Category Archives: economics

Unchanged Calcutta

From The Epic City: The World on the Streets of Calcutta, by Kushanava Choudhury (Bloomsbury, 2018), Kindle Loc. approx. 320-340:

Everything that could possibly be wrong with a city was wrong with Calcutta. The city is situated between a river and a swamp. Its weather, Mark Twain had said, ‘was enough to make a brass doorknob mushy.’ For six months out of the year, you are never dry. You take two to three showers a day to keep cool, but start sweating the moment you turn off the tap. The dry winter months, when I arrived, were worse. I woke up some mornings feeling my chest was on fire. Breathing in Calcutta, Manash, the neighbourhood doctor told me, was like smoking a pack of cigarettes a day. Keeping the dust and grime off my body, out of my nails, hair and lungs was a daily struggle. Then there were the mosquitoes, which arrived in swarms at sundown and often came bearing malaria.

I could look forward to the monsoons, of course, when floodwaters regularly reached your waist in parts of the city. When they weren’t flooded, the streets were blocked by marches, rallies, barricades and bus burnings, all of which passed for normal politics in the city. Staying cool, dry, healthy and sane took up so much effort that it left little enthusiasm for much else.

Nothing had changed since my childhood. The paanwallas still ruled the street corners, perched on stoops with their bottles of soft drinks and neatly arrayed cigarette packets. On the streets, the pushers and pullers of various types of carts still transported most of the city’s goods. The footpaths were still overrun by hawkers selling bulbous sidebags, shirts, combs, peanuts in minuscule sachets, onion fritters and vegetable chow mein. The mildewed concrete buildings, the bowl-shaped Ambassador taxis, the paintings on the backs of buses, the ubiquitous political graffiti, the posters stuck onto any flat surface, the bazaars full of squatting fish sellers, the tea shop benches on the sidewalks, the caged balconies of the middle classes, the narrow entrails of corrugated slums, nothing had changed, not even the impassive expressions on the faces of clerks. The city was in its own time zone.

It was not a happy time. Calcutta was in its twenty-third year of Communist rule, its third decade of factory closures. Until the 1970s it had been the largest and most industrialised city in India but had now been eclipsed in population and prosperity by Bombay and Delhi. The only reason politicians seemed to visit the city any more was to pronounce its death.

Since the early 1990s, life in other parts of India had been improving for people like us, the educated few. The government had loosened its hold over the economy, and dollars were flowing into the American back offices and call centres located in Bangalore and Hyderabad. Countless college-educated young men and women, including many of my cousins, had fled Calcutta for these boomtowns.

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Did the Sepoys Fight for ‘India’?

From Army of Empire: The Untold Story of the Indian Army in World War I, by George Morton-Jack (Basic Books, 2018), Kindle pp. 446-447:

All the evidence from the great British listening post for the Indian troops’ thoughts–the censors office of Indian Expeditionary Force A in France that translated thousands of their letters–points to a communication gap still existing in mid-1918 between the educated urban Indian politicians and the uneducated rural Indian soldiers. The translated letters indicate among the Indian infantry and cavalry in France no nationalism as Gandhi and the Indian politicians articulated it at the Delhi War Conference. The letters’ anthologiser, the British historian David Omissi [also author of The Sepoy and the Raj], found this a ‘deafening silence’:

The ‘India’ that they wrote about… was very much a geographical expression, and one that was not central to a sepoy’s main sense of self. Even in Europe, the sepoys left little evidence that they imagined themselves to be primarily ‘Indians’… Prominent people never mentioned in the letters read like a political Who’s Who of the First World War: Woodrow Wilson, Lloyd George, Herbert Asquith, Lenin, Trotsky and Gandhi are among the many who failed to make any impression. [The] soldiers never discussed… international politics, except in cases which, for Muslims, had an obviously ‘Islamic’ angle… Nor were the troops aware of, or interested in, Indian ‘high’ politics… Two men voiced a hope for self-government after the war, but neither were soldiers: one was a labourer and the other was clearly an educated man. The only letter which could in any way be described as subversively ‘nationalist’ was written by a storekeeper.

