Chinese Characteristics

Cultures, customs, and habits are often subjects of various studies. The Chinese culture is one of the most interesting and complicated in its nature. For this reason, authors who write about the Chinese culture and its aspects succeed in presenting the customs of people that are viewed as non-Western characteristics. The paper discusses the book Chinese Characteristics written by Arthur H. Smith in order to evaluate his work and define its main features The focus is around the question whether the Smith’s portrait of Chinese characteristics is “Chinese” or may they be considered as non-Western or non-modern traits of customs or habits.

Arthur Smith was born in the United States. He depicted the Chinese culture from the point of view of a man who was raised in a completely different culture. In his works, the author described Chinese people as an observer and other people may relate to it. Smith’s point of view is a valid piece of information as he was introduced to the Chinese culture on different levels. He has lived in China for some time and was exposed to a typical way of life. It should be noted that the habits and customs that are common for some people are known as elements of culture. Features that differ are referred to as elements of a foreign culture. In most cases, cultures overlap and the connection between them indentifies individuals as representatives of a certain culture. It is what we call “cultural diversity”. Here, a question arises: to what extent Smith’s portrait of Chinese characteristics are “Chinese” or are they better viewed as non-Western or non-modern traits of customs or habits?

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Apart from living and working in China, Smith participated in some important historic events, for example, the Boxer Rebellion. Thus, Smith’s portrait of Chinese characteristics represents “Chinese” in a time period. The writer of the book, which was published over a century ago, tries to capture the features of Chinese that were preserved in mentality since the first dynasties. Some may describe the book Chinese Characteristics as an old-fashioned work of literature. However, the author manages to define features that do not change on an account of time along with things that are long forgotten. It is vital to understand changes that happened over the last centuries and their effects on the Chinese culture. The elements of Chinese culture and characteristics are adequately described. Even though there is a huge difference between the past and the present, some features are well-preserved in the culture under consideration (for example, the notion of time, economy, an understanding of industry, and other components). On the basis of this information there is another question that needs to be answered: did the author manage to capture the unique features of Chinese that do not change with time and may be recognized in the present?

In order to answer the first question about the Chinese features, the content of the writing piece has to be analyzed. Smith addresses the theme of the Chinese characteristics as the products of the minds of Chinese. The author focuses on fixed habits and describes them as separate elements. He outlines a whole picture with these elements. It may be said that Smith gives simplified models of culture for foreigners to understand the world of Chinese. To a certain extent, the information consists of customs and habits that are an intractable part of culture. Smith carefully acknowledges characteristics and points out that they are not meant to be generalizations for a whole culture. The work has a number of documented incidents from everyday life. The author also provides explanations of customs and traits given by Chinese and on the basis of his own conclusions that include a method of comparison. For example, one of the first peculiarities given by Smith relates to the way people in China think. Smith stresses the influence of theatre on the culture and states that “a Chinese thinks in theatrical terms”. It does not mean much when people read about it. This is just one piece of the Chinese culture. Nevertheless, one feature is always connected to some other element of the character. For such reason, that what seems not familiar or even non-Western or non-modern may be just an illustration of a simple feature that found its realization in customs and traditions. The information about a theatre playing a major part of life in China suggests that the Chinese appreciate theatrical performances on stage and in life. One may even draw an analogy between theatre and life in China based on the rules of ceremony “… the rules of behavior three thousand”. Even though, some of the rules are neglected in the present, others are adhered to with care and attention, for example, “the code, like a set of holiday clothes, is always to be put on when the occasion for it arises, which happens at certain junctures the occurrence of which the Chinese recognize by an unerring instinct”. This is not just a general but a precise depiction of a trait of the Chinese character. 

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In his book, Smith employs two approaches. The first one is applied when the author describes a trait that is already known to him. For instance, the scholar explains the “industry of people” and says that “the Chinese classify themselves as Scholars, Farmers, Workmen, and Merchants”. Such classification may be relevant to other non-Western people and is nothing more than an oriental trait. Another example relates to the notion of time. It is worth mentioning that time is one of the archetypical concepts present in most societies of the world but described differently by them. According to Smith, Chinese people divide a day into twelve hours. The hours have their names that are used not just to designate the time of a day but denoted a specific time as one of the twelfth parts of a day. Thus, the term “noon” “which would seem as definite as any, is employed of the entire period from eleven to one o'clock”. Based on these examples one cannot make a clear distinction between Western or non-western culture characteristics since there are common grounds. The method is legitimate and entirely valid for a popular book, like the one at hand, as it gives a general understanding of the Chinese culture and its aspects. The second involves characteristics that are unknown and are perplex representatives of other cultures. Such traits are either new or just does not make sense for other people. Yet, they may be persisting in the Chinese society at present (for example, the absence of a public spirit, patience and perseverance, physical vitality, and others). For example, one the greatest contrast to the Western principals of behavior is built on the attention of the Chinese to those people who are sick. A patient is constantly visited by a number of people. The proportioned of visitors may be measured by the severity of the illness. A sick individual is almost never alone. Family, friends, and even priests come to see a patient who has to entertain everyone and talk about his feelings. This kind of a situation may be perceived as a nightmare by foreigners who believe it is the best practice to live a sick person alone. Most Europeans would like to escape such a chaos but Chinese accept this order of things. In France, for instance, people would feel bad upon receiving the following phone call: “begged to be excused, as she was engaged in dying”. In China it is not an excuse but rather a cause to be engaged in a variety of activities. Presently, the situation has not changed much. These traits are related to the second question about the effects of the time and how it transformed customs and habits. 

The concept of time is an interesting topic to study. According to the author, there is “is a maxim of the developed civilization of our day, that “time is money”. The phrase “our day” was used in relation to the year 1894 when the book was published. The words are still true and this fact has not changed. The arrangements of lives of Chinese residents correspond to the realities of business and everyone being a small part of a big progress and industrial development. Interactions in business are made as they were before. In this context, the Chinese characteristics may be observed. For example, in the United States we say that “When you shall have done your work, you will receive your money”. Such a phrasing gives a purpose and motivates a person in the Western world but does not find its realization in China. As Smith notes, there is no future-perfect tense in the Chinese language, or another tense that may correspond to it and “a Chinese simply says, “Do work, get money”. It is the principal idea formed in the mind of a Chinese in the past and is still valid in the present.

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In order to understand Chinese Characteristics in the context of time, a metaphor may be used - a book is a mirror. When a mirror is new it shows vivid images of the one who looks and everything around him. Overtime, the mirror gets dusty and scratched but images are still visible. Later, someone breaks a mirror, and there are only glimpses of images that may be seen. The same is with the book. There are visions now but in the future they are likely to get broken and be substituted with other means of observation and knowledge about the Chinese characteristics.

We may draw a conclusion, according to which, it was the purpose of the author to gather up what had once been known about Chinese in 1894, but not described or analyzed. It was Smith’s observations and experience that contributed to accomplishing this task, as well as the general interest in the Chinese culture that gave the book Chinese Characteristics a certain level of authority and appreciation. In the past, when there was a severe lack of information about people in China and their traits, the work was an inspiring source of knowledge. In the twenty-first century though, the work Chinese Characteristics is still considered to be a valid work. Such fact is partly defined by the peculiarities of the Chinese culture that despite the influence of the West, preserves its own unique features that are presented in the book (the notion of time, relation to sickness, ceremonies, and other characteristics). In relation to the past, the ideas of the book constitute the claim that most Chinese characteristics are persisting in the culture. There are no strict definitions in the book, and jet Smith manages to gather the most prominent qualities that may be viewed as a non-Western portrayal of Chinese characteristics.

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