Story of China - R. Van Bergen

The Chinese People

China is the only one among the nations that has worked out a civilization entirely its own. Other nations have borrowed or adopted, but China has always been unwilling to do so. As a nation China is so old that we are scarcely able to form an idea of its age. It was a civilized nation in the time of Abraham, and was highly civilized when the people of Europe could neither read nor write. But from that time to this the Chinese have made no progress, and much of their life to-day is the same as it was thousands of years ago.

Western nations do not understand the Chinese, and they, in turn, do not understand us. In the first place, their language is difficult to learn, because they have almost as many different characters as words. While every character represents the same idea, the word for it is pronounced so differently in the different provinces that it is impossible to recognize it.

You will understand this better if you remember that a Russian can understand our figures, 1, 2, 3, etc., when he sees them written or printed, but when we pronounce  the figures or numbers, the sound conveys no meaning to him. In the same way, if a Frenchman were to tell you that the number of a certain article was, for instance, huit, you would not know what he was talking about, unless you had studied French. But if he were to take a piece of paper and write on it 8, you would understand him at once. It is exactly the same all over China. Here, for instance, is a character meaning the eye: . Every Chinese, when he sees that character, knows its meaning; but, in speaking of the eye a Peking man calls it muh, and a Fuh-Kien man calls it bak-choo.

In learning any European language we are aided by certain resemblances to our own, or to other languages with which we may be acquainted. But with Chinese this is not so. We may have studied the languages of every civilized people that ever existed, but when we begin to study this language, we must begin all over again. And, since by language we express our thoughts, it is almost impossible for any of us to comprehend the Chinese mode of thinking.

It would he unjust to call the Chinese a half-civilized people, but neither can we call them a highly civilized people at the present day. They for their part call us "foreign devils," because we do not know the first beginning of their laws of politeness and courtesy. Those who are better acquainted with us, secretly pity us, because we are so very ignorant and stupid. They make fun of our short-cut hair, our tight-fitting clothes, our thin-soled leather shoes, and our gloves in summer time. They call the appearance of our ladies "wasp-like and ungraceful," and they think it very rude that a husband and wife should walk in the streets arm-in-arm.

Compared to us, the Chinese are calmer and quieter, and not so easily made to lose their temper. They dislike fighting, although they do not readily yield. This dislike is not from fear of pain, but because they do not like to be considered rude. They are able to bear more pain than we are; they can work more continuously, and never ask for a holiday. They will do as they are told, when they consider it right; but when they consider it wrong, no power on earth can make them obey orders.

A great many look upon the Chinese as people who can not be made to understand what is good for them. This is wrong. The Chinese believe that they know more than we do, and that we should be glad to learn from them. Hundreds of years ago they understood printing, the use of the compass and of gunpowder; it is so long ago that they have almost forgotten when they first made silk, chinaware and porcelain.

That is the real difference between the Chinese and ourselves. Their "past" has been so long, that they are always looking backward. Our past has been very short, compared with that of China, and we live in the future. That is why we make progress, while they are standing still.

We have had all the knowledge and experience of the oldest nations to draw upon, and we exchange ideas with every civilized nation. But the Chinese dislike and avoid any departure from the ways of their fathers. It must be remembered that respect, love, and veneration for his father, is taught the Chinese from his earliest youth. Speaking disrespectfully to a parent is a crime to be punished with death, and no excuse is admitted. The Commandment, "Honor thy father and thy mother, that thy days may be long in the land which the Lord thy God bath given thee," has been scrupulously obeyed by the Chinese nation.

The Chinese are neither dull nor stupid. Some years ago one of them, a student in Yale College, took the first prize in English composition. In Hongkong and other cities in China, many Chinese are living who were educated in England, and graduated as physicians and lawyers. They are considered by foreigners to be highly capable in their professions.

It is said sometimes that the Chinese are "a nation of liars and thieves." It is quite true that in China, as in every Oriental country, politeness and courtesy are more highly thought of than a strict regard for the truth. But we must remember that just as we have been taught, from childhood, to speak the truth, and to consider it disgraceful to lie, so in China the children are taught to be polite and courteous or to lose the respect of all.

