CHINA HERITAGE QUARTERLY China Heritage Project, The Australian National University ISSN 1833-8461
Nos. 30/31, June/September 2012


The Chinese People | China Heritage Quarterly

The Chinese People

Lin Yutang 林語堂

The following 'Little Critic' essay originally appeared in The China Critic, IV:15 (9 April 1931): 343-347. It was collected in T'ang Leang-li's China's Own Critics, pp.132-145. Some minor stylistic changes have been made to the text in accord with in-house style and section headings added.—The Editor

Dragons and Dragging On

Napoleon once referred to the Chinese people as a sleeping dragon. I do not know exactly what Napoleon meant by the comparison. He would be quite right, if he were an Englishman and had meant by it our national ability 'to drag on'. Dragging on, or 'dragoning', to coin a new word, certainly seems to be our characteristic, for no other nation has been able to drag on or loaf for four thousand years. Beyond that, that analogy is far from exact. The only thing common to both is that there is something mysterious about both the dragon and the Chinese people, and that both are little known and still less understood. No zoologist has yet been able to show us a dragon, and I wonder if anybody has ever succeeded in interpreting the Chinese people to the world.

If I were a world tourist passing through Shanghai, I would not hesitate to tell you that the Chinese are a great people. To be great is to be misunderstood. When we call a man great, we mean by it our inability to understand him. Here is a Chinaman, a washerman, perhaps, or a rickshaw coolie, whose face is not particularly inspiring, and whom many white people would not think twice before kicking, and yet he represents a people that has somehow dragged on for four thousand years without seeming much the worse for it, a feat which neither the glorious Romans nor the illustrious Greeks were able to accomplish. He represents a people and a nation, which, in spite of its many manifest faults, has a long history, an ancient culture, a workable philosophy of life, a tradition of art and literature, and has accomplished a few things truly unique in the history of mankind. It has somehow solved the problem of social decay, which is a puzzle to all sociologists: Biologically, it has absorbed all barbarian conquerors, as well as the Jews in Honan, which the Europeans have never succeeded in doing. It has maintained a continuity of history for a longer period and a homogeneity of culture through a wider geographical area, than any other nation is able to show to its credit. By the pragmatic test, we must admit that it is a nation which has proved itself fit to survive, and its old culture, in spite of many shortcomings, is a culture which has survival value.

In a way, the four thousand years of civilized life have left certain traces on the physical features and, perhaps you may say, some signs of decay. A look at some of the old, blasé aristocrats in Paris will easily convince one what cultured life and indoor living can do to a human being. The hope of England today, in my opinion, lies neither in her religion, nor in her Parliament, but in her love of outdoor sports. Some days ago, there was a newspaper report about an American football coach lamenting the disappearance of the fine legs of American college boys of a generation ago, owing to the influence of motor-cars and sedate living. If such a change is visible to trained eyes in a generation, one may be sure that four thousand years of continuous kowtowing and saying 'yes, sir' should have some effect on the race also. That strain of civilized living is largely the strain of kowtowing and saying, 'yes, sir'. One cannot kowtow and say 'yes, sir' for four thousand years without developing a rounded chin, which I regard as one of the most ominous signs of racial decay. Of course, the rounded chin has certain advantages which I shall presently come to. Let us note for the moment that in Kiangsu, which is supposed to be the most cultured province in China, the features are distinctly more rounded than in other localities. The most visible effects are perhaps to be seen in the skin and hair, which apparently have by force of habit also become cultured. There is no question that Chinese women's skin is generally finer than that of western women.

