George E Morrison, An Appreciation

The following essay was written by C P FitzGerald, the founding professor of the Department of Far Eastern History, Research School of Pacific Studies, ANU (now part of the College of Asia & the Pacific, ANU), and appeared as a forward to The Correspondence of George E. Morrison, 1895-1912, edited by Lo Hui-min, Cambridge University Press, 1974, vol.1, pp.vii-xiv. It is reproduced here with the kind permission of the publisher.

This material is reproduced from the China Heritage Project. See also: China Heritage Quarterly. — Geremie R Barmé

‘Dr George Morrison and his Correspondence’,
An Appreciation by C P FitzGerald

To say that Dr George Morrison was a man of his age is to state a truism; all men belong to the age of their lifetimes, and few if any escape the prevailing climate of opinion, prejudices and assumptions. But Morrison’s age is already sufficiently remote from our own for a word of explanation, of consideration of what these assumptions and beliefs were, to be needed for a just understanding of the man and the opinions he expressed in the long range of his correspondence. He was a man of unusual percipience and thus freer than many of his contemporaries from the prevailing dominant ideas. He, almost alone, could see beneath the dry bones of the dying Manchu Empire the stirring of fresh life, of a new, probably unintelligible and almost certainly disconcerting China, but yet a continuation of the life of that great nation into a new period of vigorous activity. Very few agreed with him. He was not a man to suffer fools with patience, nor always to treat the stupid with kindness; he was impatient of the lack of vision, or narrowness of outlook, which he frequently found in his employers and colleagues. He could see so clearly that he was better informed, had better judgement than they had, and if he were only to be given the scope (and the funds) he could do so much more for the comprehension of China than he felt himself able to achieve. He did not make many allowances for the fact that to those whom he criticised China was at that time only of marginal importance, and that it was really some tribute to the vision of the editors and proprietors of The Times newspaper that they were willing to support a special Correspondent in Peking. Morrison was fully aware of his own quality, although he never boasted: he was less able to see that others might not be so much lacking in ability as in interest in his own field of work.

Morrison was an Australian, and in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries this made him an unusual person in the field of international journalism and Far Eastern affairs. It gave him a certain sense of detachment from the Englishmen whom he encountered, and an independent outlook upon the structure and staffing of some British institutions. But he was not a conscious Australian nationalist, nor indeed would he have quite understood some of the attitudes of his contemporary countrymen today. Above all he saw himself as British; this was an overriding allegiance which contained no contradiction with Australian birth, education, and lasting attachment. He had done things in his own country before he went to the Far East which should have won wider acclaim than they did, but he never complained of that. The adventures of his youth were part of his Australian heritage, perhaps the best part, a share in the development and even the exploration of the great empty homeland. But when it was a matter of wider, world concerns, of high politics and wars, Morrison was unreservedly British; he did not conceive that Australian interests could really diverge from those of the United Kingdom. He felt himself to be a citizen of the Empire, a subject of the monarch in London, and saw no reason not to be thankful for it.

In his age, the heyday of the late phase of the British Empire, to be an imperialist was no badge of shame; on the contrary it was a privilege conferred by the good fortune of being born a subject of the Queen. It carried duties also; Britain had a worldwide responsibility not only to the subjects of the Queen abroad, or in the colonies and overseas Empire, but to mankind, as a just guardian of the best interests of civilisation, which were almost to be identified with those of the Empire itself. This was not the hypocrisy that it will seem to many people of our own time. It may have been unreal, superficial even, but it was the genuine conviction of many men other than George Morrison. It appears in his writings as an assumption rarely stated, for it would have been pointless to state it to those who received his letters. It was based on the belief, in part true especially in the Far East, that before the rise of British sea power the countries of that region had been poor, weak, harassed by tyrannical rulers, and backward in their economic development. Britain had brought peace, order, just government, and the rule of law: also economic development, in which she got her just reward – even if that was the lion’s share.

