Chinese Sketches‎ > ‎

34: Journalism

Were any wealthy philanthropist to consult us as to the disposal of his millions with a view to ensure the greatest possible advantages to the greatest possible number, we should unhesitatingly recommend him to undertake the publication of a Chinese newspaper, to be sold at a merely nominal figure per copy. Under skilled foreign guidance, and with the total exclusion of religious topics, more would be effected in a few years for the real happiness of China and its ultimate conversion to western civilisation, than the most hopeful enthusiast could venture to predict. The _Shun-pao_, edited in Shanghai by Mr Ernest Major, is doing an incredible amount of good in so far as its influence extends; but the daily issue of this widely-circulated paper amounts only to about four thousand copies, or one to every hundred thousand natives! Missionary publications are absolutely useless, as they have a very limited sale beyond the circle of converts to the faith; but a _colporteur_ of religious books informed us the other day that he was continually being asked for the _Shun-pao_. Now the _Shun-pao_ owes its success so far to the fact that it is a pure money speculation, and therefore an undertaking intelligible enough to all Chinamen. Not only are its columns closed to anything like proselytising articles, but they are open from time to time to such tit-bits of the miraculous as are calculated to tickle the native palate, and swell the number of its subscribers. Therefore, to avert suspicion, it would be necessary to make a charge, however small, while at the same time such bogy paragraphs as occasionally appear in the columns of the _Shun-pao_ might be altogether omitted.

Our attention was called to this matter by a charming description in the _Shun-pao_ of a late balloon ascent from Calais, which was so nearly attended with fatal results. Written in a singularly easy style, and going quite enough into detail on the subject of balloons generally to give an instructive flavour to its remarks, this article struck us as being the identical kind of "light science for leisure hours" so much needed by the Chinese; and it compared most favourably with a somewhat heavy disquisition on aeronautic topics which appeared some time back in the _Peking Magazine_, albeit the latter was accompanied by an elaborate woodcut of a balloon under way. There is so much that is wonderful in the healthy regions of fact which might with mutual advantage be imparted to a reading people like the Chinese, that it is quite unnecessary to descend to the gross, and too often indecent, absurdities of fiction. Much indeed that is not actually marvellous might be put into language which would rivet the attention of Chinese readers. The most elementary knowledge, according to our standard, is almost always new, even to the profoundest scholar in native literature: the ignorance of the educated classes is something appalling. On the other hand, all who have read their _Shun-pao_ with regularity, even for a few months, are comparatively enlightened. We heard the other day of a Tao-t'ai who was always meeting the phrase "International Law" in the above paper, and his curiosity at length prompted him to make inquiries, and finally to purchase a copy of Dr Martin's translation of "Wheaton." He subsequently complained bitterly that much of it was utterly unintelligible; and judging from our own limited experience of the translation, we think His Excellency's objection not altogether groundless.

Of the domestic life of foreigners, the Chinese, with the exception of a few servants, know absolutely nothing; and equally little of foreign manners, customs, or etiquette. We were acquainted with one healthy Briton who was popularly supposed by the natives with whom he was thrown in contact to eat a whole leg of mutton every day for dinner; and a high native functionary, complaining one day of some tipsy sailors who had been rioting on shore, observed that "he knew foreigners always got drunk on Sundays, and had the offence been committed on that day he would have taken no notice of it; but," &c., &c. They have vague notions that filial piety is not considered a virtue in the West, and look upon our system of contracting marriages as objectionable in the extreme. They think foreigners carry whips and sticks only for purposes of assault, and we met a man the other day who had been wearing a watch for years, but was in the habit of never winding it up till it had run down. This we afterwards found out to be quite a common custom among the Chinese, it being generally believed that a watch cannot be wound up whilst going; consequently, many Chinamen keep two always in use, and it is worth noticing that watches in China are almost invariably sold in pairs. The term "foreign devil" is less frequently heard than formerly, and sometimes only for the want of a better phrase. Mr Alabaster, in one of his journeys in the interior, was politely addressed by the villagers as _His Excellency the Devil_. The Chinese settlers in Formosa call themselves "foreign men," but they call us "foreign things;" for, they argue, if we called you foreign men, what should we call ourselves? The _Shun-pao_ deserves much credit for its unvarying use of _western_ instead of _outside_ nations when speaking of foreign powers, but the belief is still very prevalent that we all come from a number of small islands scattered round the coast of one great centre, the Middle Kingdom.

And so we might go on multiplying _ad nauseam_ instances of Chinese ignorance in trivial matters which an ably-conducted journal has it in its power to dispel. We are so dissimilar from the Chinese in our ways of life, and so unlike them in dress and facial appearance, that it is only many years of commercial intercourse on the present familiar footing which will cause them to regard us as anything but the barbarians they call us. Red hair and blue eyes may make up what Baron Hubner would euphemistically describe as the "beau type d'un gentleman anglais," but when worn with a funny-shaped hat, a short coat, tight trousers, and a Penang lawyer, the picture produced on the retina of a Chinese mind is unmistakably that of a "foreign devil."