The Future of the Chinese People

THE question What is to be the future of the Chinese people ? is not identical with the question What is to be the future of the Chinese nation ? The nation in its present form of government may disappear, and the people come under the government of other nations, and yet the Chinese race continue, and the civilization in its essential features be perpetuated.

It is perhaps natural for us to think of the life of a people as contemporaneous with the life of the nation, or at least that the extinction of national life causes sooner or later the disappearance of the race. Many historical instances can be pointed out to confirm this judgment. We should search in vain for the descendants of the ancient Babylonians, Assyrians, or Romans, and the descendants of the ancient Greeks and Egyptians are but degenerate representatives of the remarkable civilizations which their forefathers created. But it is unsafe to judge the future by the past without considering the altered relations of the nations of the earth. In ancient times rulers of nations were largely occupied with war, either for conquest or for defense. Weapons of warfare were crude and imperfect, and soldiers representing an advanced civilization were often overmatched by fierce and powerful barbarian adversaries; so that once and again with the termination of national life races disappeared, either by extinction or by amalgamation. In modern times the art of war in its highest perfection is possessed by the most civilized nations, and Christianity has exerted its influence to soften the fierceness of human passions, and to ameliorate some of the worst features of ancient warfare. Wars of extermination, especially against a people so almost infinite in number as the Chinese, cannot be carried on as they were in former ages. If the Chinese are conquered by other nations, they must still be left in their places, must be given a government, and must be taken into account in the international problems of the future.

To the question Will the Chinese government continue under the administration of the Chinese ? no certain answer can be given. The presence of powerful Western nations on the soil or at the door of China, with their naval and military equipments, already marking out their “spheres of influence ” in Chinese territory, and the ignorance, jealousy, selfishness, and corruption among the rulers who have blindly allowed their country to drift into its present danger, unite in emphasizing the fact that there is a sick man in the Far East whose recovery is doubtful. China cannot continue to exist as a nation without the thorough renovation of her national life. She has no men in power who have either the disposition or the ability to begin the renovation. The Emperor is now a prisoner in his own palace, and the reforms which he feebly attempted are in prison with him. There are many intelligent Chinese, who love their country, and desire to see the introduction of national and social reforms; but they are relatively few as compared with the masses of their countrymen, and their influence with the government is slight. The Empress Dowager is a cunning and ambitious woman, who has lived for more than a generation with Western civilization knocking at the door of the nation for admittance ; and yet she and her counselors have failed to interpret the meaning of that which their eyes have been compelled to see and their ears to hear, and they have lived in external contact with the civilization nineteen centuries after Christ, vainly imagining that they could keep themselves isolated from it, and preserve their own petrified civilization of nineteen centuries before Christ.

It is a principle of international law that every nation should be left to itself to develop its form of government and regulate its internal affairs ; but no nation has the right to close the door to intercourse with other nations, and decline to have with them either political, social, or mercantile relations. There is no doubt that, down to the present hour, this is what is desired by the vast majority of the officials, the literati, the merchants, and the common people of China. They would shut and bolt the door against other nations, and live on into the ages of the future as they have lived from the ages of the past; praising the institutions that have been bequeathed to them by the ancients ; struggling with one another to secure from nature a sufficient ministry to the necessities of the masses, and to the comforts and luxuries of the few ; and not doubting that, in spite of the sorrows which they experience in life, their inheritance from the past is vastly superior to that of the outside nations.

It is clear that in dealing with China, with her petrified and exclusive civilization, the principles of Western international law must have a modified application. It would be difficult to do a greater wrong to the people of China than to leave the nation to itself, — to the operation of those forces of evil that have their source in the selfishness, the passions, and the ambitions of men, and are of the nature of an organic disease in all strata of government and all conditions of society. It is a fact deeply regretted by the best friends of China that she has failed to improve the opportunities for reform that have been presented to her during the last forty years. This immobility is not to be wondered at when we consider her mass and her historical inertia. It is idle to censure the ignorant man who has neglected to become intelligent, and does not know what he has lost; it is, however, in order to censure men of intelligence who have dwelt by his side, but have failed to improve occasions once and again presented to them to lift their fellow out of his ignorance, and help him to become a man among men. Thus our censure of China for her present melancholy condition must be given with charity, but must fall with heavier weight upon the nations that have had the opportunity to save China from herself, since they have only partly improved it, and with selfish rather than benevolent motives.

