wo men stand on the tarmac of the aerodrome at Kunming waiting for a third, arriving from Chengtu. One is Long Yun, Governor and warlord of Yunnan province. The other, contemplating his companion, sees Long as someone "who is, and looks, a heavy-opium smoker." Long is a Lolo, a people from the Northeast of the province, short-of-stature but big enough as warlord to prevent the third man from taking over his province. The third man, the one flying to Kunming, is Chiang Kai-Shek. It is April 1936.
This second man is an Anglo-Irishman, James (Shaemas) O'Gorman Anderson of the Chinese Maritime Customs. When his eyes turn from Long to his own situation, they see not the spotless sky and bright sun in which he and Long are standing, nor even the umbrellas held by underlings to shade them from it. He sees clouds.
"This Carry on! posture has become ridiculous! The CMC's glory days are long gone. Our foreigner-run bureaucracy used to labor for the holder of the Mandate of Heaven, not only collecting customs duties on the very active trade between the West and China, but running the postal service, managing harbours and waterways, weather reporting, catching smugglers (my specialty), overseeing loan negotiations, currency reform, and financial and economic management. Among other things! Like diplomatic affairs, for example. I remember that when I started it was so simple. We supervised collection of the money and gave it to the emperor or empress. Our bosses walked over to the throne room when they wanted to get things done. We provided 1/3 of China's national revenues, for God's sake. But the Ch'ing fell: all hell broke loose. Warlords everywhere! It was said then that the writ of Peking no longer ran much beyond the city walls. Indeed, on some occasions not even to the city walls, as when the mandarins found themselves short trying to pay the local police and had to get us to find silver shekels and deliver bags of them to the police stations. Now we have to take actual delivery of customs taxes ourselves, rather than using Chinese intermediaries. Then we deliver these taxes in turn to an international banking consortium in Shanghai in order to vouchsafe China's credit rating. Then Sun Yat-sen demands that, for his area around Canton, he take over control of revenues. Instead, the treaty powers send fifteen naval vessels to put an end to that idea! In comes Maze, my boss. Carry on! 1929, and Chiang consolidates control. For a while a semblance of the old imperial system. True, no more foreigners hired at CMC, but those already there can stay until we retire. Increasingly few are we. Then the Japanese, like a plague of locusts. Occupy Manchuria and trouble our ports. Demand our silver. Incredible things happen. Like that time Stella and I were in Nanning and warlords were bombing each other -- bombs falling everywhere! -- and one warlord calls up and wants to play tennis and have tea! Now who do we deal with? Take Long Yun here. He's got all the opium and tobacco in the world, plus a private army of 100,000. His own silver currency, for Christ's sake. He's just humoring Chiang, waiting to greet him. And what am I doing here? Carry on!"
Perhaps that wasn't precisely Shaemus's interior dialogue, but possibly it is not far off the mark. At any rate, his career (and his plight) are compellingly retold by his son Perry, conceived (as he says) in China, educated in England, a professor at UCLA: "An Anglo-Irishman in China," published in The London Review of Books and then collected in Perry Anderson, Spectrum (2005). There are some Yunnan connections, indeed Perry’s brother, Benedict, was born in Kunming. The following short summary tries to do the account justice, but the original is peerless, and readers are hereby encouraged to seek it out.
Why had Shaemus come to China, journeying there during the very days when the First World War was breaking out, just age 21? Perry explains:
After a year as a classical exhibitioner in Cambridge, neglecting or scorning his curriculum, he had failed his first-years exams. Outraged by this nonchalance, his father, a martinet, refused to let him sit them again, cutting off financial support. His uncle, another and more senior general, who had once commanded the garrison in Hong Kong, no doubt recommended him for service in the Maritime Customs. Academic grief was actuarial good luck. Gazetted into his future employment just before the outbreak of war, and issued with an 'outfit allowance' of £100, he was contractually bound to five years’ service in China. Unable to secure his release to participate in the slaughter in Europe, he escaped the fate of his younger brother, the apple of his parents' eye, killed in the last months of fighting. This death finished off his father. He had punished the wrong son.
