(1894 version) Chinese Characteristics CHAPTER XVIII.CONTENT AND CHEERFULNESS


WE have already seen that the capacity of the Chinese to bear the ills they have, is a wonderful, and to us in most cases an incomprehensible talent, which has well been called a psychological paradox. Notwithstanding their apparently hopeless condition, they do not appear to lose hope, or rather, they seem to struggle on without it and often against it. We do not perceive among them that restlessness which characterises the people of most other nations, especially towards the close of the nineteenth century. They do not cherish plans which seem to them to lead ultimately to "a good time coming," and they do not appear to suppose that there is any such time to be expected.

But the terms "patience" and "perseverance" by no means cover the whole field of the Chinese virtues in this direction. We must also take account of their quietness of mind in conditions often very unfavourable to it, and of that chronic state of good spirits which we designate by the term "cheerfulness." Our main object is to call attention to the existence of such virtues; yet we may perhaps be able incidentally to suggest certain considerations which in part help to account for them.

By the term "contentedness" we do not mean to imply that any individual in China is satisfied with what he possesses in such a way and to such a degree that he does not wish to better his condition. The contentedness of the Chinese, as we have seen in speaking of their conservatism, is most conspicuously seen when we consider the system under which they live. That system they do not wish to change. That this is the temper of the great mass of the Chinese, we have no doubt whatever. It is a mode of viewing the phenomena of life which we designate by the general name "conservative," and of this the Chinese are as conspicuous examples as any people of whom we have any record. It must be evident that such conceptions of Chinese society, permeating the whole mass of the people and inherited from distant ages, powerfully tend to repress any practical exhibitions of discontent with the allotments of fortune. Evils of course they feel, but these are considered to be inevitable. Persons who seriously and uniformly take this view are not the ones who are likely to en deavour to upset the established order of things simply because the pressure upon themselves is severe. In no country is the educated class more really a leader of thought and action than in China. But the educated class is firmly persuaded that for China and the Chinese the present system is the best obtainable. Their vast and varied experience in the long reach of Chinese history has taught the Chinese by convincing object-lessons that solid, practical improvements in their system are not to be got for the trying. Their adamantine conservatism is the slow outgrowth of this experience.

Without being fully aware of the fact, the Chinese are a nation of fatalists. There is a great deal in the Classics about the "decrees of heaven." There is a great deal in popular speech about "heaven's will." Expressions of this sort often bear a close analogy to the manner in which we speak of Providence. But there is this radical distinction in the under lying thought; to us "Providence" signifies the care and fore thought of a Being who is in distinct relations to all creatures that on earth do dwell, all of whom are included in His thought and forethought; to the Chinese, whose practical conception of "heaven" is an altogether impersonal one and utterly vague, whatever the mode of expression, the practical aspect of the matter is simply that of fate. "Good fate" and "bad fate" are phrases which have to the Chinese a meaning similar to that conveyed by the expressions in children's story-books, "good fairy'' and "bad fairy." By means of these mysterious agencies anything whatever can be done, anything whatever can be undone.

The whole complicated theory and practice of Chinese geomancy, necromancy, and fortune-telling, are based upon the play and interplay of forces which are visibly expressed by means of straight lines. The number of Chinese who make a living out of these theories of the universe practically applied, is past all estimation. While the extent to which such superstitions influence the daily life of the people varies greatly in different parts of the Empire, they are everywhere real and living factors in the minds of the masses. Nothing is more common than to hear an especially unfortunate Chinese man or woman remark, "It is my fate." The natural outcome of such a creed would be to cause despair, or if the hopefulness with which mankind, and especially the Chinese, are mercifully endowed come to the rescue, to urge them to a patient biding till their time shall come, and fate shall again favour them. Perhaps the Chinese are not as consistent fatalists as the Turks, and perhaps the "fate" of the Chinese is not identical with "Kismet"; but it is evident that a people so persuaded of the existence of fate as are the Chinese, must be in disposed for violent struggles against what they believe to be, in the nature of things, unavoidable.