When in 1860 the armies of England and France invested the capital of China, and dictated a treaty looking toward the reformation of her institutions, the development of her resources, and her introduction into the family of nations, these nations, and especially England with her predominant power and interests in the East, became in a very real sense sponsors for the material, social, and political reorganization of China. No more difficult and no greater task was ever committed to a nation than was then committed to England. With welldigested plans as to the reforms which China should be urged to inaugurate, and with a firm insistence that they should be inaugurated and carried out, China would now stand in a totally different relation to the nations of the earth from the one she occupies. That which has taken place since the war with Japan, in what may prove to be the national death throes of China, ought to have taken place during the years from 1860 to 1890, when China was free from international complications ; and with the counsel of a wise and benevolent sister nation she would have been able to enter upon a far-reaching system of reform, which at this date would have been approaching its realization.

China ought not to have been left to herself to decide as to what reforms should be undertaken, or as to the time and manner of carrying them out. Adequate pressure should have been used to compel China to move. She should have been made to open her doors more rapidly and completely to foreign trade and intercourse, and to give more thorough protection to foreigners in her midst. She should have been made to administer proper punishment to the instigators of mobs and persecutions, and to call her officers to strict account for their neglect of duty toward foreigners residing in China. She should not have been allowed to resist the introduction of telegraph lines for half a generation, and of railroads for an entire generation. She should have been pressed to reform her antediluvian system of education, to introduce Western learning, to multiply schools under the care of foreign instructors, and to send selected students abroad for a wider education. If these and other lines of national reform had not only been proposed, but insisted upon, the international problems of the Far East would have been wholly different from those that now occupy the thoughts of statesmen.

The time for change and reform has fully come to China. New ideas from the Western world are already operating in the thoughts of many of the people, and new aspirations and hopes are beginning to be awakened. She must move from this time forth, and her great need is that type of sympathetic guidance and help that will promote her best interests ; but under existing international complications it is not easy to give such assistance. The question now at the front relates to the problem of the relative strength of the forces operating on the one side to disintegrate China, and on the other to preserve her national life. Russia has secured a hold on Manchuria, which she will surrender only under the compulsion of defeat in war. France, from her colonial possessions south of China, has already revealed her desire to gain possession of the border provinces. Germany is actively strengthening her position in Shan-Tung, and is watching to extend her power at any favorable opportunity.

The interests of England, the United States, and Japan are distinctly opposed to the international policy that looks to the dismemberment of China. If these nations could unite in a compact to preserve her integrity, their naval power is sufficient to secure the result without an appeal to arms ; but much as the friends of China may desire that such a compact should be entered upon, it is doubtful if the desire will be realized. The element of doubt in the problem is the part to be taken by the United States. For more than a century she has been absorbed in developing her own institutions and gaining possession of her vast territory. She has now reached that stage in her material progress when she needs the markets of the world for the overplus products from her soil and from her ever expanding manufactories. It is difficult for a nation governed by the people to change suddenly its traditional policy, however clearly it may be for the general interests to do so. Men put forth greater efforts to obtain the known good of the present than the uncertain good of the future. The interests of England in the integrity of China are present and manifest, while those of the United States, though potentially only second to those of England, are still problematic.

Citizens of the United States who have lived in the East for a generation — proud as they have a right to be of their country, and conscious of her power — have been sorely tried at the lack of a definite and vigorous international policy, which has made our nation to appear as a fifth-rate power among the nations of the world. Through the accidents of war the Philippine Islands have fallen into the hands of the United States, and demand a well-ordered government. If, through this unlooked - for result, the United States is forced to recognize itself as one of the great world powers, not for selfish aggrandizement, but to protect the rights of the weaker nations, to promote intercourse, and to stimulate trade, then we may rejoice in the attainment of a higher good that has come through a present evil. In the meantime, as relates to China, we can only hope, almost against hope, that while the hands of the nations already outstretched for her partition are stayed for a little, new elements may enter into the problem from sources as yet unseen, that will tip the balance in favor of continuing China in her integrity, that she may enter in earnest upon the great problems of national and social reform.

