Houseboat days


John Otway Percy (J.O.P.) Bland was once described by the The New York Times as the most well-informed Westerner on China. His book Houseboat Days is now available in a reprint edition from Earnshaw Books (or see the entire catalogue).

An excerpt from the book appears below, with an introduction by Paul French, the founder of Access Asia, who also keeps a blog called China Rhyming.

An Introduction of J.O.P Bland and Houseboat Days

by Paul French

On January 10, 1910 The New York Times hailed the publication of J.O.P. Bland's Houseboat Days but questioned if it was safe to use the number of books published on China as a "barometer of the interest taken in that great empire and its immediate future"? Bland himself at the time of publishing Houseboat Days wondered "whether all the books and publications on China which have been produced during the last few years find buyers enough to warrant their publication as a prosperous business venture?" Nearly a century later and we're still wondering.

John Otway Percy "J.O.P." Bland was one of the respected foreigners in China in his day. An Ulsterman, he was secretary to Sir Robert Hart the famous Inspector General of the China Imperial Maritime Customs Service. In 1896 Bland also became the Secretary of the Shanghai Municipal Council. After 13 years service in various roles to the Chinese government including helping negotiate railway loans, Bland was awarded the Order of the Double Dragon. Then George 'Peking' Morrison hired him as an occasional correspondent for The Times of London in Shanghai.

His journalism was solid and his Chinese excellent. He formed a formidable, if sometimes fantastical, writing partnership with Edmund Backhouse (The Hermit of Peking) and turned out a bunch of books himself – of which Houseboat Days is arguably the best.

Edwin Haward, one of the more enlightened editors of the North-China Daily News in the 1930s said of Bland: "We in China have often longed for someone to do for us what Kipling did for India. Mr Bland's charming pen has gone nearest to fulfilling these aspirations, and quaintly enough its wielder would shake hands with Kipling in the refusal to abandon old political deities." By this Haward meant that Bland disliked what he considered to be Morrison's dogmatic approach to China. Bland was a supporter of peaceful trade with China, considered Morrison superficial and vain in his claims to be the ultimate interpreter of China and the Chinese without being able to speak the language or having any real sympathy with the culture.

Morrison, vainglorious as ever, tried to get Bland fired from The Times but his London editors backed him. Bland stayed though Morrison tried repeatedly to undermine him. Eventually Morrison left and demonstrated his dodgy credentials once again by becoming an adviser to Yuan Shih-kai.

Houseboat Days is Bland's whimsical memoir of the old tradition of houseboating around Eastern China and remains well worth a read. With its republication hopefully we can win back some of Bland's lost reputation and stop the unqualified and uninformed appreciation of Morrison that has gone on for at least 90 years too long.

The excerpt below starts at the beginning of Chapter 11, and focuses on Western missionaries' cause in China, as well as other West-meets-East perceptions from a bygone era.

Houseboat Days

by J.O.P. Bland

"First observe the man: then preach the law."—Buddhist Text.

The gang-plank was put down, and Mr. Wimple came aboard, chaffing the coolies. I heard him tell the lowdah to cast off again as he was going with us to the P'an Men, and I made a mental note of the curious fact that the high nasal accents of ordinary American speech are softened, if not lost, in talking Chinese, and that herein lies a new argument, possibly useful to Roosevelt and other philanthropists, for intercourse between God's own country and Asia.

He came in cheerily, depositing his umbrella in the coal-box. "Ugly weather, gentlemen, ain't it?" he said. "The sort of thing that encourages the irreverent folks who think that Providence might be more thoughtful without being less good." He sat down by the stove, his clothes steaming gently, and helped himself in an absent-minded way to one of Jim's cigars. We bade him welcome, not so much because he needed it, as from fixed habits of hospitality. "Thank you," he said, "it's no day for walking; so, when I saw your boat, I thought you wouldn't mind taking me as far as the P'an Men. Are you gentlemen going into the city?"

Jim was signalling a frantic "No," but as I find Mr. Wimple a rather interesting study, I said we were—that, as a matter of fact, we were going to see him and ask the latest news of the provincial capital. "Well, that's lucky," he said genially, "I'm just going along to see old Liu, the Chih Hsien, on a little matter of land business—you know they're making trouble now even about Mission property. We'll all go together; the business won't take ten minutes, and then you gentlemen will come along and have a bit of tiffin with me. It's all on your way if you're going back by the Settlement, and Mrs. Wimple will be mighty glad to see you."

"Mr. Wimple came aboard."

I had heard indirectly of Mission property business at Soochow; there was a good deal of it handled by godly folk before the Foreign Settlement boom came to its untimely end, and now the railway had provided new opportunities. I said we would go, but Jim dodged the tiffin with a ready lie.

"Thank you," he said, "we'll walk through the city and help you to frighten old Liu. But I promised Merryman we'd tiffin with him."

