Chinese Characteristics (5th edition)/Chapter VI
THE DISREGARD OF ACCURACY.
THE first impression which a stranger receives of the Chinese is that of uniformity. Their physiognomy appears to be all of one type, they all seem to be clad in one perpetual blue, the "hinges" of the national eye do not look as if they were "put on straight," and the resemblance between one Chinese cue and another is the likeness between a pair of peas from the same pod. But in a very brief experience the most unobservant traveller learns that, whatever else may be predicated of the Chinese, a dead level of uniformity cannot be safely assumed. The speech of any two districts, no matter how contiguous, varies in some interesting and perhaps unaccountable ways. Divergences of this sort accumulate until they are held to be tantamount to a new "dialect," and there are not wanting those who will gravely assure us that in China there are a great number of different "languages" spoken, albeit the written character is the same. The same variations, as we are often reminded, obtain in regard to customs, which, according to a saying current among the Chinese, do not run uniform for ten li together, a fact of which it is impossible not to witness singular instances at every turn. A like diversity is found to prevail in those standards of quantity upon the absolute invariability of which so much of the comfort of life in Western lands is found to depend.
The existence of a double standard of any kind, which is often so keen an annoyance to an Occidental, is an equally keen joy to the Chinese. Two kinds of cash, two kinds of weights, two kinds of measures, these seem to him natural and normal, and by no means open to objection. A man who made meat dumplings for sale was asked how many of these dumplings were made in a day; to which he replied that they used about "one hundred [Chinese] pounds of flour," the unknown relation between this amount of flour and the number of resultant dumplings being judiciously left to the inquirer to conjecture for himself. In like manner, a farmer who is asked the weight of one of his oxen gives a figure which seems much too low, until he explains that he has omitted to estimate the bones! A servant who was asked his height mentioned a measure which was ridiculously inadequate to cover his length, and upon being questioned admitted that he had left out of account all above his shoulders! He had once been a soldier, where the height of the men's clavicle is important in assigning the carrying of burdens. And since a Chinese soldier is to all practical purposes complete without his head, this was omitted. Of a different sort was the measurement of a rustic who affirmed that he lived "ninety li from the city," but upon cross-examination he consented to an abatement, as this was reckoning both to the city and back, the real distance being, as he admitted, only "forty-five li one way!"
The most conspicuous instance of this variability in China is seen in the method of reckoning the brass cash, which constitute the only currency of the Empire. The system is everywhere a decimal one, which is the easiest of all systems to be reckoned, but no one is ever sure, until he has made particular enquiries, what number of pieces of brass cash are expected in my particular place to pass for a hundred. He will not need to extend his travels over a very large part of the eighteen provinces to find that this number varies, and varies with a lawlessness that nothing can explain, from the full hundred which is the theoretical " string," to 99, 98, 96, 83 (as in the capital of Shansi), down to 33, as in the eastern part of the province of Chihli, and possibly to a still lower number elsewhere. The same is true, but in a more aggravated degree, of the weight by which silver is sold. No two places have the same "ounce," unless by accident, and each place has a great variety of different ounces, to the extreme bewilderment of the stranger, the certain loss of all except those who deal in silver, and the endless vexation of all honest persons, of whom there are many, even in China. The motive for the perpetuation of this monetary chaos is obvious, but we are at present concerned only with the fact of its existence.
The same holds true universally of measures of all sorts. The bushel of one place is not the same as that of any other, and the advantage which is constantly taken of this fact in the exactions connected with the grain tax would easily cause political disturbances among a less peaceable people than the Chinese. So far is it from being true that "a pint is a pound the world around," in China a "pint" is not a pint, nor is a "pound" a pound. Not only does the theoretical basis of each vary, but it is a very common practice (as in the salt monopoly, for example) to fix some purely arbitrary standard, such as twelve ounces, and call that a pound (catty). The purchaser pays for sixteen ounces and receives but twelve, but then it is openly done and is done by all dealers within the same range, so that there is no fraud, and if the people think of it at all, it is only as an "old-time custom" of the salt trade. A similar uncertainty prevails in the measurement of land. In some districts the "acre" is half as large again as in others, and those who happen to live on the boundary are obliged to keep a double set of measuring apparatus, one for each kind of "acre."
