Henry Pearson Gratton.

As a Chinaman saw us; passages from his letters to a friend at home online

. (page 1 of 12)
Online LibraryHenry Pearson GrattonAs a Chinaman saw us; passages from his letters to a friend at home → online text (page 1 of 12)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

Produced by Martin Pettit and the Online Distributed
Proofreading Team at http://www.pgdp.net (This file was
produced from images generously made available by The
Internet Archive/American Libraries.)

+ - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -+
|Transcriber's note: |
| |
|In this text the breve has been represented with |
| |
|[ua] [ue] [uo]. |
+ - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -+


Made when the Anglo-Saxon people were living in caves]




[Illustration: Publisher's logo]



Printed in the United States of America


Since the publication in 1832 of that classic of cynicism, The Domestic
Manners of the Americans, by Mrs. Trollope, perhaps nothing has appeared
that is more caustic or amusing in its treatment of America and the
Americans than the following passages from the letters of a cultivated
and educated Chinaman. The selections have been made from a series of
letters covering a decade spent in America, and were addressed to a
friend in China who had seen few foreigners. The writer was graduated
from a well-known college, after he had attended an English school, and
later took special studies at a German university. Americans have been
informed of the impressions they make on the French, English, and other
people, but doubtless this is the first unreserved and weighty
expression of opinion on a multiplicity of American topics by a Chinaman
of cultivation and grasp of mind.

It will be difficult for the average American to conceive it possible
that a cultivated Chinaman, of all persons, should have been honestly
amused at our civilization; that he should have considered what Mrs.
Trollope called "our great experiment" in republics a failure, and our
institutions, fashions, literary methods, customs and manners, sports
and pastimes as legitimate fields for wit and unrepressed jollity. Yet
in the unbosoming of this cultivated "heathen" we see our fads and
foibles held up as strange gods, and must confess some of them to be
grotesque when seen in this yellow light.

It is doubtless true that the masses of Americans do not take the
Chinaman seriously, and an interesting feature of this correspondence is
the attitude of the Chinaman on this very point and his clever satire on
our assumption of perfection and superiority over a nation, the habits
of which have been fixed and settled for many centuries. The writer's
experiences in society, his acquaintance with American women of fashion
and their husbands, all ingeniously set forth, have the hall-mark of
actual novelty, while his loyalty to the traditions of his country and
his egotism, even after the Americanizing process had exercised its
influence over him for years, add to the interest of the recital.

In revising the correspondence and rearranging it under general heads,
the editor has preserved the salient features of it, with but little
essential change and practically in its original shape. If the reader
misses the peculiar idioms, or the pigeon-English that is usually placed
in the mouth of the Chinaman of the novel or story, he or she should
remember that the writer of the letters, while a "heathen Chinee," was
an educated gentleman in the American sense of the term. This fact
should always be kept in mind because, as the author remarks, to many
Americans whom he met, it was "incomprehensible that a Chinaman can be
educated, refined, and cultivated according to their own standards."

With pardonable pride he tells how, on one occasion, when a woman in New
York told him she knew her ancestral line as far back as 1200 A. D., he
replied that he himself had "a tree without a break for thirty-two
hundred years." He was sure she did not believe him, but he found her
"indeed!" delightful. The author's name has been withheld for personal
reasons that will be sufficiently obvious to those who read the letters.
The period during which he wrote them is embraced in the ten years from
1892 to 1902.


May 10th, 1904.
























Many of the great powers believe themselves to be passing through an
evolutionary period leading to civic and national perfection. America,
or the United States, has already reached this state; it is complete and
finished. I have this from the Americans themselves, so there can be no
question about it; hence it requires no little temerity to discuss, let
alone criticize, them.

Yet I am going to ask you to behold the American as he is, as I honestly
found him - great, small, good, bad, self-glorious, egotistical,
intellectual, supercilious, ignorant, superstitious, vain, and
bombastic. In truth, so very remarkable, so contradictory, so
incongruous have I found the American that I hesitate. Shall I give you
a satire; shall I devote myself to eulogy; shall I tear what they call
the "whitewash" aside and expose them to the winds of excoriation; or
shall I devote myself to an introspective, analytical _divertissement_?
But I do not wish to educate you on the Americans, but to entertain, to
make you laugh by the recital of comical truths; so without system I am
going to tell you of these Americans as I found them, day by day, month
by month, officially, socially; in their homes, in politics, trade,
sorrow, despair, and in their pleasures.

