Chinese Characteristics (5th edition)/Chapter XII

Chinese Characteristics (5th edition)  (1894)  by Arthur Henderson Smith
Chapter XII: Contempt for Foreigners
Chinese Characteristics - Chapter 12.png

CHAPTER XII.

CONTEMPT FOR FOREIGNERS.

IT is difficult for the European traveller who visits the city of Canton for the first time, to realise the fact that this Chinese emporium has enjoyed regular intercourse with Europeans for a period of more than three hundred and sixty years. During much the greater part of that time there was very little in the conduct of any Western nation in its dealings with the Chinese of which we have any reason to be proud. The normal attitude of the Chinese towards the people of other lands who chose to come to China for any purpose whatever, has been the attitude of the ancient Greeks to every nation not Grecian, considering and treating them as "barbarians." It is only since 1860, by a special clause in the treaties, that a character which signifies "barbarian," and which the Chinese had been in the habit of employing in official documents as synonymous with the word "foreign," was disallowed.

It must always be remembered in connection with the behaviour of the Chinese towards outside nations of the West, that the Chinese had for ages been surrounded only by the most conspicuous inferiority, and had thus been flattered in the most dangerous because the most plausible and therefore the most effective, way. Finding, as they did, that the foreigners with whom they came into contact could be alternately cajoled and bullied into conforming to the wishes of the Chinese, the latter were but confirmed in their conviction of their own unspeakable superiority, and invariably acted upon this theory, until compelled by the capture of Peking to do otherwise. Since that time, although only a generation has passed away, great changes have come over China, and it might be supposed that now at length foreign civilisation and foreigners would be appreciated by the Chinese at their full value. No very extended or intimate acquaintance with the Chinese people is needed, however, to convince any candid observer that the present normal attitude of the Chinese mind, official and unofficial, towards foreigners, is not one of respect. If the Chinese do not feel for us an actual contempt, they do feel condescension, and often unintentionally manifest it. It is this phenomenon with which we have now to deal.

The first peculiarity which the Chinese notice in regard to foreigners is their dress, and in this we think no one will claim that we have much of which we can be proud. It is true that all varieties of the Oriental costume seem to us to be clumsy, pendulous, and restrictive of "personal liberty," but that is because our requirements in the line of active motion are utterly different from those of any Oriental people. When we consider the Oriental modes of dress as adapted to Orientals, we cannot help recognising the undoubted fact that for Orientals this dress is exactly suited. But when Orientals, and especially Chinese, examine our costume, they find nothing whatever to admire, and much to excite criticism, not to say ridicule. It is a postulate in Oriental dress that it shall be loose, and shall be draped in such a way as to conceal the contour of the body. A Chinese gentleman clad in a short frock would not venture to show himself in public, but numbers of foreigners are continually seen in every foreign settlement in China, clad in what are appropriately styled "monkey jackets." The foreign sack-coat, the double-breasted frock-coat (not a single button of which may be in use), and especially the hideous and amorphous abortion called a "dress-coat," are all equally incomprehensible to the Chinese, particularly as some of these garments do not pretend to cover the chest, which is the most exposed part of the body, made still more exposed by the unaccountable deficiencies of a vest cut away so as to display a strip of linen. Every foreigner in China is seen to have two buttons securely fastened to the tail of his coat, where there is never anything to button, and where they are as little ornamental as useful.

If the dress of the male foreigner appears to the average Chinese to be essentially irrational and ridiculous, that of the foreign ladies is far more so. It violates Chinese ideas of propriety, not to say of decency, in a great variety of ways. Taken in connection with that freedom of intercourse between the sexes which is the accompaniment of Occidental civilisation, it is not strange that the Chinese, who judge only from traditional standards of fitness, should thoroughly misunderstand and grossly misconstrue what they see.

