Popular Science Monthly/Volume 79/October 1911/The Race Fiber of the Chinese

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1538834Popular Science Monthly Volume 79 October 1911 — The Race Fiber of the Chinese1911Edward Alsworth Ross




OUT of ten children born among us three, normally the weakest three, will fail to grow up. Out of ten children born in China these weakest three will die and probably five more besides. The difference is owing to the hardships that infant life meets with among the Chinese. If at birth the white infants and the yellow infants are equal in stamina, the two surviving Chinese ought to possess greater vitality of constitution than the seven surviving whites. For of these seven the five that would infallibly have perished under oriental conditions of life are presumably weaker in constitution than the two who could have endured even such conditions. The two Chinese survivors will transmit some of their superior vitality to their offspring; and these in turn will be subject to the same sifting and the surviving two tenths will pass on to their children a still greater vitality. So that these divergent child mortalities drive, as it were, a wedge between the physiques of the two races. If, now, for generations we whites, owing to room and plenty and scientific medicine and knowledge of hygiene have been subject to a less searching and relentless elimination of the weaker than the Chinese, it would be reasonable to expect the Chinese to exhibit a greater vitality than the whites.

With a view to ascertaining whether the marked slackening in our struggle for life during the last century or two and our greater skill in keeping people alive has produced noticeable effects on our physique, I closely questioned thirty-three physicians practising in various parts of China, usually at mission hospitals.

Of these physicians, only one, a very intelligent German doctor at Tsing tao, had noticed no point of superiority in his Chinese patients. He declared them less enduring of injury, less responsive to treatment and no more enduring of pain than the simple and hardy peasants of Thuringia amongst whom he had formerly practised. Three other physicians, each of whom had practised a quarter century or more in China, had observed no difference in the physical reactions of the two races. I fancy their recollections of their brief student practise at home had so faded with time that they lacked one of the terms of the comparison. Moreover, two of these admitted under questioning that the Chinese do stand high fevers remarkably well and that they do recover from blood poisoning when a white man would die.

The remaining twenty-nine physicians were positive that the Chinese physique evinces some superiority or other over that of their home people. As regards surgical cases, the general opinion is voiced by one English surgeon, who said, "They do pull through jolly well!" It was commonly observed that surgical shock is rare, and that the proportion of recoveries from serious cuttings is as high in the little poorly equipped, semi-aseptic mission hospitals of China as in the perfectly appointed, aseptic hospitals at home. Dr. Kinnear, of Foochow, recently home from a furlough in Germany, found that in treating phlegma of the hand he with his poor equipment and native assistants gets as good results as the great von Bergman working under ideal conditions on the artisan population of Berlin. The opinion prevails that under equal conditions the Chinese will make a surer and quicker recovery from a major operation than the white.

Many never get over being astonished at the recovery of the Chinese from terrible injuries. I was told of a coolie who had his abdomen torn open in an accident, and who was assisted to a hospital supported by a man on either side and holding his bowels in his hands. He was sewed up and in spite of the contamination that must have gotten into the abdomen, made a quick recovery. Amazing also is the response to the treatment of neglected wounds. A boy whose severed fingers had been hastily stuck on any how and bound up with dirty rags came to the hospital after a week with a horrible hand and showing clear symptoms of lockjaw. They washed his hand and sent him home to die. In three days he was about without a sign of lockjaw. A man whose fingers had been crushed under a cart some days before came in with blood poisoning all up his arm and in the glands under the arm. The trouble vanished under simple treatment. A patient will be brought in with a high fever from a wound of several days standing full of maggots; yet after the wound is cleaned the fever quickly subsides. A woman who had undergone a serious operation for cancer of the breast suffered infection and had a fever of 106°, during which her husband fed her with hard water chestnuts. Nevertheless, she recovered.

Nearly all are struck by the resistance of the Chinese to blood poisoning. From my note books I gather such expressions as "Blood poisoning very rare. More resistant than we are to septicæmia." "Relative immunity to pus-producing germs." "More resistant to gangrene than we are. Injuries which at home would cause serious gangrene do not do so here." "Peculiarly resistant to infection." "With badly gangrened wounds in the extremities show very little fever and quickly get well." "Women withstand septicæmia in maternity cases wonderfully well, recovering after the doctors have given them up." "Recover from septicæmia after a week of high fever that would kill a white man." No wonder there is a saying rife among the foreign doctors, "Don't give up a Chinaman till he's dead."

