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The Past Hangs Over Asia

ISSUE:  Spring 1932


While suspense and violence batten on each other in the Far East, it is well to remember that the present crisis arose first in Manchuria, and that Manchuria itself is viewed most understandably from the interior of Asia, rather than from the shores of the China Sea. The region is but one of the four great traditional appanages of China, sharing that distinction with Tibet, Mongolia, and the “New Dominion” of Chinese Turkestan. During the deterioration and crumbling of the imperial dynasty, during the turmoil and drift of Republican China, all four of these vast areas have felt the pressure of relentless centrifugal forces. Each has sought and attained a measure of autonomy. Each has seen foreign influences and foreign ideologies flow across its frontiers. Tibet has known Russian intrigue and British invasion. It is governed by a theocracy which recognizes only the most shadowy connection with China. While the indefatigable Chinese husbandmen place the grass lands of Inner Mongolia under cultivation piecemeal, there has been erected on the western side of the Gobi a Soviet Mongolian government under what amounts to a Russian protectorate. Chinese Turkestan is one of the world’s backwaters, whence information as to happenings trickles out by driblets, each one soiled, diluted, and often defiled in transit. Yet there can be no doubt as to the district’s inescapable economic orientation toward Soviet Uzbek, nor as to the attraction of the Turk-Sib railroad. In Manchuria, finally, connection is less tenuous between local governmental agencies and the capital of the Chinese Republic. Nevertheless the region is practically autonomous, disposing of the bulk of its own revenues, conducting a large part of its foreign relations, and maintaining its own defense. Manchuria, too, has seen more conflicts of alien interests, more violent and sustained foreign aggressions than any other part of China in modern times. Across her fertile plains China, Russia, and Japan have faced each other in every possible combination of alignments, and have employed, in turn, all the weapons of their diplomatic, economic, and military arsenals.

Yet with this similarity in the factors affecting all four dominions, the Chinese reaction to the march of events in Manchuria stands out in vivid contrast to the quietism with which the centrifugal drift of the other regions is viewed. The Nanking Government has solemnly rehabilitated the Board of Mongolian Affairs. On paper it erects Turkestan into a full province, co-ordinate with the ancient territorial divisions of China Proper. It accords respect and countenance to the Panshan Lama, spiritual ruler of Tibet, in honored exile from his capital. But despite assertions of sovereignty and elaborate schemes for administration, it is evident that the Chinese view the progressive alienation of these vast areas with a little less than equanimity, with a little more than apathy.

On the other hand, occurrences in Manchuria evoke an instant response throughout all China. At the suspicion of any foreign activity there, a shiver of apprehension and rage surges from Kalgan to Canton. Students demonstrate. Politicians fulminate. Local boycotts spring up like weeds and coalesce into broad national movements. Public opinion— a strange public opinion that defies occidental evaluation and analysis—demands that the Chinese government resort to protest, to negotiation, and to force of arms in the defense of its claims. In short, the situation develops which exists today throughout China as the result of Japan’s military operations.

The reasons for a special feeling concerning Manchuria on the part of the Chinese, while not obvious, are still far from obscure. Economic considerations are important; the region is a source of some direct revenue to the Central Government, and in the immediate past has contributed heavily to the maintenance of the armies in North China. Propinquity is another element, especially in relation to a threat of invasion. A power established in Manchuria can enter the plain of the Yellow River simply by crossing the Great Wall, whereas distance, mountains, and desert bar off the other dependencies. But the dominant cause of this inborn sensitiveness is to be sought elsewhere. It lies in the fact that the inhabitants of Manchuria are ninety per cent Chinese—immigrants and the sons of immigrants—while the mass of the populations of Tibet, Turkestan, and Mongolia are aliens to the dwellers in the eighteen traditional provinces.

