CHINA HERITAGE QUARTERLY China Heritage Project, The Australian National University ISSN 1833-8461
Nos. 30/31, June/September 2012


On Race | China Heritage Quarterly

On Race

An Anthropological View on China's Troubles

Quentin Pan 潘光旦

This article appeared in The China Critic, I:3 (14 June 1928): 53-56.—The Editor

Every thoughtful Chinese has time and again asked himself: What is after all the root of Chinas national troubles? How are we to account in the simplest terms for the chronic state of affairs including famine, war, pestilence, ignorance, and almost every other thing that characterizes a disorganized country? Granting that there are many factors responsible for the state of affairs that we have been witnessing for the last few decades, we would still like to know if there is any single factor to which we can point as the most vital of all. To this there have been of course many answers or attempts at answering. If we have enough time and, what is more important, enough patience to make an inductive study of these answers, so amply furnished by modern facilities for free discussion and publicity, we shall surely land upon three or four issues of great moment. They are:

  1. The lack of a unified central government.
  2. Poverty and extremely low standard of living among the masses.
  3. Ignorance of the masses due to illiteracy and a general deficiency in educational facilities.
  4. The interrupting and disrupting influences of foreign imperialism.

In short, the factors responsible for China's stagnation and disorder are economic, political, and educational. This is indeed so obvious as to be platitudinous. But when we go further to inquire which one of these three or four factors is the most fundamental, we are at once confronted with great difficulty. We shall be forced in the end to abide by the inconclusive answer that either none of these is fundamental or all of them are.

But for those of us who do not have a general grasp of the situation and who are perhaps biased by profession and training, the choice as to this most underlying factor is easily made. In a round-table of professional men, which is a common thing today, the discussion, true to the style of the gathering, may be overheard something like this, with Mr A evidently leading:

A: Why is China such an invalid for years?

B: The cause is to be found in the absence of a stable government.

A: But how is it that such a government is not yet formed, we started on the task some two decades ago?

C: I believe it is only because the people are not prepared for it. We need to educate the people first. A democracy without education is one built on sands.

A: But we have certainly modernized our education, in method as well as in spirit, it seems strange that we have as yet done little towards raising the level of intelligence of the masses.

D: You gentlemen forget something more important. Think of the poverty, nay, the utter destitution of the masses. We in the professions do not seem to realize that the majority of our people are living below what the economist would call subsistence level; in plainer language, they are starving. You cannot expect to make citizens our of empty-stomachs, much less would you ask them to come in for culture, for ideals of constructive statesmanship! It is impossible.

A: This is all very well. But for decades we have been eagerly industrializing our country, and besides, there are other reconstructive measures for alleviating the economic status of the people. Yet we must admit that the situation is no better. I am afraid there must be other factors that condition in a very unfavorable way our economic development …

E: May I interrupt you? I just want to point out the factors that are limiting our economic development. I refer to the imperialistic policies on the part of other countries. Consider their grip upon our tariff system, not to speak of other evils fostered by unequal treaties, nor indeed the secret roles some of them play in trying to keep up indefinitely our civil wars, for unification would mean the end to their exploitations.

A: I am not quite sure whether the factors I referred to a moment ago correspond exactly with yours. Even granting your point of view, I doubt if we are on enough solid ground for some real constructive work.

B: As most of the gentlemen have spoken, may I come back at this point? Mr E has not only thrown all the faults on others, true to the spirit of our people!, but has also mistaken cause for effect and effect for cause. The absence of a stable government, I insist, is at the root of all evils including foreign aggrandizement, nay, it invites it. The presence of [unclear—Ed.]ine??? will easily cast off all yokes imposed upon us from without. We should profit by the experience of Japan.

So the discussion comes back to the point where it started. A vicious circle! Many a round-table discussion today is precisely so circumscribed in its outlook that no conclusion can ever be reached.

But any one of us who is so unfortunate as to find himself in a vicious circle will soon begin to suspect the adequacy of the arguments which make up the circle. Arguments that are sound form a series which may be visualized as a ladder, where one step leads to another in logical sequence, and not as a circle where any step may be recurring. So viewed, the factors alleged to be responsible for China's difficulties may not be real factors at all, but effects of some common factor or factors which are yet to be found. The state of affairs may now be visualized, to use another geometric figure, as a cone, of which the gentlemen of the round-table saw only thecircumference of the base, but not the vertex.

Fig.1 Quentin Pan (潘光旦, 1899-1967), The China Critic's stalwart book reviewer and leading commentator on race and eugenics.

