Chinese Characteristics (5th edition)/Chapter XI

Chinese Characteristics (5th edition)  (1894)  by Arthur Henderson Smith
Chapter XI: The Absence of Nerves
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IT is a very significant aspect of modern civilisation which is expressed in the different uses of the word "nervous." Its original meaning is "possessing nerve; sinewy; strong; vigorous." One of its derivative meanings, and the one which we by far most frequently meet, is, "Having the nerves weak or diseased; subject to, or suffering from, undue excitement of the nerves; easily excited; weakly." The varied and complex phraseology by which the peculiar phases of nervous diseases are expressed has become by this time familiar in our ears as household words. There is no doubt that civilisation, as exhibited in its modern form, tends to undue nervous excitement, and that nervous diseases are relatively more common than they were a century ago.

But what we have now to say does not concern those who are specially subject to nervous diseases, but to the general mass of Occidentals, who, while not in any specific condition of ill health, are yet continually reminded in a great variety of ways that their nervous systems are a most conspicuous part of their organisation. We allude, in short, to people who are "nervous," and we understand this term to include all our readers. To the Anglo-Saxon race, at least, it seems a matter of course that those who live in an age of steam and of electricity must necessarily be in a different condition, as to their nerves, from those who lived in the old slow days of sailing-packets and of mail-coaches. Ours is an age of extreme activity. It is an age of rush. There is no leisure so much as to eat, and the nerves are kept in a state of constant tension, with results which are sufficiently well known.

Business men in our time have an eager, restless air (at least those who do their business in Occidental lands), as if they were in momentary expectation of a telegram—as they often are—the contents of which may affect their destiny in some fateful way. We betray this unconscious state of mind in a multitude of acts. We cannot sit still, but we must fidget. We finger our pencils while we are talking, as if we ought at this particular instant to be rapidly inditing something ere it be forever too late. We rub our hands together as if preparing for some serious task, which is about to absorb all our energies. We twirl our thumbs, we turn over heads with the swift motion of the wild animal which seems to fear that something dangerous may have been left unseen. We have a sense that there is something which we ought to be doing now, and into which we shall proceed at once to plunge as soon as we shall have despatched six other affairs of even more pressing importance. The effect of overworking our nerves shows itself not mainly in such affections as "fiddler's cramp," "telegrapher's cramp," "writer's cramp," and the like, but in a general tension. We do not sleep as we once did, either as regards length of time or soundness of rest. We are wakened by slight causes, and often by those which are exasperatingly trivial, such as the twitter of a bird on a tree, a chance ray of light straggling into our darkened rooms, the motion of a shutter in the breeze, the sound of a voice, and when sleep is once interrupted it is banished. We have taken our daily life to rest with us, and the result is that we have no real rest. In an age when it has become a kind of aphorism that a bank never succeeds until it has a president who takes it to bed with him, it is easy to understand that, while the shareholders reap the advantage, it is bad for the president.

We have mentioned thus fully these familiar facts of our everyday Western life, to point the great contrast to them which one cannot help seeing, and feeling too, when he begins to become acquainted with the Chinese. It is not very common to dissect dead Chinese, though it has doubtless been done, but we do not hear of any reason for supposing that the nervous anatomy of the "dark-haired race" differs in any essential respect from that of the Caucasian. But though the nerves of a Chinese as compared with those of the Occidental may be, as the geometricians say, "similar and similarly situated," nothing is plainer than that they are nerves of a very different sort from those with which we are familiar.

It seems to make no particular difference to a Chinese how long he remains in one position. He will write all day like an automaton. If he is a handicraftsman, he will stand in one place from dewy morn till dusky eve, working away at his weaving, his gold-beating, or whatever it may be, and do it every day without any variation in the monotony, and apparently with no special consciousness that there is any monotony to be varied. In the same way Chinese school-children are subjected to an amount of confinement, unrelieved by any recesses or change of work, which would soon drive Western pupils to the verge of insanity. The very infants in arms, instead of squirming and wriggling as our children begin to do almost as soon as they are born, lie as impassive as so many mud gods. And at a more advanced age, when Western children would vie with the monkey in its wildest antics, Chinese children will often stand, sit, or squat in the same posture for a great length of time.

It seems to be a physiological fact that to the Chinese exercise is superfluous. They cannot understand the desire which seems to possess all classes of foreigners alike, to walk when there is no desire to go anywhere; much less can they comprehend the impulse to race over the country at the risk of one's life, in such a singular performance as that known as a "paper hunt," representing "hare and hounds"; or the motive which impels men of good social position to stand all the afternoon in the sun, trying to knock a base-ball to some spot where it shall be inaccessible to some other persons, or, on the other hand, struggling to catch the same ball with celerity, so as to "kill" another person on his "base"! A Cantonese teacher asked a servant about a foreign lady whom he had seen playing tennis: "How much is she paid for rushing about like that?" On being told "Nothing," he would not believe it. Why any mortal should do acts like this, when he is abundantly able to hire coolies to do them for him, is, we repeat, essentially incomprehensible to a Chinese, nor is it any more comprehensible to him because he has heard it explained.

