and chanting half-naked coolies on the wharfs make a steady din.
Above, the swirling traffic of the Bund, a mixture of bicycles,
rickshas, automobiles, wheelbarrows and coolies carrying every imaginable
thing on bamboo poles, rumbles by in a two-way bedlam. Streets that
open into the Bund at right angles are equally jammed. They are
overhung with colored banners in Chinese characters.
If the modern stone and steel buildings make the scene insufficiently
Chinese, the Chinese beggar boats putting out toward your docking
ship soon remedy the matter. Swarms of these incredibly filthy sampans
of beggars are immediately alongside in a turmoil of bawling children
and yelling parents. While some of the family wave their hands for
money, others are busy with more urgent economics. These have nets,
something like bait nets for fishing, fastened on long bamboo poles.
They hold the nets against the ship’s drains, and when anything
that was once food issues forth they catch it in the nets and handle
it down to their sampans. The children fall upon it ravenously.
The competition among the sampans is fierce, with redoubled jabbering
when one fellow outmaneuvers another with his pole and nets a choice
haul. A pail of refuse coming out of the ship's galley port draws
them like a school of minnows. A few bread loaf ends, a handful
of banana skins or a rotten orange sets off a new confusion of scrambling
That is Chinese poverty —
It is jarring, when first seen, to find that men and women clutch
at food from the sewers of other human beings. And along the roaring
modern Bund above, the finance kings of the East, foreign and native
alike, men in silk robes and men in fastidious Western
dress, drive past in expensive automobiles. Shanghai revealed new
extremes of wealth side by side with abject poverty.
But you will learn that there are Chinese poorer than these scavengers.
The scavengers are mainly of a special caste, the lowest of the
low, if not the poorest. Even the ownership of one of their vilely
slimy sampans is beyond the lifetime possibilities of many Chinese.
And some Chinese, even in the acute extremities of hunger, will
seem to retain some strange last residue of inward dignity, some
seeming consciousness of final propriety above that of a hyena or
a buzzard. They do not eat refuse.
Watching these boat scavengers at different times, I have paid particular
attention to see if their revolting business could be a show put
on to draw sympathy. But this did not seem to be the case. Their
appetites appeared genuine. And incidentally, as a commentary on
the deadliness of germs, those refuse-eating babies and children,
naked or half naked in those sampans slimy with a filth accumulated
for generations, looked the best-nourished and the chubbiest and
the happiest that I ever met anywhere in the Orient. Their unwashed
round yellow faces shone with health.
The crews of the liners docking at Shanghai often try to keep the
scavengers off with cold water from a hose, for the Chinese in these
sampans have a bothersome habit of hoisting small children on their
long bamboo poles through the open portholes of passenger staterooms.
The children snatch what they can and. return down the poles.
Ashore the coolies fight for your baggage as men fight for it in
Cherbourg or Havre, only more savagely and there are more of them.
Their shouts to you and to one another drive you half out of your
wits. They jostle you with their unmentionably filthy bodies, and
snatch, snatch, snatch with their long-nailed filthy hands like
monkeys at feeding time.
The abundance and cheapness of human labor, or at least the theoretical
presence of it, is noticed as soon as you reach your hotel. If it
is a good one, a coolie will be assigned to squat by your door and
rise to open it when you come and go, day or night. Another will
layout your things if you leave your bag open. Innumerable
others will make their appearance out of nowhere. There seems no
limit to the supply. They don't like to sit or stand when they work.
Shining your shoes or doing anything else, they like to squat on
their haunches. They are more agreeable than serving people in Europe
– that is, those employed and wanting to keep their positions.
This brings up a principle ever emphasized through all experience
in China ? that a Chinese is readily manageable by any allegiance
to authority. He has a theory of responsibility, and pressure upon
that point will stir him to proper action. You do not tip the hotel
coolies direct to individuals. You tip the No. 1 Boy for the lot.
He settles with each according to some arrangement of their own.
They work for him and are responsible to him. He is responsible
to the hotel, or whatever other organization the connection may
involve. The coolies are his own gang, generally relatives, and
the system is a sort of clan system. The No. 1 is the head man,
the king. He keeps most or a large part of the takings, and a well-employed
No. 1 is usually well-to-do for a low-class Chinese. He exacts a
percentage cut from curio dealers or other persons who sell to you
in his domain. He demands that his under-coolies turn in to him
any tips direct from an inexperienced stranger. If they don't, and
are caught, they face dreaded penalties from him. He will search
them when he likes for hidden money.
In the dining room the same system prevails. You tip the dining
room No. 1. The employment system in the hotel is a picture of the
way much of the labor in China is managed. Nobody relies altogether
on his personal earnings for a livelihood. Nor can anyone keep his
personal earnings for himself. Each strategically brings pressure
to collect toll-squeeze as it is called in China ? from somebody
else. And somebody else is ever waiting to collect from him. Even
the beggars are organized into guilds, with elaborate systems of
squeeze and counter-squeeze upon one another, and the whole organization,
in turn, must pay squeeze to other organizations. Everybody pays
to get a job and pays to keep it. And everybody is ferociously determined
to make his collected squeeze as big as possible and his paid-out
squeeze as little as possible.
