CHINESE CHARACTERISTICS” BY ARTHUR HENDERSON SMITH
“Chinese Characteristics” is a book by American missionary Arthur Henderson Smith written in 1894. It chapters include: 1) Face-valued; 4) Politeness; 5) The Disregard of Time; 6) The Disregard of Accuracy; 7) The Talent for Misunderstanding; 8) The Talent for Indirection; 9) Flexible Inflexibility; 10) Intellectual Turbidity; 11) The Absence of Nerves; 12) Contempt for Foreigners; 13) The Absence of Public Spirit; 14) Conservation; 15) Indifference to Comfort and Convenience; 16) Physical Vitality; 17) Patience and Perseverance; 18) Content and Cheerfulness; 19) Filial Piety; 20) Benevolence; 21) The Absence of Sympathy; 22) Social Typhoons; 23) Mutual Responsibility and Respect for Law; 24) Mutual Suspicion; 25) The Absence of Sincerity; 26) Polytheism, Pantheism, Atheism; 27) The Real Condition of China and her Present Needs.
Arthur Henderson 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.] John Pomfret wrote in the Washington Post, “Chinese Characteristics” “" is riddled with the patronizing racism of the time, but it’s also deeply insightful. Smith’s description of the Chinese concept of “face” inspired China’s best-known writer, Lu Xun, to compose his most famous short story, “The True Story of Ah Q.” [Source: John Pomfret, Washington Post, May 16, 2014. John Pomfret, the author of “Chinese Lessons: Five Classmates and the Story of the New China]
In a review of “Chinese Characteristics,” Anatoly Karlin wrote in his blog: “In rich and evocative prose reminiscent of De Tocqueville’s writings on America, Arthur H. Smith lays out what he sees as the core features of the Chinese character and his values. The tone is bold and fearless, making sweeping generalizations and brusque judgments that many today will dismiss as insensitive or “Orientalist,” if not downright racist. I will say from the outset that this is a historical and frankly, misses the point. Humans try to understand the world through simplified models, and stereotypes are an intractable part of this process. This was especially true in Smith’s time, when more objective data, e.g. statistical, was severely lacking in China. Thus, while he carefully acknowledges that “these papers are not meant to be generalizations for a whole Empire”, he nonetheless argues that deriving Chinese characteristics by “recording great numbers of incidents,” especially “extraordinary” ones, and setting down the “explanations… as given by natives of the country,” is an entirely valid and legitimate approach for a popular book on that country. [Source: Anatoly Karlin, March 28, 2013. Karlin is a blogger, thinker, and businessman in the San Francisco area. He is originally from Russia, spent many years in Britain, and studied at U.C. Berkeley]
Websites and Sources: Book: Understanding the Chinese Personality mellenpress.com ; Understanding Chinese Business Culture legacee.com ; Status of Chinese People Blog chinaview.wordpress.com ; Chinese Human Genome Diversity Project www.pnas.org ; Opinions on Asian Fetish colorq.org ; Essay on Humor, China and Japan aboutjapan.japansociety.org ; . Book: One of the most enlightening books about China is “Chinese Lives” by Sang Ye and Zhang Xinxin, a series of interviews with ordinary Chinese talking very candidly about what matter to them.
Chinese Adherence to the Past
Arthur Henderson Smith wrote in “Chinese Characteristics”: “It is true of the Chinese, to a greater degree than of any other nation in history, that their Golden Age is in the past. The Sages of antiquity themselves spoke with the deepest reverence of more ancient "ancients." Confucius declared that he was not an originator, but a transmitter. It was his mission to gather up what had once been known, but long neglected, or misunderstood. It was his painstaking fidelity in accomplishing this task, as well as the high ability which he brought to it, that gave the Master his extraordinary hold upon the people of his race. It is his relation to' the past, as much as the quality of what he taught, that constitutes the claim of Confucius to the front rank of holy men. It is the Confucius theory of morals, that a good ruler will make st good people. The prince is the dish, the people are the water; if the dish is round, the water is round, if the dish is square, the water will be square also. Upon this theory, it is not strange that all the virtues are believed to have flourished in the days when model rulers existed. The most ignorant coolie will upon occasion remind us that in the days of "Yao and Shun," there was no necessity for closing the doors at night, for there were no thieves, and that if an article was lost on the highway, it was the duty of the first comer to stand guard over it,' until the next one happened along, who took his turn, until the owner arrived, who always found his property perfectly intact. It is a common saying, that the present is inferior to the past in the items of benevolence and justice'; but that in violations of conscience, the past cannot compete with the present. [Source:“Chinese Characteristics” by Arthur Henderson Smith, 1894]
“All that is best in the ancient days is believed to have survived in the literature to which the present day is the heir, and it is for this reason that this literature is regarded with such unmixed idolatry. With these considerations clearly in mind, it is not difficult to perceive the rationale of what seems at first the blind and obstinate adherence of the Chinese to the ways of the past. To the Chinese, as to the ancient Romans, the ideas of manners and of morals are interchangeable, for they have the same root and are in their essence identical. To them an invasion of their customs is an invasion of the regions which are most sacred. It is not necessary for this effect that the customs should be apprehended in their ultimate relations, or indeed, strictly speaking, apprehended at all. They are resolutely defended by an instinct similar to that which leads a she bear to defend her cubs. This instinct is not a Chinese instinct merely but it belongs to human nature. It has been profoundly remarked that millions of men are ready to die for a faith which they do not comprehend, and by the tenets of which they do not regulate their lives.
