a bully’s honor

As I watch the US president scream and shout and justify his socio-pathologies, as I  engage low-ranking officials who change their minds and force their subordinates to work unnecessary overtime everyday, and as I argue with parents who think that their children are not “strong enough (不够厉害)” to take what they want in life, I’ve been thinking a lot about bullies and institutional forms of bullying that are misrecognized as education or leadership or honor and virtue. Like many in the United States, a significant number of Chinese people accept social Darwinism as an accurate description of “the real world,” rather than recognizing social Darwinism for the self-serving misreading of evolutionary theory that it is.

Then, after a grumble about the normalization of bullying in everyday life, I continue reading E. J. Eitel’s Europe in China: the History of Hongkong from the beginning to the Year 1882, which compounds my frustration with righteous bullies and their inability to empathize with anyone’s pain, including their own. I manage three sentences before the arrogance, misogyny and general smugness of Eitel’s text force me to consider if I really want to read over 600 pages of what must have been considered “edifying” reading material. The text does make clear is the extent to which imperial bureaucracies, colonialism and some misplaced yearning for civilization continue to overdetermine the hierarchies and injustices that characterize contemporary societies.

It is also true that in the manner of educated bureaucrats Eitel delivers a lovely set down. Chapter 1 opens with this paragraph: “The history of British Trade with China, which preceded Great Britain’s connection with India, is comprised, from its first commencement down to the year 1834, in the history of the Honorable East India Company [EIC, which could be pronounced ‘eek’]. Unfortunately, however , the story of the Company’s relations with China is one of the darkest blots in the whole history of British commerce. That great and powerful Corporation, which governed successfully Asiatic Kings and princes, and covered itself with administrative, financial and even military glory, particularly in India, was entirely nonplussed by China’s dogged self-adequacy and persistent assertion of supremacy, and had its glory, its honor, its self-respect rudely trample under foot by subordinate Chinese Mandarins (1).” — hee!

Eitel lamented that the Chinese maintained their independence despite deliberate attempts to sabotage indigenous society—and yes, I think the overlap between religious and the military vocabulary should stop us cold. In the logic of the bully that codes coercion as “moral influence,” Eitel opined that EIC’s problem wasn’t their charter, but rather the fact that they weren’t up to the task of proper colonization. Even subordinate Chinese Mandarins (and ’tis a phrase that sets off all sorts of alarms) could trample the company’s honor. And there’s the rub: just what was the honor proper to a company that was described in 1769 as “the most complete system ever known of fraud and violence, by uniting, in the same persons, the several functions of Merchant, Soldier, Financier and Judge; depriving, by that union, all those functions of their mutual checks, by which alone they can be made useful to society”? 

The anti-EIC citation comes from An Enquiry into the Rights of the East-India Company: Of making War and Peace; and of possessing their Territorial Acquisitions without the Participation or Inspection of the British Government, a text with one of those longish titles common to eighteenth century tracts that argued that the public use of human reason found best expression in democratic governance, checks and balances, and universal suffrage for white, male property owners. The tract wasn’t actually anti-colonialism. It wasn’t even particularly progressive in terms of understanding trade and labor. The author did, however, see the need for multi-national businesses to be regulated by social institutions that were guided by moral understanding, rather than allowing businesses interests, which were straightforwardly rapacious to determine political actions, such as invasion, occupation, and the destruction of local economy. 

Similarly, Eitel upbraided the EIC for failing to mediate the proper transfer of goods from Asia to England, rather than disagreeing with colonialism per se. He was even upset with the Chinese for resisting their destiny to be ruled. In this light, Eitel appeared as another apologist who worked to make colonialism what it claimed to be, rather than what it actually was. He made specific note that it was the willingness of EIC merchants to bribe and work with corrupt Mandarins that made them unfit to colonize. One might think that the company representatives had sold their honor by “tacitly acquiesc[ing]…that China claims the sovereignty over all under heaven; that trade, whether retail or wholesale, is a low degrading occupation, fit only for the lower classes beneath the contempt of the Chinese gentry, literati and officials; but that the Emperor of China, as the father of all human beings, is merciful even to barbarians, and as their existence seems to depend upon periodical supplies of silk, rhubarb and tea…” Indeed, it galled Eitel that foreigners could only take into their service “those belonging to the Pariah caste of the boat population (known as Ham-shui), forbidden by law to live on shore or to compete at literary examinations (12).” Hence, his emphasis that even subordinate Chinese could trample the honor of British citizens.

