CHAPTER 24Cat's Paws and Telegraphed Punches

If there were a Mount Rushmore of old China hands, you would find the Reverend Arthur Smith up there along with Abbé Huc, and perhaps a space should also be reserved for Rodney Gilbert. And although he did not speak Chinese, British journalist George Wingrove Cooke might arguably qualify for a fourth spot in the pantheon. Somewhere near this great monument, possibly wandering the grounds as a ghost, we might also find Ralph Townsend. Though his writing was acerbic—even offensive—we miss too much if we ignore his legacy as a China watcher.

Townsend was jailed in the United States during World War Two, found guilty of sedition for taking funds from the Japanese to disseminate propaganda. Prior to that shameful episode, he had been with the US State Department, serving as vice‐consul in Shanghai and Fuzhou. His career was not a particularly long one, nor was it especially distinguished. But he walked away from a few years in China with numerous insights on the country and its people, including one accurate observation that no other writer appears to have made, namely, that the Chinese have the uncanny habit of telegraphing their punches.

“Before the fruition of any important plot,” Townsend wrote, “they manage usually to let out a few unintended hints, so that the marked victims are forewarned.” He drew an analogy to boxers who convey their next moves through subtle body language. I too noticed this behavior some years ago: Factory ...

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