“Every one acquainted with Chinese habits will be able to adduce instances of a devotion to precedent, which seems to us unaccountable, and which really is so, until we apprehend the postulate which underlies the act. In a country which stretches through some twenty-five degrees of latitude, but in which winter furs are taken off, and straw hats are put on, according tp a fixed rule for the whole Empire, it would be strange if precedent were not a kind of divinity. In regions where the only heat in the houses during the cold winter, comes from the scanty fire under the "stove-bed," or k'ang, it is not uncommon for travellers who have been caught in a sudden "cold snap," to find that no arguments can induce the landlord of the inn to heat the k'ang because the season for heating the k'ang has not arrived! The reluctance of Chinese artificers to adopt new methods is sufficiently well-known to all, but perhaps few even of these conservatives are more conservative than the head of the company of workmen employed to burn bricks in a kiln which, with all that appertained thereto, was the property of foreigners, and not of those who worked it. As there was occasion to use a kind of square bricks larger than those which happened to be in the fashion in that region, the foreigner ordered larger ones to be made. All that was necessary for this purpose, was simply the preparation of a wooden tray, the size of 'the required brick, to be used as a mould. When the bricks were wanted they were not forthcoming, and the foreman, to whom the orders had been given, being called to account for his neglect, refused to be a party to any such innovation, adducing as his all sufficient reason, the affirmation that under the whole heavens, there is no such mould as this!
Disregard of Foundations in China
Arthur Henderson Smith wrote in “Chinese Characteristics”: “It appears to be a general defect in the architecture of the Chinese, that in the construction of their buildings, the base is the part which receives the least attention, and upon which the smallest expenditure is bestowed. This general characteristic of Chinese architecture, which does so much to prevent the preservation of ancient buildings is analogous to an intellectual fact in the Chinese nature. The Chinese show a conspicuous lack of mathematical training. They do not start 'from simple postulates and unfold a connected series of truths, each one of which is at once felt to be connected with what has gone before by a link that cannot be broken. It is difficult to imagine a Chinese examination for the degree of Flourishing Talent, or that of Selected Man, of which questions on the science of Logic should form a constituent part. It is hard to conceive of Chinese minds consciously compelling themselves to formulate the laws of Identity, of Contradiction and of Excluded Middle, yet it is quite certain that a complete recognition of the proposition that "A equals A,". and that “A is not not A," would put an end at one blow to a large part of what every Chinese supposes himself to believe on certain subjects. [Source:“Chinese Characteristics” by Arthur Henderson Smith, 1894]
“The reason why Chinese unite so cheerfully the belief in absolute contradictories, is not because they are not amenable to the laws of thought which rule the rest of mankind, but because owing to vicious mental processes of obscuration, these contra dietaries have no opportunity of being recognized as such. The. Chinese have no instinct of definition, in our strict sense of delimination, the selection of certain predicates which are affirmed, and the negativing of all others. They are not analytical, and it is often exceedingly difficult to conjecture the process by which they have arrived. at certain conclusions, or even to understand the steps of the process if we happen to succeed in discovering some of them. They constantly take for granted the very things which to our thought require the most rigid proof, and expend much ingenuity in elaborating . non-sequiturs, which are of no probative value whatever.
