(1894 version) Chinese Characteristics CHAPER XVI.PHYSICAL VITALITY


THAT physical vitality which forms so important a background for other Chinese characteristics, deserves consideration by itself. It may be regarded in four aspects : the reproductive power of the Chinese race, its adaptation to different circumstances, its longevity, and its recuperative power.

The first impression which the traveller derives from the phenomena of Chinese life is that of redundance. China seems to be full of people. It seems to be so because it is so. Japan, too, appears to have a large population, but it does not take a very discriminating eye to perceive that the dense population of Japan bears no proportion to the dense population of China. In respect of relative and absolute density of population, China more nearly resembles India than any other country. But the people and the languages of India are many and various, while the people of China, with some exceptions not materially affecting the issue, are one and the same. This first impression of a redundant population is everywhere confirmed, no matter in what portion of this broad Empire we set our foot. Where the population is in reality sparse, this is generally found to be due to causes which are susceptible of easy explanation. The terrible inroads of the great T'aip'ing rebellion, followed by the only less destructive Mohammedan rebellion, and by the almost unparalleled famine of 1877-78, extending over five provinces, reduced the total population of China, perhaps by many scores of millions. The devastations due to war are not so soon repaired to the eye as they would be in Western lands, owing to the great reluctance of the Chinese to leave their ancestral homes and go into new regions. Nevertheless, it is not difficult to perceive that the forces of waste, no matter how devastating, are not so powerful as the forces of repair. With a few decades of peace and good crops, almost any part of China would, we think, recuperate from the disasters which during this century have come in such battalions. The provision for this recuperation is visible to every one, and forces itself upon his notice whether he does or does not desire to contemplate it. In any part of the Chinese Empire the most conspicuous objects in the towns and villages are the troops of Chinese children, with which, as Charles Lamb says in his deprecation of the pride of overproud mothers, "every blind alley swarms." It is one of the standing marvels of Chinese society by what means such a vast army of little ones is fed and clothed, and it must be well borne in mind that many of them are not "fed and clothed " to any extent ; in other words, that the most extreme poverty does not apparently tend to diminish Chinese population.

The only permanent and effective check upon the rapid increase of the Chinese population appears to be the confirmed use of opium, a foe to the Chinese race as deadly as war, famine, or pestilence. It is by no means necessary, in order to receive a high idea of the multiplying power of the Chinese, to assume the existence in China of a population far vaster in numbers than that of any other country. Even if we take the lowest estimate of about two hundred and fifty millions, the point is abundantly established, for the question is not one of the mere number of people, but of the rate of increase. In the absence of trustworthy statistics, we must be content to come at conclusions in a general and inexact way; but fortunately in this matter it is almost impossible to go wrong. The Chinese marry at a very early age, and the desire for posterity is the one ruling passion in which, next to the love of money, the Chinese race is most agreed.

Contrast the apparent growth of the Chinese at any point, with the condition of the population in France, where the rate of increase is the lowest in all Europe, and where the latest returns show an absolute decrease in the number of inhabitants. Such facts have excited the gravest fears as to the future of that great country. The Chinese, on the other hand, show no more signs of race decay than the Anglo-Saxons. The earliest recorded command given by God to mankind was that in which they were instructed to "be fruitful and multiply and replenish the earth." That command, as a learned professor once remarked, "has been obeyed, and it is the only command of God that has been obeyed," and of no country is this more true than of China.

