The Conquering Chinese

By Walter E. Weyl

[Harper's Magazine, July 1918]

It was a Chinese official at Peking who first gave me the sense that China is unconquerable and conquering.

I had gone to this official to ask certain questions concerning political affairs, he had listened quietly and answered with seeming frankness. He had no illusions concerning the present situation. The Chinese Government was weak; its finance bad; there was no money for schools; no money for anything. Officials were corrupt, and repeated promises of reform were unfulfilled. The armies, under the leadership of semi-independent generals, could not be disbanded because they had not been paid; to disband them would convert the soldiers into brigands. The internal situation was serious.

he foreign situation was even worse. Upon a map the official showed me how Japan was encircling China. She held Korea and southern Manchuria and from Port Arthur and Tsing-tao menaced Peking. She had Formosa, claimed special rights in Fu-kien and would not surrender Shantung peninsula unless forced. Step by step she was gaining industrial and political influence throughout the republic. So long as the war lasted Japan would have a free hand; in case of an insurrection she could land troops, with the consent of the Powers, and once her armies were in China it would be hard to dislodge them.

All this he told me without any display of agitation. His voice was almost uninflected and his speech gestureless. As he sat at his desk with his long, fine hands hidden in the sleeves of his black silk Chinese coat, he seemed the incarnation of passivity. It required a violent effort to realize that this immobile and imperturbable Chinese had spent four years in an American university, perhaps had rowed with the crew or played on the baseball team. The idea seemed incongruous. Despite his Western knowledge, his mind was tenaciously Chinese. He was detached, impersonal, with a patient, unhurried mental attitude, as though the noisy turmoils of centuries did not count in a nation's destiny.

"If the worst comes to the worst," he concluded, "we shall invite Japan to conquer us."

I stared. "Invite Japan? That would be the end of China."

He smiled indulgently. "You people of the West are so impatient, so—may I say?—immediate. You think in years instead of in centuries. There can be no end of China. "What can the conqueror, as we call him, do? He can make money out of us and for us, and he can rule us—for a time; but he cannot absorb us and we can and will absorb him. I would give the Japanese just fifty years of control; then they would go the way of the Manchus."

He went into details. He portrayed a new China growing up vigorously under its supposed Japanese masters. He assumed that under the foreign rule the Chinese would get railroads, telegraphs, factories, schools, and universities, and would become a wealthy and intelligent nation. Every effort of Japan to exploit China would aid China, and though the seat of empire might be at Tokio, the real administrators, the tens and hundreds of thousands of subordinate officials, would be Chinese. Officer the army with Japanese and it would still be a Chinese army. The real power would remain with the Chinese people. And in the end, in twenty, fifty, or at most a hundred or two hundred years, the people would exercise this power and the fragile Japanese domination would be shattered. The day of little nations, he intimated, is over; the great masses learn quickly and all the tricks of organization and discipline and science can no longer be monopolized by any one people. Perhaps the Chinese by themselves would throw off the yoke; perhaps they would wait until Japan was embroiled with another nation; perhaps they would wait even longer until the sated foreigners, by sheer pressure from the population around them, became Chinese, as the Normans became English. In the end it would be the same, the little island folk would succumb to the continental people. And the same if Europe were ever to divide China. Jealousies, boundary disputes, wars between these hasty nations—and in the quiet fullness of time China, educated and drilled, would come into her own again. Either she would drive out the invaders or they would drive one another off, as Japan drove out Russia and Germany.

"No," he declared, "China may be overrun, but in the end will be triumphant. We are no doubt the weakest and most unpolitical of nations, but we are unconquerable."

