Book Review: Ways That Are Dark

As part of my blog’s resurrection I intend to write some original reviews of China-related books. Amazingly, these are going to be serious posts which must be an absolute first for me.

Ways That Are Dark

“Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose” – “The more things change, the more they stay the same.”

This book on China and the Chinese will contain no apologies. It will present no strenuous effort, where uncomplimentary revelations are made, to drag in some supposedly extenuating or counterbalancing virtue possessed by the people whose actions and attitudes are under review in the pages to follow. We have had enough of all that. Too many otherwise worth-while books dealing with China have muddled their information and left their readers confused by fatuous attempts to sprinkle bright hopes over dark facts. – Ralph Townsend

I considered myself well-read on China and due to actually opting to study Chinese literature as part of my degree have had the privilege of reading a fair amount of stories, books and poems concerning China written in both English and Chinese. Regarding non-fiction books about China, I thought that I was familiar with most of the famous works: Jung Chang’s Wild Swans and Mao biography, anything by Jonathan Spence (we were examined on his books during university), Mr China by Tim Clissold for business anecdotes and, of course, Joseph Needham’s epic Science and Civilisation in China.

So it was to my great surprise that only in 2015 – a full 16 years after I had first set foot in China – did I finally learn about Ralph Townsend’s Ways That Are Dark. I simply just had never heard of it. Even more surprising is that Ways That Are Dark is one of the highest selling books about China of all time, but has now fallen largely forgotten into the dustbin of history.

This astonishing book was published in 1933 at the height of American sympathy for China, sentiment which in no small part had been generated by Pearl S Buck’s bestseller The Good Earth. Her sympathetic account of Chinese peasants struggling to survive in a nation torn apart by strife was a phenomenon, the number one bestseller the year it was published, 1931, and also the following year when it earned Buck the Pulitzer Prize. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer made a film version in 1937. There were other books and films, too, echoing the message that China’s teeming millions were good people who deserved the goodwill of the West.

One man disagreed.


Ralph Townsend was an American career diplomat who was stationed in Shanghai and later Fuzhou as US Vice-Consul during the early 1930s. His views on China were the complete opposite of Pearl S Buck; his time in China had given him the impression that China and the Chinese were hopeless evil savages that could not get along with the rest of humanity and should be sectioned off from civilisation as soon as possible. The title of his book was taken from a famous poem by Bret Harte written in the late 19th century called The Heathen Chinee which was later used as a propaganda piece to promote the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882. The poem goes:

Which I wish to remark,
And my language is plain,
That for ways that are dark
And for tricks that are vain,
The heathen Chinee is peculiar,
Which the same I would rise to explain.

(The couplet “That for ways that are dark and for tricks that are vain” is still occasionally used as an old-fashioned Halloween greeting in parts of the US)

Before we discuss the book, some further background. Ways That Are Dark was a huge bestseller during the 1930’s and highly influential; a fact which makes it all the more astonishing that this book has been largely forgotten today. Townsend was actually arrested by Franklin Roosevelt during the Second World War as the book was seen to be promoting Japanese interests against those of America’s ally China. Today, very few people know of this book that caused such a huge reaction upon publication and actually outsold its rival The Good Earth. Those wishing to read a copy of this book today can only search on the internet for a scratchy PDF version (try this one) or hunting down one of the reprints. It is interesting to note that it was republished by the White Supremacist publishing group Barnes Review in 1997 which became popular in Japan and subsequently translated into Japanese in 2004.

So how is it?

Let’s get this out of the way: by today’s standards this is a racist book. The basic premise of the book is that the root of all of China’s problems are due to “fundamental defects in the ethnic characteristics of the Chinese people”.

Is it a racist book? Yes.

Should that stop you reading the book? No.

To be frank, Ways That Are Dark is the most astonishing book on the Chinese people I have ever read.

When he is not writing intense descriptions of the poverty of the Chinese – “Chinese coolies never show any hesitation in putting their filthy hands on you” is one memorable segment – Townsend actually writes very well as most educated people did back in the 30s. Not only is it beautifully written (even when being shockingly cruel), but it is the most accurate snapshot you could hope to read about western sensibilities in the 1930s and how China was. Depending on your opinion of China, you will either nod your head throughout the book and think absolutely nothing has changed, or you will shake your head in despair at Townsend’s prejudices.

Here is Townsend on what he sees as the most enduring characteristic of the Chinese:

If a jury of the most experienced Americans or Englishmen in China today were asked to name the most prominent characteristic in the Chinese mentality as opposed to our own, I think most if not all of them would unhesitatingly answer, “lying.”

