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6: Literature and Education

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The Chinese people reverence above all things literature and learning; they hate war, bearing in mind the saying of Mencius, "There is no such thing as a righteous war; we can only assert that some wars are better than others;" and they love trade and the finesse of the market-place. China can boast many great soldiers, in modern as well as in ancient days; but anything like a proper appreciation of the military arm is of quite recent growth. "Good iron is not used for nails, nor good men for soldiers," says the proverb; and again, "One stroke of the civilian's pen reduces the military official to abject submission." On the other hand, it is admitted that "Civilians give the empire peace, and soldiers give it security."

Chinese parents have never, until recent days, willingly trained their sons for the army. They have always wished their boys to follow the stereotyped literary curriculum, and then, after passing successfully through the great competitive examinations, to rise to high civil office in the state. A good deal of ridicule has been heaped of late on the Chinese competitive examination, the subjects of which were drawn exclusively from the Confucian Canon, and included a knowledge of ancient history, of a comprehensive scheme of morality, initiated by Confucius, and further elaborated by Mencius (372-289 B.C.), of the ballads and ceremonial rites of three thousand years ago, and of an aptitude for essay-writing and the composition of verse. The whole curriculum may be fitly compared with such an education as was given to William Pitt and others among our own great statesmen, in which an ability to read the Greek and Roman classics, coupled with an intimate knowledge of the Peloponnesian War, carried the student about as far as it was considered necessary for him to go. The Chinese course, too, has certainly brought to the front in its time a great many eminent men, who have held their own in diplomacy, if not in warfare, with the subtlest intellects of the West.

Their system of competitive examinations has indeed served the Chinese well. It is the brightest spot in the whole administration, being absolutely above suspicion, such as attaches to other departments of the state. Attempts have been made from time to time to gain admission by improper means to the list of successful candidates, and it would be absurd to say that not one has ever succeeded; the risk, however, is too great, for the penalty on detection may be death.

The ordeal itself is exceedingly severe, as well for the examiners as for the candidates. At the provincial examinations, held once in every third year, an Imperial Commissioner, popularly known as the Grand Examiner, is sent down from Peking. On arrival, his residence is formally sealed up, and extraordinary precautions are taken to prevent friends of intending candidates from approaching him in any way. There is no age limit, and men of quite mature years are to be found competing against youths hardly out of their teens; indeed, there is an authenticated case of a man who successfully graduated at the age of seventy-two. Many compete year after year, until at length they decide to give it up as a bad job.

At an early hour on the appointed day the candidates begin to assemble, and by and by the great gates of the examination hall are thrown open, and heralds shriek out the names of those who are to enter. Each one answers in turn as his name is called, and receives from the attendants a roll of paper marked with the number of the open cell he is to occupy in one of the long alleys into which the examination hall is divided. Other writing materials, as well as food, he carries with him in a basket, which is always carefully searched at the door, and in which "sleeve" editions of the classics have sometimes been found. When all have taken their seats, the Grand Examiner burns incense, and closes the entrance gates, through which no one will be allowed to pass, either in or out, dead or alive, until the end of the third day, when the first of the three sessions is at an end, and the candidates are released for the night. In case of death, not unusual where ten or twelve thousand persons are cooped up day and night in a confined space, the corpse is hoisted over the wall; and this would be done even if it were that of the Grand Examiner himself, whose place would then be taken by the chief Assistant Examiner, who is also appointed by the Emperor, and accompanies the Grand Examiner from Peking.

The long strain of three bouts of three days each has often been found sufficient to unhinge the reason, with a variety of distressing consequences, the least perhaps of which may be seen in a regular percentage of blank papers handed in. On one occasion, a man handed in a copy of his last will and testament; on another, not very long ago, the mental balance of the Grand Examiner gave way, and a painful scene ensued. He tore up a number of the papers already handed in, and bit and kicked every one who came near him, until he was finally secured and bound hand and foot in his chair. A candidate once presented himself dressed in woman's clothes, with his face highly rouged and powdered, as is the custom. He was arrested at the entrance gate, and quietly sent home to his friends.

