The Chinese Difference
Notes from China
A China Passage
To Peking and Beyond: A Report on the New Asia
With the exception of Joseph Kraft’s short work, all the books on China mentioned here have been padded. Barbara Tuchman includes a fascinating historical essay. Galbraith has animadversions on San Francisco, Paris, TWA, and many other matters, and Harrison Salisbury adds chapters on Korea, Vietnam, and Cambodia. Salisbury has a great deal to say about China, but the others would have done better to follow Joseph Alsop’s example and content themselves with two or three magazine articles instead of writing one slight and anemic book. The books tend to reveal more about their authors than about China. This does not mean that they are worthless. The authors are all intelligent and skillful. What is more, some of them had seen China before 1949, and Harrison Salisbury and Barbara Tuchman were on the fringes of the group of Americans who between 1925 and 1950 established the closest and most useful personal relations foreigners have ever made in China.
Anna Louise Strong, Edgar Snow, Nym Wales, Agnes Smedley, Owen Lattimore, and Jack Belden were able to reach the center of the Chinese revolutionary movement. Many were reporters, but unlike most journalists in Vietnam they did not even try to maintain an impartial view of a monstrously unbalanced situation. They did not attempt to equate the Japanese invaders with the local resistance or the corrupt and brutal Kuomintang with the sometimes bureaucratic but efficient and overwhelmingly popular communists. As a consequence their writings were more lively at the time and can now be seen to have had far greater historical value than those of their more “objective” contemporaries.
There are several reasons why Americans, rather than people of other nationalities, were able to create such close rapport with the Chinese. First, although American imperialism was deeply concerned with China, its impact on it was indirect. Since the US had achieved “most favored nation” status in the 1840s, gaining all the political and commercial privileges given to other powers, there was no need to fight China for advantages that could be gained through British, French, or Japanese coercion, a situation well described as “hitch-hiking imperialism.” Furthermore American investment in China was far smaller than that of Britain and Japan. US commercial interest was always more potential than actual. Nevertheless the potential alone was sufficient to sustain the vague feeling that China was the “last frontier” after San Francisco, a country from which American business would some day draw huge profits.
However, the relationship cannot be explained simply as a matter of economics or politics. China possesses an ancient civilization to which Americans have equal or better access than Europeans. Mrs. Nixon is as well qualified to talk about Chinese cooking as Mme Pompidou. Far more important are the resemblances between Chinese and American cultures. To take a contrary example, there have been remarkably few American Arabophiles, notwithstanding the huge American economic interests in the Middle East. Unlike many upper-class Englishmen, Americans find it hard to accept the combination of aristocracy and homosexuality one finds there. On the other hand Chinese peasants have qualities that appeal to many Americans—who are not directly threatened by their competition. They are enterprising and hardworking, thrifty and clean, and they have a myth of equal opportunity that before 1949 was similar to that of the US both in its power and in its spuriousness. Chinese peasants thus seemed tantalizingly close to Protestant Christianity. It is for this reason that, in spite of meager results, missionary activity was intense in China and many Americans were able to overcome their racial feelings in their desire to reach Chinese people.
Chinese too sensed these affinities. The hierarchical and insular British and Japanese with their intricate manners may have fascinated inquisitive Chinese, but warmth and openness with them were impossible. By contrast, some Americans knew how to act as equals. This, together with the indirectness of US interference, allowed them to be seen as more human than other imperialists, and as such they became an important link between the Chinese and the outside world.
During the 1930s the Nationalist government in Nanking had such close American connections that one can usefully look at it as a prototype for the US dominated neocolonialist governments set up after the Second World War. At the beginning these connections were friendly ones. However, the increasing economic and military dependence of the Nationalists upon the US created such deep resentment among them that by the time they had been reduced to puppet status in Taiwan, warm human contacts were almost impossible.
Personal relations with Chinese communists were more straightforward. In spite of their hostility toward communism, nearly all Americans who met both sides found they preferred the communists, with their Chinese peasant virtues, to the grasping and devious Kuomintang. Radical North Americans and other non-British English-speaking people—Edgar Snow, Rewi Alley, Norman Bethune, George Hatem, and others—made themselves useful, particularly by giving and obtaining information. At guerrilla headquarters they were pumped for news of Europe and America. In return they were given extraordinarily good facilities with which to study the new revolutionary movement and its leaders so that they could provide detailed and accurate reports of them to the outside world.
