Littell's Living Age/Volume 139/Issue 1790/The Chinese as Colonists

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From The Nineteenth Century.


The Chinese are, by common consent of all Western nations, pronounced to be an eccentric and impracticable race. And not without reason; for, in nearly every characteristic which marks a people, they seem to be hopelessly antagonistic to nations occupying the western hemisphere, and usually included in the conventional term "civilized." Oil and water would seem to be scarcely less reconcilable to each other than is the Chinaman to the European or American; and the greater the opportunities of intercommunication the less they appear likely to harmonize. Yet the Chinese do not, like most dark-skinned races, flinch or degenerate in the contact. On the contrary; homogeneous, sturdy, clannish, and enterprising, they not only hold their own, hand to hand and foot to foot, with more favored races, but compete with them successfully upon Chinese soil, and bid fair to wrest from them the prizes of art, labor, and commerce even in their own territories. As a natural result, Chinese immigration has become a red rag to Australians and Americans alike, and the question of putting a decided stop to it, or so dealing with it as to keep it within manageable bounds, forces itself with daily increasing weight upon the attention of the several administrations concerned.

Summarize the charges brought against Chinese immigrants by those most nearly interested, namely, British colonist and United States citizen, and these may be stated as follows: They are pronounced to be the scum of the population of the worst districts of China; they migrate without their families, and the few women they import are shipped under a system of slavery for the vilest purposes; they introduce their own bizarre habits and ideas, and studiously eschew all sociability with colonists of other races; they outrage public opinion by hideous immoralities; they ignore or defy judicial and municipal institutions; they form secret and treasonable associations amongst themselves; they manage to afford, by their low, miserable style of living, to undersell and underwork white men as mechanics, laborers, and servants; they fail to take root in the soil, making it their aim always to carry home their gains to the old country, and even to have their bones conveyed back thither for interment; in a word, so far from seeking to become colonists or citizens in the true sense of the terms, and striving to enrich or benefit the country of their temporary adoption, they are mere vagrants and adventurers, and that of a kind positively hurtful to the general welfare and progress.

Some of these accusations are serious enough, and the remainder of the traits ascribed derive an importance which they would not otherwise possess from mere association with a race which has unfortunately rendered itself obnoxious. The object of this paper is to inquire how far the generally received opinion is to be accepted as correct, and whether any, and, if so, what, steps can be taken to remove or modify any difficulties which may actually lie in the way of acclimatizing (so to speak) the Chinese upon a foreign soil with advantage to themselves and to those amongst whom they settle. It will be presumed, as a matter of course, that the Chinaman has as much right to emigrate, and claim for his motto the maxim "Live and let live," as any other denizen of this earth's surface. Any one thinking otherwise must seek elsewhere than in this paper for a refutation of his dog-in-the-manger doctrine.

In dealing with the charges brought against the Chinese immigrant it would seem only necessary to give attention to the more material ones of vagrancy, immorality and insubordination. As regards those other traits which derive their importance from association rather than, from any inherently objectionable features, it will suffice if their influence be not lost sight of when the question of remedial measures comes to be considered. If clannishness, patriotism, persistence in the habits and ideas to which one has been brought up, frugality, the desire to acquire money in order to lay it out at home, and a settled determination to lay one's bones on native soil, can be characterized as crimes or objectionable traits, then many are the Englishmen, Scotchmen, Irishmen, and Americans, who cannot afford to throw stones at the "heathen Chinee."

First, as regards the character of vagrancy ascribed to the Chinese immigrants as a class. This is to a certain extent merited, and it is a difficulty which, for some time to come at any rate, must beset the question more or less, seeing that it is of necessity chiefly the poor and wretched, who, finding existence at home impossible or intolerable, seek to better themselves by going abroad. But it is by no means the fact that it is solely the scum of the Chinese population who emigrate. It depends much upon the part of country from which they may hail. The chief, indeed the only, provinces whose populations have thus far shown a tendency to overflow seaward, are those of Canton, Fukien, and Chekeang, and the principal points of embarkation are (commencing from the west and going northward and eastward) Haenan, Canton and Macao, Swatow and Chaochow, Amoy, Chinchew, and, to a limited extent, Wenchow and Ningpo. The Haenan people make their way principally to the Straits of Malacca and that neighborhood, where they find ready and useful occupation as domestic servants. The province of Canton and some of its conterminous districts are drained through Canton and Macao, whence a vast number of mechanics and petty tradesmen yearly go southwards to the straits and Australia, and eastwards to California; and these ports have been the chief centres of the abominable traffic in coolies, which, fed as it has been by the refuse of a redundant population, has given to Chinese emigration the low character which is now universally attached to it. Swatow, Amoy, and Chinchew, although likewise outlets of late for coolies, were points of escape for the adventurous Chinaman long before the country was opened up by treaties, or coolie emigration was rendered practicable by the complicity of the foreigner; and it was from these districts principally that in those early times junks carried away the tradesmen, mechanics, agriculturists, fishermen, sailors, and hucksters who had already formed large and thriving communities in Java, Singapore, Malacca, Penang, and a hundred other places in the eastern seas, when English guns first woke up the echoes upon the Chinese coast. Thus tradition and association have alike helped to maintain the character of the emigrants who hailed from these particular districts, and to this day they constitute the most respectable type of the migrating class, and are perhaps as little open to the charge of being the scum of the population as any emigrants in the world. From this it will be seen that whilst the refuse of the Chinese population does to a great extent foul the stream of emigration going on from the Chinese shores, there is nevertheless in it a vast, if not preponderating, element of that class who form the backbone of trade, and have as much interest in leading a quiet, well-ordered life as any colonist who leaves the shores of Great Britain for the purpose of bettering his prospects.

