China's Story - William Griffis

Oriental and Occidental Civilization

In the evolution of Eastern and Western civilization there is a notable difference. Chinese society is like a mighty boulder. From its unknown rock-bed, after separation and movement in rolling down the stream of ages of experience, it took long ago the shape which it still retains.

In contrast, the younger European civilization is more like a piece of conglomerate rock, in which many diverse elements have been fused, or forced by pressure into something like unity. The Chinese have had many forms of government and vast social, industrial, religious, and political experience. China is the old man among nations, and we younger ones may well apply our own proverb concerning fools, and about what young men think and old men know.

China's longevity explains why the average Chinaman is not interested in novelties. He is not curious to know about other kinds of men and countries. He refuses to accept or be excited by what he hears. His many and long trials of things good and bad make him cautious. He does not argue concerning cause and effect in quite the way we do. He does not enjoy answering the kind of queries that we put to him. They seem to him to be jokes or conundrums. To the ordinary native, most questions are settled. What he prefers or follows to-day is according to the wisdom of ages. His etiquette represents the sum total of all past history. It does not seem wise to him to change the old methods, or to introduce new fashions.

Our Chinese friend, while right in his reasoning, is likely to lose much, if, living in the present age of the world, he does not become more social and avail himself of the resources and advantages possessed by his fellows of other nations.

In mental culture, he has heretofore thought that Confucius was the one perfect man, teaching and living flawless truth, and that therefore it was waste time, if not impiety, to look into the literature of other nations. Since also the rules for the conduct of life and the precedents followed to-day were ordained ages ago by men faultlessly wise, it seems absurd even to talk about improvement or reform. This also to him savors of impiety.

On the other hand, this excessive reverence for the past is largely the cause of so much superstition among the common people. It explains their settled belief in such absurdities as witchcraft and gods, imps and demons of all sorts, dragons, and foxes that become pretty women. There is a vast menagerie of mythical animals that have no existence out of Chinese noddles. That mass of superstitious nonsense, both silly and dangerous, called Feng Shuey, which means "wind and water," is a sort of rude popular science. For a long time it hindered the introduction of railways and telegraphs, besides being opposed to reality and pure religion.

This state of mind also accounts for the fact that the government has never really tolerated any doctrines that seem to be contrary to the ancient customs, which in themselves mean morals. Any new teaching that would change the ways of the people is branded as sacrilege. The Chinese religion is probably the only one in the world spontaneously developed on the soil of the people who now hold the land on which it originated. It is the only purely native religion among the great ones of earth.

Yet many religions have entered the Central Empire,—Shamanism or spiritism from the North; Buddhism from India; Islam from Arabia; Hebraism from Babylon, and Christianity from the West. Ancient and medieval missionaries from Palestine, Egypt, and Persia, good priests from Rome in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, earnest men and women from Protestant countries since A.D. 1800, and from Russia in recent years, have come to China. Thus the three modern forms of the teachings of Jesus—Greek, Roman, and Reformed—have begun to influence Chinese thought. The government never persecuted, however, until it seemed that the social system of China was in danger, and the morals, that is, the ritual and national habits of the people, were being altered.

So long as even the wisest of the Chinese lived within their own boundaries, dwelling in one world of fixed ideas, it was not possible for them even to conceive of another state of society as good as their own. They could not understand the merits of foreign men and things, even when these were brought to them. Such outlandish novelties were as strange to them as Chinese chopsticks and "joss" houses are to us,—even though joss is but our own misspelled Latin word Deus, or God.

To the Chinese such things as telescopes, microscopes, steam engines, and the various machines of war and peace, which require the forces of gun-powder, modern chemicals, steam, or electricity to operate them, seemed only oddities or toys for amusement. No practical good could be discerned in these importations of "the outside barbarians." The men of the West were considered good blacksmiths or cunning mechanics, but not necessarily refined persons, with politeness, culture, religion, or morals. It was necessary that Chinese gentlemen should go abroad and see humanity, in all its phases, before even the surface of thought could be ruffled or even a suggestion of change be made. It was still more important that young people, more susceptible and sensitive, should learn about the new kind of world and man outside of China. After numbers of them had absorbed Western culture, it was possible that an interior movement looking to reform should take place.

