“The Chinese and their Rebellions” (by Thomas Taylor Meadows, 1856)
We have already noticed the opinions which Mr. Meadows advances in his preface upon the introduction into this country of the Chinese system of competitive examinations for the Civil Service. From those opinions we dissent, but we think that his work is very important and interesting, though we fear that some defects in its execution will hinder its obtaining much popularity. Mr. Meadows's original intention was to publish three separate books—a description of the Chinese people, a narrative of his personal experiences, more especially of such as referred to the Chinese rebellion, and an essay on Competitive Examinations in England and China. Ill health prevented—or, as we will hope, only deferred—the completion of this plan, and induced Mr. Meadows to publish the work before us, which contains a large part of the materials collected for his entire undertaking. Some confusion is inseparable from this mode of proceeding, and the author is obliged to advise his readers to begin with the Essay on Civilization, which concludes the book, to go on to Chapter 18, and then to read the first 17, and the 19th and 20th Chapters in their natural order. Though such counsel comes rather strangely from a man who wishes to enforce by law a method of directing letters based upon the logical principle of proceeding from the general to the particular, we can endorse the soundness of the advice from our own experience. We ought, however, to warn our readers that Mr. Meadows's book is not light reading, and that he has not done much to lighten a difficult task. Those who follow our example in reading the whole work, will probably agree with us in coming to the conclusion that Mr. Meadows is a patient and an accurate thinker, though his mind is less comprehensive than logical, and though his style is disfigured by occasional outbreaks of not very refined ridicule. The number of persons, however, entitled to form such an opinion—or indeed, any opinion at all—upon Mr. Meadows's speculative powers, will, we fear, be greatly diminished by the circumstance that he is a very bad economist of space. He gives not only his opinions, but the history of the process by which they were formed; and he illustrates them by such a profusion of examples that we fear his book will be very undeservedly despised by that large class of readers to whom the abuse of the word "practical" stands in the place of all accurate thought.
A very acute thinker, being grievously worried by one of his friends who had devoted half his life to the extraction of a universal modern history from the book of Revelations, somewhat puzzled him by observing that his interpretation laboured under the remarkable defect of omitting all reference whatever to China. A history of the world which made no mention of a third part of the human race seemed to him somewhat defective. Whatever may be thought of the force of the objection, the omission indicated by the objector pointed to the most curious problem in the history of the world. Three hundred and sixty millions of the human race have been, by their own act, separated entirely from the rest of it. The oldest and largest of human empires is almost absolutely unknown to us, and what little we do know about it reveals to us a state of things radically dissimilar to anything with which we are acquainted. Mr. Meadows has at least the merit of appreciating the vast importance of this great wonder, and of resenting the self-sufficient and shallow views which have frequently been put forth about so great a nation. "We disagree with some of his opinions. We have no claim to sit in judgment on the correctness of his facts, though we think he is rather too favourably disposed towards the people amongst whom he has lived so long; but his account of them has the great merit of being, at any rate, conceivable. It is not bad on the face of it; for he does not, like so many other writers, represent the existence of a policy so vast and so durable as the result of a hideous mixture of wickedness and folly. It is, therefore, with great interest, and with gratitude to the author, that we proceed to lay before our readers some account of his general views of the Chinese character. We reserve for future notice his account of the origin, nature, and prospects of the present rebellion.
Whilst studying in a German University, it first occurred to Mr. Meadows to ask, whether China was a civilized country. During the twelve years of his residence in that empire, he seems to have pondered over the question with a growing conviction that, in so far as civilization consists in influencing men by their feelings rather than by their interests or by main force, the Chinese are more civilized than most, if not than any, of the Occidental nations. This opinion is grounded almost entirely upon the system (which we explained in a former number) of Civil Service Examinations. The Government is a despotism of the most unqualified kind; but in ordinary times it is cheerfully submitted to because its powers are exercised by those whose mental superiority—ascertained in a manner satisfactory to the body of the nation—qualifies them, in the opinion of the multitude, for the position which they hold. Probably there is no nation in the world in which people are so unanimous in honouring intellectual preeminence. The whole power of the Government is distributed according to the result of the examinations for the Civil Service; and as success in these examinations is almost the only object towards which a Chinese can direct his ambition, the whole of the national education is constructed with reference to them. The effect of this has been to assimilate to each other, in an extraordinary degree, the minds of the educated part of the nation. The examinations are based upon the teaching of certain sacred books, said to have been written in the fourth, fifth, and sixth century B.C. by Confucius and others, as interpreted by various commentators. Of these, Chootsze was the most remarkable, who flourished in the twelfth century, A.D.
