By Anton Graham
Edwin Dingle was a journalist living in Singapore in the early years of the 20th century when he decided to walk across China.
He turned the trip into a book called, appropriately, Across China on Foot.
“The rather extreme idea of walking across this Flowery Land came to me early in the year 1909,” he said. “For many years I had cherished the hope of seeing Interior China ere modernity had robbed her and her wonderful people of their isolation and antediluvianism.”
In fact, he took various kinds of boat up the Yangtze River to Chongqing. But from there, he really did walk all the way through Sichuan and Yunnan to Burma. An inspiring adventure by any measure. Along the way, in between descriptions of glorious scenery and appalling hotel squalor, Dingle speaks of China’s position in the world, and particularly the strategic and economic potential of southwest China. From the perspective of 2004, nearly a full century later, his com- By Anton Graham ments reflect many changes, but also a surprising measure of continuity.
An example of continuity is the never-ending competition between Shanghai and Hong Kong. Dingle saw the economic dominance of Shanghai as being temporary and the opening of southwest China as providing Hong Kong with the opportunity to compete effectively.
“Hong-Kong, by virtue of her remarkably favourable position geographically, should always be able to hold her own; and now that the railway has pierced the great province of Yun-nan, and brought the provinces beyond the navigable Yangtze nearer to the outside world, she should be able to reap a big harvest in Western China, if merchants will move at the right time.”
While Dingle was walking and writing, China was in the midst of great changes – the last imperial dynasty was about to fall. The world was watching, just as it is today, mystified.
“No exaggeration is it to say that the eyes of the world are upon China,” he said. “It is equally safe to say that, whilst all is open and may be seen, little is understood.”
For Dingle then and the Chinese authorities today, there was the same concern about the impact of change on the job market, and on social stability. In Dingle’s day, it was the thousands of porters and coolies who were thrown out of work by the advent of the railway from the West; today it is the millions of farmers who will be thrown out of work by WTO-mandated imports of cheap agricultural products from the US.
“If the peace of China is to be maintained,” wrote Dingle, “it is incumbent upon every foreigner to ‘go slowly’.”
Dingle saw the biggest obstacle to change being the innate conservatism of the ordinary people. “The masses have to be convinced that any given thing is for the public good before they accept, despite the proclamations.” A century later, that battle is won: the people of China are convinced of the advantages of reform and openness to the outside world.
Dingle predicted that China would one day have a government which will lead the country to be the foremost power in East Asia, “upon the integrity of whose people will depend the peace of Europe.”
“We shall not see it, but our children will,” he adds. He was off by a few generations, but the trend is not far from being as he stated it.
Edwin Dingle, Across China on Foot. Published 1910. Out of print, but available through second-hand book websites and bookshops.