless China becomes military or the foreign Powers become Socialistic, because the capitalist system involves in its very essence a predatory relation of the strong towards the weak, internationally as well as nationally. A strong military China would be a disaster; therefore Socialism in Europe and America affords the only ultimate solution.

“The Problem of China”, as Russell saw it in 1921, was precisely this “economic domination” by the West. This is a difficult subject, but with the help of Russell’s lucidity even an economic nitwit such as myself can try to penetrate it. So far as I can understand, from the Treaty of 1842 onwards, there was a massive Western exploitation of China under the form of tariffs and taxes. They were ingeniously designed to enrich the West and impoverish China. The Chinese government had very limited power and was at the mercy of thirteen Western nations. “It is a pretty game”, Russell observes caustically, “creating artificial bankruptcy, and then inflicting punishment for the resulting anarchy.”

Apparently it all started in 1793 when Lord Macartney, a British ambassador, arrived in China and requested “further trade facilities and the establishment of a permanent British diplomatic representative.” Russell is sorry he couldn’t quote complete the reply of the Emperor, one Chien Lung at the time, to King George III, but he did quote enough to get an excellent idea of the response. In short, the Emperor said that both cultures were so profoundly different that not even their rudiments could be exchanged through diplomatic services. As for trade, the Celestial Empire had everything it needed, certainly there was no need “to import the manufactures of outside barbarians”; but since tea, silk and porcelain are so craved by the European nations, the limited trade hitherto permitted in Canton is allowed to continue. And this is just lovely:

He would have shown less favour to Lord Macartney, but "I do not forget the lonely remoteness of your island, cut off from the world by intervening wastes of sea, nor do I overlook your excusable ignorance of the usages of our Celestial Empire." He concludes with the injunction: "Tremblingly obey and show no negligence!"

“What I want to suggest”, Russell adds, “is that no one understands China until this document has ceased to seem absurd.” It requires quite an imagination to achieve that. But it’s not impossible. After all, the Celestial Empire had risen to greatness at around the time of the Roman Empire, but unlike its famous Western counterpart it “had not fallen, but invariably defeated all its enemies, either by war or by absorption.”

All the same, Chien Lung’s arrogance, however rooted in solid common sense, proved disastrous in the long run. Quite possibly no ruler has ever spoken with such impunity to the supreme British Empire builder. Since the English never were famous for sense of humour, especially at their own expense, Britain never really did forgive the insult. The result was a whole series of wars during the nineteenth century that resulted in the aforementioned economic slavery of China.

This was a grave injustice Russell could not accept. He is positive that the only advantage the West ever had over China was science – pretty substantial advantage, to be sure, for it means, among other things, a “greater proficiency in the art of killing” that easily leads to militarism and imperialism. Russell’s sarcasm is devastating. The destruction of the Summer Palace in Peking by British and French forces “did much to persuade the Chinese of the superiority of our civilization.” Later, “after we had demonstrated our superior virtue by the sack of Peking”, the British turned the Legation Quarter of Peking into a fortified city. This is almost like a frightful anticipation of the Berlin Wall. Russell sums up the matter in the beginning thus:

It is easier for an Englishman to kill a Chinaman than for a Chinaman to kill an Englishman. Therefore our civilization is superior to that of China, and Chien Lung is absurd. When we had finished with Napoleon, we soon set to work to demonstrate this proposition.

The Problem of China had another side also, several sides in fact. One was the threat from Japan, a country which Russell paints in almost Orwellian colours (26 years before 1984) and memorably describes as “a quite peculiar blend of East and West, which I hope is not prophetic of the blend to be ultimately achieved in China”. But this is one of the cases when he goes into historical detail that does seem a little superfluous. It only shows what we all know since time immemorial: 1) there is no business quite so dirty as international affairs; 2) no matter how many times history repeats itself, we never learn from it.

More interesting is the transition of China from Celestial Empire to a modern democratic country. The former had been around for some 3,700 years, while the latter was a brand new invention from the beginning of the twentieth century. No wonder civil wars between tuchuns (military governors) and generation clashes resulted. Russell is full of praise for the so-called “Young China”, namely those young people who were educated in the Western way of thinking without slavishly imitating it, and he saw in them the greatest hope for the future of China. The situation was considerably more difficult for middle-aged people who had to reject age-old beliefs and embrace “a new science and a new ethic”. Russell’s gift for Western parallel serves him very well here. Imagine, he says, “Plotinus recalled from the shades and miraculously compelled to respect Mr. Henry Ford”. Lovely!

Russell’s great admiration for China, with its rich history and culture, is one the most frequent leitmotifs in the book and one of the author’s most endearing qualities. There is not a trace in him of that smug British superiority so common to his compatriots at the time. Indeed, try as he might to be objective, I have a feeling Russell would rather have been a Chinese than a Westerner. But he does his best to appreciate the good and the bad sides of both civilisations, chiefly in chapters I, XI, XII (no coincidence they were later reprinted in one of his collections of essays), but there are many fascinating asides scattered throughout the book. In chapter IV, for instance, Russell offers this comparison between the European and Chinese quarters in big towns:

Often one passes through a gate, suddenly, from one to the other; after the cheerful disordered beauty of the old town, Europe's ugly cleanliness and Sunday-go-to-meeting decency make a strange complex impression, half-love and half-hate. In the European town one finds safety, spaciousness and hygiene; in the Chinese town, romance, overcrowding and disease. In spite of my affection for China, these transitions always made me realize that I am a European; for me, the Chinese manner of life would not mean happiness. But after making all necessary deductions for the poverty and the disease, I am inclined to think that Chinese life brings more happiness to the Chinese than English life does to us. At any rate this seemed to me to be true for the men; for the women I do not think it would be true.