The fundamental doctrine of these writers, as explained by Mr. Meadows, is a kind of Pantheism, tending towards, if not involving, Manichaeism. They teach that all things are only the manifestation of one supreme or ultimate principle, from which every species of being has been developed by a method of working altogether mysterious and ineffable. They also teach, as far as we can understand Mr. Meadows's explanation, that all evil comes from matter, though we do not understand him to say that it is their opinion that matter is, in itself, evil. This kind of speculation has obtained undisputed possession over the minds of the educated classes. It is, indeed, obviously the most intellectual form of belief accessible to them, for the only other religions which exist in China are grossly superstitious and idolatrous forms of Buddhism and Taouism. Even those, however, who are habitual idol-worshippers, only set up this worship alongside of the pantheistic creed of the officials. They adore the idol, but they look upon him as only one link in the immense chain of fate, which they call Teen, i.e., Heaven. The estimation in which the Emperor is held is a curious illustration of this. To the mind of a Chinese, who knows of no settled government but his own, China is the world, and the Emperor is the head of the world. He is, to educated and uneducated alike, the Teen Tsze—the Son of Heaven. To the educated Chinese, he is the highest of the innumerable manifestations of the Ultimate Principle—to the idol-worshipper, he is a mysterious being, reigning by a paramount divine right, and far more exalted than the common run of idols, whom he can promote in the scale of gods, if he pleases, by an Imperial decree. Nothing is so striking in Mr. Meadows's account of the opinions of the Chinese as the extraordinary union which their philosophy presents of spiritualism and materialism. Looked at from one point of view, they would seem to be incapable of rising above the objects of sense, or of drawing any distinction between the visible and the invisible. The Emperor and the Government are, in their opinion, the highest functions of the ultimate Principle, and in strict, though strange consistency, they hold them responsible for every kind of physical calamity. Plagues, had seasons, disastrous wars, earthquakes, even comets, are all considered as the fault of the Government, which is supposed to have, in some manner, got out of harmony with the Ultimate Principle, and so to have disturbed the order of nature. Looked at in another light, no nation is less fitly described as materialists than the Chinese. They have a kind of horror of matter, or of brute force. They look at the invisible principle rather than at the substance—the idea rather than the fact. However coarse way be the forms in which their theories may be embodied, it is the idea, and not its embodiment, which they reverence. Mr. Meadows gives some curious philological illustrations of this. They use, for example, a word which may be translated as "spiritual," in the sense of important, precisely as we often use "material." They would say, for example, "It is most spiritual to observe," where we should say "most material." It is to this habit that Mr. Meadows ascribes the extreme aversion of the Chinese to fight when they quarrel. It seems to them a barbarous manner of settling a dispute. He also observes that this want of what has been called a healthy animalism was the cause of their ignominious defeat in their war with us; and we should suppose that it has much to do with the extreme physical languor which still induces them to look with wonder and disgust at the Western barbarians taking exercise on the walks belonging to the factories at Canton and Shanghae.
We cannot say that we are much delighted by such a picture. A state of society in which a semi-Mauichaean Pantheism is the highest form of belief attainable, and in which the result of a polity older than the oldest historical States of Western Europe is a despotism of the educated over the uneducated, is far from realizing our notion of that well-proportioned development of all the different constituent parts of human nature, which we understand by the word "civilization." Mr. Meadows enters at very great length into the question of the meaning of that word. Indeed his essay on the subject fills no less than 148 pages—nearly a quarter—of his book. It is carefully elaborated, though very ill-written, and amounts to this—that civilization consists in substituting moral agencies for intellectual or physical agencies "in man's struggle with nature." We do not think we do the theory injustice in saying that it turns upon the propriety of addressing the feelings, in preference to the understanding or the animal passions. We do not wish to enter into so wide a controversy as this doctrine suggests, but we may make a few remarks upon it. It seems to us to describe, not civilization, so much as one of its characteristics. So far as government is concerned, we should say, that the habitual appeal to "moral agencies" was anything but a proof of high civilization. Nobody will dispute that the government of reasonable grown-up men by other reasonable grown-up men has much more analogy to the government of a civilized State than the authority which grown-up men exercise over children. Now, between man and man, in the common affairs of life, there is no government, in the proper sense of the word—that is, no compulsion to adopt a particular line of conduct—except that which is either intellectual or physical. A master says to his workman, "I have nothing to do with your idleness or industry, but unless you get my work done by such a time, I shall not employ you." This is what Mr. Meadows calls intellectual compulsion. The law says to a criminal, "If you commit murder, I shall hang you." This is physical compulsion. The father says to his child, "See how much better it is to be industrious, and to restrain your passions, than to be idle and self-indulgent. I shall keep you from doing this and that, not because I care for your doing or leaving undone