CMC had its origins in the multiple political and social earthquakes the Ch'ing dynasty was subjected to in the mid-19th Century: Opium Wars, Taiping Rebellion, the "opening up" to the outside world and the imposition of a "Treaty system" and the foreign-manned customs service. Foreign-manned but largely loyal to the Ch'ing rather than to the home country. Thus British and French could work side by side with German in the CMC even as their compatriots were slaughtering each other at Verdun, at least until the final stages of the war. Robert Hart, the Ulsterman who was the first Inspector General of CMC had been pressured into becoming British ambassador to China but had refused. Why give up power?
Despite that Robert Hart had died three years earlier, as had China's last dynasty, Shaemus's career at CMC started out on a traditional trajectory. To wet his feet, he is first assigned to northern Hunan province in the center of China. In one of his letters home he notes that 15,000 troops under the command of the then most powerful warlord in the country were also assigned there and that if you went out at night there was a chance a soldier might mistake you for an infiltrator and shoot you dead. Nine months later he is in far northern Mukden, starting one year of intensive training in Chinese, training which continues in one form or another for a further nine years. When the year is up he is sent to Ningpo, a port city along China's central coast. From there to Peking and CMC headquarters. Soon after arriving, a warlord with visions of restoring the fallen Ch'ing dynasty seizes the city and has to be attacked and expelled by rival warlords. "There are bullet holes in our office windows." Somehow the CMC gains from all this conflict, controlling even larger sums, negotiating with the diplomatic corps, and "taking over the government banks practically." In 1920, Shaemus transfers to Chungking, years later China's capital in the war with Japan and still later (as Chongqing) site of the downfall of Bo Xilai and his Maoist revivalism. (Continual transferring of personnel was CMC's way of preventing local attachments interfering with orders from HQ). In 1920, the city is contested by forces from the home province and those from Yunnan. Civil war, and trade is at a standstill. Shaemus is visited by three lady friends from Peking, one of whom, the wife of an Embassy official, he is having an affair with. One of the ladies she brings along with her, Stella Benson, falls in love with Shaemus. More than one conflict taking place in Chungking.
1921 and he sails for home on leave and ends up marrying Stella. They motor across America on honeymoon, then return to Ireland in the middle of a civil war. Chungking at home. Off to China the "day after Collins met retribution in Cork," as son Perry puts it. Sent to Yunnan, to Mengtze, just above the border with Vietnam.
Yunnan, famous for its natural beauty and hospitable climate, was a province of China whose remoteness and ethnic diversity made its warlords virtually independent rulers. . . . There for two years, the young couple lived in a long adobe house 'on high stone foundations with a curling Chinese roof gaily painted underneath in faded blues and oranges and crimsons' . . . Stella fell violently out of love, my father into hurt brooding."
Shaemus is called to Shanghai, while Stella heads back to England. Sun Yat-sen is cohering his power base in southern China, calling in Soviet advisers.
At this juncture, just as my father left Shanghai, British sepoys in the city fired point-blank into a Chinese crowd demonstrating for the release of students held in a British police station. The massacre of 30 May 1925 set the country alight. A general strike was declared in Shanghai; anti-British rioting erupted and spread to other cities. Three weeks later, a major demonstration against the unequal treaties in Canton met with an Anglo-French fusillade that left many more casualties.
Shaemus is then reassigned to the part of China closest to Vladivostok and on the border with Korea, an area where Japanese expansionism is being exercised through the local warlord, the "Old Marshall." Cross-border trade is active; Stella rejoins him, writing a novel about the experience of being there. Despite the cold, things get hot. Chiang Kai-shek launches his Northern Expedition in 1926 to suppress warlords not yet in his control; various surtaxes are imposed by various imposers; disputes arise over who collects what and where the dough goes. The Japanese warn Shaemus that "Korean thugs" (their name, presumably, for any Korean seeking independence from Japan) are out to kill him, though he is in fact fine with Korean independence. "Machine guns titupped about the streets" Stella writes in her diary. An uncertain calm follows, but leave in Europe is welcomed by our heroes. While they are gone, Chiang completes his Expedition, massacres his former Communist allies in Shanghai, and proclaims a unified national government headquartered in his home city, Nanking. The Japanese blow the Old Marshall up as his train heads back to Mukden.
Carry on! Riding on the Trans-Siberian Railroad back to China, Shaemus worries on the fact that the head of the CMC has changed, that HQ is now Shanghai, and that a doctor has just told him he can never father children. He is assigned to Kwangsi province-- right in the middle of it all!