Foreign ignorance of the Chinese language is a fertile occasion for a feeling of superiority on the part of the Chinese. It makes no difference that a foreigner may be able to converse fluently in every language of modern Europe, if he cannot understand what is said to him by an ignorant Chinese coolie, the coolie will despise him in consequence. It is true that in so doing the coolie will only still further illustrate his own ignorance, but his feeling of superiority is not the less real on account of its inadequate basis. If the foreigner is struggling with his environment, and endeavouring to master the language of the people, he will be constantly stung by the air of disdain with which even his own servants will remark in an audible "aside," "Oh, he does not understand!" when the sole obstacle to understanding lies in the turbid statement of the Chinese himself. But the Chinese does not recognise this fact, nor if he should do so would it diminish his sense of innate superiority. This general state of things continues indefinitely for all students of Chinese, for no matter how much one knows, there is always a continental area which he does not know. It seems to be a general experience, though not necessarily a universal one, that the foreigner in China, after the preliminary stages of his experience are passed, gets little credit for anything which he happens to know, but rather discredit for the things which he does not know. The Chinese estimate of the value of the knowledge which foreigners display of the Chinese language and Chinese literature is frequently susceptible of illustration by a remark of Dr. Johnson's in regard to woman's preaching, which he declared to be like a dog's walking on its hind legs—it is not well done, but then it is a surprise to find it done at all!

Foreign ignorance of the customs of the Chinese is another cause of a feeling of superiority on the part of the Chinese. That any one should be ignorant of what they have always known, seems to them to be almost incredible.

The fact that a foreigner frequently does not know when he has been snubbed by indirect Chinese methods, leads the Chinese to look upon their unconscious victim with conscious contempt. Scornful indifference to what "the natives" may think of us, brings its own appropriate and sufficient punishment.

Many Chinese unconsciously adopt towards foreigners an air of amused interest, combined with depreciation, like that with which Mr. Littimer regarded David Copperfield, as if mentally saying perpetually, "So young, sir, so young!" This does not apply equally to all stages of one's experience in China, for experience accumulates more or less rapidly for shrewd observers, as foreigners in China are not unlikely to be. Still, whatever the extent of one's experience, there are multitudes of details, in regard to social matters, of which one must necessarily be ignorant for the reason that he has never heard of them, and there must be a first time for every acquisition.

Foreign inability to do '.vhat any ordinary Chinese can do with the greatest ease, leads the Chinese to look down upon us. We cannot eat what they eat, we cannot bear the sun, we cannot sleep in a crowd, in a noise, nor without air to breathe. We cannot scull one of their boats, nor can we cry "Yi! yi!" to one of their mule-teams in such a way that the animals will do anything which we desire. It is well known that the artillery department of the British army, on the way to Peking in i860, was rendered perfectly helpless near Ho-hsi-wu by the desertion of the native carters, for not a man in the British forces was able to persuade the Chinese animals to take a single step!

Inability to conform to Chinese ideas and ideals in ceremony, as well as in what we consider more important matters, causes the Chinese to feel a thinly disguised contempt for a race whom they think will not and cannot be made to understand "propriety." It is not that a foreigner cannot make a bow, but he generally finds it hard to make a Chinese bow in a Chinese way, and the difficulty is as much moral as physical. The foreigner feels a contempt for the code of ceremonials, often frivolous in their appearance, and he has no patience, if he has the capacity, to spend twenty minutes in a polite scuffle, the termination of which is foreseen by both sides with absolute certainty. The foreigner does not wish to spend his time in talking empty nothings for "an old half-day." To him time is money, but it is very far from being so to a Chinese, for in China every one has an abundance of time, and very few have any money. No Chinese has ever yet learned that when he kills time it is well to make certain that it is time which belongs to him, and not that of some one else.

With this predisposition to dispense as much as possible with superfluous ceremony because it is distasteful, and because the time which it involves can be used more agreeably in other ways, it is not strange that the foreigner, even in his own eyes, makes but a poor figure in comparison with a ceremonious Chinese. Compare the dress, bearings, and action of a Chinese official, his long, flowing robes and his graceful motions, with the awkward genuflections of his foreign visitor. It requires all the native politeness of the Chinese to prevent them from laughing outright at the contrast. In this connection it must be noted that nothing contributes so effectively to the instinctive Chinese contempt for the foreigner as the evident disregard which the latter feels for that official display so dear to the Oriental. What must have been the inner thought of the Chinese who were told that they were to behold the "great American Emperor," and who saw General Grant in citizen's costume with a cigar in his mouth, walking along the open street? Imagine a foreign Consul, who ranks with a Chinese Taotai, making a journey to a provincial capital to interview the Governor, in order to settle an international dispute. Thousands are gathered on the city wall to watch the procession of the great foreign magnate, a procession which is found to consist of two carts and riding horses, the attendants of the Consul being an interpreter, a Chinese acting as messenger, and another as cook! Is it any wonder that Orientals, gazing on such a scene, should look with a curiosity which changes first to indifference and then to contempt?

