The Chinese Baby Scene from Orwell's "Burmese Days"
Classics of Political Incorrectness Dept. (9)
Before he became a famous writer and anti-Stalinist, George Orwell served as a police official in Burma, then part of the British Raj, from 1922 to 1927. His first novel was Burmese Days, a fictional account of English-Burmese relations, and colonialism in general, based upon his experiences there.
Burmese Days is presumably politically incorrect mainly because of its realism—not so much because the English girl in the story considers the Chinese in Burma to be filthy savages, or because most of the English considered the Burmese to be inferiors, but because Orwell dared to amuse the reader by pointing out how non-European cultures really do function. For the girl to express her disgust is also not PC; but it’s actually her honesty in expressing an opinion that many “progressives” would secretly share that is the problem in that particular case. Also, in a scene or two which I may post some other time, the most outspoken advocate for colonialism in the story is actually an Indian doctor—he sees British colonialism as a civilizing force which has uplifted his people, which of course is damnable heresy to the progressive mind.
Some of the details of the scene are now anachronistic; for example the Chinese abandoned foot-binding and pigtails, and possibly two-foot-long opium pipes, long ago. For that matter, most of the Chinese were driven out of Burma during the 1960s, with a new and very different breed of Chinese now flooding back in, to buy up property and make money in accordance with the new Chinese brand of capitalistic communism. But much of the description still applies to the traditional Burmese lifestyle—the universal hospitality, the childlike openness, the lack of a concept of privacy, the standardized squalor, and also the dirt-tasting tea. Westerners may still be exposed to similar culture shock as that experienced by the English girl, especially if they stray from the new Bangkok-style atmosphere of the westernized cities and find themselves in the traditional heartland of the villages, or even in parts of town not yet saturated by tourists, expats, and consumerism.
The scene which follows is one in which John Flory, an old-timer in the country, is escorting a young Englishwoman named Elizabeth Lackersteen, who has been in Burma only a short time. He has adjusted to Burmese culture and a foreign environment, and even appreciates and respects them, but the girl, like many westerners to this day, refuses, seeing no point to it; nowadays she’d be boycotting the entire country, even while residing within it, for following sexist traditions, and for not being adequately PC in general. Anyway, she’s oppressed by the heat outside, so they pay a visit to one of Flory’s friends, a Chinese merchant.
A few explanatory notes may be of help:— Foot-binding was a practice, or technology, which prevented Chinese girls’ feet from growing, causing them to have feet so tiny and deformed that they could hardly hobble around. This was not, as one militant feminist I once knew used to vehemently insist, because Chinese men feared the power of women; rather, it was a status symbol, enhancing the prestige of a Chinese man who could afford to keep a wife who couldn’t work and was totally useless for anything but ornamentation, pleasure, and child-bearing. “Infra dig” is short for infra dignitatem, Latin for “beneath (one’s) dignity,” that is, degrading. Stays are, or were, a corset composed of two stiffened parts lashed tightly together like a knight’s cuirass, apparently a common article of Englishwomen’s underwear in the 1920s. And “thakin” is an honorific term of address, now reserved pretty much only for referring to the nation’s founding fathers, but in colonial times also used for obsequiously brown-nosing the English. I have read that the term ashin hpayah, or “venerable lord,” now used only to address Buddhist monks, was also used to address the British overlords back in the day.
Anyway, all that follows is Orwell’s.
They went into the shop, which seemed dark after the outer air. Li Yeik, who was sitting smoking among his baskets of merchandise—there was no counter—hobbled eagerly forward when he saw who had come in. Flory was a friend of his. He was an old bent-kneed man dressed in blue, wearing a pigtail, with a chinless yellow face, all cheekbones, like a benevolent skull. He greeted Flory with nasal honking noises which he intended for Burmese, and at once hobbled to the back of the shop to call for refreshments. There was a cool sweetish smell of opium. Long strips of red paper with black lettering were pasted on the walls, and at one side there was a little altar with a portrait of two large, serene-looking people in embroidered robes, and two sticks of incense smouldering in front of it. Two Chinese women, one old, and a girl were sitting on a mat rolling cigarettes with maize straw and tobacco like chopped horsehair. They wore black silk trousers, and their feet, with bulging, swollen insteps, were crammed into red-heeled wooden slippers no bigger than a doll’s. A naked child was crawling slowly about the floor like a large yellow frog.
‘Do look at those women’s feet!’ Elizabeth whispered as soon as Li Yeik’s back was turned. ‘Isn’t it simply dreadful! How do they get them like that? Surely it isn’t natural?’
‘No, they deform them artificially. It’s going out in China, I believe, but the people here are behind the times. Old Li Yeik’s pigtail is another anachronism. Those small feet are beautiful according to Chinese ideas.’
‘Beautiful! They’re so horrible I can hardly look at them. These people must be absolute savages!’
‘Oh no! They’re highly civilized; more civilized than we are, in my opinion. Beauty’s all a matter of taste. There are a people in this country called the Palaungs who admire long necks in women. The girls wear broad brass rings to stretch their necks, and they put on more and more of them until in the end they have necks like giraffes. It’s no queerer than bustles or crinolines.’
