A Chinaman on Oxford by Maurice Baring
"Yes, I am a student," said the Chinaman, "And I came here to study
the English manners and customs."
We were seated on the top of the electric tram which goes to Hampton
Court. It was a bitterly cold spring day. The suburbs of London were
not looking their best.
"I spent three days at Oxford last week," he said.
"It's a beautiful place, is it not?" I remarked.
The Chinaman smiled. "The country which you see from the windows of
the railway carriages," he said, "on the way from Oxford to London
strikes me as being beautiful. It reminded me of the Chinese Plain,
only it is prettier. But the houses at Oxford are hideous: there is no
symmetry about them. The houses in this country are like blots on the
landscape. In China the houses are made to harmonise with the
landscape just as trees do."
"What did you see at Oxford?" I asked.
"I saw boat races," he said, "and a great many ignorant old men."
"What did you think of that?"
"I think," he said, "the young people seemed to enjoy it, and if they
enjoy it they are quite right to do it. But the way the older men talk
about these things struck me as being foolish. They talk as if these
games and these sports were a solemn affair, a moral or religious
question; they said the virtues and the prowess of the English race
were founded on these things. They said that competition was the
mainspring of life; they seemed to think exercise was the goal of
existence. A man whom I saw there and who, I learnt, had been chosen
to teach the young on account of his wisdom, told me that competition
trained the man to sharpen his faculties; and that the tension which
it provoked is in itself a useful training. I do not believe this. A
cat or a boa constrictor will lie absolutely idle until it perceives
an object worthy of its appetite; it will then catch it and swallow
it, and once more relapse into repose without thinking of keeping
itself 'in training.' But it will lie dormant and rise to the occasion
when it occurs. These people who talked of games seem to me to
undervalue repose. They forget that repose is the mother of action,
and exercise only a frittering away of the same."
"What did you think," I asked, "of the education that the students at
"I think," said the Chinaman, "that inasmuch as the young men waste
their time in idleness they do well; for the wise men who are chosen
to instruct the young at your places of learning, are not always wise.
I visited a professor of Oriental languages. His servant asked me to
wait, and after I had waited three quarters of an hour, he sent word
to say that he had tried everywhere to find the professor in the
University who spoke French, but that he had not been able to find
him. And so he asked me to call another day. I had dinner in a college
hall. I found that the professors talked of many things in such a way
as would be impossible to children of five and six in our country.
They are quite ignorant of the manners and customs of the people of
other European countries. They pronounce Greek and Latin and even
French in the same way as English. I mentioned to one of them that I
had been employed for some time in the Chinese Legation; he asked me
if I had had much work to do. I said yes, the work had been heavy.
'But,' he observed, 'I suppose a great deal of the work is carried on
directly between the Governments and not through the Ambassadors.' I
cannot conceive what he meant or how such a thing could be possible,
or what he considered the use and function of Embassies and Legations
to be. They most of them seemed to take for granted that I could not
speak English: some of them addressed me in a kind of baby language;
one of them spoke French. The professor who spoke to me in this
language told me that the French possessed no poetical literature, and
he said the reason of this was that the French language was a bastard
language; that it was, in fact, a kind of pidgin Latin. He said when a
Frenchman says a girl is 'beaucoup belle,' he is using pidgin Latin.
The courtesy due to a host prevented me from suggesting that if a
Frenchman said 'beaucoup belle' he would be talking pidgin French.
"Another professor said to me that China would soon develop if she
adopted a large Imperial ideal, and that in time the Chinese might
attain to a great position in the world, such as the English now held.
He said the best means of bringing this about would be to introduce
cricket and football into China. I told him that I thought this was
improbable, because if the Chinese play games, they do not care who is
the winner; the fun of the game is to us the improvisation of it as
opposed to the organisation which appeals to the people here. Upon
which he said that cricket was like a symphony of music. In a symphony
every instrument plays its part in obedience to one central will, not
for its individual advantage, but in order to make a beautiful whole.
