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An Imperialist’s Progress

The Correspondence of G. E. Morrison, Volume I, 1895-1912

edited by Lo Hui-min
Cambridge University Press, 832 pp., $62.50

The half century after 1895 was the catastrophic period of Chinese history. In those years the last imperial dynasty foundered through internal rottenness and external pressure; the country was dismembered and no means was found to stay the process of dissolution. It was the peculiar misfortune of China that this decay of its government and governing class coincided with the high point of Western imperialism. The scramble for the benighted continent of Africa had its parallel in the even more indecent scramble for the vast and ancient empire which, a century before, had been held up to “philosophical” Europe as the model of enlightenment.

The internal rot had begun at the head. By 1895 the Chinese empire had been ruled effectively for thirty-four years by Tz’u Hsi, the famous Empress Dowager. Nominally she was merely a regent for successive infant emperors; but when the emperors grew up, she saw to it that there was no real change. The first of them, her own son, conveniently died; the second, the Kuang-hsü emperor, who was married to her niece, was kept effectively in bondage. In 1898 a progressive party captured the Kuang-hsü emperor and launched an ambitious program of reform; but after “a hundred days,” the old lady, by a well-timed coup d’état, destroyed the reformers, and the reign of women, eunuchs, corrupt Manchu princes, and reactionary mandarins returned. The emperor’s life was spared; but never again would he be allowed to touch the levers of power.

Meanwhile the disintegration of China went on apace. Originally the British, having established themselves in Hong Kong, had proclaimed the doctrine of the Open Door, profitable to themselves. But with the arrival of the French in Indochina and the Russians in Manchuria, and with the foundation of the German and the industrialization of the Japanese empires, the pattern changed. The ideal of the Open Door was replaced by that of closed “spheres of influence.” A critical moment came in 1894, with the successful aggression of Japan. Thereupon the European powers intervened directly. They forced Japan to disgorge its gains and then stayed to compete with each other by economic penetration: the acquisition of “treaty ports,” the granting of loans, the building of strategic railways. “The Battle of the Concessions” had begun.

Two years after the defeat of the reform movement came the Boxer Rising, with its call for the expulsion, or massacre, of the foreigners. After some vacillation, the feeble imperial court threw in its lot with the Boxers. The Boxer army then entered Peking, and the foreigners barricaded themselves in the legations. After a siege of two months, an international force entered Peking and relieved the legations. Thereupon the Empress and her court fled to Sian. Finally they returned—on terms. The court survived, unreformed, and the Associated Powers, whose disunity had enabled it to survive, continued their competition among themselves. In 1904 the confrontation of Russia and Japan led to war, and the victorious Japanese replaced the Russians in Manchuria. Later, in 1910, they would annex Korea. Thus they acquired the position of vantage for future aggression.

By this time the old Empress had at last died. She died in 1908, but before her death she had made her dispositions, which, as always, were directed by the narrowest egotism. Her niece, as the new Empress Dowager (for her husband, the unfortunate Kuang-hsü emperor, had mysteriously died in the nick of time), was to rule, through another infant emperor. This last imperial reign endured for three years. Then came the revolt: the overthrow of the dynasty, which, to some, seemed to usher in a new age, but which, in fact, was merely the first stage of a long agony.

In all this period, from the eve of the “Hundred Days’ Reform” to the imperial abdication of 1912, there was one Westerner who, by his permanence and his personality, seemed to dominate the scene. This was Dr. George Morrison, the correspondent of the London Times. If anyone, by mere public influence, directed the course of events in China and the Western reaction to them, it was he. He was the most famous foreigner in Peking. He created British public opinion on the subject of China. He advised the diplomatic corps in Peking. He nominated the British minister plenipotentiary who would reign there for fourteen years. An American diplomat once told him that it was on his dispatches to The Times, not on the diplomatic dispatches of the American minister, that American policy was based. The street in Peking in which he lived was long known us “Morrison Street.” After seventeen years as the Times correspondent, he remained in Peking as official adviser to the first president of the Chinese Republic, and he attended the peace conference of 1918 as adviser to the Chinese delegation. Two years later he died, aged fifty-eight.

Morrison was a great collector. He collected a huge library of books on China, which he afterward sold in Japan. He left a mass of papers, which now fill 255 boxes and bundles in the Mitchell Library, Sydney. But a full biography of him has never been written. At one time there was a plan to publish his diary, and the diary was edited for the purpose; but it was not published. I am told that, even as edited, its indiscretions were too outrageous, its frankness too brutal, for print. A biography by Mr. Cyril Pearl was published in 1967;* but it rests on so narrow a documentary base and is so limited by discretion that no reader of it would understand why Morrison was so powerful, or so controversial. It is the portrait of a schoolboy hero, “a latter-day Elizabethan.”

