Sorry for the long post, here’s a sample of the richness of his work.
In concluding this book, I ought to attempt to define the essence of Chinese manners and customs. But is that possible, before having presented a sketch of the history of ideas? This definition will not find a suitable place until the volume which will complete this one is concluded. In the present volume, however, in which social history holds the largest place, it has been necessary to insist on that which is specially characteristic in the discipline of life peculiar to the Chinese. Its isolated presentation runs the risk of giving an impression which it is no doubt best to correct at once.
The absence of intimacy is the dominant feature of family organization. This was a significant feature at first in the relations between husbands and wives, and between fathers and sons. It appears to have become the rule for all family relations. Dominated by ideas of respect, domestic morality seems in the end to become mixed up with a ceremonial of family life. On the other hand, the relations of society, animated first by the spirit of contest, or the passion for prestige, end, it seems, by being governed by an exclusive taste for decorum. Civic morality, having gravitated towards an ideal of strained politeness, seems to tend solely to organizing among men, a regulated system of relations, in which the actions befitting each age are fixed by edict, as are also those for each sex, each social condition and each actual situation. Finally, in political life, where the stage is reached of advocating the principle of government by history, it appears that it is claimed as sufficient for everything to follow solely the virtues of a traditionalist conformity. So, at the moment when, towards the beginning of the imperial era, Chinese civilization seems to arrive at a point of maturity, everything co-operates to bring to light the reign of formalism.
But what is the real bearing of this system of conventions, tending to re-establish the archaic, by the aid of which it was claimed to direct the entire life of the nation? Is it true, as it may be tempting to think, that it contributed to the impoverishment and drying up of the whole moral life of the Chinese? Is it even certain that its effects were such for the official class, deliberately devoted to the cult of conformity as to the only discipline capable of forming the honest man? Ought we, on this point, to fix our opinion after reading only propagandist works and the biographies of famous men? In spite of the knowledge that these are derived from the funeral eulogies, and that it would be an excess of confidence to take the tone of a sermon for a just verdict, it is difficult to escape from the feeling that the evolution of morals in China went on by way of progressive drying up, and that, in the moral life, under the increasing weight of a conventional etiquette, spontaneity saw its part reduced to nothing. The history of thought alone may lead to the conviction that, on the contrary, the acceptance by the honest people of an attitude of conformity has, in part, as its reason the hope of preserving for the life of the spirit, a sort of sheltered independence and a deep-seated plasticity.
But we can now indicate some facts which will suffice to mark the limits of the formalist ideal. We have already pointed out the part played by mysticism in court circles. Its part among the masses of the people is no less important. If this is scarcely apparent, it is because the dynastic Annals only interest themselves in the life of the court and in persons of high station. The great mystical crisis of the year 3 B.C. (noted by accident on the occasion of an episode of court life) was certainly not an isolated crisis; we only have a few details of it, but they all show that, in peasant circles, certain mystical ideals, going far back in the ages, were preserved with perfect freshness. On the other hand, during the troubled period of the Three Kingdoms, the old feudal spirit seems suddenly to recover all its strength; we may assume that, in the great rural domains created under the Han, habits of life and a discipline of morals were maintained that were less remote, no doubt, from the ancient feudal morality, which was the archaic ideal brought into favour by the orthodox teaching. History, however, refused to register the facts, and we know nothing of the permanence of the feudal elements of the social life. History, in short, hardly gives any information on the evolution of morals and manners in the new urban atmosphere (except among the official classes); in this atmosphere, however, there was created a morality peculiar to traders, characterized, it seems, by the spirit of association and the liking for equitable agreements. We may assume that its influence on the whole of Chinese life was not negligible; yet, for the ancient period, we know hardly anything of the real life of the industrial classes, of the part played by the villages in the general economy, of the juridical and moral evolution of the urban areas. It would be extraordinary if they did not elaborate active ideals, and if their activity was reduced to the practice of the orthodox etiquette. The action of the official classes must not be underestimated; but it is fitting, in closing this book, to emphasize that history, in consequence of an aristocratic tradition, neglected to register the movements among the masses. With the imperial era, which closes the history of ancient China, Chinese civilization certainly arrives at maturity, but although, by defining with increasing strictness its traditional ideals, the believers in orthodoxy wished to adorn it with a static dignity, it remains rich in youthful forces.