A review of The Dragon and the Foreign Devils: China and the World, 1100 B.C. to the Present, by Harry G. Gelber

Ocean to the east, mountains to the west, steppe to the north, jungle to the south: no wonder the ancient Chinese felt themselves to be in the middle of everything. At the dawn of Chinese history proper, around 800 B.C., the land regions just outside the borders of the Chinese culture zone were known to be inhabited by peoples more or less distinct from one another: the Qiang, the Di, the Man, the Rong. The linguistic affiliations of these early neighbors of the Chinese, and their connections, if any, to better-known peoples of later ages, are much argued over by ethnologists. Of the world beyond these border tribes, the early Chinese said nothing, though some features of early Chinese civilization—bronze working almost certainly, pictographic writing quite possibly—had been transmitted somehow from West Asia.

Today, 2,800 years later, China is a nation among nations, with seven times the area of that ancient state and a hundred times the population. She has diplomats in every important city, her trade goods are everywhere, and schoolchildren in the West study her language. A Chinese acquaintance of mine likes to boast that there is no spot on the earth’s land surface more than a hundred miles from a Chinese restaurant, and, if we exclude Antarctica, he may well be right.

The path from that ancient isolation to the present state of affairs is the subject of Harry Gelber’s The Dragon and the Foreign Devils. A distinguished historian and author of over a dozen books, Gelber does not dwell much on the ancient and medieval world, getting us to the Ming Dynasty (A.D. 1368-1644) in just 82 pages. I personally thought this a pity, as the foreign contacts of China in the earlier period seem very fascinating to me. This is a matter of taste, though, and the author cannot fairly be faulted for his own preference. He is covering a vast topic, so selection is inevitable.

Trading relations between China and the West go back ages. Silk threads from China have been found in the Nile region, dating to around 1000 B.C. The kingdoms that Alexander left in present-day Afghanistan traded steadily with China, and even introduced Greek elements into Chinese Buddhist iconography. The Romans certainly knew of China. Horace rather optimistically includes the “Seres” with the Danubians, the Getae, and the “faithless Parthians,” as a people who would not dare to break the laws of Augustus. The elder Pliny noted their standoffish nature towards foreigners: “Like savages, the Seres shun the company of others and wait for traders to seek them out.” This was not always the case, though. The Chinese of that period probed westward, certainly as far as the Caspian, perhaps all the way to the Black Sea, with the purpose of policing the Silk Route.

Trade aside, some of the early cultural contacts were momentous for China. Perhaps most important, they brought Buddhism from India in the 2nd century, profoundly and permanently influencing Chinese society and thought. The Abrahamic religions came in, too, some centuries later, though their impact was much lighter. Muslim missionaries showed up in the 7th century, and were allowed to build a mosque. Nestorian Christianity (a heresy teaching that Jesus existed as both a man and as the divine Son of God, rather than as a unified person) arrived at about the same time: Guo Ziyi, a great general of the 8th century, was likely a Christian. A Jewish synagogue was built in Kaifeng (East-Central China) in 1163, though Gelber seems to place this event much earlier.

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Of pre-modern contacts, the best-known ones from the outside world were the travels in China of the Venetian Polo family. Marco Polo’s book Description of the World (1298) was the main source of Western knowledge of China for 200 years, in spite of the fact that Polo did not mention chopsticks, tea drinking, foot binding, or the Great Wall. Some scholars—most recently Frances Wood in her 1995 book, Did Marco Polo Go to China?—have doubted that Polo went to China at all. Gelber expresses somewhat milder skepticism, noting only that Polo seems to have exaggerated the position he held under China’s Mongol rulers.

Of China’s excursions to the world beyond, the seven voyages of the “eunuch admiral” Zheng He, between 1405 and 1433, are most famous. As Gelber notes, they were stronger on drama than real importance: “The journeys were no more than diplomatic and flag-showing exercises, in areas where the Chinese empire had no serious political or strategic interests and from which it could foresee no threats.”

It was in the 16th century that Europe came to China in real numbers. The Portuguese were first, a boatload of sailors making landfall in 1513 at the mouth of the Pearl River. The Chinese authorities looked on these early arrivals as pirates and “Barbarians of the Southern Sea.” By 1535, however, the Portuguese had bribed their way to a permanent settlement, and soon they were monopolizing foreign trade in the area. Other European powers were close behind. In 1596 Elizabeth I of England wrote a letter, in her excellent Latin, to the Chinese emperor. (He did not respond.) Along with traders came the Cross: the Jesuits soon established themselves—Matteo Ricci in 1583 and Adam Schall in 1622 being the best known. China’s modern engagement with the West was under way.

The Ming dynasty was at this point on its last legs. In 1644 it was swept away by Manchus, a Siberian people from beyond the Great Wall to the northeast. This was just as the Russians were beginning to settle Siberia in real numbers—50,000 by the end of the 1650s, the author tells us. In a particularly interesting chapter, “Manchus and Russians,” Gelber gives a detailed account of the Russian and Chinese maneuverings that ended with the 1689 Treaty of Nerchinsk, “which largely regulated Russo-Chinese relations for the next century and a half.” In the longer perspective of history, this was not so much an end as a beginning—the beginning of the violent and tangled modern history of northeast Asia, where still today China, Korea, Japan, and Russia glare uneasily at each other across gray seas and frigid mountain ranges.

