30 October 2017

The Southern Sea, Africa and Wei Yuan’s realism

Wei Yuan 魏源

I recently posted about Gong Zizhen 龚自珍 and intepreted him as a ‘revolutionary conservative’ in parallel with the Slavophils, up to and including his use of classical Confucianism to attack Qing corruption, materialism and concentration of power in his own day. I mentioned his colleague and fellow New Text scholar Wei Yuan 魏源 as a kindred spirit, and was motivated to read a brief biography and monograph of his work by Jane Kate Leonard. It turns out, he was one of the first people to understand the threat of Western capitalism and imperialism, and move to oppose it using China’s store of traditional wisdom.

Wei Yuan was very much a Confucian; he believed that the relationships between states should be governed not by vertical power relations nor by free-for-all trade, but instead by a harmonious, if slightly hierarchical, system of mutual security and tribute arrangements. In this, he deliberately cast back to the policies of the Ming Dynasty, and indeed consciously stood within the stream of reformist and statecraft-oriented thought that characterised the Ming Dynasty’s Donglin movement 东林党. But he was the first to use these insights in an analysis of the West and the threat of a very different world order that it represented, particularly in the wake of the Opium War (in which, on account of his close personal friendship with Commissioner Lin Zexu 林则徐, he took a strong personal interest). In his Illustrated Treatise on the Maritime Kingdoms 《海国图志》, Wei Yuan treated the subject of colonialism at length, in what turned from a study on the Southern Sea trading kingdoms into a much broader, politically-oriented project.

Wei Yuan had a profound, and profoundly realistic, view of the geopolitical landscape of his time. He understood the trade rivalries between France, Britain and the US. He understood in the broad strokes how they were able to project power abroad, and how they used their power projection to promote corporate-capitalist commerce (backing up trading company ‘rights’ with the military force of their navies). He elucidated for a Chinese audience the nature of the ‘fortified-port system’ by which French, Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch and British navies could project hard power, even halfway across the world, to enforce their mercantilist goals. He also displayed, on this question, an altogether classically-Confucian aversion to the use of state power to back up private interests merely for the sake of profit. (In Wei’s view, Chinese trade in the Southern Sea was not only unfavoured by Chinese naval power, but entirely ignored – the Manchus had been forced by political expediency to turn a blind eye to the junk trade unless it involved piracy and land raids.) And he could be remarkably sensitive to the injustices perpetrated on other peoples by the pursuit of ‘free trade’ on the part of Western powers.

In Wei’s treatment of Africa, for example, he noticed how the ‘fortified-port system’ was used to enslave the inhabitants and drain the African coastline of its material wealth. ‘English and Dutch soldiers guard [the African coastline],’ Wei wrote. ‘They have taken the seaports for bases. They have built fortresses and markets, and the natives are used as slave labour.’ To this Leonard adds:
This passage contains Wei’s view of Western expansion, its commercial orientation, its application of force, its systematic exploitation of indigenous peoples, and its reliance on strategically located ports to maintain and protect lines of communication and trade. The same pattern reëmerges in Wei’s description of the rest of the network linking Europe and Southeast Asia.
In short, Wei’s attitude toward sub-Saharan Africa was one of humane (as in ren 仁) sympathy and solidarity. He betrayed no hint of the racism toward Africans that even some of the radical thinkers in his own school would, unfortunately, later harbour. The coastal black Africans may have been ‘barbarians’, but they were people all the same, and the radical implication of his geographical treatment of the African coastline was that their fate was intrinsically linked up with China’s. (This is an insight which, perhaps indirectly, the modern Chinese government has taken keenly to heart.) His message to the leaders and literati of the Qing was markedly not one of complacency; it was to the effect that ‘if exploitation and slavery could happen to the Africans through this system imposed by the West, it can happen to us – and it already is’. Despite the fact that, as Leonard convincingly argues, Wei is working out of a traditional Ming Confucian mindset regarding a hierarchical and harmonious tributary system, his insights lend themselves to an almost Wallersteinian sensibility regarding the workings of global capitalism.

Leonard is not uncritical of Wei’s remedies. In her view, Wei had an overly-confident view of China’s ability, in a rapidly-changing geopolitical environment, to reassert the traditional tributary system (however truly functional it was before his own time) and manipulate the Chinese ‘near abroad’ into action against particularly British encroachment. But she nonetheless has a keen appreciation for the subtlety and depth of Wei’s grasp of Western realpolitik given the paucity of the translated sources he had to hand. Interestingly, whereas Gong Zizhen saw Russia as a threat to China, his younger colleague and close friend Wei Yuan understood Russia (along with Nepal, Burma, Vietnam and Thailand) to be a natural geopolitical ally against powers further West: both on account of its long relationship as a frenemy of the Qing Dynasty, and also on account of the fact of its rivalry with Britain in ‘the Great Game’.

Another fascinating figure in the Chinese New Text tradition, and one for whom I have a great deal of respect. Though not nearly as pugnacious (and not nearly as given to jeremiads against the reigning order, foot-binding, opium-smoking, greed, corruption or inequality) as his elder comrade, his realism, his Third World solidarity with Africa and the victims of the Middle Passage, his advocacy for harmonious relations in the South China Sea and his (albeit mild and conditional) Russophilia endear him to me greatly. Wei Yuan is certainly someone to pay more attention to, particularly as each of his interests (up to and including the Chinese interest in Africa) has, again, become timely.

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