Chinese Characteristics (5th edition)/Chapter IV

Chinese Characteristics (5th edition)  (1894)  by Arthur Henderson Smith
Chapter IV: Politeness
Chinese Characteristics - Chapter 4.png

CHAPTER IV.

POLITENESS.

THERE are two quite different aspects in which the politeness of the Chinese, and of Oriental peoples generally, may be viewed—the one of appreciation, the other of criticism. The Anglo-Saxon, as we are fond of reminding ourselves, has, no doubt, many virtues, and among them is to be found a very large percentage of fortiter in re, but a very small percentage of suaviter in modo. When, therefore, we come to the Orient, and find the vast populations of the immense Asiatic continent so greatly our superiors in the art of lubricating the friction which is sure to arise in the intercourse of man with man, we are filled with that admiration which is the tribute of those who cannot do a thing to those who can do it easily and well. The most bigoted critic of the Chinese is forced to admit that they have brought the practice of politeness to a pitch of perfection which is not only unknown in Western lands, but, previous to experience, is unthought of and almost unimaginable.

The rules of ceremony, we are reminded in the Classics, are three hundred, and the rules of behaviour three thousand. Under such a load as this, it would seem unreasonable to hope for the continuance of a race of human beings, but we very soon discover that the Chinese have contrived to make their ceremonies, as they have made their education, an instinct rather than an acquirement. The genius of this people has made the punctilio, which in Occidental lands is relegated to the use of courts and to the intercourse of diplomatic life, a part of the routine of daily contact with others. We do not mean that in their everyday life the Chinese are bound by such an intricate and complex mass of rules as we have mentioned, but that the code, like a set of holiday clothes, is always to be put on when the occasion for it arises, which happens at certain junctures the occurrence of which the Chinese recognise by an unerring instinct. On such occasions, not to know what to do would be for a Chinese as ridiculous as for an educated man in a Western land not to be able to tell, on occasion, how many nine times nine are.

The difficulty of Occidental appreciation of Chinese politeness is that we have in mind such ideas as are embodied in the definition which affirms that "politeness is real kindness kindly expressed." So it may be in the view of a civilisation which has learned to regard the welfare of one as (theoretically) the welfare of all, but in China politeness is nothing of this sort. It is a ritual of technicalities which, like all technicalities, are important, not as the indices of a state of mind or of heart, but as individual parts of a complex whole. The entire theory and practice of the use of honorific terms, so bewildering, not to say maddening, to the Occidental, is simply that these expressions help to keep in view those fixed relations of graduated superiority which are regarded as essential to the conservation of society. They also serve as lubricating fluids to smooth human intercourse. Each antecedent has its consequent, and each consequent its antecedent, and when both antecedent and consequent are in the proper place, everything goes on well. It is like a game of chess in which the first player observes, "I move my insignificant King's pawn two squares." To which his companion responds, "I move my humble King's pawn in the same manner." His antagonist then announces, "I attack your honourable King's pawn with my contemptible King's knight, to his King's bishop's mean third," and so on through the game. The game is not affected by the employment of the adjectives, but just as the chess-player who should be unable to announce his next move would make himself ridiculous by attempting what he does not understand, so the Chinese who should be ignorant of the proper ceremonial reply to any given move is the laughing-stock of every one, because in the case of the Chinese the adjectives are the game itself, and not to know them is to know nothing.

At the same time, the rigidity of Chinese etiquette varies directly as the distance from the centres at which it is most essential, and when one gets among rustics, though there is the same appreciation of its necessity, there is by no means the familiarity with the detailed requirements which is found in an urban population.

But it must at the same time be admitted that there are very few Chinese who do not know the proper thing to be done at a given time, incomparably better than the most cultivated foreigner, who, as compared with them, is a mere infant in arms; generally, unless he has had a long preliminary experience, filled with secret terror lest he should make a wrong move, and thus betray the superficial nature of his knowledge. It is this evident and self-confessed incapacity to comply with the very alphabet of Chinese ceremonial politeness which makes the educated classes of China look with such undisguised (and not unnatural) contempt on the "Barbarians," who do not understand "the round and the square," and who, even when they have been made acquainted with the beauties of the usages of polite life, manifest such disdainful indifference, as well as such invincible ignorance.

