Buy on Amazon or register to access this book online

Foreword

THESE chapters are written from the standpoint of one who, by an extended experience in China, has come to feel a profound respect for the numerous admirable qualities of the Chinese, and to entertain for many of them a high personal esteem. An unexampled past lies behind this great race, and before it there may lie a wonderful future. Ere that can be realized, however, there are many disabilities which must be removed. The longer one is acquainted with China, the more deeply is this necessity felt. Commerce, diplomacy, extension of political relations, and the growing contact with Occidental civilization have, all combined, proved totally inadequate to accomplish any such reformation as China needs.

The Chinese village is the empire in small, and when that has been surveyed, we shall be in a better condition to suggest a remedy for whatever needs amendment. It cannot be too often reiterated that the variety in unity in China is such, that affirmations should always be qualified with the implied limitation that they are true somewhere, although few of them may hold good everywhere. On the other hand, the unity in variety is such that a really typical Chinese fact, although of restricted occurrence, may not on that account be the less valuable.

China was never so much in the world’s thought as to-day, nor is there any apparent likelihood that the position of this empire will be less conspicuous at the opening of the twentieth century. Whatever helps to a better understanding of the Chinese people, is an aid to a comprehension of the Chinese problem. To that end this volume is intended as a humble contribution.

 

PART I

The Village, Its Institutions, Usages and Public Characters

[Pg 14]

 

 

[Pg 15]

I

THE CHINESE VILLAGE

THERE are in India alone over half a million villages. In all Asia, not improbably, there may be four times that number. By far the larger part of the most numerous people on the globe live in villages. The traveller in the Chinese Empire may start from some seaport, as Tientsin, and journey for several months together in the same general direction, before reaching its frontiers on the other side. In the course of such a tour, he will be impressed as only one who has ocular evidence can be impressed with the inconceivably great number of Chinese altogether outside of the great centres of urban population. Contrary to the current notions of Westerners, the number of great cities is not, relatively to the whole population, anything like so large in China as in Western lands. Many of the district cities, capitals of divisions analogous to what we call counties, are merely large villages with a wall and with government bureaus called yamêns. It is known that in India three-fourths of the population are rural. In China there is perhaps no reason for thinking the proportion to be less.

On such a journey as we have supposed, the traveller unacquainted with the Chinese, finds himself perpetually inquiring of himself: What are these incomputable millions of human beings thinking about? What is the quality of the life which they live? What is its content and its scope?

Questions like these cannot be answered intelligently without much explanation. The conditions and environment of Chinese life are so totally unlike those to which we are [Pg 16]accustomed, that it is unsafe to take anything for granted. Amid certain fundamental unities the life of the Chinese is full of bewildering and inexplicable variety. No matter how long one may have lived in China, there is always just as much as ever that he never before heard of, but which every one is supposed to have known by intuition. The oldest resident is a student like the rest.

This state of things is the inevitable result of the antiquity of Chinese civilization, as well as of the enormous scale upon which it has operated to produce its effects. It is a sagacious remark of Mr. A. R. Colquhoun[1] that “the product resulting from duration multiplied by numbers must be immense, and if to this we add a third factor, isolation, we have no right to be surprised either at the complex character of Chinese civilization, or at its peculiarly conservative form.” For this reason a connected and orderly account of the phenomena of Chinese life we believe to be a hopeless impossibility. It would require the combined information of all the residents of China to make it complete, to coördinate it would be the work of several life-times, and the resultant volumes would fill the Bodleian library. The only practicable way to extend our knowledge of so oceanic a subject, is to examine in more or less detail such phenomena as happen to have come within our restricted horizon. No two persons will have the same horizon, and no horizon will belt a sphere.

A good way to see what is happening in a building would be to take its roof off, could that be done without disturbing its inmates. If we wish to comprehend the Chinese, we must take[Pg 17] the roof from their homes, in order to learn what is going on within. This no foreigner can do. But he can imitate the Chinese who apply a wet finger to a paper window, so that when the digit is withdrawn there remains a tiny hole, through which an observant eye may see at least something. The heterogeneous, somewhat disconnected, very unequally elaborated chapters which comprise this book, have this in common, that they are all studies of the phenomena seen at a peep-hole into the actual life of the Chinese people. Any one who knows enough about the subject to be entitled to have an opinion, cannot help perceiving how imperfect and inadequate they are. Yet they represent, nevertheless, realities which have a human interest of their own.

