The Soul of the Far East



THE boyish belief that on the other side of our globe all things are of necessity upside down is startlingly brought back to the man when he first sets foot at Yokohama. If his initial glance does not, to be sure, disclose the natives in the every-day feat of standing calmly on their heads, an attitude which his youthful imagination conceived to be a necessary consequence of their geographical position, it does at least reveal them looking at the world as if from the standpoint of that eccentric posture. For they seem to him to see everything topsy-turvy. Whether it be that their antipodal situation has affected their brains, or whether it is the mind of the observer himself that has hitherto been wrong in undertaking to rectify the inverted pictures presented by his retina, the result, at all events, is undeniable. The world stands reversed, and, taking for granted his own uprightness, the stranger unhesitatingly imputes to them an obliquity of vision, a state of mind outwardly typified by their cat-like obliqueness of expression.

If the inversion be not precisely of the kind he expected, it is none the less striking, and impressively more real. If personal experience has thoroughly convinced him that the inhabitants of that under side of our planet do not adhere to it head downwards, like flies on a ceiling, — his early a priori deduction, — they still appear quite as antipodal, mentally considered. Intellectually, at least, their attitude sets gravity at defiance. For to the mind’s eye their world is one huge, comical antithesis of our own. What we regard intuitively in one way from our standpoint, they as intuitively observe in a diametrically opposite manner from theirs. To speak backwards, write backwards, read backwards, is but the a b c of their contrariety. The inversion extends deeper than mere modes of expression, down into the very matter of thought. Ideas of ours which we deemed innate find in them no home, while methods which strike us as preposterously unnatural appear to be their birthright. Indeed, to one anxious to conform to the manners and customs of the country, the only road to right lies in following unswervingly that course which his inherited instincts assure him to be wrong.

Yet these people are human beings ; with all their eccentricities they are men. Physically we cannot but be cognizant of the fact, nor mentally but be conscious of it. Like us, indeed, and yet so unlike are they that we seem, as we gaze at them, to be viewing our own humanity in some mirth-provoking mirror of the mind, — a mirror that shows us our own familiar thoughts, but all turned wrong side out. Humor holds the glass, and we become the sport of our own reflections. But is it otherwise at home ? Do not our personal presentments mock each of us individually our lives long ? Who but is the daily dupe of his dressing-glass, and complacently conceives himself to be a very different appearing person from what he is ? And who, when by chance he catches sight in like manner of the face of a friend, can keep from smiling at the caricatures which the mirror’s left-for-right reversal makes of the asymmetry of his features, — caricatures all the more comical for being utterly unsuspected by their innocent original ? Perhaps, could we once see ourselves as others see us, our surprise in the case of foreign peoples might be less pronounced.

Regarding, then, the Far Oriental as a man, and not simply as a phenomenon, we discover in his peculiar point of view a new importance, - the possibility of using it stereoptically. For his mindphotograph of the world can be placed side by side with ours, and the two pictures combined will yield results beyond what either alone could possibly have afforded. Thus harmonized, they will help us to realize humanity. For only by such a combination of two different aspects do we ever perceive substance and distinguish reality from illusion. What our two eyes make possible for material objects, the earth’s two hemispheres may enable us to do for mental traits. Only the superficial never changes its expression ; the appearance of the solid varies with the standpoint of the observer. In dreamland alone does everything seem plain, and there all is unsubstantial.

To say that the Japanese are not a savage tribe is of course unnecessary; to repeat the remark anything but superfluous, on the principle that what is a matter of common notoriety is very apt to prove a matter about which uncommonly little is known. At present we go half-way in recognition by bestowing upon them a demi-diploma of mental development called semi-civilization, neglecting, however, to specify in what the fractional qualification consists. If the suggestion of a second moiety, as of something directly complementary to them, were not indirectly complimentary to ourselves, the expression might pass; but, as it is, the self-praise is rather too obvious to carry conviction. For Japan’s claim to culture is not based solely upon the exports with which she Supplements our art, nor upon the paper, china, and bric-a-brac with which she adorns our rooms ; any more than Western science is adequately represented in Japan by our popular imports there of kerosene oil, matches, and beer. Only half civilized the Far East presumably is, but it is so rather in an absolute than a relative sense; in the sense of what may be, not of what is. It is so as compared, not with us, but with the eventual possibilities of human development. As yet, neither system, Western nor Eastern, is perfect enough to serve in all things as standard for the other. The light of truth has reached each hemisphere through the medium of its own mental crystallization, and this has polarized it in opposite ways, so that now the rays that are normal to the eyes of the one only produce darkness to those of the other. For the Japanese civilization is not a negation, but an inversion, of our own. It is not in the polish that the real difference lies ; it is in the substance polished. In politeness, in delicacy, they have as a people no peers. Art has been their mistress, though science has never been their master. Perhaps for this very reason that art, not science, has been the Muse they courted, the result has been all the more widespread. For culture there is not the attainment of the few, but the common property of the people. If the peaks of intellect rise less eminent, the plateau of general elevation is higher. But little need be said to prove the civilization of a land where ordinary tea-house girls are models of refinement, and common coolies, when not at work, play chess for pastime.

