Chinese Etiquette, No. II

The disadvantages of ignoring alike the language and customs of the Chinese are daily and hourly exemplified in the unsatisfactory relations which exist as a rule between master and servant.

That the latter almost invariably despise their foreign patrons, and are only tempted to serve under them by the remunerative nature of the employment, is a fact too well known to be contradicted, though why this should be so is a question which effectually puzzles many who are conscious of treating their native dependants only with extreme kindness and consideration. The answer, however, is not difficult for those who possess the merest insight into the workings of the Chinese mind; for just as every inhabitant of the eighteen provinces believes China to be the centre of civilisation and power, so does he infer that his language and customs are the only ones worthy of attention from native and barbarian alike. The very antagonism of the few foreign manners and habits he is obliged by his position to cultivate, tend rather to confirm him in his own sense of superiority than otherwise. For who but a barbarian would defile the banquet hour “when the wine mantles in the cups” with a white table-cloth, the badge of grief and death? How much more elegant the soft red lacquer of the “eight fairy” table, with all its associations of the bridal hour! The host, too, at the head of his own board, sitting in what should be the seat of the most honoured guest, and putting the latter on his right instead of his left hand! Truly these red-haired barbarians are the very scum of the earth.

By the time he has arrived at this conclusion our native domestic has by a direct process of reasoning settled in his mind another important point, namely, that any practice of the civilities and ceremonies which Chinese custom exacts from the servant to the master, would be entirely out of place in reference to the degraded being whom an accidental command of dollars has invested with the title, though hardly with the rights, of a patron. Consequently, little acts of gross rudeness, unperceived of course by the foreigner, characterise the everyday intercourse of master and servant in China. The house-boy presents himself for orders, and even waits at table, in short clothes —an insult no Chinaman would dare to offer to one of his own countrymen. He meets his master with his tail tied round his head, and passes him in the street without touching his hat, that is, without standing still at the side of the street until his master has passed. He lolls about and scratches his head when receiving instructions, instead of standing in a respectful attitude with his hands at his side in a state of rest; enters a room with his shoes down at heel, or without socks; omits to rise at the approach of his master, mistress, or their friends, and commits numerous other petty breaches of decorum which would ensure his instant dismissal from the house of a Chinese gentleman. We ourselves take a pride in making our servants treat us with the same degree of outward respect they would show towards native masters, and we believe that by strictly adhering to this system we succeed in gaining, to some extent, their esteem. Inasmuch, however, as foreign susceptibilities are easily shocked on certain points ignored by Chinamen of no matter what social standing, we have found it necessary to introduce a special Bill, known in our domestic circle as the Expectoration Act. Now it is a trite observation that the Chinese make capital soldiers if they are well commanded, and what is the head of a large business establishment but the commander-in-chief of a small army? The efficiency of his force depends far more upon the moral agencies brought to bear than upon any system of rewards and punishments human ingenuity can devise; for Chinamen, like other mortals, love to have their prejudices respected, and fear of shame and dread of ridicule are as deeply ingrained in their natures as in those of any nation under the sun. They have a horror of blows, not so much from the pain inflicted, as from the sense of injury done to something more elevated than their mere corporeal frames; and a friend of ours once lost a good servant by merely, in a hasty fit, throwing a sock at him. We therefore think that, considering the vast extent of the Chinese empire and its innumerable population, all of whom are constructed mentally more or less on the same model, their language and customs are deserving of more attention than is generally paid to them by foreigners in China.


Support this fine website.

Your donations are greatly appreciated.

Thanks, champ.

Share via
Send this to a friend