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Inquiry on the East

ISSUE:  Autumn 1940

Inner Asian Frontiers of China. By Owen Lattimore. New York: American Geographical Society. Oxford University Press. $4.00. Agrarian China. Compiled and translated by the Research Staff of the Secretariat, Institute of Pacific Relations. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. $2.50. Japan’s Emergence as a Modem Stale. By E. Herbert Norman. $2.00. The Problem of Japanese Trade Expansion in the Post-War Situation. By Miriam S. Farley. $1.00. Japanese Industry: Its Recent Development and Present Condition. By G. C. Allen. $1.00. British Relations with China: 1931-1939. By Irving S. Friedman. $2.00. American Policy in the Par East: 1931-1940. By T. A. Bisson. $1.25. New York: Institute of Pacific Relations.

If there ever was a time when the Far Eastern problem was simple surely the monographs published or sponsored by the Institute of Pacific Relations must convince us that it is no longer so. Even the geographical boundaries of the tangle of national and cultural interests have now been pushed out in all directions so far that they stretch around the entire Pacific Ocean, reach into the Indian Ocean (how far we do not yet know), and include all of Eastern Asia at least to Burma, the Tibetan passes, and beyond Lake Baikel. In this unmeasured area Japan, the China coast, and the Philippines appear almost minute. It is a formidable task to draw in perspective such a huge picture, the more difficult because perspective depends upon the selected point of view. Is this area to be viewed from the pinnacle of some foreign office, from Tokyo, Chungking, Moscow, London, Berlin, Washington? Or shall we undertake to divest ourselves of all sense of national interest and merely paint for the “God of things as they are”? And who is wise enough to do that? There may be a point of view from which it appears that the community of the states of the world is best served in the long run by policies of live-and-let-live but we cannot overlook the fact that thus far in recorded history neither civilization nor culture has advanced that way. It is very difficult to relate the conflicting affairs of the interested Oriental and Western states in such a way that justice will be served with an even hand and yet without depriving some or all of them of what is now theirs by legal right. Such a conclusion is irresistible after reading the monographs under review here. No doubt there should be some alternative to trial by battle—but is there? And even the brutal trial by battle is not wholly lacking in ethical aspects, as the current defeat of France has revealed.

Of the many possible viewpoints on the Far East, Owen Lattimore has selected the most detached and, in the long view, the most promising. “Inner Asian Frontiers of China,” not an ad hoc study to meet an immediate need for a compendium of facts, but the product of ten years of cool research, endless travel, exceptional linguistic equipment, and deep reflection, begins with geography and anthropology. On a map of the world the area studied is small and the population scant in numbers, but as the Lattimores crossed and recrossed the western and northern boundaries of China along ancient caravan routes at thirty or less miles a day the territory seems boundless. The book is the record of an exciting exploration of the process by which nations and civilizations come into being. A similar method of study applied to the entire Pacific basin would cool the fevered brow of those who live from day to day by the morning newspaper. With such an approach the modern Far Eastern problem appears as the result of conflicting tides of human life, the impinging of elemental forces, peoples pressing on land and against one another, struggling for subsistence, for life, for culture, and then for power. For centuries not yet counted with precision human life has surged back and forth across Asia and up and down the Pacific, leaving deposits of bones, artifacts, ditches, institutions, and even traits of human character. Each tide was resisted more or less, but many of them were irresistible.

Viewed from this angle it seems preposterous that a few feeble humans here and there about the globe should undertake to direct these movements to the accomplishment of ends just, pacific, and humane. Man as well as nature has been red in tooth and claw and yet even as men trampled on their slain victims they also climbed. It is only on the short view that the climb seems now to have been halted for more than a brief moment in eternity. On the other hand, as the books under review clearly set forth, the present brief moment is discouraging and utterly harrowing to all who are sensitive to human suffering.

The monographs under consideration are chronicles, amply documented, of small segments of post-World War economic and diplomatic history, centering about the developments in Japan, in China, and the relations of two major powers, Britain and the United States, to these changes. These short studies are factual, generally objective, and abound in quotations from contemporary newspapers and journals. They recall and preserve the atmosphere in which the day to day decisions were made.

