(1894 version) Chinese Characteristics CHAPTER XXII. SOCIAL TYPHOONS


AMONG a population of such unexampled density as in China, where families often of great size are crowded together in narrow quarters, it is impossible that occasions for quarrels should not be all-pervasive. "How many are there in your family?" you inquire of your neighbour. "Between ten and twenty mouths," he replies. "And do you have everything in common?" you ask. "Yes," is the most common reply. Here, then, are fifteen or twenty human beings, probably representing three, if not four, generations, who live from the income of the same business or farm, an income which is all put into a common stock; and the wants of all the members of the family are to be met solely from this common property. The brothers each contribute their time and strength to the common fund, but the sisters-in-law are an element of capital importance, and very difficult it is to harmonise them. The elder sister-in-law enjoys tyrannizing somewhat over the younger, and the younger ones are naturally jealous of the prerogatives of the elder. Each strives to make her husband feel that in this community of property he is the one who is worsted.

The younger generation of children furnish a prolific source of domestic unpleasantness. Where is the society capable of withstanding the strain to which it must be subjected under conditions such as these? Troubles of this nature are far from being uncommon in well-ordered homes in Western lands; how much more in the complex and compact life of the Chinese! The occasions for differences are as numerous as the objects and interests with which human beings have to do. Money, food, clothes, children and their squabbles, a dog, a chicken, anything or nothing, will serve as the first loop on which will be knit a complicated tangle of quarrel.

One of the most enigmatical characters in the Chinese language is that which is used to denote the rise of passion, and which has been euphemistically translated "wrath-matter." The word "ch'i" is a most important one in all kinds of Chinese philosophy and in practical life. Ch'i is generated when a man becomes very angry, and the Chinese believe that there is some deadly connection between this developed "wrath-matter" and the human system generally, so that a violent passion is constantly named as the exciting cause of all varieties of diseases and ailments, such as blindness, failure of the heart, etc. One of the first questions which a Chinese doctor asks his patient is, "What was it that threw you into a passion?" Foreign physicians in China of wide experience are ready to believe that Chinese ch'i is capable of producing all that is claimed for it by the Chinese themselves. Of this the following case is a striking illustration: A man living in the mountains in central Shantung had a wife and several children, two of them of tender age. In October, 1889, the wife died. This made the husband very angry, not, as he explained, in answer to a question, because he was specially attached to his wife, but because he could not see how he was to manage the small children. In a paroxysm of fury he seized a Chinese razor, and made three deep cuts in his abdomen. Some of his friends afterwards sewed up the wound with cotton thread. Six days later the man had another accession of ch'i, and ripped open the wound. On each occasion he was afterwards unable to remember what he had done. From these fearful injuries he nevertheless recovered, to such an extent that six months later he was able to walk several hundred miles to a foreign hospital for treatment. The abdominal wound had partly closed, leaving only a small fistula, but the normal action of the bowels was interrupted. He is a striking exemplification of that physical vitality to which attention has been already directed.

The habit of yelling to enforce command or criticism is ingrained in the Chinese, and appears to be ineradicable. To expostulate with another in an ordinary tone of voice, pausing at times to listen to his opponent's reply, is to a Chinese almost a psychological impossibility. He must shout, he must interrupt, by a necessity as inexorable as that which leads a dog labouring under great excitement to bark.

The Chinese have carried to a degree of perfection known only among Orientals the art of reviling. The moment that a quarrel begins abusive words of this sort are poured forth in a filthy stream to which nothing in the English language offers any parallel, and with a virulence and pertinacity suggestive of the fish-women of Billingsgate. The merest contact is often sufficient to elicit a torrent of this invective, as a touch induces the electric spark, and it is in constant and almost universal use by all classes and both sexes, always and everywhere. It is a common complaint that women use even viler language than men, and that they continue it longer, justifying the aphorism that what Chinese women have lost in the compression of their feet seems to have been made up in the volubility of their tongues. Children just beginning to talk learn this abusive dialect from their parents and often employ it towards them, which is regarded as extremely amusing. The use of this language has become to the Chinese a kind of second nature. It is confined to no class of society. Literary graduates and officials of all ranks up to the very highest, when provoked, employ it as freely as their coolies. It is even used by common people on the street as a kind of bantering salutation, and as such is returned in kind.