 

Southern Village Scene.

 

A Detail—The Village Well.

 

The traveller in China, constantly surrounded by countless towns and hamlets, naturally thirsts to know in a general way the population of the region which he is traversing. Should he venture, however, to ask any one the number of people in a city, or the district which it governs, he would get no other information than that there are “not a few,” or “who knows?” Almost any intelligent person could tell approximately how many villages there are in his own county, but as some of them are large and some small, and as Chinese like other Orientals care absolutely nothing for statistics and have the crudest notion of what we mean by an average, one is none the wiser for their information.

It appears to be well settled that no real dependence can be placed upon the Chinese official returns, yet that they are the only basis upon which rational estimates can be based, and therefore have a certain value. So far as we are aware, efforts to come at the real population per square mile, have generally proceeded from such extensive units as provinces, or at least prefectures, the foundation and superstructure being alike a mere pagoda of guesses.

Some years ago an effort was made in a certain district to make a more exact computation of the population of a very[Pg 18] limited area, as a sort of unit of measure. For this purpose a circle was taken, the radius of which was twenty li, the foreign residence being at the centre. A list was drawn up of every village having received famine relief in the year 1878, so that it was not difficult to make a proximate guess at the average number of families. The villages were 150 in number, and the average size was taken as eighty families, which, reckoning five persons to the family, gave a total of 60,000 persons. Allowing six miles to be the equivalent of twenty li, the population of the square mile would be 531, about the same as the average of the kingdom of Belgium (the most densely populated country in Europe), which had in 1890 an average of only 534 to the square mile.

At a distance of a few miles beyond this circle, there is a tract called the “Thirteen Villages,” because that is the number within a distance of five li! This shows that the particular region in which this estimate was made, happens to be an unfavourable one for the purpose, as a considerable part of it is waste, owing to an old bed of the Yellow River which has devastated a broad band of land, on which are no villages. There is also a water-course leading from the Grand Canal to the sea, and a long depression much below the general average, thinly occupied by villages, because it is liable to serious inundation.

For these reasons it seemed desirable to make a new count in a better spot, and for this purpose a district was chosen, situated about ninety li east of the sub-prefecture of Lin Ch‘ing, to which it belongs. The area taken was only half the size of the former, and instead of merely estimating the average population of the villages, the actual number of families in each was taken, so far as this number is known to the natives. The man who prepared the village map of the area is a native of the central village, and a person of excellent sense. He put the population in every case somewhat below the popular estimate so as to be certainly within bounds. The[Pg 19] number of persons to a “family” was still taken at five, though, as he pointed out, this is a totally inadequate allowance. Many “families” live and have all things in common, and are therefore counted as one, although as in the case of this particular individual, the “family” may consist of some twenty persons. To the traveller in this region, the villages appear to be both large and thickly clustered, and the enumeration shows this to be the case. Within a radius of ten li (three miles) there are sixty-four villages, the smallest having thirty families and the largest more than 1,000, while the average is 188 families. The total number of families is 12,040, and the total number of persons at five to the family, is 60,200, or more than double the estimate for the region with twice the diameter. This gives a population of 2,129 to the square mile.

So far as appearances go, there are thousands of square miles in southern and central Chih-li, western and southwestern Shan-tung, and northern Ho-nan, where the villages are as thick as in this one tract, the contents of which we are thus able proximately to compute. But for the plain of North China as a whole, it is probable that it would be found more reasonable to estimate 300 persons to the square mile for the more sparsely settled districts, and from 1,000 to 1,500 for the more thickly settled regions. In any case a vivid impression is thus gained of the enormous number of human beings crowded into these fertile and historic plains, and also of the almost insuperable difficulties in the way of an exact knowledge of the facts of the true “census.”

