Short Stories
All Titles

In Association with Amazon.com

Home > Authors Index > Browse all available works of George William Curtis > Text of Chinese Critic

An essay by George William Curtis

A Chinese Critic

Title:     A Chinese Critic
Author: George William Curtis [More Titles by Curtis]

The Easy Chair was agreeably surprised the other day by a call from a yellowish-visaged gentleman in a queue, who announced himself as of the family of Lien Chi Altangi, a name which the reader will recall as that of the Chinese philosopher and citizen of the world whose letters of observation in England were edited by Dr. Goldsmith. After the natural courtesies of such a meeting, and the Easy Chair's compliments upon the shrewdness and charm of his distinguished ancestor's observations, the Chinese gentleman fell into easy conversation, and was congratulated upon his singular familiarity with our language. He remarked that it was always an advantage to a traveller to know the language of the country, and he had no doubt that so travelling a people as the American were of the same opinion. "And as you travel over the world more generally than any other people," he said, "I presume that you are generally familiar with many languages." The Easy Chair bowed, and cleared its throat, and smiled, and said, "Oh yes--probably--undoubtedly."

"Yours is a very great country," the visitor politely returned, "and this city is indeed magnificent. It promises one day to rival Pekin, at least in extent and population. The pleasure of seeing your great men--the great men of so great a city, I mean--must be very unusual, and I should be infinitely your debtor if you would accompany me to your temple of civic greatness--your City Hall, as I understand you call it. Your popular institutions, as we are told in China, are intended to secure worthy governors of the people by the votes of the people themselves. It is exceedingly interesting, and I am very anxious to study the working of your institutions in your chief city."

The Easy Chair bowed and cleared its throat again, and answered that the study of the city was certainly very interesting, but without proffering to escort the travelling philosopher to the City Hall, it contented itself with remarking that ours is a very great country, and that its institutions are unequalled in the world.

"I have met no American who is not of that opinion," courteously returned the Chinese gentleman, "and I was pleased to see upon a visit to your Washington and Fulton markets a noble illustration of the generous and becoming manner in which such important parts of your municipal institutions are managed."

The Easy Chair answered that it was not that kind of institution which it had intended by its remark.

"Possibly you allude to another great institution which I have visited," returned the traveller, with exquisite courtesy. "You justly pride yourself upon your advances in sanitary science, and I am a devout pilgrim seeking enlightenment. Judge, then, with what pleasure I saw your chief temple of the customs. What convenience and economy of arrangement! How singularly fitted for its purpose! You are indeed a great people. I passed into the main circular hall, and what purity of atmosphere, what admirable ventilation, what refreshing coolness and sweetness; it is, indeed, a sanitarium; nor can I wonder that you are proud of your progress and achievements in this science. But when I learned that the officers engaged in the public service in this temple, in the business of various accounts, and in determining the value of the products of the whole world, were appointed to the duty because of their zeal in providing candidates for offices and procuring votes for them, I was lost in admiration of institutions under which zealous shouting and running are evidence of skill to embroider muslin and to calculate interest. Truly you are a great people, and your institutions overflow with wisdom."

The Easy Chair bowed and smiled, but the precise terms of an appropriate reply did not suggest themselves, until, remembering what was due to its native land, it began: "There can, however, illustrious son of Lien Chi Altangi, be no doubt that we are a very great and superior people, and that we have a very just pity and contempt for all the unhappy victims of the effete despotisms and hoary empires of the older world--not that we believe the other continents to be actually older, for our own favored continent doubtless emerged first from chaos, but it is an expression which, with the generosity of our institutions, we are willing to tolerate."

"I cannot deny your greatness," politely said the yellowish-visaged gentleman, "and far be it from me to question your superiority. It was but yesterday evening that I attended a social assembly which was described to me as a full-undress party, and as I entered and beheld many of the other sex, I was struck by the accuracy of the description. As I promenaded through the brilliant throng with one of the loveliest of your young persons of that sex, she said to me, with a bewitching smile, 'Dear Mr. Altangi, is it true that Chinese women squeeze their feet for beauty? How very funny!'

"She panted as she spoke, and I saw that her body was evidently incased in some kind of rigid and unyielding garment, and that her waist was surely not the waist of nature. I gazed as intently as decorum would permit--for I am but a student of cities and of men--and I was sure that my lovely companion's body was more cruelly compressed than the feet of my adorable countrywomen, and her panting breath was but evidence of the justice of my observation. I asked her with sympathy if I could not call some companion to relieve her, or, if the case were urgent, whether I could not myself offer succor. But she gazed at me as if I spoke a strange language, and smilingly asked my meaning.

"'Dear miss,' I said, 'are you not in great suffering?' 'Not at all,' she replied, and I paid homage to her heroism. 'I know not, dear miss, whether to admire more the greatness of your heroism or the generosity of your sympathy. While you are in torment yourself, your tender interest goes forth to my countrywomen in what you believe to be torture. Be comforted, dear miss; the anguish of a squeezed foot is not comparable to that of a waist so cruelly confined as yours, and the consequences, also, are not to be compared.' If human bodies in your great and happy country are made like ours in China, certainly, Mr. Easy Chair, I must acknowledge that in heroic endurance of the cruelty of fashion your country is indeed pre-eminent."

There seemed to be such a singular misapprehension upon the part of the courteous visitor that the Easy Chair was beginning again to explain--"Yes, but the indisputable superiority of our glorious country"--when the son of Altangi interrupted, with suavity: "Certainly. I was about to add that while my fair companion insisted that I should confess the pinching of the feet to be a heinous folly, if not, as she was plainly disposed to believe, a crime, my eye was arrested by another lightly and lowly draped figure of the same sex advancing towards us with an uncertain, hobbling step so like the gait of the lovely Chinese maidens of almond eyes that again I watched intently, and I saw that not only was this sylph drawn out of all natural form at the waist, but that she was attempting to walk in little shoes supported upon high pivots called heels under the centre of the feet. It was an ingenious combination of torture and helplessness, to which no social circle in my native land offers a parallel. It is a wonderful achievement, due, I have no doubt, Mr. Easy Chair, to the manifest superiority of your great country, and plainly a striking illustration of it. Yet it is interesting and touching that the maidens of your politer circles, gasping in pinched waists, and balancing and tottering on pivots under their shoes, should inquire with so amused an air about the squeezed feet of Chinese ladies. I pay you my compliments, Mr. Easy Chair, upon your extraordinary country." The urbanity of the visitor was perfect. The Easy Chair looked at his eyes to see if they twinkled, but they had only a bland regard; and as it was beginning again--"Nevertheless, sir, you will admit that the superiority of our institutions"--there seemed to be so positive an approach to twinkling in the Chinese eyes that the Easy Chair paused, smiled, and then said: "Worthy son of Lien Chi Altangi, thy words enlighten the mind, even as those of thy ancestor illuminated the minds of our fathers over the sea. By their light I read the meaning of the saying that in my youth I heard in the valleys of the Tyrol, 'Beyond the mountains there are men also.'"

[The end]
George William Curtis's essay: A Chinese Critic