Chinese Characteristics (5th edition)/Chapter V

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Chinese Characteristics (5th edition)  (1894)  by Arthur Henderson Smith
Chapter V: The Disregard of Time



IT is a maxim of the developed civilisation of our day, "time is money." The complicated arrangements of modern life are such that a business man in business hours is able to do an amount and variety of business which, in the past century, would have required the expenditure of time indefinitely greater. Steam and electricity have accomplished this change, and it is a change for which the Anglo-Saxon race was prepared beforehand by its constitutional tendencies. Whatever may have been the habits of our ancestors when they had little or nothing to do but to eat, drink, and fight, we find it difficult to imagine a period when our race was not characterised by that impetuous energy which ever drives the individuals of it onward to do something else, as soon as another something is finished.

There is a significant difference in the salutations of the Chinese and of the Anglo-Saxon. The former says to his comrade whom he casually meets, "Have you eaten rice?" The latter asks, "How do you do?" Doing is the normal condition of the one, as eating is the normal condition of the other. From that feeling which to us has become a second nature, that time is money, and under ordinary circumstances is to be improved to its final second, the Chinese, like most Orientals, are singularly free. There are only twelve hours in the Chinese day, and the names of these hours do not designate simply the point where one of them gives place to another, but denote as well all the time covered by the twelfth part of a day which each of them connotes. In this way the term "noon," which would seem as definite as any, is employed of the entire period from eleven to one o'clock. "What time is it," a Chinese inquired in our hearing, "when it is noon by the moon?" Phrased in less ambiguous language, the question which he intended to propound was this: "What is the time of night when the moon is at the meridian?"

Similar uncertainties pervade almost all the notes of time which occur in the language of everyday life. "Sunrise" and "sunset" are as exact as anything in Chinese can be expected to be, though used with much latitude (and much longitude as well), but "midnight," like "noon," means nothing in particular, and the ordinary division of the night by "watches" is equally vague, with the exception of the last one, which is often associated with the appearance of daylight. Even in the cities the "watches" are of more or less uncertain duration. Of the portable time-pieces which we designate by this name, the Chinese as a people know nothing, and few of those who really own watches govern their movements by them, even if they have the watches cleaned once every few years and ordinarily keep them running, which is not often the case. The common people are quite content to tell their time by the altitude of the sun, which is variously described as one, two, or more "flagstaffs," or if the day is cloudy a general result can be arrived at by observing the contraction and dilatation of the pupil of a cat's eye, and such a result is quite accurate enough for all ordinary purposes.

The Chinese use of time corresponds to the exactness of their measures of its flight. According to the distinction described by Sydney Smith, the world is divided into two classes of persons, the antediluvians and the post-diluvians. Among the latter the discovery has been made that the age of man no longer runs into the centuries which verge on a millennium, and accordingly they study compression, and adaptation to their environment. The antediluvians, on the contrary, cannot be made to realise that the days of Methusaleh have gone by, and they continue to act as if life were still laid out on the patriarchal plan.

Among these "antediluvians" the Chinese are to be reckoned. A good Chinese story-teller, such as are employed in the tea-shops to attract and retain customers, reminds one of Tennyson's "Brook." Men may come and men may go, but he goes on "forever ever." The same is true of theatrical exhibitions, which sometimes last for days, though they fade into insignificance in comparison with those of Siam, where we are assured by those who claim to have survived one of them that they are known to hold for two months together! The feats of Chinese jugglers when well done are exceedingly clever and very amusing, but they have one fatal defect—they are so long drawn out by the prolix and inane conversation of the participants, that long before the jugglers finish, the foreign spectator will have regretted that he ever weakly consented to patronise them. Not less formidable, but rather far more so, are the interminable Chinese feasts, with their almost incredible number and variety of courses, the terror and despair of all foreigners who have experienced them, although to the Chinese these entertainments seem but too short. One of their most pensive sayings observes that "there is no feast in the world which must not break up at last," though to the unhappy barbarian lured into one of these traps this hopeful generality is often lost in despair of the particular.

From his earliest years, the Chinese is thoroughly accustomed to doing everything on the antediluvian plan. When he goes to school, he generally goes for the day, extending to all the period from sunrise to dark, with one or two intermissions for food. Of any other system, neither pupils nor master have ever heard. The examinations for degrees are protracted through several days and nights, with all grades of severity, and while most of the candidates experience much inconvenience from such an irrational course, it would be difficult to convince any of them of its inherent absurdity as a test of intellectual attainments.