If Japanese ways look odd at first sight, they but look more so on closer acquaintance. In a land where to allow one’s understanding the freer play of indoor life one begins, not by taking off his hat, but by removing his boots, he gets at the very threshold a hint that humanity is to be approached the wrong end to. When, after thus entering a house, he tries next to gain admittance to the mind of its occupant, the suspicion becomes a certainty. He discovers that this people think, so to speak, backwards ; that before he can hope to comprehend them, or make himself understood in return, he must learn to present his thoughts arranged in inverse order from the one in which they naturally suggest themselves to his mind. His sentences must all be turned inside out. The same seems to be true of the thoughts they embody. He finds himself lost in a labyrinth of language. The further he goes the more obscure the whole process becomes, until, after long groping about for some means of orienting himself, he lights at last upon the clue. This clue consists in “the survival of the unfittest.”

In the civilization of Japan we have presented to us a most interesting case of partially arrested development. For there, while the main principles of social progress stopped growing, the growth of its details continued unchecked. Little wonder is it that the result should appear peculiar to peoples of a more normal evolutionary past. The proverbial collar and pair of spurs for sole clothing would look none the less odd to a stranger for being a costume of purely native invention. Something akin to such a case of unnatural selection has there taken place. The orderly procedure of natural evolution was disastrously supplemented by man. For the fact that in the growth of their tree of knowledge the branches developed out of all proportion to the trunk is due to a practice of culture-grafting.

From before the time when they began to leave records of their actions the Japanese have been a nation of importers, not of merchandise, but of ideas. They have invariably shown the most advanced free-trade spirit in preferring to take somebody else’s ready-made articles rather than to try to produce any brand-new conceptions themselves. They continue to follow the same line of life. A hearty appreciation of the things of others is still one of their most winning traits. What they took they grafted bodily upon their ancestral tree, which in consequence came to present a most unnaturally diversified appearance. For though not unlike other nations in wishing to borrow, if their zeal in the matter was slightly excessive, they were peculiar in that they never assimilated what they took. They simply inserted it upon the already existing growth. There it remained, and throve, and blossomed, nourished by that indigenous Japanese sap, taste. But like grafts generally, the foreign boughs were not much modified by their new life-blood, nor was the tree in its turn at all affected by them. Connected with it only as separable parts of its structure, the cuttings might have been lopped off again without influencing perceptibly the condition of the foster-parent stem. The grafts in time grew to be great branches, but the trunk remained through it all the trunk of a sapling. In other words, the nation grew up to man’s estate, keeping the mind of its childhood.

What is thus true of the Japanese is true likewise of the Koreans and of the Chinese. The three peoples, indeed, form so many links in one long chain of borrowing. China took from India, then Korea copied China, and lastly Japan imitated Korea. In this simple manner they successively became possessed of a civilization which originally was not the property of any one of them. In the eagerness they all evinced in purloining what was not theirs, and in the perfect content with which they then proceeded to enjoy what they had taken, they remind us forcibly of that happygo-lucky class in the community which prefers to live on questionable loans rather than work itself for a living. Like those same individuals, whatever interest the Far Eastern peoples may succeed in raising now, Nature will in the end make them pay dearly for their lack of principal.

The far Eastern civilization resembles, in fact, more a mechanical mixture of social elements than a well-differentiated chemical compound. For in spite of the great variety of ingredients thrown into its caldron of destiny, as no affinity existed between them, no combination resulted. The power to fuse was wanting. Capability to evolve anything is not one of the marked characteristics of the Far East. Indeed, the tendency to spontaneous variation, Nature’s mode of making experiments, would seem there to have been an enterprising faculty that was exhausted early. Sleepy, no doubt, from having got up betimes with the dawn, these inhabitants of the lands of the morning began to look upon their day as already far spent before they had reached its noon. They grew old young, and have remained much the same age ever since. What they were centuries ago, that at bottom they are today. Take away the European influence of the last twenty years, and each man might almost be his own great-grandfather. Scratch his previous Chinese education, and you find still the everlasting Tartar. In race characteristics he is yet essentially the same. The traits that distinguished these peoples in the past have been gradually extinguishing them ever since. Of these traits, stagnating influences upon their career, perhaps the most important is the great quality of impersonality.

