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November 25, 2008 in The China Beat


Copyright November 25, 2008 Peter Zarrow. Used by permission.


Even though Dewey and Tagore have gotten more attention lately in scholarly works on Chinese education and ruminations of Chinese interactions with other countries, we at China Beat remain equally interested in the third famous foreign philosopher who gave a high profile set of lectures to audiences in Beijing and other cities during the aftermath of World War I: Bertrand Russell.

We thought about him when running our series on Jonathan Spence’s Reith Lectures, since Russell gave the inaugural ones sixty years before that. And we think of him when perusing the sections of Chinese bookstores devoted to philosophical matters or the history of ideas, for a translation of his famous History of Western Philosophy is often prominently displayed there. Ironically, whereas Russell once sold a lot of books in Europe and America, from the English language edition of that tome to works on many other topics (including what he thought about China), his biggest readership now is likely in the PRC. With these things in mind, we’re delighted to be able to bring you historian Peter Zarrow’s take on how Russell’s 1922 book-long commentary on China has stood the test of time.

In 1920 Bertrand Russell (1872-1970) visited China, based in Beijing and giving lectures across the country. One of the founders of analytic philosophy and a trenchant radical, upon his return to Britain Russell quickly came out with a book on China conditions called The Problem of China (London: George Allen, 1922). I looked at it to see what Russell had to say about his trip. It turned out that the book has only passing references to his own experiences in China—it’s more of a high-toned journalistic overview. Russell offers many generalizations and predictions about China. Naturally some did not work out, but many were prescient. Looking at them almost 90 years later, it occurred to me that when Russell was wrong, he was wrong in a way that illuminates the problem as much as if he had been right.

Witnessing a China in turmoil—warlords, demonstrations, strikes, the ever-present imperialist threats—Russell was both sympathetic and empathetic. For their part, Chinese looked to Russell partly for ideas about what they should be doing and partly as a mirror. Russell’s trip overlapped with John Dewey’s extended lecture tour, and there were short visits by Margaret Sanger, Albert Einstein, Rabindranath Tagore, and many more at about the same time.