H.M. Hyndman

The Evolution of Revolution

Chapter 15
Economic Backwaters: China

In Peru a society, dependent upon theocratic domination above, and communal production and distribution below, provided general well-being for the mass of a large population living under widely different conditions of climate and soil. This system, as already suggested, lasted, if we are to judge by the vast periods traversed in other parts of the world in the transition from one stage of society to another, an immensely longer time than has been generally assumed. Long duration of social arrangements once established seems the invariable rule under any form of communism.

In China, under a merely nominal theocracy as compared with that of the Incas of Peru, we have, on the contrary, an example of the amazing longevity of a system of free and independent farmers with their small private properties in land. Yet the land of China was in all probability first devoted, by the same race which now occupies its spacious territory, to tillage under complete or modified communism. There is every reason to believe, that is to say, that Chinese society went through the same or very similar stages of social development which were traversed by mankind in other parts of the world. For, notwithstanding the intensely individual character of private property in land and small handicraft which prevails in the China of our day, there exist still survivals of the “clans,” with the remains of usages obviously derived from a series of village communities, such as have existed for centuries in India and in every other civilised country.

As these tribal relations and communal forms still subsist as mere vestiges of former social states, so the next stage of human development, slavery, though having long since ceased to be the dominant productive force of Chinese society, still lingers on in a decadent form, bearing witness in its slow disappearance to what had formerly been an almost universal institution. But however these previous social arrangements may have developed in the remote past, until the age of private property was reached, it is certain that the cultivation of land in the shape of private ownership, to some extent modified by ancient com­munal usages, and throughout accompanied by elaborate ancestor worship, has endured in China with little variation for very many hundreds of years. It is one of the misfortunes of Chinese history, as hitherto expounded to students in the West by Europeans who have carefully observed and written about China and her people, that most of these authorities have endeavoured to fit their calculations as to the antiquity of the country and the development of its civilisation within the limits of the Mosaic chronology. This, of course, is quite fatal to the formation of any adequate conception of what really occurred, by a hopeless restriction of the time necessary to account for the social evolution that has manifestly taken place. It is greatly to be regretted, as the able French writer, M. Letourneau, says, that some portion of the laborious study devoted to the origins of Greek and Roman civilisation has not been given to the early growth of China and the development of her successive institutions. Still more regrettable was the vanity of the Mongol emperor, at the foundation of his dynasty, which entailed the destruction of many early records and annals that might have provided clues to the solution of the problems of the various stages of Chinese history. But, even without such direct information of an earlier day, it is certain that the discoveries and inventions of the Chinese of old time, wonderful as they were, could not by any possibility have been rushed through and brought into common usage within the length of time ordinarily apportioned to their development.

It is the fashion to consider the annals of Confucius, so far as they relate to the two thousand years before his lifetime, as purely mythical; though, had they been so, it is unlikely that the brilliant and cynical commentator who followed him would have failed to hint that they had no foundation. But even assuming them to be myths in the strict historical sense, modern research has shown us clearly in other directions that myths and traditions of pre-historic periods have a definite material foundation, which can be dug down to and realised by comparison with similar social growths elsewhere. Thus it now appears that the probable date of the actual settlement of China by the same race which now inhabits that vast scope of territory cannot be traced. No traditions of immigration are to be found beyond the conception of “the Hundred Families” who occupied the country at a period so infinitely remote that many thousands of years scarcely cover the probable date of their first appearance. It is quite possible that the civilisation of China transcends even that of Egypt in antiquity, and that China was a federation of tribes when Sargon I founded Babylon. It is impossible to reconcile the evolution of such an enormously populous empire or state as China, possessing for hundreds of years the same written and printed language, with most elaborate characters, which practically all the inhabitants read and understand; having an extensive pottery and porcelain establishment under the management of a high official some four thousand years ago; anticipating Europe in the art of printing, in the discovery and application of the mariner’s compass, as well as in the manufacture and use of gunpowder, and possessing long-established native commerce and banks, a network of irrigation works and navigable canals, with any chronological calculations hitherto propounded. Yet we are still too apt to treat the countless generations which led up to the consolidation of ancient China into an established and civilised community, not very markedly different from that we see now, as if all that occurred during this great sweep of time were purely mythical. When the Chow dynasty was established, within the historical epoch, and China was undoubtedly a civilised country, Egypt and Assyria were powerful empires. Athens, Thebes, Sparta, Tyre and Carthage were growing little communities. Rome was not founded. Solomon had not built his temple. We may almost sum up this marvellous continuity of civilised longevity with “China was, China is, China will be!”

