(1894 version) Chinese Characteristics CHAPTER XVII. PATIENCE AND PERSEVERANCE


THE term "patience" embraces three quite different meanings. It is the act or quality of expecting long, without complaint, anger, or discontent. It is the power or the act of suffering or bearing quietly or with equanimity any evil — calm endurance. It is also employed as a synonym of perseverance. That the group of qualities to which reference is here made has a very important bearing on the life of the people to whom they belong, is obvious at a glance. The disadvantage arising from a separate and a distinct examination of individual Chinese characteristics is nowhere more obvious than in the consideration of the qualities of patience and perseverance. These characteristics of the Chinese are inseparably connected with their comparative "absence of nerves," with their "disregard of time," and especially with that quality of "industry" by which the national patience and perseverance are most conspicuously and most effectively illustrated. What has been already said upon these topics will have served to suggest one of the chief virtues in the Chinese character, but the necessarily desultory treatment involved in such incidental mention deserves to be supplemented by a more comprehensive presentation.

Among a dense population like that of the Chinese Empire, life is often reduced to its very lowest terms, and those terms are literally a "struggle for existence." In order to live, it is necessary to have the means of living, and those means each must obtain for himself as best he can. The Chinese have been well said to "reduce poverty to a science." Deep poverty and a hard struggle for the means of existence will of themselves never make any human being industrious; but if a man or a race is endowed with the instinct of industry, these are the conditions which will tend most effectually to develop industry. The same conditions will also tend to the development of economy, which, as we have seen, is a prominent Chinese quality. These conditions also develop patience and perseverance. The hunter and the fisherman, who know that their livelihood depends upon the stealth and wariness of their movements, and the patience with which they wait for their opportunity, will be stealthy, wary, and patient, no matter whether they happen to belong to the races of mankind classed as "civilised," to those called "semi-civilised," or to those known as "savage." The Chinese have for ages been hunting for a living under conditions frequently the most adverse, and they have thus learned to combine the active industry of the most civilised peoples with the passive patience of the North American Indian.

The Chinese are willing to labour a very long time for very small rewards, because small rewards are much better than none. Ages of experience have taught them that it is very difficult to make industry a stepping-stone to those wider opportunities which we of the West have come to look upon as its natural results. They are "natural" results only in the sense that when appropriate conditions are found these results will follow. A population of five hundred to the square mile, it is scarcely necessary to observe, is not one of the conditions adapted to lead to practical verification of the adage that industry and economy are the two hands of fortune. But the Chinese is content to toil on for such rewards as he may be able to get, and in this contentment he illustrates his virtue of patience.

It is related of the late General Grant, that on his return from his trip around the globe, he was asked what was the most remarkable thing that he saw. He replied at once that the most extraordinary sight which he anywhere beheld was the spectacle of a petty Chinese dealer by his keen competition driving out a Jew. There was great significance in the observation. The qualities of Jewish people are by this time well known, and have led to most surprising results, but the Jews are after all but a small part of the human race. The Chinese, on the other hand, are a considerable percentage of the whole population of the planet. The Jew who was driven out by the Chinese did not presumptively differ in any essential respect from any other Jew. The result of the competition would probably have been the same though the competitors had been different in their identity, for it is morally certain that the successful Chinese did not differ in any essential particular from millions of other Chinese who might have chanced to be in his situation.

It is in his staying qualities that the Chinese excels the world. Of that quiet persistence which impels a Chinese student to keep on year after year attending the examinations, until he either takes his degree at the age of ninety or dies in the effort, mention has been already made. No rewards that are likely to ensue, nor any that are possible, will of themselves account for this extraordinary perseverance. It is a part of that innate endowment with which the Chinese are equipped, and is analogous to the fleetness of the deer or the keen sight of the eagle. A similar quality is observed in the meanest beggar at a shop door. He is not a welcome visitor, albeit so frequent in his appearances. But his patience is unfailing, and his perseverance invariably wins its modest reward, a single brass cash.

There is a story of an Arab whose turban was stolen by some unknown person, upon which the loser of this important article of apparel promptly betook himself to the tribal burialplace and seated himself at the entrance. Upon being asked his reason for this strange behaviour, and why he did not pursue the thief, he made the calm and characteristically Oriental reply, "He must come here at last!" One is not infrequently reminded of this exaggeration of passive persistence, not only in the behaviour of individual Chinese, but in the acts of the government as well. The long and splendid reign of the Emperor K'ang Hsi, lasting from 1662 until 1723, made his name more celebrated than that of any other Asiatic monarch. Yet it was in the reign of this greatest of Chinese rulers that the Chinese patriotic pirate, known under the name of Koxinga, ravaged the coasts of the provinces of Kuangtung and Fukien to such a degree that the government junks were totally unable to cope with him. Under these circumstances, K'ang Hsi hit upon the happy expedient of ordering all the people inhabiting this extended coast line to retire into the interior to a distance of thirty li, or about nine miles, at which point they were inaccessible even to such stout attacks as this adherent of the old order of things was able to make. This strange command was generally obeyed, and was quite successful in accomplishing its design. Koxinga retired, baffled in his plans, and contented himself with driving the Dutch out of Formosa, and was eventually ennobled under the title of the "Sea-quelling Duke," by which means he was at once pacified and extinguished. Every foreigner reading this singular account is impelled to assent to the comment of the author of the "Middle Kingdom," that a government which was strong enough to compel such a number of maritime subjects to leave their towns and villages, and to retire at such great loss into the interior, ought to have been strong enough to equip a fleet and to put an end to the attacks upon these desolated homes.