This was possible because the revolution had more or less active support from most of the local population; there was little to fear from exposure, and the war, being protracted, gave observers time to write about it. But still it is surprising that the Chinese revolution has been the best reported mass revolution in the twentieth century. The communists selected Americans for this task partly because they saw that propaganda efforts were best concentrated on the US; it was the greatest world power and the one most involved in fighting the Japanese or supporting the Kuomintang. Even so the qualities of these American reporters were also extremely important.
In the 1950s, during the alliance with the Soviet Union, Chinese leaders appear to have made no similar revelations to Russian journalists. Ministers and heads of state do not have the time and flexibility of guerrilla leaders, and the Soviet press did not encourage frank reporting. Moreover, Russian bluntness and pushiness seem to have been more off-putting than the American variety. It is also possible that racial prejudice was involved, Russian fears setting up barriers against East Asians as insurmountable as those white Americans erect against blacks.
In any event, between 1949 and 1960, Mao, Chou En-lai, and other Chinese leaders had little communication with the outside world. Only after the Sino-Soviet split did they feel free to invite Edgar Snow to China. Snow managed to avoid the restrictions put upon other travelers by the State Department, which was frightened of attacks from hysterically anti-Chinese politicians like Richard Nixon and journalists like Joseph Alsop. He was able to see a certain amount of the country but, far more important, he was able to interview his old friends, to transmit their ideas to the world, and to return every few years until his death in 1972. Some conversations were contrived with particular ends in view. For instance, in their meeting in January, 1965, Mao played the role of a contemplative sage waiting for death. No doubt many of his statements on immortality reflected genuine feelings. But they also helped to lull Liu Shao-ch’i and the other party leaders just a few months before the devastating attacks launched on them during the Cultural Revolution. Nevertheless these interviews provided extraordinary insights into Mao’s thinking.
It was not until Nixon’s somersault on China became public in 1971 that other Americans could return to China and report on it. It is clear that Mao and Chou have retained their faith in American reporters, and for this reason some have been given startling privileges. Many have had long, wideranging interviews with Chou En-lai. Some, like Harrison Salisbury, have heard detailed descriptions of the Cultural Revolution and one American scholar has even been given the life story of Mao’s wife Chiang Ch’ing.
Are they capable of grasping these exceptional opportunities? Some like William Hinton clearly are. His book Hundred Day War: The Cultural Revolution at Tsinghua University* is a historical source of extraordinary value. Hinton has the striking advantages of having been in the thick of the revolutionary movement during the 1940s and of having relations who have lived in China, since 1949. But most of the other observers have not so far made full use of the chances given them in China.
Harrison Salisbury’s book is packed with useful information. Instead of looking for news, places, and institutions never previously seen by Westerners, he clearly made an effort to visit places that had been well described before. For instance he went to Liu Lin Commune in the desperately poor countryside near Yenan, which Edgar Snow visited in 1960 and which was the subject of Jan Myrdal’s fascinating Report From a Chinese Village. By doing so Salisbury was able to construct a picture of economic progress and social changes over the last, thirteen years. His reporting meshes well with relevant quotations from earlier Western visitors. Although he tends not to use written Chinese sources, the material he has gathered from discussions and interviews is superb. Some of the book’s most interesting sections are descriptions of the Cultural Revolution by its participants. Like William Hinton in his fuller work, Salisbury uses the analogy of the Western student movement to approach an understanding of the turmoil in Chinese universities.
Galbraith’s unpretentious book is simply a diary of his trip. Unlike many other middle class visitors to China, he has seen factories in different parts of the world, has himself worked on farms, and he took his first academic degree in animal husbandry. These qualifications give him some standards of comparison that other academic visitors lack.
Barbara Tuchman, too, would not make large claims for her book, Notes from China. She is an expert in Sino-American relations during the 1940s, and has written the standard account of the misunderstandings between Chinese and Americans during the Second World War. One is therefore disconcerted to find that in this book she appears so tightly bound by her own culture. For example, she is scornful of the way in which Chinese attribute monuments and works of art to the labor and wisdom of the masses, without mentioning the contributions of the original architects, artists, or designers. She does not criticize the equally significant and far more absurd Western view of works of art and construction as created by the genius of one man, regardless of his social and cultural milieu and the physical labor of others.
Almost half of Joseph Kraft’s book is devoted to Nixon’s visit to Peking, which he captures in all its banality. The rest consists of thoughtful essays built around his discussions with foreign diplomats—some of them quite shrewd—and visits and interviews made during his two-week stay after Nixon’s departure.
Monthly Review Press, 1972. See NYR, April 19, 1973.↩
Monthly Review Press, 1972. See NYR, April 19, 1973.↩