The Lingering Tug of War

Late-modern historians of the 1950s explained the Qing’s tumultuous implosion with examples of internal incompetence and inevitable domination of Western values over a weakening Eastern idealism. Contemporary practitioners, however, have identified a more nuanced reasoning and retrace signals of instability back to a complex diversity of simultaneous external pressures. Bursting population growth, environmental degradation, and abusive foreign bombardment greatly contributed to and accelerated the downturn of the empire. This rounder characterization of nineteenth-century Chinese society is strengthened by first-person perspectives surfaced in excerpts from Travels in Tartary, Thibet and China and Through the Yangste Gorges.

In attempting to abstract learnings, it is important to properly frame and contextualize the nature of each historical artifact. The former novel traces the journey of two French missionaries, Huc (primary author) and Gabet, who were sent to Asia to spread the gospel of Christianity. The pairing narrate their adventurous trek from Beijing to Tibet between 1844 and 1846, logging notes throughout in their journal. While Huc and Gabet venture by land (horses, camels, walking), Archibald John Little, the author of the second piece, recounts his memorable journey of navigating from Shanghai towards Inner Asia via dangerous waterways (1883). Little is an English merchant who can afford to service a crew of boatmen capable of dragging his ship upstream. He later revised his work in 1898, likely editing several details that best aligned with public opinion, and eventually coming to form as a foreigners’ guide of sorts to traveling China.

It is also important to disclaim the limitations of both autobiographical pieces of literature: being published by non-local tourists predisposes the perspectives shared towards the confirmation of Western ideologies of capitalism, values of freedom, and prejudices against the Asian race.

The two stories provide interesting insight into the gradual decline of the Qing. Just two years separated from the end of the First Opium War, Huc’s narration depicts a strong Chinese economic and cultural spirit. His travels are more-or-less across the outskirts of Qing territory, far from most of the Opium War’s Eastern battlegrounds. The setting of Little’s chronicle, forty years ahead, reveals the long-term consequences of the unequal treaties on the socioeconomic conditions of the weakening Chinese state. Unlike missionaries, who were generally well received and had acquired great influence at court in earlier years of the dynasty, Little’s character – an opportunist, capitalistic, foreign merchant – was despised by the elite class of at the time (Huc and Gabet 114). The juxtaposition of the two dialogues provides  contrasting evidence that helps to highlight many of the distinguishing cultural and economic features of Chinese society in the mid to late nineteenth-century.

The Jiaqing Ruler (1796-1820), a conquest emperor of Manchu descent, struggled to maintain uniform control over his expanding empire. Throughout the early 1800s, economic volatility greatly destabilized the vast, yet thin layer of Qing governance. Widespread corruption amongst officials, largely a lingering impact of Heshen’s influence, fragmented political alliances across counties and districts. Little characterizes the tenuous nature of the Chinese government. He recounts a “classic example” of manipulation, sharing a story where, “in typical chinese-fashion, only one messenger was sent [instead of two], this man often takes the pay and then engages some poor tramp to take his place at one-third he pay, he pocketing the difference. This sub-letting of contracts is reduced to a fine art throughout China” (Little 113). Wherever possible, government officials were cheating and abusing the system. This made coordination between National and Local officials incredibly challenging, especially in dealing with minority rebellions as exemplified in the persisting case of the White Lotus Rebellion.

Troubles were exacerbated by growing conflict in several segments of the population including the upper versus lower classes, canal versus sea supporters, and traditional Han versus Manchu leaders. An uncontrollable population, with endless lines of single men roaming the streets, further plagued the fragile region (Huc and Gabet 134). Rapid Qing expansion, especially towards Inner Asia, created controversial grounds for a melting and mixing of peoples. Over time, foreign ethnicities abandoned their native cultures in favor of traditionalist Chinese ways. Huc observed the inhabitants of Western Toumet, saying how they “have completely lost the stamp of their original Mongole character; they have all become, more or less Chinese; many of them do not even know a word of the Mongol language” (Huc and Gabet 118). Huc goes on to say how “it may now be affirmed that Manchou nationality has become irremediably annihilated” (Huc and Gabet 120). The absorption of culture into China created an implicit civil hierarchy that governed norms throughout the empire. Huc’s view, importantly set in 1844, is of generally high-praise to the Chinese people who miraculously converted so many of their conquerors into adopting traditional practices (Huc and Gabet 120). He sees the Chinese as a superior class to many of their adversaries, saying just how “very rare and extraordinary occasions that the Mongols got the better of the Chinese” (Huc and Gabet 145). As Europeans gain power towards the latter half of the century, this point-of-view would likely have shifted dramatically.

