If there is one thing more than another, after the possession of the thirteen classics, on which the Chinese specially pride themselves, it is politeness.
Even had their literature alone not sufficed to place them far higher in the scale of mental cultivation than the unlettered barbarian, a knowledge of those important forms and ceremonies which regulate daily intercourse between man and man, unknown of course to inhabitants of the outside nations, would have amply justified the graceful and polished Celestial in arrogating to himself the proud position he now occupies with so much satisfaction to himself. A few inquiring natives ask if foreigners have any notion at all of etiquette, and are always surprised in proportion to their ignorance to hear that our ideas of ceremony are fully as clumsy and complicated as their own. It must be well understood that we speak chiefly of the educated classes, and not of “boys” and compradores who learn in a very short time both to touch their caps and wipe their noses on their masters’ pocket-handkerchiefs. Our observations will be confined to members of that vast body of men who pore day and night over the “Doctrine of the Mean,” and whose lips would scorn to utter the language of birds.
And truly if national greatness may be gauged by the mien and carriage of its people, China is without doubt entitled to a high place among the children of men. An official in full costume is a most imposing figure, and carries himself with great dignity and self-possession, albeit he is some four or five inches shorter than an average Englishman. In this respect he owes much to his long dress, which, by the way, we hope in course of time to see modified; but more to a close and patient study of an art now almost monopolised in Europe by aspirants to the triumphs of the stage. There is not a single awkward movement as the Chinese gentleman bows you into his house, or supplies you from his own hand with the cup of tea so necessary, as we shall show, to the harmony of the meeting. Not until his guest is seated will the host venture to take up his position on the right hand of the former; and even if in the course of an excited conversation, either should raise himself, however slightly, from a sitting posture, it will be the bounden duty of the other to do so too. No gentleman would sit while his equal stood. Occasionally, where it is not intended to be over-respectful to a visitor, a servant will bring in the tea, one cup in each hand. Then standing before his master and guest, he will cross his arms, serving the latter who is at his right hand with his left hand, his master with the right. The object of this is to expose the palm—in Chinese, the heart—of either hand to each recipient of tea. It is a token of fidelity and respect. The tea itself is called “guest tea,” and is not intended for drinking. It has a more useful mission than that of allaying thirst. Alas for the red-haired barbarian who greedily drinks off his cupful before ten words have been exchanged, and confirms the unfavourable opinion his host already entertains of the manners and customs of the West! And yet a little trouble spent in learning the quaint ceremonies of the Chinese would have gained him much esteem as an enlightened and tolerant man. For while despising us outwardly, the Chinese know well enough that inwardly we despise them, and thus it comes to pass that a voluntary concession on our part to any of their harmless prejudices is always gratefully acknowledged. To return, “guest tea” is provided to be used as a signal by either party that the interview is at an end. A guest no sooner raises the cup to his lips than a dozen voices shout to his chair-coolies; so, too, when the master of the house is prevented by other engagements from playing any longer the part of host. Without previous warning—unusual except among intimate acquaintances—this tea should never be touched except as a sign of departure.
Strangers meeting may freely ask each other their names, provinces, and even prospects; it is not so usual as is generally supposed to inquire a person’s age. It is always a compliment to an old man, who is justly proud of his years, and takes the curious form of “your venerable teeth?” but middle-aged men do not as a rule care about the question and their answers can rarely be depended upon. A man may be asked the number and sex of his children; also if his father and mother are still “in the hall,” i.e., alive. His wife, however, should never be alluded to even in the most indirect manner. Friends meeting, either or both being in sedan-chairs, stop their bearers at once, and get out with all possible expedition; the same rule applies to acquaintances meeting on horseback. Spectacles must always be removed before addressing even the humblest individual—sheer ignorance of which most important custom has often, we imagine, led to rudeness from natives towards foreigners, where otherwise extreme courtesy would have been shown. In such cases a foreigner must yield, or take the chances of being snubbed; and where neither self-respect or national dignity is compromised, we recommend him by all means to adopt the most conciliatory course. Chinese etiquette is a wide field for the student, and one which, we think, would well repay extensive and methodical exploration.