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America, Through the Spectacles of an Oriental Diplomat By Tingfang Wu Characters: 23091

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


This is a big subject. Its exhaustive treatment would require a large volume. In a little chapter such as this I have no intention of doing more than to cast a glance at its cuff buttons and some of the frills on its shirt. Those who want a thesis must look elsewhere.

Now what is Civilization? According to Webster it is "the act of civilizing or the state of being civilized; national culture; refinement." "Civilization began with the domestication of animals," says Alfred Russell Wallace, but whether for the animal that was domesticated or for the man domesticating it is not clear. In a way the remark probably applies to both, for the commencement of culture, or the beginning of civilization, was our reclamation from a savage state. Burke says: "Our manners, our civilization, and all the good things connected with manners and civilization have in this European world of ours depended for ages upon two principles-the spirit of a gentleman, and the spirit of religion." We often hear people, especially Westerners, calling themselves "highly civilized", and to some extent they have good grounds for their claim, but do they really manifest the qualifications mentioned by Burke? Are they indeed so "highly civilized" as to be in all respects worthy paragons to the so-called semi-civilized nations? Have not some of their policies been such as can be characterized only as crooked and selfish actions which less civilized peoples would not have thought of? I believe that every disinterested reader will be able to supply confirmatory illustrations for himself, but I will enforce the point by giving a few Chinese ideals of a truly civilized man:

"He guards his body as if holding jade"; i.e., he will not contaminate himself with mental or moral filth.

"He does not gratify his appetite, nor in his dwelling place does he seek ease"; i.e., he uses the physical without being submerged by it.

"Without weapons he will not attack a tiger, nor will he dare to cross a river without a boat"; in other words he will never ruin himself and his family by purely speculative practices.

He will "send charcoal in a snowstorm, but he will not add flowers to embroidery", meaning that he renders timely assistance when necessary, but does not curry favor by presents to those who do not need them.

Our most honored heroes are said to have made their virtue "brilliant" and one of them engraved on his bath-tub the axiom-"If you can renovate yourself one day, do so from day to day. Let there be daily renovation." Our ideal for the ruler is that the regulation of the state must commence with his regulation of himself.

It is too often forgotten that civilization, like religion, originally came from the East. Long before Europe and America were civilized, yea while they were still in a state of barbarism, there were nations in the East, including China, superior to them in manners, in education, and in government; possessed of a literature equal to any, and of arts and sciences totally unknown in the West. Self-preservation and self-interest make all men restless, and so Eastern peoples gradually moved to the West taking their knowledge with them; Western people who came into close contact with them learned their civilization. This fusion of East and West was the beginning of Western civilization.

A Chinese proverb compares a pupil who excels his teacher to the color green, which originates with blue but is superior to it. This may aptly be applied to Westerners, for they originally learned literature, science, and other arts from the East; but they have proven apt pupils and have excelled their old masters. I wish I could find an apothegm concerning a former master who went back to school and surpassed his clever pupil. The non-existence of such a maxim probably indicates that no such case has as yet occurred, but that by no means proves that it never will.

Coming now to particulars I would say that one of the distinguishing features in the American people which I much admire is their earnestness and perseverance. When they decide to take up anything, whether it be an invention or the investigation of a difficult problem, they display indomitable perseverance and patience. Mr. Edison, for example, sleeps, it is said, in his factory and is inaccessible for days when he has a problem to solve, frequently even forgetting food and sleep. I can only compare him to our sage Confucius, who, hearing a charming piece of music which he wanted to study, became so engrossed in it that for many days he forgot to eat, while for three months he did not know the taste of meat.

The dauntless courage of the aviators, not only in America, but in Europe also, is a wonderful thing. "The toll of the air", in the shape of fatal accidents from aviation, mounts into the hundreds, and yet men are undeterred in the pursuit of their investigations. With such intrepidity, perseverance, and genius, it is merely a question of time, and I hope it will not be long, when the art of flying, either by aeroplanes or airships, will be perfectly safe. When that time arrives I mean to make an air trip to America, and I anticipate pleasures from the novel experience such as I do not get from travelling by land or sea.

The remarkable genius for organization observable anywhere in America arouses the visitor's enthusiastic admiration. One visits a mercantile office where a number of men are working at different desks in a large room, and marvels at the quiet and systematic manner in which they perform their tasks; or one goes to a big bank and is amazed at the large number of customers ever going in and coming out. It is difficult to calculate the enormous amount of business transacted every hour, yet all is done with perfect organization and a proper division of labor, so that any information required is furnished by the manager or by a clerk, at a moment's notice. I have often been in these places, and the calm, quiet, earnest way in which the employees performed their tasks was beyond praise. It showed that the heads who organized and were directing the institutions had a firm grasp of multiplex details.