Overwork, in the feverish desire to get into the Government service, is certainly responsible for the mental break-down of a large proportion of the comparatively few lunatics found in China. There being no lunatic asylums in the empire, it is difficult to form anything like an exact estimate of their number; it can only be said, what is equally true of cripples or deformed persons, that it is very rare to meet them in the streets or even to hear of their existence.

As a further measure of precaution against corrupt practices at examinations, the papers handed in by the candidates are all copied out in red ink, and only these copies are submitted to the examiners. The difficulty therefore of obtaining favourable treatment, on the score of either bribery or friendship, is very much increased. The Chinese, who make no attempt to conceal or excuse, in fact rather exaggerate any corruption in their public service generally, do not hesitate to declare with striking unanimity that the conduct of their examination system is above suspicion, and there appears to be no valid reason why we should not accept this conclusion.

The whole system is now undergoing certain modifications, which, if wisely introduced, should serve only to strengthen the national character. The Confucian teachings, which are of the very highest order of morality, and which have moulded the Chinese people for so many centuries, helping perhaps to give them a cohesion and stability remarkable among the nations of the world, should not be lightly cast aside. A scientific training, enabling us to annihilate time and space, to extend indefinitely the uses and advantages of matter in all its forms, and to mitigate the burden of suffering which is laid upon the greater portion of the human race, still requires to be effectively supplemented by a moral training, to teach man his duty towards his neighbour. From the point of view of science, the Chinese are, of course, wholly out of date, though it is only within the past hundred and fifty years that the West has so decisively outstripped the East. If we go back to the fifteenth century, we shall find that the standard of civilization, as the term is usually understood, was still much higher in China than in Europe; while Marco Polo, the famous Venetian traveller of the thirteenth century, who actually lived twenty-four years in China, and served as an official under Kublai Khan, has left it on record that the magnificence of Chinese cities, and the splendour of the Chinese court, outrivalled anything he had ever seen or heard of.

Pushing farther back into antiquity, we easily reach a time when the inhabitants of the Middle Kingdom "held learning in high esteem, while our own painted forefathers were running naked and houseless in the woods, and living on berries and raw meat." In inventive, mechanical and engineering aptitudes the Chinese have always excelled; as witness —only to mention a few—the art of printing (see below); their water-wheels and other clever appliances for irrigation; their wonderful bridges (not to mention the Great Wall); the "taxicab," or carriage fitted with a machine for recording the distance traversed, the earliest notice of which takes us back to the fourth century A.D.; the system of fingerprints for personal identification, recorded in the seventh century A.D.; the carved ivory balls which contain even so many as nine or ten other balls, of diminishing size, one within another; a chariot carrying a figure which always pointed south, recorded as in existence at a very early date, though unfortunately the specifications which have came down to us from later dates will not work out, as in the case of the "taxicab." The story goes that this chariot was invented about 1100 B.C., by a wonderful hero of the day, in order to enable an ambassador, who had come to the court of China from a far distant country in the south, to find his way expeditiously home. The compass proper the Chinese cannot claim; it was probably introduced into China by the Arabs at a comparatively late date, and has been confused with the south-pointing chariot of earlier ages. As to gunpowder, something of that nature appears to have been used for fireworks in the seventh century; and something of the nature of a gun is first heard of during the Mongol campaigns of the thirteenth century; but firearms were not systematically employed until the fifteenth century. Add to the above the art of casting bronze, brought to a high pitch of excellence seven or eight centuries before the Christian era, if not earlier; the production of silk, mentioned by Mencius (372-289 B.C.) as necessary for the comfort of old age; the cultivation of the tea-plant from time immemorial; also the discovery and manufacture of porcelain some sixteen centuries ago, subsequently brought to a perfection which leaves all European attempts hopelessly out-classed.

In many instances the Chinese seem to have been so near and yet so far. There is a distinct tradition of flying cars at a very remote date; and rough woodcuts have been handed down for many centuries, showing a car containing two passengers, flying through the clouds and apparently propelled by wheels of a screw pattern, set at right angles to the direction in which the travellers are proceeding. But there is not a scrap of evidence to show what was the motive power which turned the wheels. Similarly, iron ships are mentioned in Chinese literature so far back as the tenth century, only, however, to be ridiculed as an impossibility; the circulation of the blood is hinted at; added to which is the marvellous anticipation of anaesthetics as applied to surgery, to be mentioned later on, an idea which also remained barren of results for something like sixteen centuries, until Western science stepped in and secured the prize. Here it may be fairly argued that, considering the national repugnance to mutilation of the body in any form, it could hardly be expected that the Chinese would seek to facilitate a process to which they so strongly object.

