In the 1930s, Shanghai businessman Tony Keswick would leave a large leather-bound book on his desk entitled, Everything I Know About China. Curious visitors would open the book to and nothing but 200 blank pages. Unlike so many foreigners, Keswick, it seems, was straight up about his inability to fathom China.
For many observers, China and the Chinese people have long been viewed as a complex puzzle; the sheer size of the nation alongside the confusing and contradictory nature of the country proving it impossible to solve, but that doesn’t stop people trying.
Oh how they try, and try, and try. Who hasn’t lived in China for a few months and at least been tempted to theorize as to why it is like it is? The size of the task has even spawned its own industry of amateurs and professionals alike: China-watchers. Why do we not speak of England-watchers, Argentina-watchers, or Kyrgyzstan-watchers? Is China really that interesting that it needs a whole industry of politicians, missionaries, diplomats, soldiers, journalists, English teachers, captains of industry, and god knows who else to try to unravel the country’s mystery? The answer, of course, is simple: yes, it is.
Arthur Henderson Smith was but one of the many men who devoted a large part of his life in an attempt to understand and explain China to the world, perhaps most famously in his book, Chinese Characteristics.
An American missionary, he sailed to China with his wife in 1872 and remained there for 54 years. Now, if somebody is going to tell you at length about the Chinese, their habits, beliefs, and thinking, all based off anecdotal evidence, personal experience, and a little reading (and that’s exactly what this book does), I would want to be sure it that was somebody who had spent a lot of time in the country, and it is reasonable to give Smith credit where it is due. He certainly served his time.
For those that read a book because of sparkling prose and dazzling sentences, then Chinese Characteristics might not be for you. One of the reasons that Chinese Characteristics is such a pain to read is the question of style. Smith uses the long circumlocutory sentences that were so typical of the Victorian era: “When, therefore, we come to the Orient, and and the vast populations of the Asiatic continent so greatly our superiors in the art of lubricating the friction which is sure to arise in the intercourse of man with man, we are filled with the admiration which is the tribute of those who cannot do a thing to those who can do it easily and well.” Other than the faint whiff of unintended homo-erotica that might amuse modern readers, 250 pages of this stuff becomes a bit of a bind.
Smith likes to use the phrase Pickwickian a lot, which suggests he may have read Dickens, but if he did none of Dicken’s élan for language wore off. There is no sense of caricature or amusement, and instead we get a dry, high-minded tone, all of which is quite understandable coming from a devout missionary who believed in being scientific, but none of this makes it exactly a fun read.
It virtually goes without saying, but any book that attempts to sum-up and make sweeping generalizations about a billion odd people is likely to come in for a fair amount of criticism. Now to be fair to Smith, he wrote Chinese Characteristics way back in 1894 when the Chinese population had barely hit the piffling 300 million mark, though that hardly makes his task any easier. Still, he was aware enough of potential criticism from the outset, and sensibly gets in a reducer in his opening paragraph, “No single individual, whatever the extent of his knowledge, could by any possibility know the whole truth about the Chinese.” He continues at great length to explain that he really does not know everything about China, and he is just giving his impressions. So, later in the book, when he comes off like he knows everything about the country and makes several broad generalizations to boot (he does this a lot), we ought to forgive him. In many ways, that’s the gig with writing a book like this. The Chinese becoming a curious object of study, the writer occasionally coming off as if he were observing a baffling species of animal as opposed to mere human beings.
This all begs the question of whether Smith’s observations are any good; does he hit the nail on the head? On reading the book, my initial instinct was to say of course not, because so much of his writing comes across as, well, a bit racist: “The first impression which a stranger receives of the Chinese is that of uniformity. Their physiognomy appears to be all of one type, they all seem to be clad in one perpetual blue, the ‘hinges’ of the national eye do not look as if they were ‘put on straight’ and the resemblance between one Chinese cue and another is the likeness between a pair of peas in the same pod.”
Added to this, most of his observations, in the absence of any hard data, are based on what he read in a newspaper, an anecdote of a friend of a friend, or something he saw on his morning walk. It never feels like enough to substantiate his rather grandiose conclusions. So you can imagine the feeling you get when you are reading him and you think a fair whack of what he is saying seems accurate. The “that’s a pretty racist thing to say, but he has a point,” thought pattern is an awkward one to say the least.
