Tuesday, November 16, 2004

A historical reminder - Engels on China and Persia

/ history / repeating / itself /
Engels on the situation in Persia and China (about which is the following excerpt), writing in the New York Daily Tribune in 1857... Notice also the rhetoric, indicative of how widespread racial stereotypes were at the time... and how dominant the idea of European superiority was. Yet much of what Engels says might reasonably remind people of current colonial wars:

"There is evidently a different spirit among the Chinese now to what they showed in the war of 1840 to '42. Then, the people were quiet; they left the Emperor's soldiers to fight the invaders, and submitted after a defeat with Eastern fatalism to the power of the enemy. But now, at least in the southern provinces, to which the contest has so far been confined, the mass of the people take an active, nay, a fanatical part in the struggle against the foreigners. They poison the bread of the European community at Hong Kong by wholesale, and with the coolest premeditation. (A few loaves have been sent to Liebig for examination. He found large quantities of arsenic pervading all parts of them, showing that it had already been worked into the dough. The dose, however, was so strong that it must have acted as an emetic, and thereby counteracted the effects of the poison). They go with hidden arms on board trading steamers, and, when on the journey, massacre the crew and European passengers and seize the boat.

They kidnap and kill every foreigner within their reach. The very coolies emigrating to foreign countries rise in mutiny, and as if by concert, on board every emigrant ship, and fight for its possession, and, rather than surrender, go down to the bottom with it, or perish in its flames. Even out of China, the Chinese colonists, the most submissive and meek of subjects hitherto, conspire and suddenly rise in nightly insurrection, as at Sarawak; or, as at Singapore, are held down by main force and vigilance only. The piratical policy of the British Government has caused this universal outbreak of all Chinese against all foreigners, and marked it as a war of extermination.

What is an army to do against a people resorting to such means of warfare? Where, how far, is it to penetrate into the enemy's country, how to maintain itself there? Civilizationmongers who throw hot shells on a defenceless city and add rape to murder, may call the system cowardly, barbarous, atrocious; but what matters it to the Chinese if it be only successful? Since the British treat them as barbarians, they cannot deny to them the full benefit of their barbarism. If their kidnappings, surprises, midnight massacres are what we call cowardly, the civilization-mongers should not forget that according to their own showing they could not stand against European means of destruction with their ordinary means of warfare.

In short, instead of moralizing on the horrible atrocities of the Chinese, as the chivalrous English press does, we had better recognize that this is a war pro aris et focis, a popular war for the maintenance of Chinese nationality, with all its overbearing prejudice, stupidity, learned ignorance and pedantic barbarism if you like, but yet a popular war. And in a popular war the means used by the insurgent nation cannot be measured by the commonly recognized rules of regular warfare, nor by any other abstract standard, but by the degree of civilization only attained by that insurgent nation."

See also Engels' book review about the Afghan wars...

1 comment:

talos said...

old comments

Doug Muir:

Putting aside the racism and so forth, there's still a mouth-breathing Yellow Peril aspect to this, which Engels uses to gloss over some unfortunate inaccuracies.

Frex, overseas Chinese were not much affected by Chinese nationalism. (Very broadly speaking, they never have been, excepting a brief period around the turn of the last century.) And Singapore was not "held down by main force and vigilance" in 1857, or indeed at any time under British rule. It was a peaceful (and highly lucrative) trading post.

Presumably Engels is talking about Singapore's decadence and crime. Which was notorious; in the 19th and early 20th century, it was known as Sin-galore. The post-colonial leadership cleaned it up a lot — wiped out the gangs, the drug trade, the human trafficking, and most of the brothels, legalized or wiped out the gambling and the smuggling, and cut crime by something like 98%, to the point where Singapore is safer (and cleaner) than Switzerland. Although there are still a few skiffy bits if you know just where to look. And then of course there's Johor Baru…

…Ahem. Point is, it looks like Engels is (almost certainly deliberately) conflating several completely unrelated things together. He takes Singapore's deserved reputation as a nest of crime, sleaze, and dirty fun, plus a couple of well-publicized episodes of Chinese coolies rioting on dangerous, overcrowded transport ships, plus the completely unrelated Chinese uprising on Sarawak (a protest against Brooke's favoring of the Malays, with no connection to anything happening in China at the time), and he throws it all into the mix as part of the — breathe heavily through mouth, here — /general uprising of the Chinaman!!/

He did that sort of thing a lot, which is why you have to read him really carefully. Though he's a better and more interesting writer than Marx any day of any week of any year, no question. But, well, it's a bit like reading Thomas Friedman. If Engels were alive today, he'd be talking to imaginary taxi drivers all the damn time, I suspect.

Oh yeah: if I were an Iraqi, I would not find this an encouraging analogy, at all. "Hey guys, only eighty more years of foreign occupation!"

Doug M.

2004-11-16 10:51

Heh! one of the nice things about having a blog, is the chance you get to learn stuff from people vastly more knowledgable on various issues than you are… Thanks Doug.

Though, c'mon, Thomas Friedman?! apart from the mixed metaphors, the poor logic etc. the guy is one of the dullest writers in any language (something Engels was not).

Marx on the other hand was less prone to writing about stuff he didn't know… I wouldn't say he was a boring writer though… And he had a sarcastic streak which is still delightful to read.

2004-11-16 12:35
Doug Muir:

Mm, point. As I think about it, the Thomas Friedman analogy would apply to Marx better than Engels. (Hey, they both liked inappropriate metaphors. They both had their thinking permanently kinked by close exposure to revolutionary violence — Marx to Paris 1848-9, Friedman to Lebanon in the '80s. And Friedman /wants/ to have the sarcasm.)

Engels… umm. Young William Safire? Wait, no, I have it: Nicholas Kristof. Bingo. Just without the cute wife.

Or, in the blogosphere: Brad deLong and John Holbo. Yessss.

Doug M.

2004-11-16 13:22