In 1899, Arthur Henderson Smith wrote in “Village Life in China”: The conditions and environment of Chinese life are so totally unlike those to which we are 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. [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.]

“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. Colquhounthat “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.

In 19th century China a Tao-T‘ai was an officer of the third rank who was in charge of a circuit and yamen was the office and residence of a Chinese official. A Fu, a Prefecture, was governed by a Prefect, with several Districts under it. A Chou was a Sub-prefecture, sometimes with districts under it but often without them. A Hsien was a district or country, governed by the District Magistrate.

Common Goals in a Chinese Village

Arthur Henderson Smith wrote in “Chinese Characteristics”: “Every village has many matters of common interest, such as the building of temples, the construction and repair of embankments, the watching of the crops by concerted action, furnishing transportation to the local official in response to his demands, and the like. Many of these matters involve the handling of considerable sums of money, and the village bully knows perfectly well how to do all these things, and is certain to be ex officio a member of the group of " headmen" by whom such affairs are put through. [Source:“Chinese Characteristics” by Arthur Henderson Smith, 1894]

“An example of his mode of procedure is afforded by the village to which reference has just been made. For a whole generation no theatrical performance had taken place in this village. This was because on the occasion when such an event occurred, one family in the village had advanced money which had never been repaid, and whenever it had been proposed to hire a band of players this family has always insisted that their stale debt must first be repaid, a proposition which invariably quashed all further proceedings. But in the year 1888, the local bully, perhaps feeling in need of assistance for his exchequer, which was chronically low, renewed the proposition for theatricals, and with such persuasion that no one dared refuse. The family who had the sum owing to them did not decline to co-operate, but succeeded in setting off their old debt against the present assessment upon them. The performance took place, and the total expense to a village of a little more than a hundred families must have amounted to between four and five hundred Mexican dollars, the greater part of this being wasted in entertaining the hordes of relatives and acquaintances who are attracted to any village which has a theatre in operation, as buzzards to a deceased mule.

“A year later, when grain was at a higher price than at any time since the great famine of eleven years previous, the proposition for a theatrical representation was renewed. To the sober sense of the practical Chinese, the mere suggestion was fatuous. What possible reason could there be for the expenditure of double the ordinary amount for entertainment, when by autumn, grain would have fallen to its normal rate? Yet such was the cogency of the arguments advanced, that the proposition met with no serious opposition, and was carried into effect. The reason popularly assigned for the theatre on this occasion was that it was .designed to celebrate the harmony of feeling of the whole village, every family in which was now sincerely desirous of co-operating! During the four days of the performance, the village bully, by whose autocratic word all this bustle had sprung up, set at the receipt of customs, keeping account of the amounts handed in. It was remarked as a pleasing test of the unanimity of feeling in the village,' that no one had to be asked for his tax, "a most unusual phenemenon," but everyone brought it and laid it at the feet of the bully with joyful willingness!

Clannishness and Superstition in a 19th Century Chinese Village

Smith wrote in “Chinese Characteristics”: “The clannishness of a village is frequently exhibited in the most insignificant affairs. The principle of the "boycott" is perhaps as old as Chinese society, and is nowhere more perfectly understood or practiced than in China. The Doctrine of the Mean does indeed recommend " indulgent treatment of men from a distance," in order that they may be attracted, but the Chinese, . like the United States, have reached the point where " men from a distance" are by no means sure to be welcomed. If they are labourers, they are not to be employed as long as any labour is to be had at home. Foreigners are constantly offending this prejudice of the Chinese that a native has a " right" to a job. We have our views of our rights, as the Chinese have of theirs. The consequence sometimes is that workmen imported from elsewhere because they are cheaper or more capable, are set upon by the people of the place to which they have gone. They may be refused the use of water from the village wells — a favorite method of manifesting petty spite; or if they take their water supplies from a mud-hole, filth may be thrown into it so as to render the water unfit for use. If there is no direct way in which these workmen can be assailed, they are always open to reviling, which is freely indulged in. [Source:“Chinese Characteristics” by Arthur Henderson Smith, 1894]

