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  • Published on: 7th September 2019
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Arthur Henderson Smith, in his 1894 book, Chinese Characteristics, comes out boldly explaining and detailing the Chinese characteristics. He makes fearless comments and generalizations that today, could be deemed insensitive, or otherwise, racist. He lays out his mind on his observations about the Chinese characteristics while touching on his own values. To a certain extent, characteristics outlined and described by Smith can indeed be defined as Chinese. Traits such as filial piety as detailed in his book match the Chinese character of self-sacrifice over others.[1]

However, some characteristics outlined by Smith are just mere comparisons of China with the western world during that time. He observes the problems of China be connected with ideologies and systems and suggests Christian intervention, as the only permanent solution, for China’s problems and “righteousness.” As a result, this paper will argue that even though Smith’s characteristics view of China and its people is indeed observable and pointed out, most of his descriptions show that he generalized issues on a wider scale giving the world an impression that China is a miserable country that is headed for desolation. His defined characteristics of the Chinese people could perhaps be matched with Said Edward’s work in Orientalism, where he attacks the West for their held facts of imperialism.[2] Hence, this argument will try to prove that Smith’s initial picture of the Chinese custom and traits is less significant and irrelevant to modern Chinese. The first part of the paper will examine the extent of reality of Smith’s notion while the second part will examine his erroneous notions.

Firstly, Smith proposes the element of intellectual turbidity that characterized the Chinese during that time. In page 83 of his book, he details how the Chinese were far behind in their intellectual levels. He notes problems in the Chinese language and the problems it had. The language had no tenses meaning there were no words that could describe the transition of time.[3] He further quotes the illiteracy level that the people had during that period. He further mentions how education was limited to a much smaller circle. He goes further to note the low Chinese intelligence levels when they could postpone treatment due to busyness. This characteristic is true by his observation and according to history. In Gernet’s book, Daily life in China: 1250-1276, the Chinese experience several invasions and its cities captured. Only the capital, Hangchow, remained secure from its enemies due to its convenient location.[4] The book shows intellectual weakness on the style of warfare employed by the Chinese. Gernet quotes the ‘inadequate combat skills’ possessed by the Chinese, which never matched their enemy’s. Intellectual development would later be affected when Mao introduced the Cultural Revolution and shut down schools. The leader of the revolution, Mao, directed massive recruitment of youths into paramilitary groups.[5] The modern China has seen tremendous improvements in education and intellectual developments contrary to what was evident during previous eras.

Similarly, Smith notices and points out the high level of filial piety that existed among the Chinese. Smith indicates a highly developed connection and relation between the Chinese parents and their children. The trait is high within the Chinese that no English word could explain it as it is.[6] It was regarded unfilial if the son was more attached to the wife than to the parents once he married. Perhaps the best example of filial piety in the Chinese is when children volunteered to take on the death penalty, which had been issued to their criminal parents.[7] The two above mentioned paragraphs show a high level of trueness in Smith’s assertion about Chinese characteristics. On the other hand, some of the characteristics he lays down do not reflect the Chinese characteristics and are only comparisons made to the western culture.

Face is a term described a person’s prestige or dignity within a social perspective. The phrase “to save face,” has been used severally to describe the extent to which an individual can go to save his/her dignity or prestige. Smith describes how face would act as a master key that unlocks most of Chinese characteristics (17). The Chinese people had an unpredictable exhibition of face according to smith. Sometimes they could go to immeasurable lengths just to preserve their dignity. Smith offers examples when Chinese individuals acted in ways that showed an agenda of saving face. From his descriptions, he notes the Chinese to be people who cared and put most attention to their notion of face. It was important for one to maintain face though it meant losing a prize, possession, or commodity.

Smith’s views of Chinese characteristics are somehow flawed to an extent. Some do not represent what modern China is. Smith draws his conclusions from a more generalized angle. He uses extraordinary occurrences in China to explain characteristics of the Chinese. He notes that the Chinese are high disregarders of time. He goes on to compare the Chinese people with the westerners saying the westerners go along with the “chimes of the clock.” He describes the Chinese as people who are directed by things like terrain and prevailing weather conditions and never time.[8] He explains how the Chinese are poor timekeepers, who would spend much of their time doing a single activity while ignoring the rest. His conclusions of the Chinese time disregarding are majorly based on the promptness of the western cultures and their high regard for time. This shows that this characteristic can be referred to being more of non-western than being Chinese. His assertion of this characteristic would be redundant in the next century even as the Chinese move to a more capitalist system which suggests that “time is money.”

