Letter to a Chinese Gentleman
Tolstoy’s “Letter to a Chinese Gentleman” (“Письмо китайцу”), written in reply to Ku Hung-ming (Хун-Мину), and translated by Vladimir G. Tchertkoff, was published in English in 1907 by The Free Age Press. The letter was written in October 1906 after Tolstoy received some books from Ku – “Et nunc, reges, intelligite! the moral causes of the Russo-Japanese war” and the “Papers from a Viceroy’s Yamen“.
The letter was first published in German in November 1906 in the “Neue Freie Presse,” then in French in the “Courrier Européen“, in English in “The Free Age” and only lastly – and partially – in Chinese in 1907, both in China and in overseas Chinese publications (in Paris). The letter in full was published in Chinese in China only in early 1911, after Tolstoy’s death, in the “Dongfang” journal (东方杂志).
It shall be seen that Tolstoy and Ku were in close agreement on the baneful effects of modernization and the myth of progress.
Constitutions, protective tariffs, and standing armies have rendered the Western nations what they are: people who have abandoned agriculture and become unused to it, occupied in towns and factories in the production of articles that are for the most part unnecessary, people who with their armies are adapted only to every kind of violence and robbery. However brilliant their position may appear at first sight, it is a desperate one, and they must inevitably perish if they do not change the whole structure of their life, founded as it now is on deceit and the plunder and pillage of the agricultural nations.
To imitate Western nations, being frightened by their insolence and power, would be the same as if a rational, undepraved, industrious man were to imitate a spendthrift, insolent ruffian who has lost the habit of work and was assaulting him. It would be to successfully oppose an immoral scoundrel by becoming a similar immoral scoundrel oneself. The Chinese should not imitate Western nations, but profit by their example in order to avoid falling into the same desperate straits.
All that the Western nations are doing can and should be an example for the Eastern ones – not, however, an example of what they should do, but of what they should not do under any consideration whatever.
Tolstoy and Ku’s correspondence was not limited to this single exchange of letters; Ku sent a congratulatory telegram to the Russian author on his 80th birthday in August 1908, signed by many eminent Chinese cultural personalities.
Significantly, Tolstoy considered this brief letter – which can be read as a manifesto – as one of his most important works, along with his “Circle of Reading”. Further commentary would be therefore superfluous.
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“Papers from a Viceroy’s Yamen” (尊王篇), the title of a book by Ku Hung-ming published in 1901, is a collection of rather vitriolic essays on Western encroachment in China, written in the aftermath of the Boxer Rebellion.
The “Bogdikhan” (usually written as Bogd Khan) was in fact the title of the last Mongolian Emperor, a Buddhist Lama enthroned as emperor.