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America, Through the Spectacles of an Oriental Diplomat By Tingfang Wu Characters: 22135

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


When an Oriental, who, throughout his life, has lived in his own country where the will of his Sovereign is supreme, and the personal liberty of the subject unknown, first sets foot on the soil of the United States, he breathes an atmosphere unlike anything he has ever known, and experiences curious sensations which are absolutely new. For the first time in his life he feels that he can do whatever he pleases without restraint, and that he can talk freely to people without fear. When he takes up a newspaper and reads statements about different persons in high positions which are not at all creditable to them, and learns that no serious consequences happen to the writers, he is lost in wonderment. After a little time he begins to understand that this is the "land of the free and the home of the brave", and that in America everybody is on an equality. The President, the highest official in the United States, is neither more nor less than a citizen; and should he, which is very unlikely, commit an offense, or do anything in contravention of the law, he would be tried in a Court of Justice in the same manner as the lowest and the poorest citizen. Naturally the new visitor thinks this the happiest people on earth, and wishes that his own country could be governed as happily. Until that lucky day arrives he feels that he would rather stay in free America than return to his native land.

One of the first lessons which is learned by the American child in school, and which is deeply impressed on its mind by its teacher, is that according to the Constitution all persons are born equal, and that no distinction is made between sections, classes, or sects.

No slaves, or persons under bonds, have been allowed in the United States since the abolition of slavery by President Lincoln. The moment a slave, or anyone in bonds, steps on the shores of the United States he is free, and no one, not even his former master, can deprive him of his liberty. America also affords an asylum for oppressed people and for political offenders; people who have been persecuted in their own land, on account of their religion, or for political offenses, find a safe refuge in this country. Every year large numbers of Jews, and other foreigners, emigrate to America for the sake of enjoying religious freedom. Perfect religious liberty is guaranteed to everyone in the United States. There is equal religious liberty in England, but the King is compelled to belong to a particular section of the Christian Church, whereas in the United States no restriction is placed on the religious belief of the President; thus one President was a Baptist, another a Unitarian, and a third a Congregationalist; and, if elected, a Jew, a Mohammedan, or a Confucianist could become the President. Several Jews have held high Federal offices; they have even been Cabinet Ministers. Article VI of the Constitution of the United States says: "No religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States."

So ingrained in the minds of the American people is this principle of liberty and freedom of action that I do not believe they would resign it for any consideration whatsoever. Once an English Duke was asked whether he would accept the throne of China on the sole condition that he must reside in the Palace of Peking, and act as the Chinese Emperors have always been accustomed to act. He replied that such an exalted position of power and responsibility would be very great and tempting, but that he would on no account accept such an honor on such terms, as it would practically make him a prisoner. Though a subject under a monarchial form of government, he would not forfeit his right of freedom of action; and much less would a democratic American give up his birthright for any price. I knew an eminent and learned Judge of the Supreme Court in Washington, who used to say that he would never bend his knees to any human being, and that to the Almighty God alone would he ever do homage. He no doubt acted up to his principles, but I much doubt if all Americans observe so lofty an ideal. A young lover in proposing to his sweetheart would not mind kneeling down to support his prayer. I have seen penitent husbands bending their knees to ask the forgiveness of their offended wives. This, however, can be explained by the fact that the act of kneeling is not, in such cases, a sign of inferiority, but the act of one equal asking a favor from another; still it is the bending of the knee which was so solemnly abjured by the learned Judge.

The dislike of distinction of classes which arises from the principle of equality is apparent wherever you go in the States. The railroad cars are not marked first, second, or third, as they are in Europe. It is true that there are Pullman cars, and palace cars, with superior and superb accommodation, and for which the occupant has to pay an extra fare; but the outside of the car simply bears the name "Pullman" without indicating its class, and anyone who is willing to pay the fare may share its luxuries. I should mention that in some of the Southern states negroes are compelled to ride on separate cars. On one occasion, arriving at the railroad station in one of those states, I noticed there were two waiting-rooms, one labelled "For the White", and the other "For the Colored". The railway porter took my portmanteau to the room for the white, but my conscience soon whispered I had come to the wrong place, as neither of the two rooms was intended for people of my complexion. The street-cars are more democratic; there is no division of classes; all people, high or low, sit in the same car without distinction of race, color or sex. It is a common thing to see a workman, dressed in shabby clothes full of dirt, sitting next to a millionaire or a fashionable lady gorgeously clothed. Cabinet officers and their wives do not think it beneath their dignity to sit beside a laborer, or a coolie, as he is called in China.

