In 1899, Arthur H. Smith wrote in “Village Life in China”:“The prominent place given to education in China renders the Chinese village school an object of more than common interest, for it is here that by far the greater number of the educated men of the empire receive their first intellectual training. While the schools of one district may be a little better or worse than those of another, there is probably no country in the world where there is so much uniformity in the standards of instruction, and in all its details, as in China. [Source:“Chinese Characteristics” by Arthur Henderson Smith, 1894. Smith (1845 -1932) was an American missionary who spent 54 years in China. In the 1920s, “Chinese Characteristics” was still the most widely read book on China among foreign residents there. He spent much of his time in Pangzhuang, a village in Shandong.]

“It is far from being the fact that every Chinese village has its school, but it is doubtless true that every village would like to have one, for there is everywhere the most profound reverence for “instruction.” The reasons given for the absence of a school are always that the village is too poor, or too small, or both.

“The proposition to have a school is made by the parents of the children, and when it is ascertained that a sufficient number of names can be secured, these are entered on a red card, called a school list (kuan-tan). This is generally prepared by the time of the winter solstice (December 21st), though sometimes the matter is left in abeyance until the very end of the year, some six weeks later. On the other hand, in some regions, it is customary to have the school card ready by the 15th of the eighth moon, some time in August or September. The choice of a teacher, like many other things Chinese, is very much a matter of chance. It seems to be rather uncommon that a scholar should teach in his own village, though this does often happen. The reason generally given for this is that it is inconvenient for the pupils to be too near an ex-preceptor who may make demands upon them in later years. Sometimes the same teacher is engaged for a long series of years, while in other places there is an annual change. Once the pupil’s name has been regularly entered upon the school list, he must pay the tuition agreed upon, whether he ever attends the school or not, no matter what the reason for his absence.

“The object of Chinese education is to pump up the wisdom of the ancients into the minds of the moderns. In order to do this, however, it is necessary to keep the stream in a constant flow, at whatever cost, else much of the preceding labour is lost. According to Chinese theory, or practice, a school which should only be in session for six months of the year, would be a gross absurdity. The moment a child fails to attend school, he is supposed (and with reason) to become “wild.” [Source: “Village Life in China” by Arthur H. Smith, Fleming H. Revell Company, 1899, The Project Gutenberg]

“The territory to be traversed is so vast that the most unremitting diligence is absolutely indispensable. This continues true, however advanced the pupil may be; as witness the popular saying, “Ten years a graduate (without studying), and one is a nobody.” The same saying is current in regard to the second degree, and with not less reason.

Confucianism and Classical Chinese Views on Education

Arthur H. Smith wrote in “Village Life in China”: “There are in the Chinese Classics several passages which throw an interesting light upon the views which have been handed down from antiquity in regard to the education of children. One of these is found in the writings of Mencius. Upon one occasion he was asked why the superior man does not teach his own son. To this Mencius replied that the circumstances of the case forbid it. The teacher should inculcate what is correct. When he does so, and his lessons are not practiced, he follows it up by being angry. Thus he is alienated from his son who complains to himself that his father teaches one thing and practices another. As a result the estrangement becomes mutual and deepens. Between father and son, said Mencius, there should be no reproving admonitions to what is good, because these lead to such alienations. The ancients, he declared, exchanged sons, and one taught the son of another. [Source: “Village Life in China” by Arthur H. Smith, Fleming H. Revell Company, 1899, The Project Gutenberg]

“Another significant passage is found in the Confucian Analects, and is as follows, quoting, as before, Dr. Legge’s translation, “Ch‘ên K‘ang asked Po Yü, the son of Confucius, saying, ‘Have you heard any lessons from your father, different from what we have all heard?’ Po Yü replied, ‘No; he was once standing alone when I hurriedly passed below the hall, and he said to me, “Have you learned the Odes?” on my replying, “not yet,” he added, “If you do not learn the Odes, you will not be fit to converse with.” I retired and studied the Odes. Another day he was in the same way standing alone, when I hastily passed below the hall, and he said to me, “Have you learned the Rules of Propriety?” on my replying, “not yet,” he added, “If you do not learn the Rules of Propriety, your character cannot be established.” I then retired and studied the Rules of Propriety. I have heard only these two things from him.’ Ch‘ên K‘ang retired, delighted, saying, ‘I asked about one thing, and I have got three things. I have heard about the Odes, I have heard about the Rules of Propriety, and I have heard that the superior man maintains a distant reserve toward his son.’”

Regard for Scholars and Learning in 19th Century China

Smith wrote in “Village Life in China”: “There are several criticisms which the average Occidental is sure to make on the average Chinese schoolmaster. He always lacks initiative and will seldom do anything without explicit directions. He is also painfully deficient in finality, especially in the statement of his own affairs, often consuming an hour wheeling in concentric circles about a point to which he should have come in three minutes—that is, had he been constructed intellectually as most Westerners are. [Source: “Village Life in China” by Arthur H. Smith, Fleming H. Revell Company, 1899, The Project Gutenberg]

Yet he has undoubted intellectual abilities, not frequently surprising one by the keenness and justice of his criticisms and comments. But his mind has been trained for one line of work, and often for that alone. Every one knows that the minds of the Chinese are not by nature analytic; neither are they synthetic. They may suppose themselves to have the clearest perception of the way in which a statement ought to be made, but a whole platoon of teachers will not seldom spend several days in working over and over an epitome of some matter of business which happens to be somewhat complicated, and after all with results unsatisfactory to themselves, and still more so to the Occidental who0 fails to understand why it could not have been finished in two hours. The same phenomenon is often witnessed in their efforts to assimilate unfamiliar works which are not geographical. If a reading man is invited to peruse one and make an abstract of it, he generally declines, remarking that he does not know how, a proposition which he can speedily prove with a certainty equal to any demonstration in Euclid.

“The inborn conservatism of the Chinese race is exhibited in the average literary man, whatever the degree of his attainments. To change his accustomed way of doing anything is to give his intellectual faculties a wrench akin to physical dislocation of a hip-bone. Chinese writing is in perpendicular columns, and if horizontal reads from right to left—the reverse of English. A fossilized Chinese whom the writer set to noting down sentences in a ruled foreign blank-book could not be induced to follow the lines as directed, but wished to make columns to which he was used. When the foreign way was insisted upon, he simply turned the book partly around and wrote on the lines perpendicularly as before! He would not be a party to violent rearrangement of the ancient symbols of thought. Such a man’s mind resembles an obsolete high bicycle—very good if one but knows how to work it, but not quite safe for any others. There is another similarity likewise in the circumstance that many Chinese who have some degree of scholarship are not expecting to employ their intellectual faculties except when they happen to be called for. One is often told by Chinese who have gone from home for some considerable time, that he cannot read something which has been offered to him, as he has left his glasses at home, not supposing that he should have any use for them. A greater intellectual contrast between the East and the West it might not be easy to name.

“To almost all Chinese the form of a written character appears to be of indefinitely greater importance than its meaning. Those who are learning to read, or who can read only imperfectly, are generally so completely absorbed in the mere enunciation of a character, that they will not and probably cannot pay the smallest attention to any explanation as to its purport, the consideration of which appears to be regarded as of no consequence whatever, if not an interruption. But the scholar and the new beginner have this admirable talent in common, that they are almost always able completely to abstract themselves from their surroundings, disregarding all distractions. This valuable faculty, as already remarked and a phenomenally developed verbal memory are perhaps the most enviable results of the educational process which we are describing. As an excellent example, however, of the degree to which verbal memory extinguishes the judgment, may be mentioned a country schoolmaster (a literary graduate) whom the writer interviewed in a dispensary waiting-room as to the respective deserts of Chou, the tyrant whose crimes put an end to the Ancient Shang Dynasty, and Pi Kan, a relative whom Chou ordered disemboweled in mere wantonness in order to see if a Sage really has seven openings in his heart. The teacher recollected the incident perfectly, and cited a passage from the Classics referring to it, but declined to express any judgment on the merits of these men as he had forgotten what “the small characters” (the commentary) said about them!

Confucian Master

Smith wrote: “Confucius was a master who felt himself to be in possession of great truths of which his age was in deep need, and he offered his instructions to rich and poor alike, upon the sole condition of receptivity. “I do not open up the truth,” he said, “to one who is not eager to get knowledge, nor help out any one who is not anxious to explain himself. When I have presented one corner of a subject to any one, and he cannot from it learn the other three, I do not repeat the lesson.” For aught that appears, the son of Confucius was wholly dependent for whatever he knew or received, upon his father. According to Confucius, an acquaintance with the Odes, and with the Rules of Propriety, form a very considerable part of the equipment of a scholar. They embrace such subjects as could be comprehended and assimilated, one would suppose, only by the assistance of a competent teacher. That in the education of his own son, Confucius should have contented himself with a casual question, and a single hint, as to the pursuit of those branches which were in his eyes of preëminent importance, is a circumstance so singular that if it were not handed down upon the same authority as the other facts in the life of the sage, we might be disposed to doubt its credibility. [Source: “Village Life in China” by Arthur H. Smith, Fleming H. Revell Company, 1899, The Project Gutenberg]

“The theory upon which the master acted is happily epitomized by Ch‘ên K‘ang—“distant reserve.” Even to his own son the superior man is a higher grade of being, whose slightest word contains fruitful seeds of instruction. He expects his pupil to act upon a hint as if it were the formal announcement of a law of nature. He is the sun around whom his planets revolve, in orbits proportioned to the force of the central attraction—an attraction which varies with the capacity to be attracted. Yet in every case there is a point beyond which no pupil can go, he must not come too near his sun.

“According to Occidental thought, the ideal of teaching is exemplified in the methods of such educators as Dr. Arnold, of Rugby, whose stimulating influence was felt over an entire generation. Upon the plan of Confucius it is difficult to see, not how he could have won the love of his pupils—which was probably remote from his thought and from theirs—but how he could have permanently impressed himself upon any except the very apt. Few are the pupils, we may be sure, who after a chance question and a remark will retire and study unaided a branch of learning which, they are told, will enable them to converse, or to “establish” their characters.

“Contrast with this method of Confucius that of James Mill, as detailed in the autobiography of his son, John Stuart Mill. Here was a father, not a professional philosopher, but a man of business, who amid the composition of historical and other works, found time to superintend the education of his son from the days of earliest infancy until mature manhood, not in the ancient language only, but in history, philosophy, political economy, composition, and even in elocution, and all with comprehensiveness of plan, a labourious and unwearying persistence in teaching principles and not rules, combined with scrupulous fidelity in minutest details. By this patient assiduity and his father’s skillful direction, Mill was given a start over his contemporaries, as he himself remarks, of at least a quarter of a century, and became one of the most remarkably educated men of whom we have any record. One could wish that to his “imaginary conversations of literary men and statesmen,” Walter Savage Landor had added a chapter giving a dialogue between Confucius and James Mill, “on distant reserve as a factor in the education of sons.”

“In China the relation between teacher and pupil is far more intimate than in Western lands. One is supposed to be under a great weight of obligation to the master who has enlightened his darkness, and if this master should be at any time in need of assistance, it is thought to be no more than the duty of the pupil to afford it. This view of the case is obviously one which it is for the interest of teachers to perpetuate, and the result of the theory and of the attendant practice is that there are many decayed teachers roving about, living on the precarious generosity of their former pupils.

Scholars in 19th Century Village Politics and Justice

In 1899, Arthur H. Smith wrote in “Village Life in China”: “Every village as already explained, has its headmen. Among them the literary graduate, provided he is also a practical man, will inevitably take the lead. He will often come into relations with the District Magistrate, which makes him a marked man among his fellows. He will be constantly called upon to assist in the settlement of disputes, and every such occasion will afford opportunities for the privilege, so dear to the Chinese, of enjoying a feast at the expense of his neighbours, besides 3putting them under an obligation to him for his trouble. At the weddings and funerals within the large circle of his acquaintance he will be a frequent guest, and always in the place of honour due to his literary degree. This is especially the case in funeral ceremonies of those who are buried with the most elaborate ritual. On these occasions the ancestral tablet of the deceased is to be written, and as an important part of the exercises a red dot over one character signifying King is to be placed, thus changing it into the symbol denoting Lord. It is not uncommon to have the performances connected with such funerals extended over several days, each furnishing three excellent feasts, as well as abundant supplies of opium for those who wish to smoke. In a country like China the participation in revels such as these approach more nearly to paradisaic bliss than anything of which the Chinese mind can conceive. Every scholar is desirous of getting into such relations with his environment that honours of this sort come to him as a matter of course. If he happens to be very poor, they furnish a not unimportant part of his support, as well as of his happiness. [Source: “Village Life in China” by Arthur H. Smith, Fleming H. Revell Company, 1899, The Project Gutenberg]

“The village graduate who knows how to help in lawsuits by preparing complaints, and by assisting in the intricate proceedings ensuing at each stage is often able by means of the prestige thus gained, to get his living at the expense of others more ignorant. No country offers a better field for such an enterprise than China. Unbounded respect for learning coexists with unbounded ignorance, and the experienced literary man knows how to turn each of these elements to the very best account. In all lands and in all ages, the man who is possessed with what is vulgarly termed the “gift of the gab,” is able to make his own way, and in China he carries everything before him.

“The range of territory which any aspirant for literary honours in China must expect to traverse, is, as we have seen, continental. In order to have any hope of success, he must be acquainted with every square inch of it, and must be prepared to3 sink an artesian well from any given point to any given depth. To the uneducated peasant, whose whole being is impregnated with a blind respect for learning, amounting at times to a kind of idolatry, such knowledge as this seems an almost supernatural acquirement, and inspires all the reverence of which he is capable. The thought of the estimate in which they will be held for the whole term of their lives, is thus a powerful stimulus to scholars of ambition, even under the greatest discouragements.

“There could scarcely be a better exemplification of what the Chinese saying calls “superiority to those below, and inferiority to those above,” than the position of the hsiu-ts‘ai. While he is looked upon by the vulgar herd in the light we have described, by the educated classes above him he is regarded, as we have so often termed him, as a schoolboy who is not yet even in school. The popular dictum avers that though the whole body of hsiu-ts‘ai should attempt to start a rebellion, and should be left undisturbed in the effort for three years, the result would be failure, albeit this proverb finds no support in the history of the great rebellion, which originated with a discontented undergraduate who was exasperated at his repeated failures to get his talent recognized. Literary examinations, as we have abundantly seen, are like the game of backgammon, an equal mixture of skill and luck, but the young graduate easily comes to regard the luck as due to the skill, and thus becomes filled to the full of that intellectual pride which is one of the greatest barriers to the national progress of China.

Teachers in 19th Century China

Smith wrote: According to the Chinese theory, the employment of teacher is the most honourable possible. Confucius and Mencius, the great sages of antiquity, were only teachers. To invite a teacher, is compared to the investiture of a general by the emperor with supreme command. In consequence of this theory, springing directly from the exalted respect for learning entertained by the Chinese, a master is allowed almost unlimited control. According to a current proverb, the relation of teacher and pupil resembles that of father and son, but the simile of a general would be a more correct expression of a teacher’s powers. He is able to declare a sort of martial law, and to punish with the greatest rigour. [Source: “Village Life in China” by Arthur H. Smith, Fleming H. Revell Company, 1899, The Project Gutenberg]

“In China every educated man is a potential schoolmaster, and most of those who have the opportunity to do so take a school. It is one of the allegorical sayings of the flowery land that “in the ink-slab fields there are no bad crops,” which signifies that literature is a vocation standing upon a firmer basis than any other. This is the theory. As a matter of fact the Chinese teacher is often barely able to keep soul and body together, and is frequently obliged to borrow garments in which to appear before his patrons. His learning may have fitted him to teach a school, or it may not. It has completely unfitted him to do anything else. It is therefore a period of great anxiety to the would-be pedagogue when the school cards are in preparation. “When the ground is clean, and the threshing-floor bare, The teacher’s heart is filled with care,” says the proverb, and another adage is current, to the effect that if one has a few bags of grain on hand, he is not obliged to be king over children.

“To the enormous oversupply of school-teachers, it is due that one of the most honourable of callings is at the same time one of the most ill-paid. Teachers of real ability, or who have in some way secured a great reputation, are able to command salaries in proportion; but the country schoolmaster, who can compete for a situation within a very small area only, is often remunerated with but a mere pittance—an allowance of grain supposed to be adequate for his food, a supply of dried stalks for fuel, and a sum in money, frequently not exceeding ten Mexican dollars for the year. It is not very uncommon to meet teachers who have but one or two pupils, and who receive for their services little or nothing more than their food. To the natural inquiry whether it was worth his while to teach for such a slender compensation, a schoolmaster of this class replied, that it was better than staying at home with nothing to eat. It is a current saying that the rich never teach school, and the poor never attend one—though to this there are exceptions. It is a strange fact that one occasionally meets schoolmasters who have never studied anything beyond the Four Books, and who therefore know nothing of the Five Classics, an outfit comparable to that of a Western teacher who should only have perused his arithmetic as far as simple division!

Knowledge of Teachers in 19th Century China

In 1899, Arthur H. Smith wrote in “Village Life in China”: “Considering what, in spite of their defects, the Classics have done for China, it is not surprising that they have come to be regarded with a bibliolatry to which the history of mankind affords few parallels. It is extremely difficult for us to comprehend the effect of a narrow range of studies on the mind, because our experience furnishes no instance to which the case of the Chinese can be compared. Let us for a moment imagine a Western scholar, who had enjoyed a profound mathematical education, and no other education whatever. Every one would consider such a mind ill-balanced. Yet much of the ill effect of such a narrow education would be counteracted. Mathematical certainty is infallible certainty; mathematics leads up to astronomy, and a thorough acquaintance with astronomy is of itself a liberal education. Besides this, no man in Western lands can fail to come into vital contact with other minds. And there is what Goethe called the Zeit-geist, or Spirit of the Age, which exerts a powerful influence upon him. But in China, a man who is educated in a narrow line, is likely, though by no means certain, to remain narrow, and there is no Chinese Zeit-geist, or if there is, like other ghosts, it seldom interposes in human affairs. [Source: “Village Life in China” by Arthur H. Smith, Fleming H. Revell Company, 1899, The Project Gutenberg]

“The average Chinese scholar is at a great disadvantage in the lack of the apparatus for study. In a Western land, any man with the slightest claim to be called a scholar, would be able to answer in a short time, a vast range of questions, with intelligent accuracy. This he would do, not so much by means of his own miscellaneous information, as by his books of reference. The various theories as to the location of the Garden of Eden, the dimensions of the Great Pyramid, the probable authorship of the Junius Letters, the highest latitude reached in polar exploration, the names of the generals who conducted the fourth Peloponnesian war—all these, and thousands of similar matters, could be at once elucidated by means of a dictionary of antiquities, a manual of ancient or modern history, a biographical dictionary, and an encyclopedia. To the ordinary Chinese scholar, such helps as these are entirely wanting. He owns very few books; for in the country where printing was invented, books are the luxury of the rich.

Strolling Scholars in 19th Century China

Smith wrote: “The extreme difficulty which men of some education often find in keeping from starvation, gives rise to a class of persons known as Strolling Scholars, (yu hsiao), who travel about the country vending paper, pictures, lithographs of tablets, pens and ink. These individuals are not to be confounded with travelling pedlars, who, though they deal in the same articles, make no pretension to learning, and generally convey their goods on a wheelbarrow, whereas the Strolling Scholar cannot manage anything larger than a pack. [Source: “Village Life in China” by Arthur H. Smith, Fleming H. Revell Company, 1899, The Project Gutenberg]

“When a Strolling Scholar reaches a schoolhouse, he enters, lowers his bundle, and makes a profound bow to the teacher, who (though much displeased at his appearance) must return the courtesy. If there are large pupils, the stranger bows to them and addresses them as his Younger Brothers. The teacher then makes some inquiries as to his name, etc. If he turns out0 to be a mere pretender, without real scholarship, the teacher drops the conversation, and very likely leaves the schoolroom. This is a tacit signal to the larger scholars to get rid of the visitor. They place a few cash on the table, perhaps not more than five, or even three, which the Strolling Scholar picks up, and with a bow departs. If he sells anything, his profits are of the most moderate description—perhaps three cash on each pen, and two cash on each cake of ink. With a view to this class of demands, a small fund is sometimes kept on hand by the larger scholars, who compel the younger ones to contribute to it.