At last it seems that this time has come. The seed planted by American and European teachers long ago, the persistent work of missionaries on the soil, and the education of Chinese lads and girls beyond sea have borne fruit. The introduction of new ideas by means of trade and commerce and the distribution of printed matter, the wonders of science, the commercial assault, the invasion of the steam engine, the startling events of war, and the near presence of Japan, "a neighbor-disturbing nation," now the most eager pupil of the Anglo-Saxon peoples, have roused China to new life. Now the rate of movement seems almost dangerously rapid.

There is hope for the Central Empire, because it is based on the family. The unit of Chinese society is not the individual, but the household, the result of forty centuries of harmony. The civilization of the Orient is communal, that of the Occident is individual. Filial piety is the corner-stone of the nation, and the promise attached to the commandment, "Honor thy father and thy mother," is as valid for the Chinese people who still own their native soil as for landless Israel.

The Japanese have already reversed the general opinion of the Western world concerning the capabilities of dark-skinned peoples. The battle on the Yalu with the Russians, in 1904, sounded the note of hope to all Asia. Their victory made obsolete hundreds of books written in disparagement of Asiatics.

China seems destined to do a slower but vastly greater work even than Japan. Mother of all civilization east of the Ganges, the world's debt to her, already incalculable, is to be manifold greater. China will conquer every conqueror that attempts her conquest. The Chinese love liberty, equality, and fraternity. If treated honorably and with righteousness, they will enrich the world with their gifts, graces, and inheritances. The Middle Kingdom has for ages been the source of blessings to surrounding nations. A reformed China will be a blessing to the whole race.

There are great, deep currents of sympathy and unity between the Orient and the Occident, beneath the apparent and even sometimes stormy differences on the surface. Chinese human nature in its depths is exactly like human nature everywhere,—including our own variety. Mythology, poetry, literature, and all the old and pre-ancient products of mind show this, as well as do the responses of the Chinese mind to new visions and messages containing truth, which knows no climate, time, or space, and outgrows all names and labels. All this argues favorably for a reformed China.

Apart from the various religions which the Chinese have accepted, let us take an illustration from Popular art.

China is the Land of the Dragon and bears this symbol of power on her yellow flag. Yet all over the earth, among primitive peoples, the dragon has been the supreme symbol of living, concrete force. The Chinese dragon in all its varieties is well worthy of study. On sculpture, painting, dress, flag, it is almost omnipresent, being chief of the four supernatural animals. It is so much like the geological creatures of a world that has passed away, that we are forced to believe that it is but the development, in fancy, of an actual organism once upon the earth. There are nine or ten varieties of this imaginary creature that carries in his structure a cyclopedia of all the forces of life, with their powers of motion and of destruction. Of one, for example, it is written: "When earth is piled up in mountains, wind and rain arise, but when water comes together into streams, the Kiao dragon comes into being."

Chief of all scaly reptiles, the dragon wields the power of transformation. It can render itself visible and invisible at pleasure. It lives partly in the waters of the earth and partly in the waters above the earth, in the spring ascending to the clouds, in the autumn burying itself in the watery depths. At will it reduces itself to the size of a silkworm, or it is swollen until it fills the space of heaven and earth. It can rise into the clouds or sink into the ocean deeps. The watery principle of the atmosphere, mist, cloud, dew, rain, etc., is particularly associated with one dragon, but another of different nature controls the earth's surface.

In art it is not usual to represent the dragon as completely visible, but to hide parts of his body or limbs in cloud or mist, to suggest rather than fully to portray.