. . . a backward region along the Indochinese border with a large minority of Thai origin. Its leading generals, Li Tsung-jen [Li Zongren] and Pai Chung-his [Bai Zhongxi], had been more prominent in the actual fighting on the Northern Expedition than Chiang himself, ending it in control of a vast area that for a time included Hankow and Peking. . . . In early 1929, however, Chiang suddenly gained the upper hand over the "Kwangsi Clique', expelling them from the KMT and driving them into exile in Hong Kong.
Yet Nanning, Kwangsi's capital, refreshes both Shaemus and his love of China. He has a house on a river bank looking across to clumps of bamboo and water buffaloes, Chinese washing clothes, junks sailing along; his garden has hibiscus, frangipani, camellia, bougainvillea, tamarisk and various fragrant flowers. Crosswinds continue to blow, however. Twenty-five-year-old Teng Hsiao-p'ing (later Deng Xiaoping) infiltrates troops into Kwangsi via Vietnam and manages to set up a soviet, and all that entails, on the border with Yunnan. The group of left-wing KMT officers Chiang had mistakenly used to replace the Kwangsi Clique prematurely launches a rebellion. The Kwangsi Clique is called back from exile to deal with them, and with Teng. It is at this point that the warlord request for tennis and tea occurs. The only way out of this is transfer -- and this time it is to Hong Kong. "With a morphine-addicted Swedish subordinate in extremis on board, my father and Stella set off in a motor launch, escorted by a gunboat dispatched by the Kwangsi generals." The five-day journey is like a dream, a dream with waterfalls and gibbons. They stop the night at a hamlet. Stella, incredibly, is brought a telegram from her London publishers.
Carry on! In Hong Kong, after Stella leaves, Shaemus falls into another turmoil, this one between the Brits who control the colony and his CMC masters who are insistent to maintain that although they are British they work for China, not for Britain. Smuggling provides some relief, not the dirty deed itself but the suppression of same by vigorously commanding small gunboats patrolling round the island. In 1931, the Japanese invade Manchuria. They make a stab at Shanghai, too, but have less success there. Shaemus is sent to Hainan, "China's Hawaii," though it is just off the southern coast of the mainland rather than in the middle of the Pacific. He is sent there because of the smuggling problem and because of his recent expertise in dealing with that. Stella makes her way back to China but falls ill.
In the autumn they went to Tonkin, where he had Customs business. She stayed on after he went back for a few days in the Baie d'Along, famous for the allure of its mountainous islets. There she caught a last pneumonia, and died. My father buried her on an island in the bay.
The Long March begins. Back in London, Shaemus meets a woman twelve-years his junior. He eventually proposes; they wed that fall. (This is the mother of Perry Anderson and his brother Benedict; so much for the doctor who told Shaemus he was infertile.) The couple arrives in Kunming in February 1936, a time when a portion of those making the Long March are marching through Yunnan, a situation serious enough that Chiang Kai-shek travels down to Kunming to meet with Long Yun. This is why Shaemus is standing on the tarmac at the aerodrome that day in April brooding over the CMC.
His work isn't going well, either. He is continually frustrated by local Yunnan authorities in his attempts to collect customs revenues and put down smugglers. He believes Chiang has brought China under centralized command, but it is beginning to dawn how false that is. Still he likes Kunming, "one of the most charming places in China."
Set on a high plateau, under massive russet walls, pierced by four ornamental gates, and surrounded by hills covered with camellia and fruit-blossom. The Liang river flowing past my father's office ran down to Lake Dian just south of the city, from whose western shore rose the steep-escarpment of the Hsi Shan: temples and shrines on the mountain-side, sampans and islands in the water below. . . . fetes champệtres in the hills, midnight swimming in the lake . . . children's parties in the garden, wives of the Governor or his cousin for tea.
But the war with Japan begins. Chiang again demonstrates his military incompetence, throwing his divisions against the Japanese at Shanghai "in a botched assault that was eventually cut to pieces with a quarter of a million Chinese casualties, and headlong retreat to Nanking." Somewhat later, the intellectuals at the two leading universities in Peking and those at Tientsin, fleeing the war zone, set up shop at the new "associated university" in Kunming. Long Yun, remarkably, does not clamp down their free discussion, unlike Chiang who demands that all toe the party line.
