In 1899, Arthur Henderson Smith wrote in “Village Life in China”: “A Chinese village is physically and intellectually a fixture. Could one gaze backward through a vista of five hundred years at the panorama which that vast stretch of modern history would present, he would probably see little more and little less than he sees to-day. The buildings now standing are not indeed five hundred years old, but they are just such houses as half a millennium ago occupied the same sites, “similar and similarly situated.” [Source: “Village Life in China” by Arthur Henderson Smith, Fleming H. Revell Company, 1899, The Project Gutenberg; Smith (1845 -1932) was an American missionary who spent 54 years in China. In the 1920s, “Chinese Characteristics” was still the most widely read book on China among foreign residents there. He spent much of his time in Pangzhuang, a village in Shandong.]

Some families that then lived in adobe dwellings now flourish under roofs of tile in houses of brick. Other families have become extinct. Now and then a new one may have appeared, but this is irregular and exceptional. Those who now subsist in this collection of earth-built abodes are the lineal descendants of those who lived there when Columbus discovered America. The descendants are doing just what their ancestors did, no more, no less, no other. They cultivate the same fields in the same way (albeit a few of the crops are modern); they go to the same markets in the same invariable order; buy, sell, and wear the same articles; marry and are given in marriage according to the same pattern.

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...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 Shandong, 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 Taiping 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.

Planning and Lay Out of a 19th Century Chinese Village

Arthur Henderson Smith wrote in “Chinese Characteristics”: “Every little Chinese village is built on the plan of a city without any plan. In other words, the dwellings are huddled together as if land were excessively valuable. The inevitable effect is to raise the price of land, just as in a city, though for quite different reasons; Hence narrow courts, cramped accommodations, unhealthful overcrowding, even where there is abundant space to be had close at hand and at a moderate fate. [Source:“Chinese Characteristics” by Arthur Henderson Smith, 1894]

Smith wrote in “Village Life in China”: “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. [Source: “Village Life in China” by Arthur Henderson Smith, Fleming H. Revell Company, 1899, The Project Gutenberg]

“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 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.

Materials Used to Construct a 19th Century Chinese Village

Smith wrote in “Village Life in China”: “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. [Source: “Village Life in China” by Arthur Henderson Smith, Fleming H. Revell Company, 1899, The Project Gutenberg]

“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 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.

Walls and Village Rivalry in 19th Century China

Arthur Henderson Smith wrote in “Chinese Characteristics”: “The almost universal massing of the rural Chinese population in villages, which are in reality miniature cities, is another illustration of the trait of mutual suspicion. The object is protection, not from a foreign enemy, but from one another. The only exceptions to this mode of agglomeration of Chinese dwellings, with which we are acquainted, is in the. case of some mountainous regions where the land is so barren that it is incapable of supporting more than one or two families, the people being so poor that they have no dread of thieves, and the province of Sichuan, in which, as Mr. Baber mentions, "the farmer and his workpeople live, it may be said, invariably in farm-houses on their land, and the tendency is to the separation rather than to the congregation of dwellings." If this exception to the general rule was made, because the expectation of peace in that remote province was thought to be greater than in others, as Baron von Richthofen suggested, it has proved, as Mr. Baber remarks, an expectation which has suffered many and grievous disappointments, especially — although after a long previous peace — in the days of the Taiping rebels. [Source:“Chinese Characteristics” by Arthur Henderson Smith, 1894]

The word for city in Chinese is the equivalent of “walled city.” “The laws of the Empire require that every district city, as well as every city of a higher rank, shall be enclosed by a wall of a specified height. Like other laws, this statute is much neglected in the letter, for there are many cities the walls of which are allowed to crumble into such decay, that they are no protection whatever, and we know of one district city invested by the Taiping rebels and occupied by them for many months, the walls of which although utterly destroyed were not restored at all for more than a decade afterwards. Many cities have only a feeble mud rampart, quite inadequate to keep out even the native dogs, which climb over it at will. But in all these cases, the occasion of these lapses from the ideal state of things is simply the poverty of the country. Whenever there is an alarm of trouble, the first step is to repair the walls. The execution of such repairs affords a convenient way in which to fine officials or others who have made themselves too rich in too short a time. [Source:“Chinese Characteristics” by Arthur Henderson Smith, 1894]