Such a system has brought about a degree of skill in deception absolutely
unimaginable to a Westerner. Survival depends upon out-deceiving
competitors. With the credentials of economic success a matter of
deception, those who are at the top may be expected to be better
at the game than those lower down. Experience with "high class"
Chinese, especially officials, bears out this proposition with sad
Out your hotel window, if you are up high, you look upon a sea of
roofs, terra-cotta in broad masses and gray slate here and there,
away to distant forests of tall chimneys where manufacturing in
the Western way has invaded the suburbs. The scene is not impressively
Chinese. The roofs are either flat or steeply sloped as in France.
There is a good deal of haze, and the air is a little acrid. This
is from the small wood and charcoal fires of the millions of Chinese
all around. Vendors' cries are penetrating above the general rumble
of the city, and somewhere below a shrill tumult of Chinese curses
is heard —
the now familiar and recognizable symptom of a ricksha boy's quarrel
for place. You locate the racket, and watch the Settlement policeman,
a huge bearded and turbaned Sikh, lunge in among the rickshas and
whack out right and left with a stick across the backs of all those
he can reach. They scatter. Those hit, pulling their rickshas to
a safe distance, mutter resentment with just sufficient affectation
of boldness to save "face" among listening Chinese, but
not enough to draw another crack from the Sikh's stick. The row
is over and the Sikh is at other business in a traffic jam.
Going about in Shanghai, you are not long in catching on to some
of the traits of the people that will be characteristically in evidence
in remote parts of the country where foreigners have little or no
direct influence. There are ways in which the Chinese seem unsusceptible
to influence, and remain themselves even among foreigners.
For example, the readiness of all classes of Chinese to say whatever
will please your ear at the moment, altogether irrespective of its
truth, will be impressively noted in dealing with them. If you want
your suit dry cleaned by Friday afternoon, or some such thing,
of course you are assured that it will be ready, and you may privately
rest assured that it will not be. This trait is rather common among
tradespeople all over the world, and particularly to be expected
among certain classes of immigrants in America. But in China it
is a cult. And on inquiry, you will be told that in the whole history
of the Wing Wong dry cleaning concern no suit was ever cleaned in
so short a time as you mention, and the hint is that you are highly
unreasonable to have expected quicker service. The same experience
will characterize dealings with Chinese high and low, from trifles
to things of importance. I should say, from personal experience,
that the total of procrastination is no greater per diem and per
capita in China than in some Latin American countries. But after
summarizing a fair number of instances both ways, I sense that the
motive is different in China. There is not a cult of manana, exactly,
because the Chinese, compared to Latin Americans, are very industrious.
It is simply an almost absolute disregard of truth, which prompts
them to say what they estimate will be most pleasing to you and,
incidentally, what will get rid of you most smoothly if you are
unprofitable, or get your order if you are a possible customer.
In answering inquiries about time, distance or anything else, a
Chinese will say what he thinks you want to hear oblivious to the
fact that you may prefer accuracy, even though it is disappointing.
In this particular, you may recall the admonition of a Chinese philosopher
of the past, a moral that the Chinese have certainly learned to
practice, to the effect that one should never refuse a request in
an abrupt manner, but should grant it in form, though with no intention
of fulfillment: "Put him off till tomorrow, and then another
tomorrow. Thus you comfort his heart," advised the ancient
This characteristic of the Chinese, their cheerful indifference
to truth, exasperates a foreigner perhaps more than any quality
in their nature. And as is natural, without any conception of truth
as a principle among themselves, they seem frequently incapable
of believing anything said to them by others.
After a few days of being lied to by Chinese on all sides and
at all times, you will wonder at the strange individuality of your
experience. For you will have heard all your life, if you are an
average American, that a Chinaman's word is as good as his bond.
Accordingly, you broach the problem to a veteran foreign resident:
He agrees that a Chinaman's word is as good as his bond. But he
postscripts this with the salty humor with which the explanation
is always sprung: "Of course —
but then his bond isn't worth a damn."
That leads to mention of one of the standing jokes of the Orient
? the yarn about Japanese being so distrustful of one another that
they hire Chinese to count the money. Americans have told me this
yarn appeared in a school geography used in America many years ago.
Anyway, it is amusing after a little experience in China.
Another common conception in America is that the Chinese are a most
ostentatiously sinister and mysterious people, and that they are
furthermore "impassive Orientals," transacting the affairs
of life by means of slow nods and grunts from expressionless faces,
something like Chief Rain-in-the-Face meditating upon the Happy
Hunting Ground. As a matter of fact, excepting Negroes, few races
ventilate more tooth and gum area on occasions of humor than the
Chinese, and none are more noisy than they on occasions of anger.
And they are childishly naive, as a general thing, in disclosing
what they intend to do. We find them secretive in a sense, very
much so, but before the fruition of any important plot they manage
usually to let out a few unintended hints, so that marked victims
In boxing parlance this unconscious intimation of what is coming
is called "telegraphing the punch." The Chinese are very
clumsy in telegraphing their punches. Hundreds of foreigners in
China owe their lives to this clumsiness. When the Chinese are mysterious
they are not ingenious. They resort to standardized pretenses that
are so uniform that an experienced foreigner can actually read them
as a code, the way a veteran sailor can read the approaching weather
from learned symptoms. Thus practiced foreigners living in dangerous
territory learn to sense from surface signs when to evacuate down
river to a protected foreign settlement. Those who
never learned soon enough are now buried here and there inland.
