Chinese Characteristics

In his book titled Chinese Characteristics, Smith reviews various customs and habits of the Chinese. According to the preface of the text, the author spent twenty-two years in China as a missionary of the American Board; hence, he was widely exposed to the Chinese culture. However, conventionally it is often hard for one to know the whole truth about the culture of a different community. As such, Smiths’s inference of the Chinese culture is subject to a critical review. Therefore, this essay is a critical analysis of Smith’s depiction of the Characteristics of the Chinese. Specifically, this essay explores the extent to, which Smith’s painting of the Chinese characteristics is accurate and infers whether the subject customs have transformed or are persistent. In the essay, some of the key aspects of the Chinese culture described by Smith will be analyzed.

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In the first chapter of his text, Smith underlines the word “face” as of major importance to the Chinese community, taking into account the fact that Chinese embrace a strong dramatic instinct and theatricals. According to Smith, Chinese express their theatrical and drama attitudes upon every little provocation, hence confront the trouble with enthusiasm until the problem is addressed. In this sense, a Chinese will only go off the stage with credit but persists if the trouble is not adjusted. As such, the author portrays the Chinese as people who struggle hard to gain and will always want to face the odd to maintain their reputation and retreat once they are adequately rewarded. Therefore, Chinese seem to approach every action superfluously, and the inner zeal translates to their real life attitudes.

In my perception, Chinese still regard “face” with much significance. In the actual setting, the Chinese people are known to be highly industrious and individuals who rarely keep up easily. A look at modern Chinese business environment and international relationships reveals that Chinese are determined to maintain their appealing “face.” In the modern China, trade negotiations, excellent relationships with the foreign countries, and corporate hierarchy are soaring. In this sense, Chinese much regard for “face” still form a significant part of the customs of the modern community.


In the second chapter of his book, Smith identified “economy” as a term that dictates the rule by, which an ordered house should operate, especially in regard to the relationship between income and expenditure. According to Smith, an economy is usually presented in three different ways; “by preventing wastes, limiting the number of wants as well as through the adjustment of forces”. Smith deduced that Chinese are pre-exceedingly economical in each of these approaches. The author demonstrated Chinese economic virtue through a review of their simple diet and the efficient use of necessary materials. Smith points out that Chinese consume extremely simple diet, and the vast majority of the population depend on a few items, such as; “fish, beans, garden vegetables, rice, millet, and a few other things, which can be slightly supplemented during feast-days”. The author also remarks the way Chinese minimize food wastage by underlining that Chinese cut food wastage at all means and everything cooked must be eaten to completion; “even the tea left in the cups is reheated”. Moreover, the author perceives Chinese as people who overly support their economy to the extent of denying themselves food. For instance, some Smith comments that Chinese may persist several days without food to save a few cents. However, the average immigrants are perceived as extravagant.

In my viewpoint, Smith’s perception of Chinese economic character is highly dramatic, especially in the modern era. In the contemporary times, China’s economy is tremendously growing, and spending has become a habit of many. The influence of the western civilization has also introduced new lifestyles such as living lavishly. However, the basic approaches to sustaining a healthy economy that the author observed, for instance preventing wastes, may still apply in the contemporary China, but in a different context. For example, avoiding wastage may now be a major focus in the Chinese industrial sector, but not in the household setting were modern people earn a decent income and can afford wastage.



In the text, Smith describes Chinese as highly industrious, and idleness is usually uncommon since everyone is occupied with doing something. According to Smith, a vast majority of people in the country are wealthy, and most of the wealthy Chinese are business people. However, a small fraction of the population can live lavishly without doing any work. Smith argued that the most hard-worked class are the most admired in the Chinese community than the official community. Smith illustrates his point by reviewing the life of a merchant’s clerk in the Chinese context who does heavy tasks for little pay. Historically, Chinese shops were opened early and closed late, and accountants were kept until late hours, balancing entries.

From my point of view, Smith’s perception of the entrepreneurial sector of the Chinese depicts the modern China. Currently, the most hard-worked class own large businesses, and a vast majority of individuals are finding the business sector more attractive than being an employee.

Education and Employment

Smith classifies Chinese community into scholars, merchants, workmen, and farmers, and these subdivisions portray the industry of the people. Nonetheless, the author pays much attention to the education sector, which he presumes to be overlooked and would often attract no significant rewards since eligible candidates often surpass the positions to be filled. Smith illustrates this by citing a story of Chinese intellectuals who tied their books to the oxen horns with, which they were plowing, expressing their frustration after continued turmoil in the scholarly world.

In my perception, Smith’s presentation of Chinese academic and employment world as doomed does not concur with the present situation. In the present world, China has significantly transformed to an extent that the country often experiences a shortage of skilled personnel and is forced to outsource from other nations.

Farming and Weaving

Smith described Chinese farmers as industrious and the country’s farming industry as stable. The author also observed that individuals in the rural population spend most of their time spared from farming on plaiting the braid and making hats. Smith portray Chinese women as highly industrious as proved by the statement; “Chinese women are rarely seen without a shoe-sole in their hands and are continuously taking stitches.”

