Book Review: Arthur H. Smith – Chinese Characteristics

Chinese Characteristics by Arthur Henderson Smith, published in 1894. It is available free hereRating: 5/5.


In rich and evocative prose reminiscent of De Tocqueville’s writings on America, Arthur H. Smith lays out what he sees as the core features of the Chinese character and his values. The tone is bold and fearless, making sweeping generalizations and brusque judgments that many today will dismiss as insensitive or “Orientalist,” if not downright racist. I will say from the outset that this is ahistorical and frankly, misses the point. Humans try to understand the world through simplified models, and stereotypes are an intractable part of this process. This was especially true in Smith’s time, when more objective data, e.g. statistical, was severely lacking in China. Thus, while he carefully acknowledges that “these papers are not meant to be generalizations for a whole Empire”, he nonetheless argues that deriving Chinese characteristics by “recording great numbers of incidents,” especially “extraordinary” ones, and setting down the “explanations… as given by natives of the country,” is an entirely valid and legitimate approach for a popular book on that country.

The “Chinese character” that emerges from his account forms a stark contradistinction to what we might call the “Smithian character,” a category that embraces not only the eponymous author but also reflects the values and assumptions of your archetypical fin de siècle American WASP male. The Chinese character goes by nature’s cycles, and does not have a good sense of either punctuality or even his own age; the Westerner, on the other hand, marches to the chimes of the clock. This “disregard of time” is matched by a “disregard for accuracy” – it is mentioned that the real distance of the Chinese li varies depending on terrain, the prevailing weather, etc. Likewise, the real value of the national currency varies from province to province.

Another major element covered by Smith in relation to China is “intellectual turbidity.” This might seem strange, considering that he also talks of how “all the examination halls, from the lowest to the highest, seem to be perpetually crowded”, but one which becomes much more comprehensible after noting that Smith also says that “education in China is restricted to a very narrow circle”. These observations are confirmed by the historical fact that primary enrollment was at just 4% of the eligible school-age population in China in 1900. (This characteristic, incidentally, seems to be alive well to this day, as evidenced by the immense stress that revolves around the gaokao). Nonetheless, the common folks come off as pretty stupid, and unable to grasp the essence of the questions put to them. For instance, in reply to a query about his age, one man’s answer is said to resemble a “rusty old smoothbore cannon mounted on a decrepit carriage.” Although isn’t asking such a question awkward in the first place? That said, at least we can’t fault Smith for not knowing how to throw in a good turn of phrase!

Another major part of the book concerns Chinese attitudes as regards kin, family, society, and nation. Filial piety is extremely developed; in fact, it is over-developed, to the extent that there have been cases of children willing to sacrifice themselves so as to avoid the death penalty for their criminal parents. (Not exactly a civilization with much in the way of individual responsibility). A less extreme but far more widespread effect of this is the devaluation of the worth of women. While Smith is undoubtedly a man of patriarchal views, he subscribes to the Christian idea of the spiritual equality of the sexes, and supports women’s education. These aims are harder to achieve in a society built around ancestor worship, where the prerogative to maintain the “continuum of descent” is overriding. Social sanctions, such as the ones for harboring criminals or traitors, are collective in nature, and go against the idea of personal responsibility. But it’s not all bad, at least as regards violence: “Human life is safer in a Chinese city than in an American city.” Nor are the Chinese dying out like the French:

“Contrast the apparent growth of the Chinese at any point, with the condition of the population in France, where the rate of increase is the lowest in all Europe, and where the latest returns show an absolute decrease in the number of inhabitants. Such facts have excited the gravest fears as to the future of that great country. The Chinese, on the other hand, show no more signs of race decay than the Anglo-Saxons.”

Although there is a widespread “hatred of foreigners,” – but isn’t that quite understandable, given the circumstances of late Qing China? – it does not translate into a sense of national cohesion or patriotism. In practice, it is the family (jia) which come first, and then the clans around which Chinese villages are built. (This appears to be accurate). Concubinage and soft polygamy are rife. Honesty is absent in general, though not always at the individual level. The bureaucracy is stiff, rigid, and all too frequently, corrupt. In modern parlance, we would call this a lack of “social capital.” While Smith acknowledges that Confucianism is a praiseworthy ethical system, the problem is that it is an elite ideology and does not percolate down to the masses. What China desperately needs is “righteousness,” and this can be attained “permanently, completely, only by Christian civilization.”