Power is to the strong; but power must be wielded with humanity, justice, and restraint. These ideals he knew had also been those of the Chinese ruling class, as exemplified in the teaching of Confucius. It was his lasting sorrow that though the words were still spoken the deeds were very different. It was also his lasting belief that as the Chinese had once espoused the ideals which he believed still inspired the British, the Chinese could return to them, aided if necessary by the British. It was this underlying belief in the rectitude of the assumptions of his own time, and their applicability in all parts of the world, that inspired much of his career, and led him to devote his last years to what proved the thankless task of trying to help the new Republican China to revive the old ideals and also practise the modern imperial virtues.

Dr Morrison was not by nature a democrat. No doubt he accepted the system that was established in his own country and in the British Isles. But he was no radical, and did not really understand or appreciate the motivation of a man like Dr Sun Yat-sen. The introduction of what were then extreme radical political forms – a republic (when outside the Americas there were only two in the whole world, France and Switzerland), seemed uncalled for, certain to be inapplicable to China, and out of touch with Chinese realities as he saw them. In many ways these criticisms were justified, but the answer was not a return to the past, refurbished, nor even the continuance of a regime which made few concessions to modern changes, but a more thorough exploration of the range of revolutionary experiment, which must in time bring forth a system which was both modern and Chinese. Morrison did not live to see this process more than begin, and the beginnings were distressing.

Morrison does not seem to have felt strongly about the absence of real democracy in the working of the imperial government in Britain. He accepted that no British Government would, or could, flatly oppose the clearly expressed views of the nation. But he also accepted the prevailing view that foreign policy was for experts, and that it required years of study, a good education and a balanced judgement, assets which the mass of the electorate could not bring to it. His complaint was that the men, or some of them, used by the institution were inferior, incapable, or owed their positions to social influence. This last factor he obviously disliked, and in his attitude to it some of his Australian upbringing and ethos showed plainly enough. But he really feared that second-rate men could damage the interests of the Empire, fail to see what they should do and encourage their superiors at home (i.e. London) to follow wrong policies. He thought, and often said, that the quality of the British diplomats posted in Peking was poor, and that hardly one man who had served there during his time had won his respect for ability, although he acknowledged that many had been good friends and well meaning. But it distressed him to see the great ship of Empire so poorly manned in an age of peril.

Increasingly like most of his contemporaries, Morrison believed that the peace of the world was in danger, and that Britain’s role as peacekeeper and guardian of the sound traditions of civilisation was threatened. To the modern it will seem strange that these fears, all too justified as they were, did not inspire any pacifist outlook. Morrison not only expected a great war, but he did not shrink from the prospect. It could mean that forces which he saw as disruptive of the harmony produced by British power would have to be confronted and cast down. It was a necessary evil, part of the heavy duty of Empire. That it might be the end of Empire itself, win or lose, does not seem to have been present in his consideration. This is not to say that he was an insensitive man unable to imagine the horrors and cruelties of a great conflict. It was rather that he and all his generation had really no understanding of what a modern war would be like. It is not only the generals who prepare for the ‘last war’; the statesmen, the journalists and the intellectuals are also bound, by the memories and history of the earlier age. To Morrison the conflict would be no doubt sharp, but the end almost certain, and unquestionably swift. Nor would the consequences be so dreadful. Those who had lost their relatives would be the pity, and the pride, of the whole nation; but the Empire would be saved, the course of civilisation resumed upon an even tenor, and a salutary lesson taught to the defeated disturbers of harmony. That those nations would suffer more than the Humiliation of their rulers, material and human losses, and prestige, does not seem to have been expected. It was not foreseen that war was the womb of revolution, and social revolution to boot.

