Arthur Henderson Smith wrote in “Chinese Characteristics” in 1894: “ In a Western land, although. residents of the same village may be all acquainted with one, another their interest in each other's affairs is seldom keen, except in the case of those who, are by nature gossips, and;,who make it a business to collect and to disrepute small items of news concerning, their neighbors. In China all is quite different, every house is surrounded by a high wall, and has no -windows to the street. The first impression is that extreme seclusion and privacy must be the rule. The Oriental idea seems to be to imitate the exclusive snail, and to retire within oneself, leaving the baffled world wondering in the street, as to what is going on behind the dead walls and barred doors. But a very short acquaintance with Chinese life suffices to show that walls have ears, and that what goes on within, is as well known, as if it were daily proclaimed from the housetops. [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.]

“In China a "private house" is unknown. Anyone can go anywhere, and if there is the least provocation, he will do so. In a dense population, a crowd is easily collected anywhere. Each one of that crowd is not simply curious, but he has a belief that to know what is going on, is not simply a 'right (of which no doubt ever entered the mind of any one), but a stern duty, arid a duty which he will fulfil. The incessant intrusion of the rabble not only, but of well dressed and perhaps scholarly Chinese, into the " private house " into which a foreigner has entered, is looked upon as an inevitable incident. No one thinks of objecting to it, any more than' he would object to the entrance of the sunlight when the door has to be left open; ' And in Oriental countries the doors must not be closed, lest there be bad talk. " What is going on within that he dare not admit his fellow-townsmen?" The Anglo-Saxon question to an intruder would be; " What business have you here? " The Oriental reply would be: "What business have you to keep me out?"

Chinese memories are treasure houses of everything relative to cash, and to dates. How much land each man owns, when acquired, when pawned, and; w; hen redeemed, how much was expended, at the funeral of his, mother, and at the wedding of his son and daughter-in-law, who is linked to the village into which she has married, the amount of her dowry, what bargain was made, with the, firm that let the bridal chair, all these, items and a thousand more, everybody knows, and, never forgets, To know them, is, we repeat, a special duty.

Lack of Privacy in 19th Century China

Henderson Smith wrote in “Chinese Characteristics”: “It is evident that the Anglo-Saxon, and the Chinese proceed upon social theories which differ radically. There are no newspapers in China'. There are no objects of general, and human interest to attract attention, except what is local arid personal, and these are, therefore, the staple objects of thought and of conversation. Every Chinese individual, as already remarked, is a mere cog in a vast system of machinery. He has relatives beyond all count or remembrance. His wife has as many more. His married children add to the ever widening circle. By the time he is sixty years of age, a man is related to hundreds upon hundreds of individuals, each of whom is entirely Conscious of the relationship, and does not (as is often, the case in Occidental lands) forget or ignore it. Not only do all this army of relatives feel themselves entitled to know all the details of one's affairs, but the relatives of the relatives — a swarm branching' into infinity — will perhaps do the same. If the man is a magistrate, or is rich, they will certainly do it. One cannot make a business trip to sell water-melons, to buy mules, to collect a debt, of which everyone will not speedily know all that is to be known.

If you are travelling,, and your driver waters the animals, the chance pedestrian whom he never saw before, half, whom he may never see again, halts to inquire where you are coming from, where bounds and how much is to be paid for the journey, A beggar, to, whom you have given a couple of coins, will be promptly interview you to ascertain the extent of your .contribution. Every brawl of every kind, sooner or later, comes to the street, and the inns. The peace-maker volunteers his services, because he perfectly understands, both sides of all cases, and is impartial. Though two men at a fair may do their bargaining with their fingers, concealed in their capacious sleeves, it will, go hard if the, neighbors do not discover the terms. There are no secrets in China. Everybody crowds, in everywhere — if not in sight, then "behind the arras." Everyone who can get access to them reads every dispatch he can see. He reads "private" letters in the same way. "What!" one exclaims, "not let one see?" There must be reasons, stratagems and spoils, in anything which is not accessible to everyone.,

“This state of things is not only almost incomprehensible to the foreigner, hut often highly exasperating. It should remind him, however, to be always on his guard. We are surrounded by a silent swarm of spectators, who often seem unconscious of our existence. But they are silent only in our presence, they are not unconscious at all. Everything is noted; what one knows is soon known universally. The wise Chinese adage applies to us all; " If you would not have it known that you do it, do not do it.''

