Chinese Characteristics (5th edition)/Chapter XIII

Chinese Characteristics (5th edition)  (1894)  by Arthur Henderson Smith
Chapter XIII: The Absence of Public Spirit
Chinese Characteristics - Chapter 13.png

CHAPTER XIII.

THE ABSENCE OF PUBLIC SPIRIT.

THE Book of Odes, one of the most ancient of the Chinese Classics, contains the following prayer, supposed to be uttered by the husbandmen: "May it rain first on our public fields, and afterwards extend to our private ones." Whatever may have been true of the palmy days of the Chou Dynasty and of those which preceded it, there can be no doubt that very little praying is done in the present day, either by husbandmen or any other private individuals, for rain which is to be applied "first" on the "public fields." The Chinese government, as we are often reminded, is patriarchal in its nature, and demands filial obedience from its subjects. A plantation negro who had heard the saying, "Every man for himself, and God for us all," failed to reproduce the precise shade of its thought in his own modified version, as follows, "Every man for himself, and God for himself!" This new form of an old adage contains in a nutshell the substance of the views of the average Chinese in regard to the powers that be. "I, for my part, am obliged to look out for myself," he seems to think, if indeed he bestows any thought whatever on the government, and "the government is old enough and strong enough to take care of itself without any help of mine." The government, on the other hand, although patriarchal, is much more occupied in looking after the Patriarch, than in caring for the Patriarch's family. Generally speaking, it will do very little to which it is not impelled by the danger, if it does nothing at first, of having to do all the more at a later date. The people recognise distinctly that the prospective loss of taxes is the motive force in government efforts to mitigate disasters such as the continual outbreaks of irrepressible rivers. What the people do for themselves in endeavouring to prevent calamities of this sort, is due to the instinct of self- preservation, for the people thus make sure that the work is done, and also escape the numberless exactions which are sure to be the invariable concomitants of government energy locally applied.

No more typical example could be selected of the neglect of public affairs by the government, and the absence of public spirit among the people, than the condition of Chinese roads. There are abundant evidences in various parts of the Empire that there once existed great imperial highways connecting many of the most important cities, and that these highways were paved with stone and bordered with trees. The ruins of such roads are found not only in the neighbourhood of Peking, but in such remote regions as Hunan and Szechuen. Vast sums must have been expended on their construction, and it would have been comparatively easy to keep them in repair, but this has been uniformly neglected, so that the ruins of such highways present serious impediments to travel, and the tracks have been abandoned from sheer necessity. It has been supposed that this decay of the great lines of traffic took place during the long period of disturbances before the close of the Ming Dynasty, and at the beginning of the present Manchu line; but making all due allowance for political convulsions, a period of two hundred and fifty years is surely sufficiently long in which to restore the arteries of the Empire. No such restoration has either taken place or been attempted, and the consequence is the state of things with which we are but too familiar.

The attitude of the government is handsomely matched by chat of the people, who each and all are in the position of one who has no care or responsibility for what is done with the public property so long as he personally is not the loser. In fact, the very conception that a road, or that anything, belongs to "the public" is totally alien to the Chinese mind. The "streams and mountains " (that is, the Empire) are supposed to be the property in fee simple of the Emperor for the time, to have and to hold as long as he can. The roads are his too, and if anything is to be done to them let him do it. But the greater part of the roads do not belong to the Emperor in any other sense than that in which the farms of the peasants belong to him, for these roads are merely narrow strips of farms devoted to the use of those who wish to use them, not with the consent of the owner of the land, for that was never asked, but from the force of necessity. The entire road belongs to some farm, and pays taxes like any other land, albeit the owner derives no more advantage from its use than does any one else. Under these circumstances, it is evidently the interest of the farmer to restrict the roads as much as he can, which he does by an extended system of ditches and banks designed to make it difficult for any one to traverse any other than the narrow strip of land which is indispensable for communication. If the heavy summer rains wash away a part of the farm into the road, the farmer goes to the road and digs his land out again, a process which, combined with natural drainage and the incessant dust-storms, results eventually in making the road a canal. Of what we mean by "right of way" no Chinese has the smallest conception.

Travellers on the Peiho River between Tientsin and Peking have sometimes noticed in the river little flags, and upon inquiry have ascertained that they indicated the spots where torpedoes had been planted, and that passing boats were expected to avoid them! A detachment of Chinese troops engaged in artillery practice has been known to train their cannon directly across one of the leading highways of the Empire, to the great interruption of traffic and to the terror of the animals attached to carts, the result being a serious runaway accident.

A man who wishes to load or to unload his cart leaves it in the middle of the roadway while the process is going on, and whoever wishes to use the road must wait until the process is completed. If a farmer has occasion to fell a tree he allows it to fall across the road, and travellers can tarry until the trunk is chopped up and removed.

The free and easy ways of the country districts are well matched by the encroachments upon the streets of cities. The wide streets of Peking are lined with stalls and booths which have no right of existence, and which must be summarily removed if the Emperor happens to pass that way. As soon as the Emperor has passed, the booths are in their old places. The narrow passages which serve as streets in most Chinese cities are choked with every form of industrial obstruction. The butcher, the barber, the peripatetic cook with his travelling-restaurant, the carpenter, the cooper, and countless other workmen, plant themselves by the side of the tiny passage which throbs with the life of a great metropolis, and do all they can to form a strangulating clot. Even the women bring out their quilts and spread them on the road, for they have no space so broad in their exiguous courts. There is very little which the Chinese do at all which is not at some time done on the street.

