China and North Carolina – Thucydides and Charlie Soong

By D.G. Martin


Charlie Soong, a leading Chinese businessman in the mid-20th century with ties to North Carolina.
Charlie Soong, a leading Chinese businessman in the mid-20th century with ties to North Carolina. Duke University David Rubenstein Archives

During the past few days, the release of North Carolina native Graham Allison's book, “Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides's Trap?” and Allison’s visit to his home state focused attention on the United States' relationship with China.

According to Allison, founding dean of Harvard University's Kennedy School, history shows the likelihood of war between the two countries is great. During appearances last week at the Charlotte World Affairs Council in his hometown and at his Davidson College 1962 class reunion weekend, he explained why there is a great risk of war.

His phrase, “the Thucydides trap,” now in common use by world leaders, explains that when a rising power challenges and alarms an established ruling power, escalation toward war can result. In his classic, “The Peloponnesian Wars,” the ancient Greek historian Thucydides, wrote, “What made war inevitable was the growth of Athenian power and the fear which this caused in Sparta.”

Allison sets out 16 times during the past 500 years when rising powers have challenged ruling ones. Twelve times the result was war. Allison went on to say war is not inevitable, but avoiding it will require both countries to exercise caution, patience and an understanding of the other’s important aspirations.

China’s leader, Xi Jinping, has acknowledged the risk, saying, “We must all work together to avoid Thucydides’s trap.”

We can hope that in managing U.S. and China relations, both Xi and President Donald Trump will remember the dangers Allison and Thucydides describe.

Allison’s North Carolina connections and his description of today’s China brought to mind the amazing story about how a young Chinese man on the docks of Wilmington in 1880 became one of China’s most powerful men. Another recent book, written by Greensboro’s Ed Haag, “Charlie Soong: North Carolina’s Link to the Fall of the Last Emperor of China,” retells a great North Carolina story so unbelievable it could be a fairytale or an adventure story by Nathaniel Hawthorne or Pearl Buck.

Set in the 19th Century, a young boy leaves home in China, somehow makes his way to Wilmington, becomes a Christian, and charms prominent North Carolinians who provide for his education and send him back to China to win souls.

Somehow, this young man known as Charlie Soong becomes a successful and wealthy business leader in China. He raises funds to support Sun Yat-Sen’s efforts to overthrow the conservative and authoritarian Qing dynasty.

He sent his six children back to the U.S. for their education. Haag suggests one reason Soong sent them away from China was because they were in danger from the Qing regime due to their father’s support for Sun Yat-Sen’s revolution.

When the children came back to China, all played historic roles. One daughter, Ching-ling, married SunYat-sen himself and became "Madame SunYat-sen," an important figure in Chinese government long after her husband's death.

Another daughter, May-ling, married Chiang Kai-shek, who led the Nationalist government. "Madame Chiang Kai-shek" was well known to Americans until her death in 2003.

The Charlie Soong story is not new, but Haag has dug up new material, much of it from the Soong papers housed at the Duke University library. For instance, Haag explains better than earlier authors how Charlie Soong became so wealthy. Others have written how Soong’s missionary work led to a business of printing Bibles. His association with a flour mill in Shanghai contributed to his success. But, according to Haag, Soong’s greatest wealth came from his role as a “comprador,” a fixer and go-between helping western suppliers and traders and Chinese businesses deal with each other and their different customs and expectations.

Those North Carolinians who already know about Charlie Soong will appreciate Haag’s refinements and additions. For those who never heard of Soong, Haag’s book is a great starting point.

D.G. Martin hosts “North Carolina Bookwatch,” which airs Sundays at noon and Thursdays at 5 p.m. on UNC-TV. Preview the upcoming program on UNC-TV’s North Carolina digital channel (Spectrum #1276) on Fridays at 8 p.m. Featuring in June Southern Book Prize Nominees, this Thursday’s (June 15) guest is John Hart, author of “Redemption Road.” Next week’s (June 18, 22) guest is Kristy Woodson Harvey, author of “Lies and Other Acts of Love.” To view prior programs: http://video.unctv.org/program/nc-bookwatch/episodes/. For upcoming programs: www.unctv.org/ncbookwatch

D.G. Martin’s radio conversation with Ed Haag about “Charlie Soong” is available at: