(1894 version) Chinese Characteristics CHAPTER XIV. CONSERVATISM


IT is true of the Chinese, to a greater degree than of any other nation in history, that their Golden Age is in the past. The sages of antiquity themselves spoke with the deepest reverence of more ancient "ancients." Confucius declared that he was not an originator, but a transmitter. It was his mission to gather up what had once been known, but long neglected or misunderstood. It was his painstaking fidelity in accomplishing this task, as well as the high ability which he brought to it, that gave the Master his extraordinary hold upon the people of his race. It is his relation to the past, as much as the quality of what he taught, that constitutes the claim of Confucius to the front rank of holy men. It is the Confucian theory of morals that a good ruler will make a good people. The prince is the dish, the people are the water; if the dish is round, the water is round, if the dish is square, the water will be square also. Upon this theory, it is not strange that all the virtues are believed to have flourished in the days when model rulers existed. The most ignorant coolie will upon occasion remind us that in the days of "Yao and Shun" there was no necessity for closing the doors at night, for there were no thieves; and that if an article was lost on the highway it was the duty of the first comer to stand as a nominal guard over it until the next one happened along, who took his turn until the owner arrived, who always found his property perfectly intact. It is a common saying that the present is inferior to the past in the items of benevolence and justice; but that in violations of conscience the past cannot compete with the present. 

This tendency to depreciate the present time is by no means confined to China or to the Chinese, but is found with impartiality all over the earth; yet in the Celestial Empire it seems to have attained a sincerity of conviction not elsewhere equalled. All that is best in the ancient days is believed to have survived in the literature to which the present day is the heir, and it is for this reason that this literature is regarded with such unmixed idolatry. The orthodox Chinese view of the Chinese Classics appears to be much the same as the orthodox Christian view in regard to the Hebrew Scriptures; they are supposed to contain all that is highest and best of the wisdom of the past, and to contain all that is equally adapted to the present time and to the days of old. That anything is needed to supplement the Chinese Classics is no more believed by a good Confucianist, than it is believed by a good Christian that supplementary additions to the Bible are desirable or to be expected. Both Christians and Confucianists agree in the general proposition that when a thing is as good as it can be, it is idle to try to make it any better. 

Just as many good Christians make some Bible "text" a pretext for something which the biblical writers never had in mind, so Confucian scholars are upon occasion able to find in "the old masters'' not only authority for all the modern proceedings of the government, but the real roots of ancient mathematics, and even of modern science. 

The literature of antiquity is that which has moulded the Chinese nation, and has brought about a system of government which, whatever its other qualities, has been proved to possess that of persistence. Since self-preservation is the first law of nations as of individuals, it is not singular that a form of rule which an experience of unmatched duration has shown to be so well adapted to its end should have come to be regarded with a reverence akin to that felt for the Classics. It would be a curious discovery if some learned student of Chinese history should succeed in ascertaining and explaining the processes by which the Chinese government came to be what it is. If ever those processes should be discovered, we think it certain that it will then be clearly seen why there have been in China so few of those interior revolutions to which all other peoples have been subject. There is a story of a man who built a stone wall six feet wide and only four feet high, and on being asked his reasons for so singular a proceeding, he replied that it was his purpose that when the wall blew over, it should be higher than it was before! The Chinese government is by no means incapable of being blown over, but it is a cube, and when it capsizes, it simply falls upon some other face, and to external appearance, as well as to interior substance, is the same that it has always been. Repeated experience of this process has taught the Chinese that this result is as certain as that a cat will fall upon its feet, and the conviction is accompanied by a most implicit faith in the divine wisdom of those who planned and built so wisely and so well. To suggest improvements would be the rankest heresy. Hence it has come about that the unquestioned superiority of the ancients rests upon the firm basis of the recognised inferiority of those who come after them. With these considerations clearly in mind, it is not difficult to perceive the rationale of what seems at first the blind and obstinate adherence of the Chinese to the ways of the past. To the Chinese, as to the ancient Romans, manners and morals are interchangeable ideas, for they have the same root and are in their essence identical. To the Chinese an invasion of their customs is an invasion of the regions which are most sacred. It is not necessary for this effect that the customs should be apprehended in their ultimate relations, or indeed, strictly speaking, apprehended at all. They are resolutely defended by an instinct similar to that which leads a she-bear to protect her cubs. This is not a Chinese instinct merely, but it belongs to human nature. It has been profoundly remarked that millions of men are ready to die for a faith which they do not comprehend, and by the tenets of which they do not regulate their lives. 