But our interest in the organic life of a nation has its source in our concern for the social life and institutions of the people. Though China as a self-directed government may disappear for a time from among the nations, there is no ground for doubt that her social life, with its institutions modified and ennobled by Christianity, will continue, and that the Chinese people will exert an important influence in solving the social and political problems that are now engaging the serious attention of men.

The Chinese people are not physically effete. No race of men propagate more rapidly, or adapt themselves more readily to a wide variety of climate and condition. Throughout long ages, wars and pestilences, famines and floods, have been active in reducing their numbers. They have spent their lives under the most unsanitary conditions, breathing impurity and poison, and yet they have multiplied from generation to generation, slowly absorbing outlying lands, and filling them with their unnumbered progeny. If they come under the government of Western nations, their conditions of life will vastly improve, with the certain result that they will multiply in the future more rapidly than they have done in the past.

No race of men can surpass the Chinese in habits of industry and thrift. These habits seem to have the stamp of heredity, and they are further enforced upon the young by the authority and example of their elders. With the masses of the people life is one long struggle to obtain the necessities and a few of the comforts of existence ; and their estimate of the comforts of existence is a very modest one. With the introduction of Western civilization the vast resources of the country will be developed, the products of the soil and manufacture will indefinitely increase, and domestic and international trade will greatly expand. Now, in all this material regeneration of China the Chinaman will be in evidence. Not a dollar will be gathered from the soil, from trade, from mines, from manufactories, without his securing a due proportion as a reward for his part in the enterprise. He will patiently and faithfully work for a master for half a generation, and in the second half he will appear as his own master, at the head of a thriving business. Thus, in the industries of the future, wherever there is work to be done, there will be found Chinese ready to “ sell strength,” as working for hire is called in China; and they will sell more strength for the money than will men of any other nation. Again, a dollar in the hands of a Chinaman represents far greater purchasing power than it does in the hands of a European. In China two ounces of silver have the value, in the general scale of living, that an ounce of gold has in the United States. In that country, a dollar will purchase fifteen hundred pieces of cash composed of copper and zinc. These cash, with a hole in the centre and strung on a cord, weigh seven pounds. In Peking, a servant or common laborer is glad to give ten days of labor, and a carpenter or mason six days, to secure this amount of cash. So much money would give a comfortable support to an average family. Three dollars a month, or thirty-six dollars a year, would cover the earnings of a Chinese family of the working class. The meaning of this is that the Chinaman will survive and prosper under conditions of life which would discourage, and finally overwhelm, the European.

The Chinese are skillful workmen, and of good inventive talent. They invented the art of weaving and coloring silk, at the very dawn of civilization ; they invented a remarkable system of symbols with which they have written their language for four thousand years ; they invented the art of printing, and carried it to a high degree of perfection, centuries before it was known in Europe, and the claim that we learned it from China rests upon reasonable inferences. The Chinese have produced porcelain, pottery, lacquerware, cloisonné, which are the admiration and despair of the Western world. They show a high degree of skill in their work in wood and metal. There are old bronze castings among the astronomical instruments mounted upon the eastern wall of Peking that rival any works of their kind that have been produced by other nations. As to labor-saving inventions, good reasons can be given for their discouragement in China, where the problem is not how to multiply labor power for the work that is waiting to be done, but rather to find work for the labor power that is waiting to be employed. A machine that accomplishes the work of ten men would be accounted a boon to industry in the United States, but it would be worthless in China, as ten men are waiting to do the work at a saving in cost. Why, asks the puzzled Chinaman, do you spend twenty dollars to purchase a machine, which requires a man to operate, to pump water from a well, when the same man could bring up the water so much more easily with a rope and a bucket ? Why spend a hundred dollars to purchase a windmill to irrigate your garden, when you can accomplish the object at a great saving in cost by employing two men with a rope and a bucket swung in the centre ? Why build a steam mill, at great expense, to saw lumber, while thousands of coolies are waiting to cut it up for you with handsaws, and must starve in idleness if the mills take away their work ?