Indeed, historically Chinese farming industry was stable, and this is still reflected in the modern society where agriculture is valued, however, farming technologies have significantly changed. The lives of women have also changed dramatically to conform to the current culture whereby women go for official jobs and other forms of modern employments. Nonetheless, Chinese have maintained the historic art of weaving hats and in the present world, China’s woven products and the later handbags are among the fashionable items trending in the world markets.


In his writing, Smith portrays the Chinese as people who hold a high degree of politeness as opposed to the Oriental people. Smith justifies this by his claim that Chinese are admired for their effort to bring the practice of politeness to perfection. According to Smith the Orient; the majority being the Asians, were at first known for “the art of lubricating friction”, however; Chinese perfected their politeness, overtime. As such, the Chinese can be viewed as usually polite. On the other hand, Smith underscores that Chinese politeness is embodied in definitions that “affirm politeness as real kindness compassionately expressed”. Therefore, according to Smith, Chinese politeness may be viewed as ceremonial and is prompted by the desire to display to the target audience, for instance, guests.

In my opinion, I perceive the present China as a society that has changed. Possibly, Chinese may have transformed their morals due to the pressure from the surrounding communities, especially now that China attracts expatriates from different parts of the world. Moreover, in the text, Smith reminds us that in the Classics, the rules of the behavior were three thousand while those of the ceremony were three hundred. As such, the Chinese of the modern times may have loosened the traditional morals to conform to the contemporary way of living.

The Disregard of Time

In chapter four of his book, Smith paints the Chinese as far ambiguous with the use of the standard time measurements. As such, Chinese rarely use watches but rely on physical features such as the sunrise and the sunset. Likewise, the periodic divisions such as noon and midnight are equally insignificant to the community. Smith inferred that Chinese are highly contented to tell the time with the use of altitude of time but are keen to begin their day at the dim. Smith further explained; “Chinese disregard of time is evident in their industry, for instance in the building industry whereby Chinese contractors and their workforce come late and go early”. Smith also describes Chinese workmen as unproductive; “make long journeys to the contraction sites carrying a little amount of construction of material and all the work would be suspended whenever there is slight rain”.

In my viewpoint, Smith’s description of Chinese on construction does not conform to the present situation in China. The current China is a highly industrious place and in fact forms one of the best economies in the world. As such, a considerable controversy exists on Smith’s perception that Chinese disregard time. Of course, similar, to other societies of the world, the Chinese have evolved to adopt the modern timekeeping system.

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Disregard of Accuracy

In Chapter five of the text, Smith said that Chinese have a significant level of non-uniformity irrespective of the remarkable physical resemblance among the community members. Among the significant variations identified is the divergence in the dialect. Smith relates the observed variations to Chinese custom, which dictates a double standard at any given instance. Smith says; “the custom of reckoning by tens is deep-rooted and leads to much vagueness”. However, the observed inconsistency is often noticeable when estimating the brass cash, which constituted the only form of money in the territory.

In my perception, Smith’s understanding of Chinese disregard of accuracy is more relevant to the ancient times. In the modern world, accuracy is everything. For instance, financial institutions and organizations must accurately account for every cent that they handle. Likewise, individuals have to account for personal finances. Moreover, in the current times, Chinese have abandoned the brass and adopted a standard currency (the Yuan).


Smith claims; “Chinese are endowed with an instinct for taking advantage of misunderstandings”. According to Smith, Chinese often express their interest in disputes on foreigners, especially in issues involving cash. As such, Smith concludes that misunderstandings characterize Chinese relationship with foreigners. The author illustrates the deep-seated nature of disputes between Chinese and the foreigners by giving a story of a Chinese cook who had been sent by his foreign master to buy fish in a far away market only to return without a fish because he did not understand what his foreign master had said.

Of course, as a frequent occurrence, it would be expected for the Chinese Nationals to differ with the foreigners especially when language difference prevails. Perhaps, in the ancient China, the Nationals were not conversant with the immigrant’s languages. Therefore, some degree of misunderstanding would be expected. However, Smith predicts the observed disagreements to continue in the future years. As such, Smith’s envisagement of the Chinese conduct can be proved wrong in the modern society. The modern China embraces international relations keenly. Chinese relationship with other countries has played an imperative role in the modern times; keeping in mind that China is highly developing.


Overall, Smith portrays the non-modern traits of the Chinese. However, some of the customs that the author highlight still prevails or are currently expressed in other ways. In the past, Chinese were known to be industrious, culture, which is still upheld in the present society. Nonetheless, civilization has furnished most of the Chinese culture, and the current behavior of the Chinese is significantly different from the traditional one. The rapid economic revolution in China has played an immense role in transforming the Chinese culture considering that China is currently a home to a vast number of expatriates. Indeed, foreign culture, particular the western, has taken a toll on Chinese culture.