Culturally, Russell maintains, China has produced treasures at least equal to anything in the West. This seems strange to me. But it may be that my profound ignorance of Chinese art and literature is responsible for that. It may be that there are, hidden somewhere, Chinese equivalents of Michelangelo, Leonardo, Shakespeare, Gibbon, Hume, Byron, Beethoven, Liszt, Wagner, Horowitz, Karajan and Boris Christoff, but I’m afraid I’ve never heard about them. Russell would reply to this – rightly – with the simple statement that I am missing the point. After “the more blatant life of the West”, he would add, it is not easy to appreciate the subtle beauty and great dignity in the Chinese way of life (which, after all, is their greatest work of art).

Trying hard to avoid adulation, Russell defines three major defects in the Chinese character – “avarice, cowardice and callousness” – but he tries to explain and excuse all of them. On the other hand, he finds a lot more to admire in these people. Moderation, pacifism, politeness, humour, contemplative outlook, intellectual honesty and unbridled sense of joie de vivre are all examples. Which poet in the West, he wonders, would make a hero of a recruit who maimed himself to escape military service? That’s exactly what Po-Chui did in one of his poems. But Russell does remark, perceptively, that some of those virtues can be carried too far. For instance, politeness often interferes with efficiency and, what is worse, “with sincerity and truth in personal relations”.

Whatever defects the Chinese might have, they are nothing compared to the sins of the West. Militarism, imperialism, mercantilism, capitalism, religion, hypocrisy, delusions of progress (“only restless change, bringing us no nearer to any desirable goal”) and “efficiency for its own sake, without regard for the ends to which it is directed” are only a few examples. Russell relishes exposing the ludicrous conceit, especially prevalent in British and American circles, that the Western civilisation, or at least their version of it, is by far the best in the world and those indolent barbarians in the East ought really to be converted. Small wonder no Western empire has survived as long as China.

Nevertheless, Russell dares to hope that some sort of mutually beneficial cross-fertilisation between East and West is possible:

The distinctive merit of our civilization, I should say, is the scientific method; the distinctive merit of the Chinese is a just conception of the ends of life. It is these two that one must hope to see gradually uniting.
I wish I could hope that China, in return for our scientific knowledge, may give us something of her large tolerance and contemplative peace of mind.

It is not a little disconcerting to see the whole of Western civilisation reduced to “the scientific method”, all of its art and philosophy and literature apparently being no more than futile exercises of little ultimate value. But the fact that an idea is disagreeable is no reason to dismiss it without reflection. This one may be closer to the truth (whatever that means) than many people would care to admit. Let’s finish on a more cheerful note with yet another bit of Russellian humour:

The Chinese are a great nation, incapable of permanent suppression by foreigners. They will not consent to adopt our vices in order to acquire military strength; but they are willing to adopt our virtues in order to advance in wisdom. I think they are the only people in the world who quite genuinely believe that wisdom is more precious than rubies. That is why the West regards them as uncivilized.

Bertrand Russell lived long enough to see China as a Communist state where one party is the Party, but not long enough to witness its astonishing transformation into an economic superpower. What would he have thought today of the country and people he admired so much in 1921? I reckon he would have cast a weary eye on the heavy militarization, perhaps he might have regretted a certain Westernisation of the Chinese character, but on the whole I think he would have considered the Problem of China solved in the best possible way in this sadly imperfect world. ( )
1 ääni Waldstein | Nov 13, 2016 |
This was a very interesting read for a number of reasons.

It is a fairly concise analysis of the then-present political and economic situation of China, as viewed by a visiting Professor Bertrand Russell; he gives his own opinion and makes predictions as he sees events playing out. Some of the analysis and predictions were quite prescient; others look, in the light of much history, as naive as they indeed turned out to be (easy for me to say!) This was written c. 1921, so almost 30 years before the victory of Mao Zedong.

Some of his biting commentary on (especially) American culture seems just as true today; on the down side, some of his commentary on the development of Chinese economic progress seems incredibly... well, "European", even though he repeatedly lambastes whites for their caricature of Chinese culture. For instance, he says at one point --and I paraphrase-- that the development of more advanced technology and agriculture to save lives that would die of famine isn't worth it if it comes at the cost of culture: as hyperbole this is fine, but I suspect he half-way meant it. One wonders what the starving farm-worker would think.

A great, very accessible bit of historical reading, with much that is still relevant today. ( )
  dcunning11235 | Oct 17, 2016 |
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This comprehensive study of China's history and national character was published in 1922, after Russell had spent a year as Professor of Philosophy at the University of Beijing. It is an insightful, and in some ways even prescient, take on a country that seems destined to stand beside America as a superpower of the 21st century.

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