A provincial capital in China, 1910-53

March 14 2014

“The year was 1910. The scene was a provincial capital in the heart of China. The city was over 2,000 years old and was proud of its history and its conservatism. Around it was an ancient wall mounted with obsolete cannon. It was criss-crossed with narrow streets which in the day-time were thronged, were redolent with the odours of opium, night soil, and the frying foods of street vendors, streets which resounded with the cries of the hawkers of various wares and the bearers of sedan chairs, the squeak of ungreased wheelbarrows, the squeal of pigs being carried to market, and the pleas of beggars. As one passed along the streets he could look in upon numerous handicrafts – the making of shoes, the dyeing of cloth, the manufacture of paper money for burning on behalf of the dead, and huge pestles operated by human feet for the hulling of rice. Hidden behind blank walls were the courtyards of the mansions of the rich, some of them with treasures of books and of paintings of old masters. Narrow side alleys led to the crowded tenements of the poor. Trade, handicrafts, and even beggars and thieves were organized by guilds. In the city was the yamen of the provincial governor, representative of the imperial power of distant Peking and of the Confucian state, a set of political institutions under which, with modifications, the Chinese had lived for over two millenniums [sic]. There were Confucian temples, symbolic of the moral and intellectual ideas which had been dominant for twenty centuries and the scene of ceremonial gatherings of the scholar-officials who, nurtured in Confucianism and its exponents and guardians, were the élite who by precept and example set the standards of conduct of the country. Near the heart of the city was an open space which until a few years before [1905] had been occupied by rows of small covered stalls in which were given periodically the highly competitive examinations based upon the Confucian classics through which entrance was had to the coveted ranks of the scholar class and the civil service. At nightfall the gates in the encompassing battlements were closed and the streets were empty. The city then seemed like a vast house, with 200,000 or more inhabitants enclosed within a wall which was about a mile wide and a mile and a half long, in rooms of various sizes separated by narrow halls which echoed to the gong and bamboo drum of the night-watchman as he made his rounds.

“Outside the city were countless graves, some of them dating from before the Christian era. Across the river, on the slopes and at the summit of a mountain were a Buddhist and a Taoist monastery, representative of religions which had long been present in China, the one an importation and a channel of Indian influence, and the other native to China.

“Life went on much as it had for untold generations. Here was a great civilization with a long history, the creation and the possession of a proud people who traditionally had regarded all foreigners as crude barbarians. Here was a world seemingly as apart from the rest of mankind as though it were on a distinct planet. [Several clichés.]

“Yet in that year there were evidences of an invasion from another world. On an island in the river were the houses of consuls of Western Powers, the homes of merchants, and the dwellings of British subjects who were managing the customs service, a system imposed on China from the outside half a century and more earlier. On the river bank were the offices of European and American business firms. British and Japanese steamers connected the city with down-river marts through which flowed the products of the factories of the industrialized Occident and of Japan. Lamps fed by the kerosene refined and imported by foreigners were supplanting older forms of lighting. From time to time foreign gunboats lay in the river as a protection for the invaders. Within the walls were homes, churches, schools, and an incipient hospital and medical and nursing school of Christian missionaries from Europe and America [mainly Protestant at this time], vivid evidence that this other world was already effecting an entrance. To the east and south were the beginnings of cuts and embankments which were designed to carry a railway which would form the path for the iron horse, ‘the fire-wheel wagon’, to form a road for additional penetration. The vacant plot where once had been the examination stalls was mute evidence that the old order had been dealt a mortal blow at its very heart.

“Here was an early stage of a vast revolution, a revolution as great as though men from Mars had forced themselves and their civilization upon the inhabitants of the earth.

“By the 1950’s the revolution had proceeded much further. The crenellated wall had long since disappeared. The railroad had been completed, a trunk line between the north and south, with gateways to the invaders at both ends. New streets had been driven through the city. Electric light, the telephone, and the automobile had appeared. The Confucian monarchy had been abandoned and with its going the local representatives of the central government had shifted again and again. In place of the monarchy there had come what was called a republic, but the Chinese had floundered in their attempts to adopt and adapt institutions and ideals with which they were unfamiliar. Civil war had racked the country. In a prolonged Japanese invasion the battle lines had more than once moved back and forth across the city, leaving much of it a smoking ruin. Rebuilding was rapid, but had not been accomplished when a new and even more revolutionary invasion, that of Communism of the Russian pattern, took possession. In all of these changes the schools shared and through them successive student generations were moulded. Confucianism as the standard of education was swept into the dustbin and its passing created a void which for a growing minority was filled by Christianity, but which left the majority empty and dissatisfied, potential converts to the dogmatic ideology of Communism. Social customs, including the relations between the sexes and marriage, were kaleidoscopic. The river still ran and opposite loomed the familiar hills, but had those returned who had known the city only in 1910 they would have been left breathless and bewildered […].”


Kenneth Scott Latourette was one of those American missionaries (Baptist) and later taught at Yale. This is the opening of his A History of Modern China, Pelican, 1954, the first volume in The Pelican History of the World, a series of national histories that was abandoned. Some volumes detached themselves from it and remained in print on their own or never got into it. As far as I can see, it contained only this and (for those who like old Pelicans)

RB Nye and JB Morpurgo, A History of the United States, 2 volumes, 1955

Alfred CobbanA History of Modern France, 3 volumes, 1957, 1961, 1965

Keith Sinclair, A History of New Zealand, 1959 and

William C Atkinson, A History of Spain and Portugal, 1960.

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