But at least Smith has the benefit of being of his time. Of course he was going to be influenced by the now widely discredited eugenics ideas that where coming to fruition at the time. Just as he was always likely to use terms which are now seen as disparaging (negro, coolie, Chinamen, etc.).
To get a feeling for what he thinks are the key components of the Chinese, it is worth starting by having a look at the main chapter titles to at least see if he is going down the right path:
The Disregard of Time; The Disregard of Accuracy; The Talent for Misunderstanding; The Talent For Indirection; Flexible Inflexibility; Intellectual Turbidity; The Absence of Nerves; Contempt for Foreigners; The Absence of Public Spirit; Conservatism; Indifference to Comfort and Convenience; Physical Vitality; Patience and Perseverance; Content and Cheerfulness; Filial Piety, Benevolence; The Absence of Sympathy; Mutual Responsibility and Respect for Law; Mutual Suspicion; The Absence of Sincerity; Polytheism, Pantheism, and Atheism.
There is a clear weighting towards negatives when looking at these “characteristics”, but regardless of to what extent you might agree with Smith’s opinions, it would seem that more than a few of these chapters are worth discussion.
Many foreigners that have lived in China for any length of time (particularly the longer-term ones) start to develop a set of oft repeated gripes about “the Chinese”. Some people deal with these cheerfully and locate such issues within a sociological and cultural context, seeking to understand; others become enraged, furious, whiny bitches who aren’t much fun to be around. It is also worth noting here that a lot of these gripes, observations, call them what you will, often infuriate the Chinese as much as the foreigners themselves, often more so. One of the key differences is that being more aware of the culture, the Chinese are able to make allowances and understandings for such things. Though there are many things that appear illogical in Chinese society, Smith points out that it is precisely because the Chinese are aware of these fallacies that it leaves them in a much better situation to deal with them, “The Chinese master knows perfectly well that his commands will be ignored in various ways, but he anticipates this inevitable result as one might set aside a reserve for bad debts or allow a margin for friction in mechanics.”
These annoyances and irritations are almost too numerous to mention, but Smith covers a lot of them. Who hasn’t heard somebody complain about Chinese workmen being inefficient and leaving the job half done? Smith has certainly seen it in action: “How many of those who have had the pleasure of building a house in China, with Chinese contactors and workmen, thirst to do it again? The men come late and go early. They are perpetually stopping to drink tea. They make long journeys to a distant lime-pit carrying a few quarts of mud in a cloth bag, when by using one wheelbarrow one man could do the work of three; but this result is by no means the one aimed at. If there is a slight rain all work is suspended.”
Foreigners like myself get thrilled at the prospect of people staring at me and wanting to take my picture in a fourth-tier city; I’m able to briefly convince myself it is because of my devastating good looks and lap-up the attention accordingly. Smith is in the other camp that, instead, gets irritated: “We all of us grow rapidly weary of being stared at by the swarms of curious Chinese who crowd about a foreigner in every spot to which foreigners do not commonly resort.”
The book is not all about anger and irritation, though, and sometimes it prefers to just marvel at a skill that the Chinese, for whatever reason, appear to have in a supernatural abundance, such as the ability to grab forty winks anywhere and everywhere at the drop of a hat: “Generally speaking, he [the Chinese] is able to sleep anywhere. None of this trifling disturbances which drive us to despair annoy him. With a brick for pillow, he can lie down on his bed of stalks or mudbricks or rattan and sleep the sleep of the just, with no reference to the rest of creation.”
Though in large parts of the book Smith is guilty of being patronizing, Orientalism of the worst kind, and thinking he can educate and civilize the Chinese, he is more than aware that, historically speaking, foreign nations treated the Chinese nation like utter bastards, though he puts it more delicately: “During much of the greater part of time there was very little in the conduct of Western nations in its dealings with the Chinese of which we have any reason to be proud.”
Despite being more inclined to focus on the negatives rather than the positives of the Chinese people, he does give the latter some of his time (“What the Chinese lack is not intellectual ability. It is not patience, practicality or cheerfulness, for in all these qualities they excel”), you never get anything other than a sense that, as much as he is infuriated by the Chinese, he does have a real affection for the people, writing about the nation like it was an adopted step-son that never really lived up to his hopes, but might yet still.