Bertrand Russell on the Chinese I: Chinese & Western civilization contrasted

From Bertrand Russell’s book, The Problem of China (1922), from the chapter: “Chinese & Western civilization contrasted”.

The chapter opens with this paragraph:

There is at present in China, as we have seen in previous chapters, a close contact between our civilization and that which is native to the Celestial Empire. It is still a doubtful question whether this contact will breed a new civilization better than either of its parents, or whether it will merely destroy the native culture and replace it by that of America. Contacts between different civilizations have often in the past proved to be landmarks in human progress. Greece learnt from Egypt, Rome from Greece, the Arabs from the Roman Empire, mediæval Europe from the Arabs, and Renaissance Europe from the Byzantines. In many of these cases, the pupils proved better than their masters. In the case of China, if we regard the Chinese as the pupils, this may be the case again. In fact, we have quite as much to learn from them as they from us, but there is far less chance of our learning it. If I treat the Chinese as our pupils, rather than vice versa, it is only because I fear we are unteachable.

Here Russell speaks of Chinese humour:

Lao-Tze’s book, or rather the book attributed to him, is very short, but his ideas were developed by his disciple Chuang-Tze, who is more interesting than his master. The philosophy which both advocated was one of freedom. They thought ill of government, and of all interferences with Nature. They complained of the hurry of modern life, which they contrasted with the calm existence of those whom they called “the pure men of old.” There is a flavour of mysticism in the doctrine of the Tao, because in spite of the multiplicity of living things the Tao is in some sense one, so that if all live according to it there will be no strife in the world. But both sages have already the Chinese characteristics of humour, restraint, and under-statement. Their humour is illustrated by Chuang-Tze’s account of Po-Lo who “understood the management of horses,” and trained them till five out of every ten died. Their restraint and under-statement are evident when they are compared with Western mystics. Both characteristics belong to all Chinese literature and art, and to the conversation of cultivated Chinese in the present day. All classes in China are fond of laughter, and never miss a chance of a joke. In the educated classes, the humour is sly and delicate, so that Europeans often fail to see it, which adds to the enjoyment of the Chinese. Their habit of under-statement is remarkable. I met one day in Peking a middle-aged man who told me he was academically interested in the theory of politics; being new to the country, I took his statement at its face value, but I afterwards discovered that he had been governor of a province, and had been for many years a very prominent politician. In Chinese poetry there is an apparent absence of passion which is due to the same practice of under-statement. They consider that a wise man should always remain calm, and though they have their passionate moments (being in fact a very excitable race), they do not wish to perpetuate them in art, because they think ill of them. Our romantic movement, which led people to like vehemence, has, so far as I know, no analogue in their literature. Their old music, some of which is very beautiful, makes so little noise that one can only just hear it. [*Perhaps Russell heard a rendition of a Taoist guqin tune? An example in comment section below] In art they aim at being exquisite, and in life at being reasonable. There is no admiration for the ruthless strong man, or for the unrestrained expression of passion. After the more blatant life of the West, one misses at first all the effects at which they are aiming; but gradually the beauty and dignity of their existence become visible, so that the foreigners who have lived longest in China are those who love the Chinese best.

On Chinese pacificism:

If any nation in the world could ever be “too proud to fight,” that nation would be China. The natural Chinese attitude is one of tolerance and friendliness, showing courtesy and expecting it in return. If the Chinese chose, they could be the most powerful nation in the world. But they only desire freedom, not domination. It is not improbable that other nations may compel them to fight for their freedom, and if so, they may lose their virtues and acquire a taste for empire. But at present, though they have been an imperial race for 2,000 years, their love of empire is extraordinarily slight.

Although there have been many wars in China, the natural outlook of the Chinese is very pacifistic. I do not know of any other country where a poet would have chosen, as Po-Chui did in one of the poems translated by Mr. Waley, called by him The Old Man with the Broken Arm, to make a hero of a recruit who maimed himself to escape military service. Their pacifism is rooted in their contemplative outlook, and in the fact that they do not desire to change whatever they see. They take a pleasure—as their pictures show—in observing characteristic manifestations of different kinds of life, and they have no wish to reduce everything to a preconceived pattern. They have not the ideal of progress which dominates the Western nations, and affords a rationalization of our active impulses. Progress is, of course, a very modern ideal even with us; it is part of what we owe to science and industrialism. The cultivated conservative Chinese of the present day talk exactly as their earliest sages write. If one points out to them that this shows how little progress there has been, they will say: “Why seek progress when you already enjoy what is excellent?” At first, this point of view seems to a European unduly indolent; but gradually doubts as to one’s own wisdom grow up, and one begins to think that much of what we call progress is only restless change, bringing us no nearer to any desirable goal.

