Thursday, December 01, 2005

Sino-Austrian Culture Shock, Circa 1860

As I have mentioned in past columns, the cultural gap between East and West could sometimes be rather unbridgeable. Some members of each culture will invariably seize upon the worst elements of the other, and hold it up as evidence of a more general barbarism.

Unfortunately, for the Chinese living in the moral vacuum of 19th century China, there were examples aplenty for Western visitors to seize upon. The discoveries of an Austrian visitor named Karl Ritter von Scherzer were particularly gruesome with regard to female child infanticide. A passage from his memoirs of his journey read as follows:
As in their religion, so in their mode of life, and their national customs, the Chinese remain stiff-necked and obstinate, and in this direction also Christianity is in but few cases capable of mitigating their frequently barbarous customs. Children in China are constantly exposed in large numbers, and that not owing to poverty, but from indifference to the female children. One Chinese woman who at present professes Christianity, and is a member of the Bale missionary community, has herself killed eight female children whom she had herself carried in her womb! Dr. Lobscheid informed us that he was personally cognizant of one case, where a Chinese mother-in-law, irritated at the birth of a female child, murdered it before its mother's eyes, almost immediately after it had come into the world, and this in a rather well-to-do family! Young mothers often lay their children down in the open field, or on the sea-beach, watching anxiously if any one takes it away, or till a wave mercifully sweeps it off. One such infant, accidentally found by some of the crew of the English frigate Nankin, and tended with all the tender-heartedness of Jack when he finds an object of compassion, is at present in the German Mission House at Hong-kong, and was baptized in the cathedral by the chaplain of the frigate, who gave her the name of Victoria Nankin...
There is no defense to my mind of such monstrous behavior, and perhaps from that perspective the mui tsai system seems almost more palatable; both in any case condemn the horrifically low place of women in Chinese society (unless they become powerful mothers-in-law, it seems).

There is some irony, I think that the gentle-hearted old salts of the Nankin were the ones to save this little castoff, given that their ship was named after the Treaty, surely, that granted Hong Kong to Britain in perpetuity as a result of the amoral Opium War. To name the little girl after the British sovereign in whose name the war was fought and the treaty that ended it, is both fitting at an individual level (for the sailors' mercy in this case is above reproach), and indicative of the use of 'civilization' (as white man's burden) as a justification for war and conquest by Europe in the East.

I had a sudden epiphany over the weekend, which was this: there is no irony without history. Certainly one who has cultivated a knowledge of history can also better appreciate the cutting, sometimes cruel turns of chance that bring polar opposites together, and in course of time rip felicitous unions apart. Irony is the dry, private reward for those who observe the struggles of Man and (His) Nature to rise and fall and come, in the course of time, full circle.

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