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,…

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