And here he is on the government of the day that could almost be a verdict on the CCP:

It has been pointed out in preceding chapters that contrary to the current American conception, the Chinese leaders do not impress anyone as struggling against the illiteracy of the masses. The thing is the other way around, with the illiterate masses struggling – for survival – against the terrible tyranny and crushing oppression of their leaders. Not anxious for strife and content to plow their small farms, the majority of the common people would be better off without leaders than with the ones they have. Certainly it is twaddle to maintain that more education would ease the woes of China while the prime tyrants in the country are those of relatively superior educational advantages. If there were the faintest pretense of the educated group making a decent stand against the foremost ills of China, the matter would have a different complexion.

This is not an easy book to read, but I urge you all to do so. For me, one of the most surprising parts of the book is when in later chapters the author begins to focus on the careers of westerners who have made China their home. It is depressing reading. He regales with anecdote after anecdote of western diplomats who thought they had meaningful conversations with their Chinese counterparts only for it to progress nowhere in an endless spiral of time-wasting and corruption. He lists accounts of his friends in commerce who launch into joint ventures and subsequently lose everything when the government cheats them and steals their business. Sometimes the reader has to wonder whether the author is describing 1933 or 2016. It also makes the reader wonder whether some of today’s problems would still exist with or without the CCP.

Yet the most poignant part of the book is when he describes the failed lives of those westerners with little money and few connections. Those westerners who found themselves trapped in China with nothing but shattered dreams to show for it. Westerners who tried to change China, but ended up being broken by it. This is how he describes the lives of many missionaries before the war:

“A woman medical missionary, ice-bound off Taku Bar in a small coasting vessel, discussed this question with great frankness….’I am going home, at the age of sixty-two, a disappointed woman.’ So ran her story. ‘For thirty-four years I have served the Chinese people as a medical missionary in a remote interior province. Even during the Boxer days I did not leave my small hospital. Evangelization work was not in my line, but for more than three decades I have worked at healing the sick, and at teaching the Chinese how to live in a measure of sanitary decency.

“Today, at sixty-two, I find that I have wasted my life. I might have stayed in America, married, borne several children, and have succored the poor in our own tenement districts. That would have been a useful career…It is a rather bitter thing to go home convinced that my years of service here were useless and unappreciated. But I can be useful from now until the day I die, for I shall spend the rest of my years trying to persuade young folks at home that it would be folly for them to come to China as missionaries.”

Upon finishing Ways That Are Dark I was almost breathless at the relentless intensity of the book. Townsend never slows down in his endless criticism of China, but it is the depth of his criticism – getting deep down into the psyche of the Chinese as he saw it – that will send thrills or chills down the reader’s spine according to where their sympathy lies. The closest comparison I can articulate about this book would be to imagine if HP Lovecraft wrote a polemic against an entire nation. There is almost something of the horror story in his descriptions of what he found in darkest China.

In many ways I wish that my younger self could have read a copy of this book before he set off for China as a young man. However, I don’t think anybody can appreciate this book until they have actually lived and worked in China for a number of years.

I will conclude with one of the darker passages from Ways That Are Dark. For a China Watcher like myself who has mixed emotions about the country he once held a passion for – a passion that later grew into cynicism and bitterness – this paragraph contains all the feeling of exasperation I’m sure many a China expat has experienced at some point.

A people who show surprising sensitivity of feeling and at the same time appall us with their seeming crudity of instinct, accomplished in craftmanship yet living ever in houses falling to pieces, alert in business yet unable to make a success of large business themselves, quoting proverbs about truth in every breath and not to be believed in anything, always exasperating us and then mollifying our exasperation with a talent all their own, always busy and never getting anything done – four hundred million of them, upon a background of green paddies seen through slow rain, swirling yellow rivers with bobbing junks and rattan sails, above and through all the smell of a damp moldiness amid spiced cooking – that is China and the Chinese.

Note: In a stunning coincidence, there is actually a SECOND old and forgotten book about China called Ways That Are Dark. This one however is a guide to Chinese etiquette and is another wonderful read. You can find a PDF copy here – I really recommend it for the illustrations of Qing dynasty rituals alone.


If you enjoyed this post you may also enjoy my book Party Members – a dark comic fantasy that exposes the corrupt underbelly of modern China.

8 thoughts on “Book Review: Ways That Are Dark

  1. There are actually various other books along these lines. For instance there is “Why China will never rule the world”, by Troy Parfitt. And then there are a few books by Chinese authors who rubbish their own culture, like “the Ugly Chinaman” by Bo Yang and the recent “I don’t want to be Chinese again” by Hong Konger Joe Chung (only available in Chinese).


