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We Look to China

ISSUE:  Spring 1944

A Short History of the Chinese People. By L. Carrington Goodrich. Harper and Brothers. $2.50. China Handbook, 1937-43. Compiled by the Chinese Ministry of Information. The Macmillan Company. $5.00. My Life in China, 1926-1941. By Hallctt Abend. Harcourt, Brace and Company. $3.00. Battle Hymn of China. By Agnes Smcdley. Alfred A. Knopf. $3.50. Vrec China’s New Deal By Hubert Freyn. The Macmillan Company. $2.50. Winning the Peace in the Pacific. By S. R. Chow. The Macmillan Company. $1.50.

The emergence of China out of the struggles and battles for her survival into the group of the Big Four has directed the eyes of the American public across the Pacific to the Chinese nation, with its rich cultural heritage, its question marks of today, and its promises of the future. Our new interest has brought a crop of books giving general knowledge, research, and personal experiences, six of which are taken up here. They all have the common denominator, China, but tell very different sides of a great story. They far from exhaust the subject, and a full answer to our questions can perhaps only be given in retrospect when a Chinese author may deal with China’s gigantic revolution.

History is a very necessary background for an understanding of present-day China. China’s history has been reinterpreted in our times with a new comprehension of its economic and political laws, but we have not had a short outline that would contain the many new ideas and findings. “A Short History of the Chinese People,” by Professor L. Carrington Goodrich of Columbia University, fills this need. Any short history has to select from the abundance of material and must strike an equilibrium of periods and events. The progress of China’s society from the ancient past to our time is supported by a description of the development of the material culture, of tools and vehicles, of new foods and techniques, marking past stages of advancement.

Chinese history is more than facts and figures. If we measure the issues of the present day against the lessons of the past, we find that some remain closely related. The cyclical rise and fall of dynasties in imperial history was caused by the changing proportions in land distribution between farmers and landlords and the resultant shift in the distribution of the burden of taxes and rents. When government was strong, the burdens of the community were fairly divided and the local scholar-gentry class was kept in its place. But when local landlord bosses came to exploit their power, driving the farmers into misery and desperation, harming the state, the dynasties declined and broke up, with periods of civil strife and farmer rebellions, and sometimes foreign invasion, following until a new power established efficient government again. Statesmen of the past, like the great agrarian reformer Wang An-shih, tried to break these vicious cycles with their reform measures. But the repetition remained and today again, though under somewhat different conditions, the Chinese government faces the same problem of reactionary landlords and the same question of centralized tax control, or redistribution of the tax burden, and of restoring the “land to the tillers.”

The official story of the development of modern China and a short history of her monopoly party, the Kuomintang, are among the concentration of facts which the “China Handbook 1937-1943” provides. As no new volumes of the “Chinese Yearbook” or other similar publications have come to our hands in the last two years, this new compilation is very welcome. It contains, of course, in its description of the history of Chinese revolution and of the inner struggle and conditions in China the official viewpoint of the Chinese government and the Kuomintang, but its documentation of this inner history, of the government organization, of China’s foreign relations, and of all the many measures in China’s economic, military, welfare, and cultural affairs make it an indispensable source of information.

The events of this modern development itself have been told by people who were near to them and the main actors, or by the most superficial observers, in scores of books with all shades of attitude and opinions. With the position of the foreigners in China, living outside of Chinese jurisdiction in the treaty-ports and concerned with business and the legal and political systems that had been built up, there developed a kind of treaty-port mind that judged Chinese events by the standards of material western civilization. It was influenced by ideas of detective-story sensationalism mingled with pseudo-interpretations of the strangeness of the East. It has no feeling for the greatness of the movements and transformations behind the game of warlords and generals, politicians and puppets on the surface. Hallett Abend, “My Life in China, 1926-1941,” begins his fifteen years in China with the tip of an index finger shot-off from a hand raised for a toast with a whiskey glass. For him the events in China had been from the beginning “the biggest news story of my lifetime.” What one gathers from Mr. Abend’s book is little in favor of China. For him the dirt, the lice, the inconveniences, the heat, and the shabbiness of the inland hotels are something to be faced for the sake of the news “scoops” for his paper. These hardships are somewhat mitigated by the luxury and leisure of an old-style Peking house and comfortable apartment and the clubs of Shanghai. It is, of course, unfair to hold anybody responsible for past misinterpretations of events, and Mr. Abend has obviously changed some of his opinions. But the fact that most of his information was gained from Japanese diplomatic and military officials is still strongly coloring his ideas of events of which the Chinese side is scarcely given. A part of Mr. Abend’s book is a defence against attacks by the Chinese government which aimed at forcing him out of China. It is refreshing to see the attitude taken by the New York Times, his paper, in defence of its correspondent, and of journalistic freedom. But the type of foreign communities which shaped the opinions of the white world in China will not come back.

