Ancient History & Civilisation

II. THE PEOPLE AND THEIR LANGUAGE*

Population—Appearance—Dress—Peculiarities of Chinese speech—Of Chinese writing

The first element in the picture is number: there are many Chinese. Learned guessers calculate that the population of the Chinese states in 280 B.C. was around 14,000,000; in 200 A.D., 28,000,000; in 726, 41,500,000; in 1644, 89,000,000; in 1743, 150,000,000; in 1919, 330,000,000.20 In the fourteenth century a European traveler counted in China “two hundred cities all greater than Venice.”21 The Chinese census is obtained through a registration law requiring every household to inscribe the names of its occupants upon a tablet at the entrance;22 we do not know how accurate these tablets are, or the reports which purport to be based upon them. It is probable that China now harbors some 400,000,000 souls.

The Chinese vary in stature, being shorter and weaker in the south, taller and stronger in the north; in general they are the most vigorous people in Asia. They show great physical stamina, magnificent courage in the bearing of hardships and pain, exceptional resistance to disease, and a climatic adaptability which has enabled them to prosper in almost every zone. Neither opium nor inbreeding nor syphilis has been able to impair their health, and the collapse of their social system has not been due to any visible deterioration in their biological or mental vitality.

The Chinese face is one of the most intelligent on earth, though not universally attractive. Some of the pauper class are incomparably ugly to our Western prejudice, and some criminals have an evil leer admirably suited to cinematic caricature; but the great majority have regular features calm with the physiological accident of low eyelids, and the social accumulation of centuries of civilization. The slant of the eyes is not so pronounced as one had been led to expect, and the yellow skin is often a pleasant suntanned brown. The women of the peasantry are almost as strong as the men; the ladies of the upper strata are delicate and pretty, starch themselves with powder, rouge their lips and cheeks, blacken their eyebrows, and train or thin them to resemble a willow leaf or the crescent moon.23 The hair in both sexes is coarse and vigorous, and never curls. The women wear theirs in a tuft, usually adorned with flowers. Under the last dynasty the men, to please their rulers, adopted the Manchu custom of shaving the fore half of the head; in compensation they left the remainder uncut and gathered it into a long queue, which became in time an instrument of correction and a support of pride.24 Beards were small, and were always shaved, though seldom by the owners thereof; barbers carried their shops about with them, and throve.

The head was ordinarily left bare; when men covered it they used in winter a cap of velvet or fur with a turned-up rim, and in summer a conical cap of finely woven filaments of bamboo, surmounted, in persons of any rank, by a colored ball and a silken fringe. Women, when they could afford it, clothed their heads with silk or cotton bands adorned with tinsel, trinkets or artificial flowers. Shoes were usually of warm cloth; since the floor was often of cold tile or earth, the Chinese carried a miniature carpet with him under each foot. By a custom begun at the court of the Emperor Li Hou-chu (ca. 970 A.D.), the feet of girls, at the age of seven, were compressed with tight bandages to prevent their further growth, so that the mature lady might walk with a mincing step erotically pleasing to the men. It was regarded as immodest to speak of a woman’s foot, and as scandalous to look at one; in the presence of a lady even the word for shoe was tabu.25 The practice spread to all ranks and groups except the Manchus and Tatars, and became so rigid that a deception about the size of the bride’s foot sufficed to annul an engagement or a marriage.26 K’ang-hsi tried to stop the custom, but failed; today it is one of the happier casualties of the Revolution.

Men covered their nakedness with trousers and tunics, almost always blue. In winter the trousers were overlaid with leggings, and additional tunics, sometimes to the number of thirteen, were put on. These were kept on night and day throughout the winter, and were removed one by one with the progress of spring.27 The tunic fell variously to the loins, or the knees, or the feet; it was buttoned closely up to the neck, and had immense sleeves instead of pockets; China does not say that a man “pocketed” an object, but that he “sleeved” it. Shirts and underwear were well-nigh unknown.28 In the country women wore trousers like the men, since they were accustomed to doing a man’s work and more; in the towns they covered the trousers with skirts. In the cities silk was almost as common as cotton.29 No belt compressed the waist, and no corsets held in the breasts. In general the Chinese dress was more sensible, healthy and convenient than the garb of the modern West. No tyranny of fashion harassed or exalted the life of the Chinese woman; all urban classes dressed alike, and nearly all generations; the quality of the garment might differ, but not the form; and all ranks might be sure that the fashion would last as long as the gown.