Before the university forms, Shaemus is off to the treaty port city of Swatow (now Shantou), where his anti-smuggling efforts assume military proportions. Japanese destroyers lie just off the harbor in preparation for an eventual takeover. From Swatow to Wuchow. The Japanese seize more and more territory -- they demand that CMC revenues henceforth be deposited in a bank in Yokohama and that CMC hire Japanese. Since the former would create strains with Britain and the US, CMC's Inspector General is able to substitute a Hong Kong bank for the one in Yokohama and to go slow on the hiring. But then the Japanese capture Canton and are then in control of 90% of revenue. CMC must meet expenses by asking for Japanese reimbursement. "Still legally a servant of the Chinese government in Chungking, the Inspectorate-General was now dependent on the remittances of a government at war with it." Carry on!
Shaemus is eventually sent to Lungchow, on the border with Vietnam. Goods and supplies bound for the Nationalist government are pouring through the little town, taxed at increasing rates by that same government. Japanese bombs are falling. Shaemus has to take cover in caves. Son Perry points out that this all has an effect on his father, hitherto predominantly a company man, but now sharing the experiences of the nation the company serves:
The resourcefulness of ordinary Chinese, their extraordinary ability in time of war 'to get ten litres out of a litre bottle' made a deep impression on him, and he became correspondingly more caustic about the authorities set over them.
The Japanese land troops in Vietnam who march north through the border to capture the provincial capital in early 1941 and cut off this route of support for the Nationalist government. (Hello, Flying Tigers and the Hump). Tiny Lungchow is repeatedly bombed from air and sea, for no apparent reason. Shaemus heads for Shanghai, where the I.G., Maze, gives him a desk job and a place to live in the International Settlement, surrounded though it is by Japanese troops and warships.
In April, twelve months leave came due. Maze, reluctant to let staff go, tempted him with Tientsin, the second largest port in the country. My mother put her foot down. Europe was out of reach. We sailed in the President Coolidge for San Francisco.
he Anglo-Irish Shaemus Anderson came to China from England in 1914, a failed scholar lucky to have gotten a job even if it was on the other side of the world. The American John King Fairbank came to China from England in 1932, Harvard summa cum laude and then a Rhodes scholar at Oxford. Anderson’s story is told by his son, Perry; Fairbank wrote his memoirs, Chinabound. One connection between the two men, who never met, was that Anderson worked for Chinese Maritime Customs and Fairbank anchored his long academic career writing about it. Anderson died at age 53; Fairbank lived to be 84.
Fairbank remembers his first sighting of China’s capital:
Approaching Peking by rail across the brown winter plain in 1932 still had the emotional impact it had during the five hundred years since the city walls were built. For Peking until the 1960s was the world’s most populous walled city. Granted Nanking had a bigger wall, but it lacked the setting on a plain. the crenellations, on top of the forty-foot façade, the regular row of bastions jutting out two bow shots apart, the sheer visual length of the walls, four miles on a side punctuated by corner towers and nine tall gates in the Northern (‘Tartar’) City, five miles by two-and-a-half with seven gates in the Southern (‘Chinese’) City – all this display of square, man-made strength rose clean from the plain, as yet hardly cluttered by suburbs. There was no other site like it in the world.
Fairbank, like the other two men profiled in this chapter, had no connection to China before he decided to go. He was not the son of missionaries, not brought up in the Middle Kingdom. His grandfather, he tells us, was a Congregational Minister, one who moved on from one small town in the Midwest to another when his sermons grew stale. But his father “quietly broke free of organized religion. After reading the Bible through every year, my father concluded that he had got the Christian message and had received enough spiritual guidance to last for his lifetime.” His father graduated from Illinois College in Jacksonville, Illinois and became a lawyer in South Dakota. His mother, who had “the greatest influence” on the future professor, was the daughter of Quakers originally from Virginia and was delayed in her education by the depression of 1893. But she entered the University of Chicago in 1899, age twenty-five, where she specialized in literature and speech. She lived to be 105.
The idea of making the study of China his profession had been suggested to him by a British professor at Harvard as relatively virgin academic soil. Professor Fairbank took this and ran with it, eventually becoming without doubt the foremost expert on China in the United States of his time, an honor which entailed a certain glory but one which also provided him a certain amount of tsuris during the McCarthy Loss-of-China Period.