The particulars in which we consider ourselves to be unquestionably superior to the Chinese do not make upon them the impression which we should expect, and which we could desire. They recognise the fact that we are their superiors in mechanical contrivances, but many of these contrivances are regarded in the light in which we should look upon feats of sleight-of-hand—curious, inexplicable, and useless. Our results appear to them to be due to some kind of supernatural power, and it is remembered that Confucius refused to talk of magic. How profoundly indifferent the Chinese are to the wonders of steam and electricity practically applied, an army of disappointed contractors who have been in China have discovered. With few exceptions, the Chinese do not wish (though they may be forced to take) foreign models for anything whatever. They care nothing for sanitation, for ventilation, nor for physiology. They would like some, but by no means all, of the results of Western progress without submitting to Western methods, but rather than submit to Western methods they will cheerfully forego the results. Whatever has a direct, unmistakable tendency to make China formidable as a "power," that they want and will have, but the rest must wait; and if there were not a Zeitgeist, or Spirit-of-the-Age, superior to any Chinese, other improvements might wait long. Some Chinese scholars and statesmen, apparently realising the inferiority of China, claim that Western nations have merely used the data accumulated by ancient Chinese who cultivated mathematical and natural science to a high degree, but whose modern descendants have unfortunately allowed the secrets of nature to be stolen by the men of the West.

The Chinese do not appear to be much impressed by the undoubted ability of individual foreigners in practical lines. Saxons admire the man who "can," and, as Carlyle was so fond of remarking, they make and call him "king." The skill of the foreigner is to the Chinese amusing and perhaps amazing, and they will by no means forget or omit to make demands upon it the next time they chance to want anything done; but so far from regarding the foreigner in this respect as a model for imitation, it is probable that the idea does not even enter the skull of one Chinese in ten thousand. To them the ideal scholar continues to be the literary fossil who has learned everything, forgotten nothing, taken several degrees, has hard work to keep from starvation, and with claws on his hands several inches in length, cannot do any one thing (except to teach school) by which he can keep soul and body together, for "the Superior Man is not a Utensil."

Western nations, taken as a whole, do not impress educated Chinese with a sense of the superiority of such nations to China. This feeling was admirably exemplified in the reply of His Excellency Kuo, former Chinese Minister to Great Britain, when told, in answer to a question, that in Dr. Legge's opinion the moral condition of England is higher than that of China. After pausing to take in this judgment in all its bearings, His Excellency replied, with deep feeling, "I am very much surprised." Comparisons of this sort cannot be successfully made in a superficial way, and least of all from a diplomatic point of view. They involve a minute acquaintance with the inner life of both nations, and an ability to appreciate the operations of countless causes in the gradual multiplication of effects. Into any such comparison it is far from being our purpose now to enter. It is now well recognised that the Literati of China are the chief enemies of the foreigner, who, though he may have sundry mechanical mysteries at his disposal, is held to be wholly incapable of appreciating China's moral greatness. This feeling of jealous contempt is embodied in the typical Chinese scholar, "with his head in the Sung Dynasty and his feet in the present." It is men of this class who prepared and put in circulation the flood of bitter anti-foreign literature with which in recent years central China has been inundated.

It was once thought that with Western inventions China could be taken by storm. Knives, forks, stockings, and pianos were shipped to China from England, under the impression, that this Empire was about to be "Europeanised." If there ever had been a time when the Chinese Empire was to be taken by storm in this way, that time would have been long ago, but there never was such a time. China is not a country, and the Chinese are not a people, to be taken by storm with anything whatsoever. The only way to secure the solid and permanent respect of the Chinese race for Western peoples as a whole is by convincing object lessons, showing that Christian civilisation in the mass and in detail accomplishes results which cannot be matched by the civilisation which China already possesses. If this conviction cannot be produced, the Chinese will continue, and not without reason, to feel and to display in all their relation to foreigners both condescension and contempt.