Nor are the obstructions to traffic of a movable nature only. The carpenter leaves a pile of huge logs in front of his shop, the dyer hangs up his long bolts of cloth, and the flour-dealer his strings of vermicelli across the principal thoroughfare, for the space opposite to the shop of each belongs not to an imaginary "public," but to the owner of the shop. The idea that this alleged ownership of the avenues of locomotion entails any corresponding duties in the way of repair, is not one which the Chinese mind, in its present stage of development, is capable of taking in at all. No one individual, even if he were disposed to repair a road (which would never happen), has the time or the material wherewith to do it, and for many persons to combine for this purpose would be totally out of the question, for each would be in deep anxiety lest he should do more of the work, and receive less of the benefit, than some other person. It would be very easy for each local magistrate to require the villages lying along the line of the main highways, or within a reasonable distance thereof, to keep them passable at almost all seasons, but it is doubtful whether this idea ever entered the mind of any Chinese official.

Not only do the Chinese feel no interest in that which belongs to the "public," but all such property, if unprotected and available, is a mark for theft. Paving-stones are carried off for private use, and square rods of the brick facing to city walls gradually disappear. A wall enclosing a foreign cemetery in one of the ports of China was carried away till not a brick remained, as soon as it was discovered that the place was in charge of no one in particular. It is not many years since an extraordinary sensation was caused in the Imperial palace in Peking by the discovery that extensive robberies had been committed on the copper roofs of some of the buildings within the forbidden city. It is a common observation among the Chinese that, within the Eighteen Provinces, there is no one so imposed upon and cheated as the Emperor.

The question is often raised whether the Chinese have any patriotism, and it is not a question which can be answered in a word. There is undoubtedly a strong national feeling, especially among the literary classes, and to this feeling much of the hostility exhibited to foreigners and their inventions is to be traced. Within recent years the province of Hunan has been flooded with streams of anti-foreign literature full of malignant calumniations, and designed to cause riots which shall drive the foreign devil out of the Celestial Empire. From the Chinese point of view the impulse which leads to these publications is as praiseworthy as we should consider resistance to anarchists to be. The charges are partly due to misapprehension, and in part also to that race hatred from which Western nations are by no means free. Probably many Chinese consider these attacks thoroughly patriotic. But that any considerable body of Chinese are actuated by a desire to serve their country, because it is their country, aside from the prospect of emolument, is a proposition which will require much more proof than has yet been offered to secure its acceptance by any one who knows the Chinese. It need not be remarked that a Chinese might be patriotic without taking much interest in the fortunes of a Tartar Dynasty like the present, but there is the best reason to think that, whatever the dynasty might happen to be, the feeling of the mass of the nation would be the same as it is now—a feeling of profound indifference. The key-note to this view of public affairs was sounded by Confucius himself, in a pregnant sentence found in the "Analects": "The Master said: He who is not in an office has no concern with plans for the administration of its duties." To our thought these significant words are partly the result, and to a very great degree the cause, of the constitutional unwillingness of the Chinese to interest themselves in matters for which they are in no way responsible.

M. Huc gives an excellent example of this spirit. "In 1851, at the period of the death of the Emperor Tao Kuang, we were travelling on the road from Peking, and one day when we had been taking tea at an inn, in company with some Chinese citizens, we tried to get up a little political discussion. We spoke of the recent death of the Emperor, an important event which of course must have interested everybody. We expressed our anxiety on the subject of the succession to the Imperial throne, the heir to which was not yet publicly declared. 'Who knows,' said we, 'which of the three sons of the Emperor will have been appointed to succeed him? If it should be the eldest, will he pursue the same system of government? If the younger, he is still very young, and it is said that there are contrary influences, two opposing parties at court; to which will he lean?' We put forward, in short, all kinds of hypotheses, in order to stimulate these good citizens to make some observation. But they hardly listened to us. We came back again and again to the charge, in order to elicit some opinion or other on questions that really appeared to us of great importance. But to all our piquant suggestions they replied by shaking their heads, puffing out whiffs of smoke, and taking great gulps of tea. This apathy was really beginning to provoke us, when one of these worthy Chinese, getting up from his seat, came and laid his two hands on our shoulders in a manner quite paternal, and said, smiling rather ironically: 'Listen to me, my friend! Why should you trouble your heart and fatigue your head by all these vain surmises? The mandarins have to attend to affairs of state; they are paid for it. Let them earn their money, then. But don't let us torment ourselves about what does not concern us. We should be great fools to want to do political business for nothing.' 'That is very conformable to reason,' cried the rest of the company; and thereupon they pointed out to us that our tea was getting cold and our pipes were out."

When it is remembered that in the attack on Peking, in 1860, the British army was furnished with mules bought of the Chinese in the province of Shantung; that Tientsin and Tungchow made capitulations on their own account, agreeing to provide the British and French with whatever was wanted if these cities were not disturbed; that most indispensable coolie work was done for the foreign allies by Chinese subjects hired for the purpose in Hongkong; and that when these same coolies were captured by the Chinese army they were sent back to the British ranks with their cues cut off—it is not difficult to perceive that patriotism and public spirit, if such things exist at all in China, do not mean what these words imply to Anglo-Saxons.

Upon the not infrequent occasions when it is necessary for the people to rise and resist the oppressions and exactions of their rulers, it is always indispensable that there should be a few men of capacity to take the lead. Under them the movement may gather such momentum that the government must make some practical concessions. But whatever it does with the mass of the "stupid people," the leaders are invariably marked men, and nothing less than their heads will satisfy the demands of justice. To be willing not merely to risk but almost certainly to lose one's life in such a cause is the highest possible example of public spirit.

At critical epochs in Chinese history, especially when there is likely to be a change of dynasties, single-hearted and resolute men have often thrown themselves into the breach, with a chivalrous devotion to the cause which they espoused worthy of the highest praise. Such men are not only true patriots, but are irrefragable proofs that the Chinese are capable of being stirred to the most heroic exertions in following public-spirited leaders.