Chinese Characteristics?

Chinese Characteristics?

“A witness when put upon the stand is expected to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. Many witnesses concerning the Chinese have told the truth, but perhaps few of them have succeeded in telling nothing but the truth, and no one of them has ever told the whole truth. No single individual, whatever the extent of his knowledge, could by any possibility know the whole truth about the Chinese. (Smith, 1894)”

While researching for my essay I came across a very interesting read:

The book “Chinese Characteristics” by Arthur Henderson Smith.

Chinese characteristics_arthur smith

What is so interesting about that book? Well, first of all it was written in 1894, a time China was forcefully opened to the West. Nowadays there are hundreds and hundreds of books explaining the Western reader how Chinese are; why they do what they do; how you can better get along with; just all stereotypes you can think of…


True, the book by Smith is full of stereotypes, racism and orientalism. But I find it nevertheless extremely fascinating. Can you imagine back than the stereotypes were the same as they are now 2013, over a century later. That makes you ask: Who didn’t change? We? The way we perceive China? Or the Chinese?


Many of Smith’s observations you can still find in modern books about China and Chinese culture.

1894 Smith already analyzed all kinds of aspects of Chinese life. He wrote chapters on face, economy, industry, politeness, a disregard for time, a disregard for accuracy, a talent for misunderstanding, a talent for indirection, flexible inflexibility, intellectual turbidity, an absence of nerves, contempt for foreigners, an absence of public spirit, conservatism, indifference to comfort and convenience, physical vitality, patience and perseverance, contentment and cheerfulness, filial piety, benevolence, an absence of sympathy, social typhoons, mutual responsibility and respect for law, mutual suspicion, an absence of sincerity, and so forth. Within each chapter Smith gives anecdotes from his own experiences in the over 50 years in lived in China, but obviously he tends to generalize the whole Chinese people.


Can you imagine what impact such a book had at that time? Obviously it is bias, as it is written from a Western perspective with Western values, but nevertheless it had tremendous influence on their readers, not just the Western ones. It got translated into Chinese twice (1896 and 1903), and it influenced the way the Chinese people thought about themselves during that time. Not sure if you know, after the book was published China’s last dynasty, the Qing Empire, collapsed and after many years of revolution finally the Republican Era began 1911. So, before and after that time a bunch of intellectuals tried to establish why the Chinese people were suffering. Maybe you heard, but they really thought the backwardness of China was caused by its traditional values, like Confucianism. So, and now there is this really influencing book about Chinese people and their characteristics. Can you imagine what kind of impact that might have had?

I think it is crazy. It seems impossible to distinguish what actually is our own perception of ourselves and what is a label put on by others. If you are interested in China, you should have a read of Smith’s book. It’s an eye-opener. A piece of work that still has its value. Showing us how we are all stuck in this vicious circle of our perception and the perception other people force on us.


To end with an anecdote from Smith chapter about Face:

“To save one’s face and lose one’s life would not seem to us very attractive, but we have heard of a Chinese District Magistrate who, as a special favour, was allowed to be beheaded in his robes of office in order to save his face!”

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Anna Z. is a freelance illustrator and portrait artist in her late 20s, with a passion for Martial Arts and Chinese culture, and is the creator of Lost Panda, a blog to China and Art. Together with her husband, a Chinese national, she writes about daily life in rural China, focusing on cultural and social differences and the joys (and sometimes difficulties) as an intercultural couple. Apart from China related topics, she publishes her artwork, photography, art material reviews and tutorials to help more people discover their creative side. She is fluent in German, English and Mandarin Chinese.

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