We Chinese have a reputation for being good business men. When in business on our own account, or in partnership with a few friends, we succeed marvelously well; but we have yet much to learn regarding large concerns such as corporations or joint stock companies. This is not to be wondered at, for joint stock companies and corporations as conducted in the West were unknown in China before the advent of foreign merchants in our midst. Since then a few joint stock companies have been started in Hongkong, Shanghai, and other ports; these have been carried on by Chinese exclusively, but the managers have not as yet mastered the systematic Western methods of conducting such concerns. Even unpractised and inexpert eyes can see great room for improvement in the management of these businesses. Here, I must admit, the Japanese are ahead of us. Take, for instance, the Yokohama Specie Bank: it has a paid-up capital of Yen 30,000,000 and has branches and agencies not only in all the important towns in Japan, but also in different ports in China, London, New York, San Francisco, Honolulu, Bombay, Calcutta and other places. It is conducted in the latest and most approved scientific fashion; its reports and accounts, published half-yearly, reveal the exact state of the concern's financial position and incidentally show that it makes enormous profits. True, several Chinese banks of a private or official nature have been established, and some of them have been doing a fair business, but candor compels me to say that they are not conducted as scientifically as is the Yokohama Specie Bank, or most American banks. Corporations and joint stock companies are still in their infancy in China; but Chinese merchants and bankers, profiting by the mistakes of the past, will doubtless gradually improve their systems, so that in the future there will be less and less cause to find fault with them.

One system which has been in vogue within the last ten or twenty years in America, and which has lately figured much in the limelight, is that of "Trusts". Here, again, it is only the ingenuity of Americans which could have brought the system to such gigantic proportions as to make it possible for it to wield an immense influence over trade, not only in America but in other countries also. The main object of the Trust seems to be to combine several companies under one direction, so as to economize expenses, regulate production and the price of commodities by destroying competition. Its advocates declare their policy to be productive of good to the world, inasmuch as it secures regular supplies of commodities of the best kind at fair and reasonable prices. On the other hand, its opponents contend that Trusts are injurious to the real interests of the public, as small companies cannot compete with them, and without healthy competition the consumer always suffers. Where experts differ it were perhaps wiser for me not to express an opinion lest I should show no more wisdom than the boy who argued that lobsters were black and not red because he had often seen them swimming about on the seashore, but was confuted by his friend who said he knew they were red and not black for he had seen them on his father's dinner table.

The fact, however, which remains indisputable, is the immense power of wealth. No one boycotts money. It is something no one seems to get enough of. I have never heard that multi-millionaires like Carnegie or Rockefeller ever expressed regrets at not being poor, even though they seem more eager to give money away than to make it. Most people in America are desirous for money, and rush every day to their business with no other thought than to accumulate it quickly. Their love of money leaves them scarcely time to eat, to drink, or to sleep; waking or sleeping they think of nothing else. Wealth is their goal and when they reach it they will probably be still unsatisfied. The Chinese are, of course, not averse to wealth. They can enjoy the jingling coin as much as anyone, but money is not their only thought. They carry on their business calmly and quietly, and they are very patient. I trust they will always retain these habits and never feel any temptation to imitate the Americans in their mad chase after money.

There is, however, one American characteristic my countrymen might learn with profit, and that is the recognition of the fact that punctuality is the soul of business. Americans know this; it is one cause of their success. Make an appointment with an American and you will find him in his office at the appointed time. Everything to be done by him during the course of the day has its fixed hour, and hence he is able to accomplish a greater amount of work in a given time than many others. Chinese, unfortunately, have no adequate conceptions of the value of time. This is due, perhaps, to our mode of reckoning. In the West a day is divided into twenty-four hours, and each hour into sixty minutes, but in China it has been for centuries the custom to divide day and night into twelve (shih) "periods" of two hours each, so that an appointment is not made for a particular minute, as in America, but for one or other of these two-hour periods. This has created ingrained habits of unpunctuality which clocks and watches and contact with foreigners are slow to remove. The time-keeping railway is, h

owever, working a revolution, especially in places where there is only one train a day, and a man who misses that has to wait for the morrow before he can resume his journey.