“If, however, the Strolling Scholar is a scholar in fact, as well as in name, so that his attainments become apparent, the teacher is obliged to treat him with much greater civility. Some of these roving pundits make a specialty of historical anecdotes, and miscellaneous knowledge, and in a general conversation with the teacher, the latter, who has not improbably confined himself to the beaten routine of classical study, is at a disadvantage. In this case, other scholars of the village are perhaps invited in to talk with the stranger, who may be requested to write a pair of scrolls, and asked to take a meal with the teacher, a small present in money being made to him on his departure.

“It is related that a Strolling Scholar of this sort, being present when a teacher was explaining the Classics, deliberately took off his shoes and stockings in presence of the whole school. Being reproved by the teacher for this breach of propriety, he replied that his dirty stockings had as good an “odour” as the teacher’s classical explanations. To this the teacher naturally replied by a challenge to the stranger to explain the Classics himself, that they might learn from him. The Strolling Scholar, who was a person of considerable ability, had been waiting for just such an opportunity, and taking up the explanation, went on with it in such an elegant style, “every sentence being like an examination essay,” that the teacher was amazed0 and ashamed, and entertained him handsomely. If a teacher were to treat with disrespect one whose scholarship was obviously superior to his own, he would expose himself to disrespect in turn, and might be disgraced before his own pupils, an occurrence which he is very anxious to avoid.

Learning in 19th Century China

Smith wrote: “Thoughtful Chinese teachers, familiar with the capacity of their pupils, estimate that the most intelligent among them can not be expected to understand a hundredth part of what they have memorized. The great majority of them have about as accurate a conception of the territory traversed, as a boy might entertain of a mountainous district through which he had been compelled to run barefooted and blindfolded in a dense fog, chased for vast distances by a man cracking over his head a long ox-whip. How very little many scholars do grasp of the real meaning, even after explanations which the teacher regards as abundantly full, is demonstrated by a test to which here and there a master subjects his scholars, that of requiring them to write down a passage. The result is frequently the notation of so many false characters as to render it evident, not only that the explanations have not been apprehended, but that notwithstanding such a multitude of perusals, the text itself has been taken only into the ear as so many sounds, and has not entered the mind at all. [Source: “Village Life in China” by Arthur H. Smith, Fleming H. Revell Company, 1899, The Project Gutenberg]

“The system of explanations adopted by Chinese teachers, as a rule, is almost the exact opposite of that which, to an Occidental, would seem rational. “In speech,” said Confucius, “one should be intelligible, and that is the end of it.” The Confucian teacher, however, is often very far indeed from feeling that it is necessary to be intelligible—that is to say, to make it absolutely certain that his pupils have fully comprehended his meaning. He is very apt to deliver his explanations—when a sufficient number of years has elapsed to make it seem worth while to begin them at all—ex cathedra, and in a stately, formal manner, his attention being much more fixed upon the exhibition of his own skill in displaying his own knowledge, than upon imparting that knowledge to his scholars. It is common to hear it said of a teacher who has attained distinction, that when he opens his mouth to explain the Classics, “every sentence is fit for an examination essay.” This is considered to be the acme of praise. Sentences which are suited to be constituent parts of examination essays, are not, it is superfluous to remark, particularly adapted to the comprehension of young schoolboys, who know nothing about examination essays, the style of which is utterly beyond their powers.

“The commentary upon the Classics written by Chu Hsi, in the twelfth century, a. d., has come to have an authority second only to that of the text itself. That no Chinese school-teacher leads his pupils to question for an instant whether the explanation is accurate and adequate, is a matter of course. The whole object of a teacher’s work is to fit his pupils to compete at the examinations, and to prepare essays which shall win the approval of the examiners, thus leading to the rank of literary graduate. This result would be possible only to those who accept the orthodox interpretation of the Classics, and hence it is easy to see that Chinese schools are not likely to become nurseries of heresy. The very idea of discussing with his pupils either text or commentary, does not so much as enter the mind of a Chinese schoolmaster. He could not do so if he would, and he would not if he could.

Study of History in 19th Century China

Smith wrote:“At examinations below that for the second degree, a knowledge of history is said to be as superfluous as an acquaintance with the dictionary. Nine out of ten candidates at the lower examinations know little of the history of China, except what they have learned from the Trimetrical Classic, or picked up from the classics. The perusal of compendiums of history, even if such are available, is the employment of leisure, and the composition of essays as a business once entered upon, there is no leisure.