 

 


[Pg 20]

II

CONSTRUCTION OF VILLAGES

IT is nearly 500 years since the great raid of the nephew of Hung Wu, founder of the Ming Dynasty, from the southern capital of China, to what is now known as Peking, then called the state of Yen. The celebrated raider is popularly believed to have destroyed the lives of all those whom he met, and to have reduced to an uninhabited desert the whole region from the Yang-tzŭ River to Peking. This is described as “Yen Wang’s sweeping the North.” After this ambitious youth had dispossessed his nephew, who was the rightful heir to the throne, he took the title of Yung Lo, which became a famous name in Chinese history. To repair the ravages which he had made, compulsory emigration was established from southern Shan-hsi and from eastern Shan-tung. Tradition reports that vast masses of people were collected in the city of Hung-tung Hsien in southern Shan-hsi, and thence distributed over the uncultivated wastes made by war. Certain it is that throughout great regions of the plain of northern China, the inhabitants have no other knowledge of their origin than that they came from that city.

It is a curious phenomenon that so practical a people as the Chinese, and one having so instinctive a sense of the points of the compass that they speak of a pain in “the east side” of the stomach, are indifferent to regularity of form in their towns. Every Chinese city seems to lie four square, but perhaps it is not too much to say that no Chinese city really does so lie. On the contrary a city wall is always found to have certain deliberate curves and irregularities which are designed for geomantic purposes. In other words they bring good luck,[Pg 21] or they keep off bad luck, and are representations of the mysterious science of fêng-shui or geomancy. It is for this reason that city gates must either not be opposite one another, or if they are so, some obstruction must intervene to prevent evil spirits from making a clean sweep of everything.

It is customary in Western lands to speak of “laying out” a city or a town. As applied to a Chinese village, such an expression would be most inappropriate, for it would imply that there has been some trace of design in the arrangement of the parts, whereas the reverse is the truth. A Chinese village, like Topsy, “just growed,” how, or why, no one knows or cares. At some remote and generally unascertainable time in the dim past some families arrived from somewhere else, camped down, made themselves a “local habitation,” (their name they probably brought with them), and that was the village. It has a street, and perhaps a network of them, but no two are parallel, except by accident, and no one of them is straight. The street is the path which has been found by long experience to be a necessary factor in promoting communication between the parts of the village and the outside world. It is not only liable to take sudden and inexplicable turns, but it varies in width at different points. Sometimes in a village a quarter of a mile long, there may not be a single crossroad enabling a vehicle to get from the front street to the back one, simply because the town grew up in that way, and no one either could or would remedy it, even if any one desired it otherwise. At right angles to the main street or streets, run narrow alleys, upon which open the yards or courts in which the houses are situated. Even the buildings which happen to stand contiguous to the main street offer nothing to the gaze but an expanse of dead wall. If any doorway opens on the highway, it is protected from the evil influences which might else result, by a screen wall, preventing any observation of what goes on within. A village is thus a city in miniature, having all the evils of over-crowding, though it may be situated in the midst of a wide[Pg 22] and comparatively uninhabited plain. Whether land is dear or cheap, a village always has the same crowded appearance, and there is in either case the same indifference to the requirements of future growth.

The mountains furnish an abundance of stone, from which dwellings situated in such districts are built—dark, damp, and unwholesome at all seasons of the year, but especially so in the time of heavy rains. Even more unpleasant are the cave dwellings found in the loamy soil of loess regions, lighted only from the front, and quite free from any form of ventilation, a luxury for which no provision is made in the construction of a Chinese dwelling.

By far the most common material of which the Chinese build their houses is that which happens to be nearest at hand. Bricks are everywhere made in great quantities, almost always of the same colour as the clothes of the people, a bluish gray. This tint is secured by sealing up the brick-kiln perfectly tight, when the burning of the bricks is finished, and pouring upon the concave top several hundred buckets of water, which, filtering through the soil of which the top is composed, is instantly converted into steam when it reaches the bricks, and alters their hue. The scarcity of fuel, and an unwillingness to employ it where it seems like a waste leads to the almost universal practice of burning the bricks too little to make them valuable as a building material. Instead of becoming hard like stones as do foreign bricks, and coated with a thick glazing, a large percentage of Chinese bricks break merely by being handled, and when examined, they are found to be like well-made bread, full of air-holes. Each of these openings becomes a tube by which the bibulous bricks suck up moisture from below, to the great detriment of the building of which they generally form merely the foundations, or perhaps, the facings.

