Historic China, and Other Sketches

Author: Herbert Allen Giles

Educational Literature

A ramble through a native town in China must often have discovered to the observant foreigner small collections of second-hand books and pamphlets displayed on some umbrella-shaded stall, or arranged less pretentiously on the door-step of a temple. If innocent of all claims to a knowledge of the written language, he may take them for cheap editions of Confucius, with which literary chair-coolies are wont to solace their leisure hours; at the worst, some of these myriad novels of which he has heard so much, and read—in translations—so little. It possibly never enters our barbarian’s head that many of these itinerant book-sellers are vendors of educational works, much after the style of Pinnock’s Catechisms and other such guides to knowledge. Buying a handful the other day for a few cash,[*] we were much amused at the nature of the subjects therein discussed, and the manner in which they were treated. The first we opened was on Ethnology and Zoology, and gave an account of the wonderful types of men and beasts which exist in far-off regions beyond the pale of China and civilisation. There was the long-legged nation, the people of which have legs three chang (thirty feet) long to support bodies of no more than ordinary size, followed by a short account of a cross-legged race, a term which explains itself. We are next told of a country where all the inhabitants have a large round hole right through the middle of their bodies, the officials and wealthy citizens being easily and comfortably carried a la sedan chair by means of a strong bamboo pole passed through it. Then there is the feathered or bird nation, the pictures of which people remind us very much of Lapps and Greenlanders. A few lines are devoted to a pygmy race of nine-inch men, also to a people who walk with their bodies at an angle of 45 degrees. There is the one-armed nation, and a three-headed nation, besides fish-bodied and bird-headed representatives of humanity; last but not least we have a race of beings without heads at all, their mouth, eyes, nose, &c., occupying their chests and pit of the stomach!

"And of the cannibals that each other eat,
The Anthropophagi, and men whose heads
Do grow beneath their shoulders."

The little work which contains the above valuable information was published in 1783, and has consequently been nearly one hundred years before an enlightened and approving public.

[*] About 24 cash go to a penny.

Not to dwell upon the remaining portion, devoted to Zoology, and containing wonderful specimens of various kinds of animals and birds met with by travellers beyond the Four Seas, we would remark that the geography of the world, notwithstanding some very fair existing treatises, is little studied by Chinese at the present day. More works on topography have been written in Chinese than in probably any other language, but to say that even these are read is quite another matter. Geography, properly so called, is almost entirely neglected, and in a rather extensive circle of literary acquaintances, it has never been our fortune to meet with a single scholar acquainted with the useful publications of Catholic or Protestant missionaries—the latter have not contributed much—except perhaps the mutilated edition of Verbiest’s little handbook.

To describe one is to give a fair idea of all such native works for the diffusion of knowledge. We found in our little parcel a complete guide (save the mark!) to the Fauna and Flora of the Celestial Empire, besides a treatise headed "Philosophy for the Young," in which children are shown that to work for one’s living is better than to be idle, and that the strength of three men is powerless against Li. Now as Li means "abstract right," and as it is an axiom of Chinese philosophy that "right in the abstract" does exist, we are gravely informed that neither the moral or physical violence of any three men acting in concert can hope to prevail against it. So much for the state of education in China at the present day, the remedy for which unwholesome condition will by no means readily be found. From time to time a few scientific treatises are translated by ambitious members of the missionary body, but such only tend to swell the pastor’s fame amongst his own immediate flock: they do not advance civilisation one single step. The very fact of their emanating from a missionary would of itself be enough to deter the better class of Chinese from purchasing, or even accepting them as a gift.[*]

[*] "The principal priest . . . declined the gift of some Christian
books."—From /Glimpses of Travel in the Middle Kingdom/,
published in the /Celestial Empire/ of July 3d, 1875.


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Chicago: Herbert Allen Giles, "Educational Literature," 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 June 3, 2023, http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=LKMQUNH5H2L129D.

MLA: Giles, Herbert Allen. "Educational Literature." 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. 3 Jun. 2023. http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=LKMQUNH5H2L129D.

Harvard: Giles, HA, 'Educational Literature' in Historic China, and Other Sketches, ed. and trans. . cited in 1909, Historic China, and Other Sketches, 1911, London. Original Sources, retrieved 3 June 2023, from http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=LKMQUNH5H2L129D.