The Civilization of China/Chapter XI

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The Civilization of China by Herbert Allen Giles
Chapter XI—Chinese and Foreigners

A virtue which the Chinese possess in an eminent degree is the rather rare one of gratitude. A Chinaman never forgets a kind act; and what is still more important, he never loses the sense of obligation to his benefactor. Witness to this striking fact has been borne times without number by European writers, and especially by doctors, who have naturally enjoyed the best opportunities for conferring favours likely to make a deep impression. It is unusual for a native to benefit by a cure at the hands of a foreign doctor, and then to go away and make no effort to express his gratitude, either by a subscription to a hospital, a present of silk or tea, or perhaps an elaborate banner with a golden inscription, in which his benefactor's skill is likened to that of the great Chinese doctors of antiquity. With all this, the patient will still think of the doctor, and even speak of him, not always irreverently, as a foreign devil. A Chinaman once appeared at a British Consulate, with a present of some kind, which he had brought from his home a hundred miles away, in obedience to the command of his dying father, who had formerly been cured of ophthalmia by a foreign doctor, and who had told him, on his deathbed, "never to forget the English." Yet this present was addressed in Chinese: "To His Excellency the Great English Devil, Consul X."

The Chinaman may love you, but you are a devil all the same. It is most natural that he should think so. For generation upon generation China was almost completely isolated from the rest of the world. The people of her vast empire grew up under influences unchanged by contact with other peoples. Their ideals became stereotyped from want of other ideals to compare with, and possibly modify, their own. Dignity of deportment and impassivity of demeanour were especially cultivated by the ruling classes. Then the foreign devil burst upon the scene—a being as antagonistic to themselves in every way as it is possible to conceive. We can easily see, from pictures, not intended to be caricatures, what were the chief features of the foreigner as viewed by the Chinaman. Red hair and blue eyes, almost without exception; short and extremely tight clothes; a quick walk and a mobility of body, involving ungraceful positions either sitting or standing; and with an additional feature which the artist could not portray—an unintelligible language resembling the twittering of birds. Small wonder that little children are terrified at these strange beings, and rush shrieking into their cottages as the foreigner passes by. It is perhaps not quite so easy to understand why the Mongolian pony has such a dread of the foreigner and usually takes time to get accustomed to the presence of a barbarian; some ponies, indeed, will never allow themselves to be mounted unless blindfolded. Then there are the dogs, who rush out and bark, apparently without rhyme or reason, at every passing foreigner. The Chinese have a saying that one dog barks at nothing and the rest bark at him; but that will hardly explain the unfailing attack so familiar to every one who has rambled through country villages. The solution of this puzzle was extracted with difficulty from an amiable Chinaman who explained that what the animals, and indeed his fellow-countrymen as well, could not help noticing, was the frowzy and very objectionable smell of all foreigners, which, strangely enough, is the very accusation which foreigners unanimously bring against the Chinese themselves.

Compare these characteristics with the universal black hair and black eyes of men and women throughout China, exclusive of a rare occasional albino; with the long, flowing, loose robes of officials and of the well-to-do; with their slow and stately walk and their rigid formality of position, either sitting or standing. To the Chinese, their own language seems to be the language of the gods; they know they have possessed it for several thousand years, and they know nothing at all of the barbarian. Where does he come from? Where can he come from except from the small islands which fringe the Middle Kingdom, the world, in fact, bounded by the Four Seas? The books tell us that "Heaven is round, Earth is square;" and it is impossible to believe that those books, upon the wisdom of which the Middle Kingdom was founded, can possibly be wrong. Such was a very natural view for the Chinaman to take when first brought really face to face with the West; and such is the view that in spite of modern educational progress is still very widely held. The people of a country do not unlearn in a day the long lessons of the past. He was quite a friendly mandarin, taking a practical view of national dress, who said in conversation: "I can't think why you foreigners wear your clothes so tight; it must be very difficult to catch the fleas."

