China As She Was – Part II

In the first article on China, reference was made to some of the characteristics of the Chinese, but the subject was not exhausted—in fact, it would require several articles to exhaust this subject, and attention can only be given to those traits or customs which are in most violent contrast with our own.

Chinese society is patriarchal in its organization, the family being the unit and the father the head of the family. The Chinese sages present filial piety and fraternal submission as the root of all benevolent action. The children are subject to the parents as long as the parents live, and the younger sons are subject to the eldest. The four relations which are continually discussed by the philosophers are : First, the relation between the king and his ministers ; second, between the father and his sons; third, between the elder brother and the younger brothers; fourth, between the individual and his fellows, but the fourth relation receives the least consideration.

Marriages are arranged by the parents, and the children must be content with the selection made. When the wife is taken to the home of the husband, she becomes a member of his family and subject to her mother-in-law, if the husband’s mother is still alive. As other sons are married their wives are brought in and they are expected to live peaceably together—an expectation which is not always fully realized. As law and custom permit the system of concubinage, it is not strange that the home is often the scene of contention rather than the center of felicity.

As the duty of sacrificing to ancestors falls upon the son, the advent of a boy is the signal for rejoicing, while the birth of a girl is not considered a good omen. So unpopular was the female baby that in some provinces many of them were formerly put to death, but child-murder is now on the decrease.

No one can visit China without becoming acquainted with a peculiarly oriental phrase called “losing face.” One of the first news-papers that I picked up in China described the attempted suicide of a man who complained that he had “lost his face” because a magistrate refused to commence a prosecution en his complaint. In China there is a constant effort to keep up appearances, and when this is no longer possible, the unfortunate one feels that he can not look any-one else in the face. Chinese life is saturated with this “face” doctrine; it percolates through their disputes and oozes out through the pores of their diplomacy. Justice is of less importance in the deciding of a controversy than the saving of the parties from the loss of “face.” There are in each community “peace-talkers” who make a business of so adjusting disputes that neither party will seem to be in the wrung.

In dealing with China this national characteristic must be borne in mind, and it is to be regretted that foreign nations have in their negotiations sometimes imitated China instead of setting her a better ex-ample. One constantly meets over here with the theory that the foreigner must conform to the methods of the Orient, but this is always advanced as an excuse for following a bad custom. It is impossible to convince China that our ideal is a better one than hers unless that ideal is embodied in action. When our country admitted that the indemnity collected from Japan after the Shimonoseki affair was excessive, and returned it, she made a deep impression upon the Japanese. It was several times referred to by speakers during our -recent visit to Japan as an evidence of our country’s desire to do justice to other nations. It was just as honorable for a nation to acknowledge an error as it is for an individual to do so, and our nation has an opportunity to admit another excessive demand and return to China a part of the indemnity collected at the close of the Boxer trouble.

No nation has ever given more emphasis to ceremony than does China. Confucius places propriety among the cardinal virtues, and the doctrine has been elaborated until the whole life is fettered by formality. Each rising generation is drilled in the performance of certain rites required by approved etiquette, and it would be humiliating for one to have to confess that he did not know the proper thing to do and the proper way to do it. Even sincerity is considered much less important, and both Confucius and Mencius set demoralizing examples in placing the latter above the former. In the Analects, an instance is given where one, Joo Pei, wished to see Confucius, but the latter refused to see him “on the ground of being sick.” When the bearer of the message had left, Confucius “took his harpsicord, and sang to it, in order that Pei might hear him.” It is related of Mencius that he was about to go to court to see the king when he received a message from the king saying that the latter “was wishing to call on Mencius but was detained by a cold.” Mencius replied, “Unfortunately, I am unwell and unable to go to court,” but the next day he went out and paid a visit of condolence to another family. While he was absent from the house the king’s messenger called with a physician, whereupon the representative of Mencius explained that he was sick the day before, but that being a little better he had hastened to court. It was then necessary to send out several men to intercept Mencius and get him to the king’s house. All of this subterfuge was resorted to in order to get the king to call upon Mencius first.

The kowtow is still a part of the ceremonial greeting. If two officials are riding and meet, they dismount and bow their heads to the ground. In the schools the students kowtow before a Confucian tablet twice each month. When we visited the government school at Shanghai we noticed mats upon the floor of the otherwise empty assembly hall, and upon inquiry learned that at seven the next morning the students would perform the usual Confucian rites. These consist of a series of kowtows. At a given signal the students kneel on the mats and bow three times toward the tablet, their heads each time touching the floor; they then rise and after a short interval kneel again at a signal and bow three times more. This ceremony is again repeated, making nine bows in all. Then they kneel and bow three times to the professors; after saluting the professors each student bows once to the student next to him and the meeting adjourns. We thought it would be interesting to witness this service in honor of one who has received more formal reverence than any other mortal, and arising before it was light, we made the journey to the college, which is distant an hour’s ride from the hotel. When we arrived we found that for some reason which we could not ascertain, the ceremony would not be performed. Whether the postponement was due to objection to the presence of foreigners (visitors had been present on former occasions) or to some other cause, was left in mystery.

Our morning ride, however, answered one purpose; as the road ran some distance by the side of a little stream, it enabled us to see some-thing of houseboat life. Hundreds of little boats line the stream, and in their diminutive mat-covered cabins were housed thousands of natives, many of whom are born, live and die in these unstable homes. As they were preparing the morning meal we had a chance to con-firm the stories regarding their want of cleanliness. It was not an uncommon thing to see a woman washing rice in the muddy water and a few feet away, another woman throwing refuse matter into the stream, or a man performing his morning ablutions. At Canton one has a still larger opportunity to observe houseboat life where the Pearl river furnishes the water supply and at the same time an open sewer for a floating population of many thousands.