the particular action, but because it involves a principle." This is moral compulsion. Surely the universal reduction of the principles of government to functions of this kind can only exist in a barbarous state. The position is one which can only be assumed by a superior to an inferior. It is one which becomes impossible when the person governed and the person governing stand nearly on the same level. The parent is constantly interfering with the child, though principally by way of direction and admonition—the law interferes little with a grown-up man, but when it does, it interferes in the tone of direct absolute command, backed by physical compulsion. Surely the man is not in a less civilized state than the child. When the Government issues advice about the cholera, it does so for the benefit of the poor—when it has anything to say to the rich upon the subject, it speaks through the Quarantine laws, or the Act for the Removal of Nuisances. Does this show that the rich are in a lower state of civilization than the poor? Where the Government is always lecturing, educating, remonstrating, inculcating principles of filial piety, giving lessons in morality, and carrying on the whole system of administration by moral force, we should be inclined to draw the conclusion that it has a low opinion of the state of civilization amongst its subjects. If they were highly civilized, the presumption would be that they stood in no need of all this. We cannot agree with Mr. Froude—though no doubt Mr. Meadows would—in thinking that the omission in modern Acts of Parliament of moral exhortations by way of preamble, shows a lower estimation of the value of morality than our ancestors possessed. It appears to us to show a higher estimation of the general level of good sense. It would be a poor compliment to a man's understanding to begin a conversation by arguing that honesty is the best policy. For these reasons, Mr. Meadows's evidence as to the civilization of China does not satisfy our minds. His opinion as to the matter of fact is no doubt entitled to weight and to consideration, and we are glad to learn that he thinks far more highly of the intelligence, energy, and courage of the Chinese than most of those who have preceded him in the inquiry; but his explanation of the causes of this state of things appears to us deficient. That there are very great exceptions to the theory of Chinese civilisation, he himself admits in the fullest manner. A nation which practises idolatry, polygamy, judicial torture, and slavery, has a good deal to learn in respect of civilization, even though it may have a complete system of competitive examinations for the Civil Service. To us there seems to be nothing incongruous in the different institutions which Mr. Meadows specifies. That a small minority of doctrinaires should despise the majority of ignorant persons whom they rule, and should at once lecture them and whip them, is only an exemplification of the old proverb of "flog'ee and preach'ee too." Where the Government gives so much good advice, we must in charity presume that it is wanted.
We wish to speak of Mr. Meadows in the most respectful manner, because we are convinced both that there is a great deal in his book, and that few of his readers will find it out; but we cannot deny that he is the hardiest and rashest speculator that we have met with for some time. Anything more audacious than a great part of his Essay on Civilization it is impossible to imagine. It is not surprising that a man who went straight from the University of Munich to Canton, and who, for twelve years, had probably no neighbour within thousands of miles who interested himself in German metaphysics, should come in a questionable shape before English readers; but we doubt whether he will find many people to agree with him in advocating an unlimited liberty of divorce on the mere wish of either party, or in making such a recommendation as this, amongst others equally ludicrous:—
‘I have no hesitation in recommending the Post-office administration to commence, first advising, and after due time enforcing, the universal adoption of the Chinese mode of addressing letters for conveyance by post.’He gives elsewhere the following illustration:—
To England country—York county—Hull town—King-street—the shop of such and such a sign—and inside of that, Brown, Thomas. It can be very easily done. Let clear instructions . . . . be printed. After a month or two, notice could be given that all letters the addresses of which did not commence with the name of a county or (very) large town would be opened and returned. After a year, the whole system of descending throughout from generals to particulars could be made compulsory.Fancy some clerk, flushed with having obtained in a competitive examination a subordinate position in a remote Lincolnshire post-office, explaining to a poor old soul who had tried to send five-and-twenty shillings to her son in the Crimea, that it could not be, because she had not descended from generals to particulars, as thus: — Crimea — Balaklava — Regiment, 87th — Saunders, Thomas. We once knew of an admirable housekeeper, who, after superintending her master's establishment in Pans, came home with the conclusion that "the French were so silly—why, they say savon blanc when they mean blanc savon." It would be hopeless enough to attempt to change the English language by Act of Parliament: but a man's mind must be in a wonderful state when he supposes that, under any circumstances whatever, we should begin to talk about horses white, instead of white horses, because some crotchety successor of Mr. Rowland Hill might think it best that we should "descend from generals to particulars."
We have cited this wonderful escapade as a specimen of the extravagances into which an able and thoughtful man is betrayed by living at a distance from the great centres of national life; but we have been very unfortunate if we have not conveyed to our readers the impression that Mr. Meadows has a great deal more good sense than such follies would lead one to suppose.
Saturday Review, August 30, 1856.