As an offset against the virtue of gratitude must be placed the deep-seated spirit of revenge which animates all classes. Though not enumerated among their own list of the Seven passions—joy, anger, sorrow, fear, love, hatred and desire—it is perhaps the most over-mastering passion to which the Chinese mind is subject. It is revenge which prompts the unhappy daughter-in-law to throw herself down a well, consoled by the thought of the trouble, if not ruin, she is bringing on her persecutors. Revenge, too, leads a man to commit suicide on the doorstep of some one who has done him an injury, for he well knows what it means to be entangled in the net which the law throws over any one on whose premises a dead body may thus be found. There was once an absurd case of a Chinese woman, who deliberately walked into a pond until the water reached up to her knees, and remained there, alternately putting her lips below the surface, and threatening in a loud voice to drown herself on the spot, as life had been made unbearable by the presence of foreign barbarians. In this instance, had the suicide been carried out, vengeance would have been wreaked in some way on the foreigner by the injured ghost of the dead woman.

The germ of this spirit of revenge, this desire to get on level terms with an enemy, as when a life is extracted for a life, can be traced, strangely enough, to the practice of filial piety and fraternal love, the very cornerstone of good government and national prosperity. In the Book of Rites, which forms a part of the Confucian Canon, and contains rules not only for the performance of ceremonies but also for the guidance of individual conduct, the following passage occurs: "With the slayer of his father, a man may not live under the same sky; against the slayer of his brother, a man must never have to go home to fetch a weapon; with the slayer of his friend, a man may not live in the same state." Being now duly admitted among the works which constitute the Confucian Canon, the above-mentioned Book of Rites enjoys an authority to which it can hardly lay claim on the ground of antiquity. It is a compilation made during the first century B.C., and is based, no doubt, on older existing documents; but as it never passed under the editorship of either Confucius or Mencius, it would be unfair to jump to the conclusion that either of these two sages is in any way responsible for, or would even acquiesce in, a system of revenge, the only result of which would be an endless chain of bloodshed and murder. The Chinese are certainly as constant in their hates as in their friendships. To use a phrase from their own language, if they love a man, they love him to the life; if they hate a man they hate him to the death. As we have already noted, the Old Philosopher urged men to requite evil with good; but Confucius, who was only a mortal himself, and knew the limitations of mortality, substituted for an ideal doctrine the more practical injunction to requite evil with justice. It is to be feared that the Chinese people fall short in practice even of this lower standard. "Be just to your enemy" is a common enough maxim; but one for which only a moderate application can be claimed.

It has often been urged against the Chinese that they have very little idea of time. A friendly Chinaman will call, and stay on so persistently that he often outstays his welcome. This infliction is recognized and felt by the Chinese themselves, who have certain set forms of words by which they politely escape from a tiresome visitor; among their vast stores of proverbs they have also provided one which is much to the point: "Long visits bring short compliments." Also, in contradiction of the view that time is no value to the Chinaman, there are many familiar maxims which say, "Make every inch of time your own!" "Half-an-hour is worth a thousand ounces of silver," etc. An "inch of time" refers to the sundial, which was known to the Chinese in the earliest ages, and was the only means they had for measuring time until the invention or introduction—it is not certain which—of the more serviceable clepsydra, or water-clock, already mentioned.

This consists of several large jars of water, with a tube at the bottom of each, placed one above another on steps, so that the tube of an upper jar overhangs the top of a lower jar. The water from the top jar is made to drip through its tube into the second jar, and so into a vessel at the bottom, which contains either the floating figure of a man, or some other kind of index to mark the rise of the water on a scale divided into periods of two hours each. The day and night were originally divided by the Chinese into twelve such periods; but now-a-days watches and clocks are in universal use, and the European division into twenty-four hours prevails everywhere. Formerly, too, sticks of incense, to burn for a certain number of hours, as well as graduated candles, made with the assistance of the water-clock, were in great demand; these have now quite disappeared as time-recorders.

The Chinese year is a lunar year. When the moon has travelled twelve times round the earth, the year is completed. This makes it about ten days short of our solar year; and to bring things right again, an extra month, that is a thirteenth month, is inserted in every three years. When foreigners first began to employ servants extensively, the latter objected to being paid their wages according to the European system, for they complained that they were thus cheated out of a month's wages in every third year. An elaborate official almanack is published annually in Peking, and circulated all over the empire; and in addition to such information as would naturally be looked for in a work of the kind, the public are informed what days are lucky, and what days are unlucky, the right and the wrong days for doing or abstaining from doing this, that, or the other. The anniversaries of the death-days of the sovereigns of the ruling dynasty are carefully noted; for on such days all the government offices are supposed to be shut. Any foreign official who wishes to see a mandarin for urgent business will find it possible to do so, but the visitor can only be admitted through a side-door; the large entrance-gate cannot possibly be opened under any circumstances whatever.

