(1894 version) Chinese Characteristics CHAPTER III. INDUSTRY



Industry is defined as habitual diligence in any employment—steady attention to business. In this age of the world industry is one of the most highly prized among the virtues, and it is one which invariably commands respect.

The industry of a people, speaking roughly, may be said to unite the three dimensions of length, breadth and thickness; or, to use a different expression, it may be said to have two qualities of extension, and one of intension. By the quality of length, we mean the amount of time during which the industry is exercised. By the quality of breadth, we mean the number of persons to whom the predicate of industrious may be fairly applied. By intension, we mean the amount of energy which is displayed in the "habitual diligence," and in "steady attention to business." The aggregate result will be the product of these three factors. It is by no means always the case that the impressions of the casual traveller, and those of the old residents are the same, but there can be little doubt that casual travellers and residents of the longest standing, will agree in a profound conviction of the diligence of the Chinese people. The very first glance which a new-comer gets of the Chinese, induces him to think that this people is carrying out in social affairs the maxim which John Wesley named as the rule for a successful church— "all at it, and always at it." Idleness in China is not conspicuous. Every one seems to be doing something. There are of course, plenty of wealthy persons, albeit a mere microscopic fraction of the whole community, who can abundantly live without doing any work, but their life is not ordinarily of a kind Which is externally visible to the foreigner. Wealthy people in China do not commonly retire from business, but devote themselves to it with the same kind and degree of attention, as when they were poor.

The Chinese classify themselves as Scholars, Farmers, Workmen, and Merchants. Let us glance at each of these subdivisions of society, and see what they have to say for the industry of the people. 

It is exceedingly difficult for Occidentals to enter sympathetically into such a scheme of education as that of the Chinese. Its gross defects are not likely to be overlooked, but one feature of it is adapted to thrust itself on the attention, at all times—it has no real rewards, except for diligence. The many back doors which are always open to those who have the money to purchase degrees would seem well calculated to dampen the ardour of any student, but such is not the main effect of the sale of office. The complaint is made in all the provinces, that there are far more eligible candidates for every position, than there are positions to be filled. All the examination halls, from the lowest to the highest, seem to be perpetually crowded, and the number of those who compete in any single prefecture often rises to above ten thousand. When we consider the amount of mental toil which the mere entrance to any one of these examinations involves, we get a vivid conception of the intellectual industry of the Chinese. The traditional diligence of the standard heroes mentioned in the trimetrical classic, who studied by the light of a glow-worm, or who tied their books to the horns of the ox with which they were ploughing, is imitated at the present day, with various degrees of approximation, by thousands in all parts of China. In many cases this industry begins to disappear with the initial success of the first degree, but the Chinese do not consider such a one a scholar at all, but reserve this title of honour for those who keep on in the narrow and thorny path, until at length their perseverance is crowned with success. In what land but China would it be possible to find examples of a grandfather, son and grandson, all competing in the same examination for the same degree, to be rewarded at last by seeing age and indomitable perseverance rewarded at the age of eighty years, by the long coveted honour?

In the spring of 1889, various memorials appeared in the Peking Gazette, relating the aged candidates at the provincial examinations. The Governor-General reported that at the autumnal examination in Foochow, nine candidates over eighty years of age, and two over ninety went through the prescribed tests, and sent in essays of which the composition was good and the hand-writing firm and distinct. Aged candidates, he says, who have passed through an interval of sixty years from attaining their bachelor's degree, who have attended the three last examinations for the higher, are, if unsuccessful the fourth time, entitled to honorary degree. The Governor of Honan in like manner reported thirteen candidates over eighty years of age, and one over nighty, who all "went through the whole nine days' ordeal, and wrote essays which were perfectly accurate in diction and showed no signs of failing years." But even this astonishing record was surpassed in the province of Anhui, where thirty-five of the competitors were over eighty years of age, and eighteen over ninety! Could any other country afford a spectacle like this ?

If the life of the scholar in China is one of unremitting diligence, that of the farmer is not less so. His work, like that of a housekeeper, is never done. With the exception of a comparatively brief period in the middle of the winter, throughout the northern provinces, there never appears to be a time when there is not only something to do, but a great deal of it. Doubtless this is more or less true of farming everywhere, but the Chinese farmer is industrious with an industry which it would be difficult to surpass. 

That which is true of the farmer class, is true with still greater emphasis of the mere labourer, who is driven by the constant and chronic reappearance of the wolf at his door, to spend his life in an everlasting grind. As the farmer bestows the most' painstaking thought and care upon every separate stalk of cabbage, picking off carefully each minute insect, thus at last tiring out the ceaseless swarms by. his own greater perseverance, so does the labourer watch for the most insignificant opportunity for a job, that he may have something for his stomach and for his back, and for other stomachs and backs that are wholly dependent upon him. Those who have occasion to travel where cart-roads exist, will often be obliged to rise soon after midnight, and pursue their journey, for such, they are told, is the custom. But no matter at what hour he is on the way, there are small bodies of peasants patrolling the roads, with fork in hand and basket on their back, watching for opportunities to collect a little manure. When there is no other work pressing, this is an invariable and an inexhaustible resource.