Before arriving in Shanghai you will have heard a great deal about
the dissolute waywardness of Americans and other foreigners who
live there. This is not really the most conspicuous feature of foreign
life on the spot. Shanghai is headquarters for many philanthropic
endeavors, a gathering place for hundreds of foreigners interested
in educational and other harmless pursuits. The number of strictly
conservative temperaments brought there by such interests is naturally
large enough to provide a considerable colony of men and women whose
tastes in enjoyment would be approved by any quiet and conservative
American or British community. And among the business men, you gather
the impression that they represent upon the whole a higher level
of character than groups of equal means in America. The American
Army and Navy circles are perhaps a bit more frisky than when stationed
on American soil, chiefly from the cheapness of liquor, which because
of lower taxes is much less expensive than in Canada and most other
countries. Girls —
mainly Russian —
are also cheap.
Of course, a good many young men sent out by foreign firms go to
pieces from dissipation in Shanghai. The food, the climate, and
the general tenor of life do not conduce to tranquil asceticism,
and particularly not to celibacy. For persons with infirmities of
character and tendencies to recklessness, life in Shanghai, or anywhere
else in the Far East for that matter, may operate much more disastrously
than at home. It is not surprising that a fair percentage make fools
of themselves. The British, Germans and French seem to make a better
average showing than Americans. This is scarcely ill be attributed
to our home prohibition, since the same fact was observed in respect
to Americans in China well before our thirteen-year-old experiment
The famous Shanghai night life is a rather poor show. The swarms
of Russian girls ? exiles from the Bolshevik Revolution, some of
them ? are rarely pretty. Furthermore, nearly all are long past
the "girl" stage; and as their mode of making a living
tends to age them prematurely, the majority of those who hang around
the night clubs are certainly not attractive now, if they ever were.
Many were never driven out of Russia by the Reds, but were born
and raised in Manchuria. If there were ever many aristocrats among
them, they are gone from the ranks now. Most of them are daughters
of Russian soldiers, fur traders, butchers, bakers and the rest
of the lower middle class employments, with no lineage and less
education and culture.
The girls frequenting the Shanghai dancing places are mainly there
to provide partners for men who come without partners. They encourage
customers to buy drinks and they themselves get a commission on
all orders, besides the free food which their patrons buy them.
They are not presuming, usually, in the nagging way that cafe girls
pester foreigners in many European cities.
A surprising number of these Russian all-weather girls manage to
hook very presentable American husbands through acquaintance begun
as dancing partners. American naval commanders are perpetually vexed
in Shanghai at the flood of requests from noncommissioned men to
marry. The marriages of sailors with these Russians usually do not
last, but of course they are seldom expected to.
Several Shanghai dancing places do not employ these "hostesses."
In none of the night clubs is there entertainment comparable to
New York's cabarets of the pre-prohibition era. In dignity, however,
poor as they are, they are a considerable notch ahead of the multitudinous
gyp-joint night clubs flourishing in the upper forties and fifties
For persons determined to be dissipated, in some fashion or in all
fashions, opportunities in Shanghai are satisfactory. Smoking opium
is obtainable with no more difficulty than liquor in "prohibition"
New York, and imported manufactured drugs are available with a little
looking around. For low purses and lower tastes, unconventionality
may be obtained by listening to the innumerable ricksha boys who
want to take a stranger somewhere, or by following one of the numerous
slim and haggard Chinese girls in native dress and foreign facial
make-up who call out in Chinese from dim-lit alleys. Their bottom
price is five or ten cents, American money; their motto is quick
turnover and big volume. From the persistence with
which they accost foreigners, these girls evidently have considerable
patronage from among them, doubtless mainly from derelicts. But
with Chinese patience they overlook nothing, and with a hideous
pock-marked face and consumptive cheeks they will tackle a prospect
with spats and cane as readily as they tackle a bum with a two-day
beard and no hat.
As in all places where there are Chinese, in Shanghai every sort
of gambling joint is accessible. Race track betting is legal, and
horse racing has the largest following of any sport. It is really
pony racing, with horses of small stature from Mongolia, called
The most famous club in the Far East is the Shanghai Club, facing
on the Bund. Here the foreign business and governmental leaders
of the city lunch and dine, after they have got off to a good start
at the notable Shanghai Bar on the first floor. This bar, members
assure you, is the longest in the world, eight feet longer than
one at Agua Caliente. The weazened old white-haired Chinese shakers
behind it are real characters; an imperturbable understanding of
British palates mechanizes their every motion. You will never see
a man drunk at the Shanghai Club. It's not cricket there, a fact
taken for granted by the British, but noted by Americans.
Skipping from the scene to the history behind it, this city of three
million, you learn, has risen out of what was little more than a
mud flat in a brief seventy-five years. It is not the most desirable
location for a trading center in this immediate area. But it is
the place where the foreign pioneers who were opening trade with
China during the last century could get a concession they might
develop with the protection of foreign law, and the Chinese have
flocked to it at the rate of nearly a hundred Chinese for every
foreigner of its population. As at Canton, the Chinese who granted
the concession enjoyed a good deal of private amusement originally
by assigning one of the least desirable sites to the foreigners.
But though at the time it was one of the least desirable, protection
for trade overcame that obstacle as compared with native Chinese
areas where the risks for even the Chinese were too great to undertake
large enterprises. Reasonable security for property drew thousands,
and finally three millions. The incoming tide is not yet stopped.