On tolerance and happiness:

I think the tolerance of the Chinese is in excess of anything that Europeans can imagine from their experience at home. We imagine ourselves tolerant, because we are more so than our ancestors. But we still practise political and social persecution, and what is more, we are firmly persuaded that our civilization and our way of life are immeasurably better than any other, so that when we come across a nation like the Chinese, we are convinced that the kindest thing we can do to them is to make them like ourselves. I believe this to be a profound mistake. It seemed to me that the average Chinaman, even if he is miserably poor, is happier than the average Englishman, and is happier because the nation is built upon a more humane and civilized outlook than our own. Restlessness and pugnacity not only cause obvious evils, but fill our lives with discontent, incapacitate us for the enjoyment of beauty, and make us almost incapable of the contemplative virtues. In this respect we have grown rapidly worse during the last hundred years. I do not deny that the Chinese go too far in the other direction; but for that very reason I think contact between East and West is likely to be fruitful to both parties. They may learn from us the indispensable minimum of practical efficiency, and we may learn from them something of that contemplative wisdom which has enabled them to persist while all the other nations of antiquity have perished.

Russell ends the chapter with:

When I went to China, I went to teach; but every day that I stayed I thought less of what I had to teach them and more of what I had to learn from them. Among Europeans who had lived a long time in China, I found this attitude not uncommon; but among those whose stay is short, or who go only to make money, it is sadly rare. It is rare because the Chinese do not excel in the things we really value—military prowess and industrial enterprise. But those who value wisdom or beauty, or even the simple enjoyment of life, will find more of these things in China than in the distracted and turbulent West, and will be happy to live where such things are valued. I wish I could hope that China, in return for our scientific knowledge, may give us something of her large tolerance and contemplative peace of mind.

5 thoughts on “Bertrand Russell on the Chinese I: Chinese & Western civilization contrasted

  1. Some may remember the guqin from this scene from the Jet Li movie, Hero:

    Hero

    But my favourite guqin-featured film has as its theme music, an age-old chinese tune… … It’s another of my indelible growing-up juvenile experience from the 1990’s, involving another ‘fair, petite, soft Muse’.
    More later.

  2. The poem Russell mentioned above, “The Old Man with the Broken Arm”, by Po Chu-i (Bai Juyi/ 白居易) can be found here:
    http://www.humanistictexts.org/po_chu_i.htm#_Toc483883514

    [Some info on Po Chu-i:
    http://www.gotterdammerung.org/books/reviews/p/po-chu-i-selected-poems.html

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bai_Juyi
    ]

    But for me, rather than Po Chu-i’s poem on ‘escaping from military service’;
    I prefer this more poignant poem on War and its cruelties, and especially how the 老百姓-common people submit in despair, yet with dignity:

    The “石壕吏-Official at Stone Moat Village” by 杜甫/Du Fu:

    http://www.chinese-poems.com/d12.html

    At dusk, I stopped to rest at Stone Moat village,
    An officer came that night to capture men.
    The old man escaped by climbing over the wall,
    The old wife went to look outside the door.
    How angrily the officer now shouted,
    How bitterly the wife did weep out loud!
    I heard the words the wife was sending forth:
    “Three sons of mine were sent to defend Yecheng.
    From one of my sons, a letter has arrived,
    The other two have recently died in battle.
    The one who survived has kept alive for now,
    The dead ones though have met their final end.
    Inside this house, there are no people left,
    There’s just a grandson suckling on the breast.
    The grandson’s mother also cannot go,
    She goes about without a skirt intact.
    Although I’m an old woman with failing strength,
    I ask you to take me with you tonight.
    If you should need workers at Heyang,
    I can prepare the morning meal for you.”
    Her voice then died away into the night,
    I seemed to hear her sob and whimper still.
    At dawn, before I set upon the road,
    It’s only from the old man that I part.

    杜甫/Du Fu, above and beyond Li Bai and Po Chu-i, is for me the leading Tang poet. He is known as the 诗圣–Poet Sage…
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Du_Fu

  3. Pingback: Chinese & Western Civilisation Contrasted | 別裳軒

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