“The firm foundation on which rest all the many city walls in China, is the distrust which the Government entertains of the people. However the Emperor may be in theory the father of his people, and his subordinates called "father and mother officials," all parties understand perfectly that these are purely technical terms, ie. plus and minus, and that the real relation between the people and their rulers is that between children and a step-father. The whole history of China appears to be dotted with rebellions, most of which might apparently have been prevented by proper action on the part of the general Government if taken in time. The Government does not expect to act in time. Perhaps it does not wish to do so, or perhaps it is prevented from doing so. Meantime, the people slowly rise as the Government knew they would, and the officials promptly retire within these ready-made fortifications, like a turtle within its shell, or a hedge-hog within its ball of quills, and the disturbance is left to the slow adjustment of the troops."

“The lofty walls which enclose all premises in Chinese, as in other Oriental cities and towns, are another exemplification of the same traits of suspicion. If it is embarrassing for a foreigner to know how to speak to a Chinese of such places as London or New York, without unintentionally conveying the notion that they are " waited cities," it is not less difficult to make Chinese who may be interested in Western lands, understand how it can be that in those countries people often have about their premises no enclosures whatever. The immediate, although unwarranted inference on the part of the Chinese is that in such countries there must be no bad characters of any kind.

Even in cases of local disturbance, when there appears to the Chinese to be no safety except such as may be got by the protection of earthen walls thrown up around villages, and when the danger, being most imminent, requires instant action, it is sometimes difficult to secure sufficient unanimity to make a wall possible. In one such case near to the writer's home, a large village disagreed, and actually separated into two sections, throwing up two distinct circumvallations, one for each end of the town, to the mutual inconvenience of each, and at a great additional expense.

Villages and Names in 19th Century China

Smith wrote in “Village Life in China”: “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. [Source: “Village Life in China” by Arthur Henderson Smith, Fleming H. Revell Company, 1899, The Project Gutenberg]

“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 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 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.

“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 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”!

Village Wells in 19th Century China

Smith wrote: “On the Great Plain of North China the wells are generally shallow, ranging from ten to thirty feet in depth; one of fifty feet would be unusual, though they are occasionally much deeper. The well is a very important feature of the outfit of a Chinese village, though never the scene of ablutions as in India. To save the labour of carrying water, all the animals are led to the well to drink, and the resultant mud makes the neighbourhood, especially in winter, very disagreeable. Rarely have they a cover of any sort, and the opening being level with the surface of the ground, it would seem inevitable that animals, children and blind persons, should be constantly falling in, — as indeed, occasionally, but seldom happens. Even the smallest bairns learn to have a wholesome fear of the opening, and ages of use have accustomed all Chinese to view such dangers with calm philosophy. [Source: “Village Life in China” by Arthur Henderson Smith, Fleming H. Revell Company, 1899, The Project Gutenberg]

“The business of sinking wells is an art by itself, and in regions where they are commonly used for irrigation, the villagers acquire a great reputation for expertness in the process. A village which desires a new well sends an invitation to the experts, and a party of men, numbering perhaps fifteen or twenty, responds. Though the work is fatiguing, difficult, and often dangerous, no money payment is generally offered or desired, but only a feast to all the workers, of the best food to be had. If the well is to be anything more than a water-pit, it is dug as deep as can be done without danger of caving in, and then the brick lining is let down from above. The basis of this is a strong board frame of the exact size of the opening, and wide enough to place the walling upon. A section of the wall is built upon this base, and the whole is firmly bound to the baseboard within and without by ropes or reed withes. The lining then resembles a barrel without the heads, and when completed is so strong that, though it be subjected to considerable and unequal strains, it will neither give nor fall apart.

“Several feet of the lining are lowered into the cavity, and as the digging proceeds the lining sinks, and the upper wall is built upon it. If it is desired to strike a permanent spring, this is accomplished by means of a large bamboo tube to which an iron-pointed head is fixed. The tube is driven down as far as it will go, the earth and sand being removed from within, and when a good supply of water is reached the opening is bricked up as usual. Such wells are comparatively rare, and proportionately valuable.

“Wherever the soil and water are favorable for market-gardens, the country-side abounds in irrigation wells, often only six feet in width, and provided with a double windlass or sweep. One may meet the gardeners carrying home the ropes, buckets, and the windlass itself, none of which can safely be left out over night. Village wells are often sunk on ground which is conjointly owned by several families. Like everything else Oriental, they furnish frequent occasions now, as in patriarchal times, for bitter feuds. Whenever one is especially unpopular in his village, the first threat is to cut off his water supply, though this is not often done.

