1902 Encyclopedia > China > Everyday Customs. Opium Smoking.

(Part 62)


Everyday Customs. Opium Smoking.

Everyday Customs

Turning to the every-day customs and manners of the Chinese, it is passing strange to find how diametrically opposed they are to what we are familiar with. In a country "where," as has been said by Wingrove Cook, "the roses have no fragrance, and the women no petti-coats ; where the labourer has no Sabbath, and the magistrate no sense of honour ; where the needle points to the south, and the sign of being puzzled is to scratch the antipodes of the head ; where the place of honour is on the left hand, the seat of intellect is in the stomach ; where to take off your hat is an insolent gesture, and to wear white garments is to put yourself into mourning," it would at first sight seem useless to seek for any point of similarity with ourselves. But it is extremely probable, for instance, that the choice of the left as the seat of honour is in principle entirely at one with our custom of considering the right hand as the place due to the most highly-honoured guest, and that both are survivals of the ancient and almost universal adoration of the sun. The needle of the Chinese compass points towards the south, and every house in China of any pretensions faces the same and every house in China of any pretensions faces the same way, as well as the state seats in all reception rooms. The place on the left of the host, therefore, is that nearest to the light-bringing, life-producing East, and hence its title to honour ; and it the same way the opposite custom among ourselves is susceptible of a like interpretation. In daily life the Chinese are frugal, sober, and industrious. Their wants are few, and they are easily satisfied. The poorer classes live almost entirely on rice and vegetables, to which they sometimes add small pieces of fish or meat. Their clothes are of the cheapest kind, and they are so accustomed to crowded apartments that house rent forms an insignificant item in a Chinaman’s expenditure. Thus a Chinaman can live where a European would starve, and it is on account of the advantages whih he thus possesses, combined with sobriety and frugality, that he is able to underbid the American workmen in California, and the English colonist in Australia, in almost every branch of industry. The over-populated condition in which China has been for so many centuries has had a powerful influence in thus moulding the national character. Vast as China is, it cannot contain all those who call themselves her sons and daughters, and in many cities a large section of the inhabitants are driven to live in boats on the neighbouring rivers and lakes. It would be very difficult to say how the boat population provide food for themselves and their families ; indeed, were it not for the extreme cheapness of their ordinary daily food, and for their sober habits, they could not do so. Spirits—they have no wine—appear to have no great attraction to Chinamen. They drink them occasionally, and sometimes to excess, but a reeling Chinaman is rarely to be seen in the streets.

Opium Smoking

Drunkenness is not a national vice, but, unfortunately, their abstinence does not extend to opium, a drug which seem to have a greater attraction for them than for any other people on the face of the earth. They take to it greedily, and when once the habit of smoking it becomes confirmed, the difficulty of relinquishing it is exceedingly great. There has, no doubt, been much exaggeration in what has been talked and written on this subject. But on the testimony of Chinamen themselves the effects of opium smoking must be regarded as injurious to health and destructive to all the better parts of man’s nature. From the time of its introduction into the country, the Chinese Government has opposed the traffic ; and on the occasion of the last revision of the Treaty by Sir Rutherford Alcock, Prince Kung and his colleagues made a vigorous stand against the clause which legalized its importation. In this as in other attempts they were unsuccessfull, and it remains to be seen whether the policy they appear now to be adopting of encouraging the growth of native opium will extinguish the import trade.

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