Some years ago a luncheon-"tiffin" we call it in China-was given in my honor at a Peking restaurant by a couple of friends; the hour was fixed at noon sharp. I arrived on the stroke of twelve, but found that not only were none of the guests there, but that even the hosts themselves were absent. As I had several engagements I did not wait, but I ordered a few dishes and ate what I required. None of the hosts had made their appearance by the time I had finished, so I left with a request to the waiter that he would convey my thanks.

Knowing the unpunctuality of our people, the conveners of a public meeting will often tell the Chinese that it will begin an hour or two before the set time, whereas foreigners are notified of the exact hour. Not being aware of this device I once attended a conference at the appointed time, only to find that I had to wait for over an hour. I protested that in future I should be treated as a foreigner in this regard.

As civilized people have always found it necessary to wear clothes I ought not to omit a reference to them here, but in view of what has already been said in the previous chapter I shall at this juncture content myself with quoting Mrs. M. S. G. Nichols, an English lady who has written on this subject. She characterizes the clothing of men as unbeautiful, but she principally devotes her attention to the dress of women. I quote the following from her book:[1] "The relation of a woman's dress to her health is seldom considered, still less is it contemplated as to its effect upon the health of her children; yet everyone must see that all that concerns the mothers of our race is important. The clothing of woman should be regarded in every aspect if we wish to see its effect upon her health, and consequently upon the health of her offspring. The usual way is to consider the beauty or fashion of dress first, its comfort and healthfulness afterward, if at all. We must reverse this method. First, use, then beauty, flowing from, or in harmony with, use. That is the true law of life" (p. 14). On page 23 she continues: "A great deal more clothing is worn by women in some of fashion's phases than is needed for warmth, and mostly in the form of heavy skirts dragging down upon the hips. The heavy trailing skirts also are burdens upon the spine. Such evils of women's clothes, especially in view of maternity, can hardly be over-estimated. The pains and perils that attend birth are heightened, if not caused, by improper clothing. The nerves of the spine and the maternal system of nerves become diseased together." And on page 32 she writes: "When I first went to an evening party in a fashionable town, I was shocked at seeing ladies with low dresses, and I cannot even now like to see a man, justly called a rake, looking at the half-exposed bosom of a lady. There is no doubt that too much clothing is an evil, as well as too little; but clothing that swelters or leaves us with a cold are both lesser evils than the exposure of esoteric charms to stir the already heated blood of the 'roue'. What we have to do, as far as fashion and the public opinion it forms will allow, is to suit our clothing to our climate, and to be truly modest and healthful in our attire." Mrs. Nichols, speaking from her own experience, has naturally devoted her book largely to a condemnation of woman's dress, but man's dress as worn in the West is just as bad. The dreadful high collar and tight clothes which are donned all the year round, irrespective of the weather, must be very uncomfortable. Men wear nearly the same kind of clothing at all seasons of the year. That might be tolerated in the frigid or temperate zones, but should not the style be changed in the tropical heat of summer common to the Eastern countries? I did not notice that men made much difference in their dress in summer; I have seen them, when the thermometer was ranging between 80 and 90, wearing a singlet shirt, waistcoat and coat. The coat may not have been as thick as that worn in winter, still it was made of serge, wool or some similarly unsuitable stuff. However hot the weather might be it was seldom that anyone was to be seen on the street without a coat. No wonder we frequently hear of deaths from sunstroke or heat, a fatality almost unknown among the Chinese.[2]

Chinese dress changes with the seasons, varying from the thickest fur to the lightest gauze. In winter we wear fur or garments lined with cotton wadding; in spring we don a lighter fur or some other thinner garment; in summer we use silk, gauze or grass cloth, according to the weather. Our fashions are set by the weather; not by the arbitrary decrees of dressmakers and tailors from Peking or elsewhere. The number of deaths in America and in Europe every year, resulting from following the fashion must, I fear, be considerable, although of course no doctor would dare in his death certificate to assign unsuitable clothing as the cause of the decease of a patient.

Even in the matter of dressing, and in this twentieth century, "might is right". In the opinion of an impartial observer the dress of man is queer, and that of woman, uncouth; but as all nations in Europe and America are wearing the same kind of dress, mighty Conventionality is extending its influence, so that even some natives of the East have discarded their national dress in favor of the uglier Western attire. If the newly adopted dress were, if no better than, at least equal to, the old one in beauty and comfort, it might be sanctioned for the sake of uniformity, as suggested in the previous chapter; but when it is otherwise why should we imitate? Why should the world assume a depressing monotony of costume? Why should we allow nature's diversities to disappear? Formerly a Chinese student when returning from Europe or America at once resumed his national dress, for if he dared to continue to favor the Western garb he was looked upon as a "half-foreign devil". Since the establishment of the Chinese Republic in 1911, this sentiment has entirely changed, and the inelegant foreign dress is no longer considered fantastic; on the contrary it has become a fashion, not only in cities where foreigners are numerous, but even in interior towns and villages where they are seldom seen.