Village Shops in 19th Century China

Smith wrote: “In Shandong, every village of any size has its little “tsa-huo-p‘u, ” or shop of miscellaneous goods. It is not at all like a huckster’s shop at home, for the goods kept are not intended to be disposed of at once. Many of them may remain in stock for many years, but they will probably all be worked off at last. Occidentals often suppose that the Chinese live on “curry and rice.” Very few people in Shandong ever tasted rice in their lives, but there is generally a small quantity kept at the “tsa-huo-p‘u” in case there should be a call for use at feasts, or for the sick. There is a good supply of red paper used for cards of invitation, and white paper for funeral announcements, the need for which must be met promptly, without waiting for a trip to a distant market-town. Besides this there is a large stock of fire-crackers which are wanted whenever there is a feast-day, a wedding or a funeral, and also paper money and other materials for the idolatrous ceremonies which these occasions involve. There are many other kinds of wares, for there is almost nothing for which a demand may not be made; but the greatest profit is derived from the articles last named. [Source: “Village Life in China” by Arthur Henderson Smith, Fleming H. Revell Company, 1899, The Project Gutenberg]

“Let not the reader, inexpert in Chinese affairs, suppose that the keeper of the “tsa-huo-p‘u” sits all day in a chair awaiting customers, or spends the intervals between their infrequent arrivals in playing Chinese fox and geese or chess. He does nothing of the kind. If his shop is a very small one it is not tended at all, but simply open when occasion serves. If it is a larger affair, it requires the time of more than one person, not to tend it but to carry on the rural trade. For the larger part of the business of the “tsa-huo-p‘u” is not at home, but at five-day markets all about. The proprietors of some shops take their wares to a fair every day in the month, on the first and sixth to one place, on the second and seventh to another, on the third and eighth to another, and on the fifth and tenth to still another, by which time the circle is completed.

“Going to one of these markets is no holiday work. It is necessary to rise either at daylight or before, select the goods to be taken, pack them carefully, make an accurate list of them, and then wheel the barrow to the fair, sometimes over very bad roads in very bad weather. Arrived at the market-town there are no stalls or booths for the dealers to occupy, but each plants himself in a spot for which he has to pay a small ground-rent to the owner, who is always on hand to collect this rent. All day long the barrow must be tended assiduously, bickering with all sorts and conditions of men and women, and when the people have begun to scatter, the articles must be packed up again, and the barrow wheeled home.

Village Roads in 19th Century China

In 1899, Arthur Henderson Smith wrote in “Village Life in China”: Each road in the Chinese countryside “is simply a forced contribution on the part of the owner of the land to the general welfare. It is so much soil on which he is compelled to pay taxes, and from which he gets no more good than any one else. Each land-owner will, therefore, throw the road on the edge of his land, so that he may not be obliged to furnish more than half the way. But as the pieces of land which he happens to own may be, and generally are, of miscellaneous lengths, the road will wind around so as to accommodate the prejudices of the owner in this particular, which explains the fact that in travelling on village roads it is often necessary to go a great distance to reach a place not far off. [Source: “Village Life in China” by Arthur Henderson Smith, Fleming H. Revell Company, 1899, The Project Gutenberg]

“An ordinary road is only wide enough for one vehicle, but as it is often necessary for carts to pass one another, this can only be done by trespassing on the crops. To prevent this the farmer digs deep ditches along his land, resembling gas-mains. Each farmer struggles to protect his own land, but when he drives his own cart, he too becomes a “trespasser”; thus a state of chronic and immitigable warfare is established, for which there is absolutely no remedy. The Occidental plan of setting apart a strip of land of uniform width, free from taxes and owned by the state, the grade of which shall be definite, is utterly beyond the comprehension of any Chinese. Where land is valuable and is all private property, road repairs are out of the question. There is no earth to repair with, and without repair, the roads soon reach a condition beyond the possibility of any repairs. Constant travel compresses and hardens the soil, making it lower than the adjacent fields; perpetual attrition grinds the earth into banks, which by heavy gales are blown in the form of thick dust on the fields.

