A Cycle Of Cathay

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The 1850’s were a special case, a peak in the trade relationship. Thereafter America’s Civil War and postwar industrialization turned that nation inward for a while. Yet the new lure of the allegedly limitless China market would fascinate American entrepreneurs from the 1880’s onward. And when that still mythical market seemed about to be closed off in 1899-1900 because of new European incursions into China, Washington pressed for the famous open-door policy so that Americans would not be completely frozen out.

Meanwhile, before and after, American adventurers risked their fortunes in the newly evolving multinational cultures of the treaty ports- most notably Shanghai, near the mouth of the Yangtze River. A modest Chinese town prior to the Opium War, Shanghai had grown by the turn of the century into China’s greatest seaport. Dwarfing the old Chinese city was a French concession of spacious tree-lined boulevards (after World War I the street names would be Avenue Pétain, Avenue Joffre, Avenue Foch). There was also a Japanese concession across Soochow Creek and a thriving International Concession under British domination, with a famous riverfront (called the Bund), parks, Sikh policemen, a racecourse, hotels, department stores, and teeming night life. Shanghai and lesser treaty ports were curious SinoWestern enclaves, utterly alien from traditional and village China.

As it turned out, the fabled China market was never to materialize. American trade with Japan always exceeded the China trade in the twentieth century. But the vision of four hundred million (or five hundred, or six hundred million) customers never lost its hold.

The greatest beneficiary, however, of the new and easier access to China after 1860 was not the merchant community but that other major segment of the American transpacific thrust, the Protestant mission movement.

American hopes for China’s conversion to Christianity had their roots in early nineteenth-century revivalism in New England and New York State. Although individual missionaries, early arrivals at the Canton factories, played a significant role from time to time as interpreters of China back home and as aides to U.S. diplomats abroad, their impact on China remained infinitesimal in terms of converts. By the late iSoo’s and the first three decades of the twentieth century, however, the mission movement had proliferated into a multiple effort to transform Chinese society through education, medicine, and technology as well as the more traditional route of evangelism, all in the course of trying to “win China for Christ.”

In the waning years of the dynasty—back in the “Age of Contempt”—American churchmen had often found the Chinese to be obdurate, vicious, and degenerate as well as simply unreceptive. As even a fairly enlightened mission leader and historian, S. Wells Williams, had written in 1858, “We shall get nothing important out of the Chinese unless we stand in a menacing attitude before them. They would grant nothing unless fear stimulated their sense of justice, for they are among the most craven of people, cruel and selfish as heathenism can make men, so we must be backed by force if we wish them to listen to reason.”

But after 1905, and especially after the revolution of 1911, the missionaries were filled with warm sympathies and high hopes for their Chinese protégés, freed at last from the bonds of Confucianism and ready, it seemed, for Christianity as well as democracy. Such sympathies and hopes were shared, it should be added, by a succession of American statesmen in Washington, from William Howard Taft and Woodrow Wilson right on into the 1940’s. It is ironic that these optimistic predictions flourished against a background of decades of legislation that systematically excluded Chinese from immigration and citizenship.

What is important to the Sino-American relationship is not merely the outlook of missionaries and their considerable impact as trainers, through their schools, colleges, and hospitals, of a new generation of Chinese. What is also important is the role they played—and they were some five thousand strong by the mid-1920’s —as conveyors of images of China to their congregations and countrymen back home. Likewise significant were the views they helped to shape among large groups of Americans who came to believe in China as the most promising field abroad for American altruism and the export of would-be benevolence.

It is therefore hardly surprising that when, in the 1930’s, a Chinese leadership emerged that was republican (at least in form), to some extent Christian (Chiang Kai-shek became a Methodist in 1931), and both antiCommunist and anti-Japanese, it would stimulate those deep-rooted hopes for the American role in China that both traders and missionaries had developed over more than a century of contact.

With the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December, 1941, those hopes of private citizens and nonorficial groups were suddenly transformed into government policy—an open-ended alliance between Washington and the embattled Nationalist wing of the Chinese revolution. But that Nationalist wing, more a faction than a government, was already in deep trouble. And it was to fall victim, before long, to the renewed and invigorated assault of its old Communist rivals.

So trade and religion—gold and God—in all their complex ramifications seem to lie at the root of America’s people-to-people relationship with China.