As I left the office and found myself again upon the thronged Peking streets, it seemed as though these swarms of blue-clad Chinese had taken on a new significance. Everywhere were men in silk and cotton, with long skirts and ceremonial skull-cap, or dressed in tight-fitting cotton garments. The winter sunlight poured upon an endless stream of ragged 'rickshaw-men, panting hard as they ran at a dog-trot which they could maintain for hours. Coolies passed under their great loads; the carters were drawing stone upon the springless Peking carts. There followed men leading asses and camels, and then more coolies carrying on their shoulders the city's human refuse that, like all things in China, is sedulously hoarded. There were thousands and thousands of these common Chinese folk, and beyond, in the republic's eighteen provinces, hundreds of millions of them. The street was one vast hive of crowding men. It was an ugly, sordid, malodorous life that it revealed, but a life that endures. These Chinese, I thought, have the viability of rats. Wretched, laughing, philosophical, they withstand heat and cold, dwell in the tropics or in the frigid zone, perform labor that no white man would undertake, live on food upon which a white man would starve. A comfortless race, not despising comfort, but ignorant of what it is. Living on a bowl of rice and a morsel of fish, sleeping on a cold dirt floor or at best on a brick oven with a straw mattress for a bed and a wooden block for a pillow, living amid dirt and vermin, and intolerable stenches, these people have reached the irreducible minimum of physical existence. Perfect machines, devised to give a maximum energy at a minimum cost. Because its scale of living is low and because it is fruitful, the Chinese nation is indeed indestructible. You cannot remove this population or exterminate it or even lessen it. Scourge it with famines, pestilences, and wars, like that Taiping rebellion which destroyed ten to twenty millions, and in the end the population is greater than before. The procreative impulse rules China as the Manchus never ruled it. Three out of four babies die, but the fourth is more than enough. Kill a hundred million Chinese and in two generations there are more graves cluttering the earth, but as many living as ever. The principal product of China is cheap, rice-fed men, who work and starve, or perhaps freeze to death during the cold January nights, or die by the hundreds of thousands in periodical famines, or obstinately survive and raise more cheap, rice-fed men.

There are hundreds of millions of them with vision bounded by a bowl of rice and the desire for male offspring. The race is like the sea, inexhaustible, imperishable. It does not wither away at the breath of Western civilization. It does not disappear. It does not go under. It persists.

It is, moreover, an impermeable race; to attempt to interpenetrate it is as hopeless as to pour water into a jar filled with mercury. I thought of Macao. The Portuguese have been there for over three centuries and have contrived to make of it a beautiful city, living on opium, gambling, and other vices, like a pretty prostitute in pink ribbons. The picturesque streets have Portuguese names, but the city is irredeemably, unalterably Chinese. Look down from the green-clad hills upon the flat roofs, blue and green and red, of the clustered, wind-swept city, and you see the homes not of Portuguese, but of Orientals. Of a population of seventy-five thousand, only a-scant two thousand claim a dubious Portuguese origin. The same is true, of Hongkong, with its British bund and its foreign banks and its few thousand white-faced men surrounded by swarming Chinese. In the Hongkong city of Victoria, which is a narrow strip between the granite hills and the bay, the wealthy white inhabitants are forced upward on to the terraced hillsides, where their charming semi-tropical gardens look out upon the blue water, while below, on the narrow plain, inundation after inundation of Chinese fills the city to the saturation point. There are districts in the city—Chinese districts, of course—where the population averages over 640,000 to the square mile, and the crowding tends to become worse. It is a Chinese city. So, too, Tientsin, Shanghai, Hankow, though they have their foreign concessions, small European islands in an Asiatic ocean, are in population unmistakably Chinese. The white man comes and goes; he lives on the surface of China as a flea might live upon the hide of a rhinoceros. The Chinese remain, breed, multiply.

Nor have the Japanese been much more successful in interpenetrating China. Japan lies near and she has swarming millions of hardy, industrious, intelligent men accustomed to poverty and almost forced to emigrate. Yet in the whole of China there is only a scant one hundred and twenty thousand Japanese of all sorts, or about one to every three thousand Chinese. The Japanese, following in the footsteps of the Russians, developed southern Manchuria, and opened it to immigration, but it was the Chinese, not the Japanese, who immigrated. By hundreds of thousands they poured from the northern provinces by land and sea into Manchuria, began to cultivate the profitable soya bean and to prosper under the new conditions brought about by Japan. The Japanese themselves strove to colonize this rich territory. They, too, have their population problem, their over-dense crowds. Their workmen and little shopkeepers went to Mukden. They worked hard; they scrimped. But year by year, although the Japanese immigration increased, Japanese were forced out because they could not compete, and year by year the Chinese immigration swamped the country. The Japanese shopkeepers found it hard to do business, to make both ends meet; the Japanese wage-earners, except in the more skilled trades, found it difficult to get jobs. The water could not displace the mercury.

So China endures, indestructible, impermeable. Foreign adventurers come with blazon of trumpets, conquer, and are conquered. They, their armies and camp-followers, drop into the vast sea of the Chinese population and are submerged.