It is a venerable observation of the Greeks that history is philosophy teaching by examples. As we have just seen, their own history has been the teacher of the Chinese, and the lessons which they have drawn are all of a conservative character. But no nation is educated by simply knowing its own annals, as no man can be said to know anything who knows only what has happened to himself. It is at this point that Chinese knowledge is fatally defective. Of those great episodes in modern history which we denote by the expressions the Renaissance, the Reformation, the discovery of America, and the birth of modem science, the Chinese know nothing. By those influences which brought nations into a more intimate contact than ever before, and which have slowly developed a conception of the rights of man, the Chinese as a people have been totally unaffected.

The improvement of the condition of the people is not a living issue to those who exist and have all their being in the extinct dynasties of the past. The application of the great laws of political economy to the advantage of all departments of the state, has no attractions to those who know no more of political economy than our ancestors at the time of the crusades, and who would not care for it if they did know of it. The first impulse to improvement comes from seeing the superior condition of others. The vast mass of the Chinese people do not see any evidence of such a better condition elsewhere, because they know nothing whatever about other countries. Those, on the other hand, who do know something of such countries, and who might know much more, are chained by fetters of conservatism. Nothing really beneficial to the masses can be done, except upon a large scale, and no body of persons in China capable of working upon a large scale wishes anything done in these lines. While this does not of itself promote content among the masses, it strangles any effective manifestation of discontent before it can find expression. Thus, viewed from the social standpoint, Chinese contentedness is the antithesis of progress, and interdicts it.

We have already spoken of the fact that Chinese experience is against the practicability of any amelioration of the condition of the people by means which are at hand. To the foreigner, acquainted with the experience of other lands in modem times, the simple, obvious, indispensable recipe for the relief of many of the ills to which the Chinese are subject, is emigration. This we know from induction to be the remedy which the Chinese could adopt most easily, and with the greatest assurance of success. But this is an expedient which the Chinese themselves will never adopt, for the reason that it will take them away from the home of their fathers and from the graves of their ancestors, to which, by the theory of Confucianism, they are inexorably linked. Generally speaking, no Chinese will leave his home to seek his fortune at a distance, unless he is in some way driven to do so. His ideal of life is to be

"Fixed like a plant on his peculiar spot,

To draw nutrition, propagate, and rot."

Generally speaking, no Chinese leaves his home not intending to return. His hope is always to come back rich, to die and be buried where his ancestors are buried. As long as this fatal "thirst for decomposing under the immediate feet of their posterity "continues to be the principal passion of the Chinese, so long will they be debarred from the one obvious method by which their ills might be effectually lightened. Real amelioration of the condition of the mass of the Chinese people where they are, we believe to be well-nigh impossible, and transplantation on any adequate scale they would not tolerate except as a decree of "fate." An unconscious consciousness of this state of things checks the expression of a discontent which has abundant cause to make itself heard.

But what we have thus far said in elucidation of the peculiar Chinese faculty of being contented, to which we in Western lands have nothing corresponding, fails after all to go to the root of the matter. The truth seems to be that the Chinese is a being formed for contentment, as the fin of the fish is formed for the water, or the wing of the bird for the air. He is what he calls "heaven-endowed "with a talent for industry, for peace, and for social order. He is gifted with a matchless patience, and with unparalleled forbearance under ills the causes of which are perceived to be beyond his reach. As a rule, he has a happy temperament, no nervous system to speak of, and a digestion like that of the ostrich. For these reasons, and others which we have imperfectly expressed, instead of spending his energies in butting against stone walls, which he has found to be more or less unyielding, he simply submits for the most part without serious complaint to what he cannot help. He acts in the spirit of the old adage, "What can't be cured must be endured." In short, a Chinese knows how to abound, and he knows how to want, and, what is of capital importance, he knows how to be contented in either condition.

The cheerfulness of the Chinese, which we must regard as a national characteristic, is intimately connected with their contentedness of mind. To be happy is more than they expect, but, unlike us, they are generally willing to be as happy as they can. Inordinate fastidiousness is not a common Chinese failing. They are generally model guests. Any place will do, any food is good enough for them. Even the multitudes who are insufficiently clothed and inadequately fed, preserve their serenity of spirit in a way which to us appears marvellous.