Furthermore, Smith describes the Chinese people with his own values. What he finds not pleasing to himself is not good and therefore proposes a notion that is aligned with his values. He outlines the problems and poorly emulated traits in China so that he can offer a solution. He quotes on page 330 saying what the Chinese people need is righteousness which comes from Christianity. He goes on to suggest that the Chinese need the knowledge of God to understand the human soul and the relation of God to man and vice versa. Although he saw the ethical significance of the Confucianism system, his campaign for Christian civilization in China seemed rather obvious when he commented saying development can only be attained through Christianity.[9]

From the time Smith made his remarks public within a book, most of his postulated notions have since changed. Most the characteristics he pointed out that define the Chinese are today considered redundant. The period after Smith published his book can be referred to as post-Smithian societies. The intellectual levels of China have risen to a high of 97% from the 4% reported by Smith in 1894. People in China no longer have the literacy inadequacies that they experienced over a century ago.[10] Most of the problems that hindered China’s intellectual advancements such as malnourishment and diseases have been solved therefore allowing for attention on education and social progression. However, during the Cultural Revolution, changes were initiated within the education system. Some of the subjects such as History were deemphasized while other subjects such as arithmetic and engineering were made more practical.[11] Similarly, policies were changed that discriminated admission of children with bourgeois backgrounds in favor of children of poor peasants and worker farmers.[12]

In the same way, the hopelessness that Smith described in his book regarding China became outmoded once people rose up for China. People like Mao shortly brought a sense of nationhood when they formed the Chinese Communist revolutionary. The revolutionist established a communist system that laid more emphasis on virtue.[13] Mao’s thoughts and ideas transformed China. It changed how the people thought, how they viewed the world and themselves. Rice quotes saying the ultimate dream is to have a nation of equality that will be sustained by virtue. It was Mao’s objective to bring in a communist China and purge any capitalist remnants.[14] Mao introduced communal work in agricultural fields as a way of promoting communism. He also tried to bring back the spirit of revolution by introducing the Cultural Revolution to preserve the communist ideologies. However, the method employed failed, bringing famine and low production in China. People later shifted into a capitalist form of society, having learnt from the failures and deaths brought by Mao’s way of living and the Cultural Revolution. Modern China is a socio-economic state, with individuals privately owning resources. Smith suggested that capitalist characteristic is a western trait but today, China’s emulation of the capitalist approach shows that Smith was wrong. Capitalism did not come from the west but a factor of changing times. The mentalities of both China and the West have now been aligned in the same direction, a direction aiming towards getting richer.

Nevertheless, some persisting extraordinary issues continue to grave China. The female-male ratio has decreased due to the selective abortion laws which view the girl as a “burden”. Such customs and perceptions continue to be held by the Chinese people. It continues to be a traditional view that has not yet been overcome. Moreover, the filial piety exhibited during the Smith’s time continues even in modern China. Parent to child relationships continues to remain stronger than any other relationship. It is evident through the family setting that the Chinese continue to practice. More emphasis is given to the child rather than the adult.

In conclusion, Smith’s notion of Chinese characteristics is partly right. However, some of his assertions are majorly an influence from the values he held in that time. He observed the Chinese people as literacy deficient. This was true and confirmed by the statistics which showed <5% primary enrollment by school-aged children. The literacy levels affected their social lives and society as a whole. He also characterized the Chinese to be people who highly regard parent-child relationship which continues to be the same even in today’s time and age. Conversely, some of the characteristics of the Chinese are mainly comparisons that he makes with the west. He compares the social systems between China and the West suggesting that China has a high disregard for time. This is only a comparison between different cultures and not a characteristic. He also compares the social systems between the west and China and concludes that the capitalist system in the West and its absence in China make China a weak state that will eventually break apart. Most of his assertions have since changed. China soon created a sense of nationhood and also took the path of capitalism. Challenges experienced at that time such as high illiteracy levels have since been addressed. Therefore, although Smith’s characteristic view of China and its people is indeed observable to some extent, most of his descriptions show that he generalized issues on a wider scale giving the world an impression that China is a miserable country that is headed for desolation. His initial view of Chinese customs and characteristics in 1894 is less significant and has less relevance to modern China.

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