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What The Qing Dynasty And Charles Dickens Tell Us About Modern China

Traditional street-art calligraphy
Traditional street-art calligraphy
Wu Li


After Mo Yan won this year’s Nobel Prize for Literature, many Chinese people predicted that this would contribute greatly to the expansion of Chinese culture in the world. I sincerely hope so.

However, in peaceful times the transmission and penetration of a culture are extremely slow. The Italian Jesuit priest, Matteo Ricci (1552-1610), was one of the first Western scholars to speak, read and write classical Chinese. In return for learning Chinese culture, he had to promise not to return home for his entire lifetime and not to take Chinese characters back to the Western world.

In his book, China Notes, he criticized Chinese people as being incapable of rational thinking. So he translated Euclid’s Elements, a mathematical and geometric treatise, with the help of Xu Guangqi, a Ming Dynasty minister and scholar. But as Chen-Ning Franklin Yang, a Chinese-born American physicist and Nobel Prize winner in physics, pointed out: “Unfortunately, though Euclid’s Elements was translated even prior to the birth of Isaac Newton, the book did not make the impact it should have in China for nearly 300 years.”

The impact was made 300 years later, but in a collision of iron and fire.

In 1840, the signature of the Treaty of Nanking, after the First Opium War between the U.K. and the Qing Dynasty, forced China to open five ports for foreign trade. The residents of Canton remained firmly opposed to “the English Barbarians” moving in to their city. The fact that an English wife was allowed to walk side by side with her husband was considered to “corrupt public morals.”

Missionaries also faced stiff resistance from China’s rural society. They could barely penetrate Qing society. They went out dressed neatly in the morning and returned home in the evenings looking like beggars. In the villages people unleashed their dogs on them, children threw stones and women spat at them. The more Chinese people were educated, the less likely they were to talk to a missionary.

The hostility towards the West came to a halt suddenly after China’s defeat by the Eight-Nation Alliance troops, sent to quell the anti-foreign peasant movement, the Boxer Rebellion. After that, everybody was keen to learn what particular tricks these “foreign devils” possessed, which made them so fierce in war. Following this the door was open for the missionaries to introduce China to vaccines, sports, agricultural techniques, Western literature, modern medicine and education.

Of course, China then closed its door again for a long time until the start of the so-called “reforms and opening up” 30 years ago. Nevertheless, I wonder how many Chinese people read foreign literature today and how many secondary schools pupils really understand Euclid’s Elements.

The collision of East and West

Since it is so difficult for culture to flow from one country to the other, even in the politically correct multicultural Western world, it is best to hold a long-term perspective in regards to the expansion of Chinese culture.

The only people who can promote Chinese culture to the rest of the world are the ones who have deeply cultivated their own culture and who are at the same time able to fully grasp Western culture. This is because when one culture meets the other, collision is inevitable.

I once met a successful Chinese psychiatrist in America who is also very knowledgeable in the Chinese classics. “You are such a classical Chinese, how do you enlighten the Americans?” I asked him. “No, that’s not right. When I encounter an American, I’m no longer a Chinese.” And he explained how he becomes a Jew for his Jewish patients, a Catholic for his Catholic patients, or a typical Chinese for his Chinese patients. In short, it is by being culturally empathetic that this psychiatrist can be so convincing.

When Westerners come to China to study, they criticize the current moral decline of Chinese society. They say that it is very different from how they had imagined Chinese culture. Telling them that they are “hurting our feelings,” like the Global Times newspaper does, is quite useless.

Living in times of Twist

This year is the bicentenary of Charles Dickens. In his bookOliver Twist, there is a surgeon who would get his apprentices to scatter orange peels near his clinic so that some pedestrians would slip and get hurt, and then would have to come into his clinic for treatment. It also tells of a parish that sends dying people to another parish in order to save itself the funeral expenses.

The Industrial Revolution led to the fast expansion of cities and cut off people’s ties to their native land. The new management mode was not perfect and the moral hazards were endless. In Dickens’ later works, we read the shocking description of how dirty London’s air was, with soot everywhere.

Today’s China is at the same stage as that of Charles Dickens’ novel. It will take a while for China to go through this period. We also have authors who reflect contemporary China honestly, and we recommend that you read them.

This is not about rejecting foreigners’ criticism. Their words are a warning worth thinking about. Oliver Twist was written at the beginning of Queen Victoria’s rule (1831-1901). By the end of her reign, Great Britain was already characterized by a particularly vigorous brand of morality. The nobility depicted in Dickens’ works were all very literate and moral people with good hearts. In Oliver Twist, they saved the eponymous main character, and urged him to become literate.

Though Dickens didn’t refer to Christian doctrine directly in his literary world, Christian morality occupies an authoritative position. At that time Great Britain had an upper class that was able to guide the society as a whole upwards.

However, China today does not have such a class to act as a social model. The leaders who should have been pulling society up are precisely often the ones with the most decadent lifestyle and the most depraved morality.

The task that we Chinese face of restoring our national culture and traditional morals is a much more arduous one than in Western history. If Chinese culture is to expand, it first has to be rooted profoundly and flourish in its own country.

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