Indeed, far from subscribing to the nationalist politicians’ argument in favour of the war, many village families were against military service for their own reasons. As the demand for recruits rose in 1918, so did villages’ reluctance to send their men to fight. Rural pandemics of malaria and bubonic plague made helping hands at home all the more precious in the fragile rural economy, and the new publicity boards’ propaganda posters and poetry only went so far to convince communities that had suffered losses at the fronts to give up more men. In some Punjabi districts volunteers became so unforthcoming that the local recruitment brokers, under pressure from provincial civil authorities to fill their quotas, grew desperate and strayed into unlawful coercion. Such brokers visited Punjabi villages with gangs to seize recruits against their will, and often took cash bribes to leave a village alone. There were also brokers who abused magistrates’ powers of summons to court, by arranging for summons only to grab men for the Indian Army when they showed up.

In Punjab’s Shahpur district, the young men of a number of villages stood up to the coercive brokers, entering into pacts to resist them with force. On occasion this led to violent fights and riots, leaving village streets running with blood. The active Punjabi resistance to recruitment deterred the Government of India from imposing conscription to make sure of reaching its new annual target of 500,000 recruits. This was despite local authorities’ pleas for conscription because their stretched recruitment networks were, in the words of one British civil servant in Punjab in May, ‘riding the voluntary horse to a standstill’.

There was also coercive recruitment in the Indian Empire’s remoter hill and jungle tracts of the north-east called on for non-combatants for labour corps.

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Missionaries in China after 1860

From Yangtze: Nature, History, and the River, by Lyman P. Van Slyke (Stanford Alumni Assn., 1988), pp. 153-154:

In the second treaty settlement [after the 1856–1860 Opium War], prohibitions to inland travel were removed, and Chinese authorities were made responsible for the safety of such travelers. Ten additional treaty ports were opened to trade, including Nanking, Hankow, and two other Yangtze River ports. It was further stipulated that since foreigners might reside in such treaty ports, the powers would have right of gunboat as well as commercial navigation on inland waters. Moreover, the country was opened to missionaries, who were now permitted to travel at will throughout the empire, and to be at all times protected by the Chinese government—a provision often impossible to enforce against popular anti-Christian sentiment. Missionary cases, usually called “outrages” by the foreign community, were enormously troublesome throughout the nineteenth century. The French, presenting themselves in the 1860s as the protectors of Catholicism in China (despite anti-Catholic measures at home) and insisting that the Chinese government not establish direct relations with the Vatican, also demanded that the Chinese government permit the Catholic church to own property and to guarantee the return of all property that had ever belonged to it, referring specifically to those missions that had been established by Matteo Ricci and his successors in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

Until the second treaty settlement, the Catholic church in China had maintained a tenuous but stubborn toehold as an illegal, underground religion. It had been proscribed in 1724 by the Yung-cheng Emperor, except for a few authorized clerics in imperial service at Peking. At this time there were roughly 300,000 converts in China, declining by the end of the century by perhaps half or two-thirds, served by forty or so foreign clerics and twice that number of Chinese priests. Despite the risks, religious orders continued to smuggle priests into China and to smuggle a few Chinese out for training and ordination. Foreign priests had to be secreted at all times, usually in the homes of believers, going out only at night or in covered sedan chairs or boats. This was a harsh and dangerous business. If discovered, foreign priests might be attacked by hostile mobs or bandits. Official punishment might range from deportation to imprisonment to execution. Chinese Catholics often came in for even severer treatment.

The most active mission arena was the southwest, comprised of Szechwan, Yunnan, and Kweichow provinces, where vicariates apostolic had long existed in Chungking and Chengtu, both under the French Société des Missions Ètrangères. Rough estimates—the only ones available—suggest that in the early nineteenth century, there were perhaps 70,000 Chinese Catholics in these three provinces. This region was far enough removed from Peking so that the prohibitions rested a bit more lightly there than in the eastern provinces; but by the same token, the protections of the second treaty settlement were less well-known and enforced. Although some Chinese Catholics had renounced their faith, as directed by imperial edict, many others remained loyal despite repeated persecution.

Against this background, a few Westerners embarked upon explorations of the Yangtze River, and their books began to appear before a curious public. These explorers were not, of course, the first nineteenth-century Europeans to travel on the Yangtze River. In 1841–1842, and Anglo-French naval force had penetrated far enough to blockade the Grand Canal, thus demonstrating the capacity to strangle the capital by preventing vital grain shipment, and to take Nanking under its guns. There the first of the Unequal Treaties, the Treaty of Nanking, was concluded in 1842. A decade later, during the T’ai-p’ing Rebellion, several Europeans visited the dissident capital at Nanking, and left behind fascinating accounts of their experiences. But these men had little interest in the Yangtze River itself, except as a means of access to the interior. Even more reticent were the Catholic missionaries who began to take advantage of the concessions wrung from the second treaty settlement but tried to remain invisible, like their illegal predecessors, by wearing native dress and going concealed in sedan chairs or boats.