It is never safe to repeat any statement (as travellers in China are constantly led to do) in regard to the price of each "catty" of grain or cotton, until one has first informed himself what kind of "catty" they have at that point. The same holds as to the amount of any crop yielded per "acre," statistics of which are not infrequently presented in ignorance of the vital fact that "acre" is not a fixed term. That a like state of things prevails as to the terms employed to measure distance, every traveller in China is ready to testify. It is always necessary in land travel to ascertain, when the distance is given in "miles" (li), whether the "miles" are "large" or not! That there is some basis for estimates of distances we do not deny, but what we do deny is that these estimates or measurements are either accurate or uniform. It is, so far as we know, a universal experience that the moment one leaves a great imperial highway the "miles" become "long." If 120 li constitute a fair day's journey on the main road, then on country roads it will take fully as long to go 100 li, and in the mountains the whole day will be spent in getting over 80 li. Besides this, the method of reckoning is frequently based, not on absolute distance, even in a Chinese sense, but on the relative difficulty of getting over the ground. Thus it will be "ninety li" to the top of a mountain the summit of which would not actually measure half that distance from the base, and this number will be stoutly held to, on the ground that it is as much trouble to go this "ninety li" as it would be to do that distance on level ground. Another somewhat peculiar fact emerges in regard to linear measurements, namely, that the distance from A to B is not necessarily the same as the distance from B to A! It is vain to cite Euclidian postulates that "quantities which are equal to the same quantity are equal to each other." In China this statement requires to be modified by the insertion of a negative. We could name a section of one of the most important highways in China, which from north to south is 183 li in length, while from south to north it is 190 li", and singularly enough, this holds true no matter how often you travel it or how carefully the tally is kept!
Akin to this is another intellectual phenomenon, to wit, that in China it is not true that the "whole is equal to the sum of all its parts." This is especially the case in river travel. On inquiry you ascertain that it is "forty li" to a point ahead. Upon more careful analysis, this "forty" turns out to be composed of two "eighteens," and you are struck dumb with the statement that "four nines are forty, are they not?" In the same manner, "three eighteens" make "sixty," and so on generally. We have heard of a case in which an imperial courier failed to make a certain distance in the limits of time allowed by rule, and it was set up in his defence that the "sixty li" were "large." As this was a fair plea, the magistrate ordered the distance measured, when it was found that it was in reality "eighty-three li," and it has continued to be so reckoned ever since.
Several villages scattered about at distances from a city varying from one li to six, may each be called "The Three-Li Village." One often notices that a distance which would otherwise be reckoned as about a li, if there are houses on each side of the road, is called five li, and every person in that hamlet will gravely assure us that such is the real length of the street.
Under these circumstances, it cannot be a matter of surprise to find that the regulation of standards is a thing which each individual undertakes for himself. The steel-yard maker perambulates the street, and puts in the little dots (called "stars") according to the preferences of each customer, who will have not less than two sets of balances, one for buying and one for selling. A ready-made balance, unless it might be an old one, is not to be had, for the whole scale of standards is in a fluid condition, to be solidified only by each successive purchaser.
The same general truth is illustrated by the statements in regard to age, particularity in which is a national trait of the Chinese. While it is easy to ascertain one's age with exactness, by the animal governing the year in which he was born, and to which he therefore "belongs," nothing is more common than to hear the wildest approximation to exactness. An old man is "seventy or eighty years of age," when you know to a certainty that he was seventy only a year ago. The fact is, that in China a person becomes "eighty" the moment he stops being seventy, and this "general average" must be allowed for, if precision is desired. Even when a Chinese intends to be exact, it will often be found that he gives his age as it will be after the next New-Year's day—the national birthday in China. The habit of reckoning by "tens " is deep-seated, and leads to much vagueness. A few people are "ten or twenty," a "few tens," or perhaps "ever so many tens," and a strictly accurate enumeration is one of the rarest of experiences in China. The same vagueness extends upwards to "hundreds," "thousands," and "myriads," the practical limit of Chinese counting. For greater accuracy than these general expressions denote, the Chinese do not care.
An acquaintance told the writer that two men had spent "200 strings of cash" on a theatrical exhibition, adding a moment later, "It was 173 strings, but that is the same as 200—is it not?"Upon their departure for the home land, a gentleman and his wife who had lived for several years in China, were presented by their Chinese friends with two handsome scrolls, intended not for themselves but for their aged mothers—the only surviving parents—who happened to be of exactly the same age. One of the inscriptions referred to "Happiness, great as the sea," and to "Old age, green as the perpetual pines," with an allusion in smaller characters at the side to the fact that the recipient had attained "seven decades of felicity." The other scroll contained flowery language of a similar character, but the small characters by the side complimented the lady on having enjoyed "six decades of glory." After duly admiring the scrolls, one of the persons whose mother was thus honoured, ventured to inquire of the principal actor in the presentation, why, considering the known parity of ages of the two mothers, one was assigned seventy years, and the other only sixty. The thoroughly characteristic reply was given, that to indite upon each of two such scrolls the
Chinese Performers in Stage Dress.
identical legend, "seven decades," would look as if the writers were entirely destitute of originality!
Chinese social solidarity is often fatal to what we mean by accuracy. A man who wished advice in a lawsuit told the writer that he himself "lived" in a particular village, though it was obvious from his narrative that his abode was in the suburbs of a city. Upon inquiry, he admitted that he did not now live in the village, and further investigation revealed the fact that the removal took place nineteen generations ago! "But do you not almost consider yourself a resident of the city now?" he was asked. "Yes," he replied simply, "we do live there now, but the old root is in that village!"
Another individual called the writer's attention to an ancient temple in his own native village, and remarked proudly, "I built that temple." Upon pursuing the subject, it appeared that the edifice dated from a reign in the Ming Dynasty, more than three hundred years ago, when "I" only existed in the potential mood.