By 1700 Europeans and Chinese were beginning to form clear images of each other. The images were oddly asymmetrical. European thinkers were well-disposed towards China, admiring the meritocratic system of imperial examinations and the civic morality of Confucianism. The Chinese, by contrast, had still not begun to take Europeans as anything other than “outer barbarians.”

As the 18th century advanced, European attitudes became more ambivalent. The Chinese decorative arts enjoyed their first vogue (“chinoiserie”), and Voltaire was still, in the 1760s, burbling that Chinese religion and morality were “wise, august, free from all superstition and all barbarity.” Closer acquaintance with China had raised doubts in many, though. The visit of British Commodore George Anson in 1743 was a turning point. Anson was ill-treated by the Chinese. He was scathing about them in the account he wrote of his voyage, published in 1748: “in artifice, falsehood and an attachment to all kinds of lucre, many of the Chinese are difficult to be paralleled by any other people.” Anson’s book was widely read and influenced the ideas of many mid-century European intellectuals—Montesquieu, for example, who dismissed China as a despotism ruled by fear. Anson was also contemptuous of China’s military power. This was of no small importance, given the rising confidence of Europeans, and especially of the British, who were consolidating their position in India.

This period of increasing European ambivalence about China, and continuing Chinese condescension to Europe, culminated in the 1793 embassy of Britain’s Lord Macartney to request more liberal trading and diplomatic relations from the 82-year-old Chinese emperor. The mission was a failure, though not, as is commonly believed, only because Macartney refused to perform the kowtow. The Chinese were simply unwilling to take a European nation seriously, or to amend even slightly their customary ways of dealing with outsiders. Macartney, for his part, made some shrewd observations about the cracks beginning to open up in Manchu rule—the “tyranny of a handful of Tartars over more than 300 million of Chinese.”

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By the time the long wars against Napoleon were over and European powers could again direct their attention to China, the decay of the Manchu dynasty was correspondingly further advanced. The Opium War of 1840-43 was the first of the great humiliations inflicted on China by foreign powers in the 19th and 20th centuries. The Chinese are still in denial about that war today, insisting that the sole cause of it was British determination to force opium on an unwilling China. Certainly the British were glad to meet China’s great demand for opium. Why not? The drug was legal in Britain itself, and could be purchased over the counter from apothecaries until the 1868 Pharmacy Act. The true cause of the war was again, as John Quincy Adams noted at the time, the refusal of the imperial court to deal with foreign nations on rational terms.

Thus imperial China’s long death agony began. In 1856-60 there was a second war with Britain, France fighting on Britain’s side. The emperor’s Summer Palace outside Peking was burned to the ground. (“To punish the court while sparing the people,” explained Lord Elgin—a remark you will not see reproduced in any Chinese account of the incident. A victorious Chinese general in Elgin’s position would have burned Peking.)

Soon a new power joined in the looting and humiliation of China. After the Meiji Restoration of 1867, Japan industrialized rapidly. In 1894-95 she fought a short, decisive war with China over Korean independence. In the ensuing treaty, the Japanese acquired key portions of Chinese territory, including Taiwan.

The stage was then set for China’s protracted struggle, throughout the 20th century, to come to terms with modern ways of thinking and behaving. Gelber gives full coverage, taking the consensus position—which in this context seems invariably to mean the Chinese Communist Party’s position—on murky episodes like the 1937 Marco Polo Bridge incident, which sparked the Second Sino-Japanese War, and the 1971 Lin Biao plot, when Mao Zedong’s heir apparent mysteriously disappeared.

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It is not at all clear that the struggle is over yet. In a thoughtful concluding chapter, Gelber warns us against being dazzled by China’s economic success, and by the view, slipping into vogue once again, that history is driven by economics.

It is a view that is full of peril if it ignores the forces of politics and psychology, of pride and ambition, insecurity and fear, of jealousy, of national and group identity and cohesion, which have, in the end, usually been dominant in the affairs of states.

Those are wise words. Gelber has made a good, compelling narrative of this long and complex story, punctuated by a page or two of boxed text now and then to explain some key topic. There is an excellent selection of photographs, a useful bibliography, and some essential maps. If the book has a defect, it is a carelessness with Chinese words and names. The first Han emperor, whose reign title is spelled “Gaozu” in pinyin, “Kao Tsu” in Wade-Giles transcription, appears here as “Gao Su” on page 21, then, fifty pages later, as “Gauzu.” The author seems to think that the Tubo, who were the ancestors of modern Tibetans, and the Tuoba, an Altaic tribe who ran a north Chinese dynasty in A.D. 386-534, are the same people. A handful of other solecisms of this kind are scattered through the text.

These minor blemishes aside, I think Harry Gelber has successfully done what he set out to do, as described in his introduction. He has shown us “the ebb and flow of other states’ and societies’ interest, in the context of their own policies and outlook, in China, as well as of China’s interest or lack of interest in them.”