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Lifeboats on the Upper Yangtze

From Yangtze: Nature, History, and the River, by Lyman P. Van Slyke (Stanford Alumni Assn., 1988), pp. 118-119:

Two other special purpose boats are worthy of brief mention. The first was the fleet of about fifty post-boats that in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries carried the mail between Chungking and I-ch’ang, making faster and more dependable passage than any other type of craft. And finally there were the lifeboats, the so-called “red boats” of the Three Gorges and the upper Long River. Apparently instituted for the first time in the 1850s by a benevolent merchant who lived near New Rapids (Hsin-t’an), they found favor with a number of high officials (Li Hung-chang and Ting Pao-chen among them), who gave money for their maintenance and stationing at other dangerous points. In the 1880s, the service became a suboffice of the I-ch’ang Circuit Intendant. In 1899, according to Worcester, they saved 1,473 lives from 49 wrecked junks, and the next year 1,235 lives from 37 wrecks, including 33 foreigners and 285 Chinese taken off the first foreign steamer to be sunk in the river, the German-owned Suihsing. These figures, incidentally, suggest how many lives were lost each year prior to the introduction of the red boats. In the early 1900s, there were nearly fifty red boats on station, one or more at each danger point, manned by three or four sailors who “only receive about sixpence a day wages, but are rewarded by 1000 cash for every life saved, and by 800 cash for every corpse—irrespective whether it be male or female—so the lifeboat regulations state.” Not even the most jaundiced traveler had anything but praise for the skill, bravery, and honesty of the red-boat crews. It was even possible to hire a red boat to accompany one’s passage through the Three Gorges, a precaution recommended by Cornell Plant, the most knowledgeable foreign sailor of the upper river.

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China’s Tung Oil Exports, 1918-1937

From Yangtze: Nature, History, and the River, by Lyman P. Van Slyke (Stanford Alumni Assn., 1988), pp. 106-107, 109:

If tea and silk are full of history and romance, familiar to all and identified with China, tung oil is a blue-collar product few have ever heard of. But tung oil resembles these more aristocratic products because its properties, like theirs, are unmatched by any other natural substance and because it was produced almost nowhere else. Although used in China for millennia, it did not attract international attention until the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The tung oil trade grew spectacularly in both volume and unit price between 1918 and 1937, with about 70 percent of the product shipped to the United States. In 1937, the first year of the Sino-Japanese War, over 20,000,000 gallons were exported (at about $1.40 per gallon), making it China’s most valuable single trade product. In just a few years, tung oil had soared past tea, cotton yarn, metals, eggs and egg products, skins and furs, and raw silk. War devastated this trade and U.S. chemical industries, impelled to invent alternatives for many products now unavailable, developed petroleum-based substitutes to take the place of tung oil in most uses. In this, too, tung oil resembles silk, which also fell victim to the chemical industry’s rayon and nylon.

Tung oil is classified as a “drying oil,” by which is meant that when exposed to air it oxidizes readily, forming a tough, hard, waterproof film. Tung oil can be applied alone as a waterproofing varnish, and this is one of its main uses in China. The Chinese also use tung oil for preparing caulking materials (chunam), dressing leather, waterproofing paper, making soap, treating skin afflictions, and producing lampblack for solid inksticks.

But perhaps its most important function is (or was) in the manufacture of paint…. For this purpose, tung oil is superior to linseed oil, traditionally the most widely used drying oil in Europe and the United States; tung oil dies faster and produces a harder, more durable film.

Tung oil (sometimes also called wood oil) is obtained from the nut of the tung tree (Aleurites cordata) [now Vernicia cordata], which is native to China. Almost all commercially grown tung trees are found in the central provinces, north and south of the Long River, particularly in Szechwan and Hunan. As the demand grew, more and more trees were planted, particularly on hilly, otherwise unproductive land along the navigable tributaries of the Long River, in order to reduce the cost of overland transport—usually by shoulder pole—which could quickly erode the profits to be made.