Now what is this vertex or vertices? To those among us who have watched the development of the doctrine of evolution, especially that phase of it which deals with man and his culture, the answer readily suggests itself. Without going so far as to remind ourselves of the hierarchy of sciences formulated by the French philosopher and sociologist Comte, or indeed, for that matter, the now well-established truism that social and cultural evolution must be preceded by and based upon organic and geographical evolution, we see that even common sense does not permit us to think that social and cultural life stands or falls entirely by its own merit. Quite on the contrary, culture, in all its phases has doubtless a physical basis. In the first place, it is necessarily conditioned by the geographical environment to which a people adapt itself, and in the second, by the hereditary qualities with which they are by nature endowed.

This is essentially the anthropological viewpoint. From such a viewpoint the whole problem is seen in a very different light and setting. Has our physical environment deteriorated during the historical period? Has there been any appreciable impoverishment of our hereditary constitution as a result of adverse natural and social selection? Or, while our hereditary qualities have remained constant, may it not be possible that the process of modernization has been so sudden and in so large a scale that we find ourselves for the time being unequal to the task? We are admittedly in a state of mal-adjustment, but how much of it is directly traceable to environmental and biological shortcomings? There are the questions now in order.

We may begin answering by a short survey of China's present day population, both in its quantitative and qualitative aspects. We have as yet practically no vital statistics, but it is generally believed by competent judges that our population has not been increasing for the last hundred years or so, if it has not actually decreased. Professor East, in his Mankind at the Crossroad, estimated that our annual natural increase cannot exceed 3 per 1000, and more probably less than 3, may be from 1.5 to 0. This is a very poor showing, poorer than all European and American countries, not even excluding France which is also characterized by an extremely low natural increase.

Now increase or decrease in numbers is immaterial, were it not for the fact that it helps to indicate the general vitality of a people. Upon this is based the so-called 'Vital Index' of Professor Raymond Pearl of Johns Hopkins University, which is simply the ratio of the birthrate to the deathrate multiplied by 100. Thus an index of 100 means merely sustaining vitality, one exceeding 100 indicates increased vitality and brighter prospect for survival, while one less that 100 spells degeneracy and forebodes slow but sure extinction, if the index keeps on growing smaller. Now what is the vital index for China? We do not know; we have no natality and mortality statistics to calculate from. Professor East's estimate of 0-3 per 1000 would suggest an index of 100-100.3. But according to Sweeney, another student of population from Johns Hopkins, calculated indices from Hong Kong, Penang, the Strait Settlements, and other regions in and around Malaysia where Chinese immigrants constitute the bulk of the population are much below 50; and Hong Kong holds the world's record in having an index as low as 10. Such low indices cannot of course be taken at their face values, as the Chinese population in these outlying regions is characterized by considerable mobility and perhaps a good many confinements are made to take place in China in cases where there are still old homesteads. But we cannot help suspecting that there has been a decided downward trend in the general vitality of at least one section of our population, which, be it remembered, is from the economic point of view one of the best sections that we possess.

The leads us to a more specific consideration of the qualitative side of the Chinese people. On the purely physical aspect the Chinese is well known for his general stamina, which includes such traits as the adaptability to almost all climactic conditions, the ability to stand hardships and long hours of labor, and the resistance to some of the diseases to which members of other races may easily succumb. But observations of this kind are largely based upon Chinese emigrants who constitute a rather selected lot and may not be representative of the whole racial group. Medical and physiological researches in recent years seem to show that the Chinese is characterized by a lower metabolic rather and lower blood tensions than the European or American due to qualitative differences in internal glandular secretions. The significance of these is not yet quite known. Low blood pressure, according to Alfred Frielander, is a symptom of an abnormal bodily state, rather than a disease itself; although it seems to be clearly established that in many persons it may be compatible with perfect health.

On the mental side the evidence is equally inconclusive, although there are statements from authorities which call for anxiety. Let us take the matter of intelligence, which is not generally believed to be inherent and hence heritable. Both general intelligence and the specific types of intelligence, or special talents or aptitudes, are of course at the root of all efflorescence known as progressive culture, and their presence in abundance forms the greatest asset that people may covet. It is often asserted, though with little inductive evidence, that the apparent inability of the Chinese to adapt himself to modern cultural conditions may prove to be inherent, that is, due to a rather low level of general intelligence. His failure to make, or sluggishness, as compared with Japan, in making any important contributions to modern scientific progress perhaps points to the same thing. It has also been suggested that the Chinese as a race is less variable than the European, or less polymorphic, as the late Professor Bateson of Cambridge would call it. He is perhaps deficient in mathematics. 'Mathematics has not been the strong point of the Chinese', says Professor East, commenting upon our defective population figures. All these, as I said, are no more than casual observations to which we cannot attach very much importance.