Foreigners are occasionally surprised, in China, to note the skill of the people in many lines of handicraft, and the results accomplished in the use of cheap and crude tools and appliances. Delicate and wonderful patterns are woven in the clumsiest looms. A beautiful book is produced in a shop perhaps ten feet square, with a pile of blank paper for material, with blocks for cutting the characters, a few steel rods terminating in knife points, needles and thread, two brushes, and a puddle of ink. Broken glass and crockery are mended with small brass clamps set in holes made with a minute diamond drill, the diamond squeezed into the end of a coarse iron drill-holder. I once saw a workman mending a huge hole in the bottom of a cast-iron kettle by melting iron in a porcelain crucible, ladling it in small quantities upon an asbestos pad, placing it in position, and squeezing it into shape with another pad, and thus building in the hole. The Chinaman, after proper training, will use Western tools, manipulate machinery, and reach results that will win him recognition for his skill and bring his services into requisition ; and his faithfulness in work, his keenness of observation, his power of imitation, will make these services more and more valuable.

The Chinese are born traders. No line of activity by which a livelihood can be obtained is more overcrowded than that of the trafficker ; and while many fail, it is surprising how many succeed under the most adverse conditions. No Jew can smell out with keener instinct an opportunity where money may be made to grow than can a Chinaman. There is no chance so insignificant to plant a cash and make it bear fruit that it will not be improved. There is almost nothing that does not have a value in trade, even to crooked nails, scraps of iron, cast-off shoes, and decayed vegetables. The rejected contents of an American garret, if placed in the hands of a Chinaman, would set him up in a business that would give him an advantage over his less wealthy competitors. An American traveler once called with me upon a Chinese Christian, who was a business man having a thriving trade. His merchandise was spread out on an unused section of an old bridge in the suburbs of the city, and covered a hundred square feet of space. The traveler could with difficulty suppress a smile at this variegated display of what seemed to be the results of a thorough house - cleaning. In reply to a question as to the value of his stock, the merchant said, with evident pride in his prosperity, “These goods represent the accumulations of many years, and it is impossible to state their exact value.” It is probable that the asking price would not have exceeded five dollars. But the Chinese trader is not a mere huckster; his capacities expand with growing opportunities and requirements, until he manages a large and successful business with skill and prudence. The open ports of China are already full of Chinese traders in foreign commodities, who have been in the employ of foreign merchants, but, after mastering the business, have set up in trade in their own names ; and in many lines of trade they have already driven out the foreigner, since they have lighter expenses and are satisfied with smaller returns. At the present time China is filled with discussions as to the methods of developing the vast agricultural and mineral resources of the country. There is manifest need of foreign capital and knowledge and skill, to accomplish this object with moderate rapidity and success ; but the chief reason that such capital and knowledge and skill are so tardily employed is jealousy lest the larger number of dollars should find their way into foreign pockets. Those who know the Chinese best have little doubt that, in all enterprises in their country where gain is to be realized, the Chinaman will have his bag under the opening where the dollars are running out.

What shall we say as to the ability of the Chinese to acquire Western learning, and finally to contribute something to the extension of knowledge ? It is generally thought that the Chinese must fail in the higher regions of imagination, of reflection, and of close and accurate observation. It should be remembered that modern science, and the habits of thought begotten of the study of science, are of recent development in Western lands. To do justice to the Chinese, we must remind ourselves that their civilization is an ancient one, and must be compared, not with the Europe of the nineteenth century, but with the most progressive portions of the Asia and Europe of the centuries immediately before Christ. In such comparison the literary productions of China would stand second only to those of Greece; and if we give the highest place to the ethical elements in literature, the teachings of the sages of China are undoubtedly on an altitude above the teachings of the sages of Greece. Confucius and Mencius had higher conceptions of the sacredness of the family, of the duties of rulers, and of the obligations of men in the varied relations of life than had Socrates and Plato.

