Tsiang Tingfu – pre-revolutionary China’s last bridge with the West

The American-educated diplomat and historian sought Chinese national revival on cosmopolitan lines, but Mao's revolution led to exile as mainland China was closed off to the world.
Tsiang Tingfu, left, with Senator Robert Kennedy, 1965. Credit: Getty Images
Tsiang Tingfu, left, with Senator Robert Kennedy, 1965. Credit: Getty Images
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For a country that has had such an impact on global history, it is surprising how few figures from modern Chinese history have become well-known names outside their own country: Mao Zedong of course, Deng Xiaoping perhaps, and for those with longer memories, Chiang Kai-shek. Yet many of the figures best-known in the outside world are sometimes, ironically, the least globalised. Mao and Deng visited few other countries in their lifetimes; they spoke only Chinese. Chiang studied abroad in Japan and the USSR, but spoke little English, in contrast to his redoubtable wife, Song Meiling, a significant political player in her own right, whose fluent English was a window to the world for China’s elites for much of the 1930s and 1940s. 

In fact, there was another sort of Chinese leader during the era before the Communist revolution of 1949: fiercely nationalistic but also cosmopolitan, and able to move easily between the worlds of China and the West. One of the most prominent of that cosmopolitan generation was Tsiang Ting-fu (1895-1965).  (Today we would use the modern pinyin Romanisation Jiang Tingfu, but ‘Tsiang’ is how he was known in his own time).  Tsiang played many roles in his lifetime – academic, politician, diplomat, a polymath and a patriot. He helped train the greatest American historian of China; he served as China’s first ambassador to the United Nations; and he wrote prodigiously on issues from the role of the Chinese peasantry to the post-war Attlee government in Britain.

Today Tsiang is hardly remembered, in part because he served a losing side – the Nationalist (Kuomintang or Guomindang) government of Chiang Kai-shek, exiled from the mainland to Taiwan in 1949. But it was also because his career, unusual but not unique in early twentieth century China, became impossible after Mao’s ascendancy when China and the West were separated.

The cosmopolitan balancing act that Tsiang’s generation performed was hard. It had to navigate between a Western, usually English-speaking world which preached cosmopolitanism, but in practice treated the Chinese as inferior subjects of empire, and a China which regarded the West – and those who engaged with it – with suspicion. 

Yet for more than half a century, particularly in the heyday of the short-lived Chinese Republic that lasted on the mainland from the fall of the last emperor in 1912 to the establishment of the People’s Republic in 1949, Tsiang’s cosmopolitan generation had a profound influence on the way China interacted with the world, as well as China’s own development. Today, China has a deeply uneasy relationship with the wider world, both longing to be an influential part of it and deeply resentful of what it sees as external criticism of its behaviour. While the differences between the internationalised China of a hundred years ago, and those of today are profound, the sense for some of its elites of being between two worlds has not gone away.

Tsiang was born in Hunan province, around a hundred miles from the spot where two years earlier, a peasant boy named Mao Zedong had been born. He was part of the first generation to come of age after the abolition in 1905 of the traditional examination system for the bureaucracy, that had been a staple of Chinese dynasties for 1,000 years.  For bright young men (usually men), however, there was an alternative path to education: to study abroad.  This would have been unthinkable for most even half a century before, but the rise of missionary education had altered the intellectual landscape of China. Tsiang himself became a Christian, and at the age of sixteen was sent to the US to study, first at Park College, Missouri, then Oberlin College, and finally for a PhD at Columbia, where he offered a thesis on the effects of British imperialism on labour in Britain, an indication of a lasting interest in the power of empire that would last through his life. His experience included money troubles, but he managed, early on in life, to acquire fluent English and an understanding of the American academic world. It was to prove a valuable set of gifts.

In 1923, Tsiang returned to a turbulent China. The Republic, established a decade earlier with high hopes, had fallen into a tumult of warlord battles and corruption, with Western powers and Japan able seize major territorial and legal concessions from the weak state. China’s nationalistic students called out for ‘science and democracy’ as the two elements that would save China, but there was only patchy evidence of the first (in the Germanic sense of Wissenschaft, not just laboratory science), and little of the second.  Still, Tsiang took up a position at Nankai University in Tianjin, determined to use his intellectual prowess to help train and burnish China’s elite. Soon he moved to the capital, Beijing, where he taught at Tsinghua University. Among his most eager students was a young man named John King Fairbank, whom he introduced to the study of Qing dynasty (1644-1912) documents, and who would go on to become the doyen of China Studies in the US.