“That which is true of the historical horizon of the Chinese, is yet more conspicuous when we consider the basis on which the popular religions of the Empire are supposed to rest. Taoism and Buddhism have each histories of their own, and these histories are no doubt known to a select few within the inner circles of their priesthood. But generally speaking even the priests neither know" nor care anything whatever as to the antecedents of the sect to which they are attached merely as parasites. To inquire of a Taoist priest the meaning of an obscure passage in the Tao Teh Ching is a work of supererogation, when we know beforehand that the priest cannot read a character of any kind. What does the average Buddhist priest care whether Buddha lived six hundred years before the time of Christ as some maintain, or only two hundred years, or indeed whether he' ever lived at all ? To the followers of these priests, the questions of origin, of historical development, of relative importance and precedence of their respective doctrines are not only, non-existent, but when such questions are raised, they cannot be so stated as to be made to appear important, and, can with difficulty be so stated as to be intelligible.
Challenges and Dangers in 19th Century China
Arthur Henderson Smith wrote in “Chinese Characteristics”: “It remains to speak of the, worries and anxieties to which humanity is everywhere subjected in this distracted world. The Chinese are not only as accessible to these evils as any other people, but far more so. The conditions of their social life are such, that in any given region, there is a large proportion who are always on the ragged edge of ruin. A slight diminution of the rainfall means starvation to hundreds of thousands. A slight increase in the rainfall means the devastation of their homes by destructive floods, for which there is no known remedy. No Chinese is safe from the entanglement of a lawsuit, which, though he be perfectly innocent, may Work his ruin. Many of these disasters are not only seen, but their stealthy and steady approach is perceived, like the gradual shrinking of the iron shroud. To us, nothing is more dreadful, than the momentary expectation of a calamity, which cannot be forefended, and which may bring all that is horrible in its . train. The Chinese face these things, perhaps because they seem to be their normal state, with a "cleareyed endurance," which is one of the most remarkable phenomena of the race. Those who have witnessed the perfectly quiet starvation in times of devastating famine, of millions, will be able to understand what is here meant. To be fully appreciated, it must be seen, but seen on no matter what scale, it is as difficult for an Occidental really to understand it, as it is for a Chinese truly to understand the idea which the Anglo-Saxon has inherited and developed, of personal and social liberty. [Source:“Chinese Characteristics” by Arthur Henderson Smith, 1894]
“The kinds of injury which one person can inflict upon another in China are extremely various, but they may be roughly divided into two classes, private and public. To the former class belong the innumerable devices by which those who have money or other property are done out of it, the destruction of property by fire, damage to standing crops, and many other like acts. The liability to wrongs of this sort is generally in the direct ratio of the amount of one's possessions, unless one has some counter method of defending himself, as by a kind of social lightning-rod, which shall receive the shock, and render it harmless or even make it react. For this purpose there are several devices, some of them very ingenious, but despite of them all, the risk which everyone who has anything to lose, must necessarily run, is very great.
“Under the head of what may be termed public injuries comes the whole catalogue of woes comprehended in China in the term “lawsuit," a pregnant noun of a terrific wealth and variety of significance. Let the reader think for a moment of the countless multitudes whom he everywhere sees about him in China and then reflect that there is not one of them all, man, woman or child, who is not liable to be plunged into the depths of misery, by the sudden advent of a lawsuit, into which he is dragged through no fault of his own it may be, but the remoter consequences of which, may be utter ruin. Instances of this ruin are of constant occurrence everywhere, and in view of the possibilities involved, it is not strange that all Chinese are naturally suspicious, especially of those whom they do not know, lest from some unexpected quarter, evil come upon them remedilessly.
Combating Obstacles in 19th Century China
Arthur Henderson Smith wrote in “Chinese Characteristics”: “There is a story of a party of army officers in India, where all forms of reptile life abound, camping out at night, during the course of which, a poisonous serpent contrived to wind himself about the body of one of the company. The latter was awakened by feeling this creature 'swaying over him, its tongue darting out at frequent intervals, and its whole attitude one of defiance. The unhappy man dared not make a sound nor a movement, which would have been instant death, but was obliged to lie like a corpse, watching this venomous serpent, for a period of three hours, when a comrade fortunately awoke, and by a lucky “snap shot," blew off the head of the reptile with a discharge of his revolver. [Source:“Chinese Characteristics” by Arthur Henderson Smith, 1894]
“This anecdote affords an excellent illustration of the situation in which many Chinese spend their lives. There is near them at all times, a powerful and deadly enemy, who may make a spring at any moment, the consequences of which may be most disastrous. Hence the Chinese have developed an instinct of secretiveness, which is often one of the marked features of their social life. A man, who is not known, is liable to be an enemy in disguise, and at all events it will be safer so to consider him, until the contrary is established. Thus it comes about, but while, as often pointed out, in China everyone knows everything, sometimes there is nothing more difficult than to ascertain for certain that which everyone knows. "There is no hedge which excludes the wind," as the saying goes, that is, there is nothing which can keep "wind" (rumour) from spreading. But discriminating Chinese wind blows only for certain hedges, and he who does not know the secret — which the boatmen profess to know — of “calling the wind," will wait for a long time to ascertain what to all but him is borne on every breeze. “Face" is so important a factor in Chinese life, that no one wishes to endanger his own peace, by incurring the enmity of any one who has “face," and the man who can collect on his side the greatest array of persons of age, rank, wealth a prestige, is the man whom no one will on any account offend.
