“I went to teach but instead had to learn” – Bertrand Russell in Beijing 1920

“I went to teach but instead had to learn” – Bertrand Russell in Beijing 1920

Gordon Dumoulin
TFF Associate

June 1, 2022

“When I went to China, I went to teach; but every day that I stayed I thought less of what I had to teach them and more of what I had to learn from them,”

Bertrand Russell’s notes in 1920 (British Philosopher 1872-1970)

In 1922, Bertrand Russell published a book “The Problem Of China” – see below – based on his study and also experience during his year in Beijing teaching at the University of Peking as Professor of Philosophy.

While many books about China have a shelf life of actuality merely lasting for months to a few years, Russell’s book “The Problem Of China” has stood the test of time mapping out where China would stand about a century later. Although the title might appear as anti-China, it is quite the opposite. It predicts China’s resurgence and outlines the strength of Chinese civilization with opportunities and threats.

In the last chapter, he noted: “China, by her resources and her population, is capable of being the greatest Power in the world after the United States.”

With unique foresight, Russell predicted China’s resurgence, but only if it is able to establish an orderly government, promote industrial development under Chinese control and foster the spread of education. He also emphasized the importance of the Chinese character in the process for the success of this resurgence.

He also highlighted the threats of failure in the uprise of China, especially for the sake of money “all but a few will be guilty of corruption”. We can see this sphere of attention and acknowledgement to conquer these potential threats even in China’s policymaking today.

Another very interesting and accurate forecast in his book: “I have no doubt that if the Chinese could get a stable government and sufficient funds, they would, within the next 30 years, begin to produce remarkable work in science.” Remember that in 1978, Deng Xiaoping visited Japan to learn its production methods; just over three decades later, the Chinese economy had exceeded Japan’s.

A few other passages from his book “The Problem of China” :

“If intercourse between Western nations and China is to be fruitful, we much cease to regard ourselves as missionaries of a superior civilization, or, worse still, as men who have a right to exploit, oppress, and swindle the Chinese because they are an ‘inferior’ race.” (p11)

“The Chinese nation is the most patient in the world; it thinks of centuries as other nations think of decades. It is essentially indestructible, and can afford to wait.” (p 16)

Besides being a philosopher, he was a mathematician, political and social critic, historian and a prominent anti-war activist. He received the Nobel prize in Literature in 1950 for his various works.

In a 1952 interview with Romney Wheeler, he said “One of the troubles of the world has been the habit of dogmatically believing something or other. And I think all these matters are full of doubt and the rational man will not be too sure that he’s right. I think we ought always to entertain our opinions with some measure of doubt. I shouldn’t wish people dogmatically to believe any philosophy, not even mine.”

Romney Wheeler interviews British philosopher, logician, mathematician, historian, and social critic Bertrand Russell at Russell’s home in Surrey, England 1952.

In his interview with the BBC in 1959 he talked about two legacies he would like to leave behind for future generations ;

One intellectual advice: “When you are studying any matter or considering any philosophy, ask yourself only what are the facts and what is the truth that the facts bear out. Never let yourself be diverted either by what you wish to believe, or by what you think would have beneficent social effects if it were believed. But look only, and solely, at what are the facts”

One moral advice: “Love is wise, hatred is foolish. In this world which is getting more and more closely interconnected, we have to learn to tolerate each other. We have to learn to put with the fact that some people say things we don’t like. We can only live together in that way. And if we are to live together and not die together, we must learn a kind of charity and a kind of tolerance which is absolutely vital to the continuation of human life on this planet.”

Interviewer: John Freeman, BBC

These are thoughts that definitely deserve much more attention for their insight, reflection and debate today, especially today!

There has probably never been so much data available to be educated and informed or to create perspective and balanced opinions from different angles than there is at this time of history.

But enigmatically, it seems that the more facts and data that are available for deeper and wider knowledge, the fewer facts are actually being consulted (and others dismissed or manipulated right away). Knowledge along with valuable doubts seem to be dropped down the road of dogmatism and its politically correct opinions.

This article was originally published by Gordon Dumoulin on his homepage
China Business and Actualities. 5iZ on May 15, 2022

Interesting reports on Bertrand Russell and China:

Bertrand Russell and China During and After His Visit in 1920 (238-page report, 2020 by John Paisley, Harvard Library)

Russell and China—100 Years of a Meaningful Intercultural Interaction (13-page report, 2021 by Jana S. Rošker, Routledge)

Source pictures 1, 3, 4 : https://russell-homes.mcmaster.ca/home/china

Source picture 2 : https://www.raptisrarebooks.com/product/the-problem-of-china-bertrand-russell-first-edition/

Other sources : https://www.weekinchina.com/2011/07/a-man-ahead-of-his-time/

Read Russell’s “The Problem of China”

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