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Our Mission in China

The Making of a Special Relationship: The United States and China to 1914

by Michael H. Hunt
Columbia University Press, 416 pp., $27.50

The Missionary Mind and American East Asia Policy, 1911–1915

by James Reed
Harvard University Press, 258 pp., $20.00

This is the bicentennial year for contacts between the United States and China, since it was in 1784 that the merchant ship Empress of China sailed to Canton from New York. It was an auspicious beginning, at least for the American backers of the voyage; the trip netted them 30 percent profit in their investment.

In the ensuing years Americans joined with the British in reaping diplomatic and commercial gains from the Opium Wars of 1839 and 1858, before drifting off to chart their own foreign policy. Highlights of this policy included the “Open Door Notes” of 1899, the recognition of the new Chinese Republic in 1913, the Washington Conference of 1922, the dispatch of General Joseph Stilwell to serve with Chiang Kai-shek in 1942, and the non-recognition of the People’s Republic in the decades after 1949. It is perhaps the rosy tint that comes to this story from its peripheral relationship to America’s real problems that has led Americans across the years to hail this history as a “special” one, marked by warmth and understanding on both sides. The Chinese have, in general, been rather more skeptical. In his visit to New York this January the premier, Zhao Ziyang, sensibly described the long saga as one of “many vicissitudes.”

There has been an immense amount of American scholarly attention to Sino-US relations, and scores of competent monographs have been published, drawing from the diplomatic archives of the United States and Europe; yet because of the language barrier there has been no comprehensive scholarly study that attempted an examination of the Chinese and Western-language records at the same time, so that the vicissitudes could be examined in the light of the special relationship, and vice versa. Now Michael Hunt, a historian of diplomacy at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, has made an original and bold attempt to survey the whole story of the foreign, policy interplays between the two countries, from 1784 up to 1914.

Hunt is clearly a little nervous about the task he has undertaken, as is revealed by a couple of metaphors in the preface: he asks his readers if they are ready to “plow straight through this book,” and mentions how he himself “waded through a wide range of Chinese documents.” But the apologetic tone is unnecessary; his wading has left no scum upon the surface, and his guidance of the reader’s plow is firm and sure. With this volume Hunt confirms his reputation as a deft, comprehensive, and intelligent historian, and one can only hope he is already working on a second volume that will bring the story to the present.

In the first part of The Making of a Special Relationship, Hunt looks at what he calls an emergent “Open Door Constituency,” as Americans sized up the possibility of the profits to be made in the China trade, and fitted their hopes skillfully into the tough-minded foreign policy being conducted by the British. In the second, he examines the hardening of lines between 1860 and 1898, as American politicians made political capital out of the need for exclusion of Chinese immigrants, while bankers and railwaymen (in particular) dreamed of carving out new commercial empires in China once their own West was won. In the third part, covering the period from 1898 to 1914, Hunt shows how a measure of compromise was reached as insistence on the Open Door, even if it could not be adequately enforced, became a staple part of American policy along with exclusion, though most of the more grandiose expansionist schemes were dropped.

Such aspects of the story are quite well known, and Hunt claims no more than to be retelling them—though he does so exceedingly well, and his bibliographical essays at the beginning of each section of notes are exemplary, and would be useful to all teachers of the subject. But the originality and interest of his book lie in Hunt’s ability to parallel each of these features of the American story with the feelings and experiences of the Chinese themselves. Thus in Part I he offers us a succinct introduction to the earliest Chinese writings about America, and summarizes the points of origin, the expectations and the ways of life of the first emigrants who traveled from the area of Canton to the coastal cities of California in the 1850s. In Part 2 he shows how an “American policy” slowly came to be formulated by the Chinese court, under the direction of Li Hongzhang (Li Hungchang), and how important the Chinese response to the humiliations experienced by their fellow nationals in the United States was to that formulation. In Part 3 he links that Chinese experience of American racist legislation to the development of an indigenous Chinese nationalism, a nationalism that contributed largely to the collapse of the Qing dynasty in 1911 and 1912.

The narrative is uniformly so rich that it is hard to single out any particular aspects for praise over others. But two sections struck me as particularly interesting. One was Hunt’s account of the geographical region of southeast China from which most of the emigrants came, and his description of how those tightly localized lineage and dialect regions were replicated in the United States as a means of control and of social bonding.

The detailed breakdown is fascinating: Chinese from Sam Yup, around Canton city, dominated their fellow countrymen in the American butchering and garment trades; those from Sze Yup, southwest of Canton, became dominant in laundries, retail stores, and restaurants; the Hsiangshan Chinese, from south of Canton, were particularly strong in flower growing and retail fish sales. As a second example, on quite another tack, Hunt lets us follow the development of Li Hongzhang’s strategy for handling the belligerent Japanese by means of mediation, and pays particular attention to the ways that Li (on the advice of William Pethick, his secretary) relied too much on the efforts at mediation by former president Ulysses S. Grant.

