G. K. Chesterton on China

To the prolific English writer G. K. Chesterton, China was beyond comprehension. Take this passage from The Everlasting Man (1925) for example:

Far away to the east there is a high civilisation of vast antiquity in China… and though the tradition of China still lives, it is doubtful whether we know anything about it. Moreover, a man trying to measure the Chinese antiquity has to use Chinese traditions of measurement; and he has a strange sensation of having passed into another world under other laws of time and space. Time is telescoped outwards and centuries assume the slow and stiff movement of aeons; the white man trying to see it as the yellow man sees, feels as if his head were turning round and wonders wildly whether it is growing a pigtail. Anyhow he cannot take in a scientific sense that queer perspective that leads up to the primeval pagoda of the first Sons of Heaven. He is the real antipodes; the only true alternative world to Christendom; and he is after a fashion walking upside down. I have spoken of the medieval map-maker and his dragon; but what medieval traveller, however much interested in monsters, would expect to find a country where a dragon is a benevolent and amiable being…

I only mention China as an antiquity that is not for us reached by a bridge of tradition; and Babylon and Egypt as antiquities that are. Herodotus is a human being, in a sense in which a Chinaman in a billy-cock hat, sitting opposite to us in a London teashop, is hardly human. We feel as if we knew what David and Isaiah felt like, in a way in which we never were quite certain what Li Hung Chang felt like. The very sins that snatched away Helen or Bathsheba have passed into a proverb of private human weakness, of pathos and even of pardon. The very virtues of the Chinaman have about them something terrifying.

Now don’t get me wrong – Chesterton is a very skilled writer and deep thinker about topics he knows well, such as fiction-writing, Western philosophy, and all sorts of matters related to the Catholic Church. I suppose I put this up as a way to motivate myself in my studies of Chinese civilization. This is what people think when I don’t do my job well. There are tens of thousands of Americans and hundreds of thousands of other Westerners who deep down feel this way about China now. Chesterton spoke plainly what they veil in economic and political fear-mongering: they see the East as utterly foreign, incomprehensible, and terrifying. Granted, the traditions of the East have long and complex histories, stretching back as far as the West’s (which is actually the Near East’s), but people, no matter where they are from, are people, made in God’s image, and able to connect one another, across time, across space, and even across civilizations.

One thought on “G. K. Chesterton on China

  1. From that short passage I thought Chesterton was merely highlighting his thorough unfamiliarity with Chinese culture, and his inability to find a way to relate it to his experience.

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