(1894 version) Chinese Characteristics CHAPTER XX. BENEVOLENCE


THE Chinese have placed the term "benevolence" at the head of their list of the Five Constant Virtues. The character which denotes it, is composed of the symbols for "man" and "two," by which is supposed to be shadowed forth the view that benevolence is something which ought to be developed by the contact of any two human beings with each other. It is unnecessary to remark that the theory which the form of the character seems to favour, is not at all substantiated by the facts of life among the Chinese, as those facts are to be read by the intelligent and attentive observer. Nevertheless, it is far from being true, as a superficial examination would seem to indicate, that there is among the Chinese no benevolence, though this has been often predicated by those who ought to have known the truth. "The feeling of pity," as Mencius reminds us, "is common to all men," widely as they differ in its expression. The mild and in some respects really benevolent teachings of the Buddhist religion have not been without a visible effect upon the Chinese people. There is, moreover, among the Chinese a strong practical instinct in every direction, and when the attention has once been directed towards the "practice of virtue," there is a great variety of forms in which there is certain to be abundant scope for the exercise of benevolence.

Among the kinds of benevolence which have commended themselves to the Chinese may be named the establishment of foundling hospitals, refuges for lepers and for the aged, and free schools. As China is a land which for most practical purposes is quite free from a census, it is impossible to ascertain to what extent these forms of benevolent action are to be found. Rev. David Hill, who has investigated the charities of central China, reports thirty benevolent institutions in the city of Hankow, expending annually some eight thousand pounds sterling. But it is hazarding little to say that such establishments must be relatively rare; that is to say, as regards the enormous population, and the enormous aggregation of that population in huge hives, where the needs are greatest.

The vast soup-kitchens which are set up anywhere and everywhere when some great flood or famine calls for them are familiar phenomena, as well as the donation of winter clothing to those who are destitute. It is not the government only which engages in these enterprises, but the people also co-operate in a highly creditable manner, and instances are not uncommon in which large sums have been thus judiciously expended. The ordinary streams of refugees which swarm over the country in a bad year are also allowed to camp down in cart-sheds, empty rooms, etc., but this is to a considerable extent a necessity. When such refugees come in extensive bands, and meet in all quarters with repulses, they are certain to be provoked into some form of reprisal. Common prudence dictates some concessions to those in such circumstances.

We do not reckon among the benevolences of the Chinese such associations as the provincial clubs for the care of those who may be destitute at a distance from home, and who without this help could not return, or who, having died, could not otherwise be taken home and buried. This is an ordinary business transaction of the nature of insurance, and is probably so regarded by the Chinese themselves.

In some of the books which have for their express object exhortations to "virtue," an account is opened, in which the individual charges himself with every bad act which he can remember, and credits himself with every good act. The balance between the two exhibits his standing at any particular time in the account books of the Chinese Rhadamanthus. This system of retributive bookkeeping exhibits clearly the practical character of the Chinese, already remarked, as well as their constant and irrepressible tendency to consider the next life, if there be one, as only an extension and an amplification of the present state of existence. The apparent motive for a large percentage of Chinese benevolence is therefore the reflex benefit which such acts are expected to insure to the man who indulges his benevolent impulses. The open avowal of a selfish motive in all acts of merit sometimes leads to curious results. In the month of April, 1889, the prefect of Hangchow attempted to raise funds for the sufferers from the Yellow River floods, by levying a tax on each cup of tea sold in the tea-houses of that great city. To the people of that ancient capital this assessment presented itself in a light similar to that in which the Bostonians of 1773 regarded the tea tax of their day. The prefect endeavoured to win the people over by a proclamation, in which they were informed that "happiness was sure to be their reward, if they cheerfully contributed to so excellent a cause." The people, however, boycotted the tea-shops, and were in the end entirely victorious. It is not every day that we are treated to the spectacle of a cityful of people banded together to resist compulsory "happiness"!

Among the acts by which merit is to be accumulated may be named the providing of coffins for those too poor to buy them; the gathering of human bones which have become exposed, and their reburial in a suitable manner; the collection of written or printed paper that it may be burned to save it from desecration; and the purchase of live birds and fish, that they may be restored to their native element. In some places plasters of a mysterious nature are also given to all applicants, free vaccination is (theoretically) furnished, and "virtue books" are provided for sale at a price below cost, or are even given away. While such works of merit occupy a very prominent place in Chinese benevolence, so far as our observation goes, acts of kindly good-will to men and women occupy a very subordinate place. When such acts occur they are almost sure to be on some stereotyped pattern, involving a minimum of trouble and thought on the part of the doer. It is much easier to stand on the brink of a river, watch a fisherman lower his net, pay for his entire catch, and throw it back again into the water, than to look into the cases of the needy at one's doors, and give help in a judicious manner.

Moreover, to the mind of the practical Chinese there is a very important difference. As soon as die fish touches the water or the bird skims the air they are on a wholly self-supporting basis, and that is the end of the work. They will not expect the man who has released them to provide them and their numerous families with means of subsistence. For the man it only remains to register his virtuous act and go about his business, sure of no disagreeable consequences. But in China "virtue's door is hard to open," and it is still harder to shut. No one can possibly foresee all the remote consequences of some well-meant act of kindness, and knowing the danger of incurring responsibility, the prudent will be wary what they undertake. A missionary living in an interior province was asked by some native gentlemen to do a kind act for a poor beggar who was totally blind, and restore to him his sight. It proved to be a case of cataract, and excellent vision was secured. When the result became certain, the missionary was waited upon by the same gentlemen, and told that as he had destroyed the only means by which the blind man could get a living, that is, by begging, it was the duty of the missionary to make it up to him by taking him into employ as a gatekeeper! Sometimes a benevolent old lady who is limited in the sphere of her activity makes a practice of entertaining other old ladies who seem to be deserving, but who are victims of cruel fate. We have heard of one case of this sort — and of one only — and they may not be so rare as is supposed. But after all abatements, it must be admitted that "real kindness kindly expressed" is not often to be met in Chinese life.