The notable immorality ascribed to the Chinese immigrant comes next to be considered. That the Chinese are without the vices common to mankind, no one can for a moment pretend to maintain; but the question is, are they so specially and hopelessly addicted to the grosser forms of immorality as to render it inexpedient to encourage their introduction amongst Christian peoples? This query may safely be answered in the negative. Morality, although, properly speaking, a virtue hedged about with unmistakable limits, is practically and taking the world as it goes, at best but an elastic term. There is not a single nation, be it ever so Christian and civilized, in which immortality is not indulged in to a greater or less degree, and in which its practice is not tolerated by society so long as it is not obtruded too glaringly upon the public notice. Even religious and highly moral England has much to deprecate in this particular, and, if one may judge by what is to be seen every day in the streets, theatres, refreshment bars and rooms, places of entertainment, and other public resorts in the principal towns, the evil, instead of diminishing, seems to keep pace with the high-pressure rate of advance which marks every phase of life. But China is heathen, and, taking her with this qualification, it may be safely asserted that her people act more strictly up to their limited lights, and that their immoralities are fewer and far less obtruded upon the notice, than is the case in countries which have been vastly more privileged in the way of teaching, examples, and opportunities.

It has been too much the habit with some travellers, newspaper correspondents, and other hasty observers, who have ventured to write about China, to pander to the preconceived notions of their readers by mocking at the pretended mental and moral characteristics of the Chinese, and representing that, with all their loud talking about codes and maxims of renowned sages, they are, practically and without qualification, a dishonest, treacherous, cowardly, cruel, and degraded people. But it is as false as it is unmanly so to picture them. As a matter of fact, and making due allowance for the proportion of evil which must exist in every community, they regard the writings of their sages with all the reverence which we give to Bibles and liturgies in the West, and in the main carry out the excellent principles therein laid down most strictly in their social economy and personal relations. How otherwise could vast communities exist, as they do in China's thousand cities, person and property secure, peace, happiness, and plenty universal, education encouraged, local and general trade flourishing, business contracts sacred, poverty exceptional, and vice only to be found if sought out in its own special haunts? It is true, famine and flood periodically devastate huge tracts of country, rebellion decimates whole provinces from time to time, official rapacity and cruelty find their victims, alas! too frequently; cases of robbery, murder, infanticide, embezzlement, abduction, and other crimes are not uncommon; gambling-houses, brothels, and opium-dens thrive, and are winked at by the executive; and opium-smoking has its votaries in the most respectable family circles. But all these blots and blisters upon society are, in China as elsewhere, exceptions, not the rule; and they are apt to attract the observation of the superficial traveller or bookmaker, while he shuts his eyes to, or purposely ignores, the background of the picture, where may be seen the Chinaman as he is at home, an intelligent, patient, hardworking, frugal, temperate, domestic, peace-loving, and law-abiding creature.

Thus much for the Chinese from a collective point of view. What this paper, however, has more directly to do with is the low character of that portion of the people which emigrate. Here circumstances and associations have to be taken into consideration, and the two facts already noticed — namely, that it is chiefly the poor and wretched who leave the country, and that no respectable females accompany the men — go far to explain how it comes to pass that they appear to be addicted to so many and such serious vices. This tendency, however, seems to have been more markedly observed in the case of those Chinese who have migrated to San Francisco, and to a certain extent also in the Australian communities. It certainly cannot be said to characterize those who have found their way into the Malayan archipelago, owing no doubt to the fact that, finding themselves among kindred dark-skinned races, they have in most cases married, settled down, and become serviceable members of society. Their successful introduction amongst such races would go far to prove, at any rate, that, given the necessary encouragement and protection, as well as reasonable facilities for attaching themselves to the soil, they are capable of becoming as contented and useful workers as they are in their own country.

