Edward Alsworth Ross and the good old days of scholarship

Edward Alsworth Ross  was the father of modern Sociology, or maybe Criminology or Anthropology (disciplines were harder to distinguish back then) and also a major figure figure in the development of academic freedom. His academic freedom notoriety came when he was fired from Stanford for opposing allowing Asian workers into the U.S. As he put it

And should the worst come to the worst it would be better for us if we were to turn our guns upon every vessel bringing Japanese to our shores rather than to permit them to land.

It was not his racism that actually got him fired, however He was sticking up for labor by trying to keep Asians out, and cheap Asian labor was very popular with the Stanford family. Excluding Asians was, sadly, one of the few early victories for the American labor movement. Samuel Gompers, in Meat Vs. Rice: American Manhood Against Asiatic Coolieism, Which Shall Survive?1  (who says you can’t judge a book by its title?) cited Rudyard Kipling on the Chinese..

There are three races that can work, but only one that can swarm. These people work and spread. They pack close and eat everything and can live on nothing. They will overwhelm the world. p.8

The key reason that these yellow people were such a peril was, as Kipling put it, they could live on nothing, subsisting on poor food and in poor conditions that a white man could not endure. Thus, the only way to protect the honest white working man was to keep the Asians out. Ross added a level of scholarly gravitas to this idea of the Asians as a race of cheap-living semi-humans that would out-compete the white working class. In this case they would do so by coming to California, rather than making things in Asia and shipping them to California, but it is to some extent the same argument that some make now.

I find Ross interesting because after leaving Stanford he ended up, eventually, at the University of Nebraska. There he made a momentous choice.

ONE December night in 1908 I am making my way home in a snow-storm wondering what to do with the half-year’s leave of absence due me for teaching for nothing in two six-weeks summer sessions. Suddenly the thought flashes, ”I’ll go to China.” In the next twenty steps I make as momentous and happy a decision as I have ever made. At that time, only eight years had elapsed since the “Boxer” rebellion breached the old order in China and no “chair” sociologist had explored the Far East.2

His research methods are hard to square with modern disciplinary traditions. While he did read a bit before going, and praises the works of the missionaries Rev. W. A. P. Martin and Rev. Arthur Smith, the bulk of his research came in the form of a trip across Old China with a guide and native bearers like a proper Victorian explorer. This was what drew me to his work and to writing this post, since I have been talking to my students about what scholarly disciplines are and where they come from.

The heart of my China quest was the journey with Consul Julean Arnold 1200 miles overland from Taiyuanfu through Sianfu to Chengtu, taking us across the provinces of Shansi, Shensi, and Szechuan, the little-visited heart of Old China, and revealing the culture of antiquity scarcely contaminated by foreign influences. We made our way to Sianfu, ourselves and our Peking cook, borne in three mule litters. The 550 miles thence to Chengtu we were carried in sedan chairs. The ordinary traveler for short distances in an open chair is carried by two bearers; the official is carried by three bearers; it is not from pride that I had four men bear me, with an extra man carrying my suit-cases and taking turns with the bearers!

The cost of our caravan of fifteen, including our food and overnight at inns, came to $4.00 a day altogether! …

I got the repute of being a magician because, recalling my college physics, I wrapped the quart bottle of boiled water I carried as a thirst-quencher in a crash towel, wet the rowel and hung it in the front of my litter, where sun and breeze could get at it and speed up evaporation. My coolies could not understand why, the hotter the day, the cooler the water in my bottle became!

He travels around making observations about forestry, the role of women, the military, everything. Who would he write to for grant money for a trip like this now? He was, of course, a racist, in the good old-fashioned sense that he saw the world as consisting of different races and the purpose of science as being to determine the characteristics of these races. He was not, of course one of those foolish unscientific missionaries who saw the Chinese as people to be saved.

I did not assume the religious future of the Chinese to be bound up with Christianity or, indeed, with any existing religion. I did not assume that the culture of the Chinese is inferior just so far as it differs from ours. The idea that the yellow race is quite as gifted as ours was not in the least repugnant to me.

The missionaries are all too ready to lay the defects of Chinese culture to their “not having Christ,” forgetting that “having Christ” did not save the Dark Ages from being ignorant,superstitious, intolerant and insanitary.

“Insanitary” will turn up a good deal as a marker of backwardness in his account., but he was quite open-minded

In the back of my head, too, was an itch of curiosity regarding the yellow race. Had the Chinese physique, in the course of forty centuries’ sojourn in Eastern Asia, come to differ from ours in immunities and susceptibilities? Had the mind of this race gifts and lacks which did not tally quite with the gifts and lacks of ourselves? . My angle of approach explains why The Changing Chinese was such a success and appeared in French translation even when German shells were dropping on Paris.With such an unusual approach, I tackled the Chinese in a way to disarm them and win their confidence. At once their intellectuals perceived that I was free from racial arrogance and no blind devotee of the culture of the West.

He did find a good deal to admire in China

I like the cuisine of China, it is one of the world’s four great cuisines, the other three being the French, Russian and American.

 and he certainly did not dismiss the Chinese as being entirely outside the orbit of human life, and therefore incapable of providing lessons for other civilized people.3  In his section on the opium trade and the anti-opium campaigns that were going on while he was there he claims that
The experience of the Chinese with opium shatters the comfortable doctrine that organized society need not concern itself with bad private habits. p.173
If all opium were to do was kill off fools and weaklings “it might be looked upon as the winnower of chaff”, but as it was destroying society something needed to be done.This of course has lessons for the West and alcohol. The West has public opinion and laws to restrict the spread of vice, and this was, for him, a good thing. He was very much a proponent of managing society and individuals for the common good. There were others at the time who would have claimed that the Chinese were racially distinct from whites, and that there was nothing to be learned from their example and struggles, but Ross was not one of them.
So what was wrong with China? Their “conservatism [was] not a race trait, but a by-product of their social history” They were not permanently racially inferior, rather their national development had taken a wrong turn. Sometimes Ross sounds like Sun Yat-sen
In China the notion of a undistributed public good distinct from private goods has never established itself in the general mind. The State has been tribute-taker rather than guardian of the general welfare, so the community is sacrificed to the individual, the public to the local group, and posterity to the living. p.22
Ross is certainly willing to traffic in racial and regional stereotypes but he does see China as making progress. Oddly, as far as I can tell, his The Changing Chinese was not translated into Chinese until the 1990s, and he seems to have had no influence on the development of ideas about race in China. Or am I missing something?


  1. Samuel Gompers, and Herman Gutstadt. Meat Vs. Rice: American Manhhod Against Asiatic Coolieism, Which Shall Survive? American Federation of Labor and printed as Senate document 137 (1902); reprinted with intro. and appendices by Asiatic Exclusion League, 1908.  

  2. Seventy Years of It: An Autobiography, D. Appleton-Century Company, 1936. p.121 

  3. he repeatedly calls the Chinese civilized  

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