A Wayfarer in China/Chapter 16

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A Wayfarer in China by Elizabeth Kimball Kendall
Chapter XVI

CHAPTER XVI

A FEW FIRST IMPRESSIONS OF CHINA

IT is rather presumptuous for the strolling Westerner who can count only months in China to have any impressions at all of anything so huge, so old, so varied, so complicated as China and its people, and still more inexcusable to put these impressions before the world. And yet it may be possible to find some sort of an excuse if one is bent on doing it.

We live to-day in a time of surprises. Turkey is reforming, China waking up, the self-satisfied complacency of the white race has received a shock, and more are feared. Most of us of the West are anxious to get over the wall, or look around it,—we are told it is there,—and see what that other man is really like. We read books written by those who have spent years in China, in Japan, in India, and we realize that they know thoroughly this or that corner of the whole. We talk with the man who has lived his life among the people of the East, and we feel that he has plumbed them to the core—along one line. He has preached to them, he has healed them, he has traded with them, and he knows them as the doctor or the trader knows his community. The men and women of the West who have spent their lives in the East have usually gone there with definite purpose and compelling duties. They rarely see more than one part of the whole country, their work holds them fast, and they are prone to see it from the point of view of the interest that took them there. Out of these chapters of intimate knowledge can be put together a great exhaustive study of the whole, but no one has done that yet; the time has not come, perhaps.

Now the traveller with no preoccupying purpose, and fresh from a bird's eye view of large sections of the country, is likely to talk a good deal of nonsense, and yet he may tell some things of interest that the old resident has ceased to see from very familiarity. If you mention them, he says, "of course," but to those at home they are not "of course," and sometimes they are worth telling.

My first and my most lasting impression of the Chinese was how very like they are to us. I had been told it was a mistake to approach China from the east: you touched twelve at once. Nowhere would you find another country and people so strange, so different from anything before imagined. Rather you should approach China from the west, then with each stage as you travelled eastward stranger and ever stranger worlds would open before you. That is what I did; it just happened so. India was already somewhat known to me, and on this trip I stopped there only a few weeks, seeing each day more that was difficult to understand, and then I went on to China, and to my great surprise felt myself almost at home.

Of course at first sight most things were queer, that is to say, different from what they are in the West. The men wore their hair braided down their backs, and the women dressed in trousers, and both mourned in white. The seat of honour was on the left, not on the right, and when people greeted you they shook hands with themselves. All that one is prepared for, but being prepared does not take away from the impression of queerness. But even from the beginning, and the feeling grew stronger as the days lengthened into weeks and the weeks into months, underneath this surface difference the Chinese seemed to me more like ourselves, or maybe our ancestors, more like us at one stage or another, than any other people of the East that I had known.

In India, as every one knows, religion dominates the life of the people. A man is first of all a follower of a certain creed, a Hindu or a Moslem, and the observances of that creed control his daily acts in a way to which there is no parallel in the West—or in China. The principles of Christianity underlie the best of Western civilization, but the majority of men in Europe or America pay little conscious heed to Christ's teachings as they make the daily round of work and pleasure, and generally they confine their formal religious observances to one day of the week, if as often. The Chinese, to be sure, is one of the most superstitious of men, but there is little more religion in his fears than is implied in the practices of many a Westerner. He never builds a straight entrance into his house, for he believes that evil spirits cannot move in a curved line; and across the world, people who call him names because of this refuse to sit down thirteen at table. The malign influences appeased, the average Chinese goes his way untroubled or unconsoled by any thought concerning that which is to come, or at most he strives to acquire merit, not for a week only, but for the whole year, by some pilgrimage much more strenuous than church-going. Like the Western man of to-day he also is impatient of priestly control, and is apt to say slighting things of his spiritual leaders. His mind is set, not on things above, but on the bread-and-butter, or, more precisely, rice, aspect of life. The scale of rewards is different, but the mainspring of daily living is much the same in the Far East and the Far West.

Or put it in another way: with Chinese and man of the West alike, national standards, national aims, all bear the mark of the industrial world. In America and in Europe the chief concern is industry, industry in the large sense, agriculture, manufacture, commerce. These are the interests that concern the people, that control their policy. In India religion holds this place, while in Japan the ideals of the old social order were military, and in a measure that is still true of the new. But in China material interests have full possession of the field, and the strong man of the Chinese nation is not the soldier or the priest, but the merchant.

And there is something very Western, very American, as America used to be, in the small part played by the Government in the life of the ordinary Chinese. If he does not misbehave and keeps out of a lawsuit, he rarely comes in contact with his rulers. He is acquainted with the saying of Mencius that "the people are of the highest importance, the gods come second, the sovereign is of lesser weight," and he knows the place of the Government, but he expects little from it, and neither does he fear it.