If we take, through the earth’s temperate zone, a belt of country whose northern and southern edges are determined by certain limiting isotherms, not more than half the width of the zone apart, we shall find that we have included in a relatively small extent of surface almost all the nations of note in the world, past or present. Now if we examine this belt, and compare the different parts of it with one another, we shall discover a very remarkable fact. The peoples inhabiting it grow steadily more personal as we go west. So unmistakable is this gradation that one is almost tempted to ascribe it to cosmical rather than to human causes. It is as marked as the change in color of the human complexion observable along any meridian, which ranges from black at the equator to blonde toward the pole. In like manner, the sense of self grows more intense as we follow in the wake of the setting sun, and fades steadily as we advance into the dawn. America, Europe, the Levant, India, Japan, each is less personal than the one before. We stand at the nearer end of the scale, the Far Orientals at the other. If with us the I seems to be of the very essence of the soul, then the soul of the Far East may be said to be impersonality.

Curious as this characteristic is as a fact, it is even more interesting as a factor. For what it betokens of these peoples in particular may suggest much about man generally. It may mark a stride in theory, if a standstill in practice. Possibly it may help us to some understanding of ourselves. Not that it promises much aid to vexed metaphysical questions, but as a study in sociology it may not prove so vain.

And for a thing which is always with us, its discussion may be said to be peculiarly opportune just now. For it lies at the bottom of the most pressing questions of the day. Of the two great problems that stare the Western world in the face at the present moment, both turn to it for solution. Agnosticism, the foreboding silence of those who think, socialism, communism, and nihilism, the petulant cry of those who do not, alike depend ultimately for the right to be upon the truth or the falsity of the sense of self.

For if there be no such actual thing as personality, if the feeling we call by that name be naught but the transient illusion the Buddhists would have us believe it, any faith founded upon that as basis vanishes as does the picture in a revolving kaleidoscope, — less enduring even than the flitting phantasmagoria of a dream. If the ego be but the passing shadow of the material brain, at the disintegration of the gray matter we shall cease to be. At the thought we seem to stand straining our gaze, on the shore of the great sea of knowledge, only to watch the fog roll in, and hide from our view even those headlands of hope that, like beseeching hands, stretch out into the deep.

So more materially. If personality be a delusion of the mind, what motive potent enough to excite endeavor in the breast of an ordinary mortal remains ? Philosophers, indeed, might still work for the advancement of mankind, but mankind itself would not continue long to labor energetically for what should profit only the common weal. Take away the stimulus of individuality, and action is paralyzed at once. For with most men only the promptings of personal advantage afford sufficient incentive to effort. Destroy this force, then any consideration due it lapses, and socialism is not only justified, it is raised instantly into an axiom of life. The community, in that case, becomes itself the unit, the indivisible atom of existence. Socialism, then communism, then nihilism, follow in inevitable sequence. That even the Far Oriental, with all his numbing impersonality, has not touched this goal may at least suggest that personality is a fact.

But first, what do we know about its existence ourselves ?

Very early in the course of every thoughtful childhood an event takes place, by the side of which, to the child himself, all other events sink into insignificance. It is not one that is recognized and chronicled by the world, for it is wholly unconnected with action. No one but the child is aware of its occurrence, and he never speaks of it to others. Yet to that child it marks an epoch. So intensely individual does it seem that the boy is afraid to avow it, while in reality so universal is it that probably no human being has escaped its influence. Though subjective purely, it has more vividness than any external event; and though strictly intrinsic to life, it is more startling than any accident of fate or fortune. This experience of the boy’s, at once so singular and yet so general, is nothing less than the sudden revelation to him one day of the fact of his own personality.

Somewhere about the time when sensation is giving place to sensitiveness as the great self-educator, and the knowledge gained by the five bodily senses is being fused into the wisdom of that mental one we call common sense, the boy makes a discovery akin to the act of waking up. All at once he becomes conscious of himself; and the consciousness has about it a touch of the uncanny. Hitherto he has been aware only of matter ; he now first realizes mind. Unwarned, unprepared, he is suddenly ushered before being, and stands awe-struck in the presence of — himself.

