The Tradition of China Watching

Watching China Watching (IV)

Here we introduced an excerpt from The Tradition and Prototypes of the China-Watcher, a George E. Morrison Lecture presented by Lo Hui-min in 1976. As editor of East Asian History — a position I had taken up at Hui-min’s insistence — I had the pleasure of reproducing the lecture in the pages of that journal in 1996 (see East Asian History, vol.11 (June 1996): 91-110). The full text is available online (see below).


Lo Hui-min (駱惠敏, 1925-2006) was a noted historian of late-Qing and Republican China.

Coming from a family of ten brothers and sisters, he spent most of his first years in a village near Quanzhou, Fujian province, receiving his first education from a teacher especially hired by the extended family to teach its younger members. After his mother died (early 1930s), his elder brother took him to Malaya and sent him to Singapore to be educated at a Seventh Day Adventist school there. During China’s War Against Japan (1937-1945), he went secretly back to China through Hanoi, hoping to help in China’s war effort, and ended up in Chiang Kai-shek’s wartime capital Chongqing in southwest China. He got the chance to go to Yenching University, and it was there he acquired his lifelong and intense love of history in general and China’s modern history in particular.

After graduating he worked for a time as a journalist in Manchuria (Northeast China) in the years leading up to the victory of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in 1949. Under the command of their famous military leader and strategist Lin Biao (1907-1971), the CCP won their earliest major victories in Manchuria, capturing the whole region by the end of 1948. Lo Hui-min was strongly supportive of Lin Biao, and his family still has photographs of the two together. Lo remained left wing in his political views all his life, but did not join the CCP nor wish to live in the People’s Republic.

He went back to Singapore, but because he organized a workers’ strike on the ship, he was arrested on arrival. His elder brother bailed him out, but insisted on his leaving Singapore immediately and paid for him to go to London and undertake further university work in Britain. He did his PhD at the University of Cambridge on Sino-European diplomatic history in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. His supervisor there was the distinguished Sinologist Victor Purcell and he obtained the degree in 1953.

Failing to obtain residency in Britain, he taught for a year in Germany, and then decided to take up an offer of appointment at the Australian National University, which he did in 1963. The then head of the Department of Far Eastern History was the highly distinguished Professor C.P. FitzGerald (1902-1992), Lo Hui-min’s chief mentor at this stage of his life, and among several very good friends in Canberra made through his period in Cambridge. Lo Hui-min lived virtually the whole of the rest of his life in Canberra. His main contribution to knowledge was his research on George Ernest Morrison (1862-1920). An Australian who lived, worked and travelled widely in China almost all the second half of his life, Morrison was from 1897 to 1912 the China correspondent for The Times; his name was adopted for the Australian National University’s — and Australia’s — most prestigious series of China-focused lectures: the George Ernest Morrison Lectures in Ethnology. Morrison left hundreds of boxes and bundles of correspondence, diaries and memoranda, which were housed in Sydney’s Mitchell Library. C.P. FitzGerald knew of these ‘Morrison Papers’ and it was he who suggested that Lo Hui-min work on them.

In 1976, the Cambridge University Press published two large volumes of The Correspondence of G.E. Morrison, edited by Lo Hui-min, with extensive comments on the correspondence by Lo. What was remarkable about these letters was the fact that Morrison was closely involved in China’s history and corresponded with so many others also involved. In other words, Lo’s contribution was to modern Chinese history, as well as to the study of Morrison. But, as Lo himself points out, the foreign British view was only one of many points of view. Morrison knew an enormous amount about China, he believed himself — indeed was — sympathetic to China. But the correspondence is essentially Morrison’s views and those of his correspondents: Western figures take a more central role and the Chinese generally a much more peripheral one than would be the case in a Chinese source.

Lo Hui-min intended to follow up this study with further books based on the Morrison Papers, especially the diaries. He made a considerable amount of progress in this project, especially work on the diaries, but for various reasons never completed it. This was a matter of intense disappointment to Lo Hui-min and a great loss to the study of modern China and of Morrison, indeed to the humanities in general.

Adapted from the eulogy composed for the
Australian Academy of Humanities
at the time of Lo Hui-min’s passing


I am forever grateful to Lo Hui-min for his enthusiastic support for my work in the 1980s and 1990s. He played a crucial role in the early years of my academic career at The Australian National University, as well as being a constant interlocutor, a learned scholar with the best instincts of a journalist, someone who was always willing to discuss — and debate — Chinese affairs, as well as being a tireless guide through the world of fakes, fabulists and forgeries.

Hui-min’s work on Ku Hung-ming 辜鴻銘, also published by East Asian History (and its predecessor, Papers on Far Eastern History), is unique, as is his delightful (and hopefully) final debunking of The Ching-shan Diary 景善日記, a forgery lauded by the international media over a century ago as being:

worth its weight in brilliants. Once immersed in illuminating revelations the reader loses his own insight, or to speak more correctly, his own foreign obliquity of vision respecting things native, to gain that of a high-placed Manchu official, the Pepys of Peking.