The vast majority of country dwellings are made simply of the soil, moulded into adobe bricks, dried till they cease to[Pg 23] shrink. The largest of these bricks are two or three inches thick, and a foot wide, and perhaps twenty inches in length, weighing even when thoroughly dried more than forty pounds. The cost of making those which are only dried in a mould is not more than a cash a piece; those which are stamped while in the mould with a heavy stone rammer, are worth three or four times as much. If experts are employed to do this work, the outlay is greater as the owner of the earth not only provides a man to carry the necessary water, but he must furnish tea and tobacco for the workmen.

The foundations of adobe houses, like those of all others, must be of brick, and at the height of a foot or two above the ground will have a layer of reeds or some other substance, designed to prevent the dampness from rising into the walls, which crumble in such a case like candy houses in a rain. There is so much soda in the soil of all parts of the Great Plain of northern China, that unless extreme care is taken the best built structures will, in a very few years, show signs of decay.

The roof is meant to be supported by posts, no matter of what material the house is built, and this material is regarded as only the filling between them, but in the cheaper houses, the posts are often omitted to save expense. As a result, in a rainy year thousands of houses are literally soaked down whenever the moisture has sufficiently weakened the foundations. In this way many persons are killed and many more injured. In some districts one sees roofs made with the frame resembling that of a foreign house, but the ordinary form is with king and queen posts. In either case the timbers running lengthwise of the building support small purlines upon which rest thin bricks, or more frequently reeds, mats, or sorghum stalks, over which is spread the earth which forms the greater part of all roofs. Their enormous weight when well soaked make them highly dangerous after the timbers have become old and rotten. Where the roofs are flat, they serve as depositories for the crops, and for fuel.

[Pg 24]If the village is situated in a low spot, the precaution is taken to throw up a mound of earth on which to build. But whatever the nature of the country, the removal of so much earth leaves a series of gigantic pits around every village, which catch the drainage of the surrounding region and the possession of which is disputed by ducks, geese, pigs and in summer by small children clad only in the skin garments furnished by nature.

The abundant moisture is an inducement to the growth of luxuriant groves of trees, which, seen at a distance, produce a charming effect. But on a nearer approach it is seen that the fine old trees are employed exclusively in shading the mud-holes, while the houses of the village are exposed to the fiercest rays of the summer sun. Trees are indeed to be met with in the village street, but they are not designed to shade a courtyard, which is almost invariably utterly destitute of trees of any sort. Even grapevines which would seem a natural and beautiful relief from the hideous bareness of the prevalent earth colour, are, in some regions at least, wholly tabooed. And why? Because, forsooth, the branches of the grape point down, while those of other trees point up, hence it would be “unlucky” to have grapevines, though not at all “unlucky” to roast all through the broiling summer for the lack of their grateful shade.

A man whose grandfather had been rich, and who was distinguished from his neighbours by owning a two-story dwelling, informed the writer that he could remember that his grandmother, who lived in the rear court, was constantly fretting at the lofty buildings in front, and at the magnificent elms which shaded the compound and left no place to dry clothes! In course of time the family was reduced to poverty, the two-story building was demolished, and the trees felled, so that the present generation, like other families, swelters in a narrow courtyard, with an unlimited opportunity (very little used) to dry their clothes. Luxuries which are denied to dwelling-houses,[Pg 25] are cheerfully accorded to the gods, who have no clothes to dry, and a very small temple may have in front of it a grove of very old trees.

 

Sawyers Preparing Lumber.

 

Itinerant Blacksmiths Employed by Villagers.

 

The architecture of the Chinese has been compendiously and perhaps not inaccurately described as consisting essentially of two sticks placed upright, with a third laid across them at the top. The shape of some Chinese roofs, however they may vary among themselves, suggests the tent as the prime model; though, as Dr. Williams and others have remarked, there is no proof of any connection between the Chinese roof and the tent. Owing to the national reluctance to erect lofty buildings, almost all Chinese cities present an appearance of monotonous uniformity, greatly in contrast with the views of large cities to be had in other lands.