In the south where foot binding is not prevalent the women bear their children very easily, with little outcry, and are expected to be up in a day or two. Dr. Swan, of Canton, testifies that more than once on calling for a sampan to take him across the river he has been asked to wait a quarter or a half hour. By that time the mistress of the boat would have given birth to the child, laid it in a corner among some rags and be ready to row him across. In childbirth the woman attended by a dirty old mid-wife in a filthy hovel escapes puerperal fever under conditions that would certainly kill a white woman. In cases of difficult birth when after a couple of days the white physician, is called in and removes the dead infant, the woman has some fever but soon recovers. The women, moreover, are remarkably free from displacements and other troubles peculiar to the sex.

Living in a super-saturated, man-stifled land, profoundly ignorant of the principles of hygiene, the masses have developed an immunity to noxious microbes which excites the wonder and envy of the foreigner. They are not affected by a mosquito bite that will raise a large lump on the lately come foreigner. They can use contaminated water from canals without incurring dysentery. There is very little typhoid and what there is is so attenuated that it was long doubted to be typhoid. The fact was settled affirmatively only by laboratory tests. All physicians agree that among the Chinese smallpox is a mild disease. One likened it to the mumps. Organic heart trouble, usually the result of rheumatic faver, is declared to be very rare.

It is universally remarked that in taking chloroform the Chinese rarely pass through an excited stage, but go off very quietly. From after nausea they are almost wholly free. One physician of twenty-five years' practise has never had a death from chloroform, although he has not administered ether half a dozen times. The fact is, however, they stolidly endure operations which we would never perform without an anesthetic. Small tumors are usually thus removed and in extracting teeth gas is never administered. Sometimes extensive cutting—e. g., the removal of a tumor reaching down into and involving the excision of the decayed end of a rib—is borne without flinching. Only three physicians interviewed had failed to remark the insensibility of their patients to pain. Here, perhaps, is the reason why no people in the world have used torture so freely as the Chinese. This bluntness of nerve, however, does not appear to be universal. The scholars, who usually neglect to balance their intense brain work with due physical exercise, are not stoical. The meat-eating and wine-bibbing classes lack the insensibility of the vegetarian, non-alcoholic masses. The self-indulgent gentry who shun all activity, bodily or mental, and give themselves up to sensual gratification, are very sensitive to pain and very fearful of it. Some make the point, therefore, that the oft-noted dulness of sensibility is not a race trait, but a consequence of the involuntary simplicity and temperateness of life of the common Chinese.

One doctor remarks that at home it is the regular thing for a nervous chill to follow the passing of a sound into the bladder, whereas among his patients it seldom occurs. Another comments on the rarity of neurasthenia and nervous dyspepsia. The chief of the army medical staff points out that during the autumn maneuvers the soldiers sleep on damp ground with a little straw under them without any ill effects. I have seen coolies after two hours of burden-bearing at a dog trot shovel themselves full of hot rice with scarcely any mastication, and hurry on for another two hours. A white man would have writhed with indigestion. The Chinese seem able to sleep in any position. I have seen them sleeping on piles of bricks, or stones, or poles, with a block or a brick for a pillow and with the hot sun shining full into the face. They stand a cramped position longer than we can and can keep on longer at monotonous toil unrelieved by change or break.

But there is another side to the comparison. There is little pneumonia among the Chinese but they stand it no better than we do, some say not so well. There is much malarial fever and it goes hard with them. In Hong Kong they seem to succumb to the plague more readily than the foreigners. Among children there is heavy mortality from measles and scarlet fever. In withstanding tuberculosis they have no advantage over us. While they make wonderful recoveries from high fevers they are not enduring of long fevers. Some think this is because the flame of their vitality has been turned low by unsanitary living. They have a horror of fresh air and shut it out of the sleeping apartment, even on a warm night. In the mission schools, if the teachers insist on open windows in the dormitory, the pupils stifle under the covers lest the evil spirits flying about at night should get at them. The Chinese grant that hygiene may be all very well for these weakly foreigners, but see no use in it for themselves. It is no wonder, therefore, that their school girls can not stand the pace of American school girls. Often they break down, or go into a decline or have to take a long rest. In the English mission schools with their easier pace the girls get on better.

Here and there a doctor ascribes the extraordinary power of resistance and recuperation shown by his patients entirely to their diet and manner of life and denies any superior vitality in the race. Other doctors practising among the city Chinese insist that the stamina of the masses is undermined by wretched living conditions, but that under equal circumstances the yellow man has a firmer hold on life than the white man.

