CHINA HERITAGE QUARTERLY China Heritage Project, The Australian National University ISSN 1833-8461
No. 25, March 2011


Book Review - China: A Short Cultural History | China Heritage Quarterly

Book Review

Edward Ainger

China: A Short Cultural History, by C.P. Fitzgerald, London: The Cresset Press, 1935. Pp.615

The following book review by Edward Ainger was originally published in T'ien Hsia Monthly 2, no.5, (May, 1936): 508-510.

The educated Englishman's knowledge of Chinese history is generally vague: he has looked at maps of China and thinks of that country as an Empire which fell into decay until it was replaced by the Chinese Republic in 1911. He may remember from his school days that the Romans conducted a trade in silk with the Seres and that Columbus discovered America in an attempt to find a new sea route to China, but that is probably the limit of his knowledge. Mr. Fitzgerald's book should do much to open the eyes of Western readers to the great political and cultural achievements of China. There would seem little reason for his apology in offering a new history of China and Chinese culture to English readers.

His book is well produced and the illustrations are excellent: the text is so arranged that the main cultural achievements of each period of Chinese history fall into their proper place, after he has described the political events from which they took their origin. The author has not neglected the effect of economics on questions of both politics and culture, and several interesting chapters are devoted to this subject.

The chapters on the political expansion of China during the Han Dynasty are of great interest. They show the far reaching economic effects, which arise from political actions. The Emperor Wu of the Han Dynasty had been in conflict with the Hsiung Nu on his northern borders for many years. In A.D. 138 he determined to try to make alliances with the Kingdoms to his west in an attempt to weaken their power. After great difficulties his ambassadors met with success and eventually relations were established with the most eastern of the Hellenistic Kingdoms. The Chinese missions reported that these Kingdoms possessed a breed of horse greatly superior to the Mongolian pony used by the Chinese; also that they traded with a very rich country to the South (India)—a country which was extremely difficult of access.

The war against the Hsiung Nu was essentially a cavalry war, and the prospect of obtaining a superior type of mount for the Chinese cavalry must have been one of the main reasons for the westward expansion of Chinese influence and this in turn led to the establishment of the silk trade with Rome. Mr. Fitzgerald makes the interesting suggestion that Chinese silk was paid for by the export of silver bullion, and that the drain of silver was one of the causes of the economic distress of the later Roman Empire.

Another surprising result of the westward expansion was the incorporation of what is now known as South China within the Han Empire. This came about from the wish of the Chinese court to trade with India. They had been informed that the western route was difficult and therefore attempted to find an easier one to the south.

During the 4th century the Hsiung Nu established a Tartar kingdom in the north. These Tartar invaders must have possessed considerable political aptitude. In order to counteract the power of the Confucian scholars they made use of Taoists and Buddhists in their civil service, a fact which is clearly brought out in the following passage. 'The Confucian scholars had for the most part fled south when Loyang fell. Those who remained in the north were not favoured by the invaders, who rightly suspected this class of loyalty to the Chinese Emperor and of hostility to the conquerors. The new sovereign needing the assistance of a literate class found in the Buddhists and Taoists a body of scholarly men who were both trustworthy and loyal.' It would seem that the Tartars must have established some form of stable government if they could win the loyalty of any educated Chinese class: this fact coupled with their political sagacity does not suggest that they can justly be described as 'barbarians' (p. 156). It seems that the author underestimates the contributions which have been made to Chinese politics and culture by the northern tribes and that he is inclined to the view that no good thing can come out of Mongolia.

In the chapters which deal with the T'ang period the author puts forward a very interesting view of the reasons which may have led to the abandonment of the "Land within the passes" as the seat of the administration of the Empire. He states that the quantity of grain required to feed the capital amounted in T'ai Tsung's time to about 10,000 tons a year, while in the time of Ming Huang it had risen to 160,000. The communications with Chang-an were difficult: it is not situated on an open waterway: the transport of grain to the capital was therefore uneconomic and the increased demand of rice for the feeding of the population was one of the main causes which led to provincial discontent and subsequently to the fall of the Dynasty.