In a way, one must also admit that the Chinese race would probably find itself in a much worse plight, had there not been continuous infusion of barbarian blood. One thinks at once, of course, of the difference between the tall, stalwart northerners and the small, southern Chinese. Chinese history has shown regular cycles of periods of peace and prosperity for about five hundred years, during which the race weakened, followed by periods of northern invasion lasting two or three centuries. After the periods of peace under Han and Tsin Dynasties, and after the Chinese people had become given to idle talk and idle living toward the end of Tsin there came the barbarian invasion of the whole of northern China for a hundred fifty years. Again, after about five hundred years of peace and quiet living under Tang and Sung Dynasties, there came the invasion of the Mongols. These cycles seem to come very regularly. What we need today is probably the infusion of new Mongolian blood. Anyway, historically, the northern Chinese, who seem to have profited most by these race mixtures, have supplied us with all the imperial brigands who later became founders of Chinese dynasties. No southerner has done so. In fact, all these imperial brigands seem to come from a rather restricted area, somewhere around the Lunghai Railway. With the exception of the founder of Tang Dynasty who came from Kansu, all the founders of big dynasties came from this region. It would not be difficult to determine the mileage of the radius with a point on the Lunghai Railway as the centre. The founder of Han Dynasty came from Peihsien, that of Tsin Dynasty came from Honan, that of Sung Dynasty came from Cho-hsien, and Chu Hung-wu of Ming Dynasty came from Fengyang. So my advice to Chinese friends who have daughters to marry off is to pick their sons-in-law on the Lunghai Railway. More recently our generals come for the most part from Hopei, Shantung, Anhui and Honan also with the Lunghai Railway as the central point. Shantung is responsible for Wu Pei-Fu, Chang Tsung-chang, Sun Chuang-fang and Lu Yung-hsiang. Hopei gives us Chi Hsueh-yuan, Li Ching-lin, Chang Chih-chiang, and Lu Chung-lin. Honan produces Yuan Shih-kai, and Anhui produces Feng Yu-hsiang and Tuan Chi-jui. Chiang Kai-shek from Chekiang is a comet, but he is a lonely comet. Kiangsu has produced no distinguished generals, but has produced some very fine hotel boys.

Still, taking the Chinese people as a whole, there is a certain homogeneity of culture which justifies our calling it a nation. The Chinese people, as they are today, manifest certain common racial characteristics. And here we come to the mental and spiritual side of the Chinese character. These characteristics are, I believe, the results of their historical environment, partly economic and partly cultural. I am at present interested more in the cultural effects. If I were to name the chief qualities of the Chinese people today, both good and bad, I should give the following: (1) sobriety, (2) simplicity, (3) love of nature, (4) patience, (5) indifference, (6) old roguishness, (7) fecundity, (8) industry, (9) love of family-life, (10) cheerfulness, and (11) sensuality. All these qualities are passive qualities, and are generally characteristic of an old people with an old culture. Probably they can all be included under the term mellowness, suggestive of calm and passive strength, rather than youthful vigour and romance. I am afraid none of these characteristics particularly reminds us of the dragon, and hence Napoleon was wrong. I do not know if the dragon is a particularly sobre, patient, indifferent and industrious animal, but I know that the dragon is not famed for fecundity. That quality suggests rather the guinea-pig. And I am quite sure that if that dragon has heroic horns four thousand years ago, those horns have become today so dwindled that they suggest rather a likeness to elongated pimples.


Let us take the three most striking characteristics: patience, indifference and old roguishness, and examine how they arose. I believe that these are the effects of culture and social environment, and hence are not necessarily a part of the Chinese mental makeup. They are here today because for thousands of years we have been living under certain cultural and social influences. The natural inference is that when these influences are removed, the qualities will also correspondingly diminish or disappear. In general, it is an educational process which, as a Chinese, I have undergone myself, and which everybody growing in Chinese society can observe for himself. In a way, I have become patient, indifferent, and have become an old rogue. The process has been a difficult one in my case, more consciously fought against, and therefore more clearly observable by self-analysis. I believe my experience is the experience of every man who has grown up in Chinese society.

I believe that the quality of patience is developed largely through the family system, indifference is largely due to lack of legal protection, and old roguishness is due, for lack of a better word, to a Taoistic view of life. Of course, all the effects and causes are really related, and it is only for the sake of clearness of statement that one assigns any one single cause for any resulting quality.