In the mean while China expands, steadily, continuously, overwhelmingly. It is no new phenomenon. From the beginning the Chinese have gradually spread over their present vast territory, including not only the eighteen provinces, in which is massed the immense majority of the population, but also over the great wastes of Mongolia, Manchuria, eastern Turkestan, and Tibet.

The Manchurian immigration illustrates this process. For a long time the Manchus held their own and resisted all invasion. Within recent periods, however, the Chinese entered in vast numbers, until they formed the overwhelming majority of the population, and they largely absorbed the minority by intermarriage. The pure-blooded Manchus are becoming rare; the country, race, and civilization are Chinese. Here, as also in Formosa, and indeed everywhere, the Chinese have met with hopelessly inferior cultures, and they have steadily expanded and conquered.

This emigration never was, and is not to-day, a spontaneous, joyous movement. The Chinese, if one may generalize concerning so immense and diverse a people, is essentially a stay-at-home. He is not like the restless American pioneer who drove his Conestoga wagon over the Appalachians and sold his cleared land as soon as overtaken by neighbors. The Chinese coolie is attached to his home, his family, his birthplace. He loves his ugly walled town or his austere and filthy village, his broken-down, cheerless mud hut, with its smoke-blackened walls, its gaping window-holes, its mud floor upon which pigs and fowls and children forgather, its unsuspected absence of everything we consider essential—carpets, wallpaper, furniture, ornaments, books, pictures, games, flowers. His religion attaches him to the place where his ancestors died and where he wishes his children's children's children to be reared. Even the beggars, deformed, tattered, and starving, cling desperately and lovingly to their birthplace. The Chinese coolies, who are to-day being brought over by tens of thousands to till the lands of France and release French peasants for the trenches, have no real ambition to leave China. If they die en route or in France, so it is stipulated in their bond of service, their bodies are to be returned to their homes in China.

Nothing but a dead, insistent, omnipresent poverty could force the Chinese to emigrate. It is a poverty everywhere found in China, in the north and south and east and west, in the mud villages on the plains, in the farming districts in the mountains, where generations of laborers have hewn petty farms out of the steeply sloping hills and in congested, one-storied cities like Canton, where the house walls almost meet over the narrow, sweaty streets, and hundreds of thousands are pushed off the land to live in river junks. It is a poverty caused by a low stage of industrial development and by an over-high birthrate, a poverty which creates superfluous men, who toil at carrying water, at pulling loads, at lifting weights, at all forms of semi-useless labor for a wage which barely buys millet or rice. It is a poverty which keeps millions semi-employed and millions unemployed.

Not all these superfluous Chinese emigrate; only the smallest fraction of them have as yet gone through that door. Chinese emigration, except into Manchuria and Asiatic Russia, still comes overwhelmingly from a few southern maritime provinces. It is the mobile, alert Cantonese whom we find in San Francisco or New York; the coolies of the north, the west and the middle provinces are rarely met overseas. Yet China has sent some eight to ten million sons to foreign lands.

In the United States there are still almost a hundred thousand Chinese, and but for the fact that their coming was prohibited there would be to-day millions of them. All along the east Pacific, in Alaska, British Columbia, Mexico, Ecuador, Peru, and Chile, there are colonies of Chinese. They are also found on the other side of the American continent, in British Guiana, Trinidad, Jamaica, Cuba, Porto Rico. Of the Hawaiian population they formed in the year 1896 one-fifth; but, as in the Philippines, their numbers have been relatively reduced by the Chinese Exclusion Act. A similar obstacle meets them in Australia and British South Africa. Still, in both these regions they have secured a slender foot-hold.

It is in the countries surrounding China, however, especially in the fertile lands to the south, that the Chinese carries himself, and in the end his language and civilization. In Burma, Annam, Siam, the Malay Peninsula, in Java and other Malaysian islands, he comes and conquers. Over the indolent Cambodian, the apathetic Burmese, the easy-going, pleasure-loving Malays of all sorts, he gains a victory. He is an excellent farmer, mechanic, sailor, miner, laborer; he is sober, thrifty, docile, immensely enduring, and an unloyal observer of the peace. The Chinese immigrant, schooled to an abject poverty, arrives in these, fertile lands empty-handed, ragged, without any capital except his willingness to work. He comes without the encumbrance of wife or children, who in any case belong to the ancestral home, to which he himself hopes eventually to return. Having nothing, the emigrant binds himself by a harsh contract to work for a wealthier fellow-countryman in the new land. He saves something above the cost of his daily rice; he does not lose the whole of his belongings at the gambling-table.