War must be expected, could not be avoided, and in a way was almost welcome to resolve a situation which could not otherwise be mended. China should be led to see her interests as on the same side as those of Britain. She must be guarded against some foolish leaders who might be seduced by the potential enemies or imagine that such a war between the Western peoples could be a benefit for China, if she knew how to profit from it, and keep clear of it. This last view was the most insidious and dangerous. There might be little prospect of China joining the Germans, there could be much more chance of her trying to play off ‘one barbarian against another’. Dr Morrison did all he could to bring China into the war against Germany at the earliest moment; he bitterly deplored the action of the British Minister, Sir John Jordan, who was urging YÜan Shih-k’ai to remain neutral. He believed that China had missed a great chance by staying neutral until 1917.

Before the war with Germany had begun, up until a few years before, although the prospect of war was considered probable there was still some doubt about who the enemy was going to be. Russia had for long been cast for this part, but after the poor showing of the Russian Empire in the war with Japan 1904-5 the threat of Russia seemed to pale. Even in 1900, when Germany claimed and obtained the post of commander-in-chief of the international relief force sent to Peking during the Boxer movement, her arrogance and presumption had seemed excessive. It was not long before the pretensions of the Kaiser and his advisers had convinced Morrison along with most of his contemporaries that Germany was the destined foe. It is equally clear that in the years before the war the forthcoming contest was seen as one between two great powers – with their allies – and not as the confrontation of Good and Evil which wartime propaganda was soon to make it. Britain must fight for her place, as all empires had had to fight. The challenger was not a moral outcast; he might be foolish, arrogant and insufferable, but he was only doing what others had done before, and he would meet the same fate. There had been Philip of Spain, Louis XIV and Napoleon. Kaiser Wilhelm was not a figure of the stature of these.

Morrison had been an early admirer of Japan, and found little to quarrel with until after the defeat of Russia in 1905. Then gradually he came to see that, as the Chinese put it, ‘the tiger was driven out by the front gate, while the wolf was admitted by the back gate’. Japan was going to be worse than Russia. She was, of course, the ally of Britain, a mark of esteem never before conferred upon a non-European nation. But she was presuming on this favour. She was pursuing her own ends and interests and these not only were not identical with those of Britain, and therefore undesirable, but actually conflicted, or threatened to conflict with those of the Empire. By the time the war had come Morrison was highly critical and suspicious of Japan. Her designs on China were inordinate and would be destructive not only to China’s independence but to the trade and prestige of Britain in the Far East. She was in collusion with Germany. Morrison returns to this charge repeatedly, and it is interesting to observe that he documents it well, yet it has never been openly publicised even when in the Second World War Japan was on the enemy side. No Japanese ships, he claims, were ever sunk by German U Boats. No Japanese escort destroyer on the Indian Ocean convoys had to fire a shot at a German raider or submarine. Japan took over German assets, but used them for her own ends or kept them intact for their German owners. Japan engrossed the trade of the Far East, expanded her shipping, paid off her debts, and contributed very little indeed to the ‘war effort’. Yet she expected (and received) the rewards of a victor. Morrison very clearly foresaw the part Japan was to play in the twenty years following his death.

This clear-sighted vision, product of his long experience and also of his realistic view of power politics, seems in him, and in his generation, strangely less evident when it came to the matter nearest his interests and heart, China. Like all those with whom he corresponded on the affairs of China Morrison had seen the impending fall of the Manchu Empire. All the signs were clear, the rule of aged women and eunuchs in the name of a child, blind conservatism, nepotism, corruption and incompetence marked the Court as unfit to guide China in the troubled period ahead. The Manchus were doomed; it was really the tolerance of the Great Powers which had saved them after the folly of the Boxer movement, and they had done so more in their own interests than in those of China. But if all foresaw the fall, none seemed clear on what would, or desirably should, come in its place. The signs of dissolution are described in some detail; hardly any space is given to a consideration of the alternatives, either as probabilities or as solutions. Sometimes it seems that in the minds of many of Morrison’s correspondents there was an unexpressed belief that the fall of the dynasty would herald the break up and collapse of the Chinese state and nation. Division and foreign rule, or suzerainty over the parts, or outright annexation of detachable regions, seem to have been one expectation, and widespread. The restoration of a monarchy under a new dynasty was favoured by older men who had learned that this was the ancient pattern of Chinese history. Hardly any seem to have considered that the collapse, when it came, would be the beginning of a profound and long-lasting transformation of the whole Chinese society, political, cultural, economic and social.