Smith wrote in “Village Life in China”: “Linked with this dense ignorance and more impenetrable indifference is a most unbounded credulity. Faith in the fêng-shui, or geomancy of a district is still as firmly rooted as ever in the minds of the leading literary men of the empire, as is shown by memorials in the Peking Gazette calling for changes in buildings, the erection of lucky towers, etc., because the number of successful competitors is not greater. [Source: “Village Life in China” by Arthur Henderson Smith, Fleming H. Revell Company, 1899, The Project Gutenberg]

“A scholar who thinks it necessary to beat drums in order to save the sun in an eclipse from the “Dog” which is devouring it, receives with implicit faith the announcement that in Western lands the years are a thousand days in length, with four moons all the time. If some one who has dabbled a little in chemistry reports to him a rudimentary experiment in which carbonic dioxide poured down a trough extinguishes a row of burning candles, he is at once reminded that The Master refused to speak of feats of magic, and he dismisses the whole topic with the verdict: “Of course it was done by malign spirits.”

Village Government in 19th Century China

In 1899, Arthur Henderson Smith wrote in “Village Life in China”: “Many of the phenomena of village life which we shall have occasion to notice, are instances of the Chinese talent for cooperation. Perhaps no more important exemplification of this principle is to be found in Chinese society than that embodied in the local self-government of the small communities of which the greater part of the empire is composed. The management of the village is in the hands of the people themselves. At first this condition of affairs is liable to be mistaken for a pure democracy, but very slight inquiry is sufficient to make it evident that while all matters of local concern are theoretically managed by the people, in practice the burden falls not upon the people as a whole, but upon the shoulders of a few persons, who in different places are called by different titles and whose functions differ as much as their designations. [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.]

“The apparent dead-level uniformity of China is found upon investigation to be subject to surprising variations, not only in parts of the empire remote from one another, but in those which are separated by but a short distance. On this account it is difficult to generalize in regard to the government of villages in general, but easy to describe that of some villages, with the explanation that elsewhere the same results may be attained by means slightly different, or by the same means under different names.

“Every Chinese village is a little principality by itself, although it is not uncommon for two or more which are contiguous and perhaps otherwise linked together, to manage their affairs in unison, and perhaps by the same set of persons. These headmen are sometimes styled village elders (hsiang chang, or hsiang lao), and sometimes they are termed merely managers (shou shih jên). The theory in regard to these persons is that they are chosen, or rather nominated, by their fellow-townsmen, and confirmed in their position by the District Magistrate. In some regions this is actually done, and for the good conduct of the headmen in their office the leading land-owners are required to become a security.

“Of the affairs which concern the government, the most important is the imperial land or grain-tax, the nature of which and the mode of collecting which vary greatly. Calls are constantly made by the local officials for government transportation, provision for the entertainment of officers on government business, materials for the repairs of the banks of rivers, work on river-banks, patrols for the Imperial roads at the season of year when travel is at its maximum, and many other similar objects. The medium through whom the District Magistrate communicates with the village, is the “local constable, ” (called the ti-fang or ti-pao, ) and this individual has necessarily intimate relations with the headmen, who constitute the executive board, through which alone definite action is taken.

Lack of Statistics in 19th Century China

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

“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 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 unfavorable 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 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 Shandong, and northern Henan, 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.”

Headmen and Leadership in a 19th Century Chinese Village

In 1899, Arthur Henderson Smith wrote in “Village Life in China”: “The designation “village elders” might be understood to denote that the persons who bear it are the oldest men in the village, but this is not necessarily the case. Neither are they necessarily the wealthiest men, although it is probable that every family of property will be in some way represented among them. They are not necessarily men of literary attainments, although this may be the case with a few. [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.]

“In those regions where the method of selection is most loose, the number of headmen has no necessary relation to the size of the village; the position is not hereditary, neither is there any fixed time of service. A man may act in this capacity at one time, and refuse or neglect to do so at another time. Where this plan prevails, the headmen are not formally chosen, nor formally deposed. They drop into their places — or perhaps climb into them — by a kind of natural selection. The qualities which fit a villager to act as headman are the same which contribute to success in any line of business. He must be a practical person who has some native ability, acquainted with the ways of the world, as well as able and willing to devote upon occasion an indefinite amount of time and attention to the affairs which may be put in his charge.

“The duties and functions of the headmen are numerous. They may be classified as those which have relation to the government of the District, those which relate to the village as such, and those which concern private individuals, and are brought to the notice of the headmen as being the persons best able to manage them.

