Published Date

August 1, 1944

Resource Type

GI Roundtable Series, Primary Source

From GI Roundtable 42: Our Chinese Ally (1944)

Of every five persons in the world, one is Chinese. What are these people like who form so large a portion of the human race? Many writers and travelers from China have tried to make us believe that the Chinese are just about as different from us as human beings could be. They have described them as backward, exotic, mysterious, even sinister, because quaint picturesque people made travel books more interesting. It is difficult for Westerners to learn the Chinese language well, and the fact that few of us have been able to talk freely with Chinese or read their literature has helped to make them seem difficult to understand. The truth is, however, that they are much more like us than we have been led to suppose.

It is as hard to describe a “typical Chinese” as it is a “typical Englishman.” Would you choose a London cockney, an Oxford scholar, a country squire, or a “man about town”? There are as many “typical” Chinese as there are “typical” Britishers. But one thing it is safe to say-the exotic and inscrutable Chinese depicted in American fiction is no more true to life than the la-di-da Englishman with an exaggerated Oxford accent so popular in our plays and stories.

There are a few characteristics, however, which most people who know the Chinese will agree are typical.


What Are Chinese Like?

‘The typical Chinese is honest. Foreigners coming to China for a short time sometimes question this and fret about the Chinese practice of “squeeze,” which seems dishonest according to American custom. This judgment, however, is based on lack of understanding of the Chinese custom. Chinese who buy groceries, collect taxes, and do many other forms of business for others, large and small, are by common consent entitled to keep for themselves a small percentage of the money passing through their hands. This “squeeze” is a recognized practice, like brokerage, and therefore not actually dishonest. It is only when the percentage becomes unduly large that “squeeze” can be classed as graft.

Foreigners, on the other hand, are often amazed to discover that in China a man’s word is really as, good as his bond. Many large deals are made and contracts let without any written document, and it is just as much the custom in China to live up to these verbal agreements as it is the custom in America to live up to a written contract—though of course, in China as in America, there are men who will wriggle out of any contract.

Men who laugh at the same things are not apt to misunderstand each other. The typical Chinese has a very keen sense of humor and one much nearer to the American sense of humor than that of many other peoples.

Chinese, like Americans, relish mother-in-law jokes. They also have “Scotch” jokes, which are told about the people of Shansi province. Nor is China lacking in stories which are the equivalent of the one about the traveling salesman and the farmer’s daughter. Not only is Chinese humor a good deal like American humor, but Chinese good humoredness is also much like American good humoredness. The jolly, perspiring, jostling crowd that gathers at a Chinese country fair is not very different from an American crowd on the day a circus comes to town.

The typical Chinese is in many ways more “civilized” than we are. He does not admire directness and frankness the way we do. In fact, he thinks these characteristics are rather barbarian and unsubtle. He is more tactful, his chief concern being to make the other fellow feel comfortable, to give him “face,” rather than to tell the truth. This comes from thousands of years of having to get along with each other, often in crowded and uncomfortable surroundings. And this is one reason why we like the Chinese. They know better than any people on earth how to make the awkward foreigner feel comfortable and happy. Foreigners, however, occasionally find this tactfulness exaggerated and the emphasis on face irritating and incomprehensible.

The typical Chinese is naturally democratic, and in this he is as much like most Americans as he is unlike most Japanese. In the Japanese language there are whole separate vocabularies for ordering servants about, for keeping your wife in her place as a subordinate being, or for showing servility to your social superiors. The Chinese are not like this. They have ceremonial ways of saying things, but they use these formalities on occasions when it is polite for each man to act as if the other were well educated, financially well off, and socially important—regardless of whether either of them actually is all these things. But as soon as the ice is broken, Chinese like to be easy and informal with each other, much like Americans. Above all, no matter how poor, badly dressed, or uneducated a Chinese is, you must, when you first speak to him, show your respect for him as an independent human being. To treat him in any way as socially inferior is bad mannered and is regarded as showing that you yourself are ill-bred. A further Chinese characteristic is that anybody will pick up a casual conversation with a boatman, ricksha puller, or mule-cart driver in the same friendly way that Americans talk with taxi drivers. They feel that the act of paying money for personal services is made more civilized by friendly conversation.

Most people think of the Chinese as being more philosophical than Americans. This is only partly true. In the old China, everything was pretty well settled. The life story of the average man was something that had been repeating itself for centuries. There was very little reason for supposing that the world as a whole was going to get noticeably better in the next few years. It was rather obvious that very few poor men got rich quickly, while anyone who looked around him could see that it was quite common for people who were fairly well off to meet sudden disaster in the way of flood or famine or disease. All of this tended to encourage a philosophical acceptance of fate, and even to make successful people feel that their success was due as much to luck as to merit.

