All Commentary
Sunday, May 1, 1955

Imperial Chinese Welfare State

It is a curious fact that the greater part of those social theories which have lately thrown the public mind of France into a ferment, and which are represented as the sublime results of the progress of human reason, are but exploded Chinese Utopias which agitated the Celestial Empire centuries ago.

In the 11th century of our era, the Chinese nation, under the dynasty of Song, presented a spectacle nearly analogous to that seen in Europe, and France especially, of late years. The great and knotty questions of social and political economy filled all minds and split into parties every class of society. The nation was divided into two furious parties; pamphlets, libels, inflammatory writings of all kinds were daily flung profusely to the multitude, who devoured them with avidity.

The reformer, or chief of the Socialist party, was the famous Wang-ngan-ché, a man of remarkable talent, who kept all classes of the empire in excitement during the reign of several emperors. Chinese historians say that he had received from nature a mind far above mediocrity, which was brought to perfection by careful culture. In youth he studied with ardour and application, and his efforts were crowned with success; he was distinguished by honourable mention among those who received the rank of doctor at the same time.

The popularity of Wang-ngan-ché fluctuated greatly at various periods during the time that he bent all his efforts to reorganize, or rather to revolutionize the empire. His power was almost unlimited beneath the emperor Chen-tsoung, who, charmed with the brilliant qualities of the reformer, gave him his entire confidence.

The executive and the tribunals were soon filled with his creatures, and, seizing the favourable moment to realize his schemes, the ancient order of things was soon overthrown. His innovations and reforms were greeted enthusiastically by his partisans, and attacked with envenomed eagerness by his enemies.

According to Wang-ngan-ché, the carrying out of his scheme was to procure infallible happiness to the people in the development of the greatest possible material enjoyments for everyone. Whilst reading the history of this famous epoch in the dynasty of Song, one is forcibly struck with the resemblance of the writings and harangues of Wang-ngan-ché to those which, in our own time, we have seen propounded in the newspapers and the senate.

“The first and most essential duty of a government,” said the Chinese socialist, “is to love the people and to procure them the real advantages of life, which are plenty and pleasure. To accomplish this object it would suffice to inspire everyone with the unvarying principles of rectitude, but as all might not observe them the state should explain the manner of following these precepts and enforce obedience by wise and inflexible laws. In order to prevent the oppression of man by man the State should take possession of all the resources of the Empire and become the sole master and employer. The State should take the entire management of commerce, industry, and agriculture into its own hands, with the view of succouring the working classes and preventing their being ground to the dust by the rich.” According to these new regulations, tribunals were to be established throughout the Empire, which were to fix the price of provisions and merchandise. For a certain number of years taxes were to be imposed—to be paid by the rich—from which the poor should be exempt. The tribunals were to decide who was rich and who poor. The sum thus collected was to be reserved in the coffers of the State, to be distributed to aged paupers, to workmen out of employ, and to whoever should be judged to stand most in need of it.

According to Wang-ngan-ché the State was to become the only proprietor of the soil; in each district the tribunals were to assign the land annually to the farmers, and distribute amongst them the seed necessary to sow it, on condition that the loan was repaid either in grain or other provisions after the harvest was gathered, and in order that all the land should be profitably cultivated, the officers of the tribunals should fix what kind of crop was to be grown, and supply the seed for it.

“It is evident,” said the partisans of the new scheme, “that by these means abundance and happiness will reign throughout the land. The only people who can suffer by this state of things are the usurers and monopolists, who never fail to profit by famine and all public calamities, to enrich themselves and ruin the working classes. But what great harm will it be to put an end at last to the exactions of these enemies of the people? Does not justice require that they should be forced to restitute their ill-gotten gains? The State will be the only creditor, and will never take interest. As she will watch over agriculture and fix the current price of provisions, there will always be a supply proportionate to the harvest. In case of famine in any one spot, the great agricultural tribunal of Pekin, informed by the provincial tribunals of the various harvests of the Empire, will easily restore the equilibrium by causing the superfluity of the fertile provinces to be transported into those which are a prey to want. Thus the necessaries of life will always be sold at a moderate price, there will no longer be any classes in want, and the State, being the only speculator, will realize enormous profits annually, to be applied to works of public utility.”

This radical reform entailed of course the destruction of large fortunes and the reduction of all classes to a more uniform condition, and this was precisely the aim of Wang-ngan-ché and his followers. This bold scheme did not, as with us, stop short at theory, for the Chinese are much more daring than they are reputed to be. The Emperor Chen-tsoung, persuaded by the arguments of Wang-ngan-ché, placed entire authority in his hands, and the social revolution began. Sse-ma-kouang, who had struggled long and fruitlessly against the reformer, determined to make a last effort, and addressed to the Emperor a remarkable petition, from which we shall quote the passage relative to the advancing of seed-corn to the tiller of the land.

