Chinese Characteristics (5th edition)/Chapter IX

Chinese Characteristics (5th edition)  (1894)  by Arthur Henderson Smith
Chapter IX: Flexible Inflexibility
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CHAPTER IX.

FLEXIBLE INFLEXIBILITY.

THE first knowledge which we acquire of the Chinese is derived from our servants. Unconsciously to themselves, and not always to our satisfaction, they are our earliest teachers in the native character, and the lessons thus learned we often find it hard to forget. But in proportion as our experience of the Chinese becomes broad, we discover that the conclusions to which we had been insensibly impelled by our dealings with a very narrow circle of servants are strikingly confirmed by our wider knowledge, for there is a sense in which every Chinese may be said to be an epitome of the whole race. The particular characteristic with which we have now to deal, although not satisfactorily described by the paradoxical title which seems to come nearest to an adequate expression, can easily be made intelligible by a very slight description.

Of all the servants employed in a foreign establishment in China, there is no one who so entirely holds the peace of the household in the hollow of his hands, as the cook. His aspect is the personification of deference as he is told by his new mistress what are the methods which she wishes him to employ, and what methods she most emphatically does not wish employed. To all that is laid down as the rule of the establishment he assents with a cordiality which is prepossessing, not to say winning. He is, for example, expressly warned that the late cook had a disagreeable habit of putting the bread into the oven before it was suitably raised, and that as this is one of the details on which a mistress feels bound to insist, he and his mistress parted. To this the candidate responds cheerfully, showing that whatever his other faults may be, obstinacy does not seem to be one of them. He is told that dogs, loafers, and smoking will not be tolerated in the kitchen; to which he replies that he hates dogs, has never learned to smoke, and being a comparative stranger, has but few friends in the city, and none of them are loafers. After these preliminaries his duties begin, and it is but a few days before it is discovered that this cook is a species of "blood brother" of the last one in the item of imperfectly risen bread, that there is an unaccountable number of persons coming to and departing from the kitchen, many of them accompanied by dogs, and that a not very faint odour of stale tobacco is one of the permanent assets of the establishment. The cook cordially admits that the bread is not quite equal to his best, but is sure that it is not due to imperfect kneading. He is particular on that point. The strangers seen in the kitchen are certain " yard brothers" of the coolie, but none of them had dogs, and they are all gone now and will not return—though they are seen again next day. Not one of the servants ever smokes, and the odour must have come over the wall from the establishment of a man whose servants are dreadful smokers. The cook is the personification of reasonableness, but as there is nothing to change he does not know how to change it.

The same state of things holds with the coolie who is set to cut the grass with a foreign sickle, bright and sharp. He receives it with a smile of approval, and is seen later in the day doing the work with a Chinese reaping-machine, which is a bit of old iron about four inches in length, fitted to a short handle. "The old," he seems to say, "is better." The washerman is provided with a foreign washing-machine, which economises time, soap, labour, and, most of all, the clothing to be washed. He is furnished with a patent wringer which requires no strength, and does not damage the fabrics. The washing-machine and the wringer are alike suffered to relapse into "innocuous desuetude," and the washerman continues to scrub and wrench the garments into holes and shreds as in former days. Eternal vigilance is the price at which innovations of this nature are to be defended.

The gardener is told to repair a decayed wall by using some adobe bricks which are already on hand, but he thinks it better to use the branches of trees buried a foot deep in the top of the wall, and accordingly does so, explaining, if he is questioned, the superiority of his method. The messenger who is employed to take an important mail to a place several days' journey distant, receives his packages late in the evening, that he may start the next morning by daylight. The next afternoon he is seen in a neighbouring alley, and on being sent for and asked what he means, he informs us that he was obliged to take a day and wash his stockings! It is the same experience with the carter whom you have hired by the day. He is told to go a particular route, to which, hke all others in the cases supposed, he assents, and takes you by an entirely different one, because he has heard from some passing stranger that the other was not so good. Cooks, coolies, gardeners, carters — all agree in distrusting our judgment, and in placing supreme reliance upon their own.

Phenomena illustrating our subject are constantly observed wherever there is a foreign dispensary and hospital. The patient is examined carefully and prescribed for, receives his medicine in a specified number of doses, with directions thrice repeated to avoid mistakes, as to the manner in which and times at which it is to be taken. Lest he should forget the details, he returns once or twice to make sure, goes home and swallows the doses for two days at a gulp, because the excel lence of the cure must be in the direct ratio of the dose. The most minute and emphatic cautions against disturbing a plaster jacket are not sufficient to prevent its summary removal, because the patient does not wish to become a "turtle," and have a hard shell grow to his skin.

It is not a very comforting reflection, but it is one which seems to be abundantly justified by observation, that the opinion of the most ignorant assistant in a dispensary seems (and therefore is) to the average patient as valuable as that of the physician in charge, though the former may not be able to read a character, does not know the name of a drug or the symptoms of any disease, and though the latter may have been decorated with all the letters in the alphabet of medical titles, and have had a generation of experience. Yet a hint from the gatekeeper or the coolie may be sufficient to secure the complete disregard of the directions of the physician, and the adoption of something certainly foolish, and possibly fatal.