Another example of the persistence of the Chinese government is not less remarkable, and is still fresh in the minds of foreign residents in China. In the year 1873 the Chinese General Tso Tsung-tang established himself in Barkoul and Hami, having been sent by the government to endeavour to put a stop to the great Mohammedan rebellion, which, beginning with a mere spark, had spread lie wildfire all over western China and through Central Asia. The difficulties to be overcome were so great as to appear almost insuperable. It was then common to meet with articles in the foreign press in China ridiculing both the undertaking of Tso and the fatuity of the government in endeavouring to raise money by loans, in order to pay the heavy war expenses thus incurred. Within a year of his arrival in the rebellious districts, Tso's army was marching on either side of the lofty T'ien-shan in parallel columns, driving the rebels before them. When they reached a country in which the supplies were insufficient, the army was turned into a farming colony and set to cultivating the soil with a view to raising crops for their future support. Thus alternately planting and marching, the "agricultural army" of Tso thoroughly accomplished its work, an achievement which has been thought to be among "the most remarkable in the annals of any modem country."

That quality of Chinese patience which to us seems the most noteworthy of all, is its capacity to wait without complaint and to bear with calm endurance. It has been said that the true way to test the real disposition of a human being is to study his behaviour when he is cold, wet, and hungry. If that is satisfactory, take the individual in question, "warm him, dry him, and fill him up, and you have an angel." There is a conviction which often finds utterance in current literature, that it is as dangerous to meet an Englishman deprived of his dinner as a she-bear robbed of her cubs, and it is not easy to perceive why the truth which underlies this statement is not as applicable to all Anglo-Saxons as to the inhabitants of the British Isles. With all our boasted civilisation we are under bondage to our stomachs.

The writer once saw about one hundred and fifty Chinese, most of whom had come several miles in order to be present at a feast, meet a cruel disappointment. Instead of being able, as was expected, to sit down at about ten o'clock to the feast, which was for many of them the first meal of the day, owing to a combination of unforeseen circumstances they were compelled to stand aside and act as waiters on about as many more individuals. The latter ate with relish and that deliberation which is a trait of Chinese civilisation in which it is far in advance of our own. Before the meal for which they had so long and so patiently waited could be served, another delay became necessary, as unforeseen as the first, and far more exasperating. What did these hundred and fifty outraged persons do? If they had been inhabitants of the British Isles, or even of some other portions of "nominally Christian lands," we know very well what they would have done. They would have worn looks of sour discontent, and would have spent the entire day until three o'clock in the afternoon, when it was at last possible to sit down, in growling at their luck, and in snarling at their environment generally. They would have passed fiery resolutions, and have "written a letter with five 'Now, Sirs,' to the London Times." The hundred and fifty Chinese did nothing whatever of the sort, and were not only good-tempered all day, but repeatedly observed to their hosts with evident sincerity and with true politeness that it was of no consequence whatever that they had to wait, and that one time was to them exactly as good as another! Does the reader happen to know of any form of Occidental civilisation which would have stood such a sudden and severe strain as that?

That Chinese nerves are totally different from those with which we are endowed has been already shown, but that does not prove that the "obtuse-nerved Turanian" is a stoic like the North American Indian. The Chinese bear their ills not only with fortitude, but, what is often far more difficult, with patience. A Chinese who had lost the use of both eyes applied to a foreign physician to know if the sight could be restored, adding simply that if it could not be restored he should stop being anxious about it. The physician told him that nothing could be done, upon which the man remarked, "Then my heart is at ease." His was not what we call resignation, much less the indifference of despair, but merely the quality which enables us to "bear the ills we have.'' We have come to recognise worry as the bane in our modem life, the rust which corrodes the blade far more than the hardest use can destroy it. It is well for the Chinese that they are gifted with the capacity not to worry, for taking the race as a whole, there are comparatively few who do not have some very practical reason for deep anxiety. Vast districts of this fertile Empire are periodically subject to drought, flood, and, in consequence, to famine. Social calamities, such as lawsuits, and disasters even more dreaded because indefinite, overhang the head of thousands, but this fact would never be discovered by the observer. We have often asked a Chinese whose possession of his land, his house, and sometimes of his wife, was disputed, what the outcome would be. "There will never be any peace," is a common reply. "And when will the matter come to a head?" "Who knows?" is the frequent answer; "it may be early or it may be late, but there is sure to be trouble in plenty." For life under such conditions what can be a better outfit than an infinite capacity for patience?