Americans are different in this respect, because we are still a young people in a new country. According to our tradition, there is always another opportunity around the corner; even if what you are doing now turns out to be a failure, you are as likely to get another chance as the next man is. Chinese philosophicalness is changing, however. The things that are happening in modern China affect the whole people and go far beyond the good luck or bad luck of individuals. The horizon of the future promises far more than a mere repetition of the past; it is crowded with new prospects and new opportunities. Accordingly, it is not at all surprising to find that the younger Chinese are much less philosophical and fatalistic than their parents, and more like Americans—restless, eager, experimental, ready to assert that what you do for yourself counts more than what happens to you.

Where Do the Chinese Live?

There is no accurate census of the population of China. The most generally accepted estimate is 450,000,000, but the true number may be nearer to 500,000,000 or considerably more than three times the population of the United States. This enormous population is very unevenly distributed. One-third of the area of China Proper contains no less than six-sevenths of the people. This area of dense population is in the east, in the lower valleys of the Yellow and Yangtze rivers and the rice-growing areas south of the Yangtze.

The general practice is that wherever irrigation is possible the land is watered and cultivated with minute care in small plots which resemble market gardens more than they do an American farm. There is also a relationship between cities and farming that is quite different from that in America. In China, the biggest cities do not stand apart from the most important farming regions, but right in the middle of them. This is not only because the farms feed the cities. It is also because the most important fertilizer is human excrement—known throughout the Orient as “night soil.” Instead of being disposed of through sewage systems, this fertilizer is collected and sold to the farmers near the cities. A large Chinese city, seen from the air, is surrounded by concentric circles of different shades of green. The densest growth and the darkest green is nearest the city, where the fertilizer is cheapest and most plentiful. The crop yield per acre diminishes in proportion to the distance from the source of fertilizer in the city.

More than 80 per cent of the Chinese people are farmers, and the typical farmer does not live in a house in the middle of his own land, like the American farmer, but in a village. A city in the densely populated part of China is therefore not surrounded by residential suburbs, but by clusters of villages.

Two Occupational Groups

Before the war two occupational groups of Chinese might have been called the largest in China as a whole. They are still two of the most important groups, but their importance relative to each other is changing in a way which typifies the emergence of the new China out of the old China. One of these types is the peasant, the other is the landlord-gentleman.

Judged numerically, since four-fifths of the people live by farming, the typical or average Chinese is a peasant just the kind of simple, honest, limited, but shrewd and likeable peasant we have come to know through The Good Earth and other books by Pearl Buck. Comparatively few Chinese farmers own the land they cultivate, and exorbitant rents and taxes have kept their standard of living very low. They are industrious and self-reliant, however, and go ahead rapidly when not too much restricted by the paternalism and oppression which have been traditional in China.

Both the paternalism and the oppression trace back to the gentry, or landlord class, in the Chinese Empire before 1911. These gentry are the Chinese that Lin Yutang had chiefly in mind when he wrote My Country and My People. From the landlords’ families carne the old-fashioned scholars whose long fingernails were the proof that they did no physical work, and who combined the grossest corruption (particularly as officials appropriating squeeze from state revenues) with the most delicate artistic refinement and the most subtle training of the intellect. The power of the landlords rested on the fact that grain, accumulated and stored, was until very recently the standard of wealth. This made the landlords more powerful than the merchants, because the landlords actually controlled agriculture. In fact, merchants were often merely the agents of landlords.

Almost all the officials—the “mandarins” of the empire—came from the landlord-gentry class. It is true that according to the law of the empire the way to appointment was through the public examinations, which anybody could take, but since the knowledge of literature and philosophy required for these examinations demanded years of study, the sons of landlords, who did not have to work in the fields and could study at home with private tutors, had a big advantage over the sons of peasants. Accordingly, while peasants did occasionally rise to high official rank, the vast majority of mandarins came from families which produced a regular crop of candidates for the examinations, generation after generation.

Modern Chinese

China’s contact with the West in the nineteenth century began a new process which has meant the gradual destruction of the old way of life. Today many of China’s leaders come from families that continue to hold large landed properties but at the same time are active in trade, industry, and banking.

The artisan class is being rapidly changed into an industrial proletariat, divorced from the villages and the peasant family standard. The last to be affected have been the peasants. This makes the fate of the peasant decisive for the nation. If he is to be held down to the old way of life while the rest of the nation changes, then China will become a vast Japan, with an industrial development high in certain activities, but uneven as a whole, and with a disastrous and widening gap, as in Japan, between the mechanical progress of the factories and the human-labor standard of the farm. Either the peasant must be granted equal rights to progress with the rest of the nation or else the low standards of human labor on the farm will drag down the wages and standards of factory labor and undermine the whole national economy—again, as in Japan.

Next section: The Oldest Living Civilization