If the introduction to his own identity was startling, there is nothing reassuring in the feeling that this strange acquaintanceship must last. And last it does. It becomes an unsought intimacy he cannot shake off. Like to his own shadow he cannot escape it. To himself a man cannot but be at home. For years this alter ego haunts him, for he imagines it an idiosyncrasy of his own, a morbid peculiarity he dare not confide to any one, for fear of being thought a fool. Not till long afterwards, when he has learned to live familiarly with his ever-present ghost, does he discover that others have had like spectres themselves.

Sometimes this dawn of consciousness is preceded by a long twilight of soulawakening ; but sometimes, upon more sensitive and subtler natures, the light breaks with all the suddenness of a sunrise at the equator, revealing to the mind’s eye an unsuspected world of self within. But in whatever way we may awake to it, the sense of personality, when first realized, appears already, like the fabled Goddess of Wisdom, full grown in the brain. From the moment when we first remember ourselves we seem to be as old as we ever seem to others afterwards to become. We grow, indeed, in knowledge, in wisdom, in experience, as our years increase, but deep down in our heart of hearts we are still essentially the same. To be sure, people pay us more deference than they used to do, which suggests a doubt at times whether we may not have changed; small boys of a succeeding generation treat us with a respect that causes us inwardly to smile, as we think how little we differ from them, if they but knew it. For at bottom we are not conscious of change from that morning, long ago, when first we realized ourselves. We feel just as young now as we felt old then. We are but amused at the world’s discrimination where we can detect no difference.

Every human being has been thus “ twice born : ” once as matter, once as mind. Nor is this second birth the birthright only of mankind. All the higher animals probably, possibly even the lower too, have experienced some such realization of individual identity. However that may be, certainly to all races of men has come this revelation; only the degree in which they have felt its force has differed immensely. It is one thing to the apathetic, fatalistic Turk, and quite another matter to an energetic, nervous American. Facts, fancies, faiths, all show how wide is the variance in feelings. With them no introspective γνωθι σϵɑντον overexcites the consciousness of self. But with us, as with those of old possessed of devils, it comes to startle and stays to distress. Too apt is it to prove an ever-present, undesirable double. Too often does it play the part of uninvited spectre at the feast, whose presence no one save its unfortunate victim suspects. The haunting horror of his own identity is to natures far less eccentric than Kenelm Chillingly’s only too common a curse. To this companionship, paradoxical though it sound, is principally due the peculiar loneliness of childhood. For nothing is so isolating as a persistent idea which one dares not confide.

And yet, — stranger paradox still, — was there ever any one willing to exchange his personality for another’s ? Who can imagine foregoing his own self ? Nay, do we not cling even to its outward appearance? Is there a man so poor in all that man holds dear that he does not keenly resent being accidentally mistaken for his neighbor ? Surely there must be something more than mirage in this deep - implanted, widespread instinct of the human race.

But however strong the conviction now of one’s personality, is there aught to assure him of its continuance beyond the confines of its present life ? Will it awake on death’s morrow and know itself, or will it, like the body that gave it lodgment, disintegrate again into indistinguishable spirit dust ? Close upon the heels of the existing consciousness of self treads the shadow-like doubt of its hereafter. Will analogy help to answer the grewsome riddle of the Sphinx ? Are the laws we have learned to be true for matter true also for mind ? Matter we now know is indestructible ; yet the form of it with which we once were so fondly familiar vanishes never to return. Is a like fate to be the lot of the soul ? That mind should be capable of annihilation is as inconceivable as that matter should cease to be. Surely the spirit we feel existing round about us on every side now has been from ever, and will be for ever to come. But that portion of it which we each know as self, is it not like to a drop of rain seen in its falling through the air ? Indistinguishable the particle was in the cloud whence it came ; indistinguishable it will become again in the ocean whither it is bound. Its personality is but its passing phase from a vast impersonal on the one hand to an equally vast impersonal on the other. Thus seers preached in the past; so modern science is hinting to-day. With us the idea seems the bitter fruit of material philosophy ; four thousand years ago it was looked upon as the fairest flower of faith. What is dreaded now as the impious suggestion of the godless was then reverenced as a sacred tenet of religion.

Shorter even than his short threescore years and ten is that soul’s life of which man is directly cognizant. Bounded by two seemingly impersonal states is the personal consciousness of which he is made aware : the one the infantile existence that precedes his boyish discovery, the other the gloom that grows with years, — two twilights that fringe the two borders of his day. But with the Far Oriental life is all twilight. For in Japan and China both states are found together. There, side by side with the present unconsciousness of the babe exists the belief in a coming unconsciousness for the man. So inseparably blended are the two that the known truth of the one seems, for that very bond, to carry with it a conviction of the other. Can it be that the personal, progressive West is wrong, and the impersonal, impassive East right ? Surely not. Is the other side of the world in advance of us in the development of mind, even as it precedes us in time ; or just as our day is its night, may it not be far in our rear ? Is not its seeming wisdom rather the precociousness of what is destined never to go far ?