From the testimony it is safe to conclude that at least a part of the observed toughness of the Chinese is attributable to a special race vitality which they have acquired in the course of a longer and severer elimination of the less fit than our North-European ancestors ever experienced in their civilized state. Such selection has tended to foster not so much bodily strength or energy as recuperative power, resistance to infection and tolerance of unwholesome conditions of living. For many centuries the people of south and central China, crowded together in their villages or walled cities, have used water from contaminated canals or from the drainings of the rice fields, eaten of the scavenging pig or of vegetables stimulated by the contents of the cesspool, huddled under low roofs, on dirt floors, in filthy lanes, and slept in fetid dens and stifling cubicles. Myriads succumb to the poisons generated by overcrowding and hardly a quarter of those born live to transmit their immunity to their children. The surviving fittest has been the type able to withstand foul air, stench, fatigue toxin, dampness, bad food and noxious germs. I have no doubt that if an American population of equal size lived in Amoy or Soochow as the Chinese there live, a quarter would be dead by the end of the first summer. But the toughening takes place to the detriment of bodily growth and strength. Chinese children are small for their age. At birth the infants are no stronger than ours. The weaker are more thoroughly weeded out, but even the surviving remnant are for a time weakened by the hardships that have killed the rest.

I would not identify the great vitality of the Chinese with the primitive vitality you find in Bedouins, or Sea Dyaks, or American Indians. This early endowment consists in unusual muscular strength and endurance, in normality of bodily functions, and in power to bear hardship and exposure. It does not extend to immunity from disease. Subjected to the conditions the civilized man lives under savages die off like flies. The diseases that the colonizing European communicates to nature men clears them away more swiftly than his gunpowder. Entrance upon the civilized state entails a universal exchange of disease germs and the necessary growth of immunity. Now, it is precisely in his power to withstand the poisons with which close-dwellers infect one another that the Chinaman is unique. This power does not seem to be a heritage from his nomad life of five or six thousand years ago. It is rather the painful acquisition of a later social phase. It could have grown up only in congested cities, or under an agriculture that contaminates every growing plant, converts every stream into an open sewer, and fills the land with mosquito-breeding rice fields. Such toleration of pathogenic microbes has, perhaps, never before been developed and it certainly will never be developed again. Now that man knows how to clear away from his path these invisible enemies, he will never consent to buy immunity at the old cruel price.

To the west the toughness of the Chinese physique may have a sinister military significance. Nobody fears lest in a stand-up fight Chinese troops could whip an equal number of well-conditioned white troops. But few battles are fought by men fresh from tent and mess. In the course of a prolonged campaign involving irregular provisioning, bad drinking water, lying out, loss of sleep, exhausting marches, exposure, excitement and anxiety, it may be that the white soldiers would be worn down worse than the yellow soldiers. In that case the hardier men with less of the martial spirit might in the closing grapple beat the better fighters with the less endurance.

In view of what has been shown the competition of white laborers and yellow is not so simple a test of human worth as some may imagine. Under good conditions the white man can best the yellow man in turning off work. But under bad conditions the yellow man can best the white man, because he can better endure spoiled food, poor clothing, foul air, noise, heat, dirt, discomfort and microbes. Reilly can outdo Ah San, but Ah San can underlive Reilly. Ah San can not take away Reilly's job as being a better workman; but, because he can live and do some work at a wage on which Reilly can not keep himself fit to work at all, three or four Ah Sans can take Reilly's job from him. And they will do it too, unless they are barred out of the market where Reilly is selling his labor. Reilly's endeavor to exclude Ah San from his labor market is not the case of a man dreading to pit himself on equal terms against a better man. Indeed, it is not quite so simple and selfish and narrow-minded as all that. It is a case of a man fitted to get the most out of good conditions refusing to yield his place to a weaker man able to withstand bad conditions.

Of course, with the coming in of western sanitation, the terrible selective process by which Chinese toughness has been built up will come to an end, and this property will gradually fade out of the race physique. But for our time at least it is a serious and pregnant fact. It will take some generations of exposure to the relaxing effects of drains, ventilation, doctors, district nurses, food inspectors, pure water, open spaces and out-of-door sports to eradicate the peculiar vitality which the yellow race has acquired. During the interim the chief effect of freely admitting coolies to the labor markets of the west would be the substitution of low wages, bad living conditions and the increase of the yellow race for high wages, good living conditions and the increase of the white race.