My knowledge of China and Mongolia and Central Asia was not built up by having pull with the right people, but by traveling in the far interior, by studying Chinese and Mongol until I could read and speak and be completely independent of an interpreter, and by making my way on equal terms among merchants, caravan traders, soldiers, bandits, peasants, shepherds, landlords, grain dealers and others who would be nameless to a ‘visiting fireman’ economist or political scientist or diplomat. Then, on this foundation of real life, I built a superstructure of geographical, historical and sociological study.
Early Life and Career
Owen Lattimore was born in the United States in 1900, but when he was only a few months old the family moved to Shanghai. He spent his formative years in China and witnessed the fall of the Qing Dynasty before being sent back to Europe for schooling at the age of twelve. Lattimore went to secondary school in England but his family could not afford to send him to university, so after graduation he returned to China to work.
Four years of navigating the countryside for Arnhold and Company taught Lattimore much about politics, economics, banditry, landlordism, and peasant unrest. At the time he viewed his early years in Tientsin as a kind of purgatory. Later he realized that his travels gave him the equivalent of a Ph.D. in economics.
Lattimore secured a position with the British import/export firm Arnhold and Company and for four years worked across northern China securing the safe passage of products through warlord territories. During his travels Lattimore became obsessed with the caravans and Mongolian way of life, and as soon as he had saved enough money he joined one of the caravans to Xinjiang on the western frontier of China. Lattimore had just got married, and his new bride Eleanor travelled across Siberia by sled to meet him for their six-month honeymoon in Central Asia. This led to more than half a decade of independent research in China, Mongolia and Central Asia.
In 1934 Lattimore was living in Beijing and began editing the journal Pacific Affairs, published by the Institute of Pacific Relations. Lattimore courted controversy by publishing pieces representing conflicting ideological backgrounds, including some from the Soviet Union and Japan. In 1937 Lattimore visited the headquarters of the Chinese communists in Yan’an as a translator, and met Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai.
Dear Mr. Lattimore… as an American, you can say a great number of things, that it would be difficult, if not impossible, for a Chinese to say with good grace. When they are said by an American who has lived most of his life with us and who speaks with evident sincerity, they sink deeper and have a profound influence.
In 1938, Lattimore was offered a job as a lecturer in the Walter Hines Page School of International Relations at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. Within one year he was promoted to director of the School. With the onset of WWII and the Japanese invasion of China, President Roosevelt asked Lattimore to travel to Chongqing to advise Chiang Kai-shek. Lattimore became a friend of the family and one of Chiang’s most trusted American confidants for the remainder of WWII.