Better scientific conclusions come from the results of mental tests. Those based upon the Binet-Simon type of tests seem to show that the Chinese is at least as competent as members from any other racial group. But at least one piece of research, based upon what is known as the Maze Test by Professor S.D. Porteus, formerly of the University of Hawaii, concludes quite differently. This test proposes to measure 'progressive adaptability,' that is, intelligence largely in its constructive and creative aspects and not merely learning capacity; and if true, would prove more useful to our present discussion, which professes to be a study of the mal-adaptation of the Chinese due to inherent reasons. Permit me to quote a few lines from Professor Porteus ('Temperament and Mentality in Maturity, Sex and Race', Journal of Applied Psychology):

Despite the fact that the Japanese boys were below the Chinese in Stanford-Binet level, in the maze they were markedly superior to the Chinese at every age from ten years onwards… . The Japanese girls ... were ahead of the Chinese girls. Hence we can state that as regards tests of development involving the capacities of persistent effort, resistance to suggestibility, mental alertness and power to inhibit nervousness and emotion, the Japanese are considerably superior to the Chinese… . The superiority of the Japanese over the Chinese is all the more marked because of their inferior standing in the tests of learning capacity.(p.70-72)

It is difficult to believe that the differences in progress made during the last fifty years by the Japanese and Chinese are not due to actual differences in the racial intelligence of the two peoples.(p.59)

All these conclusions, favorable or unfavorable, were based upon tests taken among isolated groups of Oriental children in Hawaii and along the Pacific Coast of America, and we may be justified in doubting their general applicability to the Chinese or Japanese people as a whole. Yet is must be admitted that evidences of this kind, incomplete though they be, cannot but call for our most thoughtful concern.

There remains the temperamental aspect of our constitution. This will inevitably be the weakest part of our discussion, as scientific generalizations relative to this aspect are almost wholly wanting. But there are a few traits which are of such common occurrence that they may be considered quite typical. The Chinese, true to his phlegmatic make-up, is often reserved, introspective, and when issues come along, he is very ready to compromise—a trait which the Anglo-Saxon can understand only with difficulty, notwithstanding Mr. Morley's book to the contrary. The Chinese of earlier generations were often credited with magnanimity and tolerance, but these seem to be passing and in their place are now found selfishness and inability to see other men's points of view. These are especially reflected in our economic life. Professor Huntington says of us in The Character of Races:

Economy and thrift are virtues, but they easily pass into parsimony and selfishness. Now selfishness and self-centeredness, which perhaps are the same, are among the most regrettable qualities of the Chinese. And they too, like a strong physique and the spirit of rigid economy, seem to have become inherent in the race, ingrained equalities innate in the germ plasm.

Now some of the traits touched upon are generally taken as virtues. But when the same are accentuated unduly, they soon assume the character of vices. Thus thrift easily passes into miserliness, and tolerance may end in indifference to weal or woe, in the deadening of the sense of values, which accounts for easy compromise, and in the extreme, it ends in apathy, which is actually what we find among many Chinese today, irrespective of degrees of education attainment.

Assuming the general truthfulness of our very brief survey of both the quantitative and qualitative aspects of China's population, we have for certain greater cause for concern than for contentment. We are evidently on the debited side of the account. We are now being weighed in the scale of intensive national and cultural struggles and are found wanting. The late Dr Yen Fu, the translator of Huxley's Evolution and Ethics recognized years ago the plight we are in, and will be remembered as being the first to sound a bugle of alarm to arouse us from a state of apathy and muddle-headedness. I beg to translate a short passage from a letter to his friend:

Nobody in these days is actually free from the woes that you referred to in your last letter. Extreme egalitarianism and unbridled liberty bordering upon licence may be likened to cyclones on the sea. They of course cannot last long, but meanwhile incalculable damages have already been wrought. These are cataclysmic days; a bad heredity from within and rapid social and cultural changes from without have so conspired to produce the state of affairs that I wonder if it might have been at all preventable. Had it been so, we would have fain spared ourselves much of our effort in expostulation.

Yet it must be noted that it is here where we witness the principle of natural selection at work. When expurgation has played its role, we may again hope to rise on our feet. Westerners have often intimated that the Chinese race will ultimately rehabilitate itself, but before rehabilitation is possible, they say, it must purge itself of all its hereditary wretchedness and evil practices which are but expressions of a partially wretched heredity.

Much of what Dr Yen said is of course not quite up-to-date. Now we know we are not entirely at the mercy of natural selection, and we know further that natural selection may not always do good, and as a point of fact, it has affected more harm than good in the development of the Chinese people during the historical period.