In the domain of painting, we are only just beginning to awake to the fact that in this direction the Chinese have reached heights denied to all save artists of supreme power, and that their art was already on a lofty level many centuries before our own great representatives had begun to put brush to canvas. Without going so far back as the famous picture in the British Museum, by an artist of the fourth and fifth centuries A.D., the point may perhaps be emphasized by quotation from the words of a leading art-critic, referring to painters of the tenth and eleventh centuries:—"To the Sung artists and poets, mountains were a passion, as to Wordsworth. The landscape art thus founded, and continued by the Japanese in the fifteenth century, must rank as the greatest school of landscape which the world has seen. It is the imaginative picturing of what is most elemental and most august in Nature—liberating visions of storm or peace among abrupt peaks, plunging torrents, trembling reed-beds—and though having a fantastic side for its weakness, can never have the reproach of pretty tameness and mere fidelity which form too often the only ideal of Western landscape."

Great Chinese artists unite in dismissing fidelity to outline as of little importance compared with reproduction of the spirit of the object painted. To paint a tree successfully, it is necessary to produce not merely shape and colour but the vitality and "soul" of the original. Until with the last two or three centuries, nature itself was always appealed to as the one source of true inspiration; then came the artist of the studio, since which time Chinese art has languished, while Japanese art, learned at the feet of Chinese artists from the fourteenth century onwards, has come into prominent notice, and is now, with extraordinary versatility, attempting to assimilate the ideals of the West.

The following words were written by a Chinese painter of the fifth century:—

"To gaze upon the clouds of autumn, a soaring exaltation in the soul; to feel the spring breeze stirring wild exultant thoughts;—what is there in the possession of gold and gems to compare with delights like these? And then, to unroll the portfolio and spread the silk, and to transfer to it the glories of flood and fell, the green forest, the blowing winds, the white water of the rushing cascade, as with a turn of the hand a divine influence descends upon the scene. . . . These are the joys of painting."

Just as in poetry, so in pictorial art, the artist avoids giving full expression to his theme, and leaving nothing for the spectator to supply by his own imaginative powers. "Suggestion" is the key-note to both the above arts; and in both, "Impressionism" has been also at the command of the gifted, centuries before the term had passed into the English language.

Literature and art are indeed very closely associated in China. Every literary man is supposed to be more or less a painter, or a musician of sorts; failing personal skill, it would go without saying that he was a critic, or at the lowest a lover, of one or the other art, or of both. All Chinese men, women and children seem to love flowers; and the poetry which has gathered around the blossoms of plum and almond alone would form a not inconsiderable library of itself. Yet a European bouquet would appear to a man of culture as little short of a monstrosity; for to enjoy flowers, a Chinaman must see only a single spray at a time. The poorly paid clerk will bring with him to his office in the morning some trifling bud, which he will stick into a tiny vase of water, and place beside him on his desk. The owner of what may be a whole gallery of pictures will invite you to tea, followed by an inspection of his treasures; but on the same afternoon he will only produce perhaps a single specimen, and scout the idea that any one could call for more. If a long landscape, it will be gradually unwound from its roller, and a portion at a time will be submitted for the enjoyment and criticism of his visitors; if a religious or historical picture, or a picture of birds or flowers, of which the whole effort must be viewed in its completeness, it will be studied in various senses, during the intervals between a chat and a cup of tea. Such concentration is absolutely essential, in the eyes of the Chinese critic, to a true interpretation of the artist's meaning, and to a just appreciation of his success.

The marvellous old stories of grapes painted by Zeuxis of ancient Greece, so naturally that birds came to peck at them; and of the curtain painted by Parrhasius which Zeuxis himself tried to pull aside; and of the horse by Apelles at which another horse neighed—all these find their counterparts in the literature of Chinese art. One painter, in quite early days, painted a perch and hung it over a river bank, when there was immediately a rush of otters to secure it. Another painted the creases on cotton clothes so exactly that the clothes looked as if they had just come from the wash. Another produced pictures of cats which would keep a place free from rats. All these efforts were capped by those of another artist, whose picture of the North Wind made people feel cold, while his picture of the South Wind made people feel hot. Such exaggerations are not altogether without their value; they suggest that Chinese art must have reached a high level, and this has recently been shown to be nothing more than the truth, by the splendid exhibition of Chinese pictures recently on view in the British Museum.

