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.

Until 1904 there was substantial agreement between them. Against the Tory government of Lord Salisbury, still hankering after the old policy of the Open Door, The Times and Morrison pressed for a resolute policy of “spheres of influence.” In particular they demanded resistance to Russian expansion. To counter Russia, Britain had signed, in 1902, the alliance with Japan. This was something; but Morrison wished to go further and to drive Japan into war against Russia. From 1902 he constantly blew the fires of war. He was “profoundly disappointed” when the Salisbury government seemed bent on restraining Japan and preserving the peace. What was the point of the Japanese alliance, he asked, if that was to be the result? Fortunately, Morrison had influence with the chief Japanese correspondent in Peking and on him he pressed the need for aggression. He also pressed it on his own foreign editor, Valentine Chirol.

Chirol was the most famous, and probably the greatest, diplomatic journalist of his time. Morrison venerated him. “You are beyond all comparison the greatest correspondent the world has ever seen,” he wrote to him in March 1904, “and I am proud to know you.” But Chirol would not follow Morrison the whole way. He agreed that a Russo-Japanese conflict could be useful, but he did not think it right to push Japan into it. After all, Japan might not win…. Morrison swept aside such objections. He wanted Japan to “go in and smash Russia in the Far East.” “I hope and pray for war…,” “I myself ardently desire war….” If Japan does not go to war, then “my whole work in the Far East has been a failure.” Such is the burden of his letters. Japan, he insisted, was bound to win: “If war should break out, which I hope and pray it will, the preparedness of Japan will astonish you.”

When war did break out, he was “unfeignedly glad.” The war was known as “Morrison’s war,” and he did not disown the title. “Dear Mr. Morrison,” an American journalist wrote to him, when the Japanese, by tactics afterward repeated (mutatis mutandis) at Pearl Harbor, destroyed the Russian Far Eastern Fleet in the harbor of Port Arthur, “Now I hope you are happy…. At last you have your war. And if we could only see the end and know how many nations are to be embroiled….”

In fact all went according to plan. The Japanese were victorious. No other nations were embroiled. Morrison was cock-a-hoop. He wanted the war to last long and Russia to be “bled white.” But after their victory the Japanese let Morrison down. Having replaced the Russians in Manchuria, they soon proved just as aggressive as their predecessors. So Morrison, having become a hero in Japan and procured the Order of the Garter for the Mikado in England, suddenly changed about. With that nimble Realpolitik on which he congratulated himself, he now became an outspoken enemy of Japan. Having previously refused to report Japanese atrocities, and voluntarily submitted all his reports to the Japanese authorities for censorship (so much for his boasted objectivity), he now regularly denounced the Japanese as worse than the Russians and demanded that the British government turn against Japan. This “volte-face,” as Chirol called it, was not welcome in the office of The Times, and Morrison soon began to revise his high opinion of Chirol.

So began the first great difference between correspondent and editor. Morrison defended himself aggressively. Chirol did not dispute his facts, but he insisted that his interpretation of them for British policy was wrong. It was parochial—a mere Far Eastern view. Seen from London, the aggressive operations of Russia, whether in Manchuria or in Persia, were a threat to British world interests; those of Japan were not. It was also inopportune: did Morrison not realize that Britain was now faced by a German threat in Europe? If there should be war with Germany, all British resources would have to be concentrated in Europe, and it would be essential to have an allied navy in the Far East. From an imperial point of view it was wrong to pick an unnecessary quarrel with Japan over Manchuria. “I cannot help thinking,” Chirol told Morrison, “that if you will look at this big question of our relations with Japan from an imperial point of view, and not merely from the local Chinese point of view, you will see things in a truer light and better proportion.”

Chirol was no doubt right. Morrison was indeed somewhat parochial. Once in China, he refused to leave China. The Times offered him a post in America, but he declined it: “the life in those crowded hustling cities of America,” he wrote, “is hateful to me beyond all expression.” He was offered the succession to Chirol himself in a proposed reorganization, but again he refused: “How can I live in London?” His ambition was to be British minister in Peking. His world centered on Peking. He would not leave Peking.

