(1894 version) Chinese Characteristics CHAPTER VII. THE TALENT FOR MISUNDERSTANDING



THIS remarkable gift of the Chinese people is first observed when the foreigner knows enough of the language to employ it as a vehicle of thought. To his pained surprise, he finds that he is not understood. He therefore returns to his studies with augmented diligence, and at the end of a series of years is able to venture with confidence to accost the general public, or any individual thereof, on miscellaneous topics. If the person addressed is a total stranger, especially if he has never before met a foreigner, the speaker will have opportunity for the same pained surprise as when he made his maiden speech in this tongue. The auditor evidently does not understand. He as evidently does not expect to understand. He visibly pays no attention to what is said, makes no effort whatever to follow it, but simply interrupts you to observe, "When you speak, we do not understand." He has a smile of superiority, as of one contemplating the struggles of a deaf- mute to utter articulate speech, and as if he would say, "Who supposed that you could be understood? It may be your misfortune and not your fault that you were not born with a Chinese tongue, but you should bear your disabilities, and not worry us with them, for when you speak we do not understand you." It is impossible to retain at all times an unruffled serenity in situations like this, and it is natural to turn fiercely on your adversary, and inquire, "Do you understand what I am saying at this moment?" "No," he replies, "I do not understand you!" 

Another stage in the experience of Chinese powers of misunderstanding is reached when, although the words are distinctly enough apprehended, through a disregard of details the thought is obscured even if not wholly lost. The "Foreigner in Far Cathay" needs to lay in a copious stock of phrases which shall mean, "on this condition," "conditionally," "with this understanding," etc., etc. It is true that there do not appear to be any such phrases, nor any occasion for them felt by the Chinese, but with the foreigner it is different. The same is true in regard to the notation of tenses. The Chinese do not care for them, but the foreigner is compelled to care for them. 

Of all subjects of human interest in China, the one which most needs to be guarded against misunderstanding is money. If the foreigner is paying out this commodity (which often appears to be the principal function of the foreigner as seen from the Chinese standpoint) a future-perfect tense is "a military necessity." "When you shall have done your work, you will receive your money." But there is no future-perfect tense in Chinese, or tense of any description. A Chinese simply says. "Do work, get money," the last being the principal idea which dwells in his mind, the "time relation" being absent. Hence when he is to do anything for a foreigner he wishes his money at once, in order that he may "eat," the presumption being that if he had not stumbled on the job of this foreigner he would never have eaten any more! Eternal vigilance, we must repeat, is the price at which immunity from misunderstandings about money is to be purchased in China. Who is and who is not to receive it, at what times, in what amounts whether in silver ingots or brass cash, what quality and weight of the former, what number of the latter shall pass as a "string" — these and other like points are those in regard to which it is morally impossible to have a too definite and fixed understanding. If the matter be a contract in which a builder, a compradore, or a boatman is to do on his part certain things and furnish certain articles, no amount of preliminary precision and exactness in explanations will come amiss. 

To "cut off one's nose to spite one's face" is in China a proceeding too common to attract the least attention. A boatman or a carter who is engaged to go wherever the foreigner who hires his boat may direct, sometimes positively refuses to fulfil his contract. The inflexible obstinacy of a Chinese carter on such occasions is aptly illustrated by the behaviour of one of his mules, which, on coming to a particularly dusty place in the road, lies down with great deliberation to its dust-bath. The cartel meantime lashes the mule with his whip to the utmost limit of his strength, but in vain. The mule is as indifferent as if a fly were tickling it. In considering the phenomena to which this is analogous, we have been frequently reminded of the caustic comments of De Quincey, in which, with a far too sweeping generalisation, he affirms that the Chinese race is endued with "an obstinacy like that of mules." The Chinese are not obstinate like mules, for the mule does not change his mood, while the same obstreperous carter who defies his employer in the middle of his journey, though expressly warned that his "wine-money'' will be wholly withheld should he persist, is at the end of the journey ready to spend half a day in pleading and in prostrations for the favour which at a distance he treated with contemptuous scorn. That a traveller should have a written agreement with his carters, boatmen, etc., is a matter of ordinary prudence. No loophole for a possible misconstruction must be left open. 