Had the war and war-induced substitutes not intervened, tung oil would almost certainly have had a bright future. Indeed, so valuable was the product that in the 1930s efforts were made to experiment with tung plantations along the Gulf Coast of Florida, Mississippi, and Louisiana, but DuPont’s chemists made them unnecessary just as they were beginning to produce a little oil.

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China’s Constant Internal Migrations

From Yangtze: Nature, History, and the River, by Lyman P. Van Slyke (Stanford Alumni Assn., 1988), p. 53:

China generates paradox. The Chinese are renowned for their attachment to place, their deep identification with native soil. And yet whenever one looks at Chinese history one finds people everywhere on the move. Migration is part of this movement, the permanent transfer of people from one region to another, sometimes pushed out of their original homeland by overpopulation, poverty, disaster, or war, and sometimes attracted to new lands by real or presumed opportunities for betterment of their lives.

But migrants were not the only travelers across the Chinese landscape. Merchants big and small set forth on business trips; Buddhist monks and devout layfolk made pilgrimages or sought centers of learning; scholars aspiring to prestigious careers in the imperial civil service headed for provincial capitals or Peking to take the most fiendishly demanding examinations ever devised. Officials took up their posts across the far-flung realm, and some were exiled for real or alleged offenses to the most remote and dangerous corners of the empire; corvee labor gangs were sent to work on canals or defensive walls; boatmen and transport coolies moved the goods of the empire; one might even spot a rare travel buff exploring his world out of curiosity or scholarly interest. There were foreign traders, Japanese and Korean monks who had come to learn from Chinese Buddhist masters, ambassadors and their retinues, entertainers, bandits, fugitives. In wartime, armies were on the march. Rebel hordes, angry and desperate peasants headed by ambitious or megalomaniac leaders with their own dynastic dreams, followed the same routes as migrants, merchants, a11d scht1lars. In the mid-1960s, during the Cultural Revolution, urban youth went on an orgy of hitherto prohibited travel, sanctioned by Mao Tse-tung’s revolutionary dictum to “exchange revolutionary experience”; later, beginning in 1969, some fourteen million of these urban youth were sent whether they wanted to go or not to the countryside to “learn from the peasants.”

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When Chinese Was a State Secret

From God’s Chinese Son: The Taiping Heavenly Kingdom of Hong Xiuquan, by Jonathan D. Spence (W. W. Norton, 1996), Kindle Loc. 240f.

Language might seem a problem, since in all of Canton and the foreign hongs there is no Chinese who can read or write in English or other European languages, and only a few Westerners who know enough Chinese to write with even partial elegance. This has not always been the case. In the 1810s and 1820s, when the East India Company was at its peak of power, there were a dozen or more young men from England studying Chinese in the Canton factories. They translated Chinese novels and plays, and even the Chinese legal code, so they could assess the equity of the government’s rules more carefully. Though the local officials on occasion imprisoned Chinese for teaching their own language to foreigners, and even executed one, and Chinese teachers often had to shelter privately in their pupils’ lodgings, the East India Company representatives fought back. By tenacity, they won the right to submit commercial documents in Chinese translation, rather than in English, and to hire Chinese teachers, for study of classical texts as well as Cantonese colloquial dialect. And though the company directors never won official acknowledgment of their right to hire Chinese wood-carvers, they went ahead anyway and block printed an Anglo-Chinese dictionary using Chinese characters; in addition, they managed to accumulate a substantial library of four thousand books, many of them in Chinese, which they housed in their splendidly appointed hong, with the company’s senior physician doubling as the librarian.

With the termination by the British government in 1834 of the company’s monopoly of China trade, these glory days were over. Most of the language students and experts were reassigned to other countries; their finest teacher, Robert Morrison, died the same year; and the great library was scattered. Only three young men, who had been classified on the company’s roster as “proficient” enough to receive an annual student’s allowance, are left in Canton by 1836, and their main role is to be caretakers of the company’s former buildings and oversee their closing down. Nor are there any established bookshops to be found in the foreigners’ restricted zone of residence, for specific laws forbid the sale of Chinese books to foreigners, and even make it a crime to show them one of China’s local histories or regional gazettes. Those who wish to search out books must walk some distance to the west, where two bookshops on a side street (a street with gates locked and barred at night) will break the law to the extent of selling novels, romances, and “marvellous stories” to the foreigners, and sometimes arrange for purchases of other titles from the larger stores within the city.

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