Official life in China is largely a game in which these elements are the cards, with which the sleeves are well stocked. The man who has the most of them, or who can use what he has to the best effect, is the man who will, for the time, win the game, which is to get all he can, and keep all that he gets. Yet while this represents in outline what we have no hesitation in calling a truth, it is not all the truth, for one is seldom embarrassed in China by knowing the whole of any subject.
Obstacles to General Good and Common Welfare
Arthur Henderson Smith wrote in “Chinese Characteristics”: ““Some years ago a public-spirited foreign resident of Chefoo found the road between his house and the settlement in a shocking condition, and set about repairing it himself. The petty magistrate sent orders to stop him, saying that the work belonged to the magistrate, and no one else was to do it, From that time to the present, nothing has been done about it.” In addition, “ we know of a large port in China, where the attempt to purchase ground for a native dispensary and hospital, to' be under the control of the Chinese themselves, was entirely blocked by the literati of the place, apparently for no other reason than that the enterprise was promoted as well as suggested by foreigners. [Source:“Chinese Characteristics” by Arthur Henderson Smith, 1894]
“A conspicuous and typical instance of Chinese inability to combine successfully for the common welfare is afforded by the experience of a part of the province of Shandong, in the matter of its grain-tax. For many years abuses have been allowed, by which fractions of a pint or a peck (due at a fixed rate per acre), however small these fractions may be, are treated as if they were whole numbers of the next higher denomination. By this simple device, the aggregate amount of grain exacted from the people is enormously increased. Although it is very difficult, to get matters of this sort brought to the attention of the authorities in Peking, since each intermediate official blocks the way, the most indefatigable exertions on the part of a few persons, who were unquestionably possessed of a commendable amount of public Spirit, have resulted in getting the complaint heard and judgment given. Imperative orders are known to have been sent from Peking to the principal authorities, to have a stop put at once to these extortions.
“But such is the proverbial collusion between all Chinese officials that in every case these peremptory orders have been suppressed at some point, or have been totally disregarded after they have been received. Experience of similar extortions elsewhere makes it altogether probable that if the people of the districts interested could but combine, they would ultimately be completely successful, and many lucrative posts would be vacated. But as it is, with every motive for such combination, there is no visible prospect that sufficient public spirit and harmony will ever be found to accomplish it.
Chinese Gratitude and Unity in the 19th Century
Arthur Henderson Smith wrote in “Chinese Characteristics”: ““It is a common Chinese saying, that if three men are united in heart, they can turn yellow earth to gold. This seems like a vigorous figure of speech, but there is more truth in it than at first appears. After extended experience of their social relations, one does not wonder that the Chinese erect temples to the three men who were the most famous examples in Chinese history of a fraternal alliance, Chang Fei, Liu Pei, and Kuan Yii. The mutual suspicion which has been so fully illustrated generally prevents harmony of action, although there may often be a high degree of apparent unity. It is a popular adage that if the literary graduates of the first degree (hsiu-ts'ai) were left undisturbed to get up a rebellion, they could not accomplish it in three years. Absolute selfishness and mutual suspicion would ordinarily prevent the enterprise from coming to a head. [Source:“Chinese Characteristics” by Arthur Henderson Smith, 1894]
“Whether the Chinese are or are not " grateful" is a question in regard to which it is easy to engage in long discussions. Chinese do not ordinarily exhibit gratitude, that they do not feel it. "When the dumb man swallows a tooth," runs the adage, " he may not say much about it, but it is all inside." The gratitude which has been felt by many thousands of Chinese for the help unexpectedly received in times of famine relief, has been, very great and very sincere. Of this there has often been unquestion: able evidence, although a minimum of demonstrativeness. It is not in such cases as these that the lack of gratitude is most prominent, but in the more ordinary ones of daily occurrence, where one favor conferred is frequently made the basis of a clear demand for pthers of a more advanced character.