If Chinese cities are thus uninviting in their aspect, the traveller must not expect to find anything in the country village to gratify his æsthetic sense. There is no such word as “æsthetic” in Chinese, and, if there were, it is not one in which villagers would take any interest. The houses are generally built on the north end of the space reserved as a courtyard, so as to face the south, and if additional structures are needed they are placed at right angles to the main one, facing east and west. If the premises are large, the front wall of the yard is formed by another house, similar to the one in the rear, and like it having side buildings. However numerous or however wealthy the family, this is the normal type of its dwelling. In cities this type is greatly modified by the exigencies of the contracted space at disposal, but in the country it rules supreme.

The numerative of Chinese houses is a word which denotes division, signifying not a room, but rather such a part of a dwelling as can conveniently be covered by timbers of one length. As these timbers are seldom very large or very long, one division of a house will not often exceed ten or twelve feet in length, by a little less in width from front to back. An ordinary house will comprise three of these divisions, though[Pg 26] there may be but one partition, forming one double and one single room. There is no ceiling, and the roof, which is usually not lofty, is in full view. Most doors are made with two leaves, projections above and below, like pins, serving as the hinges. There is a movable doorsill, out of which a small hole is often cut to admit of entrance and exit for the dogs and cats. Such doors cannot be tightly closed, for the rude workmanship and the unequal shrinkage of the wood always render it easy to see through the many cracks.

Almost all parts of the eighteen provinces are very hot in summer, but it is only in some regions that a back door will be found opening opposite the front one. The wooden grating, which does duty as a window, is built into the wall, for security against thieves, and is often covered, even in the heat of summer, with oiled paper. Doors do not open directly from dwelling-houses to the street, and if there are any windows on the street side of the house, they are very small and very high.

Just inside the door is built the adobe support for the cooking-boiler, the latter shaped like a saucer and made very thin in order to economize fuel to the utmost. In all districts where provision is to be made for heating the room, it is done by conducting the smoke from this primitive range through a complicated set of flues, under the divan called a k‘ang which serves as a bed, and which is merely an arrangement of adobe bricks. If the houses are thatched with straw the opening for smoke must be near the ground, as a precaution against fire.

On the end of the k‘ang are piled the bed-quilts of the household and whatever trunks or boxes they may be able to boast, for this is the only part of the dwelling which is not likely to be damp. As the fire is so near to the outer door where drafts are strong, as the flues are very likely to get out of order, and as there are no chimneys worthy of the name, it is inevitable that the smoke should be distributed throughout the building with the greatest impartiality, often forming a coating of creosote an inch or more in thickness.

[Pg 27]Above the cooking-range is fastened the image of the kitchen-god, popularly supposed to be a deification of Chang Kung, a worthy who lived in the eighth century of our era, and was able to live in perfect peace, although nine generations simultaneously inhabited the same yard. Even his hundred dogs were so polite as to wait for another, if any one of them was late at a meal.

The reigning emperor of the Tang Dynasty sent for Chang Kung, to inquire the secret of such wonderful harmony, and calling for a pen, he is said to have written the character denoting “Forbearance” a great number of times. According to tradition the picture of this patriarch was placed in every dwelling as a stimulus to the imitation of his example, a purpose for which it unfortunately proves quite inert.

That the dwellings of the Chinese are cold in winter, hot in summer, and smoky all the year round is inevitable. Even in the coldest weather there is no escape from the bitter cold, except as it may be got by curling upon the k‘ang. For this reason Chinese women often speak of the k‘ang as like an “own mother.” A room in which there is none is considered almost uninhabitable. But from an Occidental point of view they are models of discomfort. The heat is but slowly diffused, and during a long night one may be alternately drenched with perspiration, and then chilled to the bone as the heat diminishes. The adobe bricks of which the k‘ang is composed crumble if an uneven pressure is made upon them, so that one often finds the k‘angs in an inn full of pitfalls. They are always the lodging places of a multitude of tiny monsters to which the Chinese are too much accustomed to complain. Even when the adobe bricks are broken up in the spring to be pulverized as manure—on account of the creosote—the animal life lodged in the walls is apparently sufficient to restock the universe.