The tie between the Chinese of Manchuria and the Chinese of China is ethnic and more than ethnic. They belong alike to a race which fitted itself to a rigid cultural, economic, and ethical mould at a time that preceded the Christian era by as great a period as our own follows it. It is nearly twenty-five hundred years since there was inscribed on the codex of the Chinese classics, as a time-proved dictum, the proverb: “All within the girdle of the Four Seas are brothers.” In consequence there is found among the Chinese not merely a general physical likeness but also a psychological homogeneity. They are heirs to a common literature, art, morality, pride, philosophy, and manner of life. They hold to this inheritance so tenaciously as, at times, almost to crucify themselves on a cross of tradition. Where the political agitator in western countries calls on his “brothers,” his Chinese counterpart appeals to his “t’ung p’ao” those “sprung from a common womb.” And if that womb is identified as belonging to an ancient and delimited culture, he is right. That source is large enough to give birth to the Chinese by millions and by hundreds of millions. Hence it is that China holds Manchuria not by law or custom or force of arms but by immigration, inheritance, and fecundity. Hence it is that Manchuria, alone of the four dominions, is essentially Chinese, and that wounds opened there drain the veins and arteries of the eighteen provinces within the Great Wall.


The integration of Manchuria into China is of recent occurrence. The original Manchus, of Tatar not Chinese stock, gloried in realism as much as in rapine. They acknowledged from the beginning that their seventeenth-century conquest of China Proper might be reduced at any time to the proportions of a gigantic and spectacular raid. In consequence they looked on themselves purely as a military garrison of their new realm, to be maintained in comfort and luxury by their subjects, but ready at all times to retreat as successfully as they had advanced. They decreed that their homeland should be kept swept, garnished, and empty, as a hunting preserve and as a possible refuge. They commanded that no Chinese should migrate outside the Great Wall; and in effect established a grandiose New Forest, four times the size of England, Scotland, and Wales combined.

This writ, like most oriental pronouncements, did not run in its entirety. A thin trickle of Chinese emigration almost at once began to seep through the cracks, as it were, of the Great Wall. But the tendency was checked and controlled by another set of factors. The individual Chinese, while one of the world’s most effective colonists, is an exceedingly poor colonizer. He lacks the all-round abilities of the frontiersman who can cook, sew, hunt, ride herd, farm, and fight by turns as the need requires. The Chinese is the heir of a definitely organized social order. He is a one-job man, and frequently that one job is hereditary. His industry, endurance and thrift do not avail unless he is fitted into the frame of a specialized civilization. In consequence, by 1895, when its modern history began, Manchuria was still an empty land. Out of the welter of guesswork which passes for the statistics of the subject it may be adduced that the population of the region at that time was in the neighborhood of nine million, of whom almost half were Tatars and Mongols. Manchuria was not then Chinese.

The year 1895 was critical. It was in this year that Japan occupied the Liaotung Peninsula, with Port Arthur at its tip, and by extension seated herself in South Manchuria, all as a consequence of the Sino-Japanese War. It is true that her motives were mainly military and imperialistic. Her statesmen were as analphabetic from the economic point of view as were their colleagues in western lands. Manchuria meant stark territory for her then, not raw materials for factories as it does today. Nevertheless, here was her great, her only opportunity to seize Manchuria before it became a part of China. That opportunity she was forced to forgo.

Browbeaten by the Occident, Japan withdrew from the Asiatic mainland. Russia replaced her. A railway crept across the Manchurian terrain, joining Port Arthur with Harbin and Harbin with the Trans-Siberian to east and to west. Another line, British financed, squirmed through the Great Wall at Shanhaikwan and on toward Mukden. Transportation provided room for a specialized society. This was no longer a frontiersman’s country. It gave opportunity to the farmer, the coolie, the barber, the artisan, the banker, and the merchant, each in his proper sphere. Almost overnight Manchuria became a promised land for China, and her people flooded in. By 1905 the population of the region must have been in the neighborhood of twelve million, of which the Chinese element was some eight million strong.

The year 1905 saw the end of the Russo-Japanese War and the reinstallation of Japan in Manchuria. It marked the beginning of a new era in the country’s economic development. The Japanese, quickly ascertaining that the region offered them no scope for colonization, set about its exploitation through the medium of the people on the ground. Export markets were provided for the Chinese farmers. More railway mileage was built. Collieries and iron mines were opened and expanded. Timber was cut. And to all these tasks flooded an ever rising tide of Chinese immigration. Today the population of Manchuria is somewhere between thirty and thirty-four millions, and over ninety per cent of its people are Chinese. As the Japanese, thirty-seven years after their first venture into an empty Manchuria, strive to maintain and extend their hegemony, it is to be hoped that they do so with an appreciation of the irony of history.


