The citizen of the world: or, letters from a Chinese philosopher, residing in London, to his friends in the east. ... [pt.1]
Goldsmith, Oliver, 1730?-1774.

LETTER. XXXII.

From the same.

I AM disgusted, O Fum Hoam, even to sickness dis∣gusted. Is it possible to bear the presumption of those islanders, when they pretend to instruct me in the ceremonies of China! They lay it down as a maxim, that every person who comes from thence must express Page  141 himself in metaphor; swear by Alla, rail against wine, and behave, and talk and write like a Turk or Persian. They make no distinction between our elegant manners, and the voluptuous barbarities of our eastern neigh∣bours. Where-ever I come, I raise either diffidence or astonishment; some fancy me no Chinese, because I am formed more like a man than a monster; and others wonder to find one born five thousand miles from England endued with common sense. Strange, say they, that a man who has received his education at such a distance from London, should have common sense; to be born out of England and yet have com∣mon sense! impossible! He must be some Englishman in disguise; his very visage has nothing of the true ex∣otic barbarity.

I yesterday received an invitation from a lady of dis∣tinction, who it seems had collected all her knowledge of eastern manners from fictions every day propagated here, under the titles of eastern tales, and oriental histo∣ries: she received me very politely, but seemed to won∣der that I neglected bringing opium and a tobacco-box; when chairs were drawn for the rest of the company, I was assigned my place on a cushion on the floor. It was in vain that I protested the Chinese used chairs as in Europe; she understood decorums too well to enter∣tain me with the ordinary civilities.

I had scarce been seated according to her directions, when the footman was ordered to pin a napkin under my chin; this I protested against, as being no way Chinese; however, the whole company, who it seems were a club of connoisseurs, gave it unanimously against me, and the napkin was pinned accordingly.

Page  142 It was impossible to be angry with people, who seem∣ed to err only from an excess of politeness, and I sat contented, expecting their importunities were now at an end; but as soon as ever dinner was served, the lady demanded whether I was for a plate of Bears claws, or a slice of Birds nests? As these were dishes with which I was utterly unacquainted, I was desirous of eating only what I knew, and therefore begged to be helped from a piece of beef that lay on the side table: my request at once disconcerted the whole company. A Chinese eat beef! that could never be! there was no local propriety in Chinese beef, whatever there might be in Chinese pheasant. Sir, said my entertainer, I think I have some reasons to fancy myself a judge of these matters: in short, the Chinese never eat beef; so that I must be permitted to recommend the Pilaw, there was never better dressed at Pekin; the saffron and rice are well boiled, and the spices in perfection.

I had no sooner begun to eat what was laid before me, than I found the whole company as much astonish∣ed as before; it seems I made no use of my chop-sticks. A grave gentleman, whom I take to be an author, ha∣rangued very learnedly (as the company seemed to think) upon the use which was made of them in China: he entered into a long argument with himself about their first introduction, without once appealing to me, who might be supposed best capable of silencing the enquiry. As the gentleman therefore took my silence for a mark of his own superior sagacity, he was resolved to pursue the triumph: he talked of our cities, moun∣tains, and animals, as familiarly as if he had been born in Quamsi, but as erroneously as if a native of the moon; he attempted to prove that I had nothing of the true Page  143 Chinese cut in my visage; shewed that my cheek bones should have been higher, and my forehead broader; in short, he almost reasoned me out of my country, and effectually persuaded the rest of the company to be of his opinion.