“It is not in famine relief only that instances of marked gratitude on the part of Chinese, are to be met," but in dispensary and hospital work as well. As the Chinese are undemonstrative, such gratitude is by no means certain to come to the knowledge of those who have earned it. It is, on the other hand, a common experience to find that those who happen to live nearest to such institutions as a foreign dispensary and hospital, are the ones who manifest least gratitude, coming to regard these establishments as if set up for their especial behoof, and the medical staff as obliged to attend to the wants of these immediate neighbours, whether in or out of regular hours. "Come, open the doors, and give me the medicine that I want, for I am busy and have no time to waste." If the dispensary regulations are adhered to, and the demand is not met, such persons will go away and revile the hospital and all those connected with it, taking care, however, to visit it the next time they happen to require help.
Smith wrote in “Chinese Characteristics”: “The Chinese have placed .the term Benevolence at the head of their list of Five Constant Virtues. The character which denotes it is composed of the symbols for “Man" and "Two," by which is supposed to be shadowed forth the view, that benevolence is something which ought to be developed by the contact of any two human beings with each other. It is unnecessary to remark that the theory which the form of the charagter seems to favor is not at all substantiated by the facts of life among the Chinese, as those facts are to be read by the intelligent and attentive observer. Nevertheless, it is far from being true, as a superficial examination would seem to indicate, that there is among the Chinese no benevolence, though this has been often predicated, by those who ought to have known the truth. “The feeling of pity," as Mencius reminds us, “is common to all men," widely as they differ in its expression. The mild and in some respects really benevolent teachings of the Buddhist religion have not been without a visible effect upon the Chinese people. There is, moreover, among the Chinese, a strong practical instinct in every direction, and when the attention has been once directed, by no matter what cause, toward the “practice of virtue," there are a great variety of forms in which there is certain to be abundant scope for the exercise of benevolence.[Source:“Chinese Characteristics” by Arthur Henderson Smith, 1894]
“One of the most difficult tasks is to convey a truthful idea of Chinese benevolence. One's first impression is that there is no benevolence in China. This error is afterwards corrected, and it is perceived that such as it is, there is a great deal of benevolence. But on closer examination, it turns out to be what the tradesmen called Irish poplin, " half-stuff." Still, occasional cases render us disinclined to deny its existence, and thus our minds are left in what Macaulay termed "an uneasy and interminable state of abeyance." We know that there is truth; but we cannot decide' exactly where it lies. Among a people of so mild a disposition as the Chinese, there must be a great deal of domestic kindness of which nothing is seen or heard. Sickness and trouble are peculiarly adapted to call out the best side of human nature, and in a foreign hospital for Chinese we have witnessed many instances of devotion not merely on the part of parents toward children, or children toward parents, but of wives toward husbands and also of husbands toward wives. The same thing is even more common among strangers toward each other. Many a Chinese mother nursing an infant, will give of her over-flowing abundance to a motherless child which else might starve.
“Among the forms of benevolence which have commended themselves to the Chinese may be named the establishment of foundling hospitals, and refuges for lepers, and for the aged, etc. As China is a land which for all practical purposes (except that of the delectation of Peking sinologues) is quite free from a census, it is impossible to ascertain to what extent these forms of benevolent action are to be found, but it is hazarding little to say that they must be relatively rare, that is to say, as regards the enormous population, and the enormous aggregation of that population in huge hives, where the needs are greatest. The vast soup-kitchens which are set up anywhere and everywhere, when some great flood or famine calls for them, are familiar phenomena, as well as the donation of winter clothing to those who are destitute. It is not the government only which engages in these enterprizes, but the people also co-operate in a highly creditable manner, and instances are not uncommon, in which large sums have been thus judiciously expended.
“We do hot reckon among the benevolences of the Chinese such associations as the provincial clubs for care of those who may be destitute at a distance from home, and who could not without this help, return, or who having died, could not otherwise be taken home to be buried. This is an ordinary (business transaction, of the nature of insurance, and is probably so regarded by the Chinese themselves. -. Besides the regular institutions already mentioned, and others similar; there are societies for the providing of coffins for those too poor to buy them, for gathering human bones which have in the course of time become exposed, and which are to be again buried in a suitable manner, and the gathering up of paper on which the character has been written or printed, that it may be burned, to save it from desecration. In some places plasters of a mysterious nature are also given to ail applicants, free vaccination is (theoretically) furnished, and "virtue books" are provided for sale at a price below cost, or even given away. To items of this class must be added the constant donations to the army of beggars with which China is cursed, and help to refugees, who are a more respectable variety of beggars.
