The Magazine

Legation Nation

A good laugh while darkness lurks around the corner.

Nov 26, 2012, Vol. 18, No. 11 • By ANDREW ROBERTS
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As China saber-rattles against Japan over the Senkaku Islands, and economists predict that she will overtake the United States in terms of GDP sometime this decade, it is well to look into the psychology of what Napoleon called “the sleeping giant,” and especially at what makes modern China so easy and quick to take offense at foreigners. In this well-researched, well-written, and profoundly thought-provoking book, Julia Boyd provides us with an important insight into the Chinese pathology with regard to outsiders.

A Dance with the Dragon The Vanished World  of Peking’s Foreign Colony

For, although part of A Dance with the Dragon can be read as a charming travelogue of the Roaring Twenties and Troubled Thirties—populated with diplomats like the unflappable Sir Miles Lampson, fraudsters like Sir Edmund Backhouse, White Russian emigrés like General Dmitri Horvath, and good-time girls like Wallis Simpson—the important part of it constitutes nothing less than a timely warning to the West: Underestimate China at your peril, it states, for she never forgets. The mobs protesting against Japan in Beijing today couldn’t care less about the microscopic Senkaku Islands; they are protesting the Rape of Nanking, the invasion of Manchuria, and the deaths of 15 million people as a result of Japan’s policies towards China from 1931 to 1945. 

The history of China in the years that Boyd covers—from the crushing of the Boxer Rebellion at the dawn of the 20th century to the victory of Mao Zedong’s Communists over Chiang Kai-shek’s Kuomintang half a century later—was mostly a sorry tale of (as she says) “inadequate leadership, callous warlords, political ferment and lack of financial probity.” As a result, all too many Westerners adopted an unthinking racially superior attitude towards the Chinese, one that we are being made to pay for dearly today in terms of Chinese hyper-nationalism. Even the normally wise Sir Miles Lampson, who served as British minister in Peking, rarely treated Chinese as full adults: “These men are just like children when they’re in the mood they were tonight,” he noted in his diary after an evening playing a game called “Drunken Coachmen” with two senior Chinese ministers. But, he added, “really they are pleasant folk socially whatever their shortcomings as a race or government might be.” 

The Westerners living in the Legations led fabulously sybaritic lifestyles of, in Noël Coward’s phrase, “cocktails and laughter,” with dozens of servants, multiple adulteries, endless costume parties, amusing excursions—and next to no interest in indigenous Chinese culture or politics. “My clothes are a screaming success and I am cutting a spectacular dash,” wrote Alice Green Hoffman, rich cousin of the Roose-velts, from Peking in 1925. The fact that there was no Prohibition in Peking was another reason that it attracted the international party set, as well as the fact that the cost of living was very cheap.

So for every genuine expatriate Sinophile, like John Dewey or Bertrand Russell (whose wife Dora Black dressed in Chinese clothes), there were all too many Bright Young Things, “whose insensitivity and ignorance were to leave such a scar”:

Had they been more astute and less incurious, keener to nurture China’s self-confidence than to undermine it, had they not lived so insistently in their own bubble, and had they been, above all, less convinced of their own superiority, their legacy in China might not be regarded with quite such contempt and China’s recovery of its former prestige would surely have proved less traumatic.

Yet Boyd does recognize the positive aspects of several Westerners’ contributions, and points out how virtually no one thought in the 1930s that the Communists would have taken power by the end of the next decade. She also writes with sensitivity about how, 

despite the dazzling skyscrapers and motorways of modern Beijing, it is still just possible for those with a nostalgic bent and a little imagination to wander through the Legation quarter (where many of the old buildings survive), or the temples of the Western Hills so beloved by Peking’s foreigners; to ride in moonlight by pedicab under the walls of the Forbidden City; or to pause in some secluded corner of the Temple of Heaven, and for a fleeting moment catch a glimpse of their world. 

For all the scolding we give them today, they did have one hell of a party.

A prize for prescience must go to, of all people, the Japanese consul-general of 1932, who, even at the very moment that his country was bombing Shanghai, remarked to Lampson that “in a hundred years’ time, China might have absorbed Japan.” There are 20 years still to go, after all. China is buying up the world’s raw materials on every continent, building fleets of aircraft carriers, and starting to contest hegemony in the South China Sea. Plus, it’s pretty hard to imagine any present-day Chinese minister playing Drunken Coachmen.


Andrew Roberts is the author, most recently, of The Storm of War: A New History of the Second World War.