Foreign Ministers and Ambassadors coming to Washington soon learn to follow these local customs. In a European country they ride in coronated carriages, with two liverymen; but in Washington they usually go about on foot, or travel by the street-cars. I frequently saw the late Lord Pauncefote, the celebrated British Ambassador to Washington, ride to the State Department in the street-car. My adoption of this democratic way of travelling during the time I was in America was the cause of a complaint being made against me at Peking. The complainants were certain Chinese high officials who had had occasion to visit the States; one of them had had a foreign education, and ought to have known better than to have joined in the accusation that my unpretentious manner of living was not becoming the dignity of a representative of China. They forgot that when in Rome you must do as the Romans do, and that to ride in a sumptuous carriage, with uniformed footmen, is in America not only an unnecessary expense, but a habit which, among such a democratic people as the Americans, would detract from, rather than add to, one's dignity. An envoy residing in a foreign country should be in touch with the people among whom he is sojourning. If he put on unnecessary airs, there will be a coldness and lack of cordiality between him and the community; his sphere of usefulness will be curtailed, and his knowledge of the people and their country limited. Of course, in a European Capital, where every diplomat drives in a carriage, I should follow the example of my colleagues. But even in England, I frequently met high statesmen, such, for example, as Lord Salisbury, walking in the streets. This unrestrained liberty and equality is remarkably conspicuous in the United States; for instance, at the White House official receptions or balls in Washington, I have seen ladies in ordinary dress, while on one occasion a woman appeared in the dress of a man. This was Doctor Mary Walker.

In a democratic country, such as the United States, one would naturally suppose that the people enjoyed a greater degree of freedom than is possible in monarchial countries. But, so far from this being so, in some respects, they appear to be in a worse position. On my return journey from South America, some years ago, our steamer had to stay for four hours outside of New York harbor. We had first to wait for the doctor to come on board to make his inspection of all the passengers, then the Customs officials appeared and examined the luggage and boxes of all the passengers, and then, last but not the least, we had to wait for the immigration officers. All this necessarily took time, and it was not until all these inspections were completed that the steamer was allowed to enter the harbor, and to tie up alongside the dock. And this occurred in the land of freedom and liberty! I spoke to some of my American fellow passengers about the inconvenience and delay, and though they all murmured they quietly submitted. Customs and sanitary inspection should be so conducted as to cause as little delay as possible. I have visited many countries in Europe, in South America, and in Asia, but I have never known of a ship having to stay outside the harbor of the port of her destination for so long a time.

Take another case; some months since, I wished, in compliance with the request of a lady in America, to send her a chow-dog. A mutual friend was willing to take it to her, but, upon making inquiries at the American Consulate as to the Customs regulations, he was informed that it would be impossible for him to undertake the commission, as the Customs officers at San Francisco, besides imposing a heavy duty on the dog, would keep the ship in quarantine because the dog was on board. I could scarcely believe this, but inquiries confirmed the truth of my friend's statement. Customs and immigration laws and sanitary regulations must, of course, be observed, but they should be enforced in such a way as not to work hardship on the people. Officers entrusted with the performance of such duties, while faithfully and conscientiously performing their work, should yet exercise their power with discretion and tact. They are the servants of the people, and ought to look after their interests and convenience as well as after the interests of the State. I would be the last one to encourage smuggling, but would the national interests really suffer if the Custom House officers were to be a little more ready to accept a traveller's word, and if they were less ready to suspect everyone of making false declarations when entering the country? Smuggling must be repressed, but at the same time is it not true that the more imports enter the country the better it is for the State and for the people?