Occidental curses are sometimes not loud but deep, but Chinese maledictions are nothing if not loud. An English oath is a winged bullet; Chinese abuse is a ball of filth. Much of this abusive language is regarded as a sort of spell or curse. A man who has had the heads removed from his field of millet stands at the entrance of the alley which leads to his dwelling, and pours forth volleys of abuse upon the unknown (though often not unsuspected) offender. This proceeding is regarded as having a double value: first, as a means of notifying the public of his loss and of his consequent fury, thus freeing his mind; and second, as a prophylactic, tending to secure him against the repetition of the offence. The culprit is (theoretically) in ambush, listening with something like awe to the frightful imprecations levelled at him. He cannot, of course, be sure that he is not detected, which is often the case. Perhaps the loser knows perfectly well who it was who stole his goods, but contents himself with a public reviling, as a formal notice that the culprit is either known or suspected, and will do well to avoid the repetition of his act. If provoked too far the loser will, it is thus tacitly proclaimed, retaliate. This is the Chinese theory of public reviling. They frankly admit that it not only does not stop theft, but that it has no necessary tendency to prevent its repetition, since among a large population the thief or other offender is by no means certain to know that he has been reviled.

The practice of " reviling the street " is often indulged in by women, who mount the flat roof of the house and shriek away for hem's at a time, or until their voices fail. A respectable family would not allow such a performance if they could prevent it, but in China, as elsewhere, an enraged woman is a being difficult to restrain. Abuse delivered in this way, on general principles, attracts little or no attention, and one sometimes comes upon a man at the head of an alley, or a woman on the roof, screeching themselves red in the face, with not a single auditor in sight. If the day is a hot one the reviler bawls as long as he (or she) has breath, then proceeds to refresh himself by a season of fanning, and afterwards returns to the attack with renewed fury.

If a Chinese quarrel be at all violent, it is next to impossible that it should be concluded without more or less personal vilification. English travellers in the south of Europe have noted the astonishment of the Latin races at the invariable habit of the inhabitant of the British Isles to strike out from the shoulder if he gets into a fight. The Chinese, like the Italians, have seldom learned to box, or if they have learned it is not scientific boxing. The first and chief resource of Chinese when matters come to extremities is to seize the cue of their opponent, endeavouring to pull out as much hair as possible. In nine fights out of ten, where only two parties are concerned, and where neither party can lay hold of any weapon, the "fight" resolves itself simply into a hair-pulling match.

A Chinese quarrel is also a reviling match, low language and high words. But an infinitesimal fraction of the participants in Chinese fights is seriously disabled in other respects than that by incessant bawling they have become hoarse. We should be surprised to hear that any one ever saw a Chinese crowd egg on combatants. What we have seen, what we always expect to see is the instant and spontaneous appearance on the scene of the peace-maker. He is double, perhaps quadruple. Each of the peace-makers seizes a roaring belligerent, and tranquillises him with good advice. As soon as he finds himself safely in charge of the peace-maker, the principal in the fight becomes doubly furious. He has judiciously postponed losing control of himself until there is some one else ready to take that control, and then he gives way to spasms of apparent fury, unquestionably innocuous both to himself and to others. In his most furious moments a Chinese is amenable to "reason," for which he has not only a theoretical, but a very practical, respect. Who ever saw a belligerent turn and rend the officious peace-maker, who is holding him from flying at his foe? This is the crucial point in the struggle. Even in his fury the Chinese recognises the desirableness of peace — in the abstract — only he thinks that in his concrete case peace is inapplicable. The peace-maker judges differently, and nearly always drags away the bellicose reviler, who yells back to his opponent malignant defiance as he goes.

It is a curious feature of the universal Chinese practice of reviling that it is not considered "good form" in hurling this abuse at another to touch upon his actual faults, but rather to impute to him the most ignoble origin, and to heap contempt upon his ancestors. The employment of this language towards another is justly regarded as a great indignity and a grave offence, but the point of the insult consists not in the use of such language in the presence of another, nor even principally in its application to him, but in the loss of "face" which this application of such terms implies. The proper apology for the commission of this offence is not that the person who has been guilty of it has demeaned himself, and has done a disgraceful act, but that he was wrong in applying those terms to that person at that time.

It is fortunate for the Chinese that they have not the habit of carrying weapons about them, for if they had revolvers or swords, like the former samurai class of Japan, it would not be possible to predict the amount of mischief which the daily evolution of ch'i would produce.