The family tie is very strong. The Chinese hate to move from one place to another. In some villages every family bears the same name, which is that of the village, too. For instance, there is Chang Kia (chahng keeah), the village Chang, or, as we might say: Changville; Sie Kia (see keeah), the village Sie, or Sieborough.

A son, when he marries, is expected to live with his parents, and his wife becomes the chief attendant to her parents-in-law, while every tie binding her to her own parents is dissolved. When a father dies, the oldest son becomes head of the family, and is in duty bound to provide for his younger brothers. The laws in such cases are very exact, and are invariably executed. While the position of woman is low in China, her standing in the family depends largely upon herself. Recent history has shown what a woman can do. The Empress-Dowager has broken many a law of the Chinese; she has passed through several revolutions, but she is ruling China still.

Politeness or good manners is a science. If a man ask another, who may be ever so poor, where he lives, he must say: "Where is your mansion?" The person thus spoken to, even if he be rich and live in a palace, must reply: "My hut," or "my hovel is in such and such a street." "What is your honorable age?" "My worthless number is forty-five." "Is your noble son doing well at school?" "The contemptible little dog has learned a few characters." The Chinese father is excessively fond and proud of his sons; for without them there would be no one to worship before his tablet after his death. To show an interest in a Chinese' sons always puts him in good humor.

When a Chinese really does lose his temper, he uses very bad language, but he does not come to blows. If the insult or injustice is so great as to provoke murder, he does not kill the other man, but himself, because in doing so the other man is looked upon as a murderer, since he was the cause of the deed. They often kill themselves by swallowing poison, after first hiring men to carry their bodies to the door of their enemy.

The costume of the Chinese men and women is loose and flowing. Most of the people wear homespun cotton, but the wealthy classes wear silk, satin, gauze, furs, and clothes of other expensive materials. Summer clothing is thin and light, but in winter one garment is put on over another according to the degree of cold. They have no stoves or fireplaces, and depend upon their clothing for comfort and heat. The time for the change from summer to winter wear, and vice versa, is announced by the Emperor.

The men shave the front part of the head, but keep a small patch on the top and back, which is allowed to grow, and when long enough is braided into a queue. Most of us are familiar with this Chinese headdress. In ancient times, however, the Chinese wore their hair long and bound about the top of the head. After the Manchu had conquered China, they issued an order that all the Chinese should adopt the queue as a sign of allegiance. At first the people objected and refused to obey. The Manchu did not appear to notice this, but made an order that criminals must leave their heads unshaved, and have their queues cut off. The Chinese did not like to look like criminals, and the queue was adopted without further trouble.

Foot binding


The Manchu did not bind the feet of girls, but among the Chinese it is done everywhere. The process begins when a child is about five years old. A cotton bandage two or three inches wide is wound tightly about the foot in different directions, and among the higher classes the foot is not allowed to grow from this time. The horrid custom has existed for so long that the Chinese themselves do not know when it was first practiced.

The Chinese, rich and poor, eat their rice morning, noon and night. This constitutes the principal article of food. The poor have some relishes, such as fresh or salt fish, or vegetables. The rich have pork, fowls, eggs, fish, or game. Before each chair is placed an empty bowl and two chop-sticks, while the dishes containing the food are placed in the center of the table. The chopsticks are about eight inches long, and look somewhat like our penholders. They are made of bamboo, wood, ivory, or silver. When seats are taken at the table, the bowls are filled with hot rice. The person at the head of the table takes his chopsticks in the right hand and, holding them between the thumb and fingers so that the lower ends approach each other like a pair of pincers, takes one or two mouthfuls. The other persons follow his example. Then the bowl is brought to the lips by the left hand, and the rice is pushed into the mouth by the chopsticks in the right hand.

[Illustration] from The Story of China by R. Van Bergen


The Chinese have yet to learn habits of personal cleanliness, and the houses of rich and poor alike are dirty and untidy.