Drawbacks and Limits of Chinese Benevolence
Smith wrote:“Having, mentioned some of the most deserving forms of Chinese benevolence, it is only fair to specify the drawbacks which accompany them. In the first place, such fixed institutions as hospitals, etc. are, as remarked, relatively rare. They are to be found in many of the large sea-ports, and perhaps in the great cities of the interior along the routes of trade, but do they exist at all, in any except the very largest cities ? If so, it is certain that they are singularly unobstrusive,, for one never sees or hears of them. The same observation is to be made in regard to other organized charities, they are few in number, and narrow in the range of their action. Again, with the exception of such institutions as have been mentioned, the ordinary forms of Chinese benevolence are exceedingly intermittent. [Source:“Chinese Characteristics” by Arthur Henderson Smith, 1894]
According to the "virtue books" of some of the sects, there is a great variety of acts by which human beings may accumulate merit. While the collection of stray human bones, the gathering of paper on which characters have been written, the purchase of birds and fish that they may be restored to their native element, occupy a very prominent place in such schemes, acts of kindly goodwill to men and women, so far as our observation goes, generally occupy a very subordinate place. When these acts take place, they are almost sure to be on some stereotyped pattern, involving a minimum of trouble and. thought on the part of the doer. It is much easier to stand by the brink of a river, watch a fisherman lower his net, pay for his entire catch, and throw it. back into the water, than to look into the case of the needy at one's doors, and give help in a' judicious manner. Moreover, to the mind of the practical Chinese there is a very important difference. As soon as the fish touches the water, or the bird skims the air, they are on a wholly self-supporting basis, and that is the end of the work. They will not expect the man. who has released them to provide them and their numerous and needy families with means of support. For the man it only remains to register his virtuous act, and go about his business sure of no disagreeable consequences.
“When a vast calamity occurs, like the great famine, or the outburst of the Yellow River, the government, local or general, comes to the front with a greater or less degree of promptness, and attempts to help the victims. But instead of doing this on any uniform and extensive scale, such as the perpetual recurrence of the necessity might seem to suggest, it is done in a make-shift way, as if the occasion had never before arisen, and might never arise again. The care of the refugees is moreover generally abandoned, at the very time when they most need help, namely, in the early spring, when, having been weakened by their long suffering, and by atrocious over-crowding, they are most liable to disease. It is then that they are sent away, with a little ready money, to make the best of their way home, and to get back into their normal state of life as best they can. The reason for this is apparent. The government knows that they will die of pestilence if they remain till warm weather where they are, and destruction in detail seems to the officials to be a less, because a less conspicuous evil, than death in masses.
“The same spirit is evinced in the curious ebullition of charitableness, which is known as the la-pa-chiu. This performance may be regarded as in most respects a typical case of Chinese benevolence. On the eighth day of the twelfth moon (called the "la-yueh,") it is the custom for everyone who has accumulated a quantity of benevolent impulses, which have had no opportunity for their gratification, to make the most liberal donations to all comers, of the very cheapest and poorest quality of soup, during about twelve hours of solar time, “be the same more or less." This is called “practising virtue," and is considered to be a means of laying up merit. The origin of this celebration does not appear to be generally known. As an explanation of it, and as containing some curious details in regard to the ceremonies observed, the following extract from the Shih Poo, a native Chinese paper, will be of interest to some. The 8th of the 12th moon this year, the 29th, December, was the anniversary of, the date when Buddha prefected his doctrines and give them to the world. In celebrating this event, it his long been customary for the Imperial
Lack of Sincerity and Truth in 19th Century China
Arthur Henderson Smith wrote in “Chinese Characteristics”: ““The Chinese ideograph, which is commonly translated sincerity, is composed of the radicals denoting man and words. Its meaning lies upon the surface. It is the last in the series of five constant virtues enumerated by the Chinese.There can hardly be a doubt that thestandard of the Chinese, and the present standard of Western nations, as to what ought to be called sincerity, differ widely. To an Occidental there is a significance in the incident related of Confucius and Ju-pei, as found in the Confucian Analects, which is not at all apprehensible to a Confucianist. The following is the passage, from Legge's translation: — "Ju-pei wished to see Confucius, but Confucius declined to see him on the ground of being sick. When the bearer of this message went out at the door, Confucius took his harpsichord, and sung to it, in order that Ja-pei might hear." The object of Confucius was to avoid the disagreeable task of saying that the character of Ju-pei was not such that Confucius wished to meet him, and he took this characteristically Chinese way to do it. To feign sickness in order to convey an idea by indirection is a classical proceeding by no means confined to this instance in the. life of Confucius. [Source:“Chinese Characteristics” by Arthur Henderson Smith, 1894]