The contrast between the bath-loving Japanese and the dirty, complacent Chinese laborer is very marked and this contrast is also notice-able in the streets. The sights and smells that greet the senses along the narrow streets of a native city are not soon forgotten by one who travels through China, and one’s ideas of modesty, too, are sadly wrenched.

But whatever may be said of the habits of the lower class Chinese, they are an industrious and patient people. After watching them work and observing the conditions under which they live, one can scarcely begrudge them whatever comfort they can find in the dreams of Heaven which they draw from their opium pipes. And speaking of opium, one is restrained from speaking too harshly of the habit by a recollection of the fact that the opium trade was forced upon the “Heathen Chinee” by a great Christian nation.

The Chinese have their amusements, one of which is the theatre. We attended one theatre in Pekin and found the room crowded with men. It was a commodious hall with a gallery, but the stage was not relatively so large as in Japan. The acting reminded us more of the American stage than did the Japanese, but the scenery was exceedingly scanty. The audience expressed itself in approval or disapproval with a good deal of freedom.

We found a sport in China which we have not heard of elsewhere, viz., quail fighting. These little birds are matched against each other as fighting cocks are in the Spanish countries. One American told us of a fight between cockroaches. These combats, as well as those between the quails, give an opportunity for betting-a vice which prevails in the Orient as well as in the Occident.

The Chinese have a bird contest which involves neither cruelty nor bloodshed, although the element of gambling is also present in it. I refer to the singing matches between larks. The Chinese are very fond of birds and one cannot go upon the street without seeing men carrying bird cages. The birds are aired much as pet dogs are exercised in our country. The favorite singing bird is the lark, and these are entered by their owners in contests, considerable sums often being placed upon a bird. The award is made by the birds themselves, one after another confessing defeat until but one songster is left upon his perch. The winner is quite exultant, while the others show as much humiliation as a Chinaman who has “lost his face.” The defeated birds will not sing again for months.

In another article I have referred to the superstitions so wide-spread in China. There is one form of superstition which has interfered with both religion and commerce. The natives have for centuries been the victims of sorcerers and fortune tellers who, professing a knowledge of terrestrial and celestial forces, style themselves “Fungshui” doctors and make a living by selecting lucky burial sites, fore-telling the future, etc. There are certain spirits which are supposed to preside over certain places, and any change in the conformation of the ground is thought to anger the spirits. A railroad cut or fill is sometimes objected to for this reason, and a church spire is, in the opinion of the superstitious, liable to endanger the peace and safety of a community. However, commerce is extending in spite of the “spirits” and the Christian religion is gradually making headway against superstition.

At Pekin I attended a morning service at the Methodist church where some six hundred Chinese men and women listened to a sermon in their own language delivered by an American missionary.

On Thanksgiving day we ate dinner at the Presbyterian Mission, and during our travels through China met a number of ministers, physicians and teachers. They all testified to the stimulus given to the spread of religion by the fidelity shown by the Chinese Christians during the Boxer troubles. At Nanking we visited a school conducted by the Disciples or Christian Church, and at Shanghai, a school supported by the Episcopalian Church of America. There is also at Shanghai a college, the main purpose of which is to bring the white and yellow races into closer harmony. Prof. Isaac T. Headland of the Methodist University at Pekin has published a volume entitled “Chinese Heroes,” in which he gives a number of instances of consecrated devotion on the part of the Chinese to the Christian faith, and why should not China be a promising mission field? Buddhism has here done its perfect work and can not reasonably ask for a further trial ; the philosophy of the sages has also been shown impotent for the harmonious development of ‘the three-fold man. China has followed an ideal and followed it with a diligence rarely exhibited, but that ideal has been weighed in the balance and found wanting. It is often said in defense of Confucianism that its founder gave to his disciples the golden rule, stated in its negative form, but too little emphasis has been given to the difference between the doctrine of Confucius, “Do not unto others as you would not have others do unto you,” and, the doctrine of the Nazarene, “Whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them.” There is a world of difference between negative harmlessness and positive helpfulness, and Christianity could well afford to rest its case against Confucian-ism on the comparison of these two doctrines.

In the Analects of Confucius the philosopher is asked, “Is there one word which may serve as a rule of practice for all one’s life?” He was answered, “Is not reciprocity such a word?” Here we have the doctrine of selfishness as plausibly presented as it will ever be again. Life is described as a balancing of favors—a nice calculation of good done and good received. There is no suggestion here of a heart overflowing with love, no intimation of a blessedness to be found in giving.

At another time someone asked Confucius, “What do you say concerning the principle that injury should be recompensed with kindness?” He replied, “With what then will you recompense kindness? Recompense injury with justice and recompense kindness with kindness.” In reply to another question, he goes so far as to charge that one “who returns good for evil, is a man that is careful of his person.” How different these precepts are from those of the Sermon on the Mount! Christians are accused of failure to live up to the high ideal presented by Jesus, and the accusation is just, and yet, although the Christian nations fall far short of the measure which they themselves recognize, although professing Christians reflect but imperfectly the rays which fall upon them from the Sun of Righteousness, they are leading the world in all that is ennobling and uplifting, and China gives silent recognition to the superiority of the western ideal in every reform which she undertakes.