It is not surprising that the title-deeds to land are in course of years destroyed or lost, for there is in a Chinese house no proper place in which they may be kept. The only closets are[Pg 28] made by leaving out a few bricks from the wall. A small board, resting on two pegs often forms the only book-shelf to be found in the apartments even of men of letters. Doors are locked by passing the link of a chain over a staple in the door-frame above; but Chinese padlocks can generally be picked with a wire, a chop-stick, or even with a dry weed, and afford no real protection. Thieves are always provided with an assortment of keys, and often get in by lifting the doors off the pins which serve as hinges. Nothing is easier than to dig through adobe walls. In some of the rich villages of Shan-hsi house-walls are built quite six feet thick to discourage such penetration.

The floor of all common dwellings is merely the earth, not smoothed but beaten into fixed inequalities; this we are assured (in reply to a question why smoothness is not cultivated) is much the best way, as by this means every fluid spilled will run out of itself! In the corners of the dwelling stand, lie, or hang, the numerous household articles for which there is no other place. Jars of grain, agricultural implements, clumsy looms for weaving cotton, spinning wheels, baskets of all sizes and shapes, one or two benches, and possibly a chair, all seem to occupy such space as is to be had, while from the sooty roof depend all manner of articles, hung up so as to be out of the way—some of which when wanted must be hooked down with a pole. The maxim “a place for everything, and everything in its place” is inappropriate to a Chinese dwelling, where there is very little place for anything.

The small yard is in as great confusion as the house, and for the same reason. Dogs, cats, chickens and babies enjoy a very limited sphere of action, and generally take to the street, which is but an extension of the court. If the family owns animals, some place must be found for them in the yard, though when not in use they spend their time anchored by a very short rope, attached to pegs sunk deep in the ground, in front of the owner’s dwelling. Pigs are kept in a kind of well, with a brick wall to prevent its caving in, and by climbing a very[Pg 29] steep flight of brick stairs they can ascend to a little kennel provided for them at the edge of their pits—in many regions the only two-story domiciles to be found!

The Chinese village is always a miniature city, not only by reason of its internal arrangements—or lack of it—but often also in the virtue of the fact that it is surrounded by a wall.

Not many years ago several regiments stationed near the Yellow River, in Shan-tung, mutinied, killed an officer and marched off to their homes. The intelligence of this event spread throughout the province, and each region feared to be visited by the soldiers who were sure to plunder and perhaps to kill. So great was the panic that cities hundreds of miles from the seat of the disturbance were packed with a multitude of farm-carts loaded with villagers who had left their homes and abandoned their crops at the beginning of the wheat harvest, trusting to find safety within city walls. The losses sustained in consequence were immense.

Events like this may occur at any time, and the great T‘ai P‘ing Rebellion of half a century ago, together with its resultant disorders, left an ineffaceable impression of the insecurity of an unwalled village. Although the walls are seldom more than fifteen or twenty feet in height, whenever a year of bad harvests occurs, and bands of plunderers roam about, the use of even such defences is made obvious. Slight as is their value against an organized, well-directed attack, experience shows that they are often sufficient to accomplish the object intended, by diverting the stream of invaders to other villages where they meet with no resistance. The least rumour of an uprising in any quarter is often sufficient to stimulate the villagers to levy a tax upon the land in order to repair their earthen ramparts, in which, not without good reason, they place much more dependence than in the cautious and dilatory movements of the local authorities who are generally in no condition to cope with an organized and resolute force, especially with those rebels who have a real grievance.

