Chinese Characteristics (5th edition)/Chapter X

Chinese Characteristics (5th edition)  (1894)  by Arthur Henderson Smith
Chapter X: Intellectual Turbidity
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IN speaking of "intellectual turbidity" as a Chinese characteristic, we do not wish to be understood as affirming it to be a peculiarity of the Chinese, or that all Chinese possess it. Taken as a whole, the Chinese people seem abundantly able to hold their own with any race now extant, and they certainly exhibit no weakness of the intellectual powers, nor any tendency to such a weakness. At the same time it must be borne in mind that education in China is restricted to a very narrow circle, and that those who are but imperfectly educated, or who are not educated at all, enjoy in the structure of the Chinese language what is called by the lawyers an "accessory before the fact" to any most flagrant intellectual turbidity of which they may be disposed to be guilty.

Chinese nouns, as is by this time known to several, appear to be indeclinable. They are quite free from "gender" and "case." Chinese adjectives have no degrees of comparison. Chinese verbs are not hampered by any "voice," "mode," "tense," "number," or "person." There is no recognisable distinction between nouns, adjectives, and verbs, for any character may be used indiscriminately in either capacity (or incapacity), and no questions asked. We are not about to complain that the Chinese language cannot be made to convey human thought, nor that there are wide ranges of human thought which it is difficult or impossible to render intelligible in the Chinese language (though this appears to be a truth), but only to insist that such a language, so constructed, invites to "intellectual turbidity" as the incandescent heats of summer gently woo to afternoon repose.

Nothing is more common in conversation with an unedu- cated Chinese than to experience extreme difficulty in ascer- taining what he is talking about. At times his remarks appear to consist exclusively of predicates, which are woven together in an intricate manner, the whole mass seeming, like Moham- med's coffin, to hang in the air, attached to nothing whatever. To the mind of the speaker, the omission of a nominative is a point of no consequence. He knows what he is talking about, and it never occurs to him that this somewhat important item of information is not conveyed to the mind of his auditor by any kind of intuition. It is remarkable what expert guessers long practice has made most Chinese, in reading a meaning into words which do not convey it, by the simple practice of supplying subjects or predicates as they happen to be lacking. It is often the most important word in the whole sentence which is suppressed, the clue to which may be entirely un- known. There is very frequently nothing in the form of the sentences, the manner of the speaker, his tone of voice, nor in any concomitant circumstance, to indicate that the subject has changed, and yet one suddenly discovers that the speaker is not now speaking of himself as he was a moment ago, but of his grandfather, who lived in the days of Tao Kuang. How the speaker got there, and also how he got back again, often remains an insoluble mystery, but we see the feat accom- plished every day. To a Chinese there is nothing more re- markable in a sudden, invisible leap, without previous notice, from one topic, one person, one century to another, than in the ability of a man who is watching an insect on the window- pane to observe at the same time and without in the least de- flecting his eyes, a herd of cattle situated in the same line of vision on a distant hill.

The fact that Chinese verbs have no tenses, and that there is nothing to mark transitions of time, or indeed of place, does not tend to clarify one's perceptions of the inherently turbid. Under such circumstances the best the poor foreigner can do, who wishes to keep up the appearance at least of following in the train of the vanished thought, is to begin a series of cate- chetical inquiries, like a frontier hunter "blazing" his way through a pathless forest with a hatchet. "Who was this person that you are talking about now?" This being ascer- tained, it is possible to proceed to inquire, "Where was this?" "When was it?" "What was it that this man did?" "What was it that they did about it?" "What happened then?" At each of these questions your Chinese friend gazes at you with a bewildered and perhaps an appealing look, as if in doubt whether you have not parted with all your five senses. But a persistent pursuit of this silken thread of categorical inquiry will make it the clue of Ariadne in delivering one from many a hopeless labyrinth.

