Monday 15 January 2018

Book Review: China and the West by William Edward Soothill

China and the West by William Edward Soothill

Subtitled: A Short History of Their Contact from Ancient Times to the Fall of the Manchu Dynasty

I have been putting off this review for some time, I finished reading the book a couple of months ago and I have felt that I needed to time to decide how to approach this review.

The book in itself contains some very interesting detail about China's interaction with the outside world, and the West in particular. It was first published by Oxford University Press in 1925 and the author, William Soothill, was a Professor of Chinese at Oxford University.

Therein lies my problem with this book. I am not an expert on this period (one of the reasons that I wanted to read this book), but I am well read on the Mongols and the rise and fall of their state, and I also have an interest in the British Colonial period (mainly in North Africa and Sudan).

The book was written at a time when the British Empire and colonial views were still firmly held, at least by many in the West. The author, William Soothill (who lived in China for 25 years), was clearly still of the opinion that the Western powers could run China far better than it's own people. It is apparent that he felt that China was being badly run because it wanted control of its own trade relationships with the West, and indeed wanted to cut all ties with the West at one point. Considering how the West, and Britain in particular, was treating China I personally feel that they were extremely justified in breaking off relations with these Western states.

Soothill clearly, had some very "Victorian" views on many other aspects of  Eastern culture. As a secular Buddhist myself, I found his description of Buddhism particularly offensive and completely inaccurate.

"A religion which is based on a mistaken philosophy of the world, of life and of human nature, and which makes the monk, with his parasitic life, the noblest form of earthly existence, may bring more safety to the lives of the rest of humanity, certainly more than Islam, or the pagan Mongol, but its inevitable result is intellectual stupor. The fundamental force in Buddhism is escape from all earthly attachments and entry on earth into Nirvana, which in effect becomes spiritual inactivity and intellectual torpor." - Page 44-5

Leaving behind the opinions of the author, I also found at least one factual error in the book:-

"He (Genghis Khan) now turned his attention towards China, the northern half of which was under the Chins, or The Golden Horde By 1213 he had overrun most of their territory, and they were glad to buy him off with promises of heavy tribute, which they in turn squeezed out of the unfortunate northern Chinese whom they ruled." - Page 38

I don't know if the title "Golden Horde" has an alternate usage in the early part of the 20th century, but every reference to it that I have found all refer to the  Khanate of Batu (otherwise known as the Kipchak Khanate or the Ulus of Jochi), which only came into existence after 1259. Named the Golden Horde after the colour of the Khans tent...

Due to this error and Soothill's tendency to inject his personal "opinions" into the text, it does bring some doubt into much of the rest of the book. As such I find it difficult to recommend it as a source of information on the subject covered by the book. In fact, I ended up learning as much about the attitudes of the colonial era than I did about the actual history of China and the West.

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