Opposition to Japan was not the only important issue on which Chirol was perplexed by Morrison’s “sudden changes of view.” Another was the prospect of reform in China. Here Morrison was, as he said, “essentially optimistic.” His travels in China had convinced him of the basic strength of the country and its economy, and he evidently believed that a mere change of persons, or of mood, at the top would suffice to restore the empire to health. At first he looked to a change of mood by “that grand old woman,” the Empress Dowager. Later, when the Empress had become “that infernal old harridan,” he had to contemplate a change of persons within the Manchu government. Even when the Manchus had to be dropped, Morrison did not despair: he turned to their last defender, their first supplanter, Yüan Shihk’ai. No man did more than Morrison to promote the image of Yüan Shihk’ai—a treacherous and self-seeking political adventurer—as the savior and reformer of China.

This view was not shared by Chirol. Chirol believed that there was no hope of reform in China until not only the corrupt Manchu dynasty but also the corrupt Chinese bureaucracy had been destroyed. “The Chinese empire,” he wrote, “is sinking into a decline and its extremities are already rotting away, though the vitality of the Chinese may survive in the heart of the eighteen provinces.” Morrison was outraged by this statement, which he quoted again and again as an instance of Chirol’s “preconceived prejudices.” “Am I expected to assist in the perpetration of this error?” he exclaimed. No: he would deny it and defy its author. So his dispatches became more uncompromising, and in his private correspondence with the infinitely patient Chirol he castigated “the mendacities” of those “cackle-headed asses” or “paid servants of the Japanese”—the colleagues who dared to dissent from him.

One of these dissenters was his colleague in Shanghai, and afterward in Peking, J.O.P. Bland. Bland was an Irishman, of great charm and geniality, but as blunt, when he wished, as Morrison himself. He had known China longer, and understood it better, than Morrison—as Morrison, in his earlier days, admitted. Unlike Morrison, he knew Chinese. He also understood economics, of which (as he once wrote) Morrison knew as much “as a cow of astronomy.” But with all his cheerfulness, Bland was essentially pessimistic about China. Like Chirol, he saw no hope of reform until the bureaucracy had been transformed; and that, he admitted, might mean revolution. Beyond revolution, he looked to a new monarchy based on the peasantry. Morrison’s ideas of instant regeneration by present politicians seemed to him naive. From the very beginning, Morrison had seen Bland as a rival and a heretic, and Chirol had had to reprove him for his “sarcastic and contemptuous” comments on a colleague to whose courtesy he was indebted. From 1905 onward his comments became more abrasive, for he now saw Bland as Chirol’s ally against himself and the truth.

On these two issues—the questions of Japanese aggression and Chinese reform—Morrison’s letters, after 1905, become more and more extreme and intolerant. In vain Chirol remonstrated and explained. In vain he begged Morrison not to attack and slander his colleagues. Finally, Chirol felt forced to soften, in Morrison’s reports, phrases which in his view were either needlessly provocative or contrary to the policy of the paper. On such occasions he would write at length to Morrison, patiently explaining the necessity for his action. Unfortunately, his letters failed in their purpose. The prima donna was not satisfied. Indeed, she would throw a tantrum.

Western commanders stationed in the lavish Far East, like ancient Greek generals in the pomp and luxury of Persia, sometimes get ideas above their station. Morrison in Peking—“Morrison of Peking,” as he was accustomed to be known—was not prepared to be corrected. Chirol’s “mutilations,” he said, were “not just,” and his “grossly offensive” letters of explanation made them worse. Morrison would not put up with such “snarling.” He rejected its basic premise. For Morrison did not see himself as a servant of The Times. Rather, he saw The Times as the organ of his imperial policy. So he refused to be “gagged” in order to suppress “facts which may conflict with the prejudices of our foreign department,” the insufferable “egotism” of the foreign editor. Gradually, Morrison saw Chirol in London and Bland in Peking as conspirators leagued against him. The conspiracy, he decided, must be smashed. Chirol and Bland must go.

In 1908 Morrison saw his chance. In that year, the financial difficulties of The Times forced the proprietors, the Walter family, to consider selling their property. They decided to sell it to C.A. Pearson, a self-made newspaper owner who, having made a fortune from popular publishing, was eager to buy a prestigious national paper. Moberly Bell, the manager of The Times, was horrified both at the terms of the purchase and at the character of the purchaser, who was regarded as a “hustler,” so he set out to prevent it. With the support of the staff, he contrived to arrange a different sale on different terms.