Assuming, as now seems certain, that man has passed through the same or exceedingly similar stages of social evolution, re­presenting in turn peaceable or forcible revolutions, it is clear that the epochs known to the Chinese under the names of pre­historic emperors or tribal leaders covered vast periods of time: how vast we cannot at present determine. The statement that one of these now legendary benefactors of his race instituted astronomical calculations, and worked out a whole system of divisions of time, merely tells us that the Chinese, early in their comparatively settled condition, had arrived, by protracted observation of the sun and moon and stars, at the same conclusions as were being slowly reached elsewhere. Again, when we are told that another personage of superhuman sagacity transformed the records of the events of his reign from perishable knot-memorials in lengths of cord, after the manner of the Peruvians, into the generally intelligible hieroglyphical characters which constitute the basis of Chinese written language to-day, all within his own lifetime, we know that we have here a shorthand summary of the gradual and long drawn-out experiments which eventually resulted in Chinese printing as we see it to-day. Such a crucial transition as this marks, obviously, a special stage in the long process of evolution, through which the tribes or clans distributed over the great territory of our own time were so far confederated and “civilised” that they regarded themselves as one people, and accepted a common written and previously a common spoken language.

Prior to this another personage, also figured forth as an emperor, performed the remarkable feat of inducing his subjects to give up entirely their nomadic existence as hunters and fishers, with merely incidental tillage, and enter upon stabilised agriculture with a common centre; having at the same time placed at their disposal tame animals of different useful kinds, as well as the various appliances of the husbandry of seed-planting and foresight. This astounding record of progress was achieved within the emperor’s own exaggerated Imperial existence of some one hundred and fifteen years. The story itself is, of course, as mythical and legendary as the tales of Prometheus, Numa or Manco Capac. Nevertheless, we have here an unmistakable description, in brief, of the great inevitable transition of a people from wandering hordes, dependent upon chance supplies of food obtained with great effort, to the possession of flocks and herds of tame animals and thence to partial, followed by regular and persistent, agricultural cultivation – the growth, in fact, of the ancestors of the present Chinese people from savagery to barbarism, from barbarism to the higher barbarism of confederate gentile tribes, and thence onwards to the lower forms of civilisation.

So, likewise, with the changes effected by yet a fourth potentate, more remote and nebulous still, who guided the denizens of the neolithic age of unrecorded and unnumbered centuries from the use of stone implements to the employment of those of bronze, and thence to those of iron, when that metal gained final supremacy over both bronze and stone for tools and weapons. Here we have again a rough conspectus of the traditional, unverified and so far unverifiable memorials of industrial, economic and social changes; accompanied by the alteration of the law of descent from the matriarchal to the patriarchal form, a change traditionally effected by the semi-divine powers of four exceptional rulers, who really represent immensely long periods in the evolution of this remarkable people.

There is another point, not of a directly economic character, which gives the impression of almost incalculable antiquity in Chinese civilisation. In nearly all races which have occupied the same scope of land for a long period, without displacement by conquest and immigration of races from without, some tradition or ceremonial observance having relation to cannibalism may be traced. Nothing of the kind is to be found among the Chinese themselves; though the leaders of the Turcoman hordes, with their festal cups made out of the skulls of their enemies, elaborately decorated, provide evidence that the invaders of China had probably been addicted to the consumption of human flesh. This absence of any trace of ancient cannibalism in China is the more remarkable since, as already observed, relics of gentile organisation are still to be found in Chinese towns and villages. And where gentile relationship and matriarchal descent have prevailed in other parts of the world, there vestiges of ancient cannibalism are almost invariably to be found. That “the hundred families,” assumed by Chinese writers to have founded their kingdom at an immensely remote date, were not cannibals seems, therefore, most probable. But, in default of such records as have been found in Egypt and elsewhere, all attempts to reconstruct accurately the growth of prehistoric China from savagery to barbarism must be abandoned; and we can only rely upon the probabilities suggested by traditions and the practically invariable sequence of development in other countries.

