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The World’s Wit and Humor: An Encyclopedia in 15 Volumes. 1906.

Oliver Goldsmith (1730–1774)

The True Oriental

From “Letters from a Citizen of the World”

I AM disgusted, oh, Fum Hoam, even to sickness disgusted! Is it possible to bear the presumption of those islanders, when they pretend to instruct me in the ceremonies of China! They lay it down as a maxim, that every person who comes from thence must express himself in metaphor; swear by Allah, rail against wine, and behave, and talk, and write, like a Turk or Persian. They make no distinction between our elegant manners and the voluptuous barbarities of our Eastern neighbours. Wherever I come I raise either diffidence or astonishment. Some fancy me no Chinese because I am formed more like a man than a monster; and others wonder to find one born five thousand miles from England endued with common-sense. Strange, they say, that a man who has received his education at such a distance from London, should have common-sense—to be born out of England, and yet have common-sense! Impossible! He must be some Englishman in disguise; his very visage has nothing of the true exotic barbarity.

I yesterday received an invitation from a lady of distinction, who, it seems, had collected all her knowledge of Eastern manners from fictions every day propagated here under the titles of Eastern tales and Oriental histories. She received me very politely, but seemed to wonder that I neglected bringing opium and a tobacco-box. When chairs were drawn for the rest of the company, I was assigned my place on a cushion on the floor. It was in vain that I protested the Chinese used chairs as in Europe; she understood decorums too well to entertain me with the ordinary civilities.

I had scarcely been seated according to her directions, when the footman was ordered to pin a napkin under my chin. This I protested against, as being no way Chinese. However, the whole company, who, it seems, were a club of connoisseurs, gave it unanimously against me, and the napkin was pinned accordingly.

It was impossible to be angry with people who seemed to err only from an excess of politeness, and I sat contented, expecting their importunities were now at an end; but as soon as ever dinner was served, the lady demanded whether I was for a plate of bears’ claws or a slice of birds’ nests? As these were dishes with which I was utterly unacquainted, I was desirous of eating only what I knew, and therefore begged to be helped from a piece of beef that lay on the side-table. My request at once disconcerted the whole company. A Chinese eat beef! That could never be! There was no local propriety in Chinese beef, whatever there might be in Chinese pheasant. “Sir,” said my entertainer, “I think I have some reasons to fancy myself a judge of these matters. In short, the Chinese never eat beef; so that I must be permitted to recommend the Pilaw. There was never better dressed at Pekin; the saffron and rice are well boiled, and the spices in perfection.”

I had no sooner begun to eat what was laid before me than I found the whole company as much astonished as before. It seems I made no use of my chop-sticks. A grave gentleman, whom I take to be an author, harangued very learnedly (as the company seemed to think) upon the use which was made of them in China. He entered into a long argument with himself about their first introduction, without once appealing to me, who might be supposed best capable of silencing the inquiry. As the gentleman therefore took my silence for a mark of his own superior sagacity, he was resolved to pursue the triumph. He talked of our cities, mountains, and animals, as familiarly as if he had been born in Quamsi, but as erroneously as if a native of the moon. He attempted to prove that I had nothing of the true Chinese cut in my visage; showed that my cheek-bones should have been higher and my forehead broader. In short, he almost reasoned me out of my country, and effectually persuaded the rest of the company to be of his opinion.

I was going to expose his mistakes, when it was insisted that I had nothing of the true Eastern manner in my delivery. “This gentleman’s conversation” (says one of the ladies, who was a great reader) “is like our own, mere chit-chat and common-sense. There is nothing like sense in the true Eastern style, where nothing more is required but sublimity. Oh, for a history of Aboulfaouris, the grand voyager, of genii, magicians, rocks, bags of bullets, giants, and enchanters, where all is great, obscure, magnificent, and unintelligible!” “I have written many a sheet of Eastern tale myself,” interrupts the author, “and I defy the severest critic to say but that I have stuck close to the true manner. I have compared a lady’s chin to the snow upon the mountains of Bomek; a soldier’s sword to the clouds that obscure the face of heaven. If riches are mentioned, I compared them to the flocks that graze the verdant Tiflis; if poverty, to the mists that veil the brow of Mount Baku. I have used ‘thee’ and ‘thou’ upon all occasions. I have described fallen stars and splitting mountains, not forgetting the little houris, who make a pretty figure in every description. But you shall hear how I generally begin: ‘Eben-ben-bolo, who was the son of Ban, was born on the foggy summits of Benderabassi. His beard was whiter than the feathers which veil the breast of the penguin; his eyes were like the eyes of doves when washed by the dews of the morning; his hair, which hung like the willow weeping over the glassy stream, was so beautiful that it seemed to reflect its own brightness; and his feet were as the feet of a wild deer which fleeth to the tops of the mountains.’ There, there is the true Eastern taste for you. Every advance made toward sense is only a deviation from sound. Eastern tales should always be sonorous, lofty, musical, and unmeaning.”