Orpheus in Mayfair and Other Short Stories
A Chinaman On Oxford
"Yes, I am a student," said the Chinaman, "And I came here to study the English
manners and customs."
We were seated on the top of the electric tram which goes to Hampton Court. It
was a bitterly cold spring day. The suburbs of London were not looking their best.
"I spent three days at Oxford last week," he said.
"It's a beautiful place, is it not?" I remarked.
The Chinaman smiled. "The country which you see from the windows of the
railway carriages," he said, "on the way from Oxford to London strikes me as
being beautiful. It reminded me of the Chinese Plain, only it is prettier. But the
houses at Oxford are hideous: there is no symmetry about them. The houses in
this country are like blots on the landscape. In China the houses are made to
harmonise with the landscape just as trees do."
"What did you see at Oxford?" I asked.
"I saw boat races," he said, "and a great many ignorant old men."
"What did you think of that?"
"I think," he said, "the young people seemed to enjoy it, and if they enjoy it they
are quite right to do it. But the way the older men talk about these things struck
me as being foolish. They talk as if these games and these sports were a solemn
affair, a moral or religious question; they said the virtues and the prowess of the
English race were founded on these things. They said that competition was the
mainspring of life; they seemed to think exercise was the goal of existence. A
man whom I saw there and who, I learnt, had been chosen to teach the young on
account of his wisdom, told me that competition trained the man to sharpen his
faculties; and that the tension which it provoked is in itself a useful training. I do
not believe this. A cat or a boa constrictor will lie absolutely idle until it perceives
an object worthy of its appetite; it will then catch it and swallow it, and once more
relapse into repose without thinking of keeping itself 'in training.' But it will lie
dormant and rise to the occasion when it occurs. These people who talked of
games seem to me to undervalue repose. They forget that repose is the mother
of action, and exercise only a frittering away of the same."
"What did you think," I asked, "of the education that the students at Oxford
"I think," said the Chinaman, "that inasmuch as the young men waste their time in
idleness they do well; for the wise men who are chosen to instruct the young at
your places of learning, are not always wise. I visited a professor of Oriental
languages. His servant asked me to wait, and after I had waited three quarters of
an hour, he sent word to say that he had tried everywhere to find the professor in
the University who spoke French, but that he had not been able to find him. And
so he asked me to call another day. I had dinner in a college hall. I found that the
professors talked of many things in such a way as would be impossible to
children of five and six in our country. They are quite ignorant of the manners and
customs of the people of other European countries. They pronounce Greek and
Latin and even French in the same way as English. I mentioned to one of them