Though culpable, one cannot place full blame upon the Jiaqing Emperor for the crumbling of the Qing, as many highly influential factors stemmed from outside of his control. Uniquely harsh environmental conditions, for instance, caused serious, irreversible damage to the economy. Huc comments on how “droughts became almost an annual occurrence, drying up all of the soil, followed by ferocious hail, and finally, lengthy famines, which killed thousands of civilians” (Huc and Gabet, 4-6). Meanwhile, in the South, tremendous flooding of the Yellow and Yangtze Rivers destroyed cities and trade routes. The push-and-pull of nature’s powerful forces were rooted as a focal point of Chinese religious culture. “Nature worship is the only universal religion in China” (Little 90). Both authors dedicate a significant portion of their travel accounts to details of the stunning beauty of their surrounding natural environments. Though in awe, Little recognizes how fortunate he is to have this opportunity, “noting how the stream of European tourists and the inevitable introduction of Western innovations in their train will destroy the old-world charm of the Yang-tse Gorges” (Little 51). Reckless practices of deforestation along the hills and mountains eventually become widespread, and forever alter the lay of China’s natural lands (Little 117).

Foreign intervention and eventual fighting (the Opium Wars) exposed the Qing’s vulnerabilities to the world. This led to a series of unequal treaties (Nanjing, Tianjin, Beijing) which further cemented the West’s stranglehold around the Chinese economy. The resulting clash of cultures created immense conflict between Eastern and Western philosophies. Little’s tour (1882) takes place well into this “Foreign occupation,” as he often comments on the crippling state of the Qing. He sees “unmistakable signs of rapidly progressing decay” everywhere, with “smoke towers that look terribly broken much like all other government owned parts of this decaying country” (Little 59, 91). Little sees the living conditions of cities in China as unsanitary, commenting on how there is no privacy in China whatsoever (Little 144). The locals’ presence can be bothersome to both Huc and Little, who share slight annoyances with the “local guides”, who, by law, are required to monitor foreign travel between cities.

Little is generally pessimistic towards the future welfare of the Chinese people, questioning whether or not the recklessness of the people, combined with the carelessness of the governors, will obliterate the country in coming years. Sharing a sentiment likely common amongst foreigners at the time, he looks down upon the Chinese ethnicity, saying how “there can be no doubt that the chinese possess a much less highly developed organization than do the Caucasian races. They seem nowadays to be quite wanting in the imaginative faculty and have long since ceased to invent anything new” (Little 144). While he sees incompetence in the peasants, who are often dirty and covered in Opium sores, “at least they bring civility” to his interactions (Little 114). In contrast, the upper classes display hostility and frustration. The Literati, he says, “are the worst. This is the class opposed to all progress, which stirs up the otherwise indifferent masses against the foreigner” (Little 114). Little pokes fun at, or at the minimum questions, the naivete of traditionalist Chinese religious values which place immense, seemingly hopeless faith in the spirits of Feng-shui (Little 71).

But Little does not assign fault to any one individual, but rather towards the Chinese system of government. The new foreign tax order, ironically likely to have been imposed by his own British people, has disrupted the taxation economy. While the “unfortunate local Szechuan officials fought as hard as they could to prevent changes,” adaptations to the tax code unfairly compensated the national government and short-changed local funding (Little 87). Impacted by higher order decisions, “these provincial officials, deprived of their prerequisites, their salaries being purely nominal, have to resort to all kinds of oppressive devices to make up their incomes” (Little 87). One such “oppressive device” implemented is a de facto policy of enmity towards foreigners. It is certain, to Little, that “until some arrangement is made more favourable to the local officials, we shall never see mining and other enterprises willingly throw open to foreigners” (Little 89). This aligns with the narrative that slow-moving Chinese systems are inferior to emerging innovations. Little neglects to omit the alternate reality that perhaps, limping without a clear vision forward, China hobbles into the turn of the century largely held down by the oppressive presence of Western culture.

Little’s condescending narrative, placing China below the West, was likely held as popular-belief for several decades after being published. The account resonated with late-modern history and the general theme of Western domination over Eastern economies.

These personal travel accounts, when taken in the context of time, help paint a clearer picture of what really happened to the Qing as they battle immense environmental, economic, and militant pressures.