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Bertrand Russell and the “China Question”

uupon arrival In 1920, the British philosopher Bertrand Russell was overwhelmed by the reception he received in China. “They praised me as a second Confucius and invited me to tell them how they would treat their country,” he wrote to a lover. “It’s a terrible responsibility.”

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Still, Russell accepted the challenge. After a stay of almost ten months, he returned to England and published The Chinese Question in 1922. A century later, it’s still relevant, offering enough wit to offset its occasional missteps.

Russell’s observations are sometimes prescient. For example, he described “the most pressing issue in China’s foreign relations as Japanese aggression”. He also noted that Russia’s Bolsheviks enjoyed “the warm sympathy of young Chinese students” and could gain wider influence.

One young man Russell met during his stay was none other than Mao Zedong. The name of the future Communist Party leader does not appear in the book. But Russell declared that “a reformer with literary talent and vitality can carry the vast majority of young China.”

According to Russell, the Confucian emphasis on filial piety hindered China’s development, which he believed led to corruption and “blocked the development of the public spirit.” He foresaw a boom in Chinese textiles and the possibility of being “as great as Lancashire’s textiles”. He believes that contacts with the West will help China’s industrial development, which he predicts will “develop rapidly in the coming decades.” But he warned China that “development should be controlled by the Chinese, not foreign countries.”

Critics have criticized Russell for failing to spend much time in the countryside and for measuring China by a different standard than other countries. Some of his observations are outlandish, such as his description of Shanghai as “a large city, about the size of Glasgow”. Others are formidable, such as his view that the Chinese are “moderate, polite, and only seek justice and freedom”. He wrote that they had “less desire … to commit violence against others” than “white people.” Tibetans and Uyghurs may disagree.

“I don’t think I can write about China. It’s a complex country with an ancient civilization,” Russell said in the letter before changing his mind. In his letters, he often sounds like a detractor. In one essay, for example, he described China as “rotten and rotten, like the late Roman Empire”. He also complained that “most students are stupid and timid”, whereas in the book he calls them “competent and very perceptive”.

“China Questions” has been widely circulated in the country and has been praised for its generally positive reviews. (You can still buy it today.) Russell argued that China, with its resources, population, and patriotism, could become “the most powerful power in the world after the United States.” But he also warned: “The danger of patriotism is that it can easily turn to foreign aggression once it proves strong enough to defend successfully.”

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