You will remember when the Evil Spirit is asked by the modest Spirit of
Good to indicate his possessions he tucks the earth under one arm,
drops the sun into one pocket, the moon into another, and the stars into
the folds of his garment. In a word, to use the saying of my friends, he
"claims everything in sight"; and this is certainly a characteristic of
the American: he is all-perspective, he claims to have all the virtues,
and in his ancestry embraces the entire world. At a dinner at the - -
in Washington during the egg stage of my experience I sat next to a
charming lady; and having been told that it was a custom of the French
to compliment women, I remarked that her cheeks bloomed like our poppy
of the Orient. She laughed, and responded, "Yes, I get that from my
English grandfather." "But your eyes are like black pearls," I
continued, seeing that I was on what a general on my right called the
"right trail." "I got them from my Italian grandmother," she replied.
"And your hair?" I pressed. "Must be Irish," was the answer, "for my
paternal grandmother was Irish and her husband Scotch." It is true that
this charmingly beautiful and composite goddess (at least she would have
been one had she not been naked like a geisha at a men's dinner) was the
product of a dozen nations, and a typical American.

The original Americans appear to have been English, despite the fact
that the Spaniards discovered the country, though a high official, a
Yankee whom I met at a reception, told me that this was untrue. His
ancestor had discovered North America, and I believe he had written a
book to prove it. (_En passant_, all Americans write books; those who
have not, fully intend to write one.) I listened complacently, then
said, "My dear - - , if I am not mistaken the Chinese discovered
America." I recalled the fact to his mind that the northwestern Eskimos
and the Indians were essentially Asiatic in type; and it is true that he
had never heard of the ethnologic map at his National Museum, which
shows the location of Chinese junks blown to American shores within a
period of three hundred years. I explained that junks had been blown
over to America for the last _three thousand_ years, and that in my
country there were many records of voyages to the Western land, ages
before 1492.

You see I soon began to be Americanized and to claim things. China
discovered America and gave her the compass as well as gunpowder. The
first Americans were in the nature of emigrants; men and women who did
not succeed well in their own country and so sought new fields, just as
people are doing to-day. They came over in a ship called the
"Mayflower," and were remarkably prolific, as I have met thousands who
hail from this stock. At one time England sent her criminals to
Virginia - one of the United States - and many of the refuse of the home
country were sent to other parts of America in the early days. Younger
sons of good families were also sent over for various reasons. Women of
all classes were sent by the ship-load, and sold for wives. I reminded a
lady of this, who was lamenting the fact that in China some women are
sold for wives. She was absolutely ignorant of this well-known fact in
American history, and forgot the selling of black women. Among the men
were many representatives of old and noble families; but the bulk, I
judge from their colonial histories, were people of low degree. Very
soon other countries began to ship people to America. Italy, Germany,
Russia, Norway, Sweden, and other lands were drawn upon for constantly
increasing numbers as years went by. All tumbled into the American
hopper. Imagine a coffee-grinder into which have been thrown Greek,
Roman, Jew, Gentile, and all the rest, and then let what they call Uncle
Sam - a heroic, paternal, and comical figure, representing the
government - turn the handle and grind out the American who is neither
Jew, Gentile, Greek, Roman, Russe, or Swede, but a new product, _sui
generis_, and mostly Methodist.

This process has never ceased for an hour. America has been from 1492 to
the present time, in the language of the American "press," the
"dumping-ground" of the nations of the world, the real open door; yet
this grinding assimilation has gone on. It is, perhaps, due to the
climate, perhaps the water, or the air; but the product of these people
born on the soil is described by no other word than American. It may be
Irish-American, very offensive; Dutch-American, very strenuous, like the
Vice-President;[1] Jewish-American, very commercial; Italian-American,
very dirty and reeking with garlic; but it is American, totally unlike
its progenitor, a something into which is blown a tremendous energy,
that is very wearisome, a bombast which is the sum of that of all
nations, and a conceit like that possessed by - - alone. You see it is
incurable, also offensive - at least to the Oriental mind. Yet I grant
you the American is great; I have it from him and from her; it must be

You have the spectacle here of the nations of the world pouring a
stream, that is not pactolean, and not perfumed with the gums of Araby,
flowing in and peopling the country. In time they had grievances more
fancied than real, yet grievances. They rose against the home
government, threw off the English yoke, and became a republic with a
division into States, which I will write of when I tell you of the
American politician. This was the first trust - what they call a
merger - but it occurred in politics. They have killed off a fair
percentage of the actual owners of the soil, the Indians, swindling them
out of the balance, and driving them back to a sort of ever-changing
dead-line. Without delay they assumed the form of a dominant nation, and
announced themselves the greatest nation on the earth.