“The ordinary speech of the Chinese is so full of insincerity, which yet does not rise to the dignity of falsehood, that it is very difficult to learn the truth in almost any case. In China it is literally true that a fact is the hardest thing in the world to get. One never feels sure that he has been told the whole of anything. Even where a person is seeking your help, as for example in a law-suit, and wishes to put his case entirely in your hands, nothing is more probable than that you will discover subsequently that several important particulars have been suppressed, apparently from the. general instinct of prevarication and not of malice prepense, since the person himself must be the only loser by the suppression. The whole of anything does not come out till afterward, no matter at what point you take it up. A person who is well acquainted with the Chinese, will not feel that he understands a matter, because he has heard all about it, but will rather take the items which he has heard, and combine them with others, and finally call a council of the Chinese whom he trusts taost, and hold a kind of inquest over these alleged facts to ascertain what their real bearing probably is.,
“Lack of sincerity, combined with the suspicion,accounts for the facts that a Chinese will often talk for a very great length of time, saying practically nothing whatever. Much of the incomprehensibility of the Chinese, so far as foreigners are concerned, is due to the insincerity of the Chinese. We cannot be sure what they are after. We always feel that there is more behind. It is for this reason that when a Chinese comes to you and whispers to you mysteriously something about another Chinese in whom you are much interested, you are not unlikely to experience a sinking sensation in the pit of the stomach. You are uncertain whether the one who is speaking is telling the truth, or whether the character of the one of whom he is speaking has caved in. One never has any assurance that a Chinese ultimatum is ultimate. This proposition, so easily stated, contains in itself the germ of multitudinous anxieties for the trader, the traveller, and the diplomatist. The real reason far anything is hardly ever to be expected, and even when it has been given, one cannot be sure of this fact. Every Chinese, the uneducated not less than others, is by nature a kind of cuttle fish, capable of distilling any amount of turbid ink, into which he can retreat with the utmost safety so far as pursuit is concerned. If you are interviewed on a journey, and invited to contribute to the travelling expenses of some impecunious individual who hopes to exploit a new field, your attendant does not say as you would do, "your expenses are none of my affair, begone with you," but "with a smile that is child-like and bland," he explains that your allowance of money is barely sufficient for your own -use — is rather short indeed, and so you will be deprived of the pleasure of contributing to your fellow traveller. We have seldom met a Chinese gatekeeper who would say to a Chinese crowd, as a foreigner tells him to do, “you cannot come in here," but he will observe instead, that they must not come in, because the big dog will bite them if they do.
Believing Without Evidence in 19th Century China
Arthur Henderson Smith wrote in “Chinese Characteristics”: “Credulity is defined as the readiness to believe without sufficient evidence. The Chinese, as a rule, seem to be singularly insensible to the relative value of evidence, and to be very little aware of the need of it. The result is naturally to make them easy victims of deception, in regard to matters of which we should suppose the means of judging to be within the reach of everyone. According to Archbishop Whateley, the way to avoid credulity, or incredulity — for they are correlates — is to listen to and yield to the best evidence, and to believe and disbelieve, on good grounds. This is exactly what the Chinese do not, and what they can by no possibility do, as long as they have no instinct of weighing evidence, and no adequate criteria for determining what are, and what are not good grounds. [Source:“Chinese Characteristics” by Arthur Henderson Smith, 1894]
“In the presence of the bewildering results of Western science, the Chinese are and feel themselves to be at sea. They behold forces at work, of the nature of which they are totally ignorant, and they see no reason to question any alleged result. Examples of this trait, will occur to everyone. A few years ago, one of the Legations in Peking had a cart, which was fitted with strong springs, designed to ease the dreadful jolts to which travel in the Capital is always subject. One of those Chinese who had the best opportunities to know the nature of the innovation, was heard to explain that this was a contrivance by which the vehicle could be propelled without the aid of the mule, which he supposed to be simply an ornament, a mere tribute to custom.
“The. credulity of the Chinese is the stock in trade of the vast army of vendors of all varieties of medicines, each warranted to cure every ill to which the human body is subject. It is also the principal reliance of the innumerable Buddhist and Taoist priests, whose very existence depends upon working this mine to the utmost practicable extent. With what fatal success their efforts have been crowned, is too obvious to the most superficial observer.