“In the rainy season the fields are drained into the road, which at such times is constantly under water. A slight change of level allows the water to escape into some still lower road, and thus a current is set up, which becomes first a brook, and then a rushing torrent, constantly wearing out its bed. This process repeated for decades and for centuries turns the road into a canal, several feet below the level of the fields. It is a proverb that a road 1, 000 years old becomes a river, just as a daughter-in-law of many years’ standing gradually “summers into a mother-in-law.”

“By the time the road has sunk to the level of a few feet below the adjacent land, it is liable to be wholly useless as a thoroughfare. It is a canal, but it can neither be navigated nor crossed. Intercourse between contiguous villages lying along a common “highway, ” is often for weeks together entirely interrupted. The water drained from the land often carries with it large areas of valuable soil, leaving in its place a yawning chasm. When the water subsides, the owner of the land sallies out to see what has become of this section of his farm. It has been dissolved in the canal, but if the owner cannot find that particular earth he can find other earth just as good. Wherever the light soil called loam, or “loess, ” is found, it splits with a vertical cleavage, leaving high banks on each side of a rent in the earth. To repair these, the owner takes the soil which he needs from a pit excavated by the side of the road, or more probably from the road itself, which may thus in a single season be lowered a foot or more in depth. All of it is his land, and why should he not take it? If the public wish to use a road, and do not find this one satisfactory, then let the public go somewhere else.

“If a road becomes so bad as to necessitate its abandonment, a new one must be opened, or some old one adapted to the altered circumstances. The latter is almost sure to be the alternative; for who is willing to surrender a part of his scanty farm, to accommodate so impersonal a being as the public? In case of floods, either from heavy rains or a break in some stream, the only feasible method is thought to be to sit still and await the gradual retirement of the water. A raised road through the inundated district, which could be used at all seasons, is a triple impossibility. The persons whose land must be disturbed would not suffer it, no one would lift a finger to do the work — except those who happened to own land along the line of the route — and no one, no matter where he lived, would furnish any of the materials which would be necessary to render the road permanent.

“An illustration of this state of things is found in a small village in central Chih-li, where lives an elderly lady, in good circumstances, a part of whose land is annually subject to flood from the drainage of the surrounding region. The evil was so serious that it was frequently impossible to haul the crops home on carts, but they had either to be brought on the backs of men wading, or, if there were water enough, toilfully dragged along on stalk rafts. To this comparatively enlightened woman occurred the idea of having her men and teams dig trenches along the roadside, raise the road to a level above possible flooding, and thus remedy the trouble permanently. This she did wholly at her own expense, the emerging road being a benefit to the whole country-side. The following winter, during which the contagious influenza was world-prevalent, there were several cases in the village terminating fatally. After five or six persons had died, the villagers became excited to discover the latent cause of the calamity, which was traced to the new highway. Had another death occurred they would have assembled with spades and reduced it to its previous level, thus raising a radical barrier against the grippe!

“The great lines of Chinese travel might be made permanently passable, instead of being, as now, interrupted several months of the year, if the Governor of a Province chose to compel the several District Magistrates along the line to see that these important arteries are kept free from standing water, with ditches in good order at all seasons. But for the village road there is absolutely no hope until such time as the Chinese villager may come dimly to the apprehension that what is for the advantage of one is for the advantage of all, and that wise expenditure is the truest economy — an idea of which at present he has as little conception as of the binomial theorem.

Village Ferries in 19th Century China

Smith wrote in “Village Life in China”: “In the northern part of China, although the streams are not so numerous as at the south, they form more of an obstruction to travel, on account of the much greater use made of animals and of wheeled vehicles. The Chinese cart is a peculiarly northern affair, and appears to be of much the same type as in ancient days. The ordinary passenger cart is dragged by one animal in the cities, and by two in the country. The country cart, employed for the hauling of produce and also for all domestic purposes by the great bulk of the population, is a machine of untold weight. We once put the wheel of one of these carts on a platform-scale and ascertained that it weighed 177 pounds, and the axle fifty-seven pounds in addition, giving a total of 411 pounds for this portion of the vehicle. The shafts are stout as they have need to be, and when the cart upsets — a not infrequent occurrence — they pin the shaft animal to the earth, effectually preventing his running away. Mules, horses, cows, and donkeys, are all hitched to these farm carts, each pulling by means of loose ropes anchored to the axle. To make these beasts pull simultaneously is a task to which no Occidental would ever aspire, nor would he succeed if he did aspire. General Wolseley mentions in his volume describing the campaign in 1860, when the army marched on Peking, that at Ho Hsi Wu all the Chinese carters deserted, and the British troops were totally unable to do anything whatever with the teams. [Source: “Village Life in China” by Arthur Henderson Smith, Fleming H. Revell Company, 1899, The Project Gutenberg]