“It is proposed to advance to the people the seed with which they are to sow the ground. At the end of winter, or in the beginning of spring, the officers will supply each man with the quantity they judge necessary, gratuitously. Immediately after the gathering of harvest, the same quantity and no more will be demanded back. What can be more advantageous to the people? By this means all lands will be cultivated, and abundance will reign throughout the provinces of the Empire.

“In theory nothing can be more attractive and beneficial, in practice nothing more injurious to the country. We will suppose the grain distributed, and eagerly received by the people (though on this point I have much doubt); do they really make the use of it for which it is destined? Whoever believes this must have very little experience, and judges far too favourably of the common order of men. The interest of the moment is what concerns them most; the greater part never look beyond the day, and very few indeed trouble their heads about the future.

“The seed, then, is entrusted to them, and they begin by consuming part; they sell or exchange it for something which they imagine they need more than anything else. Corn has been given them; they leave off working, and become idle. But supposing all this does not happen: the grain is sown, all the necessary labours of cultivation are properly performed, the time of gathering the crop arrives, and they are called upon to repay what was lent them. The harvest which they have watched as it grew and ripened, and regarded as their own property, the well-earned fruit of their labours, must now be divided. Part must be yielded up, or sometimes, in bad seasons, the whole crop. How many reasons will be alleged for refusing to do so! How many real and imaginary necessities will stand in the way of the restitution!

“The tribunals, we shall be answered, which are established expressly for this department, will despatch their satellites to enforce the payment of what is due. Doubtless; and beneath the pretext of demanding what is due, what extortion, what robbery and violence will be committed! I do not mention the enormous cost which such establishments would entail; but, after all, at whose expense would they be maintained? At the expense of the Government, the nation, or the farmers? Whichever it may be, who will derive advantage from it? It may be alleged that this practice of advancing the seed has long been in use in the province of Chen-si, and that none of these evil results have taken place; it appears, on the contrary, that the people find it desirable, since they have made no request for its repeal. I have but one reply to make to this. I am a native of Chen-si; I passed the first part of my life there; I have been an eyewitness to the miseries of the people; and I can affirm that, of the evils under which they suffer, they attribute two-thirds to this practice, against which they murmur unceasingly. Let candid inquiry be entered into, and the true state of things will be made manifest.”*

* Memories sur la Chine, Vol. X. p. 48.

The chronicles of the time add that on the side of Sse-ma-kouang were seen all the most distinguished men of the Empire, whether renowned for wit, experience, talents, judgment, or rank, and who all added their prayers and entreaties to his; then, changing their tone, they accused Wang-ngan-ché of disturbing the public tranquillity.

But amid the violent attacks and clamour that rose against him on all sides, the reformer remained ever calm and imperturbable. Possessed of the confidence of the sovereign, he smiled at the vain efforts of his enemies to ruin him. He read the declamations and satires which they presented to the Emperor under the name of respectful representations, humble supplications, and so forth, and appeared not to be moved by them in the slightest.

When the Emperor, persuaded by the arguments of his adversaries, was on the point of yielding and restoring the form of government to the old footing, Wang-ngan-ché would calmly say to him, “Why should you be hasty in this matter? Wait till experience has shown you the result of the measures which we have adopted for the benefit of your realm and the happiness of your subjects. Beginnings are always difficult, and it is only after overcoming many obstacles that a man can hope to reap the fruit of his labour. Be firm, and all will go well. Ministers, nobles, and Mandarins have all risen against me. I am not surprised at it; they cannot quit the common routine, and adopt new customs. Little by little they will grow used to these innovations, their natural aversion will die away of its own accord, and they will end by applauding what they are now so eager to decry.”

Wang-ngan-ché maintained his ascendancy throughout the reign of Chen-tsoung; he put all his plans in execution, and overturned the country at his ease. According to Chinese historians, his social revolution was not successful; the nation became more deeply plunged in misery than ever. But that which excited the public opinion most deeply against this bold reformer was his attempt to remodel literature, and subject it to his despotic system. Not only did he change the form of examination for the grades of literary rank, but he caused his own commentaries on the sacred books to be adopted as the correct explanation.

On the death of the Emperor, Wang-ngan-ché was immediately deposed; the reigning Empress sent for Sse-ma-kouang, who had been living in retirement. She named him governor of the young Emperor, and Prime Minister. His first step in this important post was to efface every trace of the government of Wang-ngan-ché, who died not long after; nor did Sse-ma-kouang long survive him. The memory of these two men has been by turns execrated with all the virulence of political passion; and in this, again, the Chinese have shown a strong resemblance to the Europeans.

Abbe Huc was Missionary Apostolic in China. He traveled throughout the Far East from 1838 to 1852. This extract is from his The Chinese Empire, 1855.