Thus far, we have spoken of instances of inflexibility in which foreigners are concerned, for those are the ones to which our attention is soonest drawn, and which possess for us the most practical interest. But the more our observation is directed to the relations of the Chinese to one another, through which if anywhere their true dispositions are to be manifested, the more we perceive that the state of things indicated by the expressive Chinese phrase "Outwardly is, inwardly is not," is not exceptional. Chinese servants are yielding and complaisant to Chinese masters, as Chinese servants are to foreign masters, but they have no idea of not doing things in their own way, and it is not unhkely that their masters never for a moment suppose that their orders will be literally obeyed. A foreign employer requires his employés to do exactly as they are told, and because they do not do so he is in a state of chronic hostility to some of them. A friend of the writer who had one of that numerous class of servants who combine extreme faithfulness with extreme mulishness—thus making themselves an indispensably necessary nuisance—happily expressed a dilemma into which the masters of such servants are often brought, when he remarked that as regarded that particular "Boy," he was in a condition of chronic indecision, whether to kill him or to raise his wages! The Chinese master knows perfectly well that his commands will be ignored in various ways, but he anticipates this inevitable result as one might set aside a reserve for bad debts, or allow a margin for friction in mechanics.

The same greater or less disregard of orders appears to prevail through all the various ranks of Chinese officials in their relations to one another, up to the very topmost round. There are several motives any one of which may lead to the contravening of instructions, such as personal indolence, a wish to oblige friends, or, most potent of all, the magnetic influence of cash. A district magistrate who lived in a place where the water is brackish, ordered his servant to take a water-cart and draw water from a river several miles distant. The servant did nothing of the kind, but merely went to a village where he knew the water to be sweet, and provided the magistrate with as much as he wanted of this fluid, to the saving of two thirds the distance and to the entire satisfaction of all parties. If the magistrate had known to a certainty that he was disobeyed, it is not probable that he would have uttered a whisper on the subject so long as the water was good. In China "the cat that catches the rat is the good cat." Nothing succeeds like success. The dread of giving offence and the innate Chinese instinct of avoiding a disturbance would prevent misdemeanours of disobedience from being reported, though five hundred people might be in the secret. That was a typical Chinese servant who, having been told to empty the water from a cistern into something which would save it for future use, was found to have poured it all into a well! Thus he contrived to preserve the shell of conformity, with the most absolute negation of any practical result. Dr. Rennie mentions the case of an official at Amoy, who cut in two an Imperial proclamation, posting the last part first, so that it could not easily be read. Such devices are common in matters concerning foreigners, whom mandarins seldom wish to please.

It is easy to see how such a policy of evasion may come into collision with the demands of justice. The magistrate sentences a criminal to wear a heavy wooden collar for a period of two months, except at night, when it is to be removed. By the judicious expenditure of cash "where it will do the most good," this order is only so far carried out that the criminal is decorated with the cangue at such times as the magistrate is making his entrance to and his exit from the yamen. At all other times the criminal is quite free from the obnoxious burden. Does the magistrate not suspect that his sentence will be defeated by bribery, and will he slip out the back way in order to come upon the explicit proof of disobedience? By no means. The magistrate is himself a Chinese, and he knew when the sentence was fixed that it would not be regarded, and with this in mind he made the term twice as long as it might otherwise have been. This seems to be a sample of the intricacies of official intercourse in all departments, as exemplified by what foreigners continually observe. The higher officer orders the lower to see that a certain step is taken. The lower official reports respectfully that it has been done. Meanwhile nothing has been done at all. In many cases this is the end of the matter. But if there is a continued pressure from some quarter, and the orders are urgent, the lower magistrate transmits the pressure to those still lower, and throws the blame upon them, until the momentum of the pressure is exhausted, and then things go on just as they were before. This is called "reform," and is often seen on a great scale, as in the spasmodic suppression of the sale of opium, or of the cultivation of the poppy, with results which are known to all.

There are doubtless those to whom the Chinese seem the most "obstinate" of peoples, and to such the adjective "flexible," which we have employed to characterise the "inflexibility" of the Chinese, will appear singularly inappropriate. Nevertheless, we must repeat the conviction that the Chinese are far from being the most obstinate of peoples, and that they are in fact far less obstinate than the Anglo-Saxons, We call them "flexible" because, with a "firmness" like that of mules, they unite a capacity of bending of which the Anglo-Saxon is frequently destitute.

No better illustration of this talent of the Chinese for "flexibility" can be cited, than their ability to receive gracefully a reproof. Among the Anglo-Saxon race it is a lost art, or rather it is an art that was never discovered. But the Chinese listens patiently, attentively, even cordially, while you are exposing to him his own shortcomings, assents cheerfully, and adds, "I am in fault, I am in fault." Perhaps he even thanks you for your kindness to his unworthy self, and promises that the particulars which you have specified shall be immediately, thoroughly, permanently reformed. These fair promises you well know to be "flowers in the mirror, and the bright moon in the water," but despite their unsubstantial nature, it is impossible not to be mollified therewith, and this, be it noted, is the object for which they were designed.

Few comparisons of the sort hit the mark more exactly than that which likens the Chinese to the bamboo. It is graceful, it is everywhere useful, it is supple, and it is hollow. When the east wind blows it bends to the west. When the west wind blows it bends to the east. When no wind blows it does not bend at all. The bamboo plant is a grass. It is easy to tie knots in grasses. It is difficult, despite its suppleness, to tie knots in the bamboo plant. Nothing in nature is more flexible than a human hair. It can be drawn out a large percentage of its own length, and when the tractile force is withdrawn, it at once contracts. It bends in any direction by its own weight alone. There is a certain growth of hair on many human heads which consists of definite tufts, quite persistent in the direction of their growth, and generally incapable of any modification. Such a growth is vulgarly called a "cow-lick," and as it cannot be controlled, the remaining hairs, however numerous they may be, must be arranged with reference thereto. If the planet on which we dwell be considered as a head, and the several nations as the hair, the Chinese race is a venerable cow-lick, capable of being combed, clipped, and possibly shaved, but which is certain to grow again just as before, and the general direction of which is not likely to be changed.