Manchuria is then, territorially and psychologically, an integral part of China, without regard to the recentness of the affiliation. This state of affairs carries with it an important corollary. A conflict beyond the Great Wall can be considered adequately only as a component part of the whole fabric of Sino-Japanese relations. In the long run, efforts on the parts of Japanese, Chinese, or occidentals to envisage a solution limited to Manchuria alone are foredoomed to sterility.

The assimilation of the Sino-Japanese problems in Manchuria with those in China Proper complicates a situation already extremely complex. The status of the Japanese in China, like that of all foreigners, is based fundamentally on legalisms. For example, under the authority of treaties, duly implemented, most aliens are placed at present outside the scope of Chinese law; their civil and criminal shortcomings are tried in courts erected by their own nations. The foreigner frequently dwells in “settlements” or “concessions” specifically placed beyond the reach of the Chinese administrator or tax-collector. The rivers and territorial waters of China cannot be closed to his shipping; and though they proceed a thousand miles inland, his cargo vessels are entitled to the protection of his ships of war. In theory his goods, unlike those of Chinese origin, are entitled to exemption from taxation in transit as they flow from the seaboard into the interior. For all these rights and privileges there exists complete documentation, signed and sealed in the most conclusive manner. Treaty depends on treaty, agreement supplements agreement, until the privilege of propagating the Christian faith becomes rooted in the settlement of the Opium War. Nor is this all. By that ingenious device, the most-favored-nation clause, most of the great powers are assured the maintenance of their own prerogatives so long as they are enjoyed by any other country.

But behind this orderly, or rather once orderly, facade there exists chaos and uncertainty. Much of the foreigners’ special position in China originated in the Manchu dynasty’s sincere efforts to make practical arrangements for alien residence and trade. The lordlv extraterritorial “concessions” were in germ only so many ghettoes allotted to an unassimi-lable race. On the other hand, many privileges represent little more than extortion from behind the cannon’s breech. In this category comes the right to navigate China’s territorial waters, not to mention that of land ownership accorded Christian missions. Regardless of their provenance, the abrogation of every one of these prerogatives without exception is sought by the Chinese. Those rights accorded in good faith are said to be outworn and unadapted to a nation in process of westernization. Those extorted by force are stigmatized as immoral and degrading. All are opposed and curtailed wherever possible with obstinacy and ingenuity. In the obtaining spirit of nationalism, no government can hope to survive in China that does not stand for the complete abrogation of the “Unequal Treaties” at the earliest possible moment. Agreements concluded de novo — such as those with Mexico and Poland—disclaim specifically the idea of extraterritorial jurisdiction. In the renewal of agreements that have expired a similar renunciation is sought, limited usually in such cases by the insertion of the ubiquitous most-favored-nation clause. And in the interior of China the legal rights of the foreigner are subject to steady evasion and erosion. Transit taxes may not be levied; no, but a destination tax may be imposed legally. The right to propagate the Christian religion is unquestioned; but mission colleges with compulsory chapel may be denied registration as accredited schools on the ground that they are sectarian.

This tireless, unending opposition inevitably provokes resistance on the part of the foreigners. Their motives are extremely mixed. At one end of the scale stand those who dislike change purely because it is a change and those who see their livelihoods imperiled by the abolition of interests which they regard as vested. There are others who, without thought of their material welfare, deplore the probable passing of organisms and ideas to which they have given long and faithful service. Still others are appalled at the technical difficulties offered by transition. How, for instance, can there be accomplished in short order the rendition of the Settlements in Shanghai, organized by foreigners, and representing international investments of hundreds of millions of dollars, made in good faith on the security of the Treaties? Again, the vast majority of foreigners in China are unalterably convinced that, while in many respects no good is to be found in the perpetuation of the written order, there are certain domains where the provisions and safeguards of the Treaties should be abrogated on no account. Ninety per cent of the foreigners in China are certain that the administration of law by the Chinese is on so primitive and biased a level as to offer them little or no security as defendants in court. “The Chinese are not ready to discharge this responsibility,” they say; and the die-hards add, “The Chinese never will be ready.”

