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 book Oliver 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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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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