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  • Gordon Dumoulin

I went to teach but instead had to learn... Bertrand Russell (1920, Beijing)

“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” 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 on where China would stand about a century later. Although the title might imply an anti-China content, 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 today’s China’s policy making.

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.” (p16)

Besides being a philosopher, he was 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.”

A Conversation with Bertrand Russell (1952)

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

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

One intellectual advise : “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 advise : “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.”

Bertrand Russel - Interview ("Face to Face", 1959)

Interviewer : John Freeman BBC

Thoughts definitely deserving much more attention for 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 this time in history !

But on contrary, it seems the more facts and data are available for deeper and wider knowledge, fewer facts are actually being consulted (others dismissed or manipulated) with knowledge along with valuable doubts being degraded to narrow dogmatic roads....


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)

#crosscultural #philosophy #humanity #peace

Source pictures 1, 3, 4 :

Source picture 2 :

Other sources :

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