For those familiar with the more recent The Tiananmen Papers controversy, Hui-min’s study is like a bracing tonic.

— Geremie R. Barmé
Editor, China Heritage
11 January 2018


Further Reading:

Watching China Watching:


The European in the Far East is normally engrossed in the business of commerce or religion. The pursuit distracts him or arrests him at the lowest intellectual level.

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, 1923
quoted by Lo Hui-min

The Tradition and Prototypes of the China-Watcher

Lo Hui-min 駱惠敏


Selected from the Thirty-seventh George Ernest Morrison Lecture in Ethnology,
delivered at The Aus­tralian National University on the 27th of October 1976


I do not know when or why the term ‘China-watcher’ acquired an unsav­ory connotation. Any critical observer of the contemporary scene indulging in drawing comparisons with the past and foretelling the future — to my mind, what China-watching is all about is bound to be controversial at times, and even suffer for it. The derogatory overtones that came to be associated with the term ‘China-watcher’ may, however, also be due to a certain resentment felt by some at what they consider to be the undeserved influence exercised by these observers, an influence often quite disproportionate to their know­ledge and understanding of their subject. Be that as it may, it is unques­tionably true that, just as popular music or the popular press (whose currency rarely denotes quality) nevertheless exert an influence often deep and wide­ spread, the same can be said of the pronouncements of China-watchers. Such a perception may have prompted the reported remark made by an American soon after the outbreak of the Pacific War, that the two greatest disasters suffered in recent times by the United States in Asia were Pearl Harbour and Pearl Buck!

But Pearl Buck is merely one of the more popular writers who, among countless others, has helped to mould the image of China. While physical and cultural distance confer on them an objectivity and detachment rarely achieved by the Chinese themselves, including those living under foreign jurisdiction, by the same token they suffer, perhaps inevitably, from the habit of judging China by their own standards. “The Chinese mode of shaking hands is peculiar and, I cannot help thinking, characteristic,” an English writer observed as late as 1868. “Instead of grasping heartily each man his brother’s hand, after our Anglo-Saxon fashion, the Celestial shakes his own.” Such an observation, though trivial, was typical. Nowhere was this attitude of foreign observers more clearly manifest than when they came to evaluate Chinese culture, which was alien to them. The more extreme simply dismissed it as puerile, and to justify their preconception set out to interpret and reconstruct Chinese civilization, supporting their prejudices and intolerance with half-truths, and making up for their ignorance and lack of understanding with rationalization or simple fabrication.

This task, this cultural ‘white man’s burden’, inextricably bound up with its political counterpart, fell in the early stages on the shoulders of Protestant missionaries. That the missionaries should have taken upon themselves the task of interpreting China stemmed as much from their evangelical zeal as from their being on the whole better educated and more articulate than most Westerners in China. This partly explains why Western pronouncements on China and Chinese culture were so often made by missionaries, and why, when Chinese studies were introduced into universities in England, America and elsewhere, more often than not it was missionaries or men with missionary backgrounds who came to occupy the chairs of learning — thus obtaining for China-watching an academic respectability.

Then there were those with lesser pretensions, who felt urged to say something about the China they had visited, not unlike those of the present day who go to the People’s Republic on organized tours. The more enter­prising of these, quite rightly realizing that the story that “Chinese dogs also bite” would not go down well, dwelt on the seemingly strange phenomena which, in their attempt to convey them as such, became stranger still. This, what may be described as ‘tourist lore’, has a long tradition going back to before the time of Marco Polo. It received a sudden impetus with the so-called ‘opening of China’, and reached its zenith some time after China’s defeat by Japan in 1895 when the affluent bourgeoisie took to emulating the educational grand tour of the aristocratic youth of an earlier age, and included China in their itinerary. They went in the then somewhat revolutionary pedagogical belief that educational excellence could best be obtained by experiencing the bad as well as the good, and that their own spiritual purity could be more rigorously tested by having some acquaintance with those whom the American traveller and author, Bayard Taylor, had described as “morally the most debased people on earth, whose very touch is pollution.” No count or people seemed capable of exciting the same curiosity or fantasy as China, and the tourist lore only added to, rather than diminished, the mystery. It was precisely to exploit this bud­ ding thirst for curiosity and fantasy that such works as the Travels of Sir John Mandeville, more than five centuries earlier, were invented.

As distinct from the tourist lore of occasional observers, the professionalization of China­ watching is of quite a recent date. It may be difficult for people living in the present China­ watching-industrial era to imagine that in earlier times such watching was done by amateurs — people, that is, with other jobs to do, such as missionaries, traders and consular officials, who took to part­ time watching only as the need arose from their work. The professionalization of this activity came about from the belief that China needed to be watched with more vigilance than amateurs hitherto had the time or inclination for.