When a vast calamity occurs, like the great famine, or the outburst of the Yellow River, the government, local or general, often comes to the front with a greater or less degree of promptness, and attempts to help the victims. But instead of doing this on any uniform and extensive scale, such as the perpetual recurrence of the necessity might seem to suggest, it is done in a makeshift way, as if the occasion had never before arisen and might never arise again. The care of the refugees is moreover usually abandoned at the very time when they most need help, namely, in the early spring, when, having been weakened by their long suffering and by atrocious overcrowding, they are most liable to disease. It is then that they are sent away with a little ready money, to make the best of their way home, and to get back into their normal state of life as best they can. The excuses for this are apparent: the funds are usually exhausted; there is work to be done on the farms, if the workers can but get food till wheat harvest. The government knows that they will die of pestilence if they remain till warm weather where they are, and destruction in detail seems to the officials to be a less, because a less conspicuous, evil than death in masses.

The same spirit is evinced in the curious ebullition of charitableness, which is known as the "twelve eight gruel." This performance may be regarded as a typical case of the most superficial form of Chinese benevolence. On the eighth day of the twelfth moon it is the custom for every one who has accumulated a quantity of benevolent impulses, which have had no opportunity for their gratification, to make the most liberal donations to all comers, of the very cheapest and poorest quality of soup, during about twelve hours of solar time. This is called "practising virtue," and is considered to be a means of laying up merit. If the year happens to be one in which the harvest is bountiful, those who live in the country have perhaps no applicants for their coarse provender, as even the poorest people have as good or better at home. This circumstance does not, however, lead to the pretermission of the offer, much less to the substitution of anything of a better quality. On the contrary, the donors advertise their intentions with the same alacrity as in other years, not to say with greater, and when the day passes, and no one has asked for a single bowl of the rich gruel designed for them, it is merely put into the broken jars out of which the pigs are fed, and the wealthy man of practical benevolence retires to rest with the proud satisfaction that however it may be with the poor wretches who would not come to his feast, he at least has done his duty for another year, and can in good conscience pose as a man of benevolence and virtue. But if, on the other hand, the year should be a bad one, and grain rises to a fabulous price, then this same man of means and of virtue fails to send out any notices of the "practice of virtue" for this particular year, for the reason that he "cannot afford it"!

We have already referred to the gifts to beggars, of whom one almost everywhere sees a swarm. This donation also is of the nature of an insurance. In the cities the beggars are, as is well known, organised into guilds of a very powerful sort, more powerful by far than any with which they can have to contend, for the reason that the beggars have nothing to lose and nothing to fear, in which respects they stand alone. The shopkeeper who should refuse a donation to a stalwart beggar, after the latter has waited for a reasonable length of time, and has besought with what the Geneva arbitrators styled "due diligence," would be liable to an invasion of a horde of famished wretches, who would render the existence even of a stolid Chinese a burden, and who would utterly prevent the transaction of any business until their continually rising demands should be met. Both the shopkeepers and the beggars understand this perfectly well, and it is for this reason that benevolences of this nature flow in a steady, be it a tiny rill.

The same principle, with obvious modifications, applies to the small donations to the incessant stream of refugees to be seen so often in so many places. In all these cases it will be observed that the object in view is by no means the benefit of the person upon whom the "benevolence" terminates, but the extraction from the benefit conferred of a return benefit for the giver. Every such object of Chinese charity is regarded as a "little Jo," and the main aim of those who have anything to do with him is to make it reasonably certain that he will "move on."

To the other disabilities of Chinese benevolence must be added this capital one, that it is almost impossible for any enterprise, however good or however urgent, to escape the withering effects of the Chinese system of squeezes, which is as well organised as any other part of the scheme of Chinese government. It is not easy to possess one's self of full details of the working of any regular Chinese charity, but enough has been observed during such a special crisis as the great famine, to make it certain that the deepest distress of the people is no barrier whatever to the most shameful peculation on the part of officials entrusted with the disbursement of funds for relief. And if such scandals take place under these circumstances, when public attention is most fixed on the distress and its relief, it is not difficult to conjecture what happens when there is no outside knowledge either of the funds contributed or of their use.

When the Chinese come to know mere of that Occidental civilisation of which too often only the worst side obtrudes itself upon them, it will certainly seem to them not a little remarkable that all Christendom is dotted with institutions such as have no parallel out of Christendom, and then it will perhaps occur to them to inquire into the rationale of so significant a fact. They may be led to notice the suggestive circumstance that the Chinese character for benevolence, unlike most of those which relate to the emotions, which generally have the heart radical, is written without the heart. The virtue for which it stands is also too often practised without heart, with the general results which we have noticed. That state of mind in which practical philanthropy becomes an instinct, demanding opportunity to exhibit its workings whenever the need of it is clearly perceived, may be said to be almost wholly wanting among the Chinese. It is not, indeed, a human development. If it is to be created among the Chinese, it must be by the same process which has made it an integral constituent of life in the lands of the West. 

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