The China Mirage by James Bradley (Little,Brown, 2015), 417 pages
I love books like this, the kind that take something you learned in high school (“Mao took over China and chased those others guys to Taiwan or Formosa or whatever…”) and expand on it until you realize that you really knew nothing about it at all. I knew it would be good because I had read Bradley’s The Imperial Cruise about how Teddy Roosevelt more or less gave Asia to Japan because Teddy thought the Western-suit-wearing Japanese much more enlightened than the dress-wearing, pigtailed, opium-addicted “Chinks.”
The book starts with the opium trade and how way too many East Coast rich-folks families got their money in China in the 1800s thanks to the opium trade. Grown in India, the sale of opium in China (page 17) helped to address the flow of Western wealth to China as Europeans and Americans grew to love tea and silks and other products, while the Chinese mainly shrugged at the goods the “sea barbarians” offered for sale.
Americans, including Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s grandfather Warren Delano (page 19), made their way to the few places in China like Canton where foreigners were allowed to live and trade, relying on local corruption to smuggle opium past the emperor’s guards and sell it to peasants. Once their fortunes were made, $100,000 being the minimum “competence” profit made before age thirty, they returned to American and invested the funds in railroads or other legitimate business ventures. FDR’s granddad had the misfortune to lose his million or so and had to return to the dirty business of the “China trade” to make another million. Fortunately, the Opium Wars (pages 25 and 32) made it safe for outsiders to encourage drug use among the Chinese without worry.
Where Americans traders went, in Africa or Asia, missionaries followed. Most of them were restricted to the enclaves where foreigners lived a Western lifestyle in Western houses and strolled Western streets. Their converts—what few there were—consisted mainly of servants living among them (many of them placed there to keep an eye on the suspicious foreigners).
This set the stage for the China mirage, which is this: missionaries in China, mainly from America (although Lawrence of Arabia’s mom was there as well), sent home dispatches playing up their conversion success and representing everyday Chinese as eager to Westernize/Americanize and trade the Emperor and Mandate of Heaven for modern town-hall democracy. The missionaries did this mainly to raise money, and in this they were spectacularly successful. But, as Bradley details, the truth was very different.
On page 21, Bradley outlines the way that raw Chinese culture appeared to Americans like Delano. In China, honored guests sat on the host’s left and ate food from bowls with chopsticks as they drank warm wine. Incomprehensible letters ran from up to down and right to left. They put family names first, let servants walk before them instead of trailing, and their compasses pointed south. Perversely, the men wore gowns and the women wore the pants in the family.
However, China’s culture, as mature as any in the world, could match Western culture point-for-point, technology-for-technology, writer-for-writer, artist-for-artist, right down the line. Not many Chinese were going to buy into America’s and Europe’s posture of superiority, not when things like gunpowder and spaghetti and paper had started there and then looped around and returned as great innovations. Especially when their big breakthrough (Christianity) playing up original sin and the need for saving. Most Chinese could not grasp what was sinful about living why a foreigner had to save them (page 40).
The missionaries, instead of converting whole tribes as they did in Africa, had to admit that they had little to no success in China. Reverend Sydenstricker, who went to China with Henry Luce, the father of Time magazine’s founder, admitted he had made only 10 converts in 10 years (page 41).
The book moves on the detail the rise of the “China Lobby” in the United States, a group of well-meaning Americans, many of whom had been born in China of missionary parents, who felt that China just needed one more little thing, such as more Bibles, to convert the whole nation into good members of a democracy and consumers of American goods. A man named Charlie Soong (note the Americanized name) came to America as a laborer and ended up at Duke University, where the young entrepreneur convinced missionaries that it would be more efficient to print the Bibles in China instead of shipping them over from the US (page 87). Most of the money went right into Soong’s pocket.
The bulk of the book follows the Soong family as he and his daughters form alliances and marriages with Sun Yat-Sen and Chiang Kai-Shek, and even Mao Zedong. One of the great missed chances in history concerns America’s WW II backing of the (barely) Christianized Chiang Kai-Shek and his wife, Soong Mai-Ling, instead of the more well-liked Mao. While Chiang’s “locust army” always needed $100 million more to fight the invading Japanese (money spent futilely chasing Mao), Mao was busy gaining the trust of the peasants (their landlords backed Chiang) and inflicting losses on the Japanese with next to nothing.
Bradley makes another point few authors do: the Japanese did not view the attack on Pearl Harbor as a sneaky surprise. Americans in Chinese service with the “Flying Tigers” had been attacking Japanese for years, according to them, and the oil embargo in late 1941 (done without FDR’s consent) was seen as the last straw. Pearl Harbor was a side show for the real Japanese target: the oil in the Dutch East Indies (page 286). There’s lots more, but I’ve run of room. ..
You know, it’s Mother’s Day (Bradley dedicates this book to him mom), so I look back at how many things my mother told me that I took as gospel as a child. She loved FDR and told me that if he had lived to be 100, the people of American would have voted him president as long as he liked. I’m not sure about that, because Churchill did and they got rid of him quick enough once he had won the war. In any case, I will never forget Madame Chiang Kai-Shek (Soong Mai-ling) for two reasons. First, she lived to the age of 105 (1898-2003), and second, my mother thought she was a nasty, evil woman (she brought her own silk sheets to the White House). And my mother told me solemnly that Generalissimo Chiang guy wasn’t any better (Churchill and Truman both called him “General Cash My Check”: page 306 and 336). In fairness, mom considered Mao Zedong (Tse-Tung back then) a dog-eating murderer.
Although the book goes up to the end of the Vietnam War (it used to be Viet Nam, remember?), the bulk of it takes place from about 1900 to the end of World War II. (Oddly, the Boxer Rebellion, when the Chinese tried to drive out the “foreign devils” once and for all, is barely mentioned on two pages: 65 and 93.) The Korean War breaks out on page 346 and Vietnam on 357 (the main narrative ends on page 371).
That said, there are plenty of books on the details of Korea and Vietnam. Bradley’s point is that once Joe McCarthy started asking “Who lost China?” around 1950 and costing Harry Truman any chance at re-election, the die was cast for future. We HAD to stay in Asia! And the “don’t trust China” lobby is still around today.