First, Japan: “Japan’s Emergence as a Modern State,” by E. Herbert Norman, “The Problem of Japanese Trade and Expansion in the Post-War Situation,” by Miriam S. Farley, and “Japanese Industry: Its Recent Development and Present Condition,” by G. C. Allen, provide an admirable outline and sequence of thought for the general reader. The picture is that of a strong, virile, facile, and resourceful people. Arriving late on the scene, the Japanese nation found itself cast for an ignominious role in world history and was not content to accept such a lot. Their leaders appropriated the methods and the techniques, both political and economic, of those states which had assumed the major roles. The Japanese waited astutely for the confusions in Europe and then in a few short decades all but pushed the Western powers off the boards. Their field of operation has been not only the China coast but the Western Pacific and nearly all of Eastern Asia. In the carrying trade of the world, in the manufacture and merchandising of a narrow range of commodities which are always in demand, they can now challenge the world as to price if not as to quality. Leaving their own standards of living not far above the level of a century ago, the Japanese in the world markets have offered a real threat to the living standards of many exporting peoples, as a result of which the nation has encountered political obstacles to its expanding trade. As a growing military power Japan has thus far avoided trial by battle with any modern military rival but it is unlikely that the trial can be indefinitely postponed. There will ensue one of the great battles of the ages, comparable with, and perhaps exceeding in magnitude, the present conflict in Europe. The current stresses and strains make all but inevitable something in the world of politics like a gigantic slippage of the crust of the earth around the Pacific basin. No wonder Japan fears Bolshevism: internally the nation is very vulnerable. Nor has Japan made any mistake about what she would have encountered from Western imperialism if she had not taken the aggressive.

Second, China: the books under review here, although this is not equally true of the entire list of the Institute of Pacific Relations publications, present a much less adequate picture of contemporary China. Next to the Lattimore book, which is in a class by itself, is “Agrarian China,” a collection of Chinese essays of the last decade, most of them apparently by zealous and patriotic but disappointed and even discouraged “returned students.” These essays have been compiled and translated by the research staff of the Institute and are published with an introduction by the distinguished British economist, R. H. Tawney. While it may be presumed that these eager young writers were seeking to present their country in a favorable light, the tone of discouragement is dominant. China is almost entirely agrarian and the conditions as to land ownership, farm labor, rural credit, opium, seed selection, animal husbandry, and every other agrarian problem are appalling. Many efforts have been made in the last few years to effect improvements but in almost every instance described the efforts have been thwarted by either the gentry or by the district magistrates and warlords who, by reason of their ignorance, venality, and personal ambitions, have been almost as devastating as the invading Japanese armies. They have been giving China the worst government in the world; if the current war were to end tomorrow in a Chinese victory it would appear that the great masses of Chinese would continue to suffer much as they have in the past. “Agrarian China” is a basic document for any who would understand China but it is not to be read by those friends of the Chinese people who conspire to obscure the underlying facts. It will require more than a military victory to purge China of its political corruption; without such a purge China will continue to be a grave menace in international politics.

And as to British and American policies: “British Relations with China: 1931-1939,” by Irving S. Friedman, and “American Policy in the Far East: 1931-1940,” by T. A. Bisson, are both brief and minutely factual; when read together, they provide a complete guide to the various stages by which Britain, always seeking to appease Japan while making money in China, has at last had to choose Japan, while the United States now alone continues to carry the fragments of the banner of the Open Door. Where it will all end becomes each day more obscure. Events in Europe at the moment eclipse the Western and Southern Pacific and Eastern Asia. Unpromising as are the conditions in Europe to American welfare, they are, in the long view, equally threatening in Asia. The book has not yet been written which offers the clue to any real solution of the already century-old Far Eastern problem. The Institute of Pacific Relations Inquiry Series, together with the other monographs which the institute has stimulated or promoted, even though inconclusive, will stand for a long time as guides to the study of one of the world’s great political and economic problems.


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