There are no peers in the United States, as the Government has no power to create them; and although America is nominally a free country, yet if a foreign government should confer a decoration on an American citizen for services rend

ered, he cannot accept it without the consent of Congress, just as under a monarchy a subject must obtain his sovereign's permission to wear a foreign decoration. It is true that there are some such titled persons in America, but they are not treated with any greater respect or distinction than other citizens; yet you frequently find people in America who not only would not disdain, but are actually anxious, to receive decorations from foreign governments. Once, at least, an American high official, just before leaving the country to which he had been accredited, accepted, without permission, a decoration, knowing, that if he had asked for the consent of Congress, he would not have been allowed to receive it.

It is human nature to love change and variety, and for every person to be designated "Mister" is too tame and flat for the go-ahead Americans. Hence many of the people whom you meet daily have some prefix to their names, such as General, Colonel, Major, President, Judge, etc. You will not be far wrong to call a man "Judge" when he is a lawyer; or "General" or "Colonel" if he has served in the army; or "Admiral" or "Captain" if he has been in the navy. Though neither the Federal nor the State Government has power to confer titles, the magnates do so. They see that dukes and other peers are created in Europe, and that the partners in the big, wealthy firms over there, are called "merchant princes", and so to outdo them, they arrogate to themselves a still higher title. Hence there are railroad kings, copper kings, tobacco kings, etc. It is, however, manifestly improper and incongruous that the people should possess a higher title than their President, who is the head of the nation. To make it even, I would suggest that the title "President" be changed to "Emperor", for the following reasons: First, it would not only do away with the impropriety of the chief magistrate of the nation assuming a name below that of some of his people, but it would place him on a level with the highest ruler of any nation on the face of the earth. I have often heard the remark that the President of the United States is no more than a common citizen, elected for four years, and that on the expiration of his term he reverts to his former humble status of a private citizen; that he has nothing in common with the dignified majesty of an Emperor; but were the highest official of the United States to be in future officially known as Emperor, all these depreciatory remarks would fall to the ground. There is no reason whatever why he should not be so styled, as, by virtue of his high office, he possesses almost as much power as the most aristocratic ruler of any nation. Secondly, it would clearly demonstrate the sovereign power of the people; a people who could make and unmake an Emperor, would certainly be highly respected. Thirdly, the United States sends ambassadors to Germany, Austria, Russia, etc. According to international law, ambassadors have what is called the representative character, that is, they represent their sovereign by whom they are delegated, and are entitled to the same honors to which their constituent would be entitled were he personally present. In a Republic where the head of the State is only a citizen and the sovereign is the people, it is only by a stretch of imagination that its ambassador can be said to represent the person of his sovereign. Now it would be much more in consonance with the dignified character of an American ambassador to be the representative of an Emperor than of a simple President. The name of Emperor may be distasteful to some, but may not a new meaning be given to it? A word usually has several definitions. Now, if Congress were to pass a law authorizing the chief magistrate of the United States of America to be styled Emperor, such designation to mean nothing more than the word "President", the title would soon be understood in that sense. There is no reason in history or philology why the word "Emperor" should never mean anything other than a hereditary ruler. I make this suggestion seriously, and hope it will be adopted.

Marriage laws in the United States, as I understand them, are more elastic than those in Europe. In England, until a few years ago, a man could not contract a legal marriage with his deceased wife's sister, although he could marry the betrothed wife of his deceased brother. It is curious to compare the Chinese view of these two cases. Marriage with a deceased wife's sister is, in China, not only lawful, but quite common, while to marry a dead brother's betrothed is strictly prohibited. Doubtless in the United States both are recognized as legal. I was not, however, prepared to hear, and when I did hear it, I could not at first believe that a man is permitted to marry his deceased son's wife. Let me quote from the "China Press" which has special facilities for obtaining news from America. "Boston, March 24. The engagement of Mrs. Katherine M. B., widow of Charles A. B., and daughter of George C. F., chairman of the ........, Board of ........, to her father-in-law, Frank A. B., of ........, became known to-day. Charles A. B. was killed at the ........ Road crossing in ........ on March 29, 1910, by a locomotive which struck a carriage in which he was driving to the First Congregational Church, to serve as best man at the wedding of Miss H. R. F., another daughter of S. F., to L. G. B. of ........ His wife, who was in the carriage with him and was to have been matron at the wedding, was severely injured. Her mother-in-law, Mrs. Frank A. B., died some months later."[1] I suppose the marriage has since been consummated. If a father is permitted to marry his deceased son's wife, in fairness a son should be allowed to marry his deceased father's wife. I presume that there is a law in the United States or in some of the states against marriages within the prohibited degrees of consanguinity and affinity, but I confess that the more I study the subject the more I am confused as to what is or what is not within the prohibited degrees.