“Of the affairs which concern the government, the most important is the imperial land or grain-tax, the nature of which and the mode of collecting which vary greatly. Calls are constantly made by the local officials for government transportation, provision for the entertainment of officers on government business, materials for the repairs of the banks of rivers, work on river-banks, patrols for the Imperial roads at the season of year when travel is at its maximum, and many other similar objects. The medium through whom the District Magistrate communicates with the village, is the “local constable, ” (called the ti-fang or ti-pao, ) and this individual has necessarily intimate relations with the headmen, who constitute the executive board, through which alone definite action is taken. [Source: “Village Life in China” by Arthur Henderson Smith, Fleming H. Revell Company, 1899, The Project Gutenberg] In 1899, Arthur Henderson Smith wrote in “Village Life in China”:

Villages Management and Jobs in 19th Century China

Smith wrote in “Village Life in China”: “Among affairs which relate to a village as such, are to be named the construction and repair of the wall (if it has one), and the care of the gates (if they are closed at night), the establishment and supervision of fairs and markets, the engagement of theatrical companies, the organized watching of the crops, together with the punishment of persons detected in violating the rules which have been agreed upon, the building and repair of temples, the sinking of wells for the use of the village, or the cleaning of those which are already in use, and a great variety of other similar duties, depending upon the situation of the village and its traditions and circumstances.

“It is a noteworthy fact that the government of China, while in theory more or less despotic, places no practical restrictions upon the right of free assemblage by the people for the consideration of their own affairs. The people of any village can if they choose meet every day in the year. There is no government censor present, and no restriction upon liberty of debate. The people can say what they like, and the local Magistrate neither knows nor cares what is said. The government has other security for itself than espionage, and by a system of graded responsibility, is able to hold all its subjects under strict control. But should insurrection break out, these popular rights might be extinguished in a moment, a fact of which all the people are perfectly well aware.

“The methods of Chinese management being what they are, it is not surprising that those who are in the position of headmen find it, or rather make it to their advantage to stay in it. The ways in which this comes about are numerous. There is in every village an unceasing supply of matters which do not belong to the public, but which must be adjusted by some man or men who are in the habit of transacting business, and who not only know what is to be done but how to do it. There are always Chinese who like to engage in these affairs, such as the adjustment of domestic quarrels, differences between neighbours, and the like. The headmen of the village will be certain to be frequently called upon for services of this sort.

“But such labours, onerous as they often are, will be acknowledged only by the thanks of those interested, and a participation in the inevitable final feast. It is quite otherwise with such public matters as the collection of material for public uses, and the disbursement of public funds. Every village has numerous enterprises which involve the handling of money, and these enterprises must be in the hands of those competent to take charge of them.

Politics of Constructing a Well in 19th Century China

Smith wrote: “In some districts quicksands prevent the sinking of any permanent wells. The villagers are obliged to be up all night in order to take their turn at the scanty water supply, and fights are not infrequent. In a dry year the suffering is serious. For evils of this sort tube-wells would seem to provide a remedy, but thus far there has been great difficulty in getting down to such a depth as to strike good water. The nature of the trouble was aptly described by a coolie employed by a foreigner on a work of this kind, who was asked why the pipe was not driven deeper. He replied that it was, but “the deeper they went the more there wasn’t any water” It would appear that in the direction of a good water supply, Western knowledge might be applied for the benefit of great numbers of Chinese and on a large scale, or if not on a large scale, then on a small one.

“As an illustration of the process by which this may be done, an experience of many years ago in a Shandong village is worthy of mention. One of the missionaries had the happiness of welcoming a second son to his household, an event which seemed to the Chinese of such happy omen that they were moved to unite in subscribing a fixed sum from each family in the village, to purchase a silver neck ornament for the infant. As the suggestion was not absolutely and peremptorily vetoed, the committee in charge went on and ordered the silver chain and padlock, after which the delicate question arose by what means this gift should be acknowledged. After canvassing many plans, one was at length hit upon which appeared to satisfy the requisite conditions, which were in brief that the thing bestowed should be a distinct benefit to all the people, and one which they could all appreciate.

