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25: Thieving

Nowhere can the monotony of exile be more advantageously relieved by studying dense masses of humanity under novel aspects than in China, where so much is still unknown, and where the bulk of which is generally looked upon as fact requires in most cases a leavening element of truth, in others nothing more nor less than flat contradiction. The days are gone by for entertaining romances published as if they were _bona fide_ books of travel, and the opening of China has enabled residents to smile at the audacity of the too mendacious Huc. It has enabled them at the same time to view millions of human beings working out the problem of existence under conditions which by many persons in England are deemed to be totally incompatible with the happiness of the human race. They behold all classes in China labouring seven days in every week, taking holidays as each may consider expedient with regard both to health and means, but without the mental and physical demoralisation supposed to be inseparable from a non-observance of the fourth commandment. They see the unrestricted sale of spirituous liquors, unaccompanied by the scenes of brutality and violence which form such a striking contrast to the intellectual advancement of our age. They notice that charity has no place among the virtues of the people, and that nobody gives away a cent he could possibly manage to keep; the apparent result being that every one recognises the necessity of working for himself, and that the mendicants of a large Chinese city would barely fill the casual ward of one of our smallest workhouses. They have a chance of studying a competitive system many hundred years old, with the certainty of concluding that, whatever may be its fate in England or elsewhere, it secures for the government of China the best qualified and most intelligent men. Amongst other points, the alleged thievishness of the Chinese is well worth a few moments' consideration, were it only out of justice to the victims of what we personally consider to be a very mischievous assertion. For it is a not uncommon saying, even among Europeans who have lived in China, that the Chinese are a nation of thieves. In Australia, in California, and in India, Chinamen have beaten their more luxurious rivals by the noiseless but irresistible competition of temperance, industry, and thrift: yet they are a nation of thieves. It becomes then an interesting question how far a low tone of morality on such an important point is compatible with the undisputed practice of virtues which have made the fortunes of so many emigrating Celestials. Now, as regards the amount of theft daily perpetrated in China, we have been able to form a rough estimate, by very careful inquiries, as to the number of cases brought periodically before the notice of a district magistrate or his deputies, and we have come to a conclusion unfavourable in the extreme to western civilisation, which has not hesitated to dub China a nation of thieves. We have taken into consideration the fact that many petty cases never come into court in China, which, had the offence been committed in England, would assuredly have been brought to the notice of a magistrate. We have not forgotten that more robberies are probably effected in China without detection than in a country where the police is a well-organised force, and detectives trained men and keen. We know that in China many cases of theft are compromised, by the stolen property being restored to its owner on payment of a certain sum, which is fixed and shared in by the native constable who acts as middleman between the two parties, and we are fully aware that under circumstances of hunger or famine, and within due limits, the abstraction of anything in the shape of food is not considered theft. With all these considerations in mind, our statistics (save the mark!) would still compare most favourably with the records of theft committed over an area in England equal in size and population to that whence our information was derived. The above refers specially to professional practice, but when we descend to private life, and view with an impartial eye the pilfering propensities of servants in China, we shall have even less cause to rejoice over our boasted morality and civilisation. In the first place, squeezing of masters by servants is a recognised system among the Chinese, and is never looked upon in the light of robbery. It is _commission_ on the purchase of goods, and is taken into consideration by the servant when seeking a new situation. Wages are in consequence low; sometimes, as in the case of official runners and constables, servants have to make their living as best they can out of the various litigants, very often taking bribes from both parties. As far as slight raids upon wine, handkerchiefs, English bacon, or other such luxuries dear to the heart of the Celestial, we might ask any one who has ever kept house in England if pilfering is quite unknown among servants there. If it were strictly true that Chinamen are such thieves as we make them out to be, with our eastern habits of carelessness and dependence, life in China would be next to impossible. As it is, people hire servants of whom they know absolutely nothing, put them in charge of a whole house many rooms in which are full of tempting kickshaws, go away for a trip to a port five or six hundred miles distant, and come back to find everything in its place down to the most utter trifles. Merchants as a rule have their servants _secured_ by some substantial man, but many do not take this precaution, for an honest Chinaman usually carries his integrity written in his face. Confucius gave a wise piece of advice when he said, "If you employ a man, be not suspicious of him; if you are suspicious of a man, do not employ him"--and truly foreigners in China seem to carry out the first half to an almost absurd degree, placing the most unbounded confidence in natives with whose antecedents they are almost always unacquainted, and whose very names in nine cases out of ten they actually do not know! And what is the result of all this? A few cash extra charged as commission on anything purchased at shop or market, and a steady consumption of about four dozen pocket-handkerchiefs per annum. Thefts there are, and always will be, in China as elsewhere; but there are no better grounds for believing that the Chinese are a nation of thieves than that their own tradition is literally true which says, "In the glorious days of old, if anything was seen lying in the road, nobody would pick it up!" On the contrary, we believe that theft is not one whit more common in China than it is in England; and we are fully convinced that the imputation of being a nation of thieves has been cast, with many others, upon the Chinese by unscrupulous persons whose business it is to show that China will never advance without the renovating influence of Christianity-an opinion from which we here express our most unqualified dissent.