A Chinese may live in Shanghai's International Settlement, or in
the French Concession adjoining it, with the same civic protection
for his life and property offered any foreigner there. Compared
with the hazards of existence outside a foreign area where Chinese
must pay heavily for the privilege of holding on to their wealth,
the foreign-administered territory is a paradise, and their eagerness
to live in it reveals their attitude. Many of them venture outside
it only to make face-gaining anti-foreign speeches among radicals
who would like to expel the foreigners and have this development
for their awn, now that it is fabulously rich. But they know they
could not manage it, even if foreigners by some incalculable freak
surrendered their treaty-established privileges. Few Chinese of
property, if any, really care to see the foreigners, or strictly
speaking, foreign protection of property, removed. For a Chinese,
the scattered havens of foreign territory in China, a few acres
here and there in the immensity of territory, serve in the manner
that pieces of wood serve in the children's game in which we hear,
"I'm standing an wood, you can't get me."
In Shanghai, these great warehouses you see are safe from plundering
war lords, extorting officials and ravaging armies; there are courts
to proceed against defaulters, and there is recourse to law in legal
liability. These conditions exist in theory outside foreign territory
in China, but in practice they are absent in any except the rarest
instances and by accident. Chapei, invisible from the Whangpoo because
an arm of the International Settlement protrudes along the river,
is a Chinese-administered suburb of the foreign Shanghai. It is
Chinese, not foreign. That explains why it was a theater of war
in 1932. Foreign gunboats and troops were rushed to the International
Settlement to prevent invasion of the Settlement by either contestant.
The chief fear was of a stampeding mob of defeated Chinese soldiers.
Chapei is a part of what is called locally Greater Shanghai.
Were the Chinese able to get along with one another and were they
possessed of constructive spirit, a second Shanghai could be
built at any of several places not far from the mouth of the Yangtze,
many of them more suitable than the site of Shanghai for a great
metropolis. You learn at once, upon consulting the data of their
personal history, that for two generations they have had swarms
of foreign-trained men theoretically competent for such an under-taking.
During the present century they have had thousands. Every year for
decades now they have had large numbers of Chinese architects, engineers,
business graduates and other academically proficient experts in
every line returned from the universities of of America and Europe.
Plus this array of theoretically competent talent, they have an
abundance of capital. There are many Chinese millionaires. The truth
is, as will be shown farther on, that they show a strange inability
to make anything work under their own management when the project
is larger than a one-man enterprise.
They have most of what it takes, in the modern world, to make things
work. They have a talent for obedience, when well supervised. They
have industriousness and intelligence. But two other essentials,
honesty and willingness to cooperate, they emphatically lack, and
some deeply inner ingredient of character seems to militate against
remedying this lack. They simply cannot work among themselves in
large undertakings. And they do not have a satisfactory mental connection
between academic ability and practical application. But the worst
of their deficiencies is their treacherous loyalty. They seem ever
prone to work against one another rather than cooperatively, though
they are very fond of membership associations expressing a theory
of cooperation, but never achieving it.
The frequency with which they betray one another is astounding.
To paraphrase a common proverb of American social usage, it may
be said that in business one Chinese is a company, two are a clique,
and three are a plot. It will be noted in China, as in large American
cities, that almost any outstanding success of Chinese enterprise
is run as a one-man-boss concern, patriarchally, with little if
any administration delegated to subordinates. A Chinese subordinate,
under hourly scrutiny, is capable of efforts often surpassing, individually,
common in foreign companies. But a Chinese subordinate out of sight
in a Chinese enterprise is a dangerous liability, an opportunist
weighing the advantages of working for his employer or working covertly
It is little wonder, accordingly, that the Chinese are such frenzied
gamblers, setting aside for the moment other considerations in their
character that probably tend to make them so. Through many centuries
there has been very little opportunity in China for safety in investments.
The character of the people has been traditionally such that to
thrust money into anybody's hands as an investment was always a
gamble. Hence a Chinese with money might as well gamble it over
the gaming table as any other way, and have at least the thrill
of exciting play instead of the long gnawing anxiety following the
equal, if not greater, risk of investing it.
Shanghai, halfway north and south port of the China coast and point
of departure for travel up the Yangtze, is the starting place for
practically all interior travel, and for most travel up and down
the coast to other Chinese ports. It is the clearing house for news
from all over the country. It is where foreigners from different
stations inland meet, and where they renew contacts with civilization
after what is for some of them months of isolation up river. Distant
spots that have been mere names unassociated with anything become
realities as you live in Shanghai, and so you soon begin to know
where conditions are bad and where they are worse. Snatches of lunch
and tea conversation dwell lightly and with indifference upon massacres,
famines, floods, piracies. "The latest" usually has to
do with some military chief who has deserted for a consideration
from some previous allegiance. In discussing the Chinese, nobody
takes for granted any objectivity in their movements other than
personal temporary advantage. Speculating upon what this one or
that one of the prominent figures will do is merely a sort of ask-me-another
game, a game occasionally of dollars and cents concern to the foreign
business men, one hinting of lengthy reports in code for the consular
and diplomatic men, and one of amusement over tea and sandwiches
and cocktails for the wives of both and their bridge guests
day by day as you remain in Shanghai, if you mingle with "old
timers" who have lived in all parts of China, you gain familiarity
with what is going on. After a few weeks much of the chaos understandable.
But the wish to know more is infectious. In the case of the ancient
Egyptian or Mayan civilizations we note a strong appeal to curiosity
among many people who have never been to the valley of the Nile
nor to Yucatan, and do not expect to go. But few people are attracted
toward things Chinese, or possessed of a desire to burrow into the
lore of their present or past, if they have never visited China.