To the uneducated Chinese any idea whatever comes as a surprise, for which it is by no means certain that he will not be totally unprepared. He does not understand, because he does not expect to understand, and it takes him an appreciable time to get such intellectual forces as he has into a position to be used at all. His mind is like a rusty old smooth-bore cannon mounted on a decrepit carriage, which requires much hauling about before it can be pointed at anything, and then it is sure to miss fire. Thus when a person is asked a simple question, such as "How old are you?" he gazes vacantly at the questioner, and asks in return, "I?" To which you re- spond, " Yes, you." To this he replies with a summoning up of his mental energies for the shock, "How old?" "Yes, how old?" Once more adjusting the focus, he inquires, "How old am I?" "Yes," you say, "how old are you?" "Fifty-eight," he replies, with accuracy of aim, his piece being now in working order.

A prominent example of intellectual turbidity is the prevalent habit of announcing as a reason for a fact, the fact itself. "Why do you not put salt into bread-cakes?" you ask of a Chinese cook. "We do not put salt into bread-cakes," is the explanation. "How is it that with so much and such beautiful ice in your city none of it is stored up for winter?" "No, we do not store up ice for winter in our city." If the Latin poet who observed, "Happy is he who is able to know the reasons of things," had lived in China, he might have modified his dictum so as to read, "Unhappy is the man who essays to find out the reasons of things."

Another mark of intellectual torpor is the inability of an ordinary mind to entertain an idea, and then pass it on to another in its original shape. To tell A something which he is to tell B, in order that C may govern his actions thereby, is in China one of the most fatuous of undertakings. Either the message will never be delivered at all, because the parties concerned did not understand that it was of importance, or it reaches C in such a shape that he cannot comprehend it, or in a form totally at variance with its original. To suppose that three cogs in so complicated a piece of machinery are capable of playing into each other without such friction as to stop the works, is to entertain a very wild hope. Even minds of considerable intelligence find it hard to take in and then give out an idea without addition or diminution, just as clear water is certain to refract the image of a straight stick as if it were a broken one.

Illustrations of these peculiarities will meet the observant foreigner at every turn. "Why did he do so?" you inquire in regard to some preposterous act. "Yes," is the compendious reply. There is a certain numeral word in constant use, which is an aggravating accessory to vague replies. It sig- nifies both interrogatively, "How many?" and affirmatively, "Several." "How many days have you been here?" you ask. "Yes, I have been here several days," is the reply. Of all the ambiguous words in the Chinese language, probably the most ambiguous is the personal (or impersonal) pronoun t'a, which signifies promiscuously "he," "she," or "it." Some- times the speaker designates the subject of his remarks by vaguely waving his thumb in the direction of the subject's home, or towards the point where he was last heard of. But more frequently the single syllable t'a is considered wholly sufficient as a relative, as a demonstrative pronoun, and as a specifying adjective. Under these circumstances, the talk of a Chinese will be like the testimony of a witness in an English court, who described a fight in the following terms: "He'd a stick, and he'd a stick, and he w'acked he, and he w'acked he, and if he'd a w'acked he as hard as he w'acked he, he'd a killed he, and not he he."

"Why did you not come when you were called?" you venture to inquire of a particularly negligent servant. "Not on account of any reason," he answers, with what appears to be frank precision. The same state of mental confusion leads to a great variety of acts, often embarrassing, and to a well- ordered Occidental intellect always irritating. The cook makes it a matter of routine practice to use up the last of whatever there may be in his charge, and then serves the next meal minus some invariable concomitant. When asked what he means by it, he answers ingenuously that there was no more. "Then why did you not ask for more in time?" "I did not ask for any more," is his satisfactory explanation. The man to whom you have paid a sum of cash in settlement of his account, going to the trouble of unlocking your safe and making change with scrupulous care, sits talking for "an old half-day" on miscellaneous subjects, and then remarks with nonchalance, "I have still another account besides this one." "But why did you not tell me when I had the safe open, so that I could do it all at once?" "Oh, I thought that account and this one had nothing to do with each other!" In the same way a patient in a dispensary who has taken a liberal allowance of the time of the physician, retires to the waiting-room, and when the door is next opened advances to re-enter. Upon being told that his case has been disposed of, he observes, with delightful simplicity, "But I have got another different disease besides that one!"