"Plain at first, afterwards no dispute" is the prudent aphorism of the Chinese. Yet the chances are that, after exhausting one's ingenuity in preliminary agreements, some occasion for misunderstanding will arise. And whatever be his care on this point, money will probably make the foreigner in China more trouble than any other single cause. Whether the Chinese concerned happen to be educated scholars or ignorant coolies, makes little difference. All Chinese are gifted with an instinct for taking advantage of misunderstandings. They find them as a January north wind finds a crack in a door, as the water finds a leak in a ship, instantly and without apparent effort. The Anglo-Saxon race is in some respects singularly adapted to develop this Chinese gift. As the ancient Persians were taught principally the two arts of drawing the long bow and speaking the truth, so the Anglo-Saxon is soon perceived by the Chinese to have a talent for veracity and doing justice as well towards enemies as towards friends. To the Chinese these qualities seem as singular as the Jewish habit of suspending all military operations every seventh day, no matter how hard-pressed they might be, must have appeared to the Romans under Titus, and the one eccentricity proves as useful to the Chinese as the other did to the Romans. 

Foreign intercourse with China for the century preceding 1860 was one long illustration of the Chinese talent for misunderstanding, and the succeeding years have by no means exhausted that talent. The history of foreign diplomacy with China is largely a history of attempted explanations of matters which have been deliberately misunderstood. But in these or in other cases, the initial conviction that a foreigner will do as he has promised is deeply rooted in the Chinese mind, and flourishes in spite of whatever isolated exceptions to the rule are forced upon observation. The confidence, too, that a foreigner will act justly (also in spite of some private and many national examples to the contrary) is equally firm. But given these two fixed points, the Chinese have a fulcrum from which they may hope to move the most obstinate foreigner. "You said thus and thus." "No, I did not say so." "But I understood you to say so. We all understood you to say so. Please excuse our stupidity, and please pay the money, as you said you would." Such is the substance of thousands of arguments between Chinese and foreigners, and in ninety-seven cases out of a hundred the foreigner pays the money, just as the Chinese knew he would, in order to seem strictly truthful as well as strictly just. In the remaining three cases some other means must be devised to accomplish the result, and of these three two will succeed. 

Examples of the everyday misunderstanding on all subjects will suggest themselves in shoals to the experienced reader, for their name is legion. The coolie is told to pull up the weeds in your yard, but to spare the precious tufts of grass just beginning to sprout, and in which you see visions of a longed-for turf. The careless buffalo takes a hoe and chops up every green thing he meets, making a wilderness and calling it peace. He did not "understand" you. The cook was sent a long distance to the only available market, with instructions to buy a carp and a young fowl. He returns with no fish, and three tough geese, which were what he thought you ordered. He did not "understand" you. The messenger that was sent just before the closing of the mail with an important packet of letters to the French Consulate returns with the information that the letters could not be received. He has taken them to the Belgian Consulate, and the mail has closed. He did not "understand" you. 

How easy it is for the poor foreigner both to misunderstand and to be misunderstood is well illustrated in the experience of a friend of the writer, who visited a Chinese bank with the proprietors of which he was on good terms, and in the neighbourhood of which there had recently been a destructive conflagration. The foreigner congratulated the banker that the fire had not come any nearer to his establishment. On this the person addressed grew at once embarrassed and then angry, exclaiming: "What sort of talk is this? This is not a proper kind of talk!" It was not till some time afterwards that the discovery was made that the point of the offence against good manners lay in the implied hint that if the fire had come too near it might have burned the cash-shop, which would have been most unlucky, and the very contemplation of which, albeit in congratulatory language, was therefore taboo! A foreigner who was spending a short time in the capital met a drove of camels, among which was a baby camel. Turning to the driver of the cart, who had been for many years in the employ of foreigners, he said: "When you come back to the house, tell my little boy to come out and look at this little camel, as he has never seen one, and it will amuse him very much." After a considerable lapse of time, during which, as in the last case, the idea was undergoing slow fermentation, the carter replied thoughtfully: "If you should buy the camel, you could not raise it — it would be sure to die!" 

The writer was once present at a service in Chinese, when the speaker treated the subject of the cure of Naaman. He pictured the scene as the great Syrian general arrived at the door of Elisha's house, and represented the attendants striving to gain admittance for their master. Struggling to make this as pictorial as possible, the speaker cried out dramatically, on behalf of the Syrian servants, "Gatekeeper, open the door; the Syrian general has come!" To the speaker's surprise a man in the rear seat disappeared at this point as if he had been shot out, and it subsequently appeared that this person had laboured under a misunderstanding. He was the gate- keeper of the premises, and oblivious of what had gone before, on hearing himself suddenly accosted he had rushed out with commendable promptness to let in Naaman! 

Not less erroneous were the impressions of another auditor of a missionary in one of the central provinces, who wished to produce a profound impression upon his audience by showing with the stereopticon a highly magnified representation of a very common parasite. As the gigantic body of this reptile, much resembling an Egyptian crocodile, was thrown athwart the canvas, one of the spectators present was heard to announce in an awed whisper the newly gained idea, "See, this is the great Foreign Louse!"  


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