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26: Lying

We have stated our conviction that the Chinese as a nation are not more addicted to thieving than the inhabitants of many countries for whom the same excuses are by no means so available. That no undiscerning persons may be led to regard us as panegyrists of a stationary civilisation, we hasten to counterbalance our somewhat laudatory statements by the enunciation of another proposition less startling, but if anything more literally true. _The Chinese are a nation of liars._ If innate ideas were possible, the idea of lying would form the foundation of the Chinese mind. They lie by instinct; at any rate, they lie from imitation, and improve their powers in this respect by the most assiduous practice. They seem to prefer lying to speaking the truth, even when there is no stake at issue; and as for shame at being found out, the very feeling is unfamiliar to them. The gravest and most serious works in Chinese literature abound in lies; their histories lie; and their scientific works lie. Nothing in China seems to have escaped this taint.

Essentially a people of fiction, the Chinese have given up as much time to the composition and perusal of romances as any other nation on the globe; and this phase of lying is harmless enough in its way. Neither can it be said to interfere with the happiness of foreigners either in or out of China that Chinese medical, astrological, geomantic, and such works, pretend to a knowledge of mysteries we know to be all humbug. On the other hand, they ought to keep their lying to themselves and for their own special amusement. They have no right to circulate written and verbal reports that foreigners dig out babies' eyes and use them in their pharmacopoeia. They have no right to publish such hideous, loathsome pamphlets, as the one which was some years ago translated into too faithful English by an American missionary, who had better have kept his talents to himself, or to post such inflammatory placards as the one which is placed at the end of this volume. Self-glorification, when no one suffers therefrom, is only laughable; and we shall take the liberty of presenting here the translation of an article which appeared in the _Shun Pao_ of the 19th September 1874, as a specimen of the manner in which Chinamen delight to deceive even themselves on certain little points connected with the honour and glory of China. The writer says:--

"I saw yesterday in the _Peking Gazette_ of the 10th September 1874 that the Prince of Kung had been degraded,--a fact received with mingled feelings of surprise and regret by natives of the Middle and Western kingdoms alike. For looking back to the last year of the reign Hsien Feng, we find that not only internal trouble had not been set at rest when external difficulties began to spring up around us, and war and battle were the order of the day. To crown all, His Majesty became a guest in the realm above, leaving only a child of tender years, unable to hold in his hands the reins of government. Then, with our ruler a youth and affairs generally in an unsettled state, sedition within and war without, although their Majesties the Empresses-Dowager directed the administration of government from behind the bamboo screen, the task of wielding the rod of empire must have been arduous indeed. Since that time, ten years and more, the Eighteen Provinces have been tranquillised; without, _western nations have yielded obedience and returned to a state of peace_; within, the empire has been fixed on a firm basis and has recovered its former vitality. Never, even in the glorious ages of the Chou or Hsia dynasties, has our national prosperity been so boundless as it is to-day. Whenever I have seen one among the people patting his stomach or carolling away in the exuberance of his joy, and have asked the cause of his satisfaction, he has replied, 'It is because of the loving-kindness of this our dynasty.' I ask what and whence is this loving-kindness of which he speaks? He answers me, 'It is the beneficent rule of their Majesties the Empresses- Dowager; it is the unspeakable felicity vouchsafed by Heaven to the Emperor; it is the loyalty and virtue of those in high places, of Tseng Kuo-fan, of Li Hung-chang, of Tso Tsung-t'ang.' These, however, are all provincial officials. Within the palace we have the Empresses-Dowager, and His Majesty the Emperor, toiling away from morn till dewy eve; but among the ministers of state who transact business, receiving and making known the Imperial will, working early and late in the Cabinet, the Prince of Kung takes the foremost place; and it is through his agency, as natives and foreigners well know, that for many years China has been regaining her old status, so that any praise of their Imperial Majesties leads naturally on to eulogistic mention of our noble Premier. Hearing now that the Prince has incurred his master's displeasure, there are none who do not fear lest his previous services may be overlooked, hoping at the same time that the Emperor will be graciously pleased to take them into consideration and cancel his present punishment."

Lying, under any circumstances, is a very venial offence in China; it is, in fact, no offence at all, for everybody is prepared for lies from all quarters, and takes them as a matter of course.

It is strange, however, that such a practical people should not have discovered long ago the mere expediency of telling the truth, in the same way that they have found mercantile honesty to be unquestionably the best policy, and that trade is next to impossible without it. But to argue, as many do, that China is wanting in morality, because she has adopted a different standard of right and wrong from our own, is, _mutato nomine_, one of the most ridiculous traits in the character of the Chinese themselves. They regard us as culpable in the highest degree because our young men choose their own partners, marry, and set up establishments for themselves, instead of bringing their wives to tend their aged parents, and live all together in harmony beneath the paternal roof. We are superior to the Chinese in our utter abhorrence of falsehood: in the practice of filial piety they beat us out of the field. "Spartan virtue" is a household word amongst us, but Sparta's claims to pre-eminence certainly do not rest upon her children's love either for honesty or for truth. The profoundest thinker of the nineteenth century has said that insufficient truthfulness "does more than any one thing that can be named to keep back civilisation, virtue, everything on which human happiness, on the largest scale, depends"--an abstract proposition which cannot be too carefully studied in connection with the present state of public morality in China, and the general welfare of the people. Dr Legge, however, whose logical are apparently in an inverse ratio to his linguistic powers, rushes wildly into the concrete, and declares that every falsehood told in China may be traced to the example of Confucius himself. He acknowledges that "many sayings might be quoted from him, in which 'sincerity' is celebrated as highly and demanded as stringently as ever it has been by any Christian moralist," yet, on the strength of two passages in the Analects, and another in the "Family Sayings," he does not hesitate to say that "the example of him to whom they bow down as the best and wisest of men, encourages them to act, to dissemble, to sin." And what are these passages? In the first, Confucius applauds the modesty of an officer who, after boldly bringing up the rear on the occasion of a retreat, refused all praise for his gallant behaviour, attributing his position rather to the slowness of his horse. In the second, an unwelcome visitor calling on Confucius, the Master sent out to say he was sick, at the same time seizing his harpsichord and singing to it, "in order that Pei might hear him." Dr Legge lays no stress on the last half of this story--though it is impossible to believe that its meaning can have escaped his notice altogether. Lastly, when Confucius was once taken prisoner by the rebels, he was released on condition of not proceeding to Wei. "Thither, notwithstanding, he continued his route," and when asked by a disciple whether it was right to violate his oath, he replied, "It was a forced oath. The spirits do not hear such."

We shall not attempt to defend Confucius on either of these indictments, taken separately and without reference to his life and teachings; neither do we wish to temper the accusations we ourselves have made against the Chinese, of being a nation of liars. But when it is gravely asserted that the great teacher who made truthfulness and sincerity his daily texts, is alone responsible for a vicious national habit which, for aught any one knows to the contrary, may be a growth of comparatively modern times, we call to mind the Horatian poetaster, who began his account of the Trojan war with the fable of Leda and the swan.