The language of the Chinese differed from the rest of the world even more distinctly than their dress. It had no alphabet, no spelling, no grammar, and no parts of speech; it is amazing how well and how long this oldest and most populous nation on earth has managed without these curses of Occidental youth. Perhaps in forgotten days there were inflections, declensions, conjugations, cases, numbers, tenses, moods; but the language as far back as we can trace it shows none of them. Every word in it may be a noun, a verb, an adjective or an adverb, according to its context and its tone. Since the spoken dialects have only from four to eight hundred monosyllabic word-sounds or vocables, and these must be used to express the 40,000 characters of the written language, each vocable has from four to nine “tones,” so that its meaning is made to differ according to the manner in which it is sung. Gestures and context eke out these tones, and make each sound serve many purposes; so the vocable I may mean any one of sixty-nine things,shi may mean fifty-nine, ku twenty-nine.30 No other language has been at once so complex, so subtle and so brief.

The written language was even more unique than the spoken. The objects exhumed in Honan, and tentatively dated back to the Shang Dynasty, bear writing in characters substantially like those in use until our own generation, so that—barring a few Copts who still speak ancient Egyptian—Chinese is both the oldest and the most widespread language spoken on the earth today. Originally, as we infer from a passage in Lao-tze, the Chinese used knotted cords to communicate messages. Probably the needs of priests in tracing magic formulas, and of potters in marking their vessels, led to the development of a pictorial script.32 These primitive pictograms were the original form of the six hundred signs that are now the fundamental characters in Chinese writing. Some two hundred and fourteen of them have been named “radicals” because they enter as elements into nearly all the characters of the current language. The present characters are highly complex symbols, in which the primitive pictorial element has been overlaid with additions designed to define the term specifically, usually through some indication of its sound. Not only every word, but every idea, has its own separate sign; one sign represents a horse, another sign “a bay horse with a white belly,” another “a horse with a white spot on his forehead.” Some of the characters are still relatively simple: a curve over a straight line (i.e., the sun over the horizon) means “morning”; the sun and the moon together represent “light”; a mouth and a bird together mean “singing”; a woman beneath a roof means “peace”; a woman, a mouth and the sign for “crooked” constitute the character for “dangerous”; a man and a woman together mean “talkative”; “quarreling” is a woman with two mouths; “wife” is represented by signs for a woman, a broom and a storm.33

From some points of view this is a primitive language that has by supreme conservatism survived into “modern” times. Its difficulties are more obvious than its virtues. We are told that the Chinese takes from ten to fifty years to become acquainted with all the 40,000 characters in his language; but when we realize that these characters are not letters but ideas, and reflect on the length of time it would take us to master 40,000 ideas, or even a vocabularly of 40,000 words, we perceive that the terms of the comparison are unfair to the Chinese; what we should say is that it takes any one fifty years to master 40,000 ideas. In actual practice the average Chinese gets along quite well with three or four thousand signs, and learns these readily enough by finding their “radicals.” The clearest advantage of such a language—expressing not sounds but ideas—is that it can be read by Koreans and Japanese as easily as by the Chinese, and provides the Far East with an international written language. Again it unites in one system of writing all the inhabitants of China, whose dialects differ to the point of mutual unintelligibility; the same character is read as different sounds or words in different localities. This advantage applies in time as well as in space; since the written language has remained essentially the same while the spoken language has diverged from it into a hundred dialects, the literature of China, written for two thousand years in these characters, can be read today by any literate Chinese, though we cannot tell how the ancient writers pronounced the words, or spoke the ideas, which the signs represent. This persistence of the same script amidst a flux and diversity of speech made for the preservation of Chinese thought and culture, and at the same time served as a powerful force for conservatism; old ideas held the stage and formed the mind of youth. The character of Chinese civilization is symbolized in this phenomenon of its unique script: its unity amid diversity and growth, its profound conservatism, and its unrivaled continuity. This system of writing was in every sense a high intellectual achievement; it classified the whole world—of objects, activities and qualities—under a few hundred root or “radical” signs, combined with these signs some fifteen hundred distinguishing marks, and made them represent, in their completed forms, all the ideas used in literature and life. We must not be too sure that our own diverse modes of writing down our thoughts are superior to this apparently primitive form. Leibnitz in the seventeenth century, and Sir Donald Ross in our time, dreamed of a system of written signs independent of spoken languages, free from their nationalist diversity and their variations in space and time, and capable, therefore, of expressing the ideas of different peoples in identical and mutually intelligible ways. But precisely such a sign language, uniting a hundred generations and a quarter of the earth’s inhabitants, already exists in the Far East. The conclusion of the Oriental is logical and terrible: the rest of the world must learn to write Chinese.

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