At this moment Li Yeik came back with two fat, round-faced Burmese girls, evidently sisters, giggling and carrying between them two chairs and a blue Chinese teapot holding half a gallon. The two girls were or had been Li Yeik’s concubines. The old man had produced a tin of chocolates and was prising off the lid and smiling in a fatherly way, exposing three long, tobacco-blackened teeth. Elizabeth sat down in a very uncomfortable frame of mind. She was perfectly certain that it could not be right to accept these people’s hospitality. One of the Burmese girls had at once gone behind the chairs and begun fanning Flory and Elizabeth, while the other knelt at their feet and poured out cups of tea. Elizabeth felt very foolish with the girl fanning the back of her neck and the Chinaman grinning in front of her. Flory always seemed to get her into these uncomfortable situations. She took a chocolate from the tin Li Yeik offered her, but she could not bring herself to say ‘thank you’.
‘Is this ALL RIGHT?’ she whispered to Flory.
‘I mean, ought we to be sitting down in these people’s house? Isn’t it sort of—sort of infra dig?’
‘It’s all right with a Chinaman. They’re a favoured race in this country. And they’re very democratic in their ideas. It’s best to treat them more or less as equals.’
‘This tea looks absolutely beastly. It’s quite green. You’d think they’d have the sense to put milk in it, wouldn’t you?’
‘It’s not bad. It’s a special kind of tea old Li Yeik gets from China. It has orange blossoms in it, I believe.’
‘Ugh! It tastes exactly like earth,’ she said, having tasted it.
Li Yeik stood holding his pipe, which was two feet long with a metal bowl the size of an acorn, and watching the Europeans to see whether they enjoyed his tea. The girl behind the chair said something in Burmese, at which both of them burst out giggling again. The one kneeling on the floor looked up and gazed in a naive admiring way at Elizabeth. Then she turned to Flory and asked him whether the English lady wore stays. She pronounced it s’tays.
‘Ch!’ said Li Yeik in a scandalized manner, stirring the girl with his toe to silence her.
‘I should hardly care to ask her,’ Flory said.
‘Oh, thakin, please do ask her! We are so anxious to know!’
There was an argument, and the girl behind the chair forgot fanning and joined in. Both of them, it appeared, had been pining all their lives to see a veritable pair of s’tays. They had heard so many tales about them; they were made of steel on the principle of a strait waistcoat, and they compressed a woman so tightly that she had no breasts, absolutely no breasts at all! The girls pressed their hands against their fat ribs in illustration. Would not Flory be so kind as to ask the English lady? There was a room behind the shop where she could come with them and undress. They had been so hoping to see a pair of s’tays.
Then the conversation lapsed suddenly. Elizabeth was sitting stiffly, holding her tiny cup of tea, which she could not bring herself to taste again, and wearing a rather hard smile. A chill fell upon the Orientals; they realized that the English girl, who could not join in their conversation, was not at her ease. Her elegance and her foreign beauty, which had charmed them a moment earlier, began to awe them a little. Even Flory was conscious of the same feeling. There came one of those dreadful moments that one has with Orientals, when everyone avoids everyone else’s eyes, trying vainly to think of something to say. Then the naked child, which had been exploring some baskets at the back of the shop, crawled across to where the Europeans sat. It examined their shoes and stockings with great curiosity, and then, looking up, saw their white faces and was seized with terror. It let out a desolate wail, and began making water on the floor.
The old Chinese woman looked up, clicked her tongue and went on rolling cigarettes. No one else took the smallest notice. A pool began to form on the floor. Elizabeth was so horrified that she set her cup down hastily, and spilled the tea. She plucked at Flory’s arm.
‘That child! Do look what it’s doing! Really, can’t someone—it’s too awful!’ For a moment everyone gazed in astonishment, and then they all grasped what was the matter. There was a flurry and a general clicking of tongues. No one had paid any attention to the child—the incident was too normal to be noticed—and now they all felt horribly ashamed. Everyone began putting the blame on the child. There were exclamations of ‘What a disgraceful child! What a disgusting child!’ The old Chinese woman carried the child, still howling, to the door, and held it out over the step as though wringing out a bath sponge. And in the same moment, as it seemed, Flory and Elizabeth were outside the shop, and he was following her back to the road with Li Yeik and the others looking after them in dismay.
‘If THAT’S what you call civilized people—!’ she was exclaiming.
‘I’m sorry,’ he said feebly. ‘I never expected—’
‘What absolutely DISGUSTING people!’
She was bitterly angry. Her face had flushed a wonderful delicate pink, like a poppy bud opened a day too soon. It was the deepest colour of which it was capable. He followed her past the bazaar and back to the main road, and they had gone fifty yards before he ventured to speak again.
‘I’m so sorry that this should have happened! Li Yeik is such a decent old chap. He’d hate to think that he’d offended you. Really it would have been better to stay a few minutes. Just to thank him for the tea.’
‘Thank him! After THAT!’
‘But honestly, you oughtn’t to mind that sort of thing. Not in this country. These people’s whole outlook is so different from ours. One has to adjust oneself. Suppose, for instance, you were back in the Middle Ages—’
‘I think I’d rather not discuss it any longer.’