Morrison himself was one of those very few who had some inkling of this, an uneasy perception that change was irreversible, and unlimited; a half-grudging recognition that men like Dr Sun, impractical dreamers though they were, had nonetheless some fire in their bellies which all others lacked. Partly the difficulty of his generation lay in the twin facts that they were wholly inexperienced in revolutions – there had been none of true social significance since the French Revolution more than a century before – and that with the august precedents of the American and French Revolutions in their minds, they simply could not conceive that ‘backward’ countries, which had not the benefit of the philosophers of the European Enlightenment to guide them, could possibly engage in real revolution with a social purpose, not merely a change of dynasty. So no one thought the fall of the dynasty would be or was a true revolution. For some years it seemed to confirm this opinion. YÜan Shih-k’ai tried to restore the monarchy for his own benefit. Dr Morrison urged him to refrain from this plan, partly because he thought the time, in the middle of the First World War, very inopportune. It would be better for China to join the Allied cause than to change the regime: partly because he saw that support for the change was superficial and antagonism profound. But whether he really knew what the antagonism was based upon is not clear from the correspondence.

YÜan did not long survive the failure of his attempt upon the Throne, but the idea that the monarchy was outdated was still novel to many European observers in China. There was profound disillusionment with the new Republic, which quickly fell into the anarchy of the warlord era, already dawning at the end of Morrison’s life. From his correspondence in his last years it is not easy to see what Dr Morrison still hoped for or expected to develop in China. The successors of YÜan, whom he served to his death, were either weak, incompetent or venal – often all of these. His advice, finally taken, was for China to join the Allies and thus win a place at the peace conference with the counsels of the victors. The result, which he barely lived to see, was what others might have expected, and he himself feared. China was ignored; her territory of Shantung, and the former leased German port in that province, were virtually handed over to Japan by a secret treaty arranged before China had become a belligerent. The May Fourth Movement of protest against this betrayal, as it was universally seen in China, occurred in the last months of Morrison’s life. It is now recognised as a landmark in the development of the Chinese revolution and the national and political consciousness of the Chinese people. Morrison was no longer in Peking to see this event himself; had he been there, in good health, it is likely that he would have understood its great significance.

Until the Russian Revolution of November 1917 the Western world had no yardstick to measure the force or meaning of a modern social revolution; the Chinese revolution, which had preceded the Russian by six years, did not at first develop social aims, but had the character more of a political vacuum than of a new system. Morrison and his contemporaries could not be expected to foresee the unknown; they saw little in the Chinese society which they knew to portend the future range and scope of the Chinese revolution. They looked for signs of modernisation and liberal reform, and found few; they did not fully appreciate the submerged forces of the peasantry and their woes, nor perceive how these forces could be harnessed by a dedicated and single-minded political party. The air of unreality in which the fall of the Manchus, whether impending or already occurred, as discussed at that period must seem very casual, almost frivolous to an age which can see what the consequences were ultimately to be, but it is explicable in terms of the experience of the generation then living. One consequence, which Morrison could not see and which would have distressed him beyond measure had he done so, was that the combination of the war with Germany and the rise of nationalism in China was to mean the steady diminution of British power and influence in the Far East and the rise of Japanese power and ambition. From the end of the First World War Britain accepted that the Far East was no longer a primary sphere of her interests. The Japanese navy was admitted to be the dominant sea power, diplomacy began a long delaying action to cover what was in fact retreat both before rising Japanese influence and increasing Chinese Nationalist pressures. Morrison’s ideal of Britain helping China to establish the patrician type of democracy which had prevailed in Britain itself in his lifetime was no longer a realistic hope, if indeed it ever had been a valid expectation.