Gradually he becomes a small capitalist. He buys land and raises gambier and pepper. Or he becomes a miner, or a shopkeeper and usurer, holding the native population under his sway. Year by year his numbers increase, his control grows. He thrives upon law and order, whether it be British, Japanese, or Siamese. He gains his foothold. He opens the door to his countrymen at home.

One cannot gauge this vast expansion without the use of statistics, and for the most part the statistics at our disposal are vague and conflicting. Orientals abhor exact figures far more than nature ever abhorred a vacuum. Some estimates place the number of Chinese in Siam at 400,000; others at 1,500,000; between these extremes one has a wide liberty of choice. In Burma there are supposed to be 40,000, many of whom have taken Burmese wives, without even consulting their wives at home. In Cochin-China there are some 60,000 of these immigrants, and of the city of Saigon almost one-third is Chinese. In Siam, as elsewhere, the Chinese, although scattered throughout the country, tend to concentrate chiefly in the cities. Bangkok is in very large part inhabited by Chinese, who, as elsewhere in the East, almost monopolize the local business.

It is a far distance from Peking or even from Canton to Singapore, yet in that city, though ruled by the British and in the Malay orbit, seven out of ten inhabitants are Chinese, who outnumber the Europeans and Eurasians twenty to one and the Malays more than four to one. In the Straits Settlements as a whole the Chinese population is 400,000 as compared with a Malay population of only 250,000. In the year 1915 a round 100,000 immigrants came from China to Singapore.

Every year there arrive at Singapore these hundred thousand hardy Chinese, and many find their way into Johore, where there are already 63,000 of their countrymen, or into Kedah or into Java or into Borneo. Steadily their numbers increase as they make their way in the Malaysian world.

This movement into Malaysia is only in its beginnings. In these fertile islands there seems to lie the second home of the Chinese. Here they are to conquer a vast new territory. They will not conquer it by force of arms. There is little danger—perhaps no danger at all—that within the present century China will become an aggressive nation, building fleets and raising armies to overcome this district and wrest it from its Dutch, French, German, British, and American rulers. It will be a peaceful conquest, a gentle, unresisted economic invasion. The Chinese conqueror will be an unimaginative laborer without a cent in his pocket or a stone in his hand. He will come solely for a job. But year by year he will come in greater numbers. His will be an economic warfare, a competition for lands, mines, trade, investment. He will be competing with men who do not much want these things, who take life easily as it comes, who are content to live and die as their forefathers did, without fussiness or effort. Back of the Chinese emigrant, pushing him out and forward, will be the three hundred, or, as it may come to be, the five or eight hundred, millions of Chinese at home. It will be a competition between gentle, lazy, instinctive Malays and a very hardy population schooled to misery and effort. A non-expansive race will be pitted against a race which, though peaceful, has always conquered, and which, though far from missionary, has always imposed its civilization.

The land over which and in which this contest will be fought is one of the future paradises of the world. There are a million square miles of territory in the Malay Archipelago, and some fifty million people. There is plenty of fertile land here. Three of its islands are greater than Great Britain, "and in one of them," says Russel Wallace, "the whole of the British Isles might be set down and they would be surrounded by a sea of forests." The soil is immensely fertile, the temperature high, the rainfall plenteous, so that the rank vegetation and the rapidly growing forests overcome the feeble efforts of the sparse populations, unable to uproot the trees and keep them uprooted. To conquer these lands many millions of industrious workers are necessary: In only one of these islands has this conquest been made—in Java. This island came early under Dutch rule, and as a result of its excellent administration the population rapidly increased in two centuries from 2,000,000 to over 30,000,000. It is still increasing. Today Java, though comprising less than seven per cent of the area of the Dutch East Indies, includes over two-thirds of its population. It has 720 people to the square mile, or more than any country in Europe.

