China and UK

Victorian and Edwardian views of China

China and UK

Walter Fung has been editor of SACU's China Eye magazine for over ten years. Here he reveals some of the historical attitudes to China based on a little known Victorian book “Some Victorian Views of China; Social Life of the Chinese (Volumes 1 and 2)” by Rev. Justin Doolittle. Published by Sampson Low, Son, and Marston (London), 1866

These two volumes were borrowed from the Portico Library in Manchester. This private library has a remarkable collection of volumes on China written at about the same time as the Doolittle book and even has the diaries of Sir George Staunton describing the 1793 mission of Lord Macartney to China.

This is a very comprehensive book in two volumes about Chinese social life and society in the mid-nineteenth century as observed by the Rev Doolittle, a member of the Fuhchau (Fuzhou) Mission of the American Board for 14 years. His observations, insights and conclusions are those of a Christian Protestant missionary. Volume 1 has 459 pages, Volume 2 has 490 pages and both volumes contain over 150 illustrations each. The author describes in amazing detail, customs, beliefs and rituals, which influenced everyday life in China at that time.

Nearly two-thirds of the content of both volumes appeared during 1861-4 in anonymous letters entitled ‘Jottings about the Chinese’, in the Hong Kong newspaper, ‘China Mail’. The author’s observations were in Fuhkien province, (Fujian) but he believed it typical of all China. The preface in Volume 1 contains the words ; ‘China is the most ancient and populous, but least understood and appreciated of nations’. Such words ring true today and we can all learn from Doolittle’s writings.

Doolittle maintains that Chinese life is governed entirely by superstition, rituals and customs. There are elaborate procedures for every facet of life, not just births, marriages and deaths and festivals, but for how to behave in everyday affairs. These include relations between relatives, friends and strangers and the use of go-betweens in the conduct of business. The use of charms and talismans was widespread as was fortune telling and geomancy.

Notable occasions had to be carried out at an auspicious time or date determined by the consultation of almanacs and the fortune-teller. There is a hierarchy in the family and extended family and in society, but there is no caste system. Even dead relatives play an important part in the lives of the living; their presence being represented by ancestral tablets.

At the end of some chapters the author summed up his descriptions and pointed out ‘how wrong and ignorant the practices of the Chinese were and how they would benefit from the Bible and conversion to Christianity’.

He stated that despite the number of Chinese gods and idols, there was not a single one to which the objective of worship was to make the person worshipping more pure, more sincere, more honest, more virtuous or more holy. Doolittle goes on to comment that the desired objective was always selfish, sensual or secular. However he does not seem aware that this is a fundamental difference between China and the religions of the 'West' Bringing up children to have all the virtues mentioned, possibly not 'holy' is actually an important pillar of Chinese civilisation.

Confucius's golden rule is, ‘Do not do to others what you would not have them do to you’. Other writers have commented that China has a moral code which is outside of religion.

However, Doolittle singled out two significant items of Chinese civilisation which differ from other ancient cultures. Human sacrifice has never been practised to appease the gods in China and the Chinese have never deified vice e.g. Venus in Greek culture represents sensuality. However the Chinese have no need of the Holy Spirit to help them do good. The Chinese pray to the gods for protection and do not ask for assistance on how to live a good life. He observed that many Chinese do not eat beef because the bullock is a helpful and useful working animal.

Life expectancy in China at the time of writing (early 1860s), must have been very low because every birthday over the age of 50 was a cause for celebration by holding a small feast.

In schools Doolittle observes that the emphasis is on studying the classics, i.e. the writings of Confucius and Mencius and that, mathematics, sciences and philosophy are almost absent. Only boys generally go to school; girls seldom go. The expense of schooling is met by parents and classes are held in spare halls, not in school buildings. Degrees are obtained by examination and the writing of essays, but it is sometimes possible to buy degrees. The most talented candidates enter provincial examinations and the most capable journey to Peking for the highest qualifications.