Immigration was resumed, and all nations again sent their refuse
population to America. I have facts showing that for years English
poorhouses and hospitals were emptied of their inmates and shipped to
America. It was a distinct policy of the anti-home-rule party in Ireland
to encourage the poor Irish to go to America; and now when there are
more Irish in America than in Ireland the fate of Ireland is assured.
Yet the American air takes the fight out of the Irishman, the rose from
his cheek, and makes a natural-born politician out of him. America still
continued to receive immigrants, and not satisfied with the natural flow
of the human current, began to import African slaves to a country
founded for the benefit of those who desired an asylum where they could
enjoy religious and political freedom. The Africans were sold in the
cotton belt, their existence virtually creating two distinct political
parties. America long remained a dumping-ground for nearly all the
nations of the world having an excess of population. Great navigation
companies were built up, to a large extent, on this trade. They sent
agents to every foreign country, issued pamphlets in every European
language, and uncounted thousands were brought over - the scum of the
earth in many instances. There was no restriction to immigration until
the Chinese were barred out. After accepting the outlaws of every
European state, the poor of all lands, they shut the door on our
"coolie" countrymen.

In this way, briefly, America has grown to her present population of
80,000,000. The remarkable growth and assimilation is still going on - a
menace to the world, but in a constantly decreasing ratio, which has
become so marked that the leading Americans, the class which corresponds
to our scholars, are aghast at the singular conditions which exist.
Non-assimilation shows itself in labor riots, in the murder of two
Presidents - Garfield and Lincoln - in socialistic outbreaks in every
quarter, and in signal outbreaks in various sections, at lynchings, and
other unlawful performances. I am attempting to give you an idea of the
constituents of America to-day; but so interesting is the subject, so
prolific in its warnings and possibilities, that I find myself

To glance at conditions at the present time, about 600,000 aliens are
coming to America yearly. What is the result? I was invited to meet a
distinguished German visiting in New York last month, and at the dinner
a young lady who sat by my side said to me, "I wish I could puzzle him."
"Why?" I asked, in amazement. "Oh," was her reply, "he looks so cram
full of knowledge; I would like to take him down." "Ah," I said. "Ask
him which is the third largest German city in the world. It is New
York; he will never guess it." She did so, and I assure you he was
"puzzled," and would scarcely believe it until a well-known man assured
him it was true. There are more Germans in Chicago than in Leipsic,
Cologne, Dresden, Munich, or a dozen small towns joined in one. Half of
the Chicago Germans speak their own tongue. This city is the third
Swedish city of the world in population. It is the fourth Polish city
and the second Bohemian city. I was informed by a professor in the
University of Chicago that, in that strange city, the number of people
who speak the language of the Bohemians equaled the combined inhabitants
of Richmond, Atlanta, Portland, and Nashville - all large cities. "What
do you think of it?" I asked. "We are up against it," was the reply. I
can not explain this retort so that you would understand it, but it had
great significance. The professor, a distinguished philologist, was
worried, and he looked it. A lady who was a club woman - and by this I do
not mean that she was armed with a club, but merely a member of clubs or
societies for educational advancement and social aggrandizement - said it
was merely his digestion.

I learned from my friend, the dyspeptic professor, that over forty
dialects are spoken in Chicago. About one-half only of the total
population speak or understand English. There are 500,000 Germans,
125,000 Poles, 100,000 Swedes, 90,000 Bohemians, 50,000 Yiddish, 25,000
Dutch, 25,000 Italians, 15,000 French, 10,000 Irish, 10,000 Servians,
10,000 Lutherans, 7,000 Russians, and 5,000 Hungarians in Chicago. You
will be surprised to learn that numbers do not count. The 500,000
Germans are not the dominating power, nor are the 100,000 Swedes. The
10,000 Irish are said absolutely to control the political situation. You
will ask if I believe that this monster foreign element can be reduced
to a homogeneous unit. I reply, yes. Fifty years from to-day they will
all be Americans, and a majority will, doubtless, show you their family
tree, tracing their ancestry back to the Mayflower.


[1] This passage was written just before the assassination of President



Hash - and I do not mean by this word a corruption of hasheesh - is a term
indicating in America a food formed of more than one article chopped and
cooked together. I was told by a very witty and charming lady that hash
was a synonym for _E pluribus unum_ (one from many), the motto of the
Government, but I did not find it on the American arms. This was an
American "dinner joke," of which more anon; nevertheless, hash
represents the American people of to-day. The millions of all nations,
which have swarmed here since 1492, may be represented by this
delectable dish, which, after all, has a certain homogeneity. Englishmen
are at once recognized here, and so are Chinamen. You would never
mistake one of our people for a Japanese; an Italian you would know
across the way; but an American not always in America. He may be a
Swede, a German, or a Canadian; he is not an American until he opens his
mouth. Then there is no mistake as to what he is. He has a nasal tone
that is purely American.

