China is going to partake in shaping our lives in a big way in the future. Despite being the third largest country in the world, China has remained shrouded in mystery, and for several centuries in the past, little was known about it. It was generally thought to be a fabled land, like we find in fairy-tales, hard to get at but still very real. Part of China’s seclusion from the rest of the world was because the Chinese had virtually no interactions with the nations outside its territory, and yet they were the inventors of some of the greatest inventions like papermaking, the compass, gunpowder and printing which changed the face of the earth. In days of antiquity i.e several centuries before the birth of Christ, China had excelled in mechanics, hydraulics and mathematics. Mercantilism was frowned upon in the Confucian system, and since China had its own vey vast land, the Chinese hardly felt the need to go out of their country for livelihood or trade. The Chinese Emperors considered China to be the focus of the heavens, and thus Chinese remained hidden from the rest of the world.
My first anxiety to know more about China came through my readings of Bertrand Russell. Russell, one of the
greatest minds of the 20th century, had visited China on a lecture trip in 1920, staying there for 9 months, visiting many places and people. In this trip, he delivered several lectures and received immense love, adulation and admiration. Despite the fact that Russell’s observations and analyses of China’s cultural, demographic and economic life are nearly a hundred years old, yet it redounds to his incisively brilliant mind that most of what he observed then is not only correct even today, but most of his predictions about China are incredibly true.
Russell’s views of China were very balanced. He looked at the culture with empathy and recounted both the positive and negative characters. In brief, he expressed the hope that the Chinese nation shall reach its full potential if :
1), the supporters of the constitution formulate and call a parliament, establish an orderly government after the cessation of military usurpation and all factions unite under them.
2) instead of the large industries and enterprises remaining in the hands of foreign capitalists, the state should take control over them in its own hands to prevent the growth of the evils of private capitalism.
3) if China has to cultivate a democratic spirit as most Chinese desire, universal education is imperative which is effective for developing political consciousness necessary for a unified nation. Today, all three conditions have been met by them, and therefore China has emerged as the second biggest economy of the world.
It puzzled Russell to find that the Chinese which were about a quarter of the human race in numerical strength, had no adequate physical strength to defend themselves against foreign aggression. He therefore advocated that China should develop its own invincible defense mechanism to survive. If it did so, Russell predicted that in the next two centuries, China would influence the entire world.
Russell found that though politically and economically backward, the Chinese had excelled the Westerners in traditional civilization, by which he meant courtesy, harmony, understatement, tolerance etc. Russell resented that as against the West, Chinese had no lust for domination. He used Chinese civilization to criticize the West. He liked Chinese reformers, whom he hoped would lead the country in a direction ultimately different from the capitalist-imperialist civilization of the West. However, a Communist revolution, Russell thought, would not solve China’s problems. He had visited Russia earlier in 1920 coming to the conclusion that the Bolsheviks, although possessed skills at industrializing a backward nation, were leading Russia towards dictatorship which was bound to be disastrous.
He wrote, “The Chinese nation is the most patient in the world; it thinks of centuries as other nations think of decades. It is essentially indestructible, and can afford to wait”. Russell opined that the Western nations, with their lethal armament will probably destroy each other within the next hundred years, leaving the stage to those whose pacifism has kept them alive, though poor and powerless. He wrote,”If China can avoid being goaded into war, her oppressors may wear themselves out in the end, and leave the Chinese free to pursue humane ends, instead of war and rapine destruction which all white nations love.”
Noting the character of the Chinese nation during his trip in 1920, Russell had prophetically declared that China would emerge as the second greatest nation of the world after the United States in the next 100 years. Such a true prophecy could only be made by a man of the genius of Bertrand Russell.
He wrote that Western civilization is built upon excessive energy, which manifests itself on militarism and love of power, which spring from “a super flux of the itch for activity”. For Russell, the creed of efficiency for its own sake without regard for the ends to which it is directed, is a futile exercise. This was the moral of the First World War. The Chinese, according to him, are not impetuous in the manner the Western nations are. They have practiced a way of life, which could make the world a far safer and happier place. The way of the Western world demanding unbridled strife and exploitation, according to him, is bound to lead to destruction. Russell’s analysis of China and his predictions about its future made about a century ago hold true even today.
by Zafar Aziz Chaudhry