Tsiang also exercised his own voice.  China was not a free society, but an ironic effect of the patchwork of power was that in some cities there was a relatively free press. In the Independent Critic [Duli pinglun], Tsiang wrote editorials lamenting the state of China, with ideas on how to fix it. Although the journal was considered a ‘liberal’ one, Tsiang in the 1930s was sympathetic to authoritarian modernisation. ‘The CPSU’s dictatorship and terror … in Russia were all extreme,’ he admitted of the Soviet Union, ‘but many don’t realize that the CPSU’s mission was that Russia should super-modernize.’ He concluded, ‘If it had not used extreme violence, then the Soviet revolution could not have succeeded.’

The Nationalist government of Chiang Kai-shek, established with its capital at Nanjing in 1928 after a series of bloody battles and coups, varied in its attitude to its critics. In some cases, particularly with Communists, it sought them out and killed them. In other cases, it co-opted them, as it did with Tsiang, despite his Marxist tinge. Through the 1930s, Tsiang eased away from the academic world to take up posts in government service. He served as Chinese ambassador to the Soviet Union, seeing Stalin’s state at first hand, and covering the outbreak of war between China and Japan in 1937. He then served as president of the Executive Yuan (a senior cabinet post) before being sent to the US. His period back in America radically altered his views, influenced by the reality of Stalin’s USSR and inspired by democratic planning in the shape of the New Deal. By 1947, he wrote in a very different voice from a decade earlier, arguing that ‘in the whole history of humankind, there is no fact at all that can prove that political freedom is an obstacle to economic freedom. Political freedom alone is certainly not enough. But if we want to say that first we must reduce political freedom and only then can we gain economic freedom, then those are just “strong words which [avoid] reason.”’  

It was the position that Tsiang took up in the US that marked his major contribution to China’s development. In 1943, the United States worked with other Allied powers to establish the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA), which lasted until 1947 and brought immense amounts of reconstruction funding to war-torn countries. UNRRA was a major institution in postwar Europe, but it also brought $600million worth of funding to China. Tsiang was, first, the designated representative of China for UNRRA, and on his return from the US headed the China National Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (CNRRA), the domestic agency that divided up with UNRRA the massive job of restoring normality to the postwar state. This was no small task in a country with over 10 million dead and nearly 100 million who became refugees between 1937 and 1945. Tsiang’s experience was not always happy. From the start, there were tensions between the need for China to beg for money and its desire to assert its new sovereign nationhood. China was a proud country that had fought longer than any other Allied power; Tsiang wanted his country to be treated as a fellow-combatant, not a supplicant for funds, but the Americans tended to disagree. In the end, the tensions between the US and China, together with those between the Chinese Nationalists and Communists, on the verge of civil war, led Tsiang to resign in 1946. 

Nonetheless, his actions and writings set the stage for a debate already underway in the early Cold War, and not yet ended: do development and democracy go hand in hand, or does one follow the other? Today, the US (at its best moments) argues for the former, whereas the PRC would advocate the latter (if democracy indeed follows at all). It was a sign of Tsiang’s willingness to rethink his assumptions that he shifted from the first position to the second over a decade. He never actually joined the Nationalist party, and briefly toyed with setting up a Liberal party (not a winning proposition in mid-twentieth century China), but lived his life in an uneasy compact, knowing that the Party he served was a ruthless machine, few of whose delegates had the commitment to pluralist democracy he had developed, yet fearing that the only viable alternative, the Communists, would be worse. He became an archetype of a particular type of Cold War liberal – when liberalism and anti-communism came into conflict, he would (perhaps reluctantly) prioritise anti-communism.

Tsiang’s career, like that of the Nationalist government he served, came to an anticlimactic end. He was appointed as permanent representative of the Republic of China on Taiwan to the new United Nations, and the last years of his career were spent making speeches of increasing hostility against Beijing’s attempts to take the UN seat (they finally succeeded in doing so in 1971).  He died in 1965, and soon the whole generation of western-educated scholars-turned-politicians like him also disappeared. The Communist China formed in 1949 was a new sort of state, with good relations with the USSR, but very few with the Western world. By the time of the Cultural Revolution, foreign contacts, let alone knowledge of English, could get you killed. 

Of course, the reforms of the 1980s moved China back into the world, and its citizens today engage globally in every field from technology to finance to education.  Yet foreign experience is not always a boon in its top echelons, even now. The Tsiangs of today – young enthusiastic patriots with a Western PhD – sometimes find this when they return, eager to serve China by joining the Communist Party, only to be told at their first meeting that their fancy foreign ways count for little. Few of today’s top Communist Party elite have significant overseas experience. It’s not the only reason China-Western relations are difficult. But Tsiang Tingfu would have thought that it mattered.

Rana Mitter

Rana Mitter is author of China’s Good War: How World War II is Shaping a New Nationalism (2020) and China’s War with Japan, 1937-1945: The Struggle for Survival [US title: Forgotten Ally] (2013). He is professor of the history and politics of modern China at the University of Oxford.

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