Difficulty Figuring out What 19th Century Chinese Are Talking About

Arthur Henderson Smith wrote in “Chinese Characteristics” in 1894: “Nothing is more common in conversation with an educated Chinese, than to experience extreme difficulty in ascertaining what he is talking about. At times his remarks appear to consist exclusively of predicates, which are woven together in an intricate manner, the whole mass, seeming like Muhammad’s coffin to hang in the air, attached to nothing whatever. To the mind of the speaker, the omission of a nominative is a point of no consequence. He knows what he is talking about, and it never occurs to him that this' somewhat important item of information is not conveyed to the mind of his auditor by any kind of intuition. It is remarkable what expert guessers long practice has made most Chinese, in reading a meaning into words which do not convey it, by the simple practice of supplying subjects or predicates as they happen to be lacking. [Source:“Chinese Characteristics” by Arthur Henderson Smith, 1894]

“It is often the most important word in the whole sentence which is suppressed, the clue to which may be entirely unknown. There is very frequently nothing in the form of the sentences, the manner of the speaker, his tone of voice, nor in any concomitant circumstance, to indicate that the subject has changed, and yet one suddenly discovers that the speaker is not now speaking of himself, as he was a moment ago, but of his grandmother, who lived in the days; of Tao Kuang. How he got there, and also how he got back again, often remains an insoluble mystery, but we see the feat accomplished every day. To a Chinese there is nothing more remarkable in a sudden invisible leap without previous notice, from one topic, one person, one century to another, than in the ability of a man who is watching an insect on the window pane to observe, at the same time and without in the least deflecting his eyes, a herd of cattle on a distant hill, situated in the same line of vision.

“Illustrations of these peculiarities will meet the observant foreigner at every turn. “Why did he do so?” you inquire in regard to some preposterous act. "Yes," is the compendious reply. There is a certain numeral word in constant use, which is an aggravating accessory to vague replies. It signifies both interrogatively. "How many," and affirmatively "several." "How many days (chi-jih) have. you been here?" you ask. "Yes, I have been here several days (chi-jih)" is the reply.

"Why did you not come when you were called?" you venture to inquire of a particularly negligent servant. "Not on account of any reason," (Ju yin wei shen ma yuan ku) he answers with what appears to be frank precision. The same state of mental confusion leads to a great variety of acts, often embarrassing and to a well ordered Occidental intellect always irritating. The cook makes it a matter of routine practice to use up the last of whatever there may be in his charge, and then serves the next meal minus some invariable concomitant. When asked what he means by it, he answers ingenuously that there was no more. "Then why did you not ask for more in time?" "I did not ask for any more" is his satisfactory explanation. The man to whom you have paid a sum of cash in settlement of his account, going to the trouble of unlocking your safe and making change with scrupulous care, sits talking for "an old half day" on miscellaneous subjects, and then remarks with nonchalance, "I have still another account besides this one." “But why did you not tell me when I had the safe open so that I eould do it all at once?” “Oh, I thought that account and this one had nothing to do with each other!" In the same way a patient in a dispensary who has taken a liberal allowance of the time of the physician, retires to the waiting room, and when the door is next opened, advances to reenter. Upon being told that his case has been disposed of, he observes with delightful simplicity, "But I have got another different disease besides that one!"

Difficulty Having Conversation with a Chinese in 19th Century

Arthur Henderson Smith wrote in “Chinese Characteristics”: “To the educated Chinese, any idea whatever, comes as a surprise, for which it is by no means certain that he will not be totally unprepared. He does not understand, because he does not expect to understand, and it takes him an appreciable time to get such intellectual forces as he has, into a position to be used at all His mind is like a rusty old smooth-bore cannon, mounted on an old decrepit carriage, which requires much hauling about, before it can be pointed at anything, and then it is sure to miss fire. Thus when a person is asked a simple question, such as "How old are you?" he gazes vacantly at the questioner, and asks in return, “I?” To which you respond, “yes, you." To this he replies with a summoning up of his mental energies for the shock, “How old?" "Yes, -how old?" Once more adjusting the focus, he inquires, "How old am I?" "Yes," you say, "How old are you?" “Fifty eight," he replies, with accuracy of aim, his piece being now in working order. In like manner, if anyone knocks on the gate at night, and the keeper inquires "Who is it?" the invariable reply will be “I," regardless of the fact that no “I" can pierce a closed door. [Source:“Chinese Characteristics” by Arthur Henderson Smith, 1894]