On the spot, however, curiosity is amazingly quickened, and persons
who have never wished an antique in the house set about becoming
connoisseurs on the art of the Han or Sung or Ming period. Many
who escape this interest feel the tug of practical curiosity in
the matter of recent and contemporary Chinese history.
Nearly everywhere you go you will stumble into conversation bearing
upon some aspect of what the Chinese have done or are doing. If
you dismiss or postpone the art side, the pressure is still strong
to look into the matter of how the country ever got into such a
muddle, which is a way of wanting to know why the Chinese are Chinese.
So you hie yourself to Kelly & Walsh's bookstore on Nanking
Road. You will have been told in advance that while there is a super-abundance
of reliable written matter concerning China of the past, most of
that dealing with present conditions obscures the issues altogether
by a timid avoidance of straightforward, harsh facts that would
throw light on motives and personalities. You have learned from
eye-witnesses that not more than a tenth was ever put on paper.
Nevertheless, you hear ""Kuomintang," "Taiping,"
"Borodin," and other names and terms so frequently and
so casually mentioned that you feel self-consciously ignorant, and
conclude you must remedy the mystery as well as possible at the
bookstore. And once started, it is like catnip. It is a perpetual
adventure in Believe It or Not. And it is also like a game of solitaire,
with the prize a confirmation of your judgment and guesses, after
you begin to catch on, to match the tricks properly, and ascribe
to each present Chinese contender and
alleged patriot the varieties of devilment that are his own specialty.
It makes more vivid the history being enacted all about you, of
which you will read intimations daily in the Shanghai Times, the
Shanghai Evening Post and Mercury, and the North China Daily Herald.
But incidentally, you will not read the worst in anyone of these
publications, or in any other publication. News items are covered
in a routine way, with maximum effort to spare the sensibilities
of Chinese readers. Foreigners in China, especially those in positions
bringing them into prominent light before the natives, exert themselves
to maintain harmony among the racial groups there thrown together.
Practically all of them have Chinese acquaintances or friends. Accordingly,
for reasons of individual friendship, as well as of general comity,
they do not usually include in published matter details of a sort
to give offense, even though the details are known to be true.
Thus, if you happen to take dinner in the evening with a staff writer
on a well-known Shanghai daily, and learn from him that General
So-and-So was bought off by the opposition, and straightway commandeered
a fleet of trucks at the front to haul off his loot and opium while
leaving his troops in the lurch on the battle lines, you may expect
next morning to read that the General So-and-so, recently defender
of the Ho-hum sector, has announced that he has withdrawn his forces
twenty li behind Ho-hum and is at the moment engaged in a conference
with Nanking leaders preparatory to renewed advances on the Ho-hum
rotten -- -- -- ," says your fellow-diner with four-worded
emphasis. "We thought for a while he was a better sticker than
some of the rest of them."
A few days later the paper publishes the news that General So and-So
has left for important conferences at Canton, "where final
plans will be settled for the unification and harmony of all parties."
Still a few days later you read that for reasons of illness, General
So-and-So will remain indefinitely at Hong Kong. There is no revelation
of the really significant news anywhere in the accounts.
And if you encounter a news agency photographer, he will as likely
as not be grumbling that after running all kinds of risks to
get certain pictures, nobody will use the best ones because they
are too revealing to stand publication.
This eternal pretense and evasion —
it gets the
foreigners after a time as inevitably as it possesses every Chinese.
Walks about Shanghai can hardly be called delightful anywhere in
the business area, but they are certainly interesting. Crossing
the narrow French Concession, south of the International Settlement,
with a glance of approval at the concrete "pill box" machine
gun nests the French keep at the boundary, you enter what was once
the walled Chinese city. The walls are no more.
One street here, perhaps half a mile long, must rank as one of the
oddest in the world. Spread on the sidewalks for its entire length,
on a day when there is no rain, is an endless assortment of picked-up
rubbish for sale. It is a new revelation in poverty. The Flea market
in Paris looks like Tiffany's in comparison. Each "shop-keeper”
has a dirty cloth a yard or two square laid on the ground. On this
he has perhaps a single burned-out electric bulb, an old tooth brush
or two from some garbage can, some scraps of rusty wire, some bent
nails and a couple of cork stoppers. That will be all. He will sit
all day, day after day, to sell that ? presumably the findings of
his wife and children sent out as scavengers. And the hundreds up
and down the street, most of them, will have stocks as amazingly
trifling and worthless. A few will have such imaginably useful articles
as a workable cast-off hinge or a pair of bent scissors. Anything,
absolutely anything, available in ash heaps and garbage cans is
on sale here —
an unmated old slipper, a nicked ink bottle, the cover of a book
with the pages gone —
all are for sale, each merchant having only half a dozen or so bits
of such junk for his entire stock. At what infinitesimally low prices
these things are marked I should not attempt to guess. Evidently
they are sold to somebody. That able-bodied men occupy themselves
wholly in such a way, with customers seemingly scarce, and stocks
remaining unchanged hour after hour, is an illumination of poverty
we can scarcely comprehend.
Poverty in various manifestations everywhere is perhaps the dominating
force among all your impressions throughout China. On
early morning walks in more rural sections I used to see droves
of Chinese women out digging in damp places with hoes and pails.