It is the district officer who represents to the ordinary Chinese the Government, and there are about fifteen hundred of these in the eighteen provinces, about one to every two hundred and fifty thousand of the population. The headman of the village is the only official of whom the Chinese really knows much, and he is one of the village folk, governing by homemade rules of very ancient date, and never interfering if he can help it. Policemen are few, and the various inquisitorial boards and officers that make us clean and sanitary and safe in spite of ourselves are simply non-existent. No one inspects the Chinese garbage pail except the pig, or sniffs about for defective drains, or insists upon a man's keeping the roadway in front of his house in order, or compels him to have his children vaccinated. The tyranny of the majority may exist in China, but it is not exercised through the Government. The Chinese as he is today has been fashioned and shaped by long-inherited custom, and the dead hand rests heavily upon him, but he is not a government product, nor is he likely to be just yet.

And the Chinese is democratic in very much the same way that the American is. If there has been an aristocracy at all, it has been essentially one of race, the conqueror and the conquered, and hereditary distinctions have played a very small part in the past outside Peking and the Manchu circle. An official career is, in theory, and in good measure in practice, open to the man who is fit, no matter what his antecedents; and the poor boy has quite as good a chance to make himself fit for all save the highest posts as in America. Nor is there always much to choose between the American and Chinese standard of fitness. To regard success as commander in a small war as qualifying a man for the civil headship of a great industrial state does not seem much more reasonable than to make skill in writing a literary essay the test for a high military post. And one thing more, the Chinese, in so many things essentially democratic, abases himself before the power of riches as much as the American, and far more than any other Asiatic.

Now, since the Chinese expects little of the government, he has learned to rely upon himself and his fellows. Like the Englishman and the American, and unlike the Frenchman and the German, he takes the initiative. The Government is weak, the individual or group of individuals strong; the Government does little, so the other side does much. All over the East,—in Burma, Indo-China, the Malay States, the Philippines, wherever he can force an entrance,—you find the Chinese merchant and the Chinese coolie, and it is no state-managed enterprise that takes them there. Just as the British workmen emigrate, or the British merchants seek out new markets, so the Chinese make their way without leading or assistance. And they succeed; throughout all that territory that lies between the China Sea and the Bay of Bengal, whether under British or French rule, unless actually barred out, the Chinese is entrenching himself and prospering. Heavy poll-taxes alone keep him from controlling trade and the labour market in IndoChina; in the Malay States he is ousting the native and running the British merchant and banker hard; in Burma he is getting more and more control of trade, and has even succeeded in convincing the Burmese woman that he makes a better sort of husband than her charming but indolent countryman.

To turn to smaller matters. I am sure I had once known, but I had certainly quite forgotten, that the Chinese, like ourselves and unlike other people of the East, sit on chairs in preference to sitting on their heels. For it gave me a little comfortable shock of surprise when I saw my coolies at dinner sitting on benches around the table, "just like folks," instead of squatting on the ground after the fashion of my Indian servants. It is a small thing, but it marks the Chinese off from all other Asiatics, and brings him a little nearer the West; and I do not wonder at the touch of pride in the answer of the Chinese student at a New England college when some one remarked on seeing her sitting on the ground, college-girl fashion, with a number of her classmates, that it probably came easier to her to do that, as she was used to it, "Oh, no; I think you must be confusing us with the Japanese. We Chinese learned to sit on chairs two thousand years ago."

But not only do the Chinese sit on chairs like ourselves, but they "dine," just as the West does. Not merely are they ready to spend freely on the pleasures of the table, but they make of dinner a social function, longer and more elaborate, and sometimes even more deadly dull than grand dinners at home. The un-Europeanized Indian, rich or poor, is abstemious; he eats simply to satisfy hunger, and dining is with him no more a social occasion than taking a bath at home,—much less, indeed, than his own bathing, which seems to be often both a religious and a social act. He would not think of entertaining his friends at a dinner party. But my coolies at the wayside inns spent jovial hours over their meals, and the gay Manchu or Chinese diners that I watched at the Peking hotel might have been Americans at the Waldorf-Astoria, barring a few details. And it seemed very Western, only it was quite Chinese, for the chief of the Kalgan Foreign Office to express his regrets that my stay was too short for him to arrange a dinner party for me.

So much has been said of the differences that exist in China, of the wide separation between North and South and West, that I had expected to find repeated there the conditions of India. But externally nothing of the sort was observable. To begin with, almost all Chinese have black hair, almost all wear blue clothes, and almost all eat rice. And the obvious differences between the natives of Chihli and the natives of Kwangtung, for example, are no greater than you would note in passing from Maine to Mississippi; while in Yunnan and Szechuan, just as in the Western States of America, you seem to be among people from "back East," only slightly modified by different conditions of climate and life.

