HAVE you ever had a rich uncle in China? He is a sine qua non of romance. How the old writers of sea-tales for boys loved him, to use him as a starting-point! ‘Our young hero,’ they would say, ‘was mystified one morning by receiving a letter addressed in an unfamiliar chirography, the India-paper envelope bearing strange Oriental stamps,’ etc., etc. Oh, unforgettable vistas that he opened! The austere old New England families were rich in uncles, queer branches of the Massachusetts family tree, sprigs flourishing without roots, in the airs of distant, antipodal cities. The uncles in China threw a richer, more golden, mellower, yellower light into the coldly furnished rooms of the Yankee stay-at-home. He did for Boston and the Atlantic port towns what the India House did for London. Aldrich’s Bad Boy loved him as I do.
I never had a rich uncle in China, but I am blessed in having other relatives there. What strange and costly broideries, what fantastic carvings, what ugly and venerable idols, encrusted with age, they send me! What endless soberly-fashioned oddities which speak of a civilization so different from ours! Odd and odder still, they make my rooms their home. And oddest of them all, the shuangh chi’u-er.
The shuangh chi’u-er (an unsuccessful attempt to render the Chinese sounds into English) lie silently upon my desk, but reproach me as audibly as any bland Orientals would ever permit themselves to reproach their host. My sister, who sent them to me, is ridden by the belief that I am a literary man. Every literary man (in China) has shuangh chi’u-er. Hence, the bestowal of shuangh chi’u-er upon me.
Shuangh chi’u-er, although the name may sound like a disease, is not a form of writer’s cramp. On the contrary, ‘their’ purpose is to prevent it. The words mean ‘the double balls,’ and shuangh chi’u-er are two iron balls, an inch or so in diameter, which nestle in the right hand of every Chinese man of letters for hours each day, one being revolved about the other until they are worn bright. They are just large enough to make a handful, and the action of shifting one about the other brings the fingers into play and lends them that suppleness and digital dexterity which is necessary in the manipulation of the Chinese lettering-pen or fine-pointed brush. Of what a simplicity!
They fascinate me. Since I became their owner I can scarcely desist from handling them hours upon end. By some miracle of welding, the shuangh chi’u-er are fashioned hollow, each with a small ball within, which gives forth a gentle, not unmusical clanking, as they are moved. How would our civilization ever have conceived such an appliance? Yet they are precisely the thing which the Chinese littérateur, whose proud profession forbids him any manual labor whatsoever, needs to insure skill in the manual practice of his art. I meditate upon them, and the whole curious ethnology of that great and venerable nation seems to be hidden, and yet clamant, within the shuangh chi’u-er, as the little globes themselves conceal their faintly-sounding iron hearts.
The wife of my friend the novelist says that it is fortunate her husband does not need to juggle two typewriters in his hands.
Her interjection is frivolous, but suggests some analogies. Do you remember Lafcadio Hearn’s speaking of the surprise which is occasioned in the Occidental reader by the widespread facility of beautiful metaphor and simile among Japanese school-children? Hearn goes on to say that while this delightful imagery of speech does exist, it is nevertheless merely the repetition of standard catchwords of the tongue, procrustean figures of speech which have been handed down from age to age, and which in reality bespeak no originality of diction in the child who uses them. Name an object of nature, and the Japanese child hands you from its appropriate closet its appropriate poetic clothes. They are hand-medowns, says Hearn, and not new-tailored suits.
Is Chinese literature open to this same cavil? I am not a student of it, and cannot say; but the little shuangh chi’u-er have suggested that a nation which has been content with old things, old ideas, worn smooth by much handling, may reasonably be supposed to have advanced no further in its literature than it has in its science. I can believe that the long and idle contemplation of the twin spheres might induce a hypnotic stupor, incapacitating the luckless literary grub for any steps along unblazed trails.
And yet who are we Saxons, to sneer at the slaves of the mental shuangh chi’u-er? How many of our men of letters have not been ridden by twin incubi of lifeless ideas? I shall expect a later Taine to show that the whole age of Pope was subtly connected, atavistically perhaps, with the dusty classicism of some ancient Chinese Chesterton, or man playing with blocks. And of individual instances: Look at Swinburne, ceaselessly rotating in his mind the two ideas, White Surf and White Limbs; Kipling, dandling Imperialism and Pixies; G. B. Shaw, bondman to the shuangh chi’u-er Socialism and Shocking! How musically they clink as they are shifted about in our writer’s hand — and how far is our world advanced by their clinking?
Nevertheless, I love my sister’s gift. There is as much to be said for the constant dwelling upon two ideas, as against it. We are told to beware the strength of the man of one idea, the student of one book. The East has watched one nation after another sink into decay; ‘the legions thunder by,’ while she remains, strong in the fruitful contemplation of the twin ideas, love of ancestry and love of country. My shuangh chi’u-er are homely little things, heavy, squat; but they reflect from their dully polished surfaces a civilization whose patience, fidelity, and strength has lessons for every man vowed to the life of letters.