I was in time rather curious, as they appeared to be peasant Chinese
and not fisherfolk. I learned that they were digging worms for their
chickens. Chinese families have no table scraps left over and they
have so little for themselves that to feed grain to a chicken would
strike them as the wildest extravagance. Every member of the family
in China does something useful. The small children are kept busy
picking dry grass or weeds for fuel to cook with. A fire for warmth
in winter was never heard of by most Chinese.)
At Kiangwan, weeks after the battle of February, 1932, you could
see Chinese scraping the bones of horses that had been killed. All
the meat had long disappeared. The dogs would drive off the buzzards
and have their turn, then the Chinese would come with knives and
drive off the dogs.
It is a mistaken notion that the Chinese eat dog meat generally.
In much of China there is a superstition against it. The Cantonese,
however, are said to relish it, and to enjoy rat meat also. Snakes
are considered a delicacy, as far as I could learn, all over the
Among the Chinese farmers of South China a large number of those
who grow rice can afford to eat only a little of it themselves.
Rice is not exactly a luxury in China, for it is in much of the
country the staple article of diet. But the price is higher than
for some other things to eat, and only those passably well fixed
can turn loose their full appetites on it. The rice growers accordingly
compound a mixture of rice and sweet potatoes, or rice and some
other vegetable. Usages vary of course in different areas, but general
reports in South China indicated that a twenty per cent addition
of rice to a dish is regarded as moderately good fare.
The Chinese in the warmer parts of the country eat a good deal of
fruit. Bananas grow as far north as Foochow, but not in a way to
make a substantial addition to the native diet. From Amoy south,
however, they are plentiful. A kind of small orange is plentiful
all over South China, and these help considerably, along with corn,
carrots, cabbage, beans and other items similar to those
in the United States. The greater variety of fruit gives them a
certain advantage in diet over the Chinese of North China, where
the people rely rather heavily on beans and grain. Nevertheless,
the Chinese of the North generally give the impression of better
But the physical stamina of all peasant class Chinese is fairly
good. Lean, scrawny, light in weight and patiently plodding, their
constancy of toil under the hardest conditions is one of the wonders
of the world. They cannot work as long without eating as a Westerner,
for the reason that their sinewy bodies carry no excess energy stored
in extra ounces of fat, and their bulky vegetable diet provides
no strength for long ahead. But replenished with a dish of rice,
or a few raw sweet potatoes now and then, plus a bowl of tea, a
Chinese can keep going throughout the day and throughout life, for
that matter, in a fashion no American or Englishman could approach.
You will be told in Shanghai that the way to satisfy a ricksha coolie
is to pay him exactly the standard fare and no more. This is twenty
cents Chinese money for an ordinary ride —
and thirty or forty cents for proportionately longer rides, say
those of several miles or with waits of half an hour or more. Twenty
cents Chinese money, “Mex” as it is called as a hangover
from the days when Mexican silver dollars were the only general
currency, is equal to about four or five cents American money, depending
upon the exchange.
If you take pity on a ricksha coolie —
and he will do his talented best to look pitiful —
him too much, he will shout that he is cheated. If he thinks you
do not understand any Shanghai dialect, he will curse you roundly
at the top of his voice for the benefit of other grinning coolies
looking on. He supposes that because you gave him more than you
were obliged to, you are therefore a fool, and with a little exhibit
of shouts and tears you can be made a bigger fool and induced to
hand over a good deal more. Nothing corresponding to sympathy exists
in the world he knows, and the idea of some one desiring to set
him up with a square meal after seeing him barefoot in the snow
and slush is completely incomprehensible.
Experimentally, I have more than once handed a coolie a dollar for
a brief and easy trip, to see what he would do. In only one instance
did the coolie handed a dollar, about two days' earnings, fail to
turn on me with a grand show of fury and indignation at being underpaid.
Missionaries will try to tell you that away from the big cities,
out among the noble-spirited "real Chinese" in the rural
areas, such a present would bring immediate thanks and amiable smiles.
But experimenting similarly elsewhere, in smaller cities, villages
and even out on the farms away from any possible tourist, hundreds
of miles from Shanghai, I have found the same results uniformly
in every locality visited.
Once returning from a mountain walk late in the afternoon I missed
the proper path back across the valley of rice paddies. The paths,
made of stones used as field boundaries, ran in every direction.
It was impossible to see the paths ahead because of the dense growing
rice, and I called an idling farm boy to ask the correct way. He
walked a little distance to show me. I thanked him and fished out
a silver dollar, as much as he could earn with exceptionally good
luck in an ordinary week. He took the dollar, pocketed it, and announced
that the standard price for path-showing thereabouts was two dollars.
He raised a loud commotion, shifting, as is usual with Chinese,
to supplications and wails when Act I of the accustomed drama failed
of effect, and followed behind me moaning for two miles, absurdly
hoping the foreign devil would change his mind.
In Shanghai, as in all places where Chinese predominate, the foremost
impression along the streets is of their eternal eating. Every few
doors is a shop with flat pressed ducks, red and looking as if they
were lacquered, hung everywhere inside, and facing on the sidewalk
a sort of stove with sweatmeats frying. And along the curb, peddlers
with entire kitchenettes, which they carry on their backs when moving,
are constantly mixing dough and cooking little cakes. The first
thing every ricksha boy does when he is paid is to go to one of
these vendors for a purchase of something to eat. In a land where
millions starve daily, food is uppermost in the minds
of all. The instant significance of every bit of money is food.