Morrison, who travelled widely in China whenever his duties made it possible, had probably a better understanding of the real condition of the countryside than most of his contemporaries, who made few such journeys unless in the comfort of a foreign steamer upon the Yangtze River. This experience of the country is not reflected in his correspondence, because on the road he did not write letters, and his record of such travels is found in his diary. That work will give us a much rounder and fuller appreciation of Morrison’s knowledge of China, his sources of information, and his judgements upon the likely or actual course of events: matters which he was not ready to commit to letters to friends however longstanding, except in rather rare instances. His letters portray much more of the international interests which his work stimulated than of his intimate knowledge of Chinese affairs. Few of his correspondents shared that knowledge, but all were involved in what was known to them as the ‘Great Game’ – international rivalries and politics. This preoccupation with the manoeuvres of diplomacy and high finance in face of the coming storms of war and revolution is characteristic of the age and presents a very precise and clear view of how men of influence and political authority thought about their world. Dr Morrison’s letters thus give a vivid picture of an age which was on the edge of destruction and rapid disappearance. Its assumptions were challenged and disproved, its prejudices ignored, and its aspirations frustrated. The War to End War was but the prelude to further wars, of which we have perhaps not yet seen the last. The imperial heyday was not the age of Augustus or Trajan, but of Marcus Aurelius: the limit of harmony and the dawn of disorder.


This rich legacy to the historians of China speaks for itself, of Morrison the man and his contemporary fame. Strangely enough, it was only by accident that Morrison came to be associated with China, and then not until he was thirty-five. Considering what he had achieved by the age of twenty-one this was relatively late. Indeed, unlike diplomats and missionaries at that period, Morrison had neither an upbringing nor an education which could be said to have prepared him for the roles he was to play in China – apart perhaps from a vague journalistic aspiration from his early youth, and his adventurous spirit.

Born in 1862 in Geelong, Victoria, Australia, George Ernest Morrison was the eldest son of the Principal of one of the state’s leading schools, Geelong College, where he was educated. He then entered Melbourne University to read for a medical career. But already in his last years at school he undertook a series of trips across Australia, remarkable even for a country priding itself on its pioneering spirit, and especially for one so young. When he was seventeen he walked some 650 miles from his home to Adelaide, in the high Australian summer, in conditions which only those who have experienced them can appreciate. This was followed by a lone canoe trip down the Murray, Australia’s largest river, then little explored. Such wanderings provided Morrison with the first opportunity to try out his journalistic ability. The records he kept of his trips, describing day-to-day, sometimes hour-to-hour, experiences, and published in a local paper, show keen observation and minute attention to detail. These qualities, occasionally stretched to a fault, as his future chief at The Times was to remind him, remained with him throughout his career in China. When his medical studies at the university were rudely interrupted – because he recommended an excessive dose of medicament as a cure for syphilis at the intermediate examination – he set out to explore Northern Queensland, in tropical Australia, and at the age of twenty-one led one of Australia’s earliest expeditions across the Torres Straits to the then largely unknown New Guinea. His exposure of the Kanaka slave trade led to an enquiry by the British Colonial Office, and caused no little stir and disturbance among the culpable local officials, who did everything they could to discredit him. But the most notable of these early achievements was undoubtedly his walk in 1882, unaccompanied and without a compass, of 2,043 miles in 123 days, from the Gulf of Carpentaria in the extreme North of Australia to Melbourne in the South, along the same route as that on which Bourke and Wills, for all their fanfare, and with a large convoy and material support, had perished twenty-one years previously. So daunting and ‘impossible’ was the task that, while their failure became one of the most popular tales in Australian folklore, Morrison’s feat was laughed off by a local newspaper as a hoax. It was left to The Times, quite unaware of its future link with the young man, to describe the walk across the unmapped Australian outback as ‘one of the most remarkable pedestrian achievements’. And an achievement it certainly was. Morrison was to perform a similar feat again, but in China, the country where his future lay.