Brought suddenly upon such a civilization, after the blankness of a long ocean voyage, one is reminded instinctively of the feelings of that bewildered individual who, after a dinner at which he had eventually ceased to be himself, was by way of pleasantry left out over night in a graveyard, on their way home, by his humorously inclined companions ; and who, on awaking alone, in a still somewhat dubious condition, looked around him in surprise, rubbed his eyes two or three times to no purpose, and finally muttered in a tone of awestruck conviction, “ Well, either I’m the first to rise, or I’m a long way behind time ! ”

Whether their failure to follow the natural course of evolution results in bringing them in at the death just the same or not, these people are now, at any rate, stationary not very far from the point at which we all set out. They are still in that childish state of development before self-consciousness has spoiled the sweet simplicity of nature. An impersonal race seems never to have fully grown up.

Partly for its own sake, partly for ours, this most distinctive feature of the Far East, its marked impersonality, is well worthy particular attention; for while it collaterally suggests pregnant thoughts about ourselves, it directly underlies the deeper oddities of a civilization which is the modern eighth wonder of the world. We shall see this as we look at what these people are, at what they were, and at what they hope to become ; not historically, but psychologically, as one might perceive, were he but wise enough, in an acorn, besides the nut itself, two oaks, that one from which it fell and that other which from it will rise. These three states, which we may call its potential past, present, and future, may be observed and studied in three special outgrowths of a race’s character : in its language, in its every-day thoughts, and in its religion. For in the language of a people we find embalmed the spirit of its past; in its every-day thoughts, be they of arts or sciences, is wrapped up its present life ; in its religion lie enfolded its dreamings of a future. From out each of these three subjects in the Far East impersonality stares us in the face. Upon this quality as a foundation rests the Far Oriental character. It is individually rather than nationally that I propose to scan it now. It is the action of a particle in the wave of world development I would watch, rather than the propagation of the wave itself. Inferences about the movement of the whole will follow of themselves a knowledge of the motion of its parts.

But before we attack the subject esoterically, let us look a moment at the man as he appears in his relation to the community. Such a glance will suggest the peculiar atmosphere of impersonality that pervades the people.

However lacking in cleverness, in merit, or in imagination a man may be, there are in our Western world, if his existence there be so much as noticed at all, three occasions on which he appears in print. His birth, his marriage, and his death are all duly chronicled in type, perhaps as sufficiently typical of the general unimportance of his life. Mention of one’s birth, it is true, is an aristocratic privilege, confined to the world of English society. In democratic America, no doubt because all men there are supposed to be born free and equal, we ignore the first event, and mention only the last two episodes, about which our national astuteness asserts no such effacing equality.

Accepting our newspaper record as a fair enough summary of the biography of an average man, let us look at these three momentous occasions in the career of a Far Oriental.

In the first place, then, the poor little Japanese baby enters this world in a sadly impersonal manner, for he is not even vouchsafed a birthday. He begins his separate existence, indeed, after the fashion of mortals generally, at a definite instant of time, but no commemorative notice is ever taken of the fact. On the contrary, he is at once spoken of as a year old. and this age he remains until the beginning of the next calendar year. At its advent, he is credited with another year himself. So are all the rest of the community. New Year’s Day is a common birthday for everybody, a sort of impersonal anniversary for his whole world. This is a highly convenient custom, no doubt, but conducive at least to a sinking of one’s own identity in that of the community.

It fares hardly better with the Far Oriental in the matter of marriage. Though he is the person most interested in the result, he is not permitted any say in the affair whatever. The matter is entirely a business transaction, undertaken by his father and conducted through regular marriage brokers. In it he plays only the part of a marionette. His revenge for being thus bartered out of what might be the better half of his life he takes eventually on the next succeeding generation.

His death is a sort of apotheosis. Notably is this the case in China and Korea, but the custom prevails also in Japan. By it he joins the great company of ancestors, who are to these peoples of almost more consequence than living folk. In Japan a mortuary tablet is set up to him at home ; on the continent the ancestors are given a building of their own. Their tombs are temples and pleasure pavilions in one, consecrated not simply to rites and ceremonies, but to family gatherings and general jollification. And he ends by living as a demigod who only existed as a man.

Percival Lowell.