Politeness has been likened to an air-cushion. There is nothing in it, but it eases the jolts wonderfully. At the same time it is only fair to add that the politeness which the Chinese exercises to the foreigner (as well as much of that which he displays to his own people) is oftener prompted by a desire to show that he really understands the proper moves to be made, than by a wish to do that which will be agreeable to his guest. He insists on making a fire which you do not want, in order to steep for you a cup of tea which you detest, and in so doing fills your eyes with smoke, and your throat with a sensation of having swallowed a decoction of marshmallows; but the host has at least established the proposition that he knows how a guest ought to be treated, and if the guest is not pleased, so much the worse for the guest. In the same manner the rural host, who thinks it is his duty to have the humble apartment in which you are to be lodged, swept and (figuratively) garnished, postpones this process until you have already arrived, and despite your entreaties to desist he will not, though he put your eyes out by raising the dust of ages. The Book of Rites teaches, perhaps, that a room shall be swept, and swept it shall be, whatever the agonies of the traveller in the process. The same rule holds at feasts, those terrors of the uninitiated (and not seldom of the too initiated), where the zealous host is particular to pile on your plate the things that it is good for you to like, regardless of the fact that you do not want them and cannot swallow a morsel of them. So much the worse for you, he seems to say, but of one thing he is sure, he will not be lacking in his part. No one shall be able to accuse him of not having made the proper moves at the proper times. If the foreigner does not know the game, that is his own affair, not that of the host.

It was upon this principle that a Chinese bride, whose duty it had become to call upon a foreign lady, deliberately turned her back upon the latter, and made her obeisance towards a totally different quarter, to the amazement and annoyance of her hostess. Upon subsequent inquiry it turned out that the bride had performed her prostration to the north because that is the direction of the abode of the Emperor, no attention being paid to the circumstance that the person to whom the bride was supposed to be paying her respects was on the south side of the room. If the foreign lady did not know enough to take her place on the proper side of the room, the bride did not consider that any concern of hers; she, at least, would show that she knew in what direction to knock her head!

Chinese politeness often assumes the shape of a gift. This, as already remarked, gives the recipient "face." There are certain stereotyped forms which such offerings take. One who has much to do with the Chinese will be always liable to deposits of packages, neatly tied up in red paper, containing a mass of greasy cakes which he cannot possibly eat, but which the giver will not take back, even though he is informed by the unwilling recipient (driven to extremities) that he shall be obliged to give them all to some other Chinese.

Chinese politeness by no means forbids one to "look a gift horse in the mouth." One is often asked how much a present cost him, and guests in taking leave of a host or hostess constantly use the formula: "I have made you much trouble; I have forced you to spend a great deal of money!"

A foreigner who had been invited to a wedding, at which bread-cakes are provided in abundance, observed that when the feast was well advanced a tray was produced containing only two or three bread-cakes, which were ostentatiously offered as being hot (if any preferred them so). They were first passed to the foreigner as the guest of honour, who merely declined them with thanks. For some unexplained reason, this seemed to throw a kind of gloom over the proceedings, and the tray was withdrawn without being passed to any one else. It is the custom for each guest at a wedding to contribute a fixed sum towards the expenses of the occasion. It was the usage of this locality to collect these contributions while the guests were still at the table, but as it would not conform to Chinese ideas of propriety to ask a guest for his offering, it was done under the guise of passing him hot biscuit. Every one understood this polite fiction except the ill-informed foreigner, whose refusal rendered it improper for any one else to make his contribution at that time. At a subsequent wedding to which he was invited in the same family, this foreigner was interested in hearing the master of ceremonies, taught by dear experience, remark to the guests with more than Occidental directness, "This is the place for those who have accounts to come in and settle them!"

After all abatements have been made for the tediously minute and often irksome detail of trifles of which Chinese politeness takes account, for all of which it prescribes regulations, it still remains true that we have much to learn from the Chinese in the item of social intercourse. It is quite possible to retain our sincerity without retaining all our brusqueness, and the sturdy independence of the Occident would be all the better for the admixture of a certain amount of Oriental suavity.

There are, however, many Occidentals who could never be brought to look at the matter in this light. An acquaintance of the writer's resided for so many years in Paris that he had unconsciously adopted the manners of that capital. When at length he returned to London, he was in the habit of removing his hat, and making a courteous bow to every friend whom he met. Upon one occasion, one of the latter returned his salutations with the somewhat unsympathetic observation, "See here, old fellow, none of your French monkey tricks here!" Happy the man who is able to combine all that is best in the East and in the West, and who can walk securely along the narrow and often thorny path of the Golden Mean.