Mr. Fitzgerald stresses too the importance of the T'ang System of administration. His statement that 'The real function of the government was not so much the administration of the laws, which were largely customary, but the collection of revenue and the promotion of agriculture on which revenue depended' well sums up the old Chinese idea of government: the fact is too little realized by European historians to whom the efficient administration of law has come to be the criterion by which a government is adjudged to be good or bad.

Even today when China's major economic interests are not exclusively agricultural, this theory of government still holds the field with the majority of thinking Chinese.

By the 12th century the valley of the Yangtse and the southern provinces had become completely Chinese and the division between south and north which persists to this day had already begun to take shape. The northern capital had been moved to K'aifeng and the economic drawbacks of a capital which was difficult of access had disappeared: the new northern capital was however more vulnerable in a military sense, and from now on the holding of the Shanhaikwan pass assumes a military importance which it never had in the past. North China has been repeatedly subjected to foreign invasions by forces which were strong in cavalry, but owing to difficulties of terrain these cavalry forces have seldom penetrated to the south of the Yangtse river. As a result the northern Chinese are today of mixed Chinese and northern stocks, while in the south the race is more pure despite some admixture with aboriginal stocks.

The older historians have always regarded the Sung period as one in which Chinese culture was at its zenith and that thereafter decadence set in. This is a view which Mr. Fitzgerald shares, but in discussing this period also he again shows bias against the north. That political conditions were favourable to the existence of a highly cultured and peace-loving state in central and south China was not the work of the Sung Dynasty: it was due rather to the fact that on the south and west there were no neighbours powerful enough to attack it. The danger of invasion was from the north, and here the Kin Empire acted as a buffer until the time of the Mongol invasion. The Kin Empire was not a barbaric state: it too produced its painters, poets and philosophers.

Mr. Fitzgerald regards the Mongol conquest as an unmitigated curse and suggests that the invasions cost the lives of 50 million people in China alone and that the country was largely ruined. These statements are hardly borne out by Marco Polo's descriptions of his travels in South China, nor by his account of the Mongol administration, of which the personnel was largely Chinese.

From the Ming Dynasty onwards one of the main political problems has been the latent opposition between the north and the south of China. From the time of the Sung Dynasty the south had gradually come to be the richer half of the Empire and the quick-minded intellectual southerner had come to feel himself culturally superior to the northerner: he had forgotten the debt which he owed to the more war-like north, whose existence alone had made southern development possible.

The capital of the Ming Dynasty was originally situated at Nanking, a town which was 'easily accessible to tribute boats' and 'ideally situated to govern the most wealthy and populous part of the Empire and was at the same time protected by its situation against sudden raids from the north.' Unfortunately Yung Lo, the 3rd Ming Emperor, moved his capital to Pekin, a site which is a 'natural capital for invading conquerors' from the north to choose, as it is 'in close touch with their home-lands, inside the frontiers of the conquered empire, but not engulfed in the centre of a hostile population', but one which is an actual source of danger to a Chinese Dynasty. The Ming Dynasty drew men and treasure from the south to protect the capital and gradually lost touch with the sentiments and needs of the south and west.

The difficulty became even more acute under the Manchus. 'The north was loyal and trusted: the south embittered, rebellious and oppressed.' To maintain the Manchu predominance it was decided that 'one-half of the posts in the civil service should be reserved for Manchus.' 'In consequence the southerners, and in particular the Cantonese, did not obtain the posts to which their ability entitled them.' Finally the south came to feel 'that the Manchu government was an empire run in the interests of the court of Pekin and the neighbouring provinces, but sustained by revenues derived mainly from the south.' Whether this view is a true one or not is in a way beside the point: the fact that it was held by many southern Chinese was one of the main factors which worked against Chinese unity.

The chapters on sea-borne trade and the Taiping rebellion are well worthy of study. They show clearly the difficulties and misunderstandings which have arisen in the past and which still exist today: the main cause has been the difference between the cultural bases of the east and of the west, but most of all it is due to a lack of knowledge of history, a lack which it may he hoped this book will do something to fill.

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