China As She Was

The contrast between the China of antiquity—hoary with age—and the new China —just awakening into life—is so great as to suggest the treatment of the two periods in different articles. And if the contrast between China of yesterday and the China of today is great, what shall we say of the contrast between the Flowery Kingdom and our own country? The same stars shine overhead and the same laws of nature operate on the earth, but in mode of living, appearance, customs and habits of thought, the Chinese people could scarcely be more different from ours.

First, a word as to the land which they occupy; its very vastness impresses one, unless he has recently consulted his geography. While the eighteen provinces which constitute China proper have something less than two million square miles, yet the Chinese empire with its tributary states has an area of about five million three hundred thousand square miles, and extends over thirty degrees north and south and seventy degrees east and west. We hardly realize when we speak of China that her emperor holds sway over a territory nearly twice as large as the United States; that his decrees are law to a population estimated at from two hundred and fifty to four hundred millions; that her climate is like that of Russia in the north, while in the southern provinces her people live under a tropical sun ; and that she has so many mountains and such mighty deserts that more than half of her population is crowded together upon a plain which contains but a little more than two hundred thousand square miles. Williams, in his work entitled “The Middle Kingdom,” calls this district “the most densely settled of any part ,of the world of the same size,” and estimates that upon this plain—less than three times the size of Nebraska-one hundred and seventy-seven millions of human beings dwell.

The harbors of China are hardly what one might expect on so extended a line of sea coast. While the harbor at Hong Kong is an admirable one—one of the best in the world—the one at Shanghai has no hills to protect it, the one at Chefoo is open to the storms and the one at Taku does not deserve to be called a harbor at all. In leaving Shanghai we went an hour and a half by launch in order to reach a steamer of only six thousand tons; at Chefoo a still smaller ship was delayed a day because the lighters could not unload it in the wind, and at Taku, the seaport of Tientsin and Pekin, we spent a day on the bar waiting for ten feet of water.

The capital of the empire has until recently been so difficult of access that comparatively few tourists have visited it. The large ocean steamers stop at Shanghai and Hong Kong only, making it necessary for one desiring to visit Pekin to take a smaller boat and risk indefinite delays on account of wind and tide.

Since the completion of the railroad from Hankow to Pekin it is possible to accomplish the journey from Shanghai to Pekin in less time, and, in addition, enjoy the advantage of a trip inland. When the projected road is completed from Hankow to Canton, the tourist can land at Shanghai, take a river boat six hundred miles up the Yangste Kiang to Hankow, then go by rail to Pekin, about eight hundred miles north, then back through Hankow to Canton nearly as far south, from which point there are daily boats to Hong Kong. This trip, covering nearly a thousand miles of river travel and about fifteen hundred miles of rail-road travel (not including the return trip from Pekin to Hankow) can be made in the time formerly spent in travel along the coast and furnishes an infinitely better opportunity for the study of the country and the people. As a matter of precaution ought to add that Pekin is so far north that before the opening of the railroad it was extremely difficult to visit it after the first of December, and even now it is desirable that the trip should be made before the middle of November.

China is well watered; the largest river, the Yantse Kiang, which empties into the ocean at Shanghai, is three thousand miles long, drains more than half a million square miles. Seven hundred miles above its mouth carries a volume of water estimated at five hundred thou-sand cubic feet per second. It is one of the great rivers of the earth and is navigable for large vessels for more than a thousand miles.

The Yellow river, or, in Chinese, the Hwang Ho, drains a basin almost as large and is nearly as long, but does not carry so large a volume of water. This is the river whose overflows have been so disastrous as to earn for it the name of “The Great Sorrow.” This river carries down so much deposit that within recent times it has choked its original outlet and formed a new channel, entering the ocean some three hundred miles farther north. At that time thousands of villages were swept away and the loss of life was estimated at several millions. The current of the Yellow river is so shifting, the sandbars so numerous and the volume of water so changeable that the river is practically useless for navigation.

Besides these, there are a number of rivers of less importance and tributaries of these two large rivers, which only seem small by comparison.

As if inspired by the numerous and extensive natural waterways, the Chinese people centuries ago connected the great water systems by an immense canal, which with the streams utilized by it, gave water communication between Pekin and Canton. This canal, sometimes known as the Transit river, is nearly twice as long as the Erie canal and is not only the greatest work of its kind in Asia, but at the time of its construction was the greatest in the world.

Before speaking of the people, a word should be said in regard to the great wall. It extends from the ocean westward along the north-ern boundary of China proper for a distance of about fifteen hundred miles, climbing in its tortuous course h ills and mountains, one more than five thousand feet high. It is about twenty-five feet thick at the base and fifteen at the top and varies from fifteen to thirty feet in height. It is made of earth with a shell of stone or large brick to hold the earth in place. The watch towers, built at intervals along the line, add to its imposing appearance and make it an object of historic interest, although a large part of the wall has fallen into decay and in some places only a ridge of dirt remains. This wall was constructed about two hundred years before the Christian era as a protection against the hostile tribes of the north, and for many centuries it answered its purpose, although to-day it only suggests a tremendous waste of labor.

But the great wall, imposing as it is because of its length, is inferior in height, thickness and construction to some of the city walls. The wall of the city of Pekin, for instance, is about sixty feet high and forty feet wide at its base, and is kept in excellent repair. The wall encloses what is known as the Tartar city and is nearly four miles square. Huge watch towers, rise above each gate, and to give still greater security, the gates open into an enclosed square. While the walls of the city of Pekin are the most substantial in the empire, the walls of Nanking, the former capital, enclose nearly four times as much ground. There was a double object in making the walls of the city so extensive. First, to provide for future growth ; and, second, to enable the people to withstand a longer siege. How well the second purpose was served is shown by the fact that during the Tai-ping rebellion the city of Nanking was besieged for thirteen years. Just outside the walls of the city may still be seen the earthworks thrown up by the imperial army, which sometimes numbered thirty-five thousand.

