MUCH of Asia was under colonial rule during the late 19th and early 20th century with Britain dominating the global scene. South and South East Asia were under direct rule of the Crown. Japan had broken from the shackles of the foreign manoeuvers and raised the call ‘Asia for Asians.’ But China, up to the first quarter of the 20th century was in the stranglehold of a combination of foreign forces, mainly the British, French, Dutch, Russian and of course Japanese. It was a semi-colonial state. Each of these countries had forced humiliating treaties on China, wrenching the last drop of blood from it. Adding to the mayhem was the brisk soul harvesting business of the evangelists, under complete protection and encouragement from their respective countries.
Understanding China’s urgency and determination to dominate the world today starts here. The people’s revolution, hugely aided by the defeat and obliteration of Japan in World War II, helped China emerge on her own. Robert Bickers in his latest book The Scramble for China: Foreign Devils in the Qing Empire, 1832-1914 traces the events of that nation to bring us to where we are today, rather where China is today, vis-à-vis the world, especially the West. Says he, the preamble of the Chinese constitution outlines the vision of a country “reduced gradually to a state of what was termed ‘semi-colonial’ weakness from which it was saved by the Chinese people who overthrew imperialism and its Chinese allies ‘through hard, protracted and tortuous struggle, armed and otherwise’. “The memory of the era of National Humiliation is embedded then in the state’s very articulation of itself, and its raison d’être.”
British, the incorrigible traders they were, wanted China to be opened to sell something, anything, to ‘compensate’ for the tea, silk and porcelain being bought from China. India, the state under their thumb was being used for growing opium, it was close to China, so the obvious item for sale was opium. Forcing open China, Britain set up a ‘triangular’ business arrangement, from which it alone benefitted. “A classic triangular trade had developed, with Indian fortunes flowing to the British isles via China… the company sold opium to the country traders, who shipped it east. The cash they realized was converted into Company bills payable in London or Calcutta, while the Company bought tea (and alone could do so), shipping it back to Britain.”
China resisted foreigners. They were restricted to port areas and it was forbidden to teach Chinese to any foreigner. Chinese violating it earned capital punishment. But all this changed with the forceful entry of the combined forces of the West. Describing a battle of 1842, Bickers says the British troops captured Shanghai. “Their troops lodged themselves in the City God temple, looted pawnshops, dressed themselves in the gorgeous fineries they found in them, and burned Shanghai libraries in their cooking fires or used them as toilet paper.” The Manchu troops fought stubbornly and “surprisingly hard” without surrendering. Worse is to come. “The suburb burned; the pretty city was ‘a monument of death and desolation.’ The slaughter and self-slaughter sickened the British on the spot (and garnered a wretched press back home — ‘Women and children in dozens hanging from beams,’ one reported, ‘or lying on the ground with their throats cut, or drowned in deep wells.” When the war ended the soldiers were relieved that now, at least they did not have to slaughter ‘crowds of pig-tailed animals.’
While the foreign troops were battling in this grossly unequal fight, the missionaries were including their right to preach, propagate and convert people into Christianity in all the treaties signed. The Church was allowed to own property and build churches. “The one outstanding feature of the French and American treaties was that the French secured a commitment to re-legalize Christianity in China (Catholicism in practice), which had been proscribed in 1724, and assumed for themselves the mantle of responsibility for Chinese Catholics.” Bickers adds “Thus from the start, the ‘opening’ of China was quickly about very much more than simple free trade. The Anglo-Chinese College at Malacca, and its printing press, were swiftly transplanted to the new colony by the London Missionary Society (LMS), now able to train Chinese converts on China’s doorstep.”
The missionaries got early success, when one Hong Xiuquan, a half-baked convert managed to get a following in thousands. But the victory soon turned sour because he was on his way to establish his own rule, offering a colloidal mix of Chinese and Christianity. Soon the foreigners withdrew their backing to him, to bring back the much-discredited Manchu rulers who were much more ‘obedient’ and amenable.
The Chinese saw increasing number of missionaries pouring into their country and fanning out. They started off with social service, health care. A sample modus operandi went like this. In Peking the missionaries “rented a part of a Buddhist temple on a very thoroughfare. They had the gods removed under cover of night, to the consternation of the local residents, but it was smugly reported, with no signs of visible harm.” The evangelists who got carried away with medical work were chastised for paying more attention to health than on conversions.