Wimple is not a type, though by no means an isolated specimen, of the results of American missionary enterprise in China. He is rather one of the peculiar products of Western morals applied, on misguided principles, to the Far East. I remember well travelling out with him on the Pacific Mail that first brought him, one of a batch of seventy youthful enthusiasts, to convert the heathen. Till then, he had been a backwoods teacher in Dakota, saw life through the distorted medium of an undigested Pentateuch, and drank out of his finger-bowl. A year later I came across him preaching at a street corner at Soochow, in execrable Chinese, on the efficacy of faith as distinct from works, and distributing leaflets against the opium habit. That was six years ago; since then he has been led to believe that his mission lies with the educated and official classes, in the conversion of 'this great people' from the top downwards, and incidentally it has come to pass that his labours have gradually become more secular and less dogmatic. It has even been rumoured that the vineyard is going to lose a labourer, and the yamens gain thereby another unofficial adviser; this may be so, but for the present Wimple still figures prominently in the social and religious activities of missionary work, and the worthy citizens of the United States, who acquire vicarious virtue through his soul-saving efforts, are privileged to pay for them and for the comfortable existence of Mrs. Wimple and her steadily-increasing progeny; his reports on the infant-school of the Latter Day Saints, replete with appropriate references to the good seed and the needs of the sower, are models in their way. An able man is Wimple, and no doubt his intelligence has revealed to him a truth (which many worthier souls will never realise) that his earlier enthusiasms were possibly due only to ignorance, and that, against the ancient social and philosophic system of China, our creeds and sects wage war in vain.

Since the gloriously futile effort of the Crusaders to convert Asia, with battle-axe and Bible, to Europe's conception of an Asiatic creed, there is perhaps nothing in all the history of religions on this planet so pathetically hopeless as the misdirected energies of certain kinds of Christianity in the Far East to-day. Nor can you readily find a more glaring record of cynical pagandom than in the political purposes to which the governments of Christian States have put the gospel of peace and its messengers. Wimple and his kind are a by-product, the inevitable result of education wrongly applied; because of their prominence with the mandarinate for background they attract undue notice even when (as in Corea) they set a kingdom by the ears. But setting them aside, looking only at the results of Roman Catholic and Protestant mission work, bravely and conscientiously done by hundreds of devoted men and women, who can honestly say that our 'furor' of proselytising is good either in its methods or its ends?

In this matter we have assumed, ab initio, false premises—each of the conflicting creeds to which the perversity of word-haunted priest-led men has brought the simple teachings of Christ justifies its attempts at 'converting' the Chinese on grounds of moral and intellectual superiority. In this the "good Christians who sit still in easy-chairs" in Battersea or Boston may be reckoned blissful and blameless perhaps, because of ignorance, but no man who has lived for years amongst the Chinese and observed their habits of thought carries any such conviction to cheer his daily round. If, from sheer force of habit and fixity of purpose, he is able to do so for himself, he will most vehemently deny justification to other godly men, his neighbours; and thus the House of Wisdom is divided, filled, like the Temple of old, with the noisy arguments of the doctors, while the patient heathen passes by, either indifferent to the clamour, or wondering, in his instinctive agnosticism, that there should be so many divergent roads to Heaven.

The Chinese are essentially a practical race, and any system of ethics or morals that we preach to them must appeal, in the first place, to their reasoning faculty; it must also be made to harmonise with certain fundamental principles of life and living which, transmitted through countless generations, have accumulated all the force of instinct. As a race, they intuitively judge the tree by its fruit; works, not faith, justify the exponents of any new gospel of peace. For this reason the medical missionary and the Little Sisters of the Poor are the successful evangelists of China; for this reason also the lesson taught by the allied armies at Peking in 1900 has sunk deeper than any preaching into the hearts of the people; they know, and will not forget, that there it was an Asiatic army, and not those of Christian Europe, which practised gentleness and compassion, soberness and self-control in the midst of savagery; and the knowledge often outweighs our teachings and our texts.

At first glance it would seem that China offers an ideal field for mission work; that the material surroundings which fetter the soul of this people call urgently for a creed which shall open up a spiritual horizon, a larger life. But because the Chinese are a thinking race we cannot bring to their edification the men or the methods which we employ for African savages, nor can we expect them to recognise in our shrieking theologies the simple message taught to Asiatics long ago by the Sea of Galilee. Mr. Charles Booth, writing of the irreligion of the London poor, finds one of its chief causes in "the persistent and undignified struggle between competing religious bodies, rising into almost open warfare for possession of the field." The same cause, amongst others, underlies the failure of religious work in China; "Not peace, but a sword" is the missionary's reply, and the sword is accordingly an ever-present result of his labours—the sword of savage mobs, avenging some real or fancied interference with their established ways; thereafter, the sword of earth-hungry powers avenging the messengers of peace. And anon the missionary returns, under military escort, all unconscious of the grim irony of his position, preaching again the message of forgiveness and peace to an indemnity-paying people." Little children," he says, "love one another," and next day he earnestly denounces his brother.

There are currently 2 Comments for Houseboat days.

Comments on Houseboat days

Oh, and how easy it is to make wide, sweeping generalities as a foreigner, regardless if you are a missionary like Wimple or a journalist like Bland.

What gets me is how people find it so easy to classify the Chinese People as this amalgamous mass of stuff that moves in one direction. Even today.

Sure Ben, but Bland seems to show a lot of respect to the Chinese and to Chinese culture. And writing in 1910, it shows how little many people's views have changed in the last 100 years.

Everyone makes generalisations like "Chinese people speak Chinese" which are not exhaustively true.

Bland makes the generalisation that the Chinese are a thinking race, a practical race that won't be easily fooled by western shrieking theologies. As generalisations go, that's a pretty goodun.

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