If there is one overriding problem with Smith’s perspective, it is HIS characteristic of consistently failing to distinguish between Chinese characteristics and undeveloped country characteristics. It was at the edge of subsistence, as repeatedly mentioned by Smith and confirmed by historical evidence; malnutrition was rife, and various infectious diseases were rife, both factors which have major depressive effects on IQ; and the typical absence of literacy can’t have helped either, as literacy is a necessary prerequisite to the development of logical and abstract reasoning. In this context, Smith’s observations that Chinese arguments “consist exclusively of predicates”, which are “attached to nothing whatever”, begin to seem eminently understandable – but on the caveat that what we are seeing is not a Chinese characteristic per se, but the perspective of a literate cosmopolitan on an illiterate peasant mentality (which he perceives as “intellectual turbidity”). Since China has now solved its malnutrition and illiteracy problems – the latest Census put the literacy rate at 97%, and its performance on international standardized tests is now very respectable – this cultural and cognitive chasm has now closed.

The influence of China’s historical backwardness is also clearly manifest as regards the lack of hygiene, the threadbare poverty, the “disregard of accuracy”, etc. Likewise, while he notes the province by province discrepancies in weights, distances, coinages, and dialects, he largely forgoes to mention that this is all in the context of a weak state that is slowly falling apart – in no small part thanks to Western intrusions. Considering the large stock of Chinese mechanical inventions during the European middle ages and China’s long pedigree as a centralized bureaucratic state, it is strange to consider that such differences could be a specifically “Chinese” characteristic. It is worth nothing that even France, despite the prior legacy of Colbert’s dirigisme, only unified its national market in the late 18th century, while linguistic unification would take an additional half a century.

Another point of criticism is that Smith conflates development with Christianity, which surely at least in part reflects his values as a missionary. Nonetheless, this criticism shouldn’t be overdone. The causes of long-term economic development were still largely unknown in the 19th century. Economics had yet to come into its own as a social science, and there was no agreement between the political economists. As such, the assumption that Christianity was a prerequisite of development was not, perhaps, an entirely unreasonable one, given that up to that point only Christian Powers had grown rich and come to rule over most of the world. And it should be stressed that Smith is no fanatic, and only forcefully makes this argument in the last chapter. He is also not averse to recognizing that in many respects, such as personal safety and filial piety, Confucian China is superior to the West.

In the end, it is up to the Chinese themselves to decide whether Smith was a laowai blowhard or someone worth listening to. For the most part they have come down on the latter assessment. The China discourse in the West a century ago was framed in the rather schizophrenic dichotomy between seeing it is a decayed civilization, about to get eaten up by its predatory neighbors, and the “yellow peril,” ready to disgorge its ravenous hordes upon the Christian world. Smith’s observations far surpassed those (admittedly very low) bars in nuance, detail, and understanding. He heavily influenced one of China’s most influential 20th century writers, Lu Xun. And it’s an undeniable fact that some of the negative characteristics he identified continue to plague China to this day, both in terms of “extraordinary incidents” – as in the recent story of a toddler who got ran over to mass indifference, as well as the more objective realm of hard cold statistics – such as the the soaring male to female ratio, which has arisen thanks to the marriage of sex-selective abortion technology with the traditional Chinese view that by “the accident of sex [the daughter] is a dreaded burden… certain to be despised.”

China during the 20th centuries saw many disappointments, traumatic convulsions, and finally, what appears to be a fairly sustainable takeoff into rising prosperity. The characteristics that Smith ascribed to China more than a century ago became redundant: The sense of nation and community was built up under the father-like gaze of Mao, while the transition to capitalism has imprinted upon the new Chinese man a lot of the basic characteristics of capitalism (e.g. “time is money”) that Smith leads us to believe are specifically Western but are not. And we must also bear in mind that America, too, is not the America of Smith’s time, e.g. public spirit and community life is held to have declined since the 1960’s on most metrics both statistical (e.g. wealth inequality, incarceration rate, crime rate, etc.) and intangible. So in a sense China and the “West” are converging towards being richer, more atomized, and for lack of a better term, “post-Smithian” societies. I would therefore argue that while Chinese Characteristics is of great historical and anthropological interest, its direct relevance to China today is very much limited.