Morrison was indeed such a man—in part. His early life was one of adventure. Born and bred in Australia, the son of a headmaster, from the age of seventeen he carried out a series of remarkable journeys of exploration, on foot or by canoe, in his native continent. Aged twenty, he walked across the continent, from north to south, alone, without a compass, covering 2,000 miles in 123 days. Wounded by a native spear in New Guinea, he carried the spearhead in his body to Edinburgh, where he had it extracted and completed his own medical training. Then he resumed his adventures in Europe, Africa, America, the Far East. In 1894, wearing a Chinese cap and gown, and with only £18 in his pocket, he walked 3,000 miles from Shanghai to Rangoon. It was a published description of this journey, and a happy meeting in London, which caused him to be engaged, next year, by Moberly Bell, the manager of The Times, and sent to represent that paper, then at the height of its influence (but not of its financial prosperity), in China. He went out via Siam and arrived in Peking early in 1897. He was then thirty-five years old.

Morrison thus arrived in China at a critical moment, in time for the dramatic events which followed the settlement of the Japanese war. He witnessed the battle for concessions, the Hundred Days’ Reform, the Boxer Rising, the Russo-Japanese War, the Chinese revolution, the fall of the dynasty. All these events, and their consequences, and the public reaction to them, are illustrated in this first volume of Morrison’s selected correspondence, beautifully edited by a very appropriate editor; for Dr. Lo Hui-min is not only a first-class scholar, he also has local ties to his subject. Whereas Morrison was an Australian who lived and worked in China, Dr. Lo is a Chinese who lives and works in Australia.

On his arrival in Peking, Morrison at once threw himself into his new task. A man of enormous energy, nervous as well as physical, he quickly got to know everyone (or at least all the foreign diplomats and officials), and he seized every opportunity of discovering the country and building up a network of informants. His powerful personality imposed itself everywhere. So did his clear-cut views. For Morrison knew where he stood. He believed that he was completely objective in forming his views—utterly dispassionate and scientific, “impervious to all sentimental or personal considerations”—but he knew very well the cause which he intended to promote. He was not going to be a mere observer of events: he was determined to make them. In particular, he was an unhesitant British imperialist. Beneficent British power was to dominate the Far East, or at least to be maintained against all rivals. “Our true heritage,” he wrote, soon after his arrival in China, “is all South East Asia up to and including the Yang-tse valley.” It is the voice not of a journalist but of an empire builder, a proconsul: a Cecil Rhodes, or a Milner, in the East.

In China itself, except as the theater on which this great drama was to be played, Morrison showed remarkably little interest. He traveled about the country, riding, walking, shooting snipe. He claimed to know all its provinces, except Tibet, at first hand. But the minds of the Chinese people he did not, could not, penetrate. He was taken by surprise by the Boxer Rising; and although he said that such a thing would not happen again, he was equally surprised by the revolution of 1911. He had no conception of the ideological ferment that was working among the Chinese intelligentsia. Though he lived nearly half his life in China, he never troubled to learn Chinese.

He had other handicaps too, to offset his remarkable gifts. His quick political intelligence was marred by bad judgment of people and intemperate, not to say brutal, language. He would change his views radically, especially about people, and he was notoriously indiscreet. His language about his colleagues was considered, at times, unforgivable. In the end, he quarrelled with almost all of them. And, seen in retrospect, his political judgment seems sometimes less profound than theirs. Nevertheless, at the time, he seemed indispensable. Nobody in Peking could compete with him for instant understanding and forceful presentation of the politics of imperialism in China.

One episode which made him indispensable to The Times was his supposed death in 1900. At one moment during the siege of the legations, it was wrongly reported in England that the defense had been overpowered and the foreigners massacred. The Times thereupon published an obituary notice of Morrison so laudatory that, as he himself remarked, they would never thereafter be able to dismiss him. In later years they may well have regretted this error. But quite apart from such accidents, Morrison’s reputation by 1905 was so high that nothing, apparently, could shake it. This he knew well enough, and he exploited it to express his views, and to force them upon The Times, in a dictatorial manner. Unfortunately, by that time, his views had begun to diverge from those of The Times.

  1. *

    Morrison of Peking (Angus & Robertson, Sydney, Australia).

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