  2. There are actually various other books along these lines. For instance there is “Why China will never rule the world”, by Troy Parfitt. And then there are a few books by Chinese authors who rubbish their own culture, like “the Ugly Chinaman” by Bo Yang and the recent “I don’t want to be Chinese again” by Hong Konger Joe Chung (only available in Chinese).


  3. I’ve seen excerpts of Troy Parfitt’s book and read The Ugly Chinaman (which is great). I don’t feel either of them are as relentless as Ways That Are Dark however. There is something almost nihilistic in the way Townsend writes. Not so much a hatred towards China, but a great unspoken fear of what he found there. The best way I can describe it is to imagine HP Lovecraft being commissioned to write a commentary on China. That’s the kind of horror I feel from Townsend.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Thanks for turning me on to this extremely enjoyable book. Lovecraftian indeed.

    There were two things I found fascinating about it in particular:
    -I actually didn’t find it all that racist, to be honest. Townsend seems to go out of his way to try to explain how things became the way they are in China and among the Chinese without invoking some notion of racial inferiority (in fact, at one point he speaks quite favorably of California Chinese, which suggested that there’s nothing wrong with the racial stock of the people). What was even more interesting was that he doesn’t even really seem to think that there’s anything wrong with China’s memetic stock- while some authors, like Lu Xun and Bo Yang, want to lay China’s ills at the feet of it’s sages, he points out that their ethics and teachings aren’t terribly different, in their actual content, from various western counterparts. I think if he lived today, he’d see that everything he saw could pretty much be explained by game theory and the social psychology of overpopulation; perhaps he should have re-read Thomas Malthus, who intimated the problems that would arise in a civilization that was too successful. Indeed, that was the real problem, that a better reading of Chinese history would have brought out- the system they stumbled upon worked well enough for them to choke on it. Visiting China in 1932 and 1933, he was seeing a civilization at it’s utter nadir- and coming from one that wasn’t far off from it’s peak. That’s going to generate startling contrasts.

    -The book made me, inadvertently, much more sympathetic to the Communist Party. If Townsend’s account can be entirely believed (and I’m not quite sure that it can, though I had few quibbles with it other than that his understanding of Chinese history seemed pretty superficial and cliche, and thoroughly enjoyed his skewering of the KMT), then the achievements of the CCP during the Mao years were nothing short of miraculous. The massive improvements in literacy, sanitation, eradication of drugs, and just the unification and institution building that were completed look quite impressive next to his picture of China as an absolute, chaotic basketcase. It also throws out the whole narrative about Mao’s Cultural Revolution being such a horrific disaster for China- there wasn’t much left to save at that point. And it wasn’t really any worse than any average decade in China in the 20th century before 1950- but that certainly isn’t saying much.

    There’s a recent work of popular Asian history, “The China Mirage” by James Bradley (which I highly recommend), which covers some of the same territory- especially as regards the power that missionaries had over our China policies. I definitely enjoyed his skewering of the missionary mindset.

    Being a hardened cynic for all my life, I guess China didn’t really disappoint me in any idealistic respects; my six years at least got me a lovely wife, an MBA, some publishing credits and lots of fond memories. But equally, I’d never go back to live (unless I could work remotely as a trader); I always tell young folks who want to move to China to help them in their careers conquering the investment banking or management consulting worlds to STAY FAR, FAR AWAY. If you want to go for a few years to avoid reality back home, go ahead (particularly these days, reality is overrated anyway). If you’re just really curious and don’t have any particular ambitions to do anything beyond teaching and writing, and caught the China bug, go right ahead. But anyone with either a career or missionary drive should stay home.

    If I could do it all over again, I’d have moved to Singapore and started a financial career instead.


  5. What an absolutely first-class comment. Thank you for your thoughts, Hanfeizi. Out of interest and based on our shared approval of the Lovecraftian… you wouldn’t be the same Hanfeizi who comments on Nick Land’s Xenosystems blog, would you? I tend to keep my interests and writing on China entirely separate from my other… ahem… dark and enlightening interests, so it’s fascinating to see how the two have merged here. I kept any neoreaction thought about Ways That Are Dark out of this review, but there is a strong strong case for what you say about China’s ills and the effects of over-population. Calhoun’s Mouse Utopia springs to mind.

    If you’re agreeable, I’d like to make this comment of yours into a post of its own. Are you OK with that?


  6. Go right ahead and blog it. Yes, I am the same Hanfeizi that comments on Land’s blog and other alt-right outfits, though I stumbled upon your blog via Peking Duck.

    But yes, the Mouse Utopias experiments were certainly on my mind as well.


  7. Thank you very much. It was a great comment – especially the remark that the 1950s were no less worse than any other prior decade in China – so deserves to be highlighted.


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