The Fall and Rise of China

Imperial Twilight: The Opium War and the End of China’s Last Golden Ageby Stephen R. Platt. Knopf. 2018.

The Man Who Loved China: The Fantastic Story of the Eccentric Scientist Who Unlocked the Mysteries of the Middle Kingdomby Simon Winchester. Harper. 2008.

These two books bracket the time from when China began a long decline in power and prestige to its gradual emergence after the Second World War. The first book, Imperial Twilight, recounts the conflict with England over trade, especially opium, during the first four decades of the nineteenth century. The second, The Man Who Loved China, tells the story of an Englishman, Joseph Needham, whose lifelong quest was to discover and document the science and technology developed over millennia of Chinese history. Both make fascinating reading.

These books reveal the appalling ignorance about China that prevailed in even the most advanced western country, England. Some of this was of China’s own doing: the emperor and his court discouraged, even forbade, teaching Chinese to foreigners. About the only way to learn Chinese in the early 1800s was to study with the Jesuits in Paris, who had been able to maintain a tenuous presence in the country since the sixteenth century. No other foreigners were admitted. Trade was conducted through a single port at Canton (Guangzhou) where the different European countries were allowed to establish “factories,” with a limited staff. Trade was carried out in pidgin[derived from the Chinese pronunciation of “business”] a simplified amalgam of English, Chinese and additional European languages.

From the mid-seventeenth century on, the British East India Company dominated the trade, mainly in tea, but also silk, porcelain and other goods. Silver, obtained from the sale of English goods in various countries, was exchanged, because China was mostly not interested or did not allow English or other European goods in. Attempts to establish more extensive diplomatic and trade relations were failures, in some cases humiliating failures, for the English. Platt describes these efforts in interesting detail, as well as some unofficial, but heroic efforts by others to penetrate the country.

Looking for something they could sell in China, the Company settled on opium, which could be produced in India, by the Company or native suppliers. This proved extremely lucrative but also roused the ire of the Chinese government, which saw the growing consequences of addiction. The trade benefitted the Chinese merchants, and smugglers when the government tried to crack down, too much to stamp out. Meanwhile, the emperor was in an increasingly weak position as a series of internal rebellions and spreading corruption wasted resources and undermined authority. British ambitions began to focus on winning more freedom to operate in China, and, even though the Company really did not want conflict, the eventual result was the Opium Wars. When they ended, China was defeated and forced to make large concessions to several European powers as well as England and the United States. It took China a century to recover its full independence and then under Communist rule.

Opium was one of the weapons the West employed, intentionally or not, to force an opening to China, and now we see, probably not intentionally, China’s revenge. Fentanyl,  the synthetic opioid which is causing much death and misery here in the US, is produced largely in China. Again, a big part of the problem is our own weakened position in the world and the futile policies by which we try to combat drug addiction. Let us hope that the clash of imperial ambitions, China’s and ours, do not end as tragically as they did in the 1850s.

Joseph Needham travelled in China as the dragon was once again stirring, to speak metaphorically. Western influence was still strong when he began, and a new factor had complicated the picture: Japan’s imperial ambitions, which it first directed towards China. Much of Needham’s work was tied to western efforts to maintain influence in China in these changed circumstances. A biochemist at Cambridge, Needham first encountered China through graduate students who came there in the late 1930s. One of them, Lu Gwei-djen, taught him the basics of Chinese and became his longtime collaborator and mistress. Needham served in Chongching as British scientific liaison from 1942-46. He travelled extensively, meeting many scholars and scientists and gathering the collection of texts that formed the basis of his research after the war. These travels were incredibly challenging and often dangerous, barely avoiding capture or death at the hands of the Japanese as well as the primitive infrastructure of remote areas.

In 1948, back in Cambridge, he began the project that filled most of the rest of his life: Science and Civilization in China, a multi volume work that covers almost every aspect of science and technology and that revealed just how much the Chinese had discovered, invented and applied. A Christian Marxist, Needham remained a friend to China, including leaders of the communist government, especially Zhou Enlai. This got him into trouble in England and the US, particularly over his participation in a commission to investigate alleged American use of bio weapons during the Korean War. He was able to continue his work, however, until his death in 1995, and the project continues today. All in all a remarkable life.

China has rapidly achieved economic development, based heavily on western methods, but it would be foolish to think all they have done is imitative. The tradition of science and technology Needham documented is a reflection of the genius of a civilization quite distinct from the West, and we have yet to see the end of it.