In contrast, Eitel praised Navy officers as exemplars of Europe’s moral superiority: “The first intimation the Chinese received of a superior moral power, inherent in the character of foreigners, was conveyed to them by contact with officers of the British navy (13).” Eitel emphasized that contact with officers of the Centaur, the first British man-of-war to arrive in Chinese waters taught the Chinese their place. And yes, Commodore Anson seems, if we read between the lines, something of a bully: [The Centaur’s] commander, Commodore Anson, very quietly and good-naturedly resisted all pretensions and by sheer force of character, combined with judicious menaces, brushed all objections aside, and forced his ship without positive hostilities through the Bogue and up to Whampoa (13).”


German map of the Pearl River Delta, 1890. Shenzhen is on the map as “Scham tsun,” as is “San on” the historical location of the County Seat of Xin’an.


This simplified map of the area leaves off Shenzhen, Xin’an (present-day Nantou), but gives a clear sense of where the gauntlet lay. Map from the MIT Visualizing Culture project.

A good fifty years later, the British continued to assert their superiority through what Eitel saw as commendable force: “The gallant Captain pointed to his biggest guns as his security and declared the only cargo carried by a British man-of-war to be powder and shot. Thereupon the frightened officer beat a hasty retreat and subsequently sent on board a stern refusal to allow the ship to enter the Bogue. In reply, Captain Maxwell politely informed the commanders of the Bogue forts of the exact hour when he intended to pass through the Bogue, and, after giving them ample time to make all their preparations, he gallantly ran the gauntlet of the Bogue forts, under sail, leisurely returning the fire of the forts after aiming and firing the first gun with his own hands. Though becalmed within range of the forts, he succeeded in pushing his way to Whampoa without serious casualty on his own side (14).”

On this reading, Eitel seems to have understood “honor” to refer to the ability for British men to get their own way, even when (or precisely when) their Chinese interlocutors disagreed. Indeed, when a Chinese Mandarin successfully asserted his or the Qing’s rights in relation to the EIC or British Navy, Eitel saw trampled British honor.The bully’s honor hinged on a double standard that Edmund Burke called “geographic morality,” in which “actions in Asia do not bear the same the same moral qualities which the same actions would bear in Europe.” Thus, military force, the disruption of local societies, and trade balances comprised British men’s honor in China. 

Many had lampooned the EIC’s “geographic morality” as straight-forward hypocrisy. One of Hastings’s classmates, William Cowper, for example wrote a poem that asked, “Hast thou, though suckled at fair freedom’s breast, Exported slav’ry to the conquer’d East; Pull’d down the tyrants India serv’d with dread, And rais’d thyself, a greater, in their stead? But Hastings’s aquital in 1785 made it clear that the British state recognized “geographic morality” as being necessary to their well-being. Indeed, Hastings’s defence wasn’t to deny the atrocities commited during his tenure as a senior exectutive at EIC, but rather to admit that this was the only way to maintain the transfer of wealth from India to Britain and so he decided to “neglect the sermons and to find the rupees.” It went without saying, that his honor required him to do whatever was necessary to enrich himself, company shareholders and the British crown and such is the honor proper to a bully.

note: In a series of postcards , I read within and against the emergence of the Shenzhen Special Economic Zone. I am not so much interested in providing a comprehensive history of the SEZ as I am in tracking Shen Kong, a form of post-Mao post-coloniality that is one of the close roots of the Belt and Road initiative. As I read, I note associations that link contemporary Shenzhen and early colonial Hong Kong. In those flashes of awareness, the norms and forms of contemporary global restructuring make uncanny and distressing sense. Page citations are noted in parentheses and refer to the 1895 edition of Europe in China.

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