The literary activities of the Chinese, and their output of literature, have always been on a colossal scale; and of course it is entirely due to the early invention of printing that, although a very large number of works have disappeared, still an enormous bulk has survived the ravages of war, rebellion and fire.

This art was rather developed than invented. There is no date, within a margin even of half a century either way, at which we can say that printing was invented. The germ is perhaps to be found in the engraving of seals, which have been used by the Chinese as far back as we can go with anything like historical certainty, and also of stone tablets from which rubbings were taken, the most important of these being the forty-six tablets on which five of the sacred books of Confucianism were engraved about A.D. 170, and of which portions still remain. However this may be, it was during the sixth century A.D. that the idea of taking impressions on paper from wooden blocks seems to have arisen, chiefly in connexion with religious pictures and tracts. It was not widely applied to the production of books in general until A.D. 932, when the Confucian Canon was so printed for the first time; from which point onwards the extension of the art moved with rapid strides.

It is very noticeable that the Chinese, who are extraordinarily averse to novelties, and can hardly be induced to consider any innovations, when once convinced of their real utility, waste no further time in securing to themselves all the advantages which may accrue. This was forcibly illustrated in regard to the introduction of the telegraph, against which the Chinese had set their faces, partly because of the disturbance of geomantic influences caused by the tall telegraph poles, and partly because they sincerely doubted that the wires could achieve the results claimed. But when it was discovered that some wily Cantonese had learnt over the telegraph the names of the three highest graduates at the Peking triennial examination, weeks before the names could be known in Canton by the usual route, and had enriched himself by buying up the tickets bearing those names in the great lotteries which are always held in connexion with this event, Chinese opposition went down like a house of cards; and the only question with many of the literati was whether, at some remote date, the Chinese had not invented telegraphy themselves.

Moveable types of baked clay were invented about A.D. 1043, and some centuries later they were made of wood and of copper or lead; but they have never gained the favour accorded to block-printing, by which most of the great literary works have been produced. The newspapers of modern days are all printed from moveable types, and also many translations of foreign books, prepared to meet the increasing demand for Western learning. The Chinese have always been a great reading people, systematic education culminating in competitive examinations for students going back to the second century A.D. This is perhaps a suitable place for explaining that the famous Peking Gazette, often said to be the oldest newspaper in the world, is not really a newspaper at all, in that it contains no news in our sense of the term. It is a record only of court movements, list of promoted officials, with a few selected memorials and edicts. It is published daily, but was not printed until the fifteenth century.

Every Chinese boy may be said to have his chance. The slightest sign of a capacity for book-learning is watched for, even among the poorest. Besides the opportunity of free schools, a clever boy will soon find a patron; and in many cases, the funds for carrying on a curriculum, and for entering the first of the great competitions, will be subscribed in the district, on which the candidate will confer a lasting honour by his success. A promising young graduate, who has won his first degree with honours, is at once an object of importance to wealthy fathers who desire to secure him as a son-in-law, and who will see that money is not wanting to carry him triumphantly up the official ladder. Boys without any gifts of the kind required, remain to fill the humbler positions; those who advance to a certain point are drafted into trade; while hosts of others who just fall short of the highest, become tutors in private families, schoolmasters, doctors, fortune-tellers, geomancers, and booksellers' hacks.

Of high-class Chinese literature, it is not possible to give even the faintest idea in the space at disposal. It must suffice to say that all branches are adequately represented, histories, biographies, philosophy, poetry and essays on all manner of subjects, offering a wide field even to the most insatiate reader.