I was going to expose his mistakes, when it was in∣sisted that I had nothing of the true eastern manner in my delivery. This gentleman's conversation (says one of the ladies, who was a great reader) is like our own mere chit chat and common sense; there is nothing like sense in the true eastern style, where nothing more is required but sublimity. Oh for an history of Aboul∣faouris, the grand voyager, of genii, magicians, rocks, bags of bullets, giants, and enchanters, where all is great obscure, magnificent, and unintelligible! I have written many a sheet of eastern tale myself, interrupts the author, and I defy the severest critic to say but that I have stuck close to the true manner. I have com∣pared a lady's chin to the snow upon the mountains of Bomek; a soldier's sword, to the clouds that obscure the face of heaven. If riches are mentioned, I compare them to the flocks that graze the verdant Tefflis; if poverty, to the mists that veil the brow of mount Baku. I have used thee and thou upon all occasions, I have described fallen stars, and splitting mountains, not for∣getting the little Houries who make a very pretty figure in every description. But you shall hear how I generally begin. "Eben-ben-bolo, who was the son of Ban, was born on the foggy summits of Bender∣abassi. His beard was whiter than the feathers which veil the breast of the Penguin; his eyes were like the eyes of doves, when washed by the dews of the morn∣ing; his hair, which hung like the willow weeping over Page  144 the glassy stream, was so beautiful that it seemed to re∣flect its own brightness; and his feet were as the feet of a wild deer which fleeth to the tops of the moun∣tains." There, there is the true eastern taste for you; every advance made towards sense, is only a deviation from sound. Eastern tales should always be sonorous, lofty, musical and unmeaning.

I could not avoid smiling to hear a native of England attempt to instruct me in the true eastern idiom, and after he had looked round some time for applause, I presumed to ask him whether he had ever travelled into the east; to which he replied in the negative: I demanded whether he understood Chinese or Arabic, to which also he answered as before. Then how, Sir, said I, can you pretend to determine upon the eastern stile, who are intirely unacquainted with the eastern writings? Take, Sir, the word of one who is pro∣fessedly a Chinese, and who is actually acquainted with the Arabian writers, that what is palm'd upon you daily for an imitation of eastern writing, no ways re∣sembles their manner, either in sentiment or diction. In the east, similes are seldom used, and metaphors al∣most wholly unknown; but in China particularly, the very reverse of what you allude to, takes place; a cool phlegmatic method of writing prevails there. The writers of that country, ever more assiduous to instruct than to please, address rather the judgment than the fancy. Unlike many authors of Europe, who have no consideration of the reader's time, they generally leave more to be understood than they express.

Besides, Sir, you must not expect from an inhabi∣tant of China the same ignorance, the same unlettered Page  145 simplicity, that you find in a Turk, Persian, or native of Peru. The Chinese are versed in the sciences as well as you, and are masters of several arts unknown to the people of Europe. Many of them are instructed not only in their own national learning, but are perfectly well acquainted with the languages and learning of the west. If my word in such a case, is not to be taken, consult your own travellers on this head, who affirm, that the scholars of Pekin and Siam sustain theological theses in Latin, The college of Masprend, which is but a league from Siam (says one of your travellers*)came in a body to salute our ambassador. Nothing gave me more sincere pleasure than to behold a number of priests venerable both from age and modesty, followed by a number of youths of all nations, Chinese, Japonese, Tonquinese, of Cochin China, Pegu and Siam, all will∣ing to pay their respects in the most polite manner ima∣ginable. A Cochin Chinese made an excellent Latin oration upon this occasion: he was succeeded, and even out-done, by a student of Tonquin, who was as well skilled in the western learning as any scholar of Paris. Now, Sir, if youths, who never stirred from home, are so perfectly skilled in your laws and learning, surely more must be expected from one like me, who have travelled so many thousand miles, who have conversed familiarly for several years with the English factors established at Canton, and the missionaries sent us from every part of Europe. The unaffected of every country nearly resemble each other, and a page of our Confucius and your Tillotson have scarce any material Page  146 difference. Paltry affectation, strained allusions, and disgusting finery, are easily attained by those who chuse to wear them; they are but too frequently the badges of ignorance, or of stupidity whenever it would endea∣vour to please.

I was proceeding in my discourse, when, looking round, I perceived the company no way attentive to what I attempted, with so much earnestness to enforce. One lady was whispering her that sat next, another was studying the merits of a fan, a third began to yawn, and the author himself fell fast asleep: I thought it, therefore, high time to make a retreat, nor did the company seem to shew any regret at my preparations for departure; even the lady who had invited me, with the most mortifying insensibility, saw me seize my hat and rise from my cushion; nor was I invited to repeat my visit, because it was found that I aimed at appearing rather a reasonable creature, than an outlandish ideot.

Adieu.