Historic China, and Other Sketches

Author: Herbert Allen Giles


The extraordinary feeling of hatred and contempt evinced by the Chinese nation for missionaries of every denomination who settle in their country, naturally suggests the question whether Christianity is likely to prove a boon to China, if, indeed, it ever succeeds in taking root at all. That under the form of Roman Catholicism, it once had a chance of becoming the religion of the Empire, and that that chance was recklessly sacrificed to bigotry and intolerance, is too well known to be repeated; but that such an opportunity will ever occur again is quite beyond the bounds, if not of possibility, at any rate of probability. Missionary prospects are anything but bright in China just now, in spite of rosily worded "reports," and annual statistics of persons baptized. A respectable Chinaman will tell you that only thieves and bad characters who have nothing to lose avail themselves of baptism, as a means of securing "long nights of indolence and ease" in the household of some enthusiastic missionary at from four to ten dollars a month. Educated men will not tolerate missionaries in their houses, as many have found to their cost; and the fact cannot be concealed that the foreign community in China suffers no small inconvenience and incurs considerable danger for a cause with which a large majority of its members has no sympathy whatever. It would, however, be invidious to dwell upon the class of natives who allow themselves to be baptized and pretend to accept dogmas they most certainly do not understand, or on the mental and social calibre of numbers of those gentlemen who are sent out to convert them; we will confine ourselves merely to considering what practical benefits Christianity would be likely to confer upon the Chinese at large. And this we may fairly do, not being of those who hold that all will be damned but the sect of that particular church to which they themselves happen to belong; but believing that the Chinese have as good a chance as anybody else of whatever happiness may be in store for the virtuous, whether they become Christians or whether they do not.

In the course of eight years’ residence in China, we have never met a drunken man in the streets. Opium-smokers we have seen in all stages of intoxication; but no drunken brawls, no bruised and bleeding wives. Would Christianity raise the Chinese to the standard of European sobriety? Would it bring them to renounce opium, only to replace it with gin? Would it cause them to become more frugal, to live more economically than they do now on their bowl of rice and cabbage, moistened with a drink of tea, and perhaps supplemented with a few whiffs of the mildest possible tobacco? Would it cause them to be more industrious than—e.g., the wood-carvers of Ningpo who work daily from sunrise to dusk, with two short intervals for meals? Would it make them more filial?—justly renowned as they are for unremitting care of aged and infirm parents. More fraternal?—where every family is a small society, each member toiling for the common good, and being sure of food and shelter if thrown out of work or enfeebled by disease. More law-abiding?—we appeal to any one who has lived in China, and mixed with the people. Would it make them more honest?—when many Europeans confess that for straightforward business they would sooner deal with Chinamen than with merchants of certain Christian nationalities we shall not take upon ourselves to name. Should we not run the risk of sowing seed for future and bloody religious wars on soil where none now rage? To teach them justice in the administration of law would be a glorious task indeed, but even that would have its dark side. Litigation would become the order of the day, and a rapacious class would spring into existence where lawyers and barristers are now totally unknown. The striking phenomenon of extreme wealth side by side with extreme poverty, might be produced in a country where absolute destitution is at present remarkably rare, and no one need actually starve; and thus would be developed a fine field for the practice of that Christian charity which by demoralisation of the poorer classes so skilfully defeats its own end. We should rejoice if anything could make Chinamen less cruel to dumb animals, desist from carrying ducks, geese, and pigs, hanging by their legs to a pole, feed their hungry dogs, and spare their worn-out beasts of burden. But pigeon-shooting is unknown, and gag-bearing reins have yet to be introduced into China; neither have we heard of a poor heathen Chinaman "skinning a sheep alive." (/Vide Daily Papers of July/ 12, 1875.)

Last of all, it must not be forgotten that China has already four great religions flourishing in her midst. There is /Confucianism/, which, strictly speaking, is not a religion, but a system of self-culture with a view to the proper government of (1) one’s own family and of (2) the State. It teaches man to be good, and to love virtue for its own sake, with no fear of punishment for failure, no hope of reward for success. Is it below Christianity in this?

/Buddhism/, /Taoism/, and /Mahomedanism/, share the patronage of the illiterate, and serve to satisfy the natural craving in uneducated man for something supernatural in which to believe and on which to rely. The /literati/ are sheer materialists: they laugh at the absurdities of Buddhism, though they sometimes condescend to practise its rites. They strongly object to the introduction of a new religion, and successfully oppose it by every means in their power. They urge, and with justice, that Confucius has laid down an admirable rule of life in harmony with their own customs, and that the conduct of those who approximate to this standard would compare not unfavourably with the practice, as distinguished from the profession, of any religion in the world.


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Chicago: Herbert Allen Giles, "Christianity," Historic China, and Other Sketches, ed. F. N. Maude and trans. Giles, John Allen, 1808-1884 in Historic China, and Other Sketches (London: 1911, 1909), Original Sources, accessed May 28, 2023, http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=GZXDCRKU9D1J2RB.

MLA: Giles, Herbert Allen. "Christianity." Historic China, and Other Sketches, edited by F. N. Maude, and translated by Giles, John Allen, 1808-1884, in Historic China, and Other Sketches, London, 1911, 1909, Original Sources. 28 May. 2023. http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=GZXDCRKU9D1J2RB.

Harvard: Giles, HA, 'Christianity' in Historic China, and Other Sketches, ed. and trans. . cited in 1909, Historic China, and Other Sketches, 1911, London. Original Sources, retrieved 28 May 2023, from http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=GZXDCRKU9D1J2RB.