Thus the conflict is joined all along the line. It is intensified by the interlocking character of the Treaties. Their structure is so interdependent that an attack at any point shakes the whole fabric. Their cohesion is a weakness as well as a strength. In consequence, at the first sign of crumbling in any direction, the conservative tendencies of all the defenders of every component part of the established order are reinforced and steeled. And in recent years the crumbling has gone forward inexorably and ominously, until the rights of the foreigner are in a state of flux that satisfies neither Chinese nor alien, irritates the one and alarms the other.

Broadly speaking, then, the nations of the world are seeing readjusted piecemeal the positions which they occupy with regard to China. The process is not an orderly one. It proceeds by practice as much as by sweet reasonableness, by boycott, riot, passive resistance, nullification, and encroachment as much as by negotiation. The working out of the adjustment implies the complete examination of a unique fabric built up by treaty, law, and custom in the space of more than a century. It must weigh agreements to which neither side really agreed, compromises which have never worked. It involves an extraordinary record of human fallibility, venality, equivocation, and fuzziness of thought. It must take into account a boiling tide of nationalism in China which demands of its rulers and of the world that all special rights of the foreigner be abrogated in the shortest possible time and without reference to timeliness or to the stability of the economic basis of foreign trade. There must be considered also, in connection with the regimenting of nationalism, the need felt by those in authority in China for a centripetal pressure from the outside as a factor in the maintenance of a national government. China’s political union in 1928 came about chiefly in sequence to a psychological union in resistance to foreign imperialism. Chicago is not the only place in the world where local solidarity can be attained by the promise of mayhem on a putative royal visitor. But unfortunately for China, a declaration of intent to break foreign noses often may be followed by the intrusion of those very noses within her boundaries.


Japan is a rightful heir to all these problems, some of which antedate her coming of age as a modern power. By virtue of the most-favored-nation basis of relationship, she is assimilated to a system that was established in 1840 and elaborated into its present form between 1844 and 1860. Leaving her special claims aside for the moment, she faces with the western nations the questions of readjustment to a changing, drifting China.

For Japan, the integration of Manchuria into China in many of its aspects merely adds variants to problems already existing. Many of the Japanese contentions in that region are concerned with the validity of treaties and agreements already under Chinese attack. The situation is complicated, but it is not changed. In other important respects, however, it is fundamentally aggravated. Manchuria, for Japan, is the reservoir of raw materials that gives her present strength and holds for her the promise of future greatness. Rightly or wrongly, the Japanese sense that the establishment and maintenance of their hegemony in Manchuria are necessities to their national existence. Their urge to go forward is exactly comparable in origin, if not in expression, to the similar “manifest destiny” which thrust the United States across a continent. Behind it is the full vigor of a virile nation. And by the same token the form, though not the substance, of this advance becomes automatically a major issue in Japanese internal politics.

Through this Manchuria, which is also China, all Japan, then, confronts all China. And as the two countries face each other, it appears further that their feelings have a common denominator—fear. By this term there is not meant the psychological state referred to under that name which affects the nations of the West. Mutual fear has long been a prominent scapegoat among the “classical” causes of the World War. It is often brought forward today as a primary factor in the uncertainties that shroud Europe. But in this western so-called fear there is a relatively small element of fright. Its major components are distrust, contempt, and hate. In the Far East, on the other hand, the fear that exists between China and Japan is sheer numbing terror that grasps the pits of national stomachs with an inexorable hand.