In China the law on this subject is extremely rigid, and consequently its infraction is exceedingly rare; I have, as a matter of fact, never heard of the marriage laws in China being broken. In "Liao Chai", a famous collection of Chinese tales, it is recorded that a young widow married her son and moved to another part of the country, so that their identity and relationship should be concealed. They seemed to have lived very happily together. After many years, when they had had children and grandchildren, their true relationship was accidentally discovered. A complaint was laid before the local authorities. After a long deliberation and careful review of the case, and to eradicate such "unnatural offspring", as they were termed, it was decided that the two offenders, and all their children and grandchildren should be burned to death, which sentence was duly carried out. I doubt if the story is authentic. It was probably fabricated by the author that it might serve as a warning. The sentence, if true, was too severe; the offspring who were innocent contributories to the crime deserved pity rather than punishment; the judgment passed on the real offenders was also unduly harsh. My object in citing this unsavory tale is to show the different views held in regard to incestuous marriage in China with its serious consequences.

It is commonly supposed that all men are born equal, and that the United States is the land of perfect equality. Now let us see if this is really so. There are men born into high stations of life, or into wealthy families, with "silver spoons" in their mouths; while there are others ushered into this world by parents who are paupers and who cannot support them. Then there are people born with wit and wisdom, while others are perfect fools. Again there are some who are brought to this life with strong and healthy constitutions, while others are weak and sickly. Thus it is plain that men are not born equal, either physically, intellectually, or socially. I do not know how my American friends account for this undoubted fact, but the Chinese doctrine of previous lives, of which the present are but the continuation, seems to afford a satisfactory explanation.

However, this doctrine of equality and independence has done immense good. It has, as a rule, caused men to think independently, and not to servilely follow the thoughts and ideas of others, who may be quite wrong. It has encouraged invention, and new discoveries in science and art. It has enabled men to develop industries and to expand trade. New York and Chicago, for example, could not have become such huge and prosperous cities within comparatively short periods, but for their free and wise institutions. In countries where personal liberty is unknown, and the rights of person and property are curtailed, people do not exert themselves to improve their environments, but are content to remain quiet and inactive.

By the constitution of the State of California it is declared that "all men are free and independent". It must be conceded that the American people enjoy a greater amount of freedom and independence than other people. But are they perfectly free, and are they really independent? Are they not swayed in politics by their "bosses", and do not many of them act and vote as their bosses dictate? In society are they not bound by conventionalities and, dare they infringe the strict rules laid down by the society leaders? In the matter of dress also are they not slaves, abjectly following new-fangled fashions imported from Paris? In domestic circles are not many husbands hen-pecked by their wives, because they, and not the men, rule the roost? Are not many women practically governed by their husbands, whose word is their law? The eager hunger for "the almighty dollar" leads most Americans to sacrifice their time, health, and liberty in the acquisition of wealth, and, alas, when they have acquired it, they find that their health is broken, and that they themselves are almost ready for the grave. Ought a free and independent people to live after this fashion?

In every well organized community it is essential that people should obey all laws and regulations which are enacted for the greatest good of the greatest number. In domestic circles they should willingly subordinate their own wishes to the wishes of others, for the sake of peace, concord and happiness. Happy that people whose laws and conditions are such that they can enjoy the greatest amount of freedom in regard to person and property, compatible with the general peace and good order of the community, and if I should be asked my opinion, notwithstanding all that I have above said concerning the United States, I should have to acknowledge that I believe that America is one of the few nations which have fairly well approximated the high ideal of a well-governed country.

[1] The names of the parties and places were given in full in the "China Press".

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