'So it is with our games,' he said, 'every man plays his part not for
the sake of personal advantage, but so that his side may win; and thus
the citizen is taught to sink his own interests in those of the
community.' I told him the Chinese did not like symphonies, and
Western music was intolerable to them for this very reason. Western
musicians seem to us to take a musical idea which is only worthy of a
penny whistle (and would be very good indeed if played on a penny
whistle!); and they sit down and make a score of it twenty yards
broad, and set a hundred highly-trained and highly-paid musicians to
play it. It is the contrast between the tremendous apparatus and waste
of energy on one side, and the light and playful character of the
business itself on the other which makes me, a Chinaman, as incapable
of appreciating your complicated games as I am of appreciating the
complicated symphonies of the Germans or the elaborate rules which
their students make with regard to the drinking of beer. We like a man
for taking his fun and not missing a joke when he finds it by chance
on his way, but we cannot understand his going out of his way to
prepare a joke and to make arrangements for having some fun at a
certain fixed date. This is why we consider a wayside song, a tune
that is heard wandering in the summer darkness, to be better than
"What did that professor say?" I asked.
"He said that if I were to stay long enough in England and go to a
course of concerts at the Chelsea Town Hall, I would soon learn to
think differently. And that if cricket and football were introduced
into China, the Chinese would soon emerge out of their backwardness
and barbarism and take a high place among the enlightened nations of
the world. I thought to myself as he said this that your games are no
doubt an excellent substitute for drill, but if we were to submit to
so complicated an organisation it would be with a purpose: in order to
turn the Europeans out of China, for instance; but that organisation
without a purpose would always seem to us to be stupid, and we should
no more dream of organising our play than of organising a stroll in
the twilight to see the Evening Star, or the chase of a butterfly in
the spring. If we were to decide on drill it would be drill with a
vengeance and with a definite aim; but we should not therefore and
thereby destroy our play. Play cannot exist for us without fun, and
for us the open air, the fields, and the meadows are like wine: if we
feel inclined, we roam and jump about in them, but we should never
submit to standing to attention for hours lest a ball should escape
us. Besides which, we invented the foundations of all our games many
thousand of years ago. We invented and played at 'Diabolo' when the
Britons were painted blue and lived in the woods. The English knew how
to play once, in the days of Queen Elizabeth; then they had masques
and madrigals and Morris dances and music. A gentleman was ashamed if
he did not speak six or seven languages, handle the sword with a
deadly dexterity, play chess, and write good sonnets. Men were broken
on the wheel for an idea: they were brave, cultivated, and gay; they
fought, they played, and they wrote excellent verse. Now they organise
games and lay claim to a special morality and to a special mission;
they send out missionaries to civilise us savages; and if our people
resent having an alien creed stuffed down their throats, they take our
hand and burn our homes in the name of Charity, Progress, and
Civilisation. They seek for one thing--gold; they preach competition,
but competition for what? For this: who shall possess the most, who
shall most successfully 'do' his neighbour. These ideals and aims do
not tempt us. The quality of the life is to us more important than the
quantity of what is done and achieved. We live, as we play, for the
sake of living. I did not say this to the professors because we have a
proverb that when you are in a man's country you should not speak ill
of it. I say it to you because I see you have an inquiring mind, and
you will feel it more insulting to be served with meaningless phrases
and empty civilities than with the truth, however bitter. For those
who have once looked the truth in the face cannot afterwards be put
off with false semblances."
"You speak true words," I said, "but what do you like best in
"The gardens," he answered, "and the little yellow flowers that are
sprinkled like stars on your green grass."
"And what do you like least in England?"
"The horrible smells," he said.
"Have you no smells in China?" I asked.
"Yes," he replied, "we have natural smells, but not the smell of gas
and smoke and coal which sickens me here. It is strange to me that
people can find the smell of human beings disgusting and be able to
stand the foul stenches of a London street. This very road along which
we are now travelling (we were passing through one of the less
beautiful portions of the tramway line) makes me homesick for my
country. I long to see a Chinese village once more built of mud and
fenced with mud, muddy-roaded and muddy-baked, with a muddy little
stream to be waded across or passed by stepping on stones; with a
delicate one-storeyed temple on the water-eaten bank, and green poppy
fields round it; and the women in dark blue standing at the doorways,
smoking their pipes; and the children, with three small budding
pigtails on the head of each, clinging to them; and the river fringed
with a thousand masts: the boats, the houseboats, the barges and the
ships in the calm, wide estuaries, each with a pair of huge eyes
painted on the front bow. And the people: the men working at their
looms and whistling a happy tune out of the gladness of their hearts.
And everywhere the sense of leisure, the absence of hurry and bustle
and confusion; the dignity of manners and the grace of expression and
of address. And, above all, the smell of life everywhere."
"I admit," I said, "that our streets smell horribly of smoke and coal,
but surely our people are clean?"
"Yes," he said, "no doubt; but you forget that to us there is nothing
so intolerably nasty as the smell of a clean white man!"