He stayed in Peking until 1936, marrying there Wilma Cannon, who was the daughter of a famous Harvard physiologist; Wilma became a historian of Chinese art. The couple returned to Cambridge, MA so that he could take up a teaching position in the new field of Area Studies at Harvard. He was called to Washington, DC the summer before Pearl Harbor because the US was in the earliest stages of setting up its spy agency, the Office of Strategic Services, and it needed experts to feed it information about China and Japan (which had been at war since 1937). Actually, the OSS was not formally created until a year later, but the office of the Coordinator of Information, for which Fairbank came to town, was headed by the same man, William Donovan, who became head of OSS. After about a year in DC, Fairbank went back to China, landing in Kunming in September 1942.
Here are the stops (many of which are overnights) on his flight there, which originated in Miami on August 21: Puerto Rico - Trinidad - Belem - Recife - Ascension Island - Accra - Lagos - Kano [overnight at Maiduguri] - Khartoum - Cairo - Basra - Karachi - New Delhi - train to Allahabad military base - Assam - (over the Hump to) Kunming, arriving September 20. Most of this was on the late and lamented airline, Pan Am, which flew twin-engined prop planes, DC-3s: no cabin pressure, no AC, no heat. Welcome aboard!
He only stayed in Kunming for about five days, though long enough for him to be depressed and angry about how both the Chinese and US governments were failing to provide resources to the wartime university, Lianda, set up there from fleeing faculties driven out when Japanese troops took over Peking and Tientsin.
On September 25 he flew on to Chungking, the wartime capital, where he stayed until December of 1943 and where he joined a number of the other masters whose books I try to honor here. Fairbank’s stay in Chungking is notable for his observations about the people there, but he was, despite working for the OSS, not a spy -- really an information gatherer, one who succeeded in getting information flowing both ways, including to those professors in Kunming who wanted to keep current academically.
Fairbank’s memoir, Chinabound, is certainly a masterpiece of sorts, and he wrote a number of other books in the masterpiece class. But I focus on him here because just one of these was my first introduction to the history of China in the 19th and 20th century. I still remember finding it in a bookstore in Hong Kong and the great enjoyment I had in finding out a lot about the place to which I returned regularly. For more on Fairbank himself, there is an interesting short account in Jonathan Spence’s Chinese Roundabout (1992), which also includes a brief review of the following book.
The December 1st Movement, the commemoration of the 60th Anniversary of which I attended, is featured in The Great Chinese Revolution 1800-1985 by John King Fairbank (1987), a book which still today makes a wonderful and absorbing introduction to modern Chinese history. Any country lucky enough to have a survey this good done of its history over this period is a lucky country indeed.
Aside from virtues like insight, comprehensiveness, useful concepts, clarity, and a vastly interesting story, the book is deliciously funny. Items: ~ River dikes "were mended by engineers so competent that they could use comparatively vast imperial allocations of funds to build dikes that would look good enough but last only a few years.” ~ "The Son of Heaven, even when stupid, like that late Ming emperor who spent his time in carpentry." ~ Missionaries and warlords were not always at loggerheads: one American missionary wife "found the bullets of a warlord besieging the city were hitting the mission residence. She wrote both generals, inside and outside the walls, and they stopped shooting to let the American family squeeze through the city’s north gate for a vacation in the hills." ~ "In the days of John Foster Dulles’ Presbyterian crusade against ‘monolithic atheistic communism "" ~ Mao as a swimmer: "Photos showing his head on top of the water suggested Mao did not use a crawl, sidestroke, backstroke, or breaststroke, but swam instead in his own fashion, standing upright in (not on) the water." ~ The Cultural Revolution: "For intellectuals to clean latrines was not simply a matter of a mop and detergent in a tiled lavatory, even a smelly public one. On the contrary, the cities of a rapidly developing China have both modern and early modern plumbing, but their outskirts as well as the vast countryside have retained the old gravity system. The custom, so admired by ecologists, was to collect the daily accumulation, almost as regular as the action of the tides, for mixture with other organic matter and to develop it through composting to fertilize the fields."