Doolittle notes that despite the huge amount of literature on Buddhism and the writings of the philosophers, there was very little fiction literature; Chinese seemed to look upon fiction writing with disdain. He is writing in the 1860s when the ‘Needham Question’ (why there was no technological and industrial revolution in China) had not been posed. However, Doolittle was aware of the technical backwardness of China and how natural events were invariably explained by acts of gods and spirits and how so much effort was put into influencing and appeasing them. Scientific principles to explain natural events were not known in China at that time, apparently not even to educated people.

Child birth procedures in old China were governed entirely by rituals and superstition. There were rituals to induce pregnancy and to facilitate childbirth. The production of a male child was of paramount importance to continue the family name and it was extremely important for male descendants to burn incense at the graves of ancestors. This was required by the family and by society in general. Rituals and customs govern the child’s first year, e.g. the child must not be washed until the third day. To protect a bright child, they will shave his head; call him derisory names to delude evil spirits that they do not care about him.

In fact the Chinese are in constant fear of evil spirits and have invented and adopted procedures and ways of counteracting them to prevent them from doing harm. Bad omens must be identified and evasive action taken if possible.

Rituals and formalities for betrothals and marriage were elaborate. The use of a go-between or match-maker was essential and the use of fortune tellers, who needed information on the individual’s date of birth and time of birth, was widespread.

One procedure, which Doolittle mentions in the marriage ceremony is still carried out today in many Chinese weddings. This is the serving of tea to the parents, and other close relations and the receipt of a gift of money, in a red packet, in return. The amount depends on the wealth of the giver and the closeness of his or her relationship; this gift, can considerably help wedding expenses.

The low status of women is described in detail. Doolittle commented that you never see a man and wife walking side by side. Women must first obey her father, then her husband and finally her son. Widows are not expected to remarry. If a widow lives out her life in solitary chastity, she is entitled to a portal sanctioned and partly funded by the emperor. Hierarchy is an essential part of life; 'juniors' treat their 'seniors' with respect in their forms of address in speech and by bowing or kowtowing on meeting.

Sickness, death and mourning were also governed by elaborate formalities. Disease was frequently attributed to some evil spirit or the wrath of some god. When death occurred, offerings of wine, food and money were made and an ancestral tablet was prepared for use in subsequent ceremonies. Burials had to be made on an auspicious day. However when children or unmarried people died, many customs were not observed. At the end of this chapter, Doolittle makes the point that many Chinese confess the absurdities of the customs, but still performed them with ‘decorum and apparent sincerity’ on the next occasion.

He surprising does not mention, ‘feng shui’ by this name, but says that lucky burial sites must be subject to ‘wind and water’ considerations, in ‘the expectation that posterity will reap the benefits’.

Patricide was regarded as such a heinous crime that it was punishable by ‘cutting into small pieces’ and not only the actual guilty person was punished, but his neighbours, his teacher, the officials of the town and even the governor of the province were also punished.

Doolittle acknowledges, the three religions of China, Confucianism, Buddhism and Taoism, but identifies a fourth, that of the ‘state religion’. He regards all the ceremonies and rituals which citizens and especially the mandarins are obliged to carry out, such as celebrating the emperor’s birthday or mourning at his death, as part of the ‘state religion.’ Mandarins, especially by virtue of their office are required to perform ceremonies at eclipses of the sun or moon and other acts such as worshipping their seals of office and offering sacrifice to door guardians.

The author makes the point that many mandarins and even many of the general public are aware of the folly and uselessness of many of these practices, but assert that the customs and the laws of China must be obeyed and observed. Thus ‘only officials who are prepared to do the emperor’s bidding, whether right or monstrously wrong are recruited to office. Those that are honest and conscientious and only prepared do what is right are excluded’. He declares, ‘No wonder the officials in China are venal, hypocritical, deceitful and time-serving.’ He makes the further point that no sincere Christian could be an officer of government in China.