The Chinese Empire, as we have already had occasion to remark, extends through a great area in latitude and longitude, and embraces within itself almost every variety of soil, climate, and production. So far as appears, the Chinese flourish equally in the subtropical region, the subarctic region, or anywhere between. Whatever differences are observed seem to be due to the character of the region itself and its capacity to sustain the population, rather than to any inherent difference in the capacity of the people to adapt themselves to one region rather than to another. The emigrating portions of the Chinese people come from a relatively minute area in the provinces of Kuangtung and Fukien, but wherever they go, to India, Burma, Siam, the East Indies, the Pacific Islands, Australasia, Mexico, the United States, the West Indies, Central America, or South America, we never hear that they fail to adapt themselves with wonderful and immediate success to their environment, whatever it may chance to be. What we do hear, however, is that their adaptation is so quick and so perfect, their industry and their economy so in excess of those of the natives of these lands, their solidarity and their power of mutual cohesion so phenomenal, that it is necessary for the security of the remainder of the human race that "the Chinese must go!" Under these circumstances, it is certainly most fortunate for the peace of mind of that portion of mankind which is not Chinese, that this people does not as a whole take to emigration on a large scale. If the eastern part of the Asiatic continent were now as full of irrepressible human beings, longing to turn their energies towards the rest of the planet, as was Central Asia in the middle ages, it is hard to see what would become either of us, or of our doctrine that the fittest only survive.

The utter absence of any kind of statistics renders it impossible to speak of the longevity of the Chinese people in any other than the most general way. Probably all observers would agree in the conclusion that there is no part of China in which old people are not exceedingly numerous. The aged are always treated with great respect, and old age is held to be an exceedingly great honour, and is reckoned as the foremost of the five varieties of felicity. The extreme care which is taken to preserve accurate records of the date of birth, down to the precise hour, tends to precision of statement when there is any occasion for such precision, albeit the ordinary method of counting, as has been mentioned, is so loose and inaccurate. The testimony of graveyard tablets is in favour of a considerable degree of longevity among the common people, but except in the vicinity of supplies of stone these tablets are found over only a few graves, so that, whatever inferences might otherwise be drawn from them as witnesses, the tablets are practically valueless.

It is not common to hear of Chinese who are more than a hundred years of age, but short of that limit the numbers of very aged who could anywhere be collected, if sufficient inducement were offered, we must consider as very large. Indeed, when the exceedingly imperfect nutrition of the poor, who constitute so large a part of the population of China, is taken into account, it becomes a wonder how such numbers of people survive to so great an age. It is well known that in all Western lands throughout the present century the average duration of life has been constantly rising. This is due to the increased attention paid to the laws of life, to improved means of preventing disease, and to better means of treating it. It must be remembered that in China, on the other hand, the conditions of life do not seem to vary greatly from what they were when Columbus discovered America. If social and medical science could do for China what has been done for England within the past fifty years, the number of very old people in the former country would certainly be very greatly increased.

The complete ignorance of the laws of hygiene which characterises almost all Chinese, and their apparent contempt for those laws even when apprehended, are well known to all foreigners who live in China. To a foreign observer it is a standing problem why the various diseases which this ignorance and defiance of natural laws invite, do not exterminate the Chinese altogether. While vast numbers of people do die every year in China of diseases which are entirely preventable, the fact that the number of such persons is not indefinitely greater argues on the part of the Chinese a marvellous capacity to resist disease and to recover from it. The readiness of Chinese to throw away their lives on very slight provocation is a characteristic as marked as the tenacity of their hold upon them.

In the total absence of those vital statistics to which we have already so often regretfully referred, we are obliged to depend upon the recorded observations of foreigners, which, owing to the constantly increasing number of foreign dispensaries and hospitals, are becoming year by year more numerous and more valuable.

To analyse and tabulate the medical reports issued even in a single year, with a view to illustrating the recuperative power of the Chinese, would be a most useful task, and the result would certainly present the object in a fresh and forcible manner. We must, however, be content with the mere statement of a few cases, by way of illustration, two of which occurred within the knowledge of the writer, while the third is taken from the published reports of a large hospital in Tientsin. The whole force of instances of this sort depends upon the undoubted fact that they are by no means isolated and altogether exceptional cases, but are such as could be matched by the observation of very many of our readers.