 

 


[Pg 30]

III

VILLAGE NOMENCLATURE

THE Chinese is justly termed a poetical language. The titles of emperors, the names of men, the signs of shops, all have some felicitous meaning. It is therefore somewhat of a disappointment to discover that the names of Chinese villages, unlike those of cities, are not as a rule either poetical or significant. The drafts upon the language by the incessant multiplication of hamlets are too great to be successfully met. Nearly all Chinese surnames serve as the designation of villages, as in other lands the names of families are attached to the settlements which they make. Sometimes two or more surnames are linked together to denote the village, as Chang-Wang Chuang, the village of the Chang and the Wang families. It often happens that in the changes, wrought by time, of the families for whom the place was named not a single representative remains. In such cases the name may be retained or it may be altered, though all recollection of the circumstances of the change may be lost.

The most conspicuous object in a Chinese village is generally a temple, and this building often gives its name to the hamlet. Thus the wall surrounding a temple is covered with red plaster, and the village is dubbed Red Temple. In a few years the plaster falls off, but the name sticks. Temples are frequently associated with the families which were prominent in their construction, and the name of the village is very likely to be derived from this source, as Wang Chia Miao, the Temple of the Wang Family; the Hua Chia Ssŭ, the monastery of the Hua Family. If there happen to be two temples of a similar appearance, the village may get the title of Double Temple, and[Pg 31] in general any peculiarity in edifices of this sort is likely to be stereotyped in the village name.

The habit of using the names of families and temples to indicate the villages is a fertile source of confusion through the indefinite multiplication of the same name. There is no postal system in China compelling each post office to have a designation which shall not be confounded with others in the same province. Hence the more common names are so exceedingly common that they lose all value as distinctive designations. “Chang, Wang, Li, and Chao,” are the four surnames which the Chinese regard as the most prevalent, the first two of them far out-distancing all their competitors. The number of places in a given district bearing the same, or similar names, is past all ascertaining; as, say eight or ten Wang Family villages, the Larger Wang Village, the Smaller Wang Village, the Front Wang Village, the Rear Wang Village, the Wang Village Under-the-bank, and so forth. Even with this complexity, distinction would be a much easier matter if the same name were always used, but anything which has a Wang about it is like to be called simply Wang Village, and only on inquiry is it to be learned which of all these Wangs is the one intended.

A similar ambiguity is introduced along the line of imperial highways, where the hamlets at which food is sold, and where accommodations are offered to travellers, are called “shops,” taking their distinctive title from the distance to the district city,—as Five Mile Shop, Ten Mile, Fifteen, Twenty, Thirty, and Forty Mile Shop. Each district city may have “shops” of this kind on each side of it, and while the one twenty miles (or li) north is Twenty Li Shop, so is the one twenty li south, to the great confusion of the traveller, who after all is not sure where he is. In addition to this ambiguity, the Thirty Li Shop of one city is liable to be confounded with the Thirty Li Shop of the next city. It is a common circumstance to find an insignificant hamlet with a name comprising four or five characters, the local pronunciation of which is generally difficult to[Pg 32] catch, as the words are spoken as one prolonged, many-syllabled sound. This leads to abbreviations, the same long title having perhaps two or three different modes of utterance, to the bewilderment of strangers, and to the intense amusement of the rustic born on the spot, who cannot conceive what there can be so hard to understand about a name which is to him as familiar as his own.

Another source of confusion in the nomenclature of Chinese villages, is the almost universal habit of varying one or more characters of a name without any apparent reason. The alteration has no connection with euphony, ease of pronunciation, or with any known cause whatever, but seems to be due to an irresistible instinct for variety, and to an antipathy to a too simple uniformity. Thus a village the proper title of which is the Ancient Monastery of the Li Family, (Li Ku Ssŭ) is generally called Li Kuang Ssŭ; a village known as that of Benevolence and Virtue (Jên Tê Chuang), is ordinarily styled Jên Wang Chuang. Analogous to this habit, is that of affixing two entirely distinct names to the same little hamlet, neither name suggesting the other, and the duplication merely serving to confound confusion. Thus a village which has a name derived from a temple, like Hsüan Ti Miao (the temple to Hsüan Ti) is also known as Chang Chuang (the village of the Chang Family), but as there are many other villages of Chang families near by this, one will be known by way of distinction, as the “Chang Family village which has a temple to Hsüan Ti”! Many persons have occasion to write the names of villages, who have but the scantiest knowledge of Chinese characters, and they are as likely to indite a false character having the same sound as a right one—nay, far more so—and thus it happens that there is a perpetual uncertainty, never set at rest in any manner whatsoever, as to what the real name of a place ought to be, for to all Chinese one name is as good as another, and in such matters, as in many others, there appears to be no intuition of right and wrong.