All the old cities, as Boston, New York, Richmond, and Philadelphia,
have certain nasal peculiarities or variants. The Bostonian affects the
English. The New Englander, especially in the north, has a comical
twang, which you can produce by holding the nose tightly and attempting
to speak. When he says _down_ it sounds like _daoun_. It is impossible
for him not to overvowel his words, and nothing is more amusing than to
hear the true Yankee countryman talk. The Philadelphian is quite as
marked in tone and enunciation. A well-educated Philadelphian will say
where is _me_ wife for _my_. I have also been asked by a Philadelphian,
"Where are you going at?" It would be impossible to mistake the
intonation of a Philadelphian, even though you met him in the wilds of
Manchuria in the depths of night.

Among the most charming and delightfully cultured people I met in
America were Philadelphians of old families. The New Yorker is more
cosmopolitan, while the Southern men, to a certain extent, have caught
the inflection of the negro, who is the nurse in the South for all white
children. The Americans are taught that the principal and chief end of
man is to make a fortune and get married; but to accomplish this it is
necessary first to "sow wild oats," become familiar with the vices of
drink, smoking, and other forms of dissipation, a sort of test of
endurance possibly, such as is found among many native races; yet one
scarcely expects to find it among the latest and highest exponents of
perfection in the human race.

The American pretends to be democratic; scoffs at England and other
European lands, but at heart he is an aristocrat. His tastes are only
limited by his means, and not always then. Any American, especially a
politician, will tell you that there is but one class - the people, and
that all are born equal. In point of fact, there are as many classes as
there are grades of pronounced individuality, and all are very unequal,
as every one knows. They are included in a general way in three classes:
the upper class (the refined and cultivated); the middle class
(represented by the retail shop-keepers); and last, the rest. The cream
of society will be found in all the cities to be among the professional
men, clergymen, presidents of colleges, long-rich wholesale merchants,
judges, authors, etc.

The distinctions in society are so singular that it is almost impossible
for a foreigner to understand them. There are persons who make it a life
study to prepare books and papers on the subject, and whose opinions are
readily accepted; yet such a person might not be accepted in the best
society. What constitutes American society and its divisions is a
mystery. In a general sense a retail merchant, a man who sold shoes or
clothes, a tailor, would under no circumstances find a place in the
first social circles; yet if these same tradesmen should change to
wholesalers and give up selling one article at a time, they would become
eligible to the best society. They do not always get in, however. At a
dinner my neighbor, an attractive matron, was much dismayed by my
asking if she knew a certain Mr. - - , a well-known grocer. "I believe
our supplies (groceries) come from him," was her chilly reply. "But," I
ventured, "he is now a wholesaler." "Indeed!" said madam; "I had not
heard of it." The point, very inconceivable to you, perhaps, was that
the grocer, whether wholesale or retail, was not readily accepted; yet
the man in the wholesale business in drugs, books, wine, stores, fruit,
or almost anything else, had the _entrée_, if he was a gentleman. The
druggist, the hardware man, the furniture dealer, the grocer, the
retailer would constitute a class by themselves, though of course there
are other subtle divisions completely beyond my comprehension.

At some of the homes of the first people I would meet a president of a
university, an author of note, an Episcopal bishop, a general of the
regular army (preferably a graduate of the West Point Academy), several
retired merchants of the highest standing, bankers, lawyers, a judge or
two of the Supreme Bench, an admiral of good family and connections. I
have good reason to think that a Methodist bishop would not be present
at such a meeting unless he was a remarkable man. There were always a
dozen men of well-known lineage; men who knew their family history as
far back as their great-grandparents, and whose ancestors were
associated with the history of the country and its development. The men
were all in business or the professions. They went to their offices at
nine or ten o'clock and remained until twelve; lunched at their clubs or
at a restaurant, returned at one, and many remained until six before
going to their homes. The work is intense. A dominating factor or
characteristic in the American man is his pursuit of the dollar. That he
secures it is manifest from the miles of beautiful residences, the show
of costly equipages and plate, the unlimited range of "stores" or shops
one sees in large cities. The millionaire is a very ordinary individual
in America; it is only the billionaire who now really attracts
attention. The wealth and splendors of the homes, the magnificent _tout
ensemble_ of these establishments, suggests the possibility of
degeneracy, an appearance of demoralization; but I am assured that this
is not apparent in very wealthy families.

It is not to be understood that wealth always gives social position in
America. By reading the American papers you might believe that this is
all that is necessary. Some wealth is of course requisite to enable a
family to hold its own, to give the social retort courteous, to live
according to the mode of others; yet mere wealth will not buy the
_entrée_ to the very best society, even in villages. Culture,
refinement, education, and, most important, _savoir faire_, constitute
the "open sesame." I know a billionaire, at least this is his

1 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12

Online LibraryHenry Pearson GrattonAs a Chinaman saw us; passages from his letters to a friend at home → online text (page 1 of 12)