As regards the insubordination and impatience of restraint ascribed to the Chinese immigrant, there is also something to be said both for and against. A frequent and well-founded occasion for complaint against the Chinese on this score has been their tendency to form secret associations, which, originally constituted in China for political purposes, are apt, when entered into abroad, to degenerate into conspiracies to resist unpopular government measures, or to determine disputes between clans or factions by resort to force. In fact, the instant and implacable severity with which any attempt to form a hoei or secret society in China is met by the executive, however neglectful or venal otherwise, and the comparative immunity from interference which such associations have usually enjoyed elsewhere, except when brought into notoriety by some overt act of resistance to lawful authority, have had the effect of fostering the growth of the evil amongst Chinese communities abroad; and until the same precautions are taken by foreign governments to check the tendency in the bud, as is the practice in China, these societies must always form a hot-bed of intrigue and machination against the public weal. There seems to be but one remedy for the nuisance, and that is to prohibit by the severest penalties the formation by the Chinese of any clubs or associations whatever whose books and proceedings are not open to periodical supervision by the police authorities. Apart from this proneness to club together for defensive purposes, and which may be ascribed to governmental maladministration, rather than to any impatience of restraint inherent in the Chinese character, there is every evidence to show that the Chinaman, in his own country and in his normal condition, is willingly submissive to constituted authority, and gladly accepts its obligations and restraints, so long as his rights as a man and a citizen are not unreasonably entrenched upon. Indeed, instances may be pointed out, all over China, in which large villages, which in Europe would rank as towns, pass a peaceful and unobtrusive existence, free from the supervision of either civil or military officials, and governed solely by a system of "ancients" or elders, by whom every dispute or difficulty is easily adjusted.

Under this category may be ranged another characteristic noticeable in the Chinese immigrant, namely, his contempt for, and resistance to, municipal arrangements for the public good. This is a feature of social economy quite foreign to a Chinaman's ideas of what is necessary or expedient in the general interest. In China, if a charitable or wealthy individual expends his spare funds in a public work, or if the government, or a club, or an association of householders more immediately interested take upon themselves to erect a bridge, pave a roadway, widen a street, improve the drainage, and such like, the general public gratefully accepts the boon, and avail itself of the advantages afforded. But, failing the occurrence of any such fortunate contingency, the Chinaman is content to take matters as he finds them, and never dreams of burdening himself or his neighbors with any obligations beyond what may be needful to keep body and soul together. Such a thing as an association for keeping streets clean and in repair, facilitating traffic, improving the drainage, securing general comfort and health, and otherwise promoting the public welfare, he is not accustomed to, and it is difficult to force upon hrs comprehension. No doubt he carries this prejudice with him into foreign lands, and thinks to live free of such superfluous luxuries, as he does in his own country. But the remedy of this weakness is a mere question of time and effort. It is not so very long since Western people were content to exist amidst surroundings fully as wretched, filthy, and obnoxious as anything now observable in Chinese cities; and the reformation which has since proved possible in their case gives reason to hope that the Chinese are not incapable of a similar regeneration, could similar inducements and opportunities be afforded them. A proof of what is practicable in this respect may at this moment be quoted in the Chinese quarter of the foreign settlement of Shanghai, where the arrangements for the public welfare, supported and aided to a great extent by the Chinese population, would do credit to many a European town.

Assuming the premises above set forth to be sound — namely, that the Chinese as a race are not hopelessly degraded nor insubordinate to reasonable' restraint, that on the contrary they show every evidence, when in their own country, of being an industrious, intelligent, frugal, temperate, peace-loving, and orderly people, and that that portion of them which emigrate do not as a rule come from amongst the dregs of the population — the question very naturally presents itself, how it comes to pass that these people, when they go abroad, become metamorphozed into such vicious, obnoxious members of society as to be positively hurtful to any community amongst whom they settle. The reason is obvious to any one who has studied the Chinese in their own country, and is not inoculated by party or national prejudice. It is that the many commendable traits by which their character is marked have not been sufficiently understood or encouraged, whilst their bad points, developed unfortunately by adventitious and unfavorable circumstances, have not been dealt within the manner best calculated to work an effectual remedy. Misappreciation and mismanagement have in fact been to a great extent, if not altogether, the true source of all our troubles with Chinese immigrants. And how can it be expected to be otherwise, when a government undertakes suddenly to bring within the scope of its legislative enactments tens and hundreds of thousands of an entirely alien race, without having them in anyway represented in the executive, or without taking the precaution to see that some one member of the ruling power, at any rate, is familiar with the language, customs, and habits of thought of the people governed? A move in this direction has fortunately been made of late in Hongkong and Singapore, and with on the whole favorable results, considering the partial nature of the measures adopted. But until this reform was introduced, and as is even now the case in Australia, the West Indian islands and the United States, it may safely be affirmed that there was no one in official circles who comprehended one word of the spoken or written Chinese language, and that the members of the government one and all were utterly ignorant of the peculiarities of the people whom they were set to govern. Here at once would be a fruitful source of mutual misunderstandings between the governing and governed, leading inevitably to exaction and harsh treatment on the one side, and to shrinking, isolation, discontent, and despair on the other.