But it must not be understood that the capital cities were the only ones protected by walls. On the contrary, all the cities are walled; one sees fifteen or twenty of these walled cities on the railroad from Pekin to Hankow and a number of others on the ride down the river to Shanghai.

The agricultural population, instead of occupying individual farms, as in America, is gathered into little villages, each home being en-closed in its own wall. During the summer the people swarm out from the cities and villages and cultivate their little tracts of land with the most primitive tools, carrying the farm products back to their homes on wheelbarrows or in baskets balanced on poles. In the north of China the camel is used for long distance travel, and in the south we saw the water buffalo drawing the plow, but in China less than anywhere else we have been, has man supplemented his strength by the strength of domestic animals.

In the cities the streets are so narrow that travel by ordinary vehicles is impossible. In Pekin there are a few wide streets leading from the gates through the city, and on these a peculiar heavy-wheeled, springless cart is used, but most of the streets are more like alleys in which two ‘rikishas can hardly pass. We did not see a full sized horse in the capital city. Some ponies have been brought down from Manchuria (Manchuria is regarded as the personal property of the imperial family and there is a royal monopoly in ponies) but the most popular saddle animal is the patient donkey. It looks ludicrous .to see a fat Chinaman perched upon the rump of one of these tiny beasts, but there seems to be entire harmony between the two and the donkey trudges along with little thought of change.

In Canton the streets are not wide enough for the ‘rikisha, and both the pony and the donkey are conspicuous by their absence. The sedan chair, borne by coolies, was the only conveyance we saw in a day’s tour of the city, and it required some engineering to make any headway with it when two parties met.

Although the business buildings are seldom more than two stories high (the residences are usually only one story), the streets are so narrow and so filled with signs and advertising banners that the sun can scarcely find its way to the pavement. The stores are narrow little stalls with the entire front open to the street. Often there is a little shrine outside the door where incense is burned, and innumerable gods of wood, brass and stone are to be seen.

While in their style of dress and in their institutions the Chinese are much the same throughout the empire, they differ considerably in size and color according to the latitude, and in features according to race history. In the north the people are lighter and larger than in the south, while the men and women of Manchuria have coarser and stronger faces than the Chinese. The people in the north seem to be more vigorous and warlike and less artistic than the people of the south.

The shaved forehead and the queue were prescribed by the Manchurian rulers two hundred and fifty years ago as a sign of subjection, b u t they are now a source of pride, and no greater humiliation can be inflicted upon one than to cut off his queue. In the northern provinces the men, women and children wear padded clothes, generally o f dark blue cotton. The breeches of the men are tied at the ankles and the long, narrow coat reaches almost to the feet. In China the women also wear trousers, but they are more like the American article and the coat worn by the women is considerably shorter than that worn by the men. China is a great place for furs, and the right to wear sable, is conferred as a mark of distinction upon the higher officials.

The Manchu women and the Chinese women differ materially. The Manchus, whose ancestors came from Manchuria, still retain the customs peculiar to their section. The hair is stretched over a broad, winglike frame and three hours are required for its arrangement. Flowers, natural and artificial, and ornaments made of feathers, beads and tinsel are profusely used in hair decoration. The Manchu women, except the widows, employ paint and powder with a boldness which would put to shame the most inveterate user of cosmetics in America. In the painting here there is no suggestion of a delicate glow of health; it is a generous application of bright red in two streaks, running from above the eyes to the corners of the mouth. The rest of the face is whitened with rice powder, which does not harmonize with the yellow skin of the neck.

But if the Manchu women show more vanity in the treatment of the face, they at least do not imitate the Chinese women in the binding of the feet, though by wearing skirts and a shoe resting on a block, shaped like a French heel, the size of the foot is concealed.

Foot-binding is probably the strangest form that human pride has ever taken, and it is hard to believe that Chinese women from time immemorial have endured the agonies of foot-binding and forced it upon their daughters. It is not known certainly how the custom originated. One tradition is that it began with a club-footed queen; another that it was designed to distinguish the upper class women from the coolies ; and a third tradition has it that it was a scheme devised by the men for keeping the women at home. But whatever causes may have led to the inauguration of the custom, it has become so firmly established that a prominent Chinaman told me that being opposed to foot-binding, he had, when a young man, tried to find a wife with natural feet but was not able to do so. He has in recent years persuaded his wife to unbind her feet and has kept his daughters from undergoing the ordeal.

The process, as described by a physician and as shown in a photo-graph and model which I secured, is as follows : At the age of five or six the little girl’s feet are tightly bandaged; the second, third, fourth and fifth toes being gradually brought back under the sole of the foot; the heel is then drawn forward under the instep and the natural growth of the foot entirely arrested. The medical missionaries report instances in which the foot has rotted away because of lack of circulation. On one of the boats we met an intelligent Chinese merchant who, after condemning the practice of foot-binding and telling us that, in opposition to his wife’s wishes and in opposition to the girl herself, he had saved one daughter from foot-binding, compared this custom to that of lacing, affirming that the latter was much more injurious. He also ventured to suggest that Chinese women do not expose their health and their shoulders in decollete gowns, but perceiving that he had discovered a weak spot in our own social armor, I hurriedly changed the subject. But I must reserve for another article the discussion of other characteristics.