No notice of the Chinese people, however slight or general in character, could very well attain its object unless accompanied by some more detailed account of their etiquette than is to be gathered from the few references scattered over the preceding pages. Correct behaviour, whether at court, in the market-place, or in the seclusion of private life, is regarded as of such extreme importance—and breaches of propriety in this sense are always so severely frowned upon—that it behoves the foreigner who would live comfortably and at peace with his Chinese neighbours, to pick up at least a casual knowledge of an etiquette which in outward form is so different from his own, and yet in spirit is so identically the same. A little judicious attention to these matters will prevent much unnecessary friction, leading often to a row, and sometimes to a catastrophe. Chinese philosophers have fully recognized in their writings that ceremonies and salutations and bowings and scrapings and rules of precedence and rules of the road are not of any real value when considered apart from the conditions with which they are usually associated; at the same time they argue that without such conventional restraints, nothing but confusion would result. Consequently, a regular code of etiquette has been produced; but as this deals largely with court and official ceremonial, and a great part of the remainder has long since been quietly ignored, it is more to the point to turn to the unwritten code which governs the masses in their everyday life.

For the foreigner who would mix easily with the Chinese people, it is above all necessary to understand not only that the street regulations of Europe do not apply in China; but also that he will there find a set of regulations which are tacitly agreed upon by the natives, and which, if examined without prejudice, can only be regarded as based on common sense. An ordinary foot-passenger, meeting perhaps a coolie with two buckets of water suspended one at each end of a bamboo pole, or carrying a bag of rice, weighing one, two, or even three hundredweight, is bound to move out of the burden-carrier's path, leaving to him whatever advantages the road may offer. This same coolie, meeting a sedan chair borne by two or more coolies like himself, must at once make a similar concession, which is in turn repeated by the chair-bearers in favour of any one riding a horse. On similar grounds, an empty sedan-chair must give way to one in which there is a passenger; and though not exactly on such rational grounds, it is understood that horse, chair, coolie and foot-passenger all clear the road for a wedding or other procession, as well as for the retinue of a mandarin. A servant, too, should stand at the side of the road to let his master pass. As an exception to the general rule of common sense which is so very noticeable in all Chinese institutions, if only one takes the trouble to look for it, it seems to be an understood thing that a man may not only stand still wherever he pleases in a Chinese thoroughfare, but may even place his burden or barrow, as the fancy seizes him, sometimes right in the fairway, from which point he will coolly look on at the streams of foot-passengers coming and going, who have to make the best of their way round such obstructions. It is partly perhaps on this account that friends who go for a stroll together never walk abreast but always in single file, shouting out their conversation for all the world to hear; this, too, even in the country, where a more convenient formation would often, but not always, be possible. Shopkeepers may occupy the path with tables exposing their wares, and itinerant stall-keepers do not hesitate to appropriate a "pitch" wherever trade seems likely to be brisk. The famous saying that to have freedom we must have order has not entered deeply into Chinese calculations. Freedom is indeed a marked feature of Chinese social life; some small sacrifices in the cause of order would probably enhance rather than diminish the great privileges now enjoyed.

A few points are of importance in the social etiquette of indoor life, and should not be lightly ignored by the foreigner, who, on the other hand, would be wise not to attempt to substitute altogether Chinese forms and ceremonies for his own. Thus, no Chinaman, and, it may be added, no European who knows how to behave, fails to rise from his chair on the entrance of a visitor; and it is further the duty of a host to see that his visitor is actually seated before he sits down himself. It is extremely impolite to precede a visitor, as in passing through a door; and on parting, it is usual to escort him to the front entrance. He must be placed on the left of the host, this having been the post of honour for several centuries, previous to which it was the seat to the right of the host, as with us, to which the visitor was assigned. At such interviews it would not be correct to allude to wives, who are no more to be mentioned than were the queen of Spain's legs.