China’s fear of Japan is readily understandable. It is the despairing recognition of helplessness before the bayonet. The mass of Chinese, literate and illiterate, understand fully that no point in their country is potentially inviolate from Japanese invasion, that strategic localities, centers of trade and industry, means of communication, all without exception can be dominated and held by Japanese troops, that armed resistance is doomed, in the long run, to pathetic ineffec-tuality. True that most Chinese and practically all occidentals, when considering the possibilities of aggression, will take refuge in the hoary truism that China always absorbs her conquerors. But that most practical of men, the Chinese, does not overlook the fact that the process of absorption is a slow and painful one. Conquest, for China, means a travail of decades and generations, to be followed by another period of emancipation equally long and trying. The process involves the demoralization of the country’s economic structure, the destruction of the existing political order, and the unsettling of the social equilibrium. It means famine, rapine, pillage, and civil strife, over and above the exactions of the invader. Little wonder that the Chinese shudder at the prospect of an era of chaos, which may end in a different century and which at best holds no promise of national betterment. Little wonder that any movement by the fighting race to eastward sends a thrill of apprehension down the Chinese spine.

With Japan the motivation of fear is more obscure. Certainly Japan, sea-girt and proud in her armed strength, has no dread of Chinese invasion. The frequently demonstrated power of the Chinese to wound with economic weapons arouses resentment rather than panic. The causes are deeper seated. First and most obvious comes what may be called the effect of Mass. Japan, crowded on a narrow fringe of islands, sees sprawling opposite her a sub-continent, containing a sixth, perhaps a fifth, of all mankind. She cannot escape the impression of vast latent power looming up within arm’s reach. She is subject to the same sensations of domination that would be imposed on the crew of a ship, anchored off the Battery, and forced to live their lives under the shadow of the towers of New York. She is a Flying Dutchman with both anchors down and with the Cape hanging over her inexorably.

But there is another factor, even greater in its compulsion. China is more than a neighbor of Japan; she is also a motherland. Her direct contribution to the Island Empire’s ethnic make-up is probably of fundamental importance. She has certainly provided bases for Japanese art, literature, religion, philosophy and social structure. In a sense Japan stands toward China in a position of cultural tutelage. Though more than a thousand years have elapsed since the last major infusion of Chinese thought penetrated the barrier of the Yellow Sea, there is ingrained in the Japanese character an almost primordial awe and apprehension of vague spiritual forces which may flood forth from the mainland to the West.

The net result is fear, a fear that is expressed most spectacularly on the part of Japan by an impulse to strike. Its most complete manifestation belongs to another generation. In 1894 Japan made war on China. The purposes ascribed to her for this action are various: to establish an hegemony over Korea, to forestall Russia in the Far East, to acquire Formosa and the Pescadores, to serve notice on the world that a new power was established in the orient. But deeper than these lay another aim. Japan was seeking to throw off a spiritual suzerainty, to lay an ancient spectre, to banish an ageless fear. And in spite of victory in battle, in spite of the outward imposition of her will on China, that fear persists today, apotheosized into seeming immortality.

It has taken only some six months to show that over Manchuria all China faces all Japan. The solution of the differences between the two countries in that region can be approached only as part of a larger problem, almost unbelievably complex. Upon the background of Manchuria there are projected the shadows of the unsolved problems of all China’s foreign intercourse. Behind the thunder of the Japanese guns from the Nonni to the Yang-tze-kiang can be heard faintly re-echoing the thudding reports of the muzzle-loaders off Canton in 1840. Here alone are worries enough for the most infallible and enlightened of statesmen. When there is added to this the numbing, blighting effect of mutual fear, the obstacles to an effective settlement between the two nations are raised yet a stage higher. Even if not aggravated by the hatreds and impulsions engendered in the present clash of arms, the situation presented is so fraught with uncertainties as to make prophecy a presumption. It is easy to say that there must be established some broad, practical arrangement whereby Chinese sovereignty and solidarity may be preserved from the Amur River to the island of Hainan, while at the same time the vital Japanese economic interests in Manchuria are acknowledged and guaranteed. But the concrete solution of the difficulties presented is quite another matter. The adjustment of the two countries, one to another, can only proceed by the practical working out of fair and magnanimous dealing, salved by the lavish use of the orient’s most abundant emollient—time. As affairs stand in 1932, it cannot be said in justice that even a beginning has been made.


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