If the person is of the wealthier classes, he feels the infection
of this nationally dominant thought all the same, and because he
can afford it, he eats all the time. The prosperous classes are
eating the whole day long, from early morning till evening, in the
street delicatessens. And at night, as you glimpse them through
an open window, they are still eating. They expand in it, they blend
in it the deepest ecstasies of spiritual and physical delight. Their
eyes shine at the prospect. The most bedraggled and emaciated coolie,
looking good for nothing but the grave, when given his pay after
a ricksha pull will become a new personality the moment he can begin
to wad some sort of vendor's mess down his cormorant-like gullet,
wagging his head to speed swallowing and vacate his mouth for more.
When shopping in China, if you are a stranger, every recourse will
be exhausted in practically every shop to short-change you. If the
count is short, the shop-keeper's defense will be that the exchange
of small money for large has changed that day. Upon your willingness
to call on the exchange shop next door and prove him wrong, the
shop-keeper hands over a little more money. Upon further argument,
he will hand over a further installment in the cause of accuracy.
At the last he will complain that he has no more ten-cent pieces
or no more coppers. Upon your pressing him with a willingness to
change a larger piece, he will comply as if that were what he had
been hoping for all along, and as readily as not brazenly open up
a till which displays a peck of small change, without batting an
eye, and all smiles and courtesy, amiably pay over the shortage
and urge you to call again, escorting you to the door with a bow.
It is Anglo-Saxon nature to be irritated at this. But that is the
system in China, quite as natural to them as assuring you that the
cloth won't fade and that the vase is a genuine Ming, though the
cloth is of two colors where a part of it has already struck the
light and the vase is stamped plainly with the trademark of a concern
never organized until 1925. All words in China are meaningless,
and costing nothing, they are dispensed with profligate abundance
everywhere on all occasions. Chinese dearly love jabber, protracted
harangues over trifles and endlessly gushing eulogies and contentions
which upon their face are ridiculously untrue. Foreigners, with
a reverence for conciseness and accuracy, especially Americans and
British, are of course decidedly out of their element in all this.
They feel the fatigue of the constant resistance to this unrelaxing
combat in every negotiation, large or trifling; and with this fatigue
there accumulates a rising exasperation at its needlessness, and
a deep chronic inward contempt for the Chinese because of it.
But you soon find that where the Chinese have a genuine talent for
exasperating you, they have a double talent for placating you when
you exhibit anger. No race approaches them in a talent for what
we call handing out soft soap. If you have gone out of a particular
shop indignant at the proprietor, lo, the next day he will likely
be lying in wait with a present, a trifle that he begs you to accept
as a token of old friendship. No reference will be made to his former
atrocities. And he will succeed in being so plaintive, so movingly
pathetic in his passion for your continued kind regard, and so skillfully
histrionic in the compliments he bestows, that three to one you
will accept the package of tea, or whatever it is, thank him, and
silently cursing yourself for your gullibility, mumble that you
will be in to see him later about that what-not he wants to sell,
and which he would not sell to anyone else at twice the price.
This interprets in part what people mean when they say they like
the Chinese. They mean they find them affable. The "like"
does not embody the element of admiration of character implied in
referring to members of our own or a closely similar race. To like
the Chinese, an Anglo-Saxon must necessarily dismiss, in the weighing,
many standards that he would employ in a judgment of a fellow Occidental.
And it is true, a point to be elaborated later, that large numbers
of Americans do find the Chinese likable; for their unsurpassed
amiability, gracious etiquette, spontaneous lying for the expediency
of the moment, and other talented diminutions of face-to-face difficulties,
all act as soothing lubrication in matters where we should risk
friction for honesty. Few Americans would express a liking for another
American they could not respect in the matter of character. But
Chinese whose entire system of standards is
anathema to our own are spoken of as being well liked, and correctly
so, with this subtraction in mind.
You discover in China that among the Chinese friends are regarded
as friends on a strictly personal basis. Thus, to Ding Ling, it
matters not what sort of a rascal Sing Ming may be to the world
at large, provided his treatment of Ding Ling himself is satisfactory,
all according to the Book of Rites and so on. Cutting a person's
acquaintance because of what he did to some unknown third party
would rarely enter the head of a Chinese.
In respect to their Chinese acquaintances in China, foreigners there
are commonly good Romans in Rome, and maintain pleasant friendships
with Chinese who, if they were Occidentals, would not be liked because
they could not be respected. So when you hear foreigners mention
"liking" Chinese, it may be more often than not understood
to mean that they do so according to local values, accepting an
individual for his agreeable qualities, and dismissing the rest,
though these would be sufficient in an Occidental to rule him out
altogether. One of the most popular Chinese I can think of among
foreign groups in China is among his own people one of the most
vicious tyrants on the scene, a thoroughly unscrupulous cut-throat
and ex-brigand, who not so long back expressed his irritation at
one of his wives by nailing her alive in a coffin and setting her
adrift down river.
You will meet some Chinese, perhaps dozens, who will appear to combine
with native standards of grinning grace and hospitality other qualities
that we should expect in an Occidental entitled to esteem. No percentage
estimate of this number is possible, naturally. Each foreigner's
experience will vary. But from average experience it is fair to
say that the number of such Chinese is very small relative to the
whole. Sincerity of utterance is microscopically scarce, and general
trustworthiness, even in common affairs, is almost equally wanting.