When, however, we come to the feudal period, which played a great part in Chinese history, we arrive at records and descriptions which enable us to be practically certain that this great epoch must have been preceded in China, as elsewhere, by tribal and individual slavery, developing into nobility and serfdom. The great lords of China, like the powerful feudal chiefs of Japan and Western China, were engaged in constant warfare with one another, and resorted to all the ruffianism, cruelty and treachery which has distinguished this caste throughout the planet where civilisation has reached that stage. We have in China, in fact, further clear proof in the annals of Confucius, commented upon by his editor, Tso, that here, too, the wholly unconscious and socially uncontrollable growth of man in society follows certain well-defined lines, though the time prescribed by material conditions may be longer or shorter in different regions. In China the feudal period endured for many centuries and entailed upon the inhabitants endless troubles.

The Chow dynasty, which lasted nearly nine hundred years (1112 to 249 B.C.), was itself, apparently, only the most important line of many rulers who carried on intestine strife, independent of the central authority assumed to be controlling them. Not until the downfall of the Chow family and the rise of Si-Whang-Ti, of the short-lived Tsin dynasty, did China become in any sense a consolidated Imperial state. This monarch subdued all his rival princelets, defeated the Tartar hordes which had been pursuing their accustomed business of slaughter and rapine with exceptional success, during the latter part of the Chow rule, built the Great Wall to check further Tartar invasions, and played in China, with respect to the feudalism of the great chieftains, a similar part to that performed very many centuries later by Louis XI in France. But Tartar invasions from the west and north were ever the bane of the Empire. The Chinese reckon that there have been no fewer than twenty-two such invasions, many of which ended in establishing Tartar dynasties on the throne. How it came about that the Chinese race, which had shown such great courage and capacity in their battles among themselves during the entire feudal period, and had also been able to overcome the Tartars under their native monarchs and generals, endured these invasions is not easy to decide. But certainly, notwithstanding the great energy and lighting capacity they displayed under the leadership of the famous Chinese Buddhist priest who founded the native Ming dynasty, they gradually became the most pacific people on earth, and regarded a soldier almost as a pariah. It was this spirit which enabled the Manchus, who had aided the descendants of the Ming emperors against other Tartars, to establish themselves on the throne from which they have been recently displaced.

Revolutions in China, until within the last hundred years, have, so far as is known, taken the shape of revolts against Tartar rule. Yet we may be sure that the overthrow of feudalism and the permanent settlement of the overwhelming majority of Chinese families as free cultivators on their own plots of land were not brought about without a long struggle and probably much bloodshed. But these risings against the Tartars, successful or unsuccessful, and even the details of the economic and social struggle which secured the mass of the people ownership of their own soil and the right to cultivate it, are not so important as the fact that the Chinese, owing to their far superior civilisation and power of administration, were able to maintain peacefully their own system of government under all intruders and, by degrees, almost to absorb their own conquerors.

Why this people, who so far anticipated Western Europe in many directions, who developed commerce, banks and trade generally, and displayed capacity in so many departments, with a disposition to peaceful emigration, whose settlements have been traced on the east coast of Africa – why the Chinese should have ceased to progress in the European sense, or to carry further those inventions and discoveries which placed their forefathers ahead of the white peoples, seems impossible to determine. They reached a certain point, and there they remained until contact with the highly developed civilisation of Western Europe has started them afresh on the lines of economic, social and political development, as the same contact had previously, and more rapidly, influenced Japan.

