Oh how the times are a’changing. A fantastic find from the university library – a book by acting minister of the United States at Peking back in 1901. This was one of the most ‘shameful’ periods of Chinese history, with Western powers and Japan carving up China like a pie. Most Chinese remember that period as a century of humiliation. Anyone remember this famous graphic? It shaped the agenda for Western (and Japanese) perception of Chinese-ness for a long time.
Holcombe, C. (1901) The Real Chinese Question. Methuen & Co: London.
In what I deem a fair critique of the Chinese against the West, written a century ago, he says, “The Chinese are not lethargic, incapable, nor indifferent. But they insist, unreasonably perhaps, upon looking at all things through their own eyes, studying them their own way, and deciding for themselves, whether they are of value or worthless to them. Their systems, social, political, and economical, were settled, fully adjusted and crystallized centuries ago. Ours are subject to almost daily alteration and development. Possibly it should not be expected that they adopt ours, without inquiry or hesitation, when they see us so ready to discard them for any others which are new or untried.”
A hundred years and the Chinese are the same – the ideas for governance and identity are shaped by 5,000 years of continuous history – the good thing is, now their walls are lowered and they are willing to listen, or at least give the impression they are.
Also – this bit is prophetic, in a sense. And remember, this is written in 1901 – The Prime Minister wen Hsiang, once remarked… “China will build railroads when she is ready, and when she begins, the work will be done with a rapidity that will astonish the world.” Fast forward to today – China already has the largest high speed rail network. By 2012 their total rail length of 13,000km will be larger than the rest of the world combined. Find out more here.