Doolittle asserts that the Chinese looked with disdain on foreigners and with suspicion on anything not Chinese. Thus they did not learn from others. This is the direct opposite of present day China, which is determined to learn from others as much as possible.

The last two chapters in Volume 2 are termed, ‘missionary topics’, and are detailed discussions of Christianity and Chinese beliefs. The author discusses reasons why it is so difficult to convert the Chinese. One crucial factor is the language which is very difficult to learn and because of the large number of dialects. Furthermore some Christian beliefs have no Chinese counterpart and consequently it is very difficult for those in this ‘heathen culture’ to appreciate some doctrines. Suitable terms cannot be found in Chinese to convey the truths of the Bible. He does make the point that China’s huge population, which he believes is a third of humanity, is a huge obstacle in itself, but he notes that half of the population understands the Mandarin dialect.

The sages of China have never been able to explain clearly the creation, the universality of sin, the proper manner of worshipping the almighty or the atonement by which sins can be forgiven.

A major obstacle to conversion to Christianity, he believes, is that the Chinese are an arrogant people and that they are perfectly satisfied with their own systems of morals and religion and are ‘remarkably prejudiced against changes and reform’. One missionary said that it is difficult to pray for the Chinese because they are so bigoted and deep in superstition! Converted Chinese who help in evangelising are regarded as rebelling against China, rejecting the ancient sages and admitting the supremacy of a foreign religion.

The Chinese name for China is the ‘Middle Kingdom’ and the Chinese refer to all non-Chinese as ‘foreign devils’ or barbarians. The author however appreciates that Chinese culture is very different from other heathen cultures and that the Chinese are a civilised and literary people and makes the important point that ‘conversion to Christianity would be easier if they were less so’. However superstition, Confucianism, Tauism (Taoism), Buddhism and ancestor reverence are very deep seated which impede reception of foreign doctrines.

The evil of opium smoking, health injuring, demoralising and impoverishing the Chinese people is mentioned. The role of American and English merchants in the supply of this drug is condemned and this act is put forward as another reason why Westerners, to atone for this sinful trade, should save Chinese souls by converting them to Christianity.

There are less than 200 Protestant missionaries in China at this time and Doolittle demands more resources, because only about 3,000 Chinese have been converted. He makes the point that the merchants in their pursuit of gain are making much more headway in China, being much more numerous in many different parts. Surprisingly, it appears that it is difficult to recruit Western missionaries for China because it seems that, at this time, many did not want to go to there, believing it to be an ‘uninteresting’ place and the Chinese an ‘emotionless and unattractive race.’

At the end of these chapters Doolittle makes a passionate plea that more effort from the ‘best men in the church’, the best educated and talented should be recruited to show the Chinese the absurdities, the insufficiency and sinfulness of ‘these dogmas,’ (Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism), and teach them a more excellent and perfect way. He despairs that 32,000 Chinese are falling into idolaters’ graves every day. ‘The work should be carried forward with energy commensurate with the momentous interests involved.’

‘Social Life of the Chinese’, is an important book and certain of the reasons why China fell behind the West become clear by reading it. The considerable obstacles which the government in modern China has had to overcome in order to make progress can also be appreciated. Superstition and blind adherence to rituals and ceremonies which governed every aspect of life have contributed to holding back China. In China today, there is freedom of religion but superstition is strictly prohibited.

Some of the old customs and ceremonies, e.g. Qing Ming (tomb sweeping and paying respect to dead relations), are being reintroduced into 21st century China as state control is gradually being relaxed. But how much people still actually believe in them is not certain; almost certainly not as much as in the past. Through better education, most of the population now know the principles of science and the rituals and ceremonies are regarded today as simply China’s traditions and customs.

© Copyright Society for Anglo-Chinese Understanding (SACU) 2014, reprinted from SACU's magazine China Eye Issue 42, 2014

Copyright © SACU 1965-2017. If you have any comments, updates or corrections please let us know via our Contact page.