The dragon can climb, fly, crawl, and run. It has tooth, claw, wing, tail, and every equipment belonging to beast, bird, fish, or reptile. Of the four sorts of principal dragons, the celestial variety guards the mansions of the gods and sup-ports them so that they do not fall. The spiritual dragon causes winds to blow and produces rain for the benefit of mankind. The dragon of earth marks out the courses of rivers and streams. There is a bob-tailed dragon that sports in the whirlwind and is credited with special power in destroying houses and cities.

The dragon is associated with the East, with springtime, and with the eastern quarter of the heavens. In the popular belief, there are four dragon kings, each having dominion over one of the four seas which form the border of the habitable earth. The palaces in which these kings live have striking names. There is also a dragon which does not mount up to heaven, and another without horns. The name of the Iliu Kiu (Loo Choo) Islands, Sleeping Dragon, suggests one that has not yet risen to the skies. Most honorable of all is the yellow dragon. That which has five claws can be used only by the emperor or on imperial property.

It is not wonderful that such a divinely endowed creature, which holds within himself all the powers known to life of any sort, should occupy a great place in Chinese art and story. The dragon is the symbol not only of power, but of guardianship. It is often seen in carving, sculpture, and painting, on gateways, posts, and temple ornaments. At wells, fountains, eaves, conduits, in gardens and other places where water spouts, flows, or is stored up, we may expect to meet with the stone, bronze, or iron dragon represented in various forms, while from paper, porcelain, and in pictorial art he greets us continually.

In philosophy the dragon is the emblem of power manifesting itself. In popular notion the dragon is held responsible for a great deal that we should express by other symbols or in different forms of speech. In the earlier world of thought, in the infancy of the race, before there were scales, measures, laboratories, written figures, or mathematics, all great manifestations of power and strange events, as well as human heroes, were described in fairy tales and mythology. Only in this way was explanation possible. Thus a rude sort of science, outside of the books, grows up. Little children who cannot know anything about the invisible laws of the universe, or understand machinery or its motive power, have things wonderful explained to them by means of things living, that is, of animals who talk, and of men and women who can change themselves, or their friends or enemies, into something else, and one thing into another. In the myths the heroes and heroines can over-come all obstacles by magic. Now to people who have never seen and cannot know anything about such wonders as locomotives, telegraphs, steam engines, photographs, and a thousand other strange inventions of an age of science, explanations must be made in the language and forms of thought with which they are acquainted.

With these illustrations we can appreciate the fact that the uneducated masses of China—not ten per cent of whom can read books—believe easily the most absurd stories circulated about foreigners. Indeed, they quite equal or excel the worst of our own people who are ignorant of the Chinese. The amazing things actually done, or alleged to be done, do not seem any more wonderful than what they have been accustomed to believe.

Let us consider a Chinese traveler in America, but not yet understanding how the forces of steam and electricity are harnessed and made to obey the will of man. On going back home and telling of the Pennsylvania Railroad, for example, with engines going at lightning speed, drawing crowds of people in long trains of cars thousands of miles a day, but also killing men by accident daily, he might describe this as a steel dragon stretching from Pittsburg to New York. The monster is able to carry on its back every day thousands of people, but it requires for its food a man or two every day, devouring human beings very much like the dragons of mythology. So also in the great disasters from storm and flood, tidal waves or volcanoes, which overwhelm human lives, and in the dangers and deaths from mining, or by fire, gas, explosion, or poisonous fumes, the uneducated Chinese sees the work of the great offended "god," dragon, or some other irritated creature, where we should look only for the phenomena of nature.

The power of the dragon is beneficent also. Its nobler side is shown especially in relation to water. Life, fertility, food, comfort, and beauty come from the cloud and rain. The sweet influences that drop from the skies and descend from the mountain are for the happiness of man. Hence there are dragons which are associated with happy omens and permanent blessing.

Critical comparison of the root ideas of East and West, whether of men or of dragons, shows differences. In European and Semitic lore, the hero overcomes and slays the dragons, man's wit and valor prevailing over brute fierceness and strength. This human phase of struggle is as nearly absent from the Oriental lore as is praise from their worship.