The book is also full of fascinating facts, far too numerous to recount in detail. But some of the riper pears can be plucked from the tree for tasting. For example, there is the juicy figure of Sun Yat-sen, often named the founder of modern China. Sun early on had ideas about how China's government should be reformed, and in 1894 he took one of his long, "rather run-of-the-mill" proposals to Li Hung-chang [Li Hongzhang], China’s first great modernizer, sometimes called the “Bismarck of the East.” But Li was too busy even to see Sun. Sun “turned to revolution.” He organized a secret society and created a front organization, the Agricultural Study Society which used a Christian bookstore. He plotted to have Triad Society (Chinese mafia) fighters put their guns in casks labeled “Portland cement” and then ferry themselves across to Canton from Hong Kong, where they would seize government offices and kill the officials. But the authorities were tipped off and put the ferried fighters (who arrived a day late) in jail. Sun escaped to Japan. He went to London in 1896, where he was tailed, kidnapped, and imprisoned in the Chinese legation at 49 Portland Place for twelve days. The embassy wanted to ship him back to China as a lunatic, but he somehow managed to get a message out to his former Hong Kong medical professor, who alerted Scotland Yard, The Times, and the Foreign Office. This combination of police, press, and diplomacy got him released. All this made Sun famous, and he wrote a popular book, now available online, Kidnapped in London, which begins:
When in 1892 I settled in Macao, a small island near the mouth of the Canton river, to practise medicine, I little dreamt that in four years time I should find myself a prisoner in the Chinese Legation in London, and the unwitting cause of a political sensation which culminated in the active interference of the British Government to procure my release.
One of the most important lessons I learned from Fairbank’s book, though, is how our American (and possibly Euro-American) view of China is wrong, 180 degrees wrong.
We in the West tend to think of China as facing east, looking across the Pacific to the Americas and beyond that to the continent of Europe. This impression is reinforced by the fact that when the European powers, through the Opium War and other wars, succeeded in “opening up” China, it resulted in concessions that created “treaty ports” along the coast that would be used for trading with the outside world. Those ports of course face the ocean, face east.
But the nation of China clearly faces west and has always done so. Chapter 2 of Fairbank's book begins:
The Manchu or Ch’ing dynasty that ruled China from 1644 to 1912 was the climax of a long development of relations between the settled farmers and bureaucrats within the Great Wall and the sometimes expansive and conquering nomadic tribes of the Inner Asian steppe. Chinese foreign politics from the time of the Han dynasty … had been concentrated upon the Inner Asian frontier. Tribal intrusions into the agricultural zone of North China began very early, well before the unification of 221 B.C. The Chinese state thus was born with a frontier problem and developed great skill in dealing with it in any number of ways.
Peking, the Forbidden Palace, the Great Wall – these are all testimony to a viewpoint oriented around the setting rather than the rising sun. One of the best things in the book is how the Manchus, the last of the hordes to appear outside the gates (in this case the northern gates), even though they became conquerors, in fact represented a very, very thin layer on top of Chinese society. They were, nonetheless, able to control the society which they had mastered for two and a half centuries.
One thing they could not control, however, was footbinding. The Qing emperors “many times” issued edicts against this practice, all to no avail. I was already familiar with the details of foot binding from Jung Chang’s Wild Swans. Her beautiful grandmother’s feet were, when a child, broken, mutilated, and bound, and the whole horrible process is well described. But I had not realized the extent and the antiquity of what Fairbank calls this “major erotic invention.” “First and last one may guess that at least a billion Chinese girls during the thousand-year currency of this social custom suffered the agony of footbinding and reaped its rewards of pride and ecstasy, such as they were.” Fairbank has much else of interest to say about this “achievement in Chinese social engineering.” He ends by saying that there are three remarkable things about it: that it was invented at all, that it spread so pervasively and lasted so long, and that “it was certainly ingenious how men trapped women into mutilating themselves for an ostensibly sexual purpose that had the effect of perpetuating male domination.” Fairbank says also, surprisingly, insightfully: “We are just at the beginning of understanding this phenomenon.”
Fairbank is no less enlightening on the imperial examination system, another feature of Chinese history with which it is essential to become acquainted. After telling us that the Han invented bureaucracy when Rome "was still using private individuals to be tax farmers and to handle public works,” he characterizes the system as one which involved “a dozen hurdles in the space of twenty or thirty years.” A boy began at about seven and in six years memorized the Four Books and Five Classics, 431,000 characters. In addition, he had to have a vocabulary of 8,000 to 12,000 characters, which entailed memorizing 200 a day. As for the examinations themselves, a five-day preliminary examination in calligraphy “eliminated the dunces.” Then a three-day prefectural exam which qualified him to take the four-day qualifying examination. There were strict rules about guarantors and teachers, establishing identity, and marking by number rather than name. Cheating was elaborately and effectively suppressed. Every act was monitored:
He was allowed to go to the toilet only once in the day and so kept a chamber pot under his seat. Meanwhile, the examiners were kept sequestered for days on end until the results were worked out. Cannon shots and processions began the ceremony, banquets concluded it, honor accrued to the successful. They had now qualified as licentiates and could compete in the real examination system!