He narrowly escaped death from a spear wound he received in New Guinea in 1883. The barbed spearhead remained in his body for some nine months, until he travelled to Edinburgh to have it extracted by Professor John Chiene, to whom he was to dedicate his first and only book, An Australian in China, published in 1895. He then resumed his medical studies at Edinburgh, completing the full course in 1886, after two years. With his diploma in his pocket, he set out again to roam the world, having no particular aim in view but that of earning sufficient to satisfy his lust for wandering, from continental Europe to North Africa, America and the West Indies, Australia and the Pacific Islands, and the Far East. It was during this wandering that, having missed the boat for Japan, he went instead to China in 1893, thus making his first contact with the country of his future. Early the following year, he donned a Chinese gown and cap and set off, with £18 in his pocket, from Shanghai to Rangoon, a distance of 3,000 miles, most of it unknown to foreigners; he covered the greater part of it on foot, and survived a severe fever. After a return to Australia, he sailed for England in early 1895; how he then became connected with The Times he describes in vivid detail in his letter to Moberly Bell, the Manager of The Times, which opens the first volume of this selection of his Correspondence.

Thus his association with China was accidental; even when he was given the job by The Times, China was not his first choice. He was finally appointed to Peking as an experiment. Neither he nor his employer expected him to stay there for seventeen years, let alone to achieve such instant and enduring success. The reason for his sudden fame is not hard to find. In the immediate years after the Sino-Japanese War, China was an area of international intrigue. Then it was The Times that Morrison was writing for. But above all, Morrison had the virtues which a correspondent in such a position needed but usually lacked. There were many foreign correspondents from many countries in China even in Morrison’s time, but none achieved anything like his reputation, nor indeed did any of them deserve it. And if it was true that The Times, by being the vehicle of his work, helped to spread his fame, it was even more true that it was Morrison who made The Times the indisputable authority on China news, a position which it rapidly ceased to hold with Morrison’s departure in 1912.

What were his unique qualities? ‘I cannot write’, Morrison more than once complained to his many friends and colleagues, evidently feeling some real inability. But if he had any lack of stylistic power, it was more than compensated for by the conviction which his plain and lucid narrative inspired in his readers; his style was the more masterful because apparently flat. However, this impression came less from his style than from his whole attitude. His adventures prove his courage, but even there he was not reckless, and he was not an adventurer in journalism; he was keen to have a ‘scoop’, but was never sensational. Biased though he was as a ‘colonial Englishman’, jealous of England’s interests, he would report facts as facts, and view situations not merely from a local angle. He was thus able to discharge his duty, as few journalists did, ‘with the accuracy of a historian and prescience of a statesman’, even though it was of an English historian and an English statesman. This quality of integrity and scrupulousness, though admittedly within certain limits, explains why he could remain personal friends of the diplomats and representatives of the countries and interests which he as a colonial Englishman opposed. It also explains why his messages and opinions from China should have guided the chancellories of many countries during those turbulent years when China was an important area of world crisis.

These qualities, which won him such high regard, as well as his seriousness of purpose, are again shown by his collection of books in Western languages on China and the collection of papers he bequeathed. For his own information, Morrison started a library as soon as he arrived in Peking, without knowing then how long he was to remain there. In time his collection went beyond his immediate journalistic needs, and he increasingly collected books as a collector and bibliophile. The thoroughness he applied to this task gave him unrivalled scope in his knowledge of China. As a meticulous librarian and archivist, he was to help historians of the future towards a fuller comprehension of the country in which he chose to live and work. His collection of papers testifies not only to the authority, influence and fame he rightly enjoyed during his lifetime, but to the seriousness of purpose with which he applied himself to the study of China. This collection of papers, from which we now publish a selection, as well as his collection of books, which remains one of the best of its kind on China, constitute indeed an important dimension of Morrison’s achievement.