When any Chinese is once seized of the idea that he has been deeply wronged, there is no power on earth which can prevent the sudden and often utterly ungovernable development of a certain amount of ch'i, or rather of a very uncertain amount of it. We have heard of a man who applied for baptism to an old and experienced missionary and was very properly refused, whereupon he got a knife and threatened to attack the missionary to prove by ordeal of battle the claim to the rite of initiation. Happily this method of taking the kingdom of heaven by violence does not commend itself to most novitiates, but the underlying principle is one that is constantly acted upon in all varieties of Chinese social life. An old woman who will not take "no" for an answer asks for financial assistance, and throws herself on the ground in front of your carter's mules. If she is run over so much the better for her, for she is thus reasonably sure of a support for an indefinite period. An old vixen living in the same village as the writer was constantly threatening to commit suicide, but though all her neighbours were willing to lend their aid, she never seemed to accomplish her purpose. At last she threw herself into one of the village mudholes with intent to drown, but found to her disgust that the water was only up to her neck. She lacked that versatility of invention which would have enabled her to put her head under water and hold it there, but contented herself with reviling the whole village at the top of her voice for her contretemps. The next time she was more successful.

If a wrong has been committed for which there is no legal redress, such as abuse of a married daughter beyond the point which custom warrants, a party of the injured friends will visit the house of the mother-in-law, and if they are resisted, will engage in a pitched battle. If they are not resisted, and the offending persons have fled, the assailants will proceed to smash all the crockery in the house, the mirrors, the water-jars, and whatever else is frangible, and having thus allowed their ch'i to escape, they depart. If their coming is known in advance, the very first step is to remove all these articles to the house of some neighbour. One of the Chinese newspapers mentioned a case which occurred in Peking, where a man had arranged for a wedding with a beautiful woman, who turned out to be ugly, bald-headed, and elderly. The disappointed bridegroom became greatly enraged, struck the go-betweens, reviled the whole company, and smashed the bride's wedding-outfit. Any Chinese would have acted in the same way, if he was in such relations to his environment that he dared to do so.* It is after the preliminary paroxysms of ch'i have had opportunity to subside, that the work of the "peace-talker" that useful factor in Chinese social life — is accomplished. Sometimes these most essential individuals are so deeply impressed with the necessity of peace, that even when the matter is not one which concerns them personally, they are willing to go from one to the other making prostrations now to this side and now to that, in the interests of harmony.

*It was reported in Peking that the present Emperor was not pleased with the choice of a wife which was made for him. He had been so often crossed in his wishes by the Empress Dowager that any selection which was made by her would have been distasteful. It was also whispered that scenes occurred in the palace not remotely unlike those mentioned as taking place at the wedding of one of his subjects. "When those above act, those below will imitate." 

Whenever social storms prove incapable of adjustment by the ordinary processes — in other words, when there is such a preponderance of ch'i that it cannot be dispersed without an explosion — there is the beginning of the lawsuit, a term in China of fateful significance. The same blind rage which leads a person to lose all control of himself in a quarrel leads him, after the first stages of the outbreak have passed, to determine to take the offender before a magistrate, in order "to have the law on him." This proceeding in Western lands is generally injudicious, but in China it is sheer madness. There is sound sense in the proverb which praises the man who will suffer himself to be imposed upon to the death before he will go to the law, which will often be worse than death. We smile at the fury of the immigrant whose dog had been shot by a neighbour, and who was remonstrated with by a friend when the resolution to go to law was declared. "What was the value of the dog?" "Ze dog vas vort nottings, but since he vas so mean as to kill him, he shall pay ze full value of him." In an Occidental land such a suit would be dismissed with costs, and there it would end. In China it might go on to the ruin of both parties, and be a cause of feud for generations yet to come. But generally speaking, every Chinese lawsuit calls out upon each side the omnipresent peace-talker, whose services are invaluable. Millions of lawsuits are thus strangled before they reach the fatal stage. In a village numbering a thousand families, the writer was informed that for more than a generation there had not been a single lawsuit, owing to the restraining influence of a leading man who had a position in the yamen of the District Magistrate.

A social machinery so complicated as that of China must often creak, and sometimes under extreme pressure bend, yet it seldom actually breaks beneath the strain, for, like the human body, the Chinese body politic is provided, as we see, with little sacs of lubricating fluid, distilled, a drop at a time, exactly when and where they are most needed. It is the peaceable quality of the Chinese which makes him a valuable social unit. He loves order and respects law, even when it is not in itself respectable. Of all Asiatic peoples, the Chinese are probably most easily governed, when governed on lines to which they are accustomed. Doubtless there are other forms of civilisation which are in many or in most respects superior to that of China, but perhaps there are few which would sustain the tension to which Chinese society has for ages been subject, and it may be that there is none better entitled to claim the benediction once pronounced upon the peace-makers.  

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