All down the centuries Chinese education has been conducted on narrow lines ; but while the contents and methods of education have tended to dwarf the powers of reflection and imagination, they have wonderfully stimulated the power of memory ; and memory is the storehouse of material for the use of the other faculties. In our modern Western method of education, stimulating as we do the reflective powers of children to precocious development, while we place a low estimate upon the training of the memory, are we not committing an error opposite to that committed by the Chinese ? Chinese students far surpass students of their class in Western lands in studies that especially exercise memory, and under the awakening process of instruction in Western lines of study they develop excellent powers of thought, and become keen and accurate in their observations. Many Chinese show especial aptitude for mathematical studies. There are students now revealing themselves to foreigners in all parts of China, who have gained a good knowledge of arithmetic, algebra, and geometry from the study of Western books translated into Chinese; and they have pursued this study without any help of teachers.

It is difficult for the people of one civilization to appreciate at their full worth the people of a widely different civilization. Thus the Chinese are proud of their literature, and do not imagine that there can be anything comparable to it in the literature of Western nations. This is the inappreciation of ignorance, and we may easily be betrayed into the same fault by our ignorance of the achievements of the scholars of China. To the Chinese scholar, a thoroughly studied composition is the highest work of art. The thought is carefully wedded to the words, and there is a rhythm and melody and life in the movement of the clauses, as he hums them to himself, that delights him as music delights the foreign ear. If the Chinese have shown a high order of literary ability while nature and providence and the deeper meaning of life were hidden from them, there is good ground for hope that they will enter upon a yet higher order of literary activity when they are taught the deeper truths that are the inspiration of a Christian civilization, and have more inspiring themes upon which to exercise their powers of imagination, of thought, and of expression.

Once and again we hear the opinion offered that the Chinese language is so crude and bungling, so imperfect a medium through which to express thought, that it must ultimately disappear from among the languages of the earth. This assumption is based upon ignorance of facts. It is true that every Chinese word is a monosyllable, a little block of sound identical in dimensions with every other sound ; that a word in speech undergoes no inflection ; that it takes neither prefixes nor suffixes, but remains unchanged in its atomic unity. How can creatures run without legs, or fly without wings ? How can words be woven into intelligent speech without modifications essential to speech in other languages ? Yet the Chinese language accomplishes this apparent impossibility, and gives clear and accurate expression to thought without the legs or wings of Western methods of articulating speech. It is said — and I believe with truth — that the Chinese language is the most difficult of all languages for a foreigner to acquire and use with accuracy ; but it is, notwithstanding, the easiest of all languages in the pronunciation of words and in their simpler combinations. A few dozens of square blocks are easily set up to produce a toy house, but they are not so readily fastened together to produce an elaborate structure. Children born in China of foreign parents learn to speak the language more easily than they do Western languages ; and yet, a learned foreign sinologue, to the end of his life, employs a native literary assistant to give form and beauty to his productions in the language. In spite of the defects of the Chinese language, we must remember that it was produced by the Chinese people, and that it fits the thoughts which they desire to express. The language is a living language, and has never ceased to grow. It has indefinite powers of adaptation to the needs of the new learning and of the higher civilization that are now being introduced into China.

The most thorough instruction that is given in China in Western learning is through the medium of the Chinese rather than of the English language. The reason is that students of English must put years of work into the acquisition of the new and difficult medium in which to give expression to thought. Meanwhile, other students, who have given a like amount of time to the study of Western learning in the use of the Chinese language, have gained a good mastery of the subjects pursued, and are able readily to communicate their new knowledge to others, as they possess it in the form of language that is familiar to their countrymen. There is as little probability that the Chinese language, in which has been produced a splendid literature, and which is spoken by a people embracing one fourth of the population of the earth, will ultimately become extinct as that the people will disappear.

How shall we judge of the Chinese as regards their capacities for moral and religious development? We are often told by men who write about China from a distance that the people are lacking in moral sensibilities. It must be admitted that, as a nation, they are untruthful in speech, and are selfish and sordid in their lives. On the other hand, in no literature, apart from the literature of Christianity, have the principles of right, covering the varied relations of man with man, been more fully and accurately set forth than in the literature of China ; and among no people have these principles been more habitually discussed than among the Chinese. Their fault is that they say, and do not; that they urge right conduct upon others, but too easily disregard its obligations upon themselves. This is only stating that they are very human beings, and their knowledge of the right is proof of their capacity to love and do the right. It is a misapprehension of the character of the Chinese to think of them in their mutual intercourse as forgetful of the principles of right and truth and duty. Where selfinterest does not enter as a beam into their eye to obstruct vision, they are clear-sighted to distinguish between right and wrong. In their struggle for existence, they are constantly defending themselves, or condemning others, by appealing to the universal law of right.