  1. Interesting assessment. I do find the “doomed civilization/Yellow Hordes” schizophrenia rather amusing. A bit like how, during the Enlightenment, China was often held up as the epitome of the rational, meritocratic State.. A lot of projection going on.

    On Western-Chinese(-Russian) convergence: Emmanuel Todd has suggested that free trade and globalization may not only lead to economic convergence, which is happening both in terms of standards of living and inequality, but also *(un)democratic convergence*: free trade with underdeveloped countries both empowers Western oligarchies and creates pressures for social regression that can only be implemented if universal suffrage is bypassed. A plausible scenario.

    I would find it interesting to research whether the “get-rich” materialism is an inevitable part of modernity or part of “contamination” from the West (or a reaction to Communist hysteria). Was Japan, prior to 1945, similarly obsessed with money? To what extent do others nations’/civilizations’ paths to modernity remain parallel but separate to the West, to what extent must they converge?

    • In China, the overwhelming view is that the current bout of “get-rich” materialism is the result of deprivation experienced under 30 disastrous years of Mao (Greap Leap Forward + Cultural Revolution). Culturist believes this is because Cultural Revolution destroyed the basic moral fibers of the traditional Chinese culture. I don’t place too much stock in this line of thinking. If you starve a man for a long time, then set food in front of him, what do you expect?

      Mainland Chinese society had been subjected to terrific man-made famine from 1956-1963 and then continuous material deprivation and political upheaval from then onward to 1976. Is it any surprise after all that prevailing ethos is “get rich quick”?

      Add to that this is a society that’s rapidly going through industrialization and urbanization on a vast scale. What we witness in China today, I could not have imagined in my wildest dreams as I was growing up attending elementary school in Chongqing in the early 80s.

    • The Undiscovered Jew says:

      I do find the “doomed civilization/Yellow Hordes” schizophrenia rather amusing.

      The problem with China achieving global hegemony is that they are surrounded
      by powerful neighbors like Japan, India and Russia that all either have nuclear weapons or could have them in short order if they wanted to. Geography doesn’t help them either. China’s regional competitors are protected by fearsome natural barriers that heavily favor the defender and Chinese own industrial might sits next to coastlines that are very vulnerable to naval and air attacks.

  2. “this cultural and cognitive chasm has now closed.”

    Not when it comes to innovation. They’ve had more industrialization than the USSR under Stalin and they’ve moved more people from villages into apartment blocks than the USSR under Khruschov. Yet they haven’t even tried to do anything as cool as Sputnik, Gagarin’s flight and the first nuclear power stations were at their time. Their biggest technological novelty is that magnetic levitation train line, designed by Germans. Stunning economic might without any innovation at all.

    • Not when it comes to innovation, true. Although who knows? But by and large you’re right, 95%+ of it is copying and adoption of best practices right now.

    • I fail to understand why people demand “innovation” (as if anyone could be assed to quantify the term) presently from China. Actually I have a solid hypothesis that its simply because most people are illogical simpletons who couldn’t train themselves for greater comprehension no more than I can train a cat to jump at whim. Pushing any technical frontier entails a great degree of risk, expense, and the possibility of failure. For all of China’s economic growth, it must be kept in mind that it started out somewhere BELOW sub-saharan Africa in per capita GDP in the post Mao era and even today, it’s nominal per capita GDP is about 1/8th that of the West. Simply put there is still considerable room left for catch up growth by simply absorbing more already established skills and technology from the West. There is simply no overall need yet to pursue risky marginal returns on unproven “innovation” that is even arguably grinding to a standstill in the US when other avenues are still available.

      • The USSR lay in ruins in 1945, yet in 1957 it achieved something that no country had done before: it created the first artificial satellite of the Earth. The amount of real economic activity in today’s China is stunning. I’m talking about manufacturing, construction and infrastructure development. No one’s ever built or manufactured that much in that short a time. And all of it represents copying of existing technologies.

        There are many motivations for innovating, but one of them should be especially clear to the politicians running China: prestige. Stunning the world in a positive way. The Olympic Games are such a triviality compared to major sci-tech stuff like building a space elevator, starting a lunar colony, looking for life on the moons of Saturn, learning to grow human organs in a lab. The West isn’t going back to the Moon, etc. because it’s bankrupt. And sure, that reflects badly on Western countries. But China doesn’t have that excuse.