It is in the other Malaysian islands, in those still unpopulated, that a field for Chinese immigration lies wide open. If these islands ultimately attain a density of population as" great as that of Java they will hold 720,000,000 souls instead' of 50,000,000. These islands are yearly becoming more habitable. Under the rule of European and American governments the best methods of colonial administration will be applied, as well as those new systems of combating tropical diseases which have proved so successful in Panama. They lie close to the southern provinces of China, so close that a few dollars will carry a steerage passenger bringing with him his own rice. The Chinese thrives under good government; he spreads as a result of European imperialism, just as in Africa Mohammedanism spreads under the political expansion of the Christian Powers. In the Dutch East Indies, we are told, there are already "1,500,000 Chinese and 300,000 Arabs," and "these are the over-lords of the land; and the Chinese are superior to the Arab traders." "Throughout the length and breadth of Malaysia," writes Dr. Francis Guillemard, "the Chinese has made his way."

Thus the meek inherit the earth, and the non-resisting, unarmed Chinese conquers. How rapid that conquest may be within the present century it would be idle to speculate. But when we remember that before the war over a million Europeans annually came to the United States, to say nothing of Argentine and Brazil, we may gather some idea of the limitless possibilities of emigration from one of the greatest of human reservoirs. It is not impossible or even improbable that another century will find 100,000,000 or even 200,000,000 Chinese in this almost unoccupied territory. As the temperate regions of the world become more and more dependent upon the product of these tropical regions, the field for Chinese immigration, unless it be artificially checked, will grow astoundingly.

At home, too, China seems about to expand. We are constantly speaking of China as an impossibly overcrowded country, and on the basis of her present industrial development she is intolerably overcrowded. In proportion to area and to her still undeveloped natural resources, however, China is far from the limits of possible growth. The eighteen provinces have an estimated population of less than 250 per square mile (perhaps even less than 200), which is far lower than that of Japan, Great Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Massachusetts, or New Jersey. China's vast mineral resources are almost untouched, her railroads and roads are unbuilt, her new industrial system is not yet even sketched. She is on the eve of a stupendous industrial revolution, which will vastly increase her wealth and, probably, her population; will create a middle class, educated according to Western ideals; will bring the north and south into far closer intellectual relations than ever before, and which cannot possibly proceed far without creating a national feeling.

A century hence China at home and China beyond the sea may not improbably consist of a capable, energetic, intelligent, and highly trained population of five or eight or even ten hundreds of millions. With wealth, internal cohesion, and a grip on modern economic and political methods, how can such a nation remain in permanent subjection? What can happen to its conquerors, if conquerors there be, other than to be quietly swallowed up in this measureless yellow sea?

China is enduring, permanent, unconquerable, conquering. As one views the nation one thinks of the words that Montaigne applied to a civil polity, but which can be applied with, even greater force to a living nation. It is, he says, "a mighty and puissant matter, and of very hard and difficult dissolution; it often endureth against mortal and intestine diseases—yea, against the injury of unjust laws, against tyranny, against the ignorance and débordement of magistrates, and against the licentiousness and sedition of the people." The thing which unites a people, which holds it together under oppression and even under prosperity, is tenacious and lasting. And of all things, that which a virile race finds easiest to resist is foreign domination.

Finally, the Chinese have the qualities which make for national perpetuation. They are not a weak people, not a loose-fibered people, not an imitative and pliable people, but strong, stubborn, ultraconservative, excessively self-centered. They are more unimpressionable than the English, more stiff-necked, more immovable. Upon Europeans who live long among them they exert an overpowering cultural pressure. They do not yield, but force others to yield. Nor are they a mere congeries of diverse peoples, like the East Indians, but one people, divided by its spoken tongues, yet united by its written language; divided by its past economic history, yet bound to be united by its present economic development; a nation sufficiently homogeneous racially, sufficiently joined by a powerful and ancient tradition; a people long-viewed, patient non-resistant in the ordinary sense, but more tenaciously resisting in a true sense than perhaps any people in the world. The Chinese official was right—there can be no end to China.

As I proceeded on my way through the darkening streets, through the throngs and throngs of rapidly moving 'rickshaws, there sounded the loud horn of a motor-car in which two Americans were being driven by a clever Chinese chauffeur. The 'rickshaw-men made way for the quickly moving car. They lazily glanced at it and smiled as it passed; then each man looked at the man straight ahead, put down his shoulders, and pulled hard again at his 'rickshaw. The endless procession moved on; the dust-cloud raised by the automobile had disappeared.

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013



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