It is easy, however, to discern and understand what has maintained China and the Chinese for so many centuries on a low plane of personal well-being and has secured for them such prolonged ages of internal peace. All may be summed up in their devotion to agriculture on a small scale, with direct personal ownership of the soil they cultivate; the continuance of handicraft; the partial influence of the customs of the old village communities; the permanent sanctity of family life; deference to the father and the elders of the community, in spite of the somewhat onerous ties thus imposed; the ancestor-worship and reverence for the dead which has prevailed under every form of religion, indigenous or imported; the simple and to the Chinese quite sufficient system of the ethics and directions of Confucius – all these, taken together and handed on from generation to generation, have had a remarkably conservative influence. The maintenance of agriculture and its fostering as the basis of all prosperity, and by far the most important national industry and business, were the foundation of the whole life of the people. This was the view of one of the great invading Emperors. He took care to enforce it by enactment and decree, and his policy was followed by his successors. Trade, though never directly interfered with, was long officially discouraged, and the accumulation of riches in few hands was as far as possible prevented. Mining for the precious metals and precious stones was not only hampered by Imperial disapproval, but was rendered a punishable offence under Imperial decree. This was avowedly done in order to prevent waste of labour upon what was regarded from on high as an unprofitable and even injurious expenditure of force. Thus the extremest views of the French physiocrats of the eighteenth century, as to the supreme position of agriculture, were held and enforced upon their subjects centuries before by Chinese Emperors and their advisers.

Their stringent laws on this head, though of course frequently evaded, produced, in the main, the effect intended by ordinance from above, to an extent and for a length of time that could scarcely have been anticipated. It is, indeed, an exceptional example of what may be done by Government interference exercised among a peaceful, law-abiding people. By unremitting labour, by the use of human sources of fertilisation which prevented the exhaustion of the soil, by assiduous family service, they have preserved their social system unchanged for centuries. Prices were kept low by decree, and by the refusal to permit an expensive currency. There has been no stereotyped caste nor dominant ancestral priesthood in China. Local institutions have been little modified. Education has been and is common to all. Foreigners, unless and until they made themselves politically or socially obnoxious, were welcomed – Marco Polo’s father was made a viceroy; the Jesuits, so long as they confined themselves to promulgating their religion, were most favourably treated. The highest administrative positions were open to the lowest in the land through examinations. Assuredly we have here a system of society which might compare favourably with that of any civilised nation at any period.

Incidentally it may be observed that the economic foundation was and is, to all intents and purposes, the same as that of India. Nevertheless the difference in the superstructure of the two great empires is astonishing. There can be no real comparison between them. Yet in neither has there been any serious social revolution for hundreds of years. The bearing of this fact upon a famous theory of sociological determinism, much discussed of late, which an active school of thinkers and writers claim solves all the great problems of historic evolution, will be seen later.

The most important attempt at revolution in China in modern times began in 1850, and was known as the Taiping rebellion. This great revolt, though generally regarded as an upheaval directed against the Manchu dynasty for the purpose of again establishing a native Chinese dynasty – such as the Ming, which was replaced by the Manchus in 1643 – had also other objects in view. That they were entirely hostile to the Manchu Government of Peking, and from the first discarded the queue, the special symbol of Chinese subjection, enforced upon Chinese males by the Tartar Emperors, shows that social as well as religious ideas were bound up with the movement. In fact there seems good reason to believe that the Chinese in at least two of the greatest provinces were desirous of a complete change of their system of government, which should lead to a new development of a progressive character. Having lain so long on one side, they thought it might be well to turn over and lie upon the other – a phenomenon which had possibly occurred before, and stirred all Asia, at previous epochs in Chinese history. It is at least improbable that any new religion, such as that attributed to the schoolmaster Hung-Siu-Chuen, could by itself have produced the tremendous effect of the Taiping rising. That Hung, the leader, should have claimed a semi-divine character and have propounded doctrines more in accordance with the old Buddhist teachings than with their corruption in modern times is quite in accordance with the course that socio-supernatural propaganda takes not only in Asia but in Europe also. On the other hand, it is almost inconceivable that he should have tried to induce the Chinese to adopt any form of Christianity, this religion having always been very unpopular in China, since the Catholics tried to turn the legitimate influence gained by the Jesuit doctors and men of science to political ends. In any event, the people were ready for a desperate effort against Tartar rule and against certain worn-out institutions, while religious enthusiasm, combined with patriotism and an impatient yearning for change unknown in China for generations, made the Taiping rebellion exceedingly formidable. The discontent of all the long years of quiescence was concentrated in the attempt at a complete revolution led by Hung and supported by some able generals. We have never yet had a clear account of this powerful national movement, which, beginning its serious attack under arms in 1852, was for some time one long succession of victories and conquests. Sweeping down the valley of the Yang-tse-Kiang and capturing the great city of Nanking, the rebellion gathered nearly the whole of Southern China behind it, and for twelve whole years threatened to overthrow altogether the existing government and to set on foot a new, and probably more enlightened, rule. In this, without foreign intervention, they would probably have succeeded.