Licentiate status was so desirable that it could be bought, lest “vigorous personalities” destroy the system from the outside. About a third of licentiates had purchased their place, and this was public knowledge. High officials still came up on merit, however.
The real examinations were held first in provincial capitals, then in Peking, and lastly, for the very few survivors, at the Palace. Security precautions for both candidates and examiners were “far beyond Pentagon levels.” All answer sheets were copied over by a corps of copyists, so that examiners never saw the originals, and candidates were identified only by number. 1 in 100 would pass. The men who emerged were about thirty-five years old and had spent nearly every waking day for twenty-five or so years in classical scholarship.
One of Fairbank’s more important themes is how this system was responsible for turning a highly inventive nation into a backward-looking one, one which did not want to know about progress being made in the outside world. No one who had not come through this fantastically difficult system could be respected; no idea which had not been a part of this system could be respected. The system could be corrupted, but it could not be opened up. The entire institution of education in China, moreover, was geared to this system. The West turned more and more to science, but China continued to view the meaning of education in terms of being prepped for the examination.
A key point in all this is that although plenty of rote learning was required that was merely an entrance qualification, even though it required decades to accomplish. The system demanded analytical thinking and intelligent judgment. In 1870, for example, candidates "wrote five papers: (1) on fine points of interpretation in the classics, (2) on organizational details in the twenty-four histories, (3) on the various forms of military colonies, (4) on variation is methods of selecting civil servants, and (5) on details of historical geography." The system changed over the many centuries and a Literary Examination was added, with such features as requiring the composition of sixteen lines of five-syllable verse on "Heart pure as an icy pool," with the rhyme on "heart." Waley provides further insight because Lin was interested in the latest examinations, if only because his own sons were candidates. He records news he received about these in his diary. For example, the latest Palace Examinations had required an essay on the theme that "The gentleman must make his thoughts sincere." The system spread its tentacles widely because, it appears, even mandarins who had made it to the highest level, and served on such things as the Board of Punishments, had examinations set for them. Lin cites a topic set for this Board: "Of all inanimate things, the mirror is the greatest sage."
Those of us just discovering this system, Fairbank leading us ahead, have, I would guess, the same initial impression: how odd it is that a society so elaborately and rigidly hierarchical should be based on something so seemingly fair as a regime of examinations. That only the very rich could enter this competition comes as no great surprise, but a certain flavor of fairness persists, as does its incongruity. The surprise is that fairness becomes a weapon, in a sense, against progress. What starts out as the best way to select new mandarins becomes a system for holding the entire nation back.
A striking irony, to carry this a bit further, is that the British, those very same victors in the Opium Wars because of their advanced technologies, began to suffer from a similar problem, starting at about the time of their triumph. This problem, if not the parallel with China, was brought to my attention by the BBC and its original science historian, James Burke, and revolves around a belief in the unique merits of a "classical education," in Britain's case "classical" meaning Ancient Greece and Rome. More on this in Chapter 10, below.
Although the examination system, or the failure to reform it meaningfully (Li Hongzhang in 1864 proposed unsuccessfully to add topics in science and technology), ultimately choked the imperium to death, another misconception would be that it consisted of pole vaulting events in which he whose praise of the emperor was highest would be inducted into the Hanlin Academy and given room and board in the nation's capital for the rest of his life. In fact, that wasn't the sort of performance the examiners were looking for. Critical thinking was valued, despite the heavy structural impediments of the baguwen ("eight-legged essay"), for example. Indeed, in what might be called the larger national evaluation system which extended to bureaucrats at every level, for they too sat examinations and had their performance assessed, "Criticism of Government measures", as Waley remarks, "both by the official censors and officials in general, was one of the most valued and jealously preserved aspects of Chinese administration." (He adds, however, that those censors and officials often learned about measures too late for criticism to be of any use, a problem not confined to China: "Parliament had no opportunity of expressing a view as to whether England ought to go to war with China until eight months after the war had started." Might other countries have a similar problem even today?)
End of first half of this chapter. Second half forthcoming. See Additional postings
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