Chinese customs, like the Chinese language, have become established in some way to us unknown. Customs, like human speech, once established resist change. But the conditions under which Chinese customs and language crystallised into shape are in no two places exactly the same. Hence we have those perplexing variations of usage indicated in the common proverb that customs differ every ten miles. Hence, too, we have the bewildering dialects. When once the custom or the dialect has become fixed, it resembles plaster-of-Paris which has set, and while it may be broken, it cannot be changed. This, at least, is the theory, but, like other theories, it must be made sufficiently elastic to suit the facts, which are that no mere custom is necessarily immortal, and, given certain conditions, a change can be effected. 

No better illustration of this truth could be given than one drawn from the experience of the present dynasty in introducing an entirely new style of tonsure among their Chinese subjects. It was inevitable that such a conspicuous and tangible mark of subjection should have been bitterly resisted, even to the death, by great numbers of the Chinese. But the Manchus showed how well they were fitted for the high task which they had undertaken, by their persistent adherence to the requirement, compliance with which was made at once a sign and a test of loyalty. The result is what we see. The Chinese people are now more proud of their cues than of any other characteristic of their dress, and the rancorous hostility to the edict of the Manchus survives only in the turbans of the natives of the provinces of Canton and Fukien, coverings once adopted to hide the national disgrace. 

The introduction of the Buddhist religion into China was accomplished only at the expense of a warfare of the most determined character; but once thoroughly rooted, it appears as much like a native as Taoism, and not less difficult to supplant. 

The genesis of Chinese customs being what it is, it is easy to perceive that it is die underlying assumption that whatever is right. Thus a long-established usage is a tyranny. Of the countless individuals who conform to the custom, not one is at all concerned with the origin or the reason of the acts. His business is to conform, and he conforms. The degree of religious faith in different parts of the Empire doubtless differs widely, but nothing can be more certain than that all the rites of the "three religions" are performed by millions who are as destitute of anything which ought to be called faith, as they are of an acquaintance with Egyptian hieroglyphics. To any inquiry as to the reason for any particular act of religious routine, nothing is more common than to receive two answers: the first, that the whole business of communication with the gods has been handed down from the ancients, and must therefore be on the firmest possible basis; the second, that "everybody" does so, and therefore the person in question must conform. In China the machinery moves the cogs, and not the cogs the machinery. While this continues to be always and everywhere true, it is also true that the merest shell of conformity is all that is demanded. 

It is a custom in Mongolia for every one who can afford it to use snuff, and to offer it to his friends. Every one is provided with a little snuff-box, which he produces whenever he encounters a friend. If the person with the snuff-box happens to be out of snuff, that does not prevent the passing of the snuff-box, of which each guest takes a deliberate, though an imaginary pinch, and returns the box to its owner. To seem to notice that the box is empty would not be "good form," but by compliance with the proper usages the "face" of the host is saved, and all is according to well-settled precedent. In many important particulars it is not otherwise with the Chinese. The life may have long departed, but there remains the coral reel, the avenues to which, in order to avoid shipwreck, must be diligently respected. 

The fixed resolution to do certain acts in certain ways, and in no other, is not peculiar to China. The coolies in India habitually carried burdens upon their heads, and applied the same principle to the removal of earth for railways. When the contractors substituted wheelbarrows, the coolies merely transferred the barrows to the tops of their skulls. The coolies in Brazil carry burdens in the same way as those of India. A foreign gentleman in the former country gave a servant a letter to be posted, and was surprised to see him put the letter on his head and weight it with a stone to keep it in place. The exact similarity of mental processes reveals a similarity of cause, and it is a cause very potent in Chinese affairs. It leads to those multiplied instances of imitativeness with which we are all so familiar, as when the cook breaks an egg and throws it away each time that he makes a pudding, because on the first occasion when he was shown how to make a pudding an egg happened to be bad; or when the tailor puts a patch on a new garment because an old one given him as a measure chanced to be thus decorated. Stories of this sort are doubtless often meant as harmless exaggerations of a Chinese characteristic, but they represent the reality with great fidelity. 

Every one acquainted with Chinese habits will be able to adduce instances of a devotion to precedent which seems to us unaccountable, and which really is so until we apprehend the postulate which underlies the act. In a country which stretches through some twenty-five degrees of latitude, but in which winter furs are taken off and straw hats are put on according to a fixed rule for the whole Empire, it would be strange if precedent were not a kind of divinity. In regions where the only heat in the houses during the cold winter comes from the scanty fire under the "stove-bed," or k'ang, it is not uncommon for travellers who have been caught in a sudden "cold snap" to find that no arguments can induce the landlord of the inn to heat the k'ang, because the season for heating it has not arrived! 