It is by no means uncommon to see those who are hard pressed to find the means of support, following two different lines of occupation, which dovetail into each other. Thus the boatmen of Tientsin, whose business is spoiled by the closing of the rivers, take to the swift ice-sled, by which means it is possible to be transported rapidly, at a minimum cost. In the same way, most of the rural population of some districts spend all the time which can be spared from the exigencies of farm work, in making hats or in plaiting the braid, now so large an article of export. Chinese women are not often seen without a shoe-sole in their hand on which they are perpetually taking stitches, even while talking gossip at the entrance of their alleys, or perhaps it is a reel of cotton which they are spinning. But idle they are not.

The indefatigable activity of the classes which have been named, is well matched by that of the merchants, and their employés. The life of a merchant's clerk, even in the Western lands, is not that of one who holds a sinecure, but as compared with that of a Chinese clerk, it is comparative idleness. For to the work of the latter, there is no end. His holidays are few, and his tasks heavy, though they may be interspersed with periods of comparative torpor.

Chinese shops are always opened early, and they close late. The system of bookkeeping by a species of double entry appears to be so minute that the accountants are often kept busy till a very late hour recording the sales and balancing the entries. When nothing else remains to be done, clerks can be set to sorting over the brass cash taken in, in quest of rare coins which may be sold at a profit.

It is a matter of surprise that the most hard-worked class of the Chinese race is that class which is most envied, and into which every ambitious Chinese strives to raise himself — to wit, the official. The number and variety of transactions with which a Chinese official of any rank must occupy himself, and for the success of which he is not only theoretically but very practically responsible, is likewise surprising. How would our Labour Unions, who are so strenuous about the coming Eight Hours a Day, relish a programme of a day's work such as the following, which is taken from a statement made to an interpreter in one of the Foreign Legations in Peking by an eminent Chinese statesman? "I once asked a member of the Chinese cabinet, who was complaining of fatigue and over-work, for an account of his daily routine. He replied that he left home every morning at two o'clock, as he was on duty at the Palace from three to six. As a member of the Privy Council, he was engaged in that body from six until nine. From nine tintil eleven he was at the War Department, of which he was President. Being a member of the Board of Punishment, he was in attendance at the office of that body daily from twelve until two, and, as one of the senior Ministers of the Foreign Office, he spent every day, from two till five or six in the afternoon, there. These were his regular daily duties. In addition to them he was frequently appointed to serve on special boards or commissions, and these he sandwiched in between the others as he could. He seldom reached home before seven or eight o'clock in the evening." It is not strange to be told that this officer died six months after this conversation, from overwork and exhaustion, nor is it at all unlikely that the same state of things may put an end to many careers in China the continuance of which would have been valuable to the interests of the government.

The quality of extension, of which we have spoken, applies to the number of those who are industrious, but it also applies to the extent of time covered by that industry, which, as we have seen, is very great. The Chinese day begins at a dim period, often not at a great remove from midnight. The Emperor holds his daily audiences at an hour when every Court of Europe is wrapped in the embrace of Morpheus. To an Occidental this seems simply inexplicable, but to a Chinese it doubtless appears the most natural thing in the world. And the conduct of the Son of Heaven is imitated more or less closely by the subjects of the Son of Heaven, in all parts of his Empire. The copper workers of Canton, the tinfoil workers of Foochow, the wood-carvers of Ningpo, the rice-mill workers of Shanghai, the cotton-cleaners and workers in the treadmill for bolting flour in the northern provinces, may all be heard late at night, and at a preposterous hour in the morning. Long before daylight the traveller comes upon a countryman who has already reached a distance of many miles from his home, where he is posted in the darkness waiting for the coming of daylight, when he will begin the sale of his cabbages! By the time an Occidental has had his breakfast, a Chinese market is nearly over. There are few more significant contrasts than are suggested by a stroll along the principal street in Shanghai, at the hour of half-past five on a summer's morning. The lordly European, who built those palaces which line the water-front, and who does his business therein, is conspicuous by his total absence, but the Asiatic is on hand in full force, and has been on hand for a long time. It will be hours before the Occidentals begin to jostle the Chinese from the sidewalks, and to enter with luxurious ease on their round of work, and by that time the native will have finished half his day's labour.

Sir John Davis was quite right in his comments on the cheerful labour of the Chinese, as a sign that their government has succeeded in securing them great content with their condition. This quality of their labour is one of its most striking characteristics, and to be comprehended must be long observed and well weighed.

It remains to say a word of the quality of intension in Chinese industry. The Chinese are Asiatics, and they work as such. It is in vain to attempt to make over this virile race on the model of our own. To us they certainly appear lacking in the heartiness, which we esteem so highly. The Anglo-Saxon needs no Scriptural hint to enable him to see the importance of doing with his might what his hand finds to do, but the Chinese cannot be made to change his pace, though the combined religions and philosophy of the ages were brought to bear upon him. He has profited by the accumulated experience of millenniums, and like the gods of Homer, he is never in a hurry.

One cannot help forecasting a time, when the white and the yellow races will come into a keener competition than any yet known. Which of them, when that inevitable day shall have arrived, will have to go to the wall?

Surely if Solomon was right in his economic maxim that the hand of the diligent maketh rich, the Chinese ought to be among the most prosperous of the peoples of the earth. And so they would doubtless be, if there were with them a balance of virtues, instead of, as we see, a conspicuous absence of some of those fundamental qualities, which, however they may be enumerated as "constant virtues"are chiefly, "constant"in their absence. When, by whatever means, these qualities of honesty, and sincerity, shall have been restored to their theoretical place in the Chinese moral consciousness, then (and not sooner) will the Chinese reap the full reward of their unmatched Industry.

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