Chinese ladies, like their Japanese sisters, have not yet, to their credit be it said, become obsessed by this new fashion, which shows that they have more common sense than some men. I have, however, seen a few young and foolish girls imitating the foreign dress of Western women. Indeed this craze for Western fashion has even caught hold of our legislators in Peking, who, having fallen under the spell of clothes, in solemn conclave decided that the frock coat, with the tall-top hat, should in future be the official uniform; and the swallow-tail coat with a white shirt front the evening dress in China. I need hardly say that this action of the Peking Parliament aroused universal surprise and indignation. How could the scholars and gentry of the interior, where foreign tailors are unknown, be expected to dress in frock coats at formal ceremonies, or to attend public entertainments in swallow-tails? Public meetings were held to discuss the subject, and the new style of dress was condemned as unsuitable. At the same time it was thought by many that the present dresses of men and women leave much room for improvement. It should be mentioned that as soon as it was known that the dress uniform was under discussion in Parliament, the silk, hat and other trades guilds, imitating the habits of the wide-world which always everywhere considers self first, fearing that the contemplated change in dress might injuriously affect their respective interests, sent delegates to Peking to "lobby" the members to "go slow" and not to introduce too radical changes. The result was that in addition to the two forms of dress above mentioned, two more patterns were authorized, one for man's ordinary wear and the other for women, both following Chinese styles, but all to be made of home-manufactured material. This was to soothe the ruffled feelings of the manufacturers and traders, for in purchasing a foreign suit some of the materials at least, if not all, must be of foreign origin or foreign make.

During a recent visit to Peking I protested against this novel fashion, and submitted a memorandum to President Yuan with a request that it should be transmitted to Parliament. My suggestion is that the frock-coat and evening-dress regulation should be optional, and that the Chinese dress uniform as sketched by me in my memorandum should be adopted as an alternative. I am in hopes that my suggestion will be favorably considered. The point I have taken is that Chinese diplomats and others who go abroad should, in order to avoid curiosity, and for the sake of uniformity, adopt Western dress, and that those who are at home, if they prefer the ugly change, should be at liberty to adopt it, but that it should not be compulsory on others who object to suffering from cold in winter, or to being liable to sunstroke in summer. I have taken this middle course in order to satisfy both sides; for it would be difficult to induce Parliament to abolish or alter what has been so recently fixed by them. The Chinese dress, as is well known all over the world, is superior to that worn by civilized people in the West, and the recent change favored by the Chinese is deplored by most foreigners in China. The following paragraph, written by a foreign merchant and published in one of the Shanghai papers, expresses the opinion of almost all intelligent foreigners on this subject:

"Some time back the world was jubilant over the news that among the great reforms adopted in China was the discarding of the Chinese tunic, that great typical national costume. 'They are indeed getting civilized,' said the gossip; and one and all admired the energy displayed by the resolute Young China in coming into line with the CIVILIZED world, adopting even our uncomfortable, anti-hygienic and anti-esthetic costume.

"Foreign 'fashioned' tailor shops, hat stores, shoemakers, etc., sprang up all over the country. When I passed through Canton in September last, I could not help noticing also that those typical streets lined with boat-shaped, high-soled shoes, had been replaced by foreign-style boot and shoemakers.

"Undoubtedly the reform was gaining ground and the Chinese would have to be in the future depicted dressed up as a Caucasian.

"In my simplicity I sincerely confess I could not but deplore the passing away of the century-old tunic, so esthetic, so comfortable, so rich, so typical of the race. In my heart I was sorry for the change, as to my conception it was not in the dress where the Chinese had to seek reform...."

I agree with this writer that it is not in the domain of dress that we Chinese should learn from the Western peoples. There are many things in China which could be very well improved but certainly not dress.

[1] "The Clothes Question Considered in its Relation to Beauty, Comfort and Health", by Mrs. M. S. G. Nichols. Published in London, 32 Fopstone Road, Earl's Court, S.W.

[2] There have been a few cases of Chinese workmen who through carelessness have exposed themselves by working in the sun; but such cases are rare.

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