And here a remark may be interjected, which is very necessary for the information of those who wish to form a true estimate of the Chinese people. Throughout the Confucian Canon, a collection of ancient works on which the moral code of the Chinese is based, there is not a single word which could give offence, even to the most sensitive, on questions of delicacy and decency. That is surely saying a good deal, but it is not all; precisely the same may be affirmed of what is mentioned above as high-class Chinese literature, which is pure enough to satisfy the most strait-laced. Chinese poetry, of which there is in existence a huge mass, will be searched in vain for suggestions of impropriety, for sly innuendo, and for the other tricks of the unclean. This extraordinary purity of language is all the more remarkable from the fact that, until recent years, the education of women has not been at all general, though many particular instances are recorded of women who have themselves achieved success in literary pursuits. It is only when we come to the novel, to the short story, or to the anecdote, which are not usually written in high-class style, and are therefore not recognized as literature proper, that this exalted standard is no longer always maintained.

There are, indeed, a great number of novels, chiefly historical and religious, in which the aims of the writers are on a sufficiently high level to keep them clear of what is popularly known as pornography or pig-writing; still, when all is said and done, there remains a balance of writing curiously in contrast with the great bulk of Chinese literature proper. As to the novel, the long story with a worked-out plot, this is not really a local product. It seems to have come along with the Mongols from Central Asia, when they conquered China in the thirteenth century, and established their short-lived dynasty. Some novels, in spite of their low moral tone, are exceedingly well written and clever, graphic in description, and dramatic in episode; but it is curious that no writer of the first rank has ever attached his name to a novel, and that the authorship of all the cleverest is a matter of entire uncertainty.

The low-class novel is purposely pitched in a style that will be easily understood; but even so, there is a great deal of word- and phrase-skipping to be done by many illiterate readers, who are quite satisfied if they can extract the general sense as they go along. The book-language, as cultivated by the best writers, is to be freely understood only by those who have stocked their minds well with the extensive phraseology which has been gradually created by eminent men during the past twenty-five centuries, and with historical and biographical allusions and references of all sorts and things. A word or two, suggesting some apposite allusion, will often greatly enhance the beauty of a composition for the connoisseur, but will fall flat on the ears of those to whom the quotation is unknown. Simple objects in everyday life often receive quaint names, as handed down in literature, with which it is necessary to be familiar. For instance, a "fairy umbrella" means a mushroom; a "gentleman of the beam" is a burglar, because a burglar was once caught sitting on one of the open beams inside a Chinese roof; a "slender waist" is a wasp; the "throat olive" is the "Adam's apple"—which, by the way, is an excellent illustration from the opposite point of view; "eyebrow notes" means notes at the top of a page; "cap words" is sometimes used for "preface;" the "sweeper-away of care" is wine; "golden balls" are oranges; the "golden tray" is the moon; a "two-haired man" is a grey- beard; the "hundred holes" is a beehive; "instead of the moon" is a lantern; "instead of steps" is a horse; "the man with the wooden skirt" is a shopman; to "scatter sleep" means to give hush-money; and so on, almost ad infinitum.

Chinese medical literature is on a very voluminous scale, medicine having always occupied a high place in the estimation of the people, in spite of the fact that its practice has always been left to any one who might choose to take it up. Surgery, even of an elementary kind, has never had a chance; for the Chinese are extremely loath to suffer any interference with their bodies, believing, in accordance with Confucian dogma, that as they received them from their parents, so they should carry them into the presence of their ancestors in the next world. Medicine, as still practised in China, may be compared with the European art of a couple of centuries ago, and its exceedingly doubtful results are fully appreciated by patients at large. "No medicine," says one proverb, "is better than a middling doctor;" while another points out that "Many sons of clever doctors die of disease."

Legend, however, tells us of an extraordinary physician of the fifth century B.C. who was able to see into the viscera of his patients—an apparent anticipation of the X-rays—and who, by his intimate knowledge of the human pulse, effected many astounding cures. We also read of an eminent physician of the second and third centuries A.D. who did add surgery to this other qualifications. He was skilled in the use of acupuncture and cautery; but if these failed he would render his patient unconscious by a dose of hashish, and then operate surgically. He is said to have diagnosed a case of diseased bowels by the pulse alone, and then to have cured it by operation. He offered to cure the headaches of a famous military commander of the day by opening his skull under hashish; but the offer was rudely declined. This story serves to show, in spite of its marvellous setting, that the idea of administering an anaesthetic to carry out a surgical operation must be credited, so far as priority goes, to the Chinese, since the book in which the above account is given cannot have been composed later than the twelfth century A.D.

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