“A prevalent habit is announcing as a reason for a fact, the fact itself. “Why do you not put salt into bread-cakes?" you ask of a Chinese cook. “We do not put salt into bread-cakes" is the explanation. "How is it that with so much and such beautiful ice in your city, none of it is stored up for winter?" "No, we do not store up ice for winter in our city." If the Latin poet who observed, “Happy is he Who is able to know the reasons of things," had lived in China, he might have modified his poetry so as to read, “Unhappy is the man who essays to find out the reasons of things."

In China it is difficult “to entertain an idea, and then pass it on to another in its original shape. To tell A something which he is to tell B, in order that C may govern his actions thereby t is in China one of the most fatuous of undertakings. Either the message will never be delivered at all, because the parties concerned did not understand that it was of importance, or it reaches C in such a shape that he cannot comprehend it, or in a form totally at variance with its original. To suppose that three cogs in so complicated a piece of machinery are capable of playing into each other without such friction as to stop the works, is to entertain a very wild hope. Even minds of considerable intelligence find it hard to take in and then give out an idea without addition or diminution, just as clear water is certain to refract the image of a straight stick, as if it were a broken one.

“The Chinese believe that if the heads of two persons guilty of adultery are put in a tub of water, and are allowed to float, they will meet, and that this is a proof positive of guilt (albeit too much resembling the directions for identifying the body of a person found drowned, by "a marked impediment in his speech.' Not unlike this experiment of the two heads frequently appear to be the efforts of a Chinese speaker to come up with his theme; both parties seem to be on hand, and in a fluid condition* but they do not meet except by accident and then only for a moment. But with all their short-comings in this respect, it is doubtful whether the Chinese are sinners above the rest of the human race, though owing to their fatal fluency' as mere talkers, they certainly appear to be so.

Face Talk

Arthur Henderson Smith wrote in “Chinese Characteristics”: “' Rich Chinese, who have had the misfortune to be made happy, are sometimes visited by their neighbours with congratulatory gifts of a trifling character, such as toys for, a new born heir, presents, the total value of which is practically nothing, but which must be acknowledged by a feast — the invariable and always appropriate Chinese response. It is on occasions like this, that the most inexpert in Chinese affairs learns to appreciate the accuracy of the Chinese aphorism, which observes, “when one is eating one's own, he eats till the tears come, but when he is eating the food of others, he eats till the perspiration flows." It frequently happens under such conditions, that the host is obliged to assume the most cordial appearance of welcome, when he is inwardly fuming with rage which cannot possibly be expressed without the loss of his “face,'' which would be even more deadly than the loss of the food. [Source:“Chinese Characteristics” by Arthur Henderson Smith, 1894]

“This suggests that large class of expressions, which come under the general designation of “face-talk." That much of the external decorum with which foreigners are treated by Chinese in their employ, especially in large cities, is a mere external veneer, is easily seen by contrasting the behaviour of the same persons in public and in private. One of the ways in which the formal and hollow politeness of the Chinese manifests itself, is in voluntary offers to do what it is very desirable should be done, but which others cannot or will not undertake. If the offer comes to nothing we should not be disappointed, for it is not improbable that it was made with the definite knowledge that it could not be carried out, but the "face" of the friend who made the offer is assured. In like manner if there is a dispute as to' the amount of money to be paid at an inn, your carter will probably come forward as arbitrator, and decide that he will make up the difference himself, which he does by taking the amount required from your cash bag. Or if he were to pay the money from his own funds, he would bring in his bill for the same r and if he was reminded that he offered of his own accord to make it up, he would reply, “Do you expect the man who attends the funeral to be buried in the coffin too?”

