Dr Milutin Velimirović: A Serb in pre-WWII China

“With great interest and special pleasure I set off on a trip to that ancient and mysterious land: land of queued hair and opium, tea and silk, land of one of the oldest peoples in the world, whose existence we could have doubted due to its enormous distance and unknowability.

In front of me was an entirely separate world, special, remote culture, which until recently had little contact with Europe and from which, once they made contact, Europe borrowed a lot of things. Huge nation with curious customs and extraordinary philosophy, which contributed to its development much more than European philosophy did to Europe, with its special morality , ethics, ideas about life and work, to put it simply – a nation which represents an entirely separate world and whose origins date to the murky archives all the way back some six millennia ago.”

This is the beginning of the a Serbian travelogue about China, written by Milutin Velimirović, a medical doctor from Pirot in 1930. The travelogue is based on his 13 months spent working in the country in 1918 and 1919.

Milutin Velimirović

His soujourn in China was the result of a series of almost incredible twists of fate. A son of a priest from Montenegro (an amateur historian and ethnographer who wrote about Vasojevići tribe), Milutin went to Moscow to study medicine in 1912, but returned to Serbia in 1914 to help it fight in World War I.

He followed the Serbian army in its retreat to over Albania to Corfu, but was sent back to Russia (via Italy, England and Scandinavia) to help organise local Serbian conscripts fighting in Dobruja. After he was finished fighting, on the eve of Russian revolution, he spent some time in Moscow until he decided to make it back to Serbia, via Trans-Siberian railway,  arriving in Vladivostok in March 1918.

There he joined a Russo-Chinese expedition to China and Mongolia which took him around both countries and Japan. He finally managed to board a ship to Istanbul in 1919 and then went back to Serbia. After finishing his medical studies in Prague in 1921 he settled in Knjaževac as a medical doctor. He worked in hospitals in Niš, Jagodina and the finally Belgrade, where he died in 1973, aged 80.

He of course was not a first Serb to set foot in China, nor the first one to write about the country, especially given that a lot of Serbs joined the Russian forces in the Russo-Japanese War. Most prominent of those are Aleksandar Lekso Saičić (from present day Montenegro) who became immortalised in a poem about his successful duel against a Japanese samurai, and Dejan J. Subotić, who was posted in Manchuria during the Boxer Rebellion.  Indeed, the first known travelogue in Serbian about China, “From the Yellow Empire” was written by his brother Ozren J. Subotić and published in 1921.

However, what makes Velimirović’s account special is his civilian, compassionate perspective on China as it was going trhough some of its most difficult times before WWII. Unlike many European writers of his era, who traded in orientalist tropes and looked down on Asian, he is very sympathetic to the Chinese perspective and has high praise for the county, especially its culture and history. Beside many descriptions of China’s main sights and peculiarities of its culture and society there are also passages like this one:

“This special culture took centuries to make, completely in isolation from the rest of the world, culture whose foundations are work, perseverance and acceptance of circumstances. These traits meant that the Chinese have no compare in terms of work and trade, and led European diplomats to speak of “yellow peril”. Of course, “yellow peril” implied military threat, and due to that measures were taken which brought pleasant and comfortable parasitic life to many a European, and incited revulsion and rage towards the Europeans among the Chinese. The Chinese could not love their exploitators and further distanced themselves from the “overseas demons”, but the committed themselves to the holy and great fight against them.

Whether they will achieve anything is unknown; as a people they are blessed by bottomless energy, and their land is rich in coal and minerals. They are a people whose future looks into eternity.”

He was also in awe of Chinese courtesy and local skill as merchants:

 “They start will goods that cost 2 dollars, but they still live and trade, while their business grows. From the streets, they move to small tents, and later to move on to small shops, until they open large emporia. As merchants they are exquisitely patient and astute.”

There are many descriptions of everything and anything from the Chinese foot binding rituals to the look of local farmacies and banks.

But what is most interesting, is Velimirović’s criticism of all foriegn powers which were dividing up  and expoiting China between the Opium Wars and WWII. In his description of Shenyang, he admonishes both the Japanese and Russians (on whose side many Serbs fought) for the way they treated the Chinese during their war.

“Mukden [Shenyang] itself suffered little damage in the Russo-Japanese war, as the battles raged on the fields around it. But how many Chinese were swallowed by the Russo-Japanese war?! They were targeted by Russians and the Japanese, who saw peaceful civilians as spies and elderly as evil sorcerers. They tore down Chinese temples, burned villages and displayed groups of severed Chinese heads, tied in a not by their queued hair on old trees. Every Russian failure on the battlefield was compensated by a victory over a peaceful village and its unfortunate residents. The Chinese were unjustly blamed for many misdeeds, and were treated in most cruel ways, as the whole Russian army considered them more like cattle than people, despite the fact that they fought the war on Chinese land. And the Chinese, treated these oppressors solemnly and often tried warn them of divine justice; sadly, in these cases, there was no place for God.“

Beside the Russian and the Japanese Empires (of whose growing imperialism and chauvinism he warned in 1930s), the European powers get a short shrift for both their economic submission of the country, which he saw as aggressive and hypocritical.

He was appalled that the Europeans forced the Chinese to accept Western representatives to work in Chinese opium regulation, and not only remarked how these Westerns were often involved in opium smuggling, but also how they were strangely overpaid compared to their Chinese colleagues.

He also described the looting of Beijing by the foreign armies after they broke the Boxer rebellion in 1900.

„It brought horrific events to the Chinese capital, full of barbarism and savagery, but they are kept quiet in the history of Western civilisation. In looting everyone showed great courage and commitment to competition.

The palace of the Son of Heavens were opened and sons of White Emperors grabbed whatever they could.

They looted banks, temples, offices and houses; they courageously slaughtered docile citizens, put on a parade and gave Chine their judgement. They demanded exorbitant payments from the unlucky China, which it had to pay to all involved in this shameful expedition.

Interestingly, Indian soldiers within the British forces did not fall behind the Europeans – they looted and killed civilians in equal measure. And the elderly Chinese wept, tore their hair out and stabbed themselves with blunt knives, unable to get over their shame. The Europeans, sipping tea in their drawing rooms decorated with what they looted, talked about roughness and brutality of the Chinese!”

Velimirović’s anti-imperialism is perhaps unsurprising given Serbia’s own experience with empires, but does go against the grain of a part of the Serbian(mostly Western-educated) elite of the time. Many of them tried to ape their Western counterparts in everything and anything, from clothes and literature to Orientalism and racial science, according to  fashions of the time. Indeed, a few decades before Velimirović’s travels, Vladan Đorđević, a Serbian politican and doctor, was inspired by the US treatment of Native Americans for his plan to re-settle Albanians, who he infamously described as having tails (based, again, on an account of a racist 19th Century Austrian diplomat).

Velimirović certainly could not have guessed that a century after his travels and travails, Serbia and China will be so tightly economically and politically tied as they are now. After a period of coldness bewteen Yugoslvia and China during the Cold War, there are now a lot of Chinese tourists travelling around Belgrade and many Serbs working in China, some probably unknowingly retracing Velimirović’s steps from Harbin to Guangzhou, via Tianjin, Beijing, Shanghai, Nanjing and Hong Kong.

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