“It is obvious at a glance, how important a factor the credulity of the Chinese is and may always become, in their intercourse with foreign nations. The most irrational notions are widely held in regard to our capacity for evil, or for good. It does not seem at all improbable that two men who are surveying the bank of the Yellow River, may be masters of Feng-shui, who have got themselves into the favor of the unsuspecting officials, and are intending to metamorphose a whole prefecture into a pellet, and make off with it, to their remote land. The singular persistance of the belief in the use of human eyes, as an ingredient in the manufacture of silver, is an example of the survival of the least fit. Beliefs of this type are not the product of reasoning, and they are not to be dispelled by ratiocination. An attack by reasoning on such a foe is as inert as the discharge of a park of artillery into a Scotch mist.”
Taking Advantage of Ignorance and Good Nature
Arthur Henderson Smith wrote in “Chinese Characteristics”: “The method by which the Chinese take advantage of the ignorance, .the helplessness, or the good-nature of the foreigners, is illustrated by the experience of a friend of the writer, who took up his abode in the capital city of an interior province. Seeing in his court-yard a pariah dog acting in a suspicious manner, and fearing lest his little son who was playing about the court might be bitten by an animal which was not improbably becoming rabid, the father took his revolver, and despatched the worthless and dangerous beast. A sewing woman who was employed in the household, happening to pass by, saw the dog dying, and went upon the street to spread the news. It was hot long before one of the neighbours appeared to say that this particular' dog was his own darling, and restitution must be made! for its untimely destruction. To this the foreigner naturally objected, and the dispute waxed violent and was most unreasonably protracted. It was at last settled by " peace-talkers " who agreed that the slayer of the dog should pay a sum nearly equivalent to five Mexican dollars, for a 'coffin" for the dog, and almost half as much more to soothe the lacerated feelings of the dog's " master," who had no more real connection with the beast than has the reader of these lines. Taught by experience, the next time it became necessary to kill a vagabond dog, the foreigner took care to administer; strychnine in a very disguised form late at night, promptly excluding the dog from the court-yard. The next morning the gate-keeper mentioned that during the night the poor thing had died of " starvation," and this time the foreigner was saved the expense of a "coffin." [Source:“Chinese Characteristics” by Arthur Henderson Smith, 1894]
“Of the universal talent for absorbing, we have spoken elsewhere, but it is a more prominent and more constant feature of life in' China, than we are able at first to apprehend. So far as foreigners are concerned, restrictions upon the Chinese do not restrict; ' Chinese who would promptly resent the smallest infusion “into the " court of the women" of their own houses, will take advantage of an unguarded moment, and swarm all over foreign premises, calmly plucking fruit and flowers as they wander about, observing in reply to a challenge that they are only " amusing themselves." In their treatment of this type of cases, foreigners may be roughly divided into two general classes, the tolerant and the flinty. To be calm and self-poised in the midst of such experinces, is a " fine art." A grasping Chinese is occasionally " met up with," in a gratifying way, as was an inn-keeper who having been paid liberally at night, as the foreigners were leaving his yard the next morning demanded something further. " But if you had anything to say, why did you not say it last night when I paid you? " plausibly objected the treasurer of the party. " Oh," was the ready reply, "I thought, 'I will see you again to-morrow.'" "Just so," remarked the flinty foreigner, " I will see you again to-morrow;" with which observation he mounted his mule and rode away!
“That any Chinese or for that matter any foreigner who is in the habit of resisting the encroachments of those who feel that it is their duty to take all they can, will be unpopular, is a matter of course. We have already spoken of the ways in which those Chinese who are obliged to have funerals or weddings are imposed upon by their many friends. If one who is put in charge of any particular department of the complicated accounts, incident to such occasions, makes it too difficult for the other assistants to feather their nests to the extent which they had expected, it is customary to remonstrate with him in a characteristically Chinese way. When he is engaged in performing his duties, those whom he has thus offended post themselves as near to him as possible, and with small bamboo syringes with which they have provided themselves, squirt streams of oil over his fine holiday clothes. This is a practice so well understood, that it must be taken into consideration. Recently an elderly Chinese with whom the writer is well acquainted, remarked that if he officiated at a certain funeral, he should be careful to wear his old clothes.
Text Sources: “Chinese Characteristics” by Arthur Henderson Smith,1894; Washington Post
Last updated September 2021