“There is a great deal of real modesty in China, notwithstanding appearances to the contrary, but it cannot for a moment be doubted that there is likewise a great deal of mock modesty, both on the part of men and of women. It is very common to hear it said of some disagreeable matter, that it is wholly unmentionable, that the words are totally unutterable, etc., etc., when all parties are perfectly aware that this is a mere form denoting reluctance to express an opinion. The very persons who use this high-toned language would be ready enough to employ the foulest expressions of vituperation, whenever they were excited by anger. False modesty is matched by a false sympathy, which consists of empty words, but for this the Chinese are not to be blamed, as they have no adequate material out of which sympathy for others can be developed in any considerable quantities, and for any length of time. But empty sympathy is not so repugnant to good taste, as that mockery of sympathy and of all true feeling which contemplates death with boisterous merriment.

Mr. Baber mentions a Sichuan coolie, who burst into a delighted laugh at the spectacle of two dogs devouring a corpse on the tow-path. Mr. Meadows tells us that his Chinese teacher laughed till he held his sides at the amusing death of his most constant companion. It is no explanation of these strange exhibitions, often observed in the case of parents at the death of children of whom they were fond, that long grief has dried up its external expression, for there is a wide distinction between a silent grief, and that rude mockery of natural feeling which offends the instincts of mankind.

Mutual Suspicion in 19th Century China

Arthur Henderson Smith wrote in “Chinese Characteristics”: “ Nothing is more likely to excite the suspicion, not of the Chinese only, but of any human being, than the danger that he may be held to account for something which has no concern whatever with himself, but the consequences of which may be most serious. There are said to be two reasons why people do not trust one another, first because they do not know each other, and second because they do. The Chinese think that they have each of these reasons for mistrust. And they act accordingly. While the Chinese are gifted with a capacity for combination, which at times seems to suggest the union of chemical atoms, it is easy to ascertain by careful enquiry at the proper sources and at the proper times, that the Chinese do not by any means trust one another in the implicit way which the external phenomena might imply. Members of the same family are constantly the victims of mutual suspicion, which is fanned by the women who have married into the family, and who as sisters-in-law are able to do much, and who frequently do what they can, to foment jealously between their husbands in regard to the division of the proceeds of the common labour. [Source:“Chinese Characteristics” by Arthur Henderson Smith, 1894]

“Another class of examples of mutual suspicion are those arising in the ordinary affairs of everyday life. There is a freedom and an absence of constraint in Western lands, which in China is conspicuously absent. To us it seems a matter of course that the simplest way to do a thing is for that reason the best. But in China there are different and quite other factors of which account must be taken. While this is true in regard to everything, it is most felt in regard to two matters which form the warp and woof of the lives of most Chinese — money and food. It is very difficult to convince a Chinese that a sum of money which may have been put into the hands of another to be divided between many persons, has been divided according to the theoretical plan, for he has no experience of any divisions of this sort, and he has had extended experience of divisions in which various deductions in the shape of squeezes were the prominent features. In like manner it is very hard to make an arrangement by which one Chinese shall have charge of the food provision for others, in which, if close enquiry is made, it does not appear that those who receive the food suppose that the one who provides it is retaining a certain proportion for his own use. The dissatisfaction in such cases may possibly be wholly surpressed, but there is no reason to think that the suspicion is absent because it does not manifest itself upon the surface* Indeed it is only a foreigner who would raise the question at all, for the Chinese expect this state of things as surely as they reckon on friction in machinery, and with equal reason.

“If any matter is to be accomplished which requires consultation and adjustment, it will not do in China, as it might in any Western land, to send a mere message to be delivered at the home of the person concerned, to the effect that such and such terms could be arranged. The principal must go himself, and he must see the principal on the other side. If the latter should not be at home, the visit must be repeated until he is found, for otherwise no one would be sure that the matter had not been distorted in its transmission through other media. Accustomed as the Chinese are to being entrusted with all varieties of errands for their friends, as mentioned in the chapter on the employment of intermediaries, there are some errands, especially those concerning foreigners, which they do not wish to undertake. A Chinese teacher in the writer's employ had been asked to find a servant whose services were no longer required, and mention to him that fact. He received the commission with a dejected, air, and returned soon afterward to say that he feared that it had been given to him in a temporary forgetfulness of the Chinese nature. The inevitable enquiry of the person receiving the announcement would be, "why does this man bring me this word?" and no amount of explanation would ever have convinced the servant, his friends, his heirs, administrators or assigns, that that particular teacher was not in some way instrumental in upsetting the " rice bowl" of that servant.