That this belief should suddenly have gained currency half a century after the formal opening of China and after nearly a full century of Protestant missionary residence can partly be explained by the fact that foreigners went to China to do certain work, but not to live among the Chinese. In fact, the importance of keeping these two-Chinese and foreigner-apart was recog­nized early on, long before the words “East is East and West is West, and never the twain shall meet” were uttered. The fear that the two might meet was best expressed in 1863 by Louis Mallet, who said: “The paramount difficulty and danger to be avoided in our dealings with China is all unneces­sary contact between British traders and the natives.” This difficulty was overcome and the danger averted by the setting up of foreign settlements, or concessions, in the so-called Treaty Ports, within which foreigners lived in racial and cultural purity and immune from Chinese influence, in a strictly defined imperium in imperio, buttressed by extraterritoriality which put them beyond the arm of Chinese law. But although it was generally agreed that the Chinese, like their civilization, had never changed and would never do so, change was nevertheless thrust upon them, and to foreigners peeping out from behind their barbed-wire barricades, the immutable inscrutability with which the Chinese met these thrusts aroused suspicion and alarm.

China Under the Empress Dowager (1910), cover

It was paradoxical, therefore, that the professionalization of China­ watching should have occurred when China, plummeting to the rock-bottom of her national fortunes following her defeat by Japan in 1895, became the “sick man of Asia,” as Lord Salisbury described her, reeling from what many at the time diagnosed as an incurable disease. This diagnosis coincided with the time when the term “Yellow Peril” came into great vogue, a term coined by an Australian to describe an episode in the middle — or should I say, medieval-period of Australian history, which my audience here knows only too well and which, in any event, I have neither the time nor the required delicacy to deal with. What with the image of the “sick man” and clamours of “Yellow Peril,” there arose at that time a popular fear that every Chinese was a carrier of infectious jaundice. Many cartoons survive to testify to the general panic during this rather unhappy phase of medico-political history. But the military threat from an enfeebled China implicit in the term Yellow Peril, which the German Emperor William II had helped to make famous, was a contradiction which historians have up to now neither comprehended nor explained, though Valentine Chirol, Foreign Editor of The Times and the chief moulder of British public opinion on China, attempted an explanation at the time. Translating the medical and political technicality into words more easily understood by men of an industrial age, he wrote in a letter to Baron von Holstein of the German Foreign Office that although he was “strongly impres­sed with the utter worthlessness of China as a positive factor in the political equation of the Far East, as a negative factor she may have her own uses, like any stone which may drive an express train off the line if placed in the proper position.” To extend his metaphor further, Morrison, who was appointed soon afterwards as the Times correspondent to Peking, was intended as some kind of railway guard to keep a watch on China to make sure that she did not get into such a position as to derail the express train of imperialism which was then heading for the heartland of China with gathering speed.


J.O.P. Bland, a caricature by Hayter

It is not to Morrison, however, but to his one-time friend and later enemy, J. O. P. Bland, that the latter-day professional China-watchers must trace their ancestry. I obviously cannot hope to cover in a few words the fifty-year meta­morphosis of a career sustaining and sustained by a consistent anti-Chinese ideology, but as Voltaire said of Rousseau, “never was such a cleverness used in the design of making us all stupid,” or, as Bertrand Russell said of Bernard Shaw, “He could defend any idea, however silly, so cleverly as to make those who did not accept it look like fools.” Having achieved prominence through making a forgery, jointly with Sir Edmund Backhouse, into one of the most frequently quoted sources on modern Chinese history,[The Ching-Shan Diary] Bland went on for the next thirty-five years turning out plausible half-truths, building up his reputation as a relentless campaigner against China. Unlike Ernest Bramah’s Kai Lung books or Danny Kaye’s mimicking of the Chinese language, which aim simply to amuse and sound so delightfully familiar and convincing without using a ‘real’ fact or syllable, Bland endeavoured to generate contempt and hatred, and succeeded. Intensifying his campaign against China as his enmity increased towards Morrison (who, incidentally, was the first person to expose the notorious “Ching-shan Diary” forgery), he went on to the furthest lengths to spite the Chinese by espousing the cause of China’s then enemy, Japan. As an uncompromising critic, first of the Manchu regime, then of Yuan Shih-k’ai’s Peking Government, then of the Kuomintang that followed it, and finally of the Chinese Communists, he alone could boast the remarkable claim of having been applauded and quoted in succession by the very people who had been ousted by the regime he was attacking, as well as by the next aspirant to the seat of power. Bland represents the peak of China-watching, which he crowned in 1932 with his most violent testament, China, the Pity of It.

But China and the Chinese, the object of his solicitations, overtook him and left him behind, and his impassioned outburst, as it turned out, signalled the dead-end of China-watching. His followers and less gifted imitators since have merely traced and retraced the same old steps in an intellectual vicious circle, endeavouring to get a glimpse of the China from which they draw further and further away, lost in the mists of the very myth they help to perpetuate. To understand the process that brought to this unhappy end what was at its inception a praiseworthy enough effort — that of understanding China — let us try to see, if briefly, how it all started.