One of the initial stumbling-block of the student of Chinese is to find a satisfactory expression for identity, as distinguished from resemblance. The whole Chinese system of thinking is based on a line of assumptions different from those to which we are accustomed, and they can ill comprehend the mania which seems to possess the Occidental to ascertain everything with unerring exactness. The Chinese does not know how many families there are in his native village, and he does not wish to know. What any human being can want to know this number for is to him an insoluble riddle. It is "a few hundreds," "several hundreds," or "not a few," but a fixed and definite number it never was and never will be.
The same lack of precision which characterises the Chinese use of numbers, is equally conspicuous in their employment of written and even of printed characters. It is not easy to procure a cheap copy of any Chinese book which does not abound in false characters. Sometimes the character which is employed is more complex than the one which should have been used, showing that the error was not due to a wish to economise work, but it is rather to be credited to the fact that ordinarily accuracy is considered as of no importance. A like carelessness of notation is met with in far greater abundance in common letters, a character being often represented by another of the same sound, the mistake being due as much to illiteracy as to carelessness.
Indifference to precision is nowhere more flagrantly manifested than in the superscription of epistles. An ordinary Chinese letter is addressed in bold characters, to "My Father Great Man," "Compassionate Mother Great Man," "Ancestral Uncle Great Man," "Virtuous Younger Brother Great Man," etc., etc., generally with no hint as to the name of the "Great Man" addressed.
It certainly appears singular that an eminently practical people like the Chinese should be so inexact in regard to their own personal names as observation indicates them to be. It js very common to find these names written now with one character and again with another, and either one, we are informed, will answer. But this is not so confusing as the fact that the same man often has several different names, his family name, his "style," and, strange to say, a wholly different one, used only on registering for admission to literary examinations. It is for this reason not uncommon for a foreigner to mistake one Chinese for two or three. The names of villages are not less uncertain, sometimes appearing in two or even three entirely different forms, and no one of them is admitted to be more "right" than another. If one should be an acknowledged corruption of another, they may be employed interchangeably, or the correct name may be used in official papers and the other in ordinary speech, or yet again, the corruption may be used as an adjective, forming with the original appellation a compound title.
The Chinese are unfortunately deficient in the education which comes from a more or less intimate aquaintance with chemical formulæ, where the minutest precision is fatally necessary. The first generation of Chinese chemists will probably lose many of its number as a result of the process of mixing a "few tens of grains" of something with "several tens of grains" of something else, the consequence being an unanticipated earthquake. The Chinese are as capable of learning minute accuracy in all things as any nation ever was—nay, more so, for they are endowed with infinite patience—but what we have to remark of this people is that, as at present constituted, they are free from the quality of accuracy and that they do not understand what it is. If this is a true statement, two inferences would seem to be legitimate. First, much allowance must be made for this trait in our examination of Chinese historical records. We can readily deceive ourselves by taking Chinese statements of numbers and of quantities to be what they were never intended to be—exact. Secondly, a wide margin must be left for all varieties of what is dignified with the title of a Chinese "census." The whole is not greater than its parts, Chinese enumeration to the contrary notwithstanding. When we have well considered all the bearings of a Chinese "census," we shall be quite ready to say of it, as was remarked of the United States Supreme Court by a canny Scotchman who had a strong realisation of the "glorious uncertainty of the law," that it has "the last guess at the case!"
- ↑ Since this was written, we have met in Mr. Baber's "Travels in Western China" with a confirmation of the view here taken. "We heard, for instance, with incredulous ears, that the distance between two places depended upon which end one started from ; and all the informants, separately questioned, would give the same differential estimate. Thus from A to B would be unanimously called one mile, while from B to A would, with equal unanimity, be set down as three. An explanation of this offered by an intelligent native was this: Carriage is paid on a basis of so many cash per mile, it is evident that a coolie ought to be paid at a higher rate if the road is uphill. Now it would be very troublesome to adjust a scale of wages rising with the gradients of the road. It is much more convenient for all parties to assume that the road in difficult or precipitous places is longer. This is what has been done, and these conventional distances are now all that the traveller will succeed in ascertaining. 'But,' I protested, 'on the same principle, wet weather must elongate the road, and it must be farther by night than by day.' 'Very true, but a little extra payment adjusts that.' This system may be convenient for the natives, but the traveller finds it a continual annoyance. The scale of distances is something like this: On level ground, one statute mile is called two li; on ordinary hill roads, not very steep, one mile is called five li; on very steep roads, one mile is called fifteen li. The natives of Yunnan, being good mountaineers, have a tendency to underrate the distance on level ground, but there is so little of it in their country, that the future traveller need scarcely trouble himself with the consideration. It will be sufficient to assume five local li, except in very steep places, as being one mile." In Mr. Little's "Through the Yang-tse Gorges," he mentions a stage which down the river was called ninety li, while up-stream it was 120 li. He estimates 3.62 li to a statute mile, or 250 to a degree of latitude.