One singular custom in connection with visits, official and otherwise, ignorance of which has led on many occasions to an awkward moment, is the service of what is called "guest-tea." At his reception by the host every visitor is at once supplied with a cup of tea. The servant brings two cups, one in each hand, and so manages that the cup in his left hand is set down before the guest, who faces him on his right hand, while that for his master is carried across and set down in an exactly opposite sense. The tea-cups are so handed, as it were with crossed hands, even when the host, as an extra mark of politeness, receives that intended for his visitor, and himself places it on the table, in this case being careful to use both hands, it being considered extremely impolite to offer anything with one hand only employed. Now comes the point of the "guest-tea," which, as will be seen, it is quite worth while to remember. Shortly after the beginning of the interview, an unwary foreigner, as indeed has often been the case, perhaps because he is thirsty, or because he may think it polite to take a sip of the fragrant drink which has been so kindly provided for him, will raise the cup to his lips. Almost instantaneously he will hear a loud shout outside, and become aware that the scene is changing rapidly for no very evident reason—only too evident, however, to the surrounding Chinese servants, who know it to be their own custom that so soon as a visitor tastes his "guest-tea," it is a signal that he wishes to leave, and that the interview is at an end. The noise is simply a bawling summons to get ready his sedan-chair, and the scurrying of his coolies to be in their places when wanted. There is another side to this quaint custom, which is often of inestimable advantage to a busy man. A host, who feels that everything necessary has been said, and wishes to free himself from further attendance, may grasp his own cup and invite his guest to drink. The same results follow, and the guest has no alternative but to rise and take his leave. In ancient days visitors left their shoes outside the front door, a custom which is still practised by the Japanese, the whole of whose civilization—this cannot be too strongly emphasized—was borrowed originally from China.

It is considered polite to remove spectacles during an interview, or even when meeting in the street; though as this rather unreasonable rule has been steadily ignored by foreigners, chiefly, no doubt, from unacquaintance with it, the Chinese themselves make no attempt to observe it so far as foreigners are concerned. In like manner, it is most unbecoming for any "read-book man," no matter how miserably poor he is, to receive a stranger, or be seen himself abroad, in short clothes; but this rule, too, is often relaxed in the presence of foreigners, who wear short clothes themselves. Honest poverty is no crime in China, nor is it in any way regarded as cause for shame; it is even more amply redeemed by scholarship than is the case in Western countries. A man who has gained a degree moves on a different level from the crowd around him, so profound is the respect shown to learning. If a foreigner can speak Chinese intelligibly, his character as a barbarian begins to be perceptibly modified; and if to the knack of speech he adds a tolerable acquaintance with the sacred characters which form the written language, he becomes transfigured, as one in whom the influence of the holy men of old is beginning to prevail over savagery and ignorance.

It is not without reason that the term "sacred" is applied above to the written words or characters. The Chinese, recognizing the extraordinary results which have been brought about, silently and invisibly, by the operation of written symbols, have gradually come to invest these symbols with a spirituality arousing a feeling somewhat akin to worship. A piece of paper on which a single word has once been written or printed, becomes something other than paper with a black mark on it. It may not be lightly tossed about, still less trampled underfoot; it should be reverently destroyed by fire, here again used as a medium of transmission to the great Beyond; and thus its spiritual essence will return to those from whom it originally came. In the streets of a Chinese city, and occasionally along a frequented highroad, may be seen small ornamental structures into which odd bits of paper may be thrown and burnt, thus preventing a desecration so painful to the Chinese mind; and it has often been urged against foreigners that because they are so careless as to what becomes of their written and printed paper, the matter contained in foreign documents and books must obviously be of no great value. It is even considered criminal to use printed matter for stiffening the covers or strengthening the folded leaves of books; still more so, to employ it in the manufacture of soles for boots and shoes, though in such cases as these the weakness of human nature usually carries the day. Still, from the point of view of the Taoist faith, the risk is too serious to be overlooked. In the sixth of the ten Courts of Purgatory, through one or more of which sinners must pass after death in order to expiate their crimes on earth, provision is made for those who "scrape the gilding from the outside of images, take holy names in vain, show no respect for written paper, throw down dirt and rubbish near pagodas and temples, have in their possession blasphemous or obscene books and do not destroy them, obliterate or tear books which teach man to be good," etc., etc.

