Chinese Characteristics (5th edition)/Chapter VIII

Chinese Characteristics (5th edition)  (1894)  by Arthur Henderson Smith
Chapter VIII: The Talent for Indirection



ONE of the intellectual habits upon which we Anglo-Saxons pride ourselves most is that of going directly to the marrow of a subject, and when we have reached it saying exactly what we mean. Considerable abatements must no doubt be made in any claim set up for such a habit, when we consider the usages of polite society and those of diplomacy, yet it still remains substantially true that the instinct of rectilinearity is the governing one, albeit considerably modified by special circumstances. No very long acquaintance is required with any Asiatic race, however, to satisfy us that their instincts and ours are by no means the same—in fact, that they are at opposite poles. We shall lay no stress upon the redundancy of honorific terms in all Asiatic languages, some of which in this respect are indefinitely more elaborate than the Chinese. Neither do we emphasise the use of circumlocutions, periphrases, and what may be termed aliases, to express ideas which are perfectly simple, but which no one wishes to express with simplicity. Thus a great variety of terms may be used in Chinese to indicate that a person has died, and not one of the expressions is guilty of the brutality of saying so; nor does the periphrasis depend for its use upon the question whether the person to whom reference is made is an emperor or a coolie, however widely the terms employed may differ in the two cases. Nor are we at present concerned, except in a very general way, with the quality of veracity of language. When every one agrees to use words in "a Pickwickian sense," and every one understands that every one else is doing so, the questions resulting are not those of veracity but of method.

No extended experience of the Chinese is required to enable a foreigner to arrive at the conclusion that it is impossible, from merely hearing what a Chinese says, to tell what he means. This continues to be true, no matter how proficient one may have become in the colloquial—so that he perhaps understands every phrase, and might possibly, if worst came to worst, write down every character which he has heard in a given sentence; and yet he might be unable to decide exactly what the speaker had in mind. The reason of this must of course be that the speaker did not express what he had in mind, but something else more or less cognate to it, from which he wished his meaning or a part of it to be inferred.

Next to a competent knowledge of the Chinese language, large powers of inference are essential to any one who is to deal successfully with the Chinese, and whatever his powers in this direction may be, in many instances he will still go astray, because these powers were not equal to what was required of them. In illustration of this all-pervading phenomenon of Chinese life, let us take as an illustration a case often occurring among those who are the earliest, and often by no means the least important, representatives to us of the whole nation—our servants. One morning the "Boy" puts in an appearance with his usual expressionless visage, merely to mention that one of his "aunts" is ailing, and that he shall be obliged to forego the privilege of doing our work for a few days while he is absent prosecuting his inquiries as to her condition. Now it does not with certainty follow from such a request as this that the "Boy" has no aunt, that she is not sick, and that he has not some more or less remote idea of going to see about her, but it is, to put it mildly, much more probable that the "Boy" and the cook have had some misunderstanding, and that as the prestige of the latter happened in this case to be the greater of the two, his rival takes this oblique method of intimating that he recognises the facts of the case, and retires to give place to another.

The individual who has done you a favour, for which it was impossible to arrange at the time a money payment, politely but firmly declines the gratuity which you think it right to send him in token of your obligation. What he says is that it would violate all the Five Constant Virtues for him to accept anything of you for such an insignificant service, and that you wrong him by offering it, and would disgrace him by insisting on his acceptance of it. What does this mean? It means that his hopes of what you would give him were blighted by the smallness of the amount, and that, like Oliver Twist, he "wants more." And yet it may not mean this after all, but may be an intimation that you do now, or will at some future time, have it in your power to give him something which will be even more desirable, to the acquisition of which the present payment would be a bar, so that he prefers to leave it an open question till such time as his own best move is obvious.

If the Chinese are thus guarded when they speak of their own interests, it follows from the universal dread of giving offence that they will be more cautious about speaking of others, when there is a possibility of trouble arising in consequence. Fond as they are of gossip and all kinds of small-talk, the Chinese distinguish with a ready intuition cases in which it will not do to be too communicative, and under these circumstances, especially where foreigners are concerned, they are the grave of whatever they happen to know. In multitudes of instances the stolid-looking people by whom we are surrounded could give us "points," the possession of which would cause a considerable change in our conduct towards others. But unless they clearly see in what way they are to be benefited by the result, and protected against the risks, the instinct of reticence will prevail, and our friends will maintain an agnostic silence.