There was another type of foreigner in China, but nowhere will there be again the passionate devotion to the cause of humanity of Agnes Smedley, whom her friends called in tenderness “holy Agnes.” In “Battle Hymn of China” she writes: “Live apart from the Chinese people I would not. The road to an understanding of them and their country led only into their ranks; nor did there seem any other way for me to justify my own existence among them.” And for her choice of two paths: “I could protect myself from the flood of abandoned humanity by building around myself a protective wall of coldness and indifference, even of hostility. I could learn to curse and strike out at those who molested me; or I could stand in the middle of the stream of life and let it strike me full force—risking robbery, disease, even death. For a long time I chose the latter way; then experience taught me to vary it by protecting myself to a certain extent. In my last years in China I again changed and took the stream full force.” Agnes Smedley is not a neutral observer; she has taken sides and her fight against any type of economic or political exploitation colors her views. She has no patience with administrative expedience, and bitterly accuses the terror used by the government in its struggle for power against the leftists in China. She does not follow a communist dogma; she is opposed to it, but she shares all her strength in the work for the political and military left leaders of the guerilla forces and the liberal writers. Her character study of China’s great writer, Lu Hsun, who personifies the fight for intellectual freedom, is a revealing story of her own fight against all forces of oppression. And the picture we gain of the sea of human suffering, of human endurance, and of the courage of brave men leaves beyond all confusion the feeling of the greatness of events of a country in labor.

What Agnes Smedley does not give in the form of explanation of political moves can be gained from “Free China’s New Deal” by Hubert Freyn. His is an almost official account of the economic problems which the transformation from old to new has brought and which the war has intensified. The inland move dictated by the war, the blockade intensified after Pearl Harbor, and the loss of Burma have left China for better or for worse on her own resources for almost her entire existence. A serious attempt is being made to solve the difficulties arising from the new pressure and past conditions. China needs an increased production both industrially and agriculturally for the daily existence before any great dreams of future industrialization can be realized. The financial struggle and the unsolved task of financing the war have led to the inflationary conditions in which China desperately tries to adjust her additional purchasing power to the decreased available production. The need for government income as well as the broad program for economic and political democratization demands the destruction of reactionary landlordism and a new land tax system to be shifted into the hands of the central government and newly and fairly distributed between rich and poor. Tax in kind and the forced sale of food bonds are successful war measures, and Freyn’s description does indicate critically where reaction has slowed down or prevented the application of these measures.

The most striking fact about Chinese leaders today is the assurance with which they look into the future. In spite of all the tremendous obstacles in their way and the seriousness of the dangers, the Chinese are confident of their success. This confidence grows from the knowledge of the long way they have already come and the manner in which they managed to force it. This confidence has led to the gigantic projects for China’s industrialization. It is not confined only to the development of China itself, but includes as well the part which China is determined to play in a future world of co-operation for which she hopes. In a little booklet, ‘Winning the Peace in the Pacific,” S. L. Chow has laid down what he regards as the Chinese views on the system of post-war order for the world and for the Pacific. He wants to have Japan disarmed, have her aggressive tools destroyed, have her made to pay some reparations, but then accepted to “live and prosper” and to collaborate in a new international order. He wants full equality, a solution of the racial and national problems in India and Southeastern Asia with a general advancement to self-government, and all this with a strong emphasis on a regional organization for the Pacific in which he wants China to take her rightful place.

During this war we are making slow progress in building for the future a United Nations co-operation. We do not know how much of our great hopes for genuine international organization to develop the principles for which we fight will be fulfilled. But we can sense the ardor of the social forces that will form the future China. If we can make our minds meet, there may be a promise of great partnership for the future.


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