A theme running through history has been the battle of east versus west – Greeks v. Persians, Romans v. Egyptians, Franks v. Moslems, Americans v. Soviets, etc. The battle has always been ideological and philosophical as well as martial. Letters to a Chinese Official was a vehicle used by William Jennings Bryan to defend the tenets of Western Civilization and the culture of the United States against the claims of superiority asserted by the east.
Comprised of eight letters written as though speaking directly to the Chinese Official, Bryan juxtaposes Chinese and U.S. landscape, foreign policy, education, industrialization, family values, and religion.
According to Bryan, upon the comparison of the “average” Chinese man and the “average” American, the Chinese do “not approach on mental strength, moral stamina or high conception of life the product of Christian civilization.” In part, this is based on the value the U.S. has placed on education, which — unlike in China — is available to both boys and girls (regardless of wealth) and has a more expansive curriculum than merely “the sayings of a few sages and a few poems.” Bryan offers that perhaps the sharpest contrast between the two civilizations appears in the Chinese segregation of those workers delegated to labor and those chosen to pursue higher education and governmental office. It is a “false democracy” where only a certain few are allowed to pursue their political ambitions and creates an arbitrary divide among its people. Rather, the most effective form of government is one in which office is open to all citizens, and its officials are accountable to the people.
Concerning foreign policy, Bryan argues that a “hermit policy is almost as foolish for a nation as for an individual.” Bryan advocated for trade among nations as a means through which people could exchange goods, ideals, and amity. Interaction among the nations is essential for acquaintance, which precedes sympathy, and misunderstandings between countries can be resolved through intimacy and friendship.
Bryan responds to the attack laid on the U.S. regarding its perceived “mission” to “redeem or civilize the world” by defending the importance of ambition and growth, while denouncing those who force their ideals upon others.
Better the nation that, aspiring high and laying out for itself a gigantic task, goes forward in a civilizing work, even though its virtues are not unmixed with base alloy, than a nation which, wrapped in the contemplation of its own immaculateness, sleeps the precious years away, indifferent to the world’s welfare and unmindful of misery that might be relieved.