Most unfortunately, as it must now seem to any unprejudiced observer, the Europeans in China, and in particular the famous but ignorant and fanatical General Gordon, thought proper to take the part of the Manchu Emperor and his degraded foreign Court against the Chinese patriots who were striving for the emancipation of their country, for better conditions of life for themselves and their people, and for a religion which the white men themselves thought was a form of Christianity. Gordon’s “Ever-Victorious Army,” manned by Chinese but officered by English officers, with some help from the French, achieved the glory in 1864, after the Taipings had conquered fifteen out of eighteen provinces and had prepared the way for a final triumph, of reimposing the despotic authority of the Manchus upon China for nearly fifty years. However ruthless the Taipings may have been in their day of success, that was the affair of their own countrymen. It was assuredly not the business of English and Scottish military men to devote themselves to obtaining victory for the Manchus or for the butcherly Chinese viceroy, Li-Hung-Chang, who, despite Gordon’s personal guarantee of the safety of their lives if they surrendered, massacred and tortured to death the Scottish general’s prisoners in cold blood. It has been estimated that, in the course of this great civil war, some twenty millions of Chinese were slaughtered during and after the period of hostilities, extending over twelve years. The Chinese people gained nothing by the defeat of the Tai-pings: the Manchus alone benefited. It is one of the small ironies of history that “Chinese Gordon” was really “Manchu Gordon.” Probably the greatest single event in the thousands of years of the annals of the Middle Kingdom, and perhaps of all Asia, was the defeat of the Chinese armies by Japan in 1894-1895. Directly and indirectly it was the immediate cause of the great Chinese Revolution. European influences had revolutionised feudal Japan: European influences, acting through Japan, were now to revolutionise the great Empire whose teachers had civilised the Japanese centuries before. Ideas which all the efforts of merchants, financiers and missionaries from the West had failed to impress permanently upon the rulers and people of China were suddenly forced to fruition by a great defeat. It was owing to her acceptance of these European ideas, of modern education, modern industrialism and, above all, of modern weapons that Japan had been enabled to win with ease in the struggle against China, contrary to the expectations of many European residents in the Chinese Treaty Ports. But for European interference, Japan would have followed the rule of Asiatic conquerors, and her Mikado and his pro-consuls, displacing the Manchu dynasty, would have become masters of peaceful China a quarter of a century ago. Consciousness of the inability of China under existing conditions to resist by herself the growing power of Japan led the Manchu emperor, Huang-Su, to accept “the new learning” and to endeavour to enforce it upon his Chinese subjects. No such extraordinary effort by a ruling monarch to meet the development of a new period and bring about a material, psychological and social revolution had ever been made before. To attempt to carry through a policy of transforming the entire social and political and military life of some four hundred millions of people, educated and intelligent though they were, by capable initiative from above, was a stupendous task which might well have been considered foredoomed to failure. Yet if the metropolis of China had been situated at Nanking instead of at Peking, had Huang-Su been able to emancipate himself, even by familial-Asiatic methods, from his immediate Manchu surroundings, it is quite possible that this unprecedented experiment would have been successful in the hands of this one reigning emperor.

The Taipings, though beaten at last by European organisers – in itself a lesson to China if she could but have read it – had shown, nearly fifty years before, how inimical the vast, purely Chinese provinces of the south and west were to unenlightened despotism from the north; and since then disaffection and desire for a new development had widely, though silently, spread. China as a whole was, therefore, far more ready to embrace a fresh dispensation than was generally understood, when Huang-Su embarked upon his marvellous programme of Imperial reforms which were destined to bring about so terrible a reaction. But Huang-Su’s intellectual comprehension ran ahead of his political and practical judgment. Manchu though he was, he saw what was indispensably necessary for the well-being and even for the safety of the Chinese people, and he set to work at once to put what he knew was essential in theory into immediate operation. The edicts and decrees issued by Huang-Su were undoubtedly designed and calculated to revolutionise China more completely and more rapidly than Japan herself had been transformed. Chinese education, Chinese organisation, Chinese transport, Chinese jurisprudence and the Chinese military system were to be rushed up to the level of the most advanced European nations all at once. At every step Huang-Su took the advice of Kang-Yu-Wei, a Chinese official who had made a special study of the great changes in Japan, but whose views had previously been disregarded. The Emperor grasped them thoroughly and tried to realise them simultaneously. He consequently roused against his entire policy all the reactionary interests, including the two most powerful of all – the Manchu functionaries, Court officials, dependents and their hangers-on, as well as the old Conservative Literati in the upper grades of the Chinese ad­ministrative service. It takes one’s breath away to read the list of Huang-Su’s revolutionary proposals.