Happily there seems to be a remedy for this untoward condition of affairs, and one not beyond the reach of accomplishment, if only the proper course be taken to adopt and apply it. Much may be effected in the first place by efforts to improve the type and condition of the Chinese who emigrate, and by encouraging female emigration in the case of those countries where the Chinaman finds himself thrown among peoples of alien race to himself, as, for instance, in the British colonies and western American states. This result can only be attained by international arrangement with the Chinese government, and, more than one Western power being concerned, it would be a happy thing if concerted action could be brought to bear so as to secure unity of purpose in the general interest. The Chinese government, although always intolerant of the efflux of their people from their own dominions, have of late learned to accept the inevitable, and to show an interest in the welfare of their expatriated subjects, as has been evinced by the commission sent a few years ago to South America to inquire into the condition and treatment of their people there, and by their negotiations with more than one foreign government with a view to the legislation of emigration and its conduct upon humane and properly recognized principles. Nothing can have a more mischievous effect than the attempts which have been made both in America and Australia to legislate upon the subject independently of the Chinese government, and to place restrictions upon the influx of Chinese which the utterly opposed to treaty stipulations, and which foreign governments would certainly never tolerate in the case of their own subjects resorting to Chinese territory. Then, again, an entirely different system will need to be introduced in respect to the treatment of the Chinese who settle upon foreign shores. Every administration, within whose jurisdiction Chinese happen to place themselves, should lose no time in supplying itself, as a sine qua non, with respectable interpreters, competent both to speak and write the language — such men, in fact, as those who, under the enlightened policy of the British Foreign Office, have done so much of late years to smooth away the asperities of our relations with China itself — men who, on the one hand, can, by their experience of the Chinese character, pilot the government into a discreet threading of its many intricacies, and on the other, by their familiarity with the language, court the trust and confidence of the people themselves.

Another most effectual method of conciliating the Chinese, and inducing content in their minds whilst under an alien rule, would be to hold out encouragements to individuals from amongst their own number to merit the distinction of taking a part, however limited, in the administration of their affairs. The Chinese are, as has been advanced at the commencement of this paper, an eccentric people. Their mental architecture is so entirely different from that of any other race as to be simply unique, and to attempt to lead them to a result by any other process of thought or argument than that to which they have been accustomed is to court almost certain failure. Hence the wisdom of humoring them to a certain extent; and this is nowhere more necessary than when dealing with them from an administrative point of view. The Dutch, with their usual acuteness, have detected this peculiarity, and met it in Java and their other Eastern possessions by appointing what are called "capitan Cheena" over certain sections of population, a species of small court magistrates, in fact, to whom are relegated all cases, civil and criminal, of a petty nature arising amongst their several districts, and who are responsible to the higher courts for the mode in which these are dealt with. Important cases, as a matter of course, are treated by the Dutch authorities; and a system of appeal, it is presumed, exists, so as to obviate corruption or injustice. The system is found to work well, and the Chinese like it; and example might with advantage be taken from it to introduce something of the same co-ordinate jurisdiction in other foreign states resorted to by Chinese. Could ameliorations of the kind described be once introduced, no long time would elapse before the results would show themselves in the increased attraction to foreign shores and happy settlement there of a people who, if properly understood and dealt with, are certainly capable of proving the most tractable and useful colonists in the world.

But, it may be argued, it does not suffice merely to establish the fact that the Chinaman is capable of becoming a useful colonist if properly understood and discreetly dealt with. There remains yet the difficulty of reconciling the white man to the damaging competition in the labor market to which he is subjected by the presence of the Chinaman, be he ever so quiet, good, and useful. The experience of all modern colonization goes to prove that the white working man cannot and will not tolerate the having to measure himself against colored labor. Not only does it inevitably drive him out of the market, but its mere introduction amongst a community of white men seems to have the direct effect of paralyzing their energies and creating a lower scale of society with which the white working man can have no sympathy, be he ever so poor and starving; and the result is that he either takes his place above the black and employs him to work for him, or he sinks to something below and becomes demoralized and lost.