[Pg 33]Chinese villages are only individual Chinese amplified, and, like individuals, they are liable to be nicknamed; and, as often happens with human beings, the nickname frequently supplants the original, of which no trace may remain in memory. This helps to account for the singular appellations of many villages. A market-town on the highway, the wells of which afford only brackish water, was called “Bitter Water Shop,” but as this name was not pleasing to the ear, it was changed on the tax lists to “Sweet Water Shop.” If any one inquires how it is that the same fountain can send forth at the same time waters both bitter and sweet, he is answered with conclusive simplicity, “Sweet Water Shop is the same as Bitter Water Shop!” A village situated on the edge of a river was named after the two leading families, but when the river rose to a great height this name sunk out of sight, and there emerged the title, “Look at the Water;” but even this alteration not being sufficient to satisfy the thirst for variety, the name is written and pronounced as if it meant, “Look at the Grave!” A hamlet named for the Liu Family had in it a bully who appeared in a lawsuit with a black eye, and hence was called the Village of Liu with the Black Eye. In another instance a town had the name of Dropped Tooth, merely because the local constable lost a central incisor (Lao Ya Chên); but in course of time this fact was forgotten, and the name altered into “Market-town of the Crows,” (Lao Kua Chên) which it still retains.

A village in which most of the families joined the Roman Catholics and pulled down all their temples, gained from this circumstance the soubriquet of “No Gods Village” (Wu Shên Chuang). The following specimens of singular village names are all taken from an area but a few miles square, and could doubtless be paralleled in almost any other region. “The Imperial Horse Yard” (Yü Ma Yüan). This title is said to have been inherited from the times of the founder of the Sung Dynasty. It is generally corrupted into “Sesame Garden,” (Chih Ma Yüan). “End of the Cave,” a village situated on[Pg 34] a great plain, with vague traditions of an underground passage. “Seeing the Horse”; “Horse Words Village,” from a tradition of a speaking animal; “Sun Family Bull Village”; “Female Dog Village”; “Wang Family Great Melon Village”; “Separating from the King Village”; “Basket Village of the Liu Village”; “Tiger-catching Village,” and “Tiger-striking Fair”; “Duck’s Nest of the Chou Family”; “Horse Without a Hoof”; “Village of Chang of the Iron Mouth”; “Ts‘ui Family Wild Pheasant Village”; “Wang Family Dog’s Tooth”; “Village of the Benevolent and Loving Magistrate”; “Village of the Makers of Fine-tooth Combs,” (Pi-tzŭ-chiang Chuang), which is now corrupted into “The Village Where They Wear Pug-noses”!

 

The Village Cobbler.

 

Village Broom-Maker.

 

 


[Pg 35]

IV

COUNTRY ROADS

THE contracted quarters in which the Chinese live compel them to do most of their work in the street. Even in those cities which are provided with but the narrowest passages, these slender avenues are perpetually choked by the presence of peripatetic vendors of every article that is sold, and by peripatetic craftsmen, who have no other shop than the street. The butcher, the baker, the candlestick-maker, and hundreds of other workmen as well, have their representatives in perpetual motion, to the great impediment of travel. The wider the street, the more the uses to which it can be put, so that travel in the broad streets of Peking is often as difficult as that in the narrow alleys of Canton. An “imperial highway” in China is not one which is kept in order by the emperor, but rather one which may have to be put in order for the emperor. All such highways might rather be called low-ways; for, as they are never repaired, they soon become incomparably worse than no road at all.

…Please login to continue reading
This content is for Premium 2 , Premium 3 and Premium 1 members only please login or sign up for further access to the sites content and to participate in our online community..
Log In Register

©2019 ENS HUMANITAS SOCIAL ENTERPRISES

CONTACT US

We're not around right now. But you can send us an email and we'll get back to you, asap.

Sending

Log in with your credentials

or    

Forgot your details?

Create Account