An example of what seems to us immeasurable folly, is the common Chinese habit of postponing the treatment of diseases because the patient happens to be busy, or because the remedy would cost something. It is often considered cheaper to undergo severe and repeated attacks of intermittent fever, than to pay ten cash—about one cent—for a dose of quinia, morally certain to cure. We have seen countless cases of the gravest diseases sometimes nourished to the point where they became fatal simply to save time, when they might have been cured gratuitously.

A man living about half a mile from a foreign hospital, while away from home contracted some eye trouble, and waited in agony for more than two weeks after his return before coming for treatment, hoping each day that the pain would stop, instead of which, one eye was totally destroyed by a corneal ulcer.

Another patient, who had been under daily treatment for a deeply ulcerated neck, mentioned on the eighteenth day that his leg prevented his sleeping. Upon examination he was found to have there another ulcer about the size and depth of a teacup! When his neck was well he was intending to speak about his leg!

Many such phenomena of Chinese life may serve to remind one of a remark in one of the novels of Charles Reade, that "Mankind are not lacking in intelligence, but they have one intellectual defect—they are Muddleheads!"

A Chinese education by no means fits its possessors to grasp a subject in a comprehensive and practical manner. It is popularly supposed in Western lands that there are certain preachers of whom it can be truthfully affirmed that if their text had the smallpox, the sermon would not catch it. The same phenomenon is found among the Chinese in forms of peculiar flagrance. Chinese dogs do not as a rule take kindly to the pursuit of wolves, and when a dog is seen running after a wolf it is not unlikely that the dog and the wolf will be moving, if not in opposite directions, at least at right angles to each other. Not without resemblance to this oblique chase, is the pursuit by a Chinese speaker of a perpetually retreating subject. He scents it often, and now and then he seems to be on the point of overtaking it, but he retires at length, much wearied, without having come across it in any part of his course.

China is the land of sharp contrasts, the very rich and the wretchedly poor, the highly educated and the utterly ignorant, living side by side. Those who are both very poor and very ignorant, as is the fate of millions, have indeed so narrow a horizon that intellectual turbidity is compulsory. Their existence is merely that of a frog in a well, to which even the heavens appear only as a strip of darkness. Ten miles from their native place many such persons have never been, and they have no conception of any conditions of life other than those by which they have always been surrounded. In many of them even that instinctive curiosity common to all races seems dormant or blighted. Many Chinese, who know that a foreigner has come to live within a mile from their homes, never think to inquire where he came from, who he is, or what he wants. They know how to struggle for an existence, and they know nothing else. They do not know whether they have three souls, as is currently supposed, or one, or none, and so long as the matter has no relation to the price of grain, they do not see that it is of any consequence whatever. They believe in a future life in which the bad will be turned into dogs and insects, and they also believe in annihilation pure and simple, in which the body becomes dirt, and the soul—if there be one—fades into the air. They are the ultimate outcome of the forces which produce what is in Western lands called a "practical man," whose life consists of two compartments, a stomach and a cash-bag. Such a man is the true positivist, for he cannot be made to comprehend anything which he does not see or hear, and of causes as such he has no conception whatever. Life is to him a mere series of facts, mostly disagreeable facts, and as for anything beyond, he is at once an atheist, a polytheist, and an agnostic. An occasional prostration to he knows not what, or perhaps an offering of food to he knows not whom, suffices to satisfy the instinct of dependence, but whether this instinct finds even this expression will depend largely upon what is the custom of those about him. In him the physical element of the life of man has alone been nourished, to the utter exclusion of the psychical and the spiritual. The only method by which such beings can be rescued from their torpor is by a transfusion of a new life, which shall reveal to them the sublime truth uttered by the ancient patriarch, "There is a spirit in man," for only thus is it that "the inspiration of the Almighty giveth them understanding."