The exhibition of Chinese patience which is likely to make the strongest impression upon a foreigner, is that which is unfortunately so often to be seen in all parts of the Empire, when the calamities to which reference has just been made have been realised upon an enormous scale. The provinces of China with which foreigners are most familiar are seldom altogether free from disasters due to flood, drought, and resultant famine. The recollection of the terrible sufferings in the famine of 1877-78, which involved untold millions of people, will not soon fade from the memories of those who were witnesses of that distress. Since then the woes inflicted upon extensive regions by the overflows of the Yellow River, and by its sudden change of channel, have been past all computation or comprehension. Some of the finest parts of several different provinces have been devastated, and fertile soil has been buried a fathom deep in blighting sands of desolation. Thousands of villages have been annihilated, and the wretched inhabitants who have escaped death by flood have been driven forth as wanderers on the face of the earth, without homes and without hope. Great masses of human beings, suddenly ruined and reduced to desperation by no fault of their own, are not agreeable objects of contemplation to any government. Self-preservation is the first law of nature, and what is more natural than that those who, through no preventable causes, have been suddenly brought to starvation, should combine to compel those who have food to share with those who have none?

While it is true that relief is extended in a certain way in some large cities, and where the poor sufferers are most congregated, it is also true that this relief is limited in quantity, brief in duration, and does not provide the smallest remedy for more than a minute percentage of even the worst distress. Towards the prolongation of the lives of those who suffer from great calamities, the government feels itself able to do but a trifle. Towards the reclamation of their land, the reconstruction of their houses, and the resumption of life under new conditions, the government does nothing whatever. It does all that the people expect if it remits its taxes, and it frequently does not remit them until it has been again and again demonstrated to the district magistrate that out of nothing nothing comes. To a foreigner from the lands of the West, where the revolutionary cry of "Bread, bread, or blood!" has become familiar, it is hard to understand why the hordes of homeless, famishing, and desperate refugees, who roam over the provinces blighted by flood or famine, do not precipitate themselves in a mass upon the district magistrate of the region where they have been ruined, and demand some form of succour. It is true that the magistrate would be quite powerless to give them what they demand, but he would be forced to do something, and this would be a precedent for something more. If he failed to "tranquillise" the people he would be removed, and some other official put in his place. To repeated and pressing inquiries put to the Chinese in the great famine as to tlie reasons why some such plan was not taken, the invariable answer was in the words, "Not dare." It is vain to argue, in reply to this statement, that one might as well be killed for rebellion, albeit unjustly, as to starve to death — nay, much better. The answer is still the same, "Not dare, not dare."

There seem to be two reasons why the Chinese do not adopt some such course. They are a most practical people, and by a kind of instinct the futility of the plan is recognised, and hence it would be next to impossible to effect the needed combination. But we must believe that the principal reason is the unlimited capacity of the Chinese for patient endurance. This it is which brings about one of the most melancholy spectacles to be seen in China, that of thousands of persons quietly starving to death within easy reach of overflowing abundance. The Chinese are so accustomed to this strange sight that they are hardened to it, as old veterans disregard the horrors of battle. Those who suffer these evils have been all their lives confronted by them, although at a little distance. When the disaster comes it is therefore accepted as alike in evitable and remediless. If those who are overtaken by it can trundle their families on wheelbarrows off to some region where a bare subsistence can be begged, they will do that. If the family cannot be kept together, they will disperse, picking up what they can, and reuniting if they succeed in pulling through the distress. If no relief is to be had near at hand, whole caravans will beg their way a journey of a thousand miles in mid-winter to some province where they hope to find that the crops have been better, that labour is more in demand, and that the chances of survival are greater. If the floods have abated, the mendicant farmer returns to his home long enough to scratch a crack in the mud while it is still too soft to bear the weight of an animal for ploughing, and in this tiny rift he deftly drops a little seed wheat, and again goes his devious way, begging a subsistence until his small harvest shall be ripe. If Providence favours him he becomes once more a farmer, and no longer a beggar, but with the distinctly recognised possibility of ruin and starvation never far away.

It has always been thought to be a powerful argument for the immortality of the soul, that its finest powers often find in this life no fit opportunity for expansion. If this be a valid argument, is there not reason to infer that the unequalled patient endurance of the Chinese race must have been designed for some nobler purpose than merely to enable them to bear with fortitude the ordinary ills of life and the miseries of gradual starvation? If it be the teaching of history that the fittest survive, then surely a race with such a gift, backed by a splendid vitality, must have before it a great future.  

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