Some of our highly psychological brethren undertake to establish,
and perhaps correctly, that in the final analysis no ethical system
can be claimed as superior to any other system, that while differences
may be observed they remain differences and not superiorities and
inferiorities. In these informal notes herewith, laying claim to
no authority on such abstruse points, no effort is made to chase
down the alleys of philosophic calculus to capture truths beyond
those self-evident for practical review. But in this humble earthly
plane of values, it is fairly clear, in contacts with the Chinese
and in looking about the country, that many of the standards they
nourish are decidedly destructive to any satisfactory social and
It touches upon the obvious, but with nevertheless a direct pertinence
to initial observations upon China, to reflect that almost any imaginable
form of government —
monarchical, republican, dictatorial, communistic, or what not-will
enable a people to obtain fair dividends from the natural resources
of their land, provided there is adequate patriotism and character
in the governing body. And conversely, no kind of government, however
perfect in organic theory, or whatever its designation, can rise
above the men administering it. In the light of this self-evident
interjection, it is remarkable that foreigners setting up as critical
students of Chinese affairs in recent years could hail this or that
political change, a change of names, as ushering in better days
for the Chinese. Yet, turning back the pages to 1927, we find all
sorts of enthusiasm voiced over what the then new "Nationalists"
were going to do for China. Similar ballyhoo has accompanied plans
for a monarchical restoration, plans for a dictatorship, and so
on, all about equally silly. No rearrangements of constitutions
or parliaments could overcome the ills that arise from lack of character,
and no constitution or parliament alone can put character and a
spirit of duty into those who hold office.
From personal experience with Chinese officials, observation of
the Chinese at large, and drawing upon the experiences of many acquaintances
whose service collectively has taken them all over China into areas
no one person could know intimately, it is a reasonable conviction
that there are enough straightforward, honest Chinese available
to man any kind of government there. This is not a personal cynicism.
It merely phrases common and competent foreign judgment on the scene.
Most thoughtful foreigners in China today believe that a monarchy
would be best for the country in its present state. Where trustworthiness
is as scarce as it is in China, it is probably better to have a
government highly centralized, requiring as few authoritative individuals
as possible, in order to utilize most effectively the limited amount
of honesty available. But even with a highly centralized monarchy,
or dictatorship, "some delegation of responsibility in the
lower official orders is unavoidable, and there are not enough reliable
men in China to fill these posts.
People in America who turn with disgust from the doings of Tammany
Hall, the Boo Hoo Hoff regime, and the Chicago gang, as the lowest
possible in political corruption, simply fail to appreciate the
real possibilities of corruption as it is seen in China. And here,
at least, we have a fairly numerous corps of honest citizenry, a
sort of normally neutral vigilante reserve, who step in now and
then where and when things become too bad and prevent extension
of the more vicious excesses. There is no such reserve of honest
citizenry in China, and no sign on the horizon of any in formation
for the future. I mention this because the term "corruption,"
in speaking of China to persons thinking of the United States, is
decidedly ambiguous. The meaning is not the same, certainly, as
applied in America to squandered taxes and Tammany nepotism, and
in China to personal extortion right and left at the point of a
bayonet, with heads chopped off for tardiness in paying or inability
Little discussion has been undertaken, in this section, of what
favorable evidences there are of improvement in China through the
activities of the enlightened minority. The explanation is that
improvements are not a conspicuous feature on the scene. They are
vastly less than a newcomer who has read the enthusiastic accounts
of money-raisers for philanthropic projects and who has listened
to Chinese speakers at forum discussions has been led to expect.
The improvements are on paper, true enough, and if the visitor goes
no farther than reading the provisions of the Nationalist Government
for public health, administration of justice, prison reform, national
education, agricultural advance, and so on, he will come out of
China an enthusiast. But if search is made to determine the workings
of these provisions, the illusion is short-lived. And what is
significant, the Chinese on the spot, where they can be checked
up, will not ordinarily, except in propaganda for uninformed consumption,
make claims quite as extravagant as they commonly make abroad. However,
they fool a good many credulous and uninvestigating visitors, including
many who write books.
It is absurd to suppose that a government in Nanking, with definite
control of no more than a tenth of the territory of the country,
could do much, even if it sincerely desired to do its best. The
point here is that while it actually does next to nothing, it utilizes
all available energy to create the impression abroad that it is
doing a great deal.
Such are among the first impressions gathered from travel and residence
in China today. What has been sketchily surveyed here represents
an effort to duplicate, as nearly as possible, the immediate information
and reflections likely to be gathered by an ordinarily curious and
open-minded visitor to China in 1933.
From a hodgepodge of unfamiliar names and confusing reports of unknown
personalities and interests, you begin to identify trends, causes
and effects. In all your interpretations, Chinese character, as
you have it revealed to you twenty-four hours a day, is the clew.
Whether you follow in your newspaper the details of a massacre of
peasants, a political triumph for some upstart, or a new civil war,
you now search instinctively for the identities of Chinese character
as you have come to know them, the odd consistencies of traits as
they show themselves in events large and small.
You do not think of Chinese communism or nationalism — you ponder
which age-old Chinese traits may now be uppermost under that label.
It is the same with the other isms. The implications are not the
same as they are severally understood in other countries. All movements
reaching China from without appear to be chamelionized —
and there remains little appropriateness in a name among agitations
in China that have presumably originated elsewhere. But most significant
of all, you have found that Chinese do not fight for ideas, though
they often give the impression of fighting under them, banner-wise.