In a long and fascinating letter to Morrison, hitherto unpublished, Bell complacently recounted every move in this tortuous game and gloried in his successful coup. The new purchaser was Lord Northcliffe, who was hardly more admirable, in the eyes of most readers of The Times, than Pearson, but who at least offered better terms and more reasonable prospects of continuity. Northcliffe promised Bell that he would inject capital into The Times, restore it to economic health, and leave its editorial staff undisturbed. He had plenty of other newspapers, he said; The Times was already the best paper in the world; he had neither the time nor the desire to interfere with its editorial policy. Such at least was the promise before the sale. After the sale, Bell soon found how it was to be fulfilled.

In the quest of prestige, Northcliffe had already tried vainly to seduce Morrison away from The Times to his own Daily Mail. Now that he possessed The Times, he wooed Morrison directly, and Morrison was easily seduced. “You have rendered great services to The Times and the Empire,” said Northcliffe, and in recognition of these great services he promised great things. The Far Eastern service would become Morrison’s private empire. The other correspondents would be under him. “The old gang” in London would be purged: Northcliffe “would sack the lot of them.” All this was music in Morrison’s ears. Confident in the support of the proprietor, he made more and more exacting demands. His letters to his editors became ultimata. Even his ally Bell was outraged. But by now Morrison felt independent of them all. He was now making the pace.

“Chirol,” he wrote to a friend, “is quite unfit to be our foreign editor. Northcliffe described him to me as a Jesuit of Jesuits, as jealous as a woman…. Northcliffe says it is hopeless to expect improvement while Chirol blocks the way…. Northcliffe has insisted that my letters will not be suppressed unless satisfactory reasons are given to me.” And to Northcliffe himself he wrote, “Thanks to you I go back to China more contented than I have been for a long time past, for I know that I can always communicate with you should need arise.”

When he arrived in Peking, he set to work to deal finally with Bland. He contemplated denouncing him directly to Northcliffe, but decided, for the time being, to use threat rather than influence. He wrote to the acting foreign editor, Dudley Braham, setting out his case in ominous language. He abused The Times for daring to publish an article by Bland. He himself, he made clear, was the only oracle on China: “I am the best known Englishman at present east of India, and I am often told the best known correspondent in the world.” If The Times wanted to have his reports, nothing by Bland must appear in its pages. If he were crossed, he knew how to act. He had a direct link with Northcliffe which “I will not hesitate to use.” As for Bland, he was expendable: he was “the most disloyal and treacherous man I know…. He has left behind him in the Far East the most unenviable reputation for unscrupulousness, disloyalty and treachery. Excuse this note. I write very frankly. My one wish is to help promote the best interests of the paper.”

Thanks to his alliance with Northcliffe, Morrison got his way. “The old gang” were routed. Buckle, the editor of The Times, was dismissed. Chirol was driven to retire. Moberly Bell, the sole architect of Northcliffe’s victory, was driven by remorse to an early grave. Bland was recalled for good and prevented from ever writing on China in The Times again. As for Morrison himself, on top of all other privileges, he obtained the privilege of Ulysses in the Cyclops’ cave: he was the last to be eaten.

For indirectly, Morrison too was a victim of Northcliffe. The megalomaniac tycoon ruined The Times. With Chirol’s successor, Dudley Braham, Morrison never established real rapport. He sent endless, boring reports from Peking, but without the stimulus of Chirol, in Dr. Lo’s words, “the life and light went out of the correspondence.” Altogether, Morrison found that he did not like the new style of journalism. “The class of men who now represent English and American newspapers in Peking,” he wrote, “are a type that I cannot associate with.” In 1912, after reporting the Chinese revolution, and after seeing the Republic set, as he thought, on a firm base by Yüan Shih-k’ai, he sent in his resignation. It was received with satisfaction by The Times and with indignation by Northcliffe. In resigning, Morrison ventured to suggest that his services to the paper, which had been so extolled in the past, might be recognized by some payment or pension. The suggestion was ignored. He was offered only a free single ticket home.