That patience is a noble virtue of the Chinese people, no one who knows us will gainsay. There is so much of this virtue that it has become with us almost a vice. We have put up with more tyranny, anarchy and misrule than any Western people will ever put up with, and seem to have been able to regard them as part of the laws of nature. In certain parts of Szechuan, the people have submitted to taxes collected in advance to the year 1935 without showing more energetic protest than a half-audible curse in the privacy of one's own household. Christian patience would seem like petulance compared with Chinese patience, which is as unique as Chinese blue porcelain is unique. The world tourists would do well to bring home with them some of this Chinese patience along with Chinese blue porcelain, for true individuality cannot be copied. We submit to tyranny and misrule with as much ease as the small fish swim into the mouth of the big fish.

Perhaps had our capacity for sufferance been smaller, our sufferings would also be less. But as it is, this capacity for putting up with insults has been ennobled by the name of Patience, and deliberately inculcated as a cardinal virtue by Confucian ethics.

I am not saying that this patience is not a great quality of the people. Jesus has said, that blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth, and I am not sure but that Chinese meekness has enabled us to inherit half a continent and keep it. The Chinese also inculcate this consciously as a high moral quality. As our saying goes, 'a man who cannot tolerate small ills can never accomplish great things (小不忍則亂大謀 )'.

The training school for developing this virtue is, however, the big family, where a large number of daughters-in-law, brothers-in-law, fathers and sons daily learn this virtue by trying to endure one another. In the big family, where there is very little elbowroom for the individuals, one learns, by necessity and parental instruction, from early childhood the necessity of mutual toleration and adjustments in human relationships. The deep, slow, everyday wearing effect on character cannot be over-estimated. There was once a Prime Minister, Chang Kung-ni, who was much envied for his earthly blessedness of having nine generations living together in one household. Once the Emperor, Tang Kao-chung, asked him the secret of his success, and the minister asked for pen and paper, on which he wrote over a hundred characters of the word 'patience' or 'endurance'. Instead of taking that as a sad commentary on the family system, the Chinese people have ever after envied his example, and the phrase 'hundred patience' (po jen) has passed into current phraseology.


But if the Chinese people are unique in their patience, they are still more justly famous for their indifference. This, again, I believe is a product of social environment. Why have the Chinese people developed this indifference, and why have Chinese mothers often taught it as virtue to their children not to 'bother with public affairs?' I think it is because, in the absence of legal protection for personal rights, indifference is always safe and has an attractive side to it.

I think this indifference is not a natural characteristic of the people, but is a conscious product of our culture, deliberately inculcated by our old-world wisdom under the existing circumstances. This is so much so that I believe every educated Chinese has to

learn it anew. It is an individual process, in my case at least. Chinese youths are as public-spirited as foreign youths, and Chinese young hot-heads show as much desire to 'meddle with public affairs' as in any other country. But somewhere between their twenty-fifth and their thirtieth years, they all become wise, 'hsueh kuai liao' (學乖了) as we say, and acquire this indifference which contributes a lot to their mellowness and culture. Some learn it by their native intelligence, and others by getting their fingers burned once or twice. All old people play safe because all old rogues have learnt the benefits of indifference in a society where personal rights are not guaranteed and where getting one's fingers burnt once is bad enough.

Now I believe this indifference is directly traceable to the absence of protection for personal rights, which makes it highly unsafe for a man to take too much interest in public affairs, or 'idle affairs' (閒事), as we call them. When Shao Piao-ping and Lin Po-shui, two of our most daring journalists, got shot by Wang Chi and Chang Tsung-tsang, the other journalists naturally learnt the virtue of indifference in no time, and 'became

Wise'. In the Chinese sense, they became cultured. Some time ago, somebody asked me when the Chinese people would be ready for democracy. My reply was that any time our officials were ready for democracy, so would our people also be. Any time a Chinese official who violates our personal rights and sentences a man to death without trial is ready enough for democracy to appear in court as a defendant, you may be quite sure that the relatives of the victim can be made overnight ready enough for democracy to sue that official in court also. When these rights are not protected, however, our Old-World wisdom tells us that that indifference is our best constitutional guarantee for personal liberty.

