Rebellions and Revolutions: China from the 1800s to the 1980s

By Jack Gray | Go to book overview

1
THE TRADITIONAL SOCIETY

European Views on China

To Europeans of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment the Chinese Empire seemed to show the possibility of a polity based on reason without hereditary privilege or religious authority, ruled by a philosopher-king counselled by philosophers. Yet by the start of the next century, China had come to symbolize almost the opposite: a polity stifled by the power of a self-perpetuating élite who were both the guardians of a quasi-religious tradition and the servants of an arbitrary despot.

The remoteness of China has always made it easy for Europeans to project their own problems on to their accounts of Chinese life, and it was Europe which had changed rather than China. After the French Revolution traditional privilege was no longer the main enemy in Europe, while from the Industrial Revolution onwards a new concept of society had arisen, in which the creative force was not the great legislator but the free citizen. It might be possible to argue that China provided an image of the first; but she could provide no image of the second.

Yet such a sudden change of mind did not take place only as the result of a shift of subjective viewpoint. Objective factors assisted.

Longer experience of China had made it difficult to maintain the idealized view propagated by the Jesuits who had been represented in Beijing ( Peking) since 1582. Anxious as they were to use the high morality of the pagan Chinese as a stick with which to beat back-sliding Christians, a sour note began to be heard in their letters home as the eighteenth century wore on.

The British meanwhile were gaining acquaintance with China through trade at Canton ( Guangzhou). This had begun, inauspiciously, in 1637 when five British ships, having been refused permission to trade, shot their way in and forced the authorities to accept them. Trade developed rapidly and peacefully thereafter. The British were not inclined by tradition to set much store by philosophical despots. Nor were they, like the Jesuits, offered the flattering opportunity of a place at the Celestial Court, but had to put up with seasonal occupation of a row of warehouses in Canton, the walls of which were increasingly plastered with hostile Chinese placards. They came to China from experience in India, and thought they understood oriental government; they expected to find in China an arbitrary authority exercised over a cowed population, and naturally they found what they expected. Then

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