        A small example of the copying:

        I sometimes hang out at the skyscraperpage forums. A few years ago someone there posted a characteristic picture of Moscow. Not of central, historical Moscow, but of the type of neighborhood where I grew up and where most Moscovites live. A forum member, most likely not a Russian one, commented below:

        “/ wicked shots. The last one looks like it’s from a Chinese interior city.”

        And below that someone replied:

        “Or Chinese inland cities look like Moscow

        They invented the commie block…”

        That’s absolutely true. I have a feeling that in the future millions of tourists visiting formerly Soviet cities will think that they look just like Chinese ones.

        The comments I quoted can be found below the 5th photo on this page:

        • And where exactly today is the USSR? The Soviets were ideologically driven to compete with the United States, a competition which resulted in them pauperizing the majority of its population by funneling close to 20% of their GDP into the military and military related research. Spectacles like the Olympics are prestige projects not necessarily to show the world the superiority of the Soviet system, but rather primarily to grease the incestuous nexus of the Chinese construction industry and politicians first and impress the Chinese people second. For all of the talk of a Sino-American rivalry, the kleptocrats in the Chinese communist party are primarily interested in self preservation and their own luxuries than any apocalyptic showdown with the United States, which is why they don’t devote even a tenth of their resources at their disposal to truly compete but are more content to print money, “loan” it to politically connected companies and state owned industries, and take their finders fee.

        • Devil’s advocate position: It’s probably (probably? definitely!) a lot tougher to come up with true innovation today than it was back in the 1950’s. Shoulders of giants and all that.

          In fairness to China, in sectors where there is a lot of unharnessed innovation potential, such as genetics, they seem to be doing okay. Indeed, it might even have a better future in China than in the West because of the latter’s stultifying PC orthodoxy.

          • When comments here arguing about innovation, it is like arguements“consist exclusively of predicates”, which are “attached to nothing whatever”
            Without data, you are just another person with opinion. Opinion formed based on verbal arguements is not too much different from delusional thought of schizophrenia. Verbal IQ is about manipulation of others brain or brain washing. Some people exhibit quite bit here, who, at end, are not very original at all. They are typical products of brain washing.

    • I am guessing you are not from a engineering background.

      There is a line from “Pirates of Silicon Valley”:
      Good programmers copy, Best Programmer steal.

      When the game is playing catch up, simply copying would be sufficient in closing the existing gap. There is no need for China to innovate much at this stage in game, maybe in 10-20 years…

      More apt comparison would be to Japan and Korea. China is merely following the development model first pioneered by Japan, adopted by other East Asian regions such as Korea and Taiwan. Except on a gigantic scale, Japan X 10

      I grew up in China in the 80s, and to me, the opening up of China since 1978 is rather like Meiji Restoration of Japan in the late 19th century when Japan decides to copy West in earnest. On the other hand, the massive industrialization and urbanization is similar to that of United States of the late 19th century. British capital and European technology applied (+waves of immigrant labor and abundant resources) made the rise of the American Power possible. American Indigenous innovation came much later.

      • “American Indigenous innovation came much later.”

        This is not true. Robert Fulton, an American, built the first steam boat in the late 18th century. The inventions of Bell, Edison and others came in the 19th.

  3. Ignorance is bliss. Truth migh hurt.

    • It is you, my friend, who are being ignorant. The West is the birth place of science. There was no science anywhere in the world until it appeared in the West. That’s a fact, not an opinion. Anyone who tells you otherwise is a charlatan. At various times various non-Western countries have adopted Western scientific ideas and, with various rates of success, joined the scientific process. This happened in Russia in the early 18th century. It happened in Japan in the late 19th century. To this day the overwhelming majority of all scientific activity is performed by Westerners.

  4. Describing another’s cultural and cognitive habits is always a bit tricky, for it is hard to do so objectively. James Palmer’s “The Bailinghou” article for Aeon is one of the best articles of this type I have seen in a long time. But at the end of the day these descriptions can always be challenged with a short, “Can you prove that?” Subjectivity is the curse of the anthropologist and culture critic alike.

    There are a few people who are trying to do this in a more objective fashion. I recently reviewed at length Richard Nisbett’s book Geography of Thought, wherein he describes how experimental psychologists have racked up a great number of studies showing how Japanese, Chinese, and Korean people think differently from Americans and the rest of the Anglosphere at the unconscious, cognitive level. But that is really just scratching the surface.

  5. Never hear of this guy or the book. Thoroughly enjoyed your review (and ordered the book), thanks!