New teaching of positive knowledge and European science, new universities, new schools of agriculture, new laws, new courts, new use of old temples, new postal services, new armies, and so on in every direction. Nor was the Emperor content with merely issuing his Imperial decrees, and thus running counter to the Tsung-li Yamen, the principal council of the Empire, and several of China’s leading statesmen. He followed up his edicts by the removal of obstacular old officials, and by constant reminders to the viceroys of the provinces that these enactments were to be put in force immediately. The wonder is that the Emperor achieved so much as he did. It is almost impossible, indeed, to exaggerate the effect produced by the issue and publication of these subversive Imperial notifications, through the length and breadth of a vast territory inhabited by 400,000,000 people, nearly all of whom could read and write and took an interest in public affairs. We know by experience how difficult it is, for example, to introduce thorough-going educational reforms in Great Britain even when they have been admitted to be necessary by all the progressive elements in the community. Fifty years have failed to give the people in our island a decent system of education. Not only have Parliament and the mass of the people to be convinced, and their narrow religious prejudices removed, but the greatest obstacle of all, the bureaucratic spirit of official opposition, has to be overcome. It is nothing short of astounding that Huang-Su should have attempted and achieved within a few years so much as he did.

For a second, or perhaps a third, time in the history of China an impetus was given from the throne which deeply affected the whole current of Chinese policy. And there was no organised resistance whatever to Huang-Su’s reforming agitation, from the whole of the great southern provinces; notwithstanding the general and justifiable objection of the population to the foreign interlopers who were supposed to be not only favourable to, but the originators of, these subversive schemes. That by itself would serve to show that the people had already been prepared for a great change in their social conditions, by propaganda from a quarter very different from that which is generally associated with Sun-Yat-Sen and his friends.

And then the serious reactionary revolt known as the Boxer Rising, directed against foreigners, favoured by the Empress, supported by the whole anti-popular Manchu influence, and, it is believed, secretly aided by Russia, arose and spread only in those provinces which were most under Manchu influence. Huang-Su was dethroned and died in prison. But when the full history of China during the past quarter of a century comes to be written he will stand out as one of the very few monarchs who ever risked his own position and life in an honest endeavour to organise a peaceful revolution for the advantage of his people. The Boxer upheaval of reaction, like the Taiping rebellion of progress, was suppressed by foreign intervention, and it was most unfortunate that a course of action, which was possibly justifiable and beneficial in itself, should have been disfigured by many incidents of European greed and barbarity. But the Manchu dynasty did not long survive the occupation of Peking by the allied troops. Upon its dethronement the long-prepared revolution against the Manchus and in favour of all the measures laid down by Huang-Su broke out and took the shape of a federated republic China. What has happened since, before, during and after the war is a matter of recent record. The unfortunate differences between the south and the north have postponed the full realisation of the hopes which grew up on the instalment of the Republic. The increasing menace of Japanese domination, as exemplified in the policy of conquest and repression pursued in Korea, contrary to agreement, together with the annexation of Shantung, its 30,000,000 of inhabitants, important geographical position and immense mineral resources, weighs heavily upon the vast but still militarily unorganised and defenceless Chinese territory. Recent further demands from the same Power greatly alarm Chinese statesmen. Should this Japanese movement be averted by European and American action, then the near future will probably see the most in­dividualist, industrious and conservative nation in the world gradually and peacefully transformed into the greatest co­operative community of all civilised peoples. If, on the other hand, the aggressive Japanese succeed in obtaining control over China, with her overwhelming possibilities of development, the Far East of Asia might become at once a very grave danger to the white civilisations.[1]



1. The position of China in relation to Japan is dealt with in my The Awakening of Asia.

Last updated on 7.7.2006