Thus ended Morrison’s career as a journalist. It had been a great career, while it lasted. He had brought China into the news. While he worked for The Times, says Dr. Lo, “it was one of the best chronicles of Chinese history; since his departure, it has never been the same again.” For himself, it brought “seventeen years of glory such as few journalists have known.” But that personal glory has not lasted either. In retrospect, I find it difficult to admire him. Dr. Lo treats him sympathetically, but to me the hero of these documents is not this domineering columnist but the patient, sensitive Chirol, whose views, when they differed from those of Morrison, history has generally endorsed. I must also admit a weakness for Morrison’s local rival and victim, Bland.

Dr. Lo describes Bland as a “persistent critic of China and the Chinese” and his writings as permeated by “anti-Chinese sentiments.” Having read most of Bland’s papers, now at Toronto—Dr. Lo, of course, has read them too—I feel bound, rather timidly, to dissent. Bland seems to me to have shown far more sympathy with China than Morrison, who indeed never expressed the slightest interest in China except as a place of travel and the passive theater in which the great powers fought for mastery.

It is true, Bland had no sympathy with the Chinese government or bureaucracy. He protested against Morrison’s opinion that China could be reformed by the Empress Dowager or her politicians. He ridiculed Morrison’s suggestion that reform could come from the mandarin class. He refused to see Morrison’s hero, Yüan Shih-k’ai, as a savior. Later, he was unimpressed by the Kuomintang, “Chiang Kai-shek and his gang of rogues,” “the Soong dynasty,” and would write contemptuously of those high-minded Westerners who superimposed upon it their own liberal image. But the title of his later book, China, the Pity of It, does not suggest lack of sympathy with the people or its problem.

Nor, in fact, do his earlier writings. Morrison never linked the Boxer Rising with internal Chinese conditions. Bland did. “I, for one,” he wrote in 1902, “have never failed to represent the Chinese side of the war, and to hold up to the world, as far as in me lies, the atrocious behaviour of so-called civilised countries in China”; and he blamed the Manchu court “for what happened not only to the Legations but to the native population of Chihli.” He also irritated Morrison by describing British action in Wei-hai-wei, occupied in 1898, as “iniquitous.” Morrison retorted that the cession of Wei-hai-wei was “a friendly concession from China…as the result of an ultimatum,” and that the British had exactly the same rights there as the Russians and French in their “treaty ports.” Why then should they not act similarly? Morrison, of course, had no objection to annexation. He would have annexed Macao too, by agreement with Portugal (no doubt helped by an ultimatum). “Who is to say us nay? The island could be of infinite advantage to us.” It was also, perhaps, our moral duty: “We could at once purify the island.” Once again, there is no mention of the Chinese.

Perhaps the best instance of their different attitude toward the Chinese is a letter which Bland wrote to Morrison on July 5, 1906. Morrison had claimed that Britain now had more influence in north China than any other power except victorious Japan. Bland remonstrated that this did not meet his objections. British influence might be stronger than ever in relation to that of other powers, but

The point I make about the entire situation, which you don’t appear to regard as important, is that under existing conditions our influence vis-à-vis the Chinese, has never been less…. After all, we are in China for trade first, and not only to gain victories over the Russian or German diplomatists at Peking…. We want the reform of internal administration and fulfillment of such poor Treaties as we have been able to make. As things are today, the Chinese are on a road which must inevitably lead them to serious internal, and external, difficulties, for we are playing into the hands of the corrupt mandarin. Reform is essential to our national objects: but we are backing the party of reaction and sowing the whirlwind which will disorganise trade and impose further burdens on the country…. It seems to me that your idea is that if we get the best of the German and the Jap, we shall have things our own way…. We are in China, not Germany, and it is the policy and behaviour of the Chinese that chiefly affects us and our trade.

“We are in China, not Germany….” This voice of commonsense from “a lifelong Tory” in the high tide of imperialism reminds me of the voice of the child at the display of the Emperor’s new clothes. Bland saw Chinese realities and foresaw the whirlwind. Morrison neither saw nor foresaw.

I cannot praise Dr. Lo’s editorial work too highly. His introduction, his notes, his commentaries are a model of exact, lucid, economical scholarship. The documents are fascinating in themselves, dramatic in the story which they tell, and a valuable contribution to history.

This Issue

June 10, 1976