This naturally leads us to look for the forces, natural as well as cultural, that have brought the Chinese people to the present impasse.

The Chinese must have been a very study and able race to begin with, as students of race evolution, including Dixon, Taylor and Huntington, have amply testified. 'We hate to admit,' says Professor Huntington, 'that potentially they [the Chinese and others] may be the better people, but both Taylor and Dixon agree that our present seeming racial superiority is only an accident.' As the present superiority of the white people, especially the Nordics, is largely due to favorable geographical environment, according to Taylor, and to happy racial mixture, according to Dixon, and to chastising but loving natural selection, according to Huntington, it would seem logical for us to infer that the reverse of these factors, or any one or two of them, is responsible for the present lagging behind of the Chinese race.

In the first place it is to be observed that North China is characterized by an increasingly dry climate due to the southerly shift of the desert. Now a dry climate usually means alternate periods of droughts and famines, for there will be torrential rains when the protracted state of desiccation finally breaks. It is here where we must seek the very root of China's sorrows, including the proverbial one of the Yellow River, for such climactic conditions can only result in periodical famines due either to too much rain or too little.

In the wake of famines comes severed struggle for existence and more rigorous natural elimination and selection. As far as physical stamina is concerned, every famine perhaps leaves the population afflicted sturdier and healthier. But when mental resourcefulness is taken into account, we are not so sure whether selection has done its job with our human sense of values in view. The villagers in regions in the north chronically affected by famines seem to exhibit a sluggishness of perception nowhere found in the south. 'An investigation during a recent famine', relates Professor Huntington, to whom we must be very much indebted for a thorough discussion of this topic, 'made it seem probable that the people of these villages are as a whole subnormal mentally. They are little more than morons, apparently.' Judging from my own observation, I do not think this statement is at all overdrawn; underfeeding and malnutrition have certainly done their share, but they cannot explain all.

Along with changes in physical and mental character, there comes a shirting of emphasis upon qualities which we call moral. Over-population in fat years, scarcity for lean years, and straight famines have necessitated a policy of constantly providing for the rainy day, which typifies all households in regions so afflicted. Here adverse selection is again active, for it is obvious that the family which consistently denies itself in order to lay aside a surplus and another which consistently extract a percentage from everything that passes through their hands, regardless of ownership or value, is far more likely to survive than those who spend freely or show the spirit of altruism and sacrifice. Selection under such circumstances puts a heavy burden upon public-spiritedness, just as it does, mentally, upon sensibility and alertness.

But the loss to the north amounts to much more when we take into account the repeated migrations to the south of individuals who are more far-sighted and who are too sensitive to remain and lead a wretched life under famished conditions, and also the selling of more intelligent and good-looking girls to the cities. All these sap the vitality of the rural districts in the north, and consequently that of the urban centres as well.

But depletion in the north through selective migration has perhaps enriched the south. It certainly has. But let it be noted that such migrations have not confined themselves entirely to Chinese territory, the most adventurous families have kept on streaming southward to Malaysia and Polynesia, where, in spite of their economic successes, they do not seem to maintain themselves biologically, as their vital indices strongly suggest. And that means, they are being lost to the race forever.

When we come to the social and cultural forces that have shaped us, we are perhaps upon happier grounds. The Chinese people, until very recently, were characterized by two institutions of far-reaching social and, less obviously, racial importance. The first was the system of national examinations selecting and grading presumably all the able and intelligent individuals of the country. It was a system that not only provided for political and cultural leadership, which is manifest, but also insured the survival and advancement of the best blood lines in the country, which was a greater contribution than merely furnishing leaders, which any system of civil service may do and is doing. The other was the family system. The great permanence of Chinese family life was not only responsible for the stability and order in our social life in the relative absence of legal and religious restrictions, but also for the conservation and development of many great families, which represent some of the most valuable strains of the race.

I believed that until very recent years it was these cultural forces that offset to a certain extent the ill effects of an adverse natural selection. But since our coming into contact with the West and as a result of our changing cultural ideals, not only have these social forces as institutions lost their hold upon us, but the sound principles they represent and the spirit they embody are being rapidly relegated to oblivion.

Thus we may be convinced that our racial prospect is not particularly bright. Adverse natural selection is of course going to remain, but the social and cultural agencies that have helped us to ward off its sinister influences are going. They leave us divested of all protection. What are we to do? The preceding paragraphs aim only to show, in a very sketchy way, the present biological or anthropological status of our people and the forces that have brought it to pass. To change the status, to better it, and to restore the pristine qualities that had been ours before adverse selection did its ravages is the problem that is facing us today. A problem of this magnitude defies any simple solution, and I do not propose to offer one for the present occasion.