In other words, indifference is not a high moral virtue, but a social attitude made necessary by the absence of legal protection. It is a form of self-protection, developed in the same manner as the tortoise develops his tortoise shell. This is borne out by the fact that Chinese robbers and bandits, who do not depend upon legal protection, do not develop this indifference, but are the most public-spirited and chivalrous class of people we know. Chinese chivalry, under the name of 'hao-hsia' (豪俠) is invariably associated with the robbers, as is so well typified in our novel Shui-hu (水滸).The strong, then, are public-spirited because they can afford to be so, and the meek who constitute the majority of the people are indifferent because they need to preserve themselves.


Historically, this could be strikingly proved in the history of Wei and Tsin Dynasties, when scholars became admired for their indifference to national affairs, resulting soon in the sapping of national strength and the conquest of northern China by barbarians. It was the fashion for the scholars of Wei-Tsin Dynasties to be indifferent to public affairs, to indulge in drinking and idle talk (tsing-t'an 清談), and dream about Taoist fairies and discover the pill of immortality. This period seemed to be the lowest period of the Chinese race since the Chou and Han times, representing the end of the progressive degeneration of the race until, for the first time in our history, China was submerged under barbarian rule. Was this indifference natural, and if not, how was it brought about? History reveals this to us in no uncertain terms. The cause was clearly the absence of legal protection and the danger of taking interest in politics.

Toward the end of East Han Dynasty, the Chinese scholars were not indifferent. In fact, political criticism was at its height in this period. Leading scholars and the students of the university, numbering 30,000, were often embroiled over questions of current politics, and dared the wrath of eunuchs and the emperor in their intrepid attacks on the acts of the Government. Yet, because of the absence of constitutional protection, this movement ended in complete failure at the hands of the eunuchs. Two or three hundred

scholars and sometimes their whole families, were sentenced to death, exile and imprisonment. This occurred in the years A.D. 166-169, and was known as the tang-ku (黨錮), or party cases. This was carried out so thoroughly and on such a grand scale that the whole movement was cut-short, and its remaining effects were felt for over a century afterwards. Then came the reaction, and the fashion for indifference, and

developing crazes for wine, women, poetry, and Taoistic day-dreaming. Some of the scholars went into the mountains and built themselves mud-huts without a door, receiving their food through a window till their death. Others disguised themselves as woodcutters and begged their relatives to save themselves from recognition by not calling on them. Immediately after that, came the seven poets or the pleiade of the Bamboo Grove. Liu Ling (劉伶), a great poet, could go on a drunken fit for months. He used to travel on a cart with a jug of wine, a shovel, and a gravedigger, giving the latter

the order, 'Bury me when I am dead—any where, any time.' People admired him and called him 'clever.' All the scholars either affected extreme rusticity, or else, extreme drunkenness and extreme superficiality. Another great poet, Yuan Hsien (阮咸), had illicit relations with his maid. When he was drinking at a feast, and had learnt that the maid had been dismissed by his wife, he immediately borrowed a horse from one of his guests, and dashed off to overtake the maid, until he lugged her home on horseback, in the presence of all the guests. These were the people who became admired for their cleverness. People admired them as the small tortoise admires the thick shell of the big tortoise.

Time does not allow our going into details on the origin of Chinese old roguishness. This, again, is the product of culture and of old age. Some one has said that every man past forty is a crook. Any way, it is an undeniable fact that the older the people grow, the more shameless they become. Girls of twenty seldom marry for money: women of over forty seldom marry for anything else. It is by no mere whim that, in Greek mythology, young Icarus was made to fly too high until the wax of his wings melted and he fell into the sea, while Daedalus, the old father, flew safe to the home land, but flew very much lower. When a man grows old, he develops a genius for flying low, and idealism is tempered with cool, level-headed common-sense, as well as with a sense for pounds and shillings. Realism is, then, characteristic of old age, as idealism is characteristic of youth. When a man is past forty, and does not become a crook, he is either feeble-minded or a literary genius. To this latter class belong the 'big children', like Tolstoi, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Sir James Barrie, who have so much native childishness, which, combined with experience of fact, gives them the capacity for eternal youth, which we call immortality.