The reluctance of Chinese artificers to adopt new methods is sufficiently well known to all, but perhaps few even of these conservatives are more conservative than the head of the company of workmen employed to bum bricks in a kiln which, with all that appertained thereto, was the property of foreigners and not of those who worked it. As there was occasion to use a kind of square bricks larger than those which happened to be in fashion in that region, the foreigner ordered larger ones to be made. All that was necessary for this purpose was simply the preparation of a wooden tray, the size of the required brick, to be used as a mould. When the bricks were wanted they were not forthcoming, and the foreman, to whom the orders had been given, being called to account for his neglect, refused to be a party to any such innovation, adducing as his all-sufficient reason the affirmation that under the whole heavens there is no such mould as this! 

The bearing of the subject of conservatism upon the relation of foreigners to China and the Chinese is not likely to be lost sight of for a moment by any one whose lot is cast in China, and who has the smallest interest in the future welfare of this mighty Empire. The last quarter of the nineteenth century seems destined to be a critical period in Chinese history. A great deal of very new wine is offered to the Chinese, who have no other provision for its reception than a varied assortment of very old wine-skins. Thanks to the instinctive conservatism of the Chinese nature, very little of the new wine has thus far been accepted, and, for that little, new bottles are in course of preparation. 

The present attitude of China towards the lands of the West is an attitude of procrastination. There is on the one hand small desire for that which is new, and upon the other no desire at all, or even willingness, to give up the old. As we see ancient mud huts, that ought long ago to have reverted to their native earth, shored up with clumsy mud pillars which but postpone the inevitable fall, so we behold old customs, old superstitions, and old faiths now outworn, propped up and made to do the same duty as heretofore. "If the old does not go, the new does not come," we are told, and not without truth. The process of change from the one to the other may long be resisted, and may then come about suddenly. 

At a time when it was first proposed to introduce telegraphs, the Governor-General of a maritime province reported to the Emperor that the hostility of the people to the innovation was so great that the wires could not be put up. But when war with France was imminent, and the construction of the line was placed upon an entirely different basis, the provincial authorities promptly set up the telegraph posts, and saw that they were respected. 

Not many years ago the superstition feng-shui was believed by many to be an almost insuperable obstacle to the introduction of railways in China. The very first short line, constructed as an outlet for the K'ai-p'ing coal mines, passed through a large Chinese cemetery, the graves being removed to make way for it, as they would have been in England or in France. A single inspection of that bisected graveyard was sufficient to produce the conviction that feng-shui could never stand before an engine, when the issue is narrowed down to a trial of strength between "wind-water" and steam. The experience gained in the subsequent extension of this initial line shows clearly that however financial considerations may delay the introduction of railways, geomantic superstitions are for this purpose quite inert. 

The union of the conservative instinct with the capacity for invasion of precedents is visible in important Chinese affairs. In China no principle is better settled than that, when one of his parents dies, an official must retire from office. Yet against his repeated and "tearful" remonstrances, the most powerful subject in the Empire was commanded by the Throne to continue his attention to the intricate details of the most important plexus of duties to be found in the Empire, through all the years of what should have been mourning retirement after the death of his mother. No principle would seem to be more firmly established in China than that a father is the superior of his son, who must always do him reverence. Equally well established is the principle that the Emperor is superior to all his subjects, who must always do him reverence. When, therefore, as at the last change of rulers, it happens that from a collateral line is adopted a young Emperor whose father is still living, it would appear to be inevitable that the father must either commit suicide, or go into a permanent retirement. Such, it was supposed when Kuang Hsu ascended the throne, would actually be the end of Prince Ch'un. Yet during the illness of the latter, his son, the Emperor, made repeated calls upon his subordinate-superior, the father; and some modus vivendi was arrived at, since this same father until his death held important offices under his son. 

As already remarked, the conservative instinct leads the Chinese to attach undue importance to precedent. But rightly understood and cautiously used, this is a great safeguard for foreigners in their dealings with so sensitive, so obstinate, and so conservative a people. It is only necessary to imitate the Chinese method, to take things for granted, to assume the existence of rights which have not been expressly withheld, to defend them warily when they are assailed, and by all means to hold on. Thus, as in the case of the right of foreign residence in Peking, the right of foreign residence in the interior, and in many others, wise conservatism is the safest defence. The threatening reef which seemed so insuperable a barrier to navigation, once penetrated, offers upon the inner side a lagoon of peace and tranquillity, safe from the storms and breakers which vainly beat against it.  

Related articles:


Start the discussion...

To Leave a Comment or reply to posts please log in