This may be all very true, but it is open to question whether, as a consequence, the white man possesses the right to exclude the colored man from sharing with him any portion of God's earth, or competing with him in the great struggle for life which is the lot of humanity. A curse of servitude seems indeed to have been placed by an inscrutable Providence upon the colored races, and however philanthropists may claim that the colored man is by nature the equal of the white man, yet there can be no doubt that the time is still far distant when the colored man can fit himself for the equality political and social which theoretically should be his. But the white man may well be content to assert the ascendency which a more advanced state of civilization and intelligence has secured him, and to take the lead politically of his darker brother. There can be no justice in his attempting to appropriate likewise the loaves and fishes that should be common to all, or to grudge to the colored man the fruits of labor earned by the sweat of his own brow. If the interests of the two races clash, or harmony of sentiment and action be found difficult, it is for the government of the country concerned to meet the case by judicious legislation, which shall insure to every class the enjoyment of its reasonable and legitimate rights. For the masses to interfere, and to say, "This or that shall not be so long as it does not suit us," is to throw contempt on all government, and sooner or later to bring about a condition of anarchy dangerous alike to all. The latest accounts from San Francisco report that vast bands of working men have associated themselves by oath to stop the immigration of the Chinese altogether, and, if needs be; to destroy any Pacific mail steamer that attempts to introduce them. But let the case be reversed, and let a Chinese mob attempt such a high-handed measure as against American or other foreigners arriving upon their native shore — an outrage they would be quite capable of if driven thereto in retaliation — and what would be the consequence? Treaty rights would be instantly quoted against the disturbers of the peace, and the "inevitable gunboat" would forthwith appear on the scene to maintain these rights by force of arms. The white man, in fact, considers himself entitled to bring China and her commercial resources under tribute to his untiring enterprise and greed of gain, and the least he can do is to tolerate the admission into his own lands of Chinese whose object in resorting thereto is not so much to acquire wealth as to find bread for their daily needs.

The question very naturally suggests itself, what is then to be the future of the Chinese in Australia and America? It is difficult to make a forecast on this head with any approach to precision in view of the ever-varying phases which mark the political atmosphere in these days. In the United States especially paroxysms of political fever so continually agitate individual states, and even at times the nation at large, that he would be a bold man who would presume to predict what will be the condition of the country or any section of the population a hundred or even fifty years hence. One thing, however, it would seem allowable to assert without risk of mistake. The Chinaman is by tradition and education a monarchist, regarding autocracy as the only reasonable form of government; and he thrives best under its sway, so long as his just rights are respected. For the elective franchise he is entirely unfit, nor would he care for the privilege of exercising it if thrust upon him. After generations of association with white races and experience of the advantages of freedom of thought, the case might be different; but until his nature is materially modified, and the scope of his aims and wants becomes more extended, he progresses more safely led than leading. It follows that, whatever may be the political changes that may transpire in the countries to which Chinamen resort, their condition will be the happiest for themselves and the safest for the country concerned if they are dealt with as a subject people, and, as has already been remarked, as a community possessing abnormal characteristics, and therefore needing otherwise than ordinary treatment.

The preceding remarks represent the opinion of many who have been able to judge of the Chinese merely from observation of them in their own country, and apart from foreign associations and influences. But, as a matter of fact, little or no attention has been given to their condition and character as colonists abroad beyond the one-sided and sweeping condemnation of them which it has been the purpose of this paper to deprecate; and until full information upon these heads can be obtained, it may be to a certain extent unsafe to come to a definite conclusion as to the proper course to be pursued in dealing with the case. A very effective method of acquiring this information, and one that would have a most happy effect in conciliating and satisfying the Chinese immigrants themselves, would be to appoint a public commission of responsible persons, some of whom should speak and write the Chinese language, to visit all the places resorted to by Chinese, and to make it their duty to ascertain from the people themselves what grievances they have to complain of, what difficulties lie in the way of their harmonious incorporation with other colonists, and generally what remedial measures the circumstances of the case demand. Great Britain, as having an important interest in the results of such an inquiry, and as a power which is always found in the van where a policy of progress, enlightenment, and humanity is concerned, might very well take upon herself this duty, and there can be no doubt that she would have the grateful co-operation of the Chinese government and people in the undertaking, as well as the sympathy of other nations interested in the satisfactory solution of the problem. W. H. Medhurst.