The estimate given me by the Chinese Consul-General at Singapore, a Kwangtung man, as to the proportion of the whole population speaking some form of Mandarin, was about three hundred millions out of a possible three hundred and sixty millions, and this agrees with other statements that I have seen. If this be so, then the enormous majority of the people have the bond of a common tongue. And more than that, all the educated—a small proportion, of course, although many more know a few symbols—have a common written language.

But as Confucius said thousands of years ago, "not all words are in books, nor all thoughts in words," and the traditions of nature worship, Taoism, Buddhism, of Confucius himself, have all put their stamp upon the Chinese, whether of the North or South, and the journeying coolie (and it must be remembered he is a great wanderer), no matter where he goes in China, will find himself among men who recognize the same obligations, cringe under the same superstitious fears, and strive toward the same goal of material well-being as himself. Fundamental differences do certainly exist; North and South China are divided in speech, and the people are unlike, physically and mentally, but I wonder if the separation is really deeper than that between the Northern and the Southern States in America to-day.

We talk of China as in decay, of the Chinese as aged, and the country as exhausted. It is true the soil has been man-handled for ages, like the soil of India, but over great areas it constantly renews its fertility, and, anyway, most of China's resources are underground, untouched. The Government of last year was rotten to the core; it had outlived its day. But the Government was not the people, and the Chinese are neither worn out nor unsound.

I think it must be because everything seems finished in China that people talk about her decay. The whole thing impresses you as having been made and completed, after a fashion, a long time ago. Nowhere, save where the touch of the West has been felt, do you see things being tried for the first time. Everything has been done in China so many, many times, for so many centuries, and the results have spread abroad all over the empire; everywhere, in the remotest corners, you find the same ingeniously contrived commercial system, the same symmetrical and complicated social order. Being a very clever and resourceful people that has lived a long time, the Chinese have found out a great many things for themselves, and as there was no other clever and resourceful people at hand to incite them to other and better ways of doing some things, they went on as they were, neither spending their strength nor sharpening their wits in trying experiments. Indeed, experimenting stopped centuries ago; each natural difficulty, every social and economic problem had been met and answered in some sort of way, and so the people lived year after year, doing things just as their fathers had done them. And now they impress one as very experienced, though old-fashioned; but not aged,—no, not at all.

On the contrary, face to face with the Chinese at home, one is overwhelmed by an impression of power,—actual power, potential power, power of the individual, power of the group, power well used, power misspent. The impression is almost stunning. You seem to be watching a community of ants, persistent, untiring, organized, only the ant-hill is a town, and the ants are men physically strong, gluttons for work, resourceful, adaptable, cheerful. Then multiply such ant-hills by thousands and you have China. For not merely is the Chinese the best worker in the world, but he also leads in organization. No Chinese stands alone; behind him is the family, the clan, the guild. He does not confront life naked and solitary, he is one of a group; that gives him confidence, and keeps him under control. It makes it both easier and more difficult to deal with him. Treat him unjustly, and you are fighting, not a man but a group. But if he wrongs you, you have a hold upon him, you can call him to account through his group.

And the power of organization smooths greatly the daily machinery of living in China. As I leaned over the side of the steamer in Singapore Harbour, watching the seven hundred coolies come aboard that we were taking home to Kwangtung province, the chief officer remarked to me, "A thousand Chinese make us less trouble than one Indian"; and he went on to explain, "When we enter here, half a dozen Chinese boarding-house keepers come on board and ask how much deck-room we have. They agree on what they want, and then each stakes out his claim, as it were, with bits of red paper emblazoned with Chinese characters. A little later coolies come, bringing the luggage of the home-going Chinese, each thing marked with a piece of red paper with the same black lettering. They ask no questions, but look about until they have found the corresponding marks on the deck, and there they unload. And later the Kwangtung men arrive, each with a red ticket, and they too ask no questions, but just hunt up their things all properly marked, and then proceed to make themselves comfortable. And no one is bothered."

Or to turn to larger things, what was it but this same power of organization that made ready a great revolutionary movement, permeating a population of three hundred odd millions, and spreading over an area of a million and a half square miles, and all so well and secretly done that, though suspected, it could not be discovered? The Turkish Revolution seemed a triumph of secret preparation, but there the task was to convert an organization already made; here it was necessary both to arouse and to organize.

But then China has ages of experience, both in organizing and in rebelling, back of to-day. Establishing a Republic, however, is something new; the Chinese have never before tried their hand at that, but if they will only bring into play now all their undoubted power of organization, of resource, of moderation, they will certainly make a success of their new experiment in government. Given time, and they will do it. Perhaps my view of China's future is rose-coloured. But the thing seen and felt is of tremendous force, and the impression of power that the Chinese made upon me was rather overwhelming. And, anyway, a friendly opinion may be pardoned in one who, during months of solitary travel in China, never met anything but courtesy and consideration from all, whether coolie on the road, villager or innkeeper, official or priest.


THE END