Now, as it is with individuals, so it is with nations. American grown-up ladies like to shimmy and to shake their knees in public because the American nation is young; Chinese youths are sedate and cautious because ours is an old nation. In one sense, you may say all Chinese are more or less old rogues, and the old Chinese are worse rogues than the young ones. By old roguishness, I mean that quality of the people which render some incapable of high idealism, mocks at the hollowness of life, and reduces all human activities to the simple level of this alimentary canal and other simple biologic needs. Confucius was a great old rogue when he reduced the chief desires of mankind to two, food and women, or alimentation and reproduction. The late President Li Yuan-hung was also an old rogue, when he pronounced the heartily accepted formula for solution of Chinese political problems, viz., 'When there is rice, let everybody eat' (有飯大家吃). President Li Yuan-hung was a grim realist without knowing it, and he spoke wiser than he knew, when he was thus giving an economic interpretation of Chinese current history. The economic interpretation of history is not new to the Chinese people, nor is the biologic interpretation of human life of the Emile Zola school. With Emile Zola, it is an intellectual fad, but with us it is a matter of national consciousness. One does not have to learn to become a realist: one is born a realist in China. President Li Yuan-hung was not noted for any capacity for cerebration, but, as a Chinese, he instinctively felt that all political problems are not, and should not be, anything but problems of rice-bowls. As a Chinese, he gave thus the profoundest explanation of Chinese politics that I ever know of.

Passive Strength

Now this is a very shrewd view of life that only old people and old nations can attain to. Those of you who are below twenty-five will agree with me, while those who are over twenty-five will accept the essential truth and sanity of it . All this, however, is pure Taoism, in theory and in practice. I think you will agree with me that there is no profounder collection of concentrated roguish philosophy of life in five thousand words than the Tao-teh-king of Lao-tze. And I should like to remind you also that Lao-tze, as his name implies, was an old man. The Chinese people are, by nature, greater Taoists than they are, by culture, Confucianists. Taoism, in theory and practice, means a certain roguish nonchalance, a confounded and devastating skepticism, a mocking laughter at the futility of all human interference and the failure of all human institutions, laws, government and religion, and a certain disbelief in idealism, not so much because< of lack of energy as because of lack of faith.

As a people, we are great enough to draw up an imperial law-code, but we are also great enough to distrust lawyers and law courts. Ninety-five per cent of legal troubles are settled out of court. We are great enough to have elaborate rules of ceremony, but we are also great enough to treat them as part of the great joke of life. We are great enough to denounce vice, but we are also great enough not to be disturbed by it. We do not teach young people in the colleges a course in political science, describing how a government is supposed to be run, but we teach them by daily fact and example how our municipal, provincial and central governments are actually run. We have no use for impracticable idealism, as we have no patience for doctrinaire theology. We do not teach our young to become like the sons of God, but we teach them to be sane human beings. That is why I believe that Chinese are essentially humanists and Christianity must fail in China, or it must be altered beyond recognition before it can be accepted. The only part of Christian teachings that would stick in China is, I believe, Christ's injunction to be gentle like the doves, but also to be shrewd like the snakes. For these are the attributes of the old rogue.

In one word, we recognize the necessity of human effort, but we also admit the futility of it. This general attitude of mind has a tendency to develop passive defense tactics. 'Great things can be changed into small things and small things can be changed into nothing (大事化小事, 小事化無事).' On this general principle, all Chinese quarrels are settled, all Chinese schemes are adjusted and all reform programmes are discounted until there is peace and rice for everybody. 'One moving is not so good as one sitting still (一動不如一靜)', so runs another of our proverbs, which means the same thing as 'Let well enough alone', and 'Let the sleeping dogs lie'. Human life moves on, therefore, on the line of least struggle and least resistance. This develops a certain calmness of mind, which enables a man to swallow insults and find himself in harmony with the universe. It develops also certain passive defense tactics, which can be more terrible than any tactics of aggression. When you go to a restaurant and feel hungry, but the food will not come, you can repeat your orders to the boy. If the boy is rude, you can do something and complain to the management. But if the boy replies to you in the most elegant manner, 'Coming, coming' and does not bring the food, you can do absolutely nothing except pray, or curse, in an elegant manner also. Such, in brief, is the passive strength of the Chinese people, a strength which those who are made to feel most will appreciate best. It is the strength of the old rogue.