“A conspicuous illustration of the instinctive recognition by the Chinese of the existence of their own mutual suspicion is found in the reluctance to be left alone in a room. If this should happen, a guest will not improbably exhibit a restless demeanour, and will perhaps stroll out into the passage, as much as to say, " do not suspect me; I did not take your things, as you see; I put them behind me." The same thing is sometimes observed when a selfrespecting Chinese calls upon a foreigner.

Rumors and Distaste for Sarcasm in 19th Century China

Arthur Henderson Smith wrote in “Chinese Characteristics”: “ China is a country which abounds in wild rumours, often of a character to fill the heart with dread. Within the past few months such a state of things has been reported among the Chinese in Singapore, that jinricsha coolies positively refused to travel a certain street after dark, on account of the imminent danger of having their heads suddenly and mysteriously Cut off. The Empire is probably never free from such epochs of horror; to those concerned the terrors are as real as those of the French Revolution to the Parisians of 1789. Infinite credulity arid mutual suspicion are the elements of the soil in which these fearful rumours thrive, and on which they fatten. [Source:“Chinese Characteristics” by Arthur Henderson Smith, 1894]

When they have to do with foreigners, long and painful experience has shown that they must not be despised, but must be taken in the early stages of their development. None of them could do serious harm if the local officials were only sincerely interested to stamp them out. In their ultimate outcome, when they have been suffered to grow unchecked, these rumours result in such atrocities as the Tianjin massacre. All parts of China are well adapted to their rapid development, and there is scarcely a province where they have not' in some form occurred. For the complete removal of these outbreaks the time element is as necessary as for the results of geologic epochs. The best way to prevent their occurrence is to convince the Chinese by irrefragable object lessons, that foreigners are the sincere wellwishers of the Chinese. This simple proposition once firmly established, then for the first time will it be true that " within the fo.ur seas, all are brethen."

“Sarcasm is a weapon which in the hands of a foreigner is not at all to the taste of the Chinese. A foreigner whose knowledge of Chinese was by no means equal to the demands which he wished to make upon it, in a fit of deep disgust at some sin of omission or commission on the part of one of his servants called him in English, a " humbug." " Deep rankled in his side the fatal dart," and at the earliest opportunity the servant begged of a lady whose Chinese was fully equal to the tax upon it, to be told what the dreadful word meant which had been thus applied to him. The mandarins who seized upon the blocks of Mr. Thorn's translation of Aesop's Fables, were in the same frame of mind as the Peking servant. These officials could not help perceiving in the talking geese, tigers, foxes, and lions, some recondite meaning, which could be best nipped in the bud by suppressing the entire edition.

Suspicions Over Mysterious Deaths in 19th Century China

Arthur Henderson Smith wrote in “Chinese Characteristics”: “Nothing is so certain to excite the most violent suspicion on the part of the Chinese, as the death of a person under circumstances which are in some respects peculiar. To this we may have occasion to refer in another connection. A typical example of this is the death of a married daughter. Although, as already mentioned, the parents are powerless to protect her while she lives, they are in some degree masters of the situation when she has died, if there is anything to which any suspicion can be made to attach itself. [Source:“Chinese Characteristics” by Arthur Henderson Smith, 1894] “ Her suicide is an occasion on which the girl's parents no longer adopt their proverbial position of holding down the head, but on the contrary hold their head erect, and virtually impose their own terms. The refusal to come to an understanding with the family of the girl under such circumstances would be punished by a long and vexatious lawsuit, the motive for which would be in the first instance revenge, but the main issue of which would eventually be the preservation of the "face ''of the girl's family. There is an ancient saying in China, that when one is walking through an orchard where pears are grown, it is well not to adjust one's cap, and when passing through a melon patch, it is not the time to lace one's shoes. These sage aphorisms represent a generalized truth.