In the item of sleep, the Chinese establishes the same difference between himself and the Occidental as in the directions already specified. Generally speaking, he is able to sleep anywhere. None of the trifling disturbances which drive us to despair annoy him. With a brick for a pillow, he can lie down on his bed of stalks or mud bricks or rattan and sleep the sleep of the just, with no reference to the rest of creation. He does not want his room darkened, nor does he require others to be still. The "infant crying in the night" may continue to cry for all he cares, for it does not disturb him. In some regions the entire population seem to fall asleep, as by a common instinct (like that of the hibernating bear), during the first two hours of summer afternoons, and they do this with regularity, no matter where they may be. At two hours after noon the universe at such seasons is as still as at two hours after midnight. In the case of most working-people, at least, and also in that of many others, position in sleep is of no sort of consequence. It would be easy to raise in China an army of a million men—nay, of ten millions—tested by competitive examination as to their capacity to go to sleep across three wheelbarrows, with head downwards, like a spider, their mouths wide open and a fly inside!

Beside this, we must take account of the fact that in China breathing seems to be optional. There is nowhere any ventilation worth the name, except when a typhoon blows the roof from a dwelling, or when a famine compels the owner to pull the house down to sell the timbers. We hear much of Chinese overcrowding, but overcrowding is the normal condition of the Chinese, and they do not appear to be inconvenienced by it at all, or in so trifling a degree that it scarcely deserves mention. If they had an outfit of Anglo-Saxon nerves, they would be as wretched as we frequently suppose them to be.

The same freedom from the tyranny of nerves is exhibited in the Chinese endurance of physical pain. Those who have any acquaintance with the operations in hospitals in China, know how common, or rather how almost universal, it is for the patients to bear without flinching a degree of pain from which the stoutest of us would shrink in terror. It would be easy to expand this topic alone into an essay, but we must pass it by, merely calling attention to a remark of George Eliot's, in one of her letters. "The highest calling and election," she says—irritated, no doubt, by theological formulas for which she had no taste—"is to do without opium, and to bear pain with clear-eyed endurance." If she is right, there can be little doubt that most Chinese, at least, have made their calling and election sure.

It is a remark of Mrs. Browning's, that "Observation without sympathy is torture." So it doubtless is to persons of a sensitive organisation like the distinguished poetess, as well as to a multitude of others of her race. An Occidental does not like to be watched, especially if he is doing any delicate or difficult work. But perhaps a Chinese does his best work under close observation. We all of us grow rapidly weary of being stared at by the swarms of curious Chinese who crowd about a foreigner, in every spot to which foreigners do not commonly resort. We often declare that we shall "go wild" if we cannot in some way disperse those who are subjecting us to no other injury than that of unsympathetic observation. But to the Chinese this instinctive feeling of the Occidental is utterly incomprehensible. He does not care how many people see him, nor when, nor for how great a length of time, and he cannot help suspecting that there must be something wrong about persons who so vehemently resent mere inspection.

It is not alone when he sleeps that an Occidental requires quiet, but most of all when he is sick. Then, if never before, he demands freedom from the annoyance of needless noises. Friends, nurses, physicians, all conspire to insure this most necessary condition for recovery; and if recovery is beyond hope, then more than ever is the sufferer allowed to be in as great peace as circumstances admit. Nothing in the habits of the Chinese presents a greater contrast to those of Westerners, than the behaviour of the Chinese to one another in cases of sickness. The notification of the event is a signal for all varieties of raids upon the patient from every quarter, in numbers proportioned to the gravity of the disease. Quiet is not for a moment to be thought of, and, strange to say, no one appears to desire it. The bustle attendant upon the arrival and departure of so many guests, the work of entertaining them, the wailings of those who fear that a death is soon to take place, and especially the pandemonium made by priests, priestesses, and others to drive away the malignant spirits, constitute an environment from which death would be to most Europeans a happy escape. Occidentals cannot fail to sympathise with the distinguished French lady who sent word to a caller that she "begged to be excused, as she was engaged in dying." In China such an excuse would never be offered, nor, if it were offered, would it be accepted.

It remains to speak of the worries and anxieties to which humanity is everywhere subjected in this distracted world. The Chinese are not only as accessible to these evils as any other people, but far more so. The conditions of their social life are such that in any given region there is a large proportion who are always on the ragged edge of ruin. A slight diminution of the rainfall means starvation to hundreds of thousands. A slight increase in the rainfall means the devastation of their homes by destructive floods, for which there is no known remedy. No Chinese is safe from the entanglement of a lawsuit, which, though he be perfectly innocent, may work his ruin. Many of these disasters are not only seen, but their stealthy and steady approach is perceived, like the gradual shrinking of the iron shroud. To us nothing is more dreadful than the momentary expectation of a calamity which cannot be forefended, and which may bring all that is horrible in its train. The Chinese face these things, perhaps because they seem to be inevitable, with a "clear-eyed endurance," which is one of the most remarkable phenomena of the race. Those who have witnessed the perfectly quiet starvation of millions in times of devastating famine will be able to understand what is here meant. To be fully appreciated, it must be seen, but seen on no matter what scale, it is as difficult for an Occidental really to understand it as it is for a Chinese truly to understand the idea of personal and social liberty, which the Anglo-Saxon has inherited and developed. In whatever aspect we regard them, the Chinese are and must continue to be to us more or less a puzzle, but we shall make no approach to comprehending them until we have it settled firmly in our minds that, as compared with us, they are gifted with the "absence of nerves." What the bearing of this pregnant proposition may be on the future impact of this race with our own—an impact likely to become more violent as the years go by—we shall not venture to conjecture. We have come to believe, at least in general, in the survival of the most fit. Which is the best adapted to survive in the struggles of the twentieth century, the "nervous" European, or the tireless, all-pervading, and phlegmatic Chinese?