One common theme that turns up a lot in older Western writings on China is the idea that China is the opposite of the West. Just take our, normal, rational way of doing things and flip it 180 degrees and you have China. Another common trope is that the Chinese are a paradox, rational yet superstitious, industrious yet improvident, civilized yet barbarous. Oh, and they are inscrutable too. If you are looking for a nice short quote to illustrate these sorts of attitudes here is one from Samuel Merwin in 1908
China is the land of paradox. If it is an absolute, despotic monarchy, it is also a very democratic country, with its self-made men, its powerful public opinion, and a “states’ rights” question of its own. It is one of the most corrupt of nations; on the other hand, the standard of personal and commercial honesty is probably higher in China than in any other country in the world. Woman, in China, is made to serve; her status is so low that it would be a discourtesy even to ask a man if he has a daughter: yet the ablest ruler China has had in many centuries is a woman. It is a land where the women wear socks and trousers, and the men wear stockings and robes; where a man shakes his own hand, not yours; where white, not black, is a sign of mourning; where the compass points south, not north; where books are read backward, not forward; where names and titles are put in reverse order, as in our directories—Theodore Roosevelt would be Roosevelt Theodore in China, Uncle Sam would be Sam Uncle; where fractions are written upside down, as 8⁄5, not 5⁄8; where a bride wails bitterly as she is carried to her wedding, and a man laughs when he tells you of his mother’s death.
Chinese life, or the phases of it that you see along the highroads of the northwest, would appear to be a very simple, honest life, industrious, methodical, patient in poverty. The men, even of the lowest classes, are courteous to a degree that would shame a Frenchman. I have seen my two soldiers, who earned ten or twenty cents, Mexican, a day, greet my cook with such grace and charm of manner that I felt like a crude barbarian as I watched them. The simplicity and industry of this life, as it presented itself to me, seemed directly opposed to any violence or outrage. Yet only seven years ago Shansi Province was the scene of one of the most atrocious massacres in history, modern or ancient. During a few weeks, in the summer of 1900, one hundred and fifty-nine white foreigners, men, women, and children, were killed within the province, forty-six of them in the city of T’ai Yuan-fu. The massacre completely wiped out the mission churches and schools and the opium refuges, the only missionaries who escaped being those who happened to be away on leave at the time. The attack was not directed at the missionaries as such, but at the foreigners in general. It was widely believed among the peasantry that the foreign devils made a practice of cutting out the eyes, tongues, and various other organs of children and women and shipping them, for some diabolical purpose, out of the country. The slaughter was directed, from beginning to end, by the rabid Manchu governor, Yü Hsien, and some of the butchering was done by soldiers under his personal command. But the interesting fact is that the docile, long-suffering people of Shansi did some butchering on their own account, as soon as the word was passed around that no questions would be asked by the officials.
Apparently, the Shansi peasant can be at one time simple, industrious, loyal, and at another time a slaying, ravishing maniac. The Chinaman himself is the greatest paradox of all. He is the product of a civilization which sprang from a germ and has developed in a soil and environment different from anything within our Western range of experience. Naturally he does not see human relations as we see them. His habits and customs are enough different from ours to appear bizarre to us; but they are no more than surface evidences of the difference between his mind and ours. Thanks to our strong racial instinct, we can be fairly certain of what an Anglo-Saxon, or even a European, will think in certain deeply human circumstances—in the presence of death, for instance. We cannot hope to understand the mental processes of a Chinaman. There is too great a difference in the shape of our heads, as there is in the texture of our traditions.
Samuel Merwin Drugging a Nation: The Story of China and the Opium Curse New York: Fleming H. Revell, 1908 p.70