But the Chinese society was restive. There were all kinds of stories about the demonic deeds of the missionaries. Rumours were flying thick and high that the foreigners kidnapped children to eat their heart and suck their souls. The missionaries were using a ‘red powder’ to stupefy the children to take them to the church, it was said.
Other social tensions were building up. Those who converted, almost 100 per cent for economic benefits suddenly became powerful in the local communities, jeopardising the social order. They tended to ignore the local customs like respecting the elders and worshipping the ancestors and local celebrations. Christianity destabilised villages. “A marginal group could find itself greatly enhanced in status… the Christians would refuse to pay temple or opera dues damaging the fabric of local society, imperiling the common good, and insulting the gods…” The Chinese preachers were often heard as saying that it was definitely cheaper to be a Christian. India still witnesses such trends in the hotbed of conversions like Jharkhand and Orissa, Kandamal being a case in point.
The tide of resentment finally broke out of control and resulted in the Boxer rebellion (1900), in which thousands of foreigners were butchered, before the rebellion was quelled. Says Bickers “The missionaries knew it was coming. Of course, they always half expected martyrdom, and half wanted it, for the blood of martyrs sanctified the mission soil. More immediately, they expected it because they had faced some years now of opposition, opposition that was turning from sullen disbelief at the weirdness of Christianity, so at variance in its practices to civilized norms, to overt, violent hostility.”
The missionaries’ work was not unopposed. In 1860, the Duke of Somerset said speaking in the House of Lords, ‘The fact is we are propagating Christianity with gunboats. What right do we have to send missionaries to the interior of China, and who were these people?’ The Times called the missionaries ‘commonplace persons, not very well-educated, not quite gentlemen… they are impudent’ they have ‘gone out with not much learning and still less knowledge of mankind.’ “The missionaries were furious; furious with Somerset, who blamed the LMS above all…”
Robert Bickers says “Christianity, as we have seen, was not abstract belief, but practical local politics and local change. It had given converts a type of invulnerability, a seeming freedom from orthodox control and licence to subvert the law. In property and resource disputes they had secured mission support and so through them diplomatic representations to the Zongli Yamen over this local dispute and that one.” Well, China went through this nearly a century ago. India continues to be a huge recruitment ground for Christianity, using the same techniques.
If Boxer rebellion was harsh, the West retaliation was unspeakably cruel. According to a description in the book, the marching troops killed Chinese. “Chinese corps filled the river. In the aftermath of the relief of the siege, allied soldiers shot and bayoneted house servants as they searched for drink and loot.” On July 2, (1900), thousands of Chinese and Manchu residents of the Russian city – servants, traders, labourers, men, women and children – were systematically herded into the river (Amur river in Blagoveshchensk), and those who were not drowned were shot or hacked to death.” The river was reported to be thick with mangled corpses even weeks later.
The sad part of the story is the China, then, had no friends. All the Western nations and her neighbours Japan and Russia joined together in the massacre. India of course was in no condition to help, held as she was under the British rule, not even a sovereign state. When the rebellion was put down, leaving the soil drenched with blood, the perpetrators of crime cried foul for being victims of the Boxer fighters. A new round of treaty with even more stringent penalty and privilege was thrust on the nation.
The Scramble for China gives nearly a blow by blow account of the travails that the country underwent before it emerged to take hold of itself. In the early 20th century it was very much believed that China would be geographically apportioned, like Africa, among the Western powers, in alliance with Russia and Japan, who were both eyeing the rich Chinese territories. But China survived as one.
And it remembers the past. There is a six-volume compilation of atrocities and unequal treaties thrust on it. Places where hard battles were fought are marked and this history is taught. It is this collective conscience of China that is today propelling it to newer and greater achievements in all spheres. Unless we understand China’s history we cannot understand its resurgence now. And in that Bickers book is an excellent help. Unbiased, in a reporting style, the book is sheer history, leaving the reader to judge for him/her self. And the history is poignant. Robert Bickers is professor of History at the University of Bristol and a celebrated author. The narration is embellished with colour plates and maps and rich notes.
(Penguin Books Ltd, 80 Strand, London WC2R, ORI, England)