A people who have a high order of moral capacities must of necessity have a like high order of religious capacities, since, if we speak with exactness, men’s moral and religious capacities are the same, and differ only in their application. Love, honor, and obedience paid to man spring from the same capacities of mind and heart as do love, honor, and obedience paid to God. It is often said that the teachings of the sages of China are ethical rather than religious ; that they do not contain the elements of worship. In truth, religion permeates the entire system of Confucian teachings, and gives to it in good degree the measure of vitality which it possesses. There is a state religion that is the bed rock of what is commonly known as Confucianism, and this elaborate ceremonial of worship exists to-day in substantial form as it existed four thousand years ago. Worship is paid by the Emperor to the great powers of nature, to ancient sages and deified heroes, to deceased Emperors, and to the family ancestors. There is a ritual of worship in which all officers of government must participate, and custom prescribes a form of worship which must be observed by the head of each family. It is true that this worship is largely a matter of ceremony, and that its end is temporal rather than spiritual good ; but this has been equally true of Christian worship in times of decadence. The fact of the persistence of the spirit of worship throughout the centuries, in spite of the secularizing motives that have operated upon the minds of the people, is proof sufficient of the religious capacity of the Chinese nature. To this may be added the further proof that comes from the progress of modern Christian missions. In the seventeenth century Roman Catholic missions in China gathered converts by many tens of thousands ; and its membership might now be numbered by millions, if suspicions had not been aroused against that church as to the temporal ambitions of its representatives. Protestant missions in China are now in full vigor of growth ; and there is abundant proof that when the Chinese are properly instructed, and their hearts are thoroughly aroused, they can learn to fear God and work righteousness with as much devotion and single-heartedness as can men of any other nationality.

Here is the substance of the matter : China needs protection and guidance, even to the point of wise compulsion, at the hands of such Christian nations as are truly interested in her welfare, that she may be preserved in her integrity, and enter in earnest upon her career of reform. Though the Chinese national life should disappear for a time, the life of the people will continue. There is no lack of virility to perpetuate and multiply their racial type. The Chinese are a people of industry and thrift, and in the sharp competition with other races will secure for themselves their relative share in the world’s productions. They will prove themselves to be skillful workmen, ready to adapt means to ends, and will make their labor a necessity in the varied activities of the world. They will be cautious and judicious traders, competing on equal terms with men of other nations. Chinese students will prove their ability to master and use the learning of the West, and finally, we may believe, contribute something to enlarge the sum of human knowledge. The Chinese language and literature will survive along with the race, and will be enlarged and enriched for use as the civilization advances. All that is best in the Confucian civilization will be preserved by the Chinese people, and the future Christianity of China will not destroy, but rather renovate, the institutions of China. The Chinese have moral and religious capacities to develop a civilization of high moral purpose and of steadfast religious life which will not be below the best type of civilization that Christianity has produced in Western lands.

Men are disposed to think lightly and superficially of problems that do not immediately concern themselves ; but the question What of China ? will not down by its being dismissed from thought. It enters as an important factor into the great world problems that are now pressing for solution. It is a question not only concerning the future of one fourth of the human race, but also concerning the influence of that portion of the race upon the other three fourths. The vast potential resources of China, the labor power of the people, and their undeveloped capacity to share in the consumption of the products of the world’s industries will compel statesmen and students of political and social problems to acquire that knowledge of China which as yet is possessed only by the few; and the opportunity for the religious and social renovation of that people will more and more draw out the interest and claim the help of Christian teachers and philanthropists. Already the forces that are destined to create a new China are beginning to operate upon the lives of the people. The nation is waking from its long dream of the past to live in the present. There are many “signs of the times ” which assure us that the day is not distant when China will be delivered from its effete civilization, will enjoy a stable and well-ordered government, will enter upon a period of material prosperity, and will come under the power of those motives which have their source in the vital truths of the Christian revelation.

D. Z. Sheffield.