To Change China: Western Advisers in China 1620-1960
China and the West
Within mainland China today the ratio of Westerners to Chinese is probably no greater than it was in Marco Polo’s time seven hundred years ago. Sinoforeign contact is so minimal that it almost meets the old Taoist stay-at-home ideal, “to live hearing the dogs bark in the next village but never go there.” Peking and Washington indeed monitor each other’s barking, but they meet only in Poland. How long can China and the USA, set as they are behind their respective defenses of Mao-inspired manpower and electronic super-weapons, continue to grow in population and in power and yet coexist in peace?
One answer to calm our fears is that modern technology, as it spreads, will give us common circumstances and a common view. This happy day seems far off, but we may still take a quizzical interest in the flow of material technology from the Western world into China. Representing Victorian “progress,” it tore the old China apart. Today it fuels Communist China’s anti-imperialism. (How indignant we could feel if only we could blame urbanization, traffic, jet noises, and even drug abuse and the wildness of youth, all on foreign invaders!) How China acquired Western technology and what she did with it is an absorbing story that bears on our future relations.
Jonathan Spence of Yale, a rising star on the horizon of Chinese historiography, is best known for his Sinological yet fascinating account of the relations between the first great Manchu emperor and one of his Chinese bond-servants who rose high serving the Manchu conquerors (Ts’ao Yin and the K’ang-hsi Emperor: Bond Servant and Master ). Mr. Spence has now produced a delightful study of sixteen Westerners, of various countries and callings, who spent time in China as “foreign advisers.” The selected sixteen range from Jesuit fathers of the seventeenth century to military figures of World War II—Chennault, Stilwell, Wedemeyer. Much of each story is told in the man’s own words, for Mr. Spence, a skilled craftsman, lets his advisers speak for themselves. The result is a fascinating popular book.
The persistent theme of To Change China: Western Advisers in China 1620-1960 is the conflict between Western and Chinese values, specifically between the aims of the foreigners and those of their Chinese employer-advisees, at the same time as they find a common if temporary bond in technology. The foreigners’ skills are needed and appreciated, but they themselves frequently wind up side-tracked as mere technicians, unable to change China as they had hoped. Thus the Jesuit fathers Adam Schall (born 1592) and Ferdinand Verbiest (b. 1623) tried to bring China “to God through the stars” by establishing themselves in the imperial palace as court astronomers. They make some conversions and have some influence, but in the end find they have been so busy as astronomers they have advanced Christianity rather little. Similarly the Protestant pioneer, Peter Parker (b. 1804) seeks with true Yale enthusiasm to win Canton for Christ by opening a hospital …
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Useful Foreigner October 23, 1969