“One occasionally meets a teacher who has made a specialty of history, but these men are rare. Historical allusions often lie afloat in the minds of Chinese scholars, like snatches of poetry, the origin and connection of which are unknown. Many scholars who have the knack of picking up and appropriating such spiculæ of knowledge, acquire the art of dextrously weaving them into examination essays and owe their success to this circumstance alone, whereas if they were examined upon the historical connection of the incidents which they have thus cited, they would be unable to reply. But as long as the use of such allusions in essays is felicitous, no questions are asked, and the desired end is attained. “The Cat that catches the Rat is a good Cat,” says the adage, and it is no matter if the Cat is blind, and the Rat is a dead one! [Source: “Village Life in China” by Arthur H. Smith, Fleming H. Revell Company, 1899, The Project Gutenberg]

“The Peking Gazette occasionally contains memorials from officers asking that certain sums be set apart for the maintenance of a library in some central city, to aid poor students in the prosecution of their studies. If there were libraries on a large scale in every district city, they would be valuable and much-needed helps. But so far as appears, for all practical purposes, they scarcely exist at all.

“The Chinese method of writing history, is what Sydney Smith called the antediluvian, that, namely, in which the writer proceeds upon the hypothesis that the life of the reader is to be as long as that of Methuselah. Projected upon this tremendous plan, the standard histories are not only libraries in size, but are enormously expensive in price. In a certain District (or County) it is a well-known fact that there is only one such history, which belongs to a wealthy family, and which one could no more “borrow,” than he could borrow the family graveyard, and which even if it could be borrowed would prove to be a wilderness of learning. It is indeed a proverb, that “He that would know things ancient and modern, must peruse five cartloads of books.”

“But even after this labour, his range of learning, gauged by Occidental standards, would be found singularly inadequate. According to Chinese ideas, the history of the reigning dynasty is not a proper object of knowledge, and histories generally end at the close of the Ming Dynasty, about 250 years ago. If any one has a curiosity to learn of what has happened since that time, he can be gratified by waiting a few decades or centuries, when the dynasty shall have changed, and the records of the Great Pure Dynasty can be impartially written. Imagine a History of England which should call a halt at the House of Hanover!

“The result of the various causes here indicated, combined with the grave defects in the system of education, is that multitudes of Chinese scholars know next to nothing about matters directly in the line of their studies, and in regard to which we should consider ignorance positively disgraceful. A venerable0 teacher remarked to the writer with a charming naïveté that he had never understood the allusions in the Trimetrical Classic (which stands at the very threshold of Chinese study), until at the age of sixty he had an opportunity to read a Universal History, prepared by a missionary, in which for the first time Chinese history was made accessible to him.

“The encyclopedias and works of reference, which the Chinese have compiled in overwhelming abundance, are as useless to the common scholar as the hieroglyphics of Egypt. He never saw these works, and he has never heard of them. The information condensed into a small volume like Mayers’ Chinese Reader’s Manual, could not be drawn from a whole platoon of ordinary scholars. Knowledge of this sort the scholar must pick up as he goes along, remembering everything that he reads or hears; and much of it will be derived from cheap little books, badly printed, and full of false characters, prepared on no assignable plan, and covering no definite ground.

Results of a 19th Century Chinese Village Education

In 1899, Arthur H. Smith wrote in “Village Life in China”: “The whole plan of Chinese study has been aptly called intellectual infanticide. The outcome of it is that it is quite possible that the village scholar who has the entire Classics at his tongue’s end, who has been examined before the Literary Chancellor more times than he can remember, may not know fact from fiction, nor history from mythology. He is, perhaps, not certain whether a particular historical character lived in the Han Dynasty or in the Ming Dynasty, though the discrepancy involves a matter of 1,000 or 1,200 years. He does not profess to be positive whether a given name represents a real person, or whether it may not perhaps have been merely one of the dramatis personæ of a theatrical play. [Source: “Village Life in China” by Arthur H. Smith, Fleming H. Revell Company, 1899, The Project Gutenberg]

“He cannot name the governors or governors-general of three out of the eighteen provinces, nor does he know the capitals of a third of those provinces. It is enough for him that any particular place in China, the location of which he is ignorant of, is “south-side.” He never studied any geography ancient or modern, he never saw an ancient atlas nor a modern map of China—never in fact heard of one.