An almost universal illustration of Chinese cheerfulness is to be found in their sociability, in striking contrast to the glum exclusiveness so often characteristic of the Anglo-Saxon. One of the main enjoyments of the Chinese seems to be chatting with one another, and whether they are old friends or perfect strangers makes very little difference. That this appreciation of human society is a great alleviation of many of the miseries which the Chinese suffer, cannot be doubted.

It is also to be noted that many Chinese have the happy art of adorning their very humble surroundings with plants and flowers, of which they are extremely fond. This is but an in articulate way of saying, "We have not much, but we make the most of what we have.''

Many as are the criticisms which we perhaps justly make upon our Chinese servants, it is only fair to mention that they will frequently submit to serious inconveniences, and will do extra work for many persons for a great length of time, not only without complaint, but often with an apparent unconsciousness that there is anything to complain of.

The Chinese who is in the service of others and is in the habit of bewailing his hard fate, is often laughed at by his companions, and sometimes he becomes a by-word and a proverb. Of the tireless industry of the Chinese we have already spoken, but it is noteworthy that those whose spindle is heard till after midnight, working it may be in the dark in order to save a farthing's worth of oil, are not the ones whose mouths are filled with bitter plaints. They rise early and toil late, and they do so as a matter of course. Some of those whose labour is most exhausting, as coolies, boat-trackers, and wheelbarrow men, not only are not heard to murmur at the unequal distribution of this world's goods, but when they have opportunities of resting do so in excellent spirits, and with an evident enjoyment of their humble fare. Discerning travellers have often called attention to this very significant trait of the Chinese workman. In Mr. Hosie's "Three Years in Western China," he says, speaking of the upper Yang-tze: "The trackers, too, deserve a word of mention. They were, with the exception of the musician and the diver, almost all lithe young fellows, always willing to jump on shore, never spending more than a quarter of an hour over their rice and vegetables, and never out of temper." Mr. Archibald Little, in his "Through the Yang-tze Gorges '' bears a similar testimony; " Our five trackers clung on their hands and feet to the jagged rocks, as they pulled the boat up inch by inch. I cannot sufficiently admire the pluck and endurance of these poor coolies, earning but two dollars in cash for the two months' voyage, and getting three meals of coarse rice, flavoured with a little fried cabbage, for their sustenance, upon which they are called to put forth their strength from dawn to dark daily."

The writer is acquainted with a Chinese who was employed by a foreigner in pushing a heavy barrow, on journeys often months in duration. Upon these trips it was necessary to start early, to travel late, to transport heavy loads over steep and rugged mountains, in all seasons and in all weathers, fording chilling rivers with bare feet and legs, and at the end of every stage to prepare his master's food and lodging. All this laborious work was done for a very moderate compensation, and always without complaint, and at the end of several years of this service his master testified that he had never once seen this servant out of temper! Is there any reader of these lines of whom, mutatis mutandis, the same statement could be truth fully made?

Perhaps it is in time of sickness that the innate cheerfulness of the Chinese disposition shows to most advantage. As a rule, they take the most optimistic view, or, at all events, wish to seem to do so, both of their own condition and of that of others. Their cheery hopefulness often does not forsake them even in physical weakness and in extreme pain. We have known multitudes of cases where Chinese patients, suffering from every variety of disease, frequently in deep poverty, not always adequately nourished, at a distance from their homes, sometimes neglected or even abandoned by their relatives, and with no ray of hope for the future visible, yet maintained a cheerful equanimity of temper, which was a constant albeit an unintentional rebuke to the nervous impatience which, under like circumstances, would be sure to characterise the Anglo Saxon.

Chinese endued with this happy temperament we believe to be by no means rare. Every one of much experience in China has met them. We repeat that if the teaching of history as to what happens to "the fittest" is to be trusted, there is a magnificent future for the Chinese race. 

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