“Under these conditions of travel, a Chinese ferry is one of the most characteristic specimens of the national genius with which we are acquainted. Ferries are numerous, and so are carts to be ferried. The interesting thing is to watch the process, and it is a spectacle full of delightful surprises.

“At a low stage of water the ferry-boat is at the base of a sloping bank, down which in a diagonal line runs the track, never wide enough for two carts to pass each other. To get one of these large carts down this steep and shelving incline requires considerable engineering skill, and here accidents are not infrequent. When the edge of the ferry is reached the whole team must be unhitched, and each animal got on the boat as best may be. Some animals make no trouble and will give a mighty bound, landing somewhere or everywhere to the imminent peril of any passengers that may be already on board. None of the animals have any confidence in the narrow, crooked, and irregular gang planks which alone are to be found. The more crooked these planks the better, for a reason which the traveller is not long in discovering. The object is by no means to get the cart and animals on with the minimum of trouble, but with the maximum of difficulty, for this is the way by which hordes of impecunious rascals get such an exiguous living as they have. When an animal absolutely refuses to budge — an occurrence at almost every crossing — its head is bandaged with somebody’s girdle, and then it is led around and around for a long time so as to induce it to forget all about the ferryboat. At last it is led to the edge and urged to jump, which it will by no means do. Then they twist its tail — unless it happens to be a mule — put a stick behind it as a lever and get six men at each end of the stick, while six more tug at a series of ropes attached to the horns. After a struggle lasting in many cases half an hour, often after prolonged and cruel beatings, the poor beasts are all on board, where the more active of them employ their time in prancing about among and over the human passengers, to their evident danger.

Animals on a Ferry in 19th Century China

Smith wrote in “Village Life in China”: “Sometimes the animals become excited and break away, plunging over the edge of the ferry, which has no guards of any kind, and in such cases it is not uncommon for them to be floated away, or even lost. The writer is cognizant of a case in which the driver was himself pulled into a swift and swollen stream while struggling to restrain his mules, and was drowned, a circumstance which probably caused his “fare” — a scholar on his way to or from a summer examination — endless delay, as he would be detained at the district yamên for a witness. [Source: “Village Life in China” by Arthur Henderson Smith, Fleming H. Revell Company, 1899, The Project Gutenberg]

“But while we have been busy with the animals, we have neglected the cart, which must be dragged upon the ferryboat by the strength of a small army of men. There may be only one man or a man and a boy on a ferry, but to pull a loaded cart over the rugged edges of the planks, up the steep incline, requires perhaps ten or fifteen men. This is accomplished by the process so familiar at Chinese funerals, the wild yelling of large bands of men as they are directed by the leader.

“Every individual who so much as lays a hand upon the cart must be paid, and the only limit is the number who can cluster around it. As in all other Chinese affairs there is no regular tariff of charges, but the rule is that adopted by some Occidental railway managers to “put on all the traffic will bear.” Suppose for example that the passenger cart only pays a hundred cash for its transport across the stream; this sum must be divided into three parts, of which the ferry gets but one and the bands of volunteer pullers and pushers on the two banks the other two-thirds. In this way it often happens that all that one of these loafing labourers has to show for his spasmodic toil may be four cash, or in extreme cases only two, or even one.

“On the farther bank the scene just described is reversed, but occupies a much shorter time, as almost any animal is glad enough to escape from a ferry. The exit of the carts and animals is impeded by the struggles of those who want to get a passage the other way, and who cannot be content to wait till the boat is unloaded. There is never any superintendent of the boat, any more than of anything else in China, and all is left to chance or fate. That people are not killed in the tumultuous crossings is a constant wonder.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: “Village Life in China” by Arthur Henderson Smith, Fleming H. Revell Company, 1899, “Chinese Characteristics” by Arthur Henderson Smith, 1894, The Project Gutenberg

Last updated September 2021

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