The products of the minds of those thus educated are redolent of the processes through which they have passed. The Chinese language itself is essentially antediluvian, and to overtake it requires the lifetime of a Methusaleh. It is as just to say of the ancient Chinese as of the ancient Romans, that if they had been obliged to learn their own language they would never have said or written anything worth setting down! Chinese histories are antediluvian, not merely in their attempts to go back to the ragged edge of zero for a point of departure, but in the interminable length of the sluggish and turbid current which bears on its bosom not only the mighty vegetation of past ages, but wood, hay, and stubble past all reckoning. None but a relatively timeless race could either compose or read such histories; none but the Chinese memory could store them away in its capacious "abdomen."

Chinese disregard of time is manifested in their industry, the quality of intension in which we have already remarked to be very different from that in the work of Anglo-Saxons. How many of those who have had the pleasure of building a house in China, with Chinese contractors and workmen, thirst to do it again? The men come late and go early. They are perpetually stopping to drink tea. They make long journeys to a distant lime-pit carrying a few quarts of liquid mud in a cloth bag, when by using a wheelbarrow one man could do the work of three; but this result is by no means the one aimed at. If there is a slight rain all work is suspended. There is generally abundant motion with but little progress, so that it is often difficult to perceive what it is which represents the day's "labour" of a gang of men. We have known

Carpenters Sawing Large Timber.

a foreigner, dissatisfied with the slow progress of his carpenters in lathing, accomplish while they were eating their dinner as much work as all four of them had done in half a day.

The mere task of keeping their tools in repair is for Chinese workmen a serious matter in expenditure of time. If the tools belong to the foreigner, however, there is no embarrassment on this score. They are broken mysteriously, and yet no one has touched them. Non est inventus is the appropriate motto for them all. Poles and small rafters are pitched over the wall, and all the neighbourhood loins appear to be girded with the rope which was purchased for supporting the staging. During the entire progress of the work, each day is a crisis. All previous experience goes for nothing. The sand, the lime, the earth of this place will not do for any of the uses for which sand, lime, and earth are in general supposed to be adapted. The foreigner is helpless. He is aptly represented by Gulliver held down by threads, which, taken together, are too much for him. Permanently have we enshrined in our memory a Cantonese contractor, whose promises, like his money, vanished in smoke, for he was unfortunately a victim of the opium pipe. At last, forbearance having ceased to be a virtue, he was confronted with a formidable bill of particulars of the things wherein he had come short. "You were told the size of the glass. You measured the windows three several times. Every one of those you have made is wrong, and they are useless. Not one of your doors is properly put together. There is not an ounce of glue about them. The flooring-boards are short in length, short in number, full of knot-holes, and wholly unseasoned." After the speaker had proceeded in this way for some time, the mild-mannered Cantonese gazed at him sadly, and when he brought himself to speak he remarked, in a tone of gentle remonstrance: "Don't say dat! Don't say dat! No gentleman talk like dat!"

To the Chinese the chronic impatience of the Anglo-Saxon is not only unaccountable, but quite unreasonable. It has been wisely suggested that they consider this trait in our character as objectionable as we do their lack of sincerity.

In any case, appreciation of the importance of celerity and promptness is difficult to cultivate in a Chinese. We have known a bag full of foreign mail detained for some days between two cities twelve miles apart, because the carrier's donkey was ailing and needed rest! The administration of the Chinese telegraph system is frequently a mere travesty of what it might be and ought to be.

But in no circumstances is Chinese indifference to the lapse of time more annoying to a foreigner than when the occasion is a mere social call. Such calls in Western lands are recognised as having certain limits, beyond which they must not be protracted. In China, however, there are no limits. As long as the host does not offer his guest accommodations for the night, the guest must keep on talking, though he be expiring with fatigue. In calling on foreigners the Chinese can by no possibility realise that there is an element of time, which is precious. They will sit by the hour together, offering few or no observations of their own, and by no means offering to depart. The excellent pastor who had for his motto the saying, "The man who wants to see me is the man I want to see," would have modified this dictum materially had he lived for any length of time in China. After a certain experience of this sort, he would not improbably have followed the example of another busy clergyman, who hung conspicuously in his study the scriptural motto, "The Lord bless thy goings out!" The mere enunciation of his business often seems to cost a Chinese a mental wrench of a violent character. For a long time he says nothing, and he can endure this for a period of time sufficient to wear out the patience of ten Europeans. Then, when he begins to speak, he realises the truth of the adage which declares that "it is easy to go on the mountains to fight tigers, but to open your mouth and out with a thing— this is hard!" Happy is the foreigner situated like the late lamented Dr. Mackenzie, who, finding that his incessant relays of Chinese guests, the friends "who come but never go," were squandering the time which belonged to his hospital work, was wont to say to them, "Sit down and make yourselves at home; I have urgent business, and must be excused." And yet more happy would he be if he were able to imitate the naïve terseness of a student of Chinese who, having learned a few phrases, desired to experiment with them on the teacher, and who accordingly filled him with stupefaction by remarking at the end of a lesson, "Open the door! Go!"