Nothing is more amusing than to watch the demeanour of a Chinese who has made up his mind that it is best for him to give an intimation of something unfavourable to some one else. Things must have gone very far indeed when, even under these conditions, the communication is made in plain and unmistakable terms. What is far more likely to occur is the indirect suggestion, by oblique and devious routes, of a something which cannot, which must not be told. Our informant glances uneasily about as though he feared a spy in ambush. He lowers his voice to a mysterious whisper. He holds up three fingers of one hand, to shadow dimly forth the notion that the person about whom he is not speaking, but gesturing, is the third in the family. He makes vague introductory remarks, leading up to a revelation of apparent importance, and just as he gets to the climax of the case he suddenly stops short, suppresses the predicate upon which everything depends, nods significantly, as much as to say, "Now you see it, do you not?" when all the while the poor unenlightened foreigner has seen nothing, except that there is nothing whatever to see. Nor will it be strange if, after working things up to this pitch, your "informant "(falsely so called) leaves you as much in the dark as he found you, intimating that at some other time you will perceive that he is right!

It is a trait which the Chinese share with the rest of the race, to wish to keep back bad news as long as possible, and to communicate it in a disguised shape. But "good form" among Chinese requires this deception to be carried to an extent which certainly seems to us at once surprising and futile. We have known a fond grandmother, having come unexpectedly upon the whispered consultation of two friends, who had arrived expressly to break to her the news of the sad death of a grandchild away from home, to be assured with the emphasis of iteration that they were only discussing a bit of gossip, though within half an hour the whole truth came out. We have known a son, returning to his home after an absence of several months, advised by a friend in the last village at which he called before reaching his home not to stay and see a theatrical exhibition, from which he inferred, and rightly, that his mother was dead! We once had a Chinese letter entrusted to us for transmission to a person at a great distance from home, the contents of the missive being to the effect that during his absence the man's wife had died suddenly, and that the neighbours, finding that no one was at hand to prevent it, had helped themselves to every article in the house, which was literally left unto him desolate. Yet on the exterior of this epistle were inscribed in huge characters the not too accurate words, "A peaceful family letter"!

The Chinese talent for indirection is often exhibited in refraining from the use of numerals where they might reasonably be expected. Thus the five volumes of a book will be labelled Benevolence, Justice, Propriety, Wisdom, Confidence, because this is the invariable order in which the Five Constant Virtues are named. The two score or more volumes of K'ang Hsi's Dictionary are often distinguished, not, as we should anticipate, by the radicals which indicate their contents, but by the twelve "time-cycle characters." At examinations students occupy cells designated by the thousand successive characters of the millenary classic, which has no duplicates.

Another illustration of this subject is found in the oblique terms in which references are made, both by members of her family and others, to married women. Such a woman literally has no name, but only two surnames, her husband's and that of her mother's family. She is spoken of as "the mother of so-and-so." Thus a Chinese with whom you are acquainted, talks of the illness of "the Little Black One his mother." Perhaps you never heard in any way that he had a "Little Black One" in his household, but he takes it for granted that you must know it. If, however, there are no children, then the matter is more embarrassing. Perhaps the woman is called the "Aunt" of a "Little Black One," or by some other periphrasis. Elderly married women have no hesitation in speaking of their "Outside," meaning the one who has the care of things out of the house; but a young married woman not blessed with children is sometimes put to hard straits in the attempt to refer to her husband without intimating the connection in words. Sometimes she calls him her "Teacher," and in one case of which we have heard she was driven to the desperate expedient of dubbing her husband by the name of his business—"Oilmill says thus and so!"