Several years ago, while living in a house with a Chinese family, the writer heard one afternoon the most dismal screams under the window, where was placed a large beehive, made of adobe bricks, and open at the bottom. A little boy fourteen months of age was playing in the yard, and seeing this opening into what looked like a convenient play-house, had injudiciously crawled in. The child's head was shaved perfectly bare, and was very red. The bees, either resenting the unusual intrusion, or mistaking the bald pate for a huge peony, promptly lit upon the head and began to sting. Before he could be removed the child had received more than thirty stings. The child cried but a few moments, and then, being laid on the k'ang, went to sleep. No medicine of any sort being at hand, nothing was applied to the skin. During the night the child was perfectly quiet, and the next day no trace of the swelling remained.

In the year 1878 a carter in the employ of a foreign family in Peking was taken with the prevalent typhus fever, of which so many died. On the thirteenth day, when the disease reached a crisis, the patient, who had been very ill indeed, became exceedingly violent, exhibiting the strength of several men. Three persons were deputed to watch him, all of whom were exhausted with their labours. During the night of this day the patient was tied to the bed to prevent his escape. While the watchers were all asleep he contrived to loosen the cords with which he was bound, and escaped from the house perfectly naked. He was missed at about 3 a.m., and the whole premises were searched, including the wells, into which it was feared he might have plunged. He was traced to the wall of the compound, which was nine or ten feet in height, and which he had scaled by climbing a tree. He leaped or fell to the ground on the outer side of this wall, and at once made his way to the moat just inside the great wall which separates the Tartar city of Peking from the Chinese city. Here he was found two hours later, his head wedged fast between the upright iron bars which prevent passage through the culvert under the wall. As he had passionately demanded to be taken to this place to cool his fever, it was evident that he had been in this situation for a great length of time. On being taken home, his fever was found to be thoroughly broken, and though troubled with rheumatism in the legs, he made a slow but sure recovery.

A Tientsin man, about thirty years of age, had been in the habit of making a living by collecting spent shells around the ground where Chinese troops were engaged in artillery practice. On one occasion he secured a shell, when, on attempting to break it open, it exploded and blew off his left leg. He was admitted to the hospital, and an amputation was performed below the knee. Instead of being cured of this dangerous mode of getting a precarious living, the man returned to it again as soon as possible, and about six months later, under similar circumstances, another explosion took place, which blew off his left hand about two inches above the wrist, leaving a ragged wound. The upper portion of the right arm was severely singed by powder. Deep lacerations took place over the bridge of the nose and on the upper lip; punctured wounds, the result of exploding pieces of shell, were made on the right cheek, on the right upper eyelid, on the posterior edge of the frontal bone, and on the right wrist. There was also a deep cut over the right tibia, exposing the bone. On receiving these severe injuries the man lay in a semi-unconscious and helpless condition for four hours, exposed to the heat of the sun. A mandarin happening to see him, ordered some coolies to carry him to the hospital, himself accompanying them for two miles. The bearers apparently became tired of their burden, and as soon as the mandarin was gone, threw the poor wretch into a ditch to die. Though much exhausted by the haemorrhage, he managed to crawl out and hop for five hundred yards to a grain-shop, where he found a large basket of meal, which he overturned with his sound arm and coiled himself inside. To get rid of him the owners of the shop carried him in the basket to the hospital gates, where he was left outside to die. Although in a condition of extreme collapse, and with a feeble pulse, due to the loss of so much blood, the patient had no mental impairment and was able to converse intelligibly. He had been addicted to opium smoking, a circumstance which could not have been favourable to recovery. Yet with the exception of diarrhoea on the fifth and sixth days, and slight attacks of malaria, the patient had throughout no bad symptoms, and left the hospital with a wooden leg four weeks after his admission.

If a people with such physical endowments as the Chinese were to be preserved from the effects of war, famines, pestilence, and opium, and if they were to pay some attention to the laws of physiology and of hygiene, and to be uniformly nourished with suitable food, there is reason to think that they alone would be adequate to occupy the principal part of the planet and more.  

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