“An acquaintance of the writer’s, who was a pupil in a mission school, sent to a reading man of his village a copy of a Universal Geography in the Mandarin Colloquial, the explanations of which would seem to render mistake as to its purport almost impossible. Yet the recipient of the work, after protracted study of it, could make nothing whatever of the volume, and called to his aid two friends, one of whom was a literary graduate, and all three of them puzzled over the maps and text for three days, at the end of which time they all gave the matter up as an insoluble riddle, and determined in despair to await the return of the donor of the book, to explain what it was about!

“This trait of intellectual obtuseness, is far enough from being exceptional in Chinese scholars. With a certain class of them, a class easily recognized, it is the rule, and it is a natural outcome of the mode and process of their education. Although the education of a Chinese scholar is almost exclusively devoted to acquiring facility of composition, it is composition of one variety only, the examination essay. Outside of examination halls, however, the examination essay, even in China, plays a comparatively small part, and a person whose sole forte is the production of such essays often shows to very little advantage in any other line of business. He cannot write a letter without allowing the “seven empty particles” to tyrannize over his pen. He employs a variety of set forms, such as that he has received your epistle and respectfully bathed himself before he0 ventured to open it (a very exaggerated instance of hyperbole), but he very likely neglects to inform you from what place he is writing and if he is reporting, for example, a lawsuit, he probably omits altogether several items of vital importance to a correct comprehension of the case. In a majority of instances he is miserably poor, often has no employment whatever, and no prospect of obtaining any. If he becomes acquainted with a foreigner, you are aware, before he has made three calls, that he is in quest of a situation. You inquire what he can do, and with a pathetic simplicity he assures you that he can do some things, and is really not a useless person. He can indeed, write from a copy, or from dictation if an eye be constantly kept upon him to prevent the notation of wrong characters. But it will not be surprising if his employer finds that at whatever task he is set, he either does it ill, or cannot do it at all.

“Under the conditions of the civil service examinations, as they have been conducted for many hundred years, a system of school instruction like the one here described, or which shall at least produce the same results, is an imperative necessity in China. A reform cannot begin anywhere until a reform begins everywhere. The excellence of the present system is often assumed and in proof, the great number of distinguished scholars which it produces, is adduced. But, on the other hand, it is absolutely necessary to take into account the innumerable multitudes who derive little or no benefit from their schooling. Nothing is more common than to meet men who, although they have spent from one to ten years at school, when asked if they can read, reply with literal truth that their knowledge of characters has been “laid aside”—in other words they have forgotten almost everything that they once knew, and are now become “staring blind men,” an expression which is a synonym for one who cannot read.

“It is a most significant fact that the Chinese themselves recognize the truth that their school system tends to benumb the mental faculties, turning the teachers into machines, and the pupils into parrots. On the supposition that all the scholars were to continue their studies, and were eventually to be examined for a degree, it might be difficult to suggest any system which would take the place of the one now in use, in which a most capacious memory is a principal condition of success.

“In the Village School, however, it is within bounds to estimate that not one in twenty of the scholars—and more 0probably, not three in a hundred—have any reasonable prospect of carrying their studies to anything like this point. The practical result, therefore, is to compel at least ninety-seven scholars to pursue a certain routine, simply because it is the only known method by which three other scholars can compete for a degree. In other words, nineteen pupils are compelled to wear a heavy cast-iron yoke, in order to keep company with a twentieth, who is trying to get used to it as a step towards obtaining a future name! If this inconvenient inequality is pointed out to teachers or to patrons, and if they are asked whether it would not be better to adopt, for the nineteen who will never go to the examinations, a system which involves less memorizing, and a wider range of learning in the brief time which is all that most of the pupils can spend at school, they reply, with perfect truth, that so far as they are aware there is no other system; that even if the patrons desired to make the experiment (which would never be the case), they could find no teacher to conduct it; and that even if a teacher should wish to institute such a reform (which would never happen), he would find no one to employ him.

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Text Sources: “Village Life in China” by Arthur Henderson Smith, Fleming H. Revell Company, 1899, “Chinese Characteristics” by Arthur Henderson Smith, 1894, The Project Gutenberg

Last updated August 2022

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