A celebrated Chinese general, on his way to the war, bowed low to some frogs in a marsh which he passed, wishing his soldiers to understand that valour like that of these reptiles is admirable. To an average Occidental it might appear that this general demanded of his troop somewhat "large powers of inference," but not greater, perhaps, than will be called for by the foreigner whose lot is cast in China. About the time of a Chinese New-Year when the annual debt-paying season had arrived, an acquaintance, upon meeting the writer, made certain gestures which seemed to have a deep significance. He pointed his finger at the sky, then at the ground, then at the person whom he was addressing, and last at himself, all without speaking a word. There was certainly no excuse for misapprehending this proposition, though we are ashamed to say that we failed to take it in at its full value. He thought that there would be no difficulty in one's inferring from his pantomime that he wished to borrow a little money, and that he wished to do it so secretly that only "Heaven," "Earth," "You," and "I" would know! The phrase "eating [gluttony], drinking [of wine], lust, and gambling" denotes the four most common vices, to which is now added opium smoking. A speaker
Chinese Characteristics - Chinese Card Players.jpg

Chinese Card Players.

sometimes holds up the fingers of one hand and remarks, "He absorbed them all," meaning that some one was guilty in all these ways.

It is an example of the Chinese talent for indirection, that owing to their complex ceremonial code one is able to show great disrespect for another by methods which to us seem preposterously oblique. The manner of folding a letter, for example, may embody a studied affront. The omission to raise a Chinese character above the line of other characters may be a greater indignity than it would be in English to spell the name of a person without capital letters. In social intercourse rudeness may be offered without the utterance of a word to which exception could be taken, as by not meeting an entering guest at the proper point, or by neglecting to escort him the distance suited to his condition. The omission of any one of a multitude of simple acts may convey a thinly disguised insult, instantly recognised as such by a Chinese, though the poor untutored foreigner has been thus victimised times without number, and never even knew that he had not been treated with distinguished respect! All Chinese revile one another when angry, but those whose literary talents are adequate to the task delight to convey an abusive meaning by such delicate innuendo that the real meaning may for the time quite escape observation, requiring to be digested like the nauseous core of a sugar-coated pill. Thus, the phrase tung-hsi— literally "east-west"—means a thing, and to call a person "a thing" is abusive. But the same idea is conveyed by indirection, by saying that one is not "north-south," which implies that he is "east-west," that is, "a thing"!

Every one must have been struck by the wonderful fertility of even the most illiterate Chinese in the impromptu invention of plausible excuses, each one of which is in warp and woof fictitious. No one but a foreigner ever thinks of taking them seriously, or as any other than suitable devices by which to keep one's "face." And even the too critical foreigner requires no common ability to pursue, now in air, now in water, and now in the mud, those to whom most rigid economy of the truth has become a fixed habit. And when driven to close quarters, the most ignorant Chinese has one firm and sure defence which never fails, he can fall back on his ignorance in full assurance of escape. He "did not know," he "did not understand," twin propositions, which, like charity, cover a multitude of sins.

No more fruitful illustration of our theme could be found than that exhibited in the daily issues of the Peking Gazette. Nowhere is the habit of what, in classical language, is styled "pointing at a deer and calling it a horse" carried to a higher pitch, and conducted on a more generous scale. Nowhere is it more true, even in China, that "things are not what they seem," than in this marvellous lens, which, semi-opaque though it be, lets in more light on the real nature of the Chinese government than all other windows combined. If it is a general truth that a Chinese would be more likely than not to give some other than the real reason for anything, and that nothing requires more skill than to guess what is meant by what is said, this nowhere finds more perfect exemplification than in Chinese official life, where formality and artificiality are at their maximum. When a whole column of the "leading journal" of China is taken up with a description of the various aches and pains of some aged mandarin who hungers and thirsts to retire from His Majesty's service, what does it all mean? When his urgent prayer to be relieved is refused, and he is told to go back to his post at once, what does that mean? What do the long memorials reporting as to matters of fact really connote? When a high official accused of some flagrant crime is ascertained—as per memorial printed—to be innocent, but guilty of something else three shades less blame-worthy, does it mean that the writer of the memorial was not influenced to a sufficient extent, or has the official in question really done those particular things? Who can decide?

Firmly are we persuaded that the individual who can peruse a copy of the Peking Gazette and, while reading each document, can form an approximately correct notion as to what is really behind it, knows more of China than can be learned from all the works on this Empire that ever were written. But is there not reason to fear that by the time any outside barbarian shall have reached such a pitch of comprehension of China as this implies, we shall be as much at a loss to know what he meant by what he said, as if he were really Chinese?