Do Bedbugs Exist in China?
Lin Yutang 林語堂
The following 'Little Critic' essay was originally presented as a speech at the Winter Institute of the foreign YMCA, Shanghai on 25 November 1930, and it was published in The China Critic, IV:8 (19 February 1931): 179-181. It was collected in T'ang Leang-li's China's Own Critics. Some minor stylistic changes have been made to the text in accord with in-house style and section headings added.—The Editor
Being a gentleman, I have no opinions to give on any subject. But I am familiar with the rich variety of opinions and attitudes, which different people represent, from Ku Hung-ming, Hu Shih, and Chang Chung-tsang, to the White Evangelist, the Buddhist-Taoist, the Buddhist-Taoist the die-hard and the tangpu [黨部, that is 'the Party', or KMT—Ed.], regarding such a question.All their different opinions are very interesting and worth studying. Bacon once wrote about the 'idols of the tribe', 'the cave', 'the market', and 'the theatre', and we shall find all these idols of the human mind rather curiously and profusely illustrated in the diversity of opinions on this vexing topic.
Suppose we simplify the matter a little, and imagine that, in a distinguished gathering of Chinese and foreign friends at the home of a Chinese hostess, a bedbug should choose to make its social debut by crawling slowly but conspicuously across the specklessly white sofa cover. This is a thing that might conceivably happen in any household, English, French, Russian or Chinese, but let us suppose it is Chinese, because we are in China. A patriotic Chinese gentleman who could talk very good English, first discovered it, and his patriotism urged him to go and sit on the bug secretly for the sake of the honour of his country, taking all the chances of either killing it by his bodily weight, or, what was more likely, being bitten by it secretly for the sake of the honour of his country. To the consternation of all present and the extreme embarrassment of the hostess, however, another appeared, followed by still another, until we have the unchallengeable fact that bugs exist in some Chinese households in some Chinese cities. We might hear therefore a Modern Symposium on the bedbug in China, which could be summarized by the following positions:
'Bugs exist in China, true; but that is the best proof of our spirituality. Only spiritual people are oblivious of their physical surroundings!' The propounder of this brazen lie is no other than Ku Hung-Ming. One can only condemn it as a brazen, though brilliant, lie, because by implication, one would have to assume with Ku Hung-Ming that the modern man using a sanitary flush toilet is less 'spiritual' than one using the Scotch toilet.
'Bugs exist in China, true: but what of it? Bugs exist in Vienna, Prague, New York and London, also. In fact, some of these cities are quite famous for it. It's no disgrace at all.' This is the attitude of the Chinese 'patriots', the 'Orientalists', the 'Pan-Asiatics', and the people who want to preserve our 'national heritage' for us. General Chang Chung-tsang was once so happy in discovering a bedbug at Unzen in Japan that he never stopped telling people of the consequent superiority of Chinese culture.
'Bugs exist in Columbia University also. Hence Chinese would be highly uncivilized not to have bugs in their beds. Moreover, the American bug has a better figure than the Chinese bug. So let's catch one, especially the Californian variety, import it to China, and put it on the Chinese bed.' This is the position taken by the Columbia PhD who cannot talk a word of Chinese.
'What! Bugs exist in China? Bugs don't exist in England. Hence, I demand extra-territoriality.' This is represented by the die-hard. It would not be at all surprising if the North-China Daily News some day publishes this with the glaring head-line, 'TORTURED BY BEDBUGS: LIFE MADE A BURDEN FOR FOREIGN VICTIM OF CHINESE JUSTICE', should a foreign convict in Chinese prison after the return of extra-territoriality give an account of his experience in a Chinese prison, with the amazing discovery that there are bedbugs in Chinese prisons. His first sentence is a truth, his second a lie, and his third the wittiest remark of the North-China Daily News Editor, which never fails to secure applause among the Shanghailanders.
'What? Nonsense! There ain't no bugs in China, nor ever warn't any. They are the aberrations of your own fancy. I tell you there are no bugs in China.' This is the position of the national propagandists, and the Chinese diplomats. Some eminent Chinese personage was responsible for the statement at the League of Nations that China has stopped cultivating opium since ten years ago. He was of course merely prosecuting his profession, and nobody can blame him. What else did the British and French delegates to the League of Nations do?
'Let's not talk about it. And let's impeach the fellow who has the audacity to do so. He is unpatriotic', says the Tangpu [Party—Ed.] man. 'Serve him a warning', says another of his colleagues.
'Don't disturb my contemplations. So long as I can remain happy while bitten by the bugs, what's the harm?' says the Chinese Buddhist-Taoist poet. To which Bertrand Russell gives a sympathetic half-nod. Didn't Cheng Pan-ch'iao 鄭板橋, one of the greatest literary lights of the Manchu Dynasty, sing once about the mosquitoes and the bugs? And did not Chu Hsi-chen 朱希真 sing in his Woodcutter's songs 樵歌?—
'Let's catch them', says Dr Hu Shih. 'And discover if there aren't more of them.' To which all the French, Japanese and English Liberal Cosmopolitans would echo, 'Yea, let's catch them, no matter where they are and of what nationality they
are.' I suppose Mr Yen belongs to this category, and is more interested in catching the bugs than in the question of talking or not talking about it.
Finally the last attitude, Attitude 9, is represented by the Little Critic. On seeing a bug making its social debut in a distinguished gathering, it is his habit to exclaim: 'Look, here's a big bug! How big and beautiful and well-fed he looks! How nice and ingenious of him to turn up at the psychological moment and provide some topic for our dull conversation! Was it your blood he sucked last night, my dear charming hostess? Let's catch it. There is tremendous fun in catching and crushing a big bug.'
To which my charming hostess can at best reply: 'My dear Mr Lin, you ought to be ashamed of yourself.'
From 'The Little Critic':