Friday, November 12, 2010

Leo Tolstoy and the Three Little Wars

     Those who learn the lessons of history are condemned to repetitions of what Santayana said about not learning them. I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s difficult to learn from history without having some conceptual framework as to what causes historical events to happen in the first place.
     When I try to make sense of Man’s quest for peace, I think of Tolstoy's view of history. I also think of America’s Three Little Wars (1898-1903) that foreshadowed the history of the world since they were fought. If we are to learn the lessons of history—to avoid fulfilling them—I believe that a review of Tolstoy and the Three Little Wars can be a useful guide.
     In his novel War and Peace, Tolstoy attempted to reconcile fatalism with free will. I won’t force myself to separate his words from my thoughts about his words, but they go something like this:
1. The world is filled with choices.
2. Each choice we make (or avoid making) determines what our future choices will be.
3. Regarding specific future events, these choices tend to narrow our range of choices as to whether and how future events will unfold.
4. By the time a specific event takes place, there are no remaining choices; the event has become inevitable.
     I don’t think that’s entirely accurate. I have found that wise choices (from this point, let’s call them decisions) broaden our possibilities. To take a simple, familiar example, look at how we handle money. We all want to have possessions, experiences, time, and security; but we can’t spend the same dollar twice. If we make the wisest decisions, we may eventually have all four of the things we want. If we, like the Prodigal Son, make the most foolish decisions, we’ll end up with none. Most of our decisions are a mix of wisdom and folly, and we get mixed results and at least some leeway in our future decisions.
     I’m intrigued by the second of America’s Three Little Wars: the China Relief Expedition of 1900. The other two were the Spanish-American War (1898) and the Philippine Insurrection (1899-1903).
     Of the nine nations that provided troops, not one of them wanted war. As of June 16, 1900, options remained and war was still avoidable. At 1:20 on the morning of June 17, 1900, however, no one had any option but to go to war.
     How did that happen? Let’s back up another hundred years.
     The sixty-year reign (1735-1796) of Emperor Chien Lung  was truly China’s golden age. China was admired throughout the world. European philosophers spoke of China as an example for the world to emulate; to them, China was a great nation ruled by philosophers and sages. Ships hauled gold and silver to China and returned with silks, porcelains, and many other high-quality Chinese products. China had little use for the products of other lands.
     The hairstyle we call the ponytail was a Western adaptation of the Ch’ing Dynasty queue. In England, Josiah Wedgwood began producing chinaware for domestic consumption. Thomas Minton's Blue Willow chinaware pattern—still popular today—was an attempt to emulate the porcelain style of the late Ming and early Ch’ing Dynasties.
     China’s greatness seemed assured; but, as Edgar Allan Poe wrote, “Evil things in robes of sorrow assailed the monarch’s high estate. (Ah, let us mourn!--for never morrow shall dawn upon him desolate!) And, round about his home, the glory that blushed and bloomed is but a dim-remembered story of the old time entombed.”
     After 60 years on the throne, Chien Lung abdicated so as not to outshine his grandfather, who had been emperor for 61 years. Corrupt rulers followed in succession, and the royal courts became scenes of conspiracy, graft, and wholesale embezzlement. Chinese sages had always cautioned that the goodness of society—or lack of it—is influenced by the degree of good and evil in a nation’s rulers. China decayed from within.
     This tragedy holds a lesson for America, whose supposed representatives routinely embezzle trillions of dollars on behalf of the international bankers, the military-industrial complex, Big Pharma, disaster capitalists, and other interlocking coteries of robber barons.
     This tragedy also holds a lesson for the government of today’s China. Chinese rulers are trying to clean up corruption and the problems of dangerous merchandise, but they’re making two major mistakes: They’re trying to do it from the top down, and they’re trying to do it while preserving their own privilege to embezzle and enslave. It didn’t work for the Ch’ings, and it’s not working for the Chicoms.
     Throughout the nineteenth century, the Chinese countryside was a stage for revolts, rebellions, and attempts at outright revolution, pretty much as we see in China today. Each year in China, there are around 70,000 riots involving more than 100 people, and most of them are protests against the government. Several European countries and the United States are headed in that direction, however distant this state of affairs may seem.
     Just as China’s current rulers took advantage of weaknesses in Chiang Kai-shek’s corrupt rule, and later weaknesses in Mongolia, Tibet, and East Turkestan—and now in Nepal—Western nations and Japan, from the 1830’s onward, took advantage of weaknesses in China, carving up “spheres of influence.” Today’s Chinese rulers complain about the “unequal treaties” forced on China during the nineteenth century. Those treaties were no more bullying or imperialist than the treaties that the current rulers of China inflicted upon Tibet and East Turkestan.


     In his classic work, The Prince, Machiavelli wrote that men are more apt to forgive the killing of their parents than the theft of their patrimony. At the end of the Opium War (1859-1860) British soldiers looted the Summer Palace and stole tens of thousands of valuable Chinese artifacts that eventually found their way into Western museums. These acts of theft and wanton destruction thoroughly embittered the sixteen-year-old girl who would later become the Empress Dowager.  It also clouded her judgment in ways that worked against the British and other foreigners.  To this day, the museums refuse to return the Summer Palace artifacts to China, claiming that they had bought the stolen items from Chinese antique dealers.
     Around the middle of the nineteenth century, Chinese rulers decided to make a giant leap forward in economic reforms. Agrarianism would make way for industrialization. Just as it is today in China, the needs of the people were ignored.
     Since the thirteenth century, boatmen along the waterways were a mainstay of China’s economy. The Grand Canal, in particular, bustled with transport from the Yellow River in the south to the Bai He (White River, a.k.a. Bei Ho, a spelling of North River) at Tientsen (renamed Tianjian) just south of Peking (renamed Beijing).
     With the coming of the railroads, the livelihoods of thousands of boatmen—as well as tens of thousands of related jobs—were in ruins. Discontent against the government multiplied accordingly. This time, though, much Chinese anger was directed at the foreign industrialists who had brought the railroads and other industries to China. It would later spill over to Christian missionaries, who were the most visible symbols of Western imperialism.
     Westerners brought much of this anger on themselves, just as they often do today. They enjoyed privileged positions and, in many cases, exemption from Chinese laws. At the hands of Westerners, many Chinese were subjected to discrimination  and other abuses in their own land—just as people in a number of other countries today suffer abuses at the hands of Western governments and major corporations.
     The de facto ruler of China, Empress Dowager Tzu Hsi, advised by the scheming Prince Tuan, took the approach that is favored by today’s Chinese rulers. They diverted anger away from themselves and toward foreign nations (particularly the Russians, Japanese, nationals of eight European nations, and the United States) and foreign nationals (particularly missionaries and businessmen.)
     As you’ll see in part two of this article, that strategy blew up in their faces and led to the downfall of the Ch’ing Dynasty. The present-day governments of the United States, China, Israel, and certain other nations may profit from this lesson.
     The road to war was not all greed, folly, and conflict. In part two of this article, I’ll mention inspiring acts of wisdom, nobility, and sacrifice by several notable people in the quest for mutual understanding and justice. These peacemakers included Prince Fu, of the royal household; and Hudson Taylor, the founder and head of China Inland Mission.
     [When I first posted this article, there seemed to be so little interest in it that, for some months, I didn't bother to write part 2.  I eventually included information about Prince Fu and Hudson Taylor in a later article.  Since then, I've learned that this article, "Leo Tolstoy and the Three Little Wars," has become the third most popular article I've ever written, and that readers have recently shown unexpected interest in the later article.  Please read article "When Americans were Foreigners, and Christians were Marked for Extermination."]

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