I haven’t read John Pomfret’s new book The Beautiful Country and the Middle Kingdom: America and China, 1776 to the Present. It won’t be released until November 29th and I haven’t seen any early review copies. But I did get a chance to read the excerpt posted on the Asia Society blog and…it’s troubling. Particularly this section:
The first American Christian missionaries arrived in China in the 1830s. Though they are often held up as an unbecoming example of American cultural imperialism, forcing Jesus on an unwilling people steeped in an older Confucian creed, they were crucial to China’s development. Along with Western-educated Chinese, they supplied the tools to break the stranglehold of traditional orthodoxy. They taught the Chinese Western science, critical thinking, sports, industry, and law. They established China’s first universities and hospitals. These institutions, though now renamed, are still the best of their kind in China. America’s women missionaries crusaded against the barbaric customs of female infanticide and foot-binding, helping to accomplish the greatest human rights advances in modern Chinese history.
Does this strike anyone else as particularly outdated? I love John King Fairbank as much as the next rogue sinologist, but the “Impact-Response” model/interpretation of Modern Chinese history was already running on fumes by the time I hit third grade.
I’m troubled by the implied — actually pretty explicit — assumption that Western science, critical thinking, sports, industry, and law are not only superior to what China had developed by 1800 but also to what might have developed absent the forced intrusion of the foreign powers.
While I can’t imagine anyone not condemning in the strongest possible way the “barbaric customs of female infanticide and foot-binding,” it’s worth remembering that these women missionaries often had to pause in their crusade against foot binding — the mutilation of the body to satisfy an arbitrary standard of beauty — to adjust their own iron “wasp waist” corsets slowly crushing internal organs but guaranteed to produce just the right hourglass shape. I might also add that a quick perusal of European colonial policies in Africa and Asia or a textbook of early US history suggests China at that time hardly held the monopoly on “barbaric customs.”
As I said, I haven’t read the book. No doubt these themes are given greater nuance when dealt with at length. I’m also a fan of John Pomfret’s writings. I really enjoyed Chinese Lessons and have used parts of that book in class. But this is not the only section of the excerpt which I found problematic. It just happened to be the one on a topic with which I am quite familiar. Nevertheless, I’m looking forward to getting my copy and having my first reactions proven wrong…