One can see why and how Li over-estimated Grant’s influence, and also why he received news of Grant’s defeat in the 1880 Republican Convention “with disappointment, even some bewilderment. Was not a man who had twice served in a post, Li asked an American, best suited to fill it again?” (The Chinese communists, under Mao and his successors, were to be similarly baffled by President Nixon’s removal from office, and were to continue to court his favor long after he had lost significant influence.)

The second section that fascinated me was the one in which Hunt draws varying themes together in showing how the leadership of the Bureau of Immigration, created by Congress in 1891, “fell under the control of Sinophobes from the ranks of labor,” and how this was disastrous to Chinese hopes for a generous interpretation of the new exclusion laws. Especially under the bureau’s director Terence Powderly, son of Irish immigrants, Hunt writes, “the treatment the new regime accorded arriving Chinese was as intimidating, arbitrary, and abusive as its regulations were stringent.” The devices of this treatment included protracted and humiliating medical examinations, scrutiny of every visa for translation errors, intensive interviews to provoke inconsistencies in personal histories, rejection of women on the grounds that they were potential prostitutes and of children as potential laborers. Powderly’s successors regularly raided the homes of Chinese residents in the United States, and harried all groups of Chinese traveling to this country, among them the delegations visiting the St. Louis exposition in 1904.

Numerous American diplomats are given careful (and occasionally scathing) scrutiny, as are many of the leading missionaries who had much to say about, and sometimes influence on, the making of foreign policy. Hunt well emphasizes the curious similarities the missionary and emigrant actors in the story had to one another:

Chinese immigrants and American missionaries, the two groups whose lives impinged most intimately on the other culture, evoked in the xenophobic imagination strikingly mirrored anxieties over sexual pollution, physical contamination, and the disintegration of the social and political fabric. The supposed proclivity of depraved missionary and immigrant alike to defy sexual taboos and to make use of drugs and potions to seduce unwary women and children and poison the community around them was a centerpiece of xenophobic literature. The mission compound no less than Chinatown was regarded as a hotbed of subversion. The despotism of Chinatown held newcomers back from assimilation, thus challenging American political and social ideals, while missionaries spread heterodoxy among the poor, the socially marginal, and the disaffected. These foreign enclaves became the lightning rods for the problems of the society. On the one side, Chinese served as scapegoats for the failure of California to provide the wealth its white settlers expected, while on the other missionaries drew down the wrath of a people plagued by hardship and unsettled by foreign aggression.

This powerfully stated view of the overlapping realities and clichés leads Hunt to his conclusion on the members of what he calls the “open door constituency”: their vision of China and its huge population as holding out “boundless opportunity to the American expansionist impulse in all its guises” had almost no grounding in economic or strategic reality, and can only be comprehended, with hindsight, “in terms of the vision that both drew from and fed back into the national fantasies of redemption and dominion.”

Given the period Hunt’s book spans—between 1784 and 1914—it is perhaps inevitable that he gives only brief attention to two actions that took place in the early years of the Wilson administration, even though they were to have considerable effect on later American foreign policy in Asia: one was the American decision to extend diplomatic recognition to the new Chinese republic, in the late spring of 1913, despite the desire of the European powers (especially Great Britain) to wait for proof of the Chinese regime’s ability to survive; the second was the American protest against the Japanese imposition of the so-called Twenty-One Demands on China during 1915. In these demands, Japan claimed extensive new rights over the Manchurian economy, over Chinese mines, and over stationing Japanese nationals as police officers in many Chinese cities. James Reed’s goal in The Missionary Mind and American East Asia Policy is to give a new perspective to the discussion by showing how what he calls “the missionary mind” figured in the formulation of these important matters of policy.

What exactly is “the missionary mind”? It is, Reed tells us, a “collective mentality consisting of a generalized sense of moral obligation toward Asia and toward China in particular.” This “mind” was “emotional,” he adds, was “often quite intelligent” and also “characteristically gullible.” It took for its focus the twin ideas of a “Christian Civilization” and a “Christian China,” but despite the vastness of these concepts it was restricted in its base; Roman Catholics were not part of it, nor were blacks, nor indeed were many East Coast Episcopalians. In fact, the “mind” of Reed’s title was largely restricted to the Methodist, Presbyterian, Baptist, and Congregational churches of the small towns of the Midwest, where the active spokesmen for the China missions kept in contact with some 5 million adult parishioners, and a further 5 million “Sunday School children and adolescents.”

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