Royal Geographical Society (with IBG)
‘Mandarin’s wife and two daughters with bound feet’; from Isabella Bird’s The Yangtze Valley and Beyond
Ever since the Romans imagined an empire of elysian peace at the eastern limit of the world, China has been the repository of Western fantasy and delusion. More than three centuries ago Leibniz marveled at the country’s rumored enlightenment, and Voltaire cited its secular governance as a desirable model for France. For many decades afterward, the image of a willow-patterned realm enshrined in its own past proved quaintly durable.
But with the decline of the Qing dynasty during the nineteenth century this idealized China wore thin. Western disillusion was fed by hearsay and the reports of traders. In 1821 Byron charged China with “the miserable happiness of a stationary and unwarlike mediocrity,” and Emerson soon quipped that the summit of Chinese philosophy and science was how to make tea. Often the country became an object of Western ridicule, perceived as a land of corrupt and insanitary heathens whose once-admired mandarinate had sunk into pedantry.
Crucial to Western perceptions were the two Opium Wars, fought between 1839 and 1860, in which Britain, by a series of coercive pacts, forced open fifteen “treaty ports” to outside trade and settlement, and established the import of opium. Now the whole of China, weakened by civil wars, fell prey to Western merchants, missionaries, and explorers. The Yangtze valley, in particular, was claimed as a British “sphere of influence” in 1898, a claim that thrust deep into the country’s heart.
The Yangtze is the third-longest river in the world. It divides the country from Tibet in the west to the Pacific in the east, creating an imagined boundary between a martial north and a mercantile south. Then as now, its watershed was home to almost one third of China’s population. It was at once their lifeblood and torment, its lower reaches furnishing the country’s rice granary while unleashing catastrophic floods. There was no other river, wrote Pearl Buck, that could equal it for beauty and cruelty.
The tremendous energy with which Shanghai amuses itself during seven months of the year is something phenomenal. It is even a fatigue to contemplate it.
To mention native Shanghai in foreign ears polite [sic] seems scarcely seemly; it brands the speaker as an outside barbarian, a person of “odd tendencies.” It is bad form to show any interest in it and worse to visit it. Few of the lady residents in the settlement have seen it, and both men and women may live in Shanghai for years and leave it without making the acquaintance of their nearest neighbour.
I saw one big junk strike a rock while flying down a rapid and disappear as if she had been blown up, her large crew, at the height of violent effort the moment before, with all its frantic and noisy accompaniments, perishing with her.
It may be that we go forward with “a light heart,” along with other European empires, not hesitating, for the sake of commercial advantages, to break up in the case of a fourth of the human race the most ancient of earth’s existing civilisations, without giving any equivalent.