In this, the sixth Court, presided over, like all the others, by a judge, and furnished with all the necessary means and appliances for carrying out the sentences, there are sixteen different wards where different punishments are applied according to the gravity of the offence. The wicked shade may be sentenced to kneel for long periods on iron shot, or to be placed up to the neck in filth, or pounded till the blood runs out, or to have the mouth forced open with iron pincers and filled with needles, or to be bitten by rats, or nipped by locusts while in a net of thorns, or have the heart scratched, or be chopped in two at the waist, or have the skin of the body torn off and rolled up into spills for lighting pipes, etc. Similar punishments are awarded for other crimes; and these are to be seen depicted on the walls of the municipal temple, to be found in every large city, and appropriately named the Chamber of Horrors. It is doubtful if such ghastly representations of what is to be expected in the next world have really any deterrent effect upon even the most illiterate of the masses; certainly not so long as health is present and things are generally going well. "The devil a monk" will any Chinaman be when the conditions of life are satisfactory to him.

As has already been stated, his temperament is not a religious one; and even the seductions and threats of Buddhism leave him to a great extent unmoved. He is perhaps chiefly influenced by the Buddhist menace of rebirth, possibly as a woman, or worse still as an animal. Belief in such a contingency may act as a mild deterrent under a variety of circumstances; it certainly tends to soften his treatment of domestic animals. Not only because he may some day become one himself, but also because among the mules or donkeys which he has to coerce through long spells of exhausting toil, he may be unwittingly belabouring some friend or acquaintance, or even a member of his own particular family. This belief in rebirth is greatly strengthened by a large number of recorded instances of persons who could recall events which had happened in their own previous state of existence, and whose statements were capable of verification. Occasionally, people would accurately describe places and buildings which they could not have visited, while many would entertain a dim consciousness of scenes, sights and sounds, which seemed to belong to some other than the present life. There is a record of one man who could remember having been a horse, and who vividly recalled the pain he had suffered when riders dug their knees hard into his sides. This, too, in spite of the administration in Purgatory of a cup of forgetfulness, specially designed to prevent in those about to reborn any remembrance of life during a previous birth.

After all, the most awful punishment inflicted in Purgatory upon sinners is one which, being purely mental, may not appeal so powerfully to the masses as the coarse tortures mentioned above. In the fifth Court, the souls of the wicked are taken to a terrace from which they can hear and see what goes on in their old homes after their own deaths. "They see their last wishes disregarded, and their instructions disobeyed. The property they scraped together with so much trouble is dissipated and gone. The husband thinks of taking another wife; the widow meditates second nuptials. Strangers are in possession of the old estate; there is nothing to divide amongst the children. Debts long since paid are brought again for settlement, and the survivors are called upon to acknowledge false claims upon the departed. Debts owed are lost for want of evidence, with endless recriminations, abuse, and general confusion, all of which falls upon the three families—father's, mother's, and wife's—connected with the deceased. These in their anger speak ill of him that is gone. He sees his children become corrupt, and friends fall away. Some, perhaps, may stroke the coffin and let fall a tear, departing quickly with a cold smile. Worse than that, the wife sees her husband tortured in gaol; the husband sees his wife a victim to some horrible disease, lands gone, houses destroyed by flood or fire, and everything in an unutterable plight—the reward of former sins."

Confucius declined absolutely to discuss the supernatural in any form or shape, his one object being to improve human conduct in this life, without attempting to probe that state from which man is divided by death. At the same time, he was no scoffer; for although he declared that "the study of the supernatural is injurious indeed," and somewhat cynically bade his followers "show respect to spiritual beings, but keep them at a distance," yet in another passage we read: "He who offends against God has no one to whom he can pray." Again, when he was seriously ill, a disciple asked if he might offer up prayer. Confucius demurred to this, pointing out that he himself had been praying for a considerable period; meaning thereby that his life had been one long prayer.