In' Chinese social life it is strictly necessary to walk softly, and one cannot be too careful. This is the reason, as we have seen in referring to the " dread of giving offence,'' why the Chinese are so constitutionally reticent at times which seem to us so ill-chosen. They know, as we cannot, that the smallest spark may kindle a fire that shall sweep a thousand acres.

Suspicion of Outsiders and Strangers in China

Arthur Henderson Smith wrote in “Chinese Characteristics”: “ “Frequent references have been made to the social solidarity of the Chinese. In some kinds of cases, the whole family, or clan, all seem to have their fingers in the particular pie belonging to some individual of the family. But into such affairs a person with a different surname is, if he be a wise person, careful not to intrude any of his fingers, lest they be burned. It is indeed a proverb that it is hard to give advice to one whose surname is different from one's own. What does this fellow mean by mixing himself up in my affairs? He must have an object, and it is taken for granted that the object is not a good one.

If this is true of those who are life-long neighbours and friends, how much more is it true of those who are mere outsiders, and who have no special relations to the persons addressed. The character meaning "outside," as has already been elsewhere remarked, has in China a scope and a significance which can only be comprehended by degrees. The same kind of objection which is made to a foreigner, because he comes from an " outside " country, is made to a villager because he comes from an " outside " village. This is true with much greater emphasis if the outsider comes from no-one knows where, and wants no-one knows what. "Who knows what drug this fellow has in his gourd?" is the inevitable enquiry of the prudent Chinese, in regard to a fresh arrival. If a traveller happens to get astray and arrives at a village after dark, particularly if the hour is late, he will often find that no one will even come out of his house to give a simple direction. Under these circumstances the writer once wandered around for several hours, unable to get one of the many Chinese who were offered a reward for acting as a guide, even to listen to the proposal.

“It is not every form of civilization which emphasizes the duty of entertaining strangers. And even in lands where the theory is recognized, there will be many who will sympathize with the sturdy yeoman of Yorkshire, who observes to his comrade, " I say, Bill, who is that chap yonder?" "Don't know him." "Well then 'eave 'arf a brick at him." Many of the proverbs of Solomon in regard to caution toward strangers, gain a new meaning after actual contact with Orientals, but the Chinese have carried their caution to a point which it would be hard to surpass. If a man has become insane and has strayed away from home, and his friends scour the country-side, hoping to hear something of him, they know very well that the chances of finding traces of him are slight: If he has been at a particular place, but has disappeared, the natural enquiry of his pursuers would be, what did you do with him? This might lead to trouble, so the safest way, and the one sure to be adopted if the enquirer is a stranger, is to assume total ignorance of the whole affair.

In the case supposed, the enquiry is by a stranger, but the same thing will not seldom happen, as we have learned by experience, when a Chinese stranger tries to find a man who is well-known. In a case of this sort, a stranger whose appearance indicated him to be a native of an adjacent province enquired his way to the village of a man of whom he was in quest. But on arriving there he was disappointed to find that the whole village was unanimous in the affirmation that no such man was known there, and that he had never even been heard of. This wholesale falsehood was not concocted by any deliberate prevision, for which there was no opportunity, but was simultaneously adopted by a whole village full of people, with the same unerring instinct which leads the prairie dog to dive into its hole when some unfamiliar object is sighted. In all instances of this kind, the slight variations of local dialect afford an infallible test of the general region from which one hails. It is hopeless for a man to claim to be a native of a district, the pronunciation of which differs by ever so little from his own, for his speech bewrayeth him. Not only will a stranger find it hard to get a clue to the whereabouts of a man, his possible business with whom excites instantaneous and general suspicion, but the same thing may be true, as we have also had repeated occasion to know, in regard to a whole village. Not long ago the writer sent several Chinese to look up certain other Chinese who had been for a long time in a foreign hospital under treatment. Very few of them could be found at all. In one case a man who ventured to hold conversation with the strangers, gave his surname only, which was that of a large clan, but positively refused to reveal his name, or " style." In another instance, a village of which the messengers were in search persistently retreated before them, like an ignus fatuus, and at last all traces of it disappeared, without its having been found at all! Yet once the strangers were probably within a mile or two of it, just as in the case just referred to the stranger who could not find the man for whom he was looking, proved to have been within ten rods of his dwelling at the time he was baffled.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated September 2021

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