It was proposed to put a force-pump in a village well not far from the mission premises, where much water was daily drawn by a great many people with a great deal of labour. The force-pump would make this toil mere child’s play. The plan was so plainly fore-ordained to success, that one of the missionaries — although not having the felicity of two sons — was moved to promise also a stone watering trough, which in Chinese phrase, would be a “Joy to Ten Thousand Generations.” The village committee listened gravely to these proposals without manifesting that exhilaration which the obviously successful nature of the innovation seemed to warrant, but promised to consider and report later. When the next meeting of this committee with the missionaries took place, the former expressed a wish to ask a few questions. They pointed out that there were four or five wells in the village. “Was it the intention of the Western foreign ‘shepherds’ to put a ‘water-sucker’ into each of these wells?” No, of course not; it was meant for the one nearest the mission premises. To this it was replied that the trinket for the shepherd’s child had been purchased by uniform contributions from each family in the village. Some of these families lived on the front street and some on the back one, some at the east end and some at the west end. “Would it be consistent with the ideal impartiality of Christianity to put a ‘water-sucker’ where it could only benefit a part of those for whom it was designed?”

“After an impressive silence the committee remarked that there was a further question which had occurred to them. This village, though better off than most of those about, had some families which owned not a foot of land. These landless persons had to pick up a living as they could. One way was by carrying and selling water from house to house in buckets. According to the account of the shepherds the new “water-sucker” would render it so easy to get water that any one could do it, and the occupation of drawers of water would be largely gone. It could not be the intention of the benevolent shepherds to throw a class of workmen out of work. What form of industry did the shepherds propose to furnish to the landless class, to compensate them for the loss of their livelihood? At this point the silence was even more impressive than before. After another pause the village committee returned to their questions. They said that Western inventions are very ingenious, but that Chinese villagers “attain unto stupidity.” As long as the Western shepherds were at hand to explain and to direct the use of the “water-suckers, ” all would doubtless go well; but they had noticed that Western inventions sometimes had a way of becoming injured by the tooth of time, or by bad management. Suppose that something of this sort took place with the “water-sucker, ” and suppose that no shepherd was at hand to repair or replace it, what should then be done after the villagers had come to depend upon it? This recalled the fact that a force-pump had been tried several years before in Peking, in the deep wells of that city, but the fine sand clogged the valves, and it had to be pulled up again! In view of these various considerations, is it surprising that the somewhat discouraged shepherds gave up the plan of interfering with Oriental industries, or that the obligation to the village was finally acknowledged by the payment of a sum of money which they used ostensibly for the repair of the rampart around the village, but which really went nobody knows where or to whom?

Conflicts and Disruptions in 19th Century China

Smith wrote:“We know of one village in which the public business had for a long time been monopolized by a band of men who had subjected themselves to the criticisms of those who, although younger, felt sure that they were not on that account the less capable. The result of the criticisms was that the incumbents withdrew from their places, leaving them to those who offered the criticisms, a method of adjustment which is known to be practiced in the government of the empire. But it is probable that cases of such easy victory are relatively rare, for the reason that the “ins” have every opportunity to keep themselves in their position and they are for the most part not at all sensitive to criticism, being quite content to reap the substantial benefits of their position, and to leave the talking to spectators. In the ordinary matters of routine, it is easy for them to find abundant precedents for almost any irregularity, and to the Chinese precedents are most precious, as marking out the natural limits of human action. [Source: “Village Life in China” by Arthur Henderson Smith, Fleming H. Revell Company, 1899, The Project Gutenberg]

“In many villages, there are those who are never so happy as when they are in a disturbance with others, and such men will be a thorn in the side of any “board of aldermen” to whose councils admission is not to be had. It is very common indeed to hear of lawsuits arising about village temples, and there is good reason to believe that it is exceptional to meet with a large ancestral temple, in connection with which quarrels have not arisen and perhaps lawsuits been prosecuted.

“In some districts the temples are built rather from a general impulse to do as others do than from any sense of the need of such structures, which become a perpetual tax on the revenues of the people and a source of dispute. In such regions it is a common thing to meet with temples from which the priests have been ousted, or which they have voluntarily abandoned, finding the place too hot for them.

“In one instance of this description, which occurred near the writer’s home, a certain prominent headman set on foot a lawsuit which drove several priests from a Buddhist monastery, and left only one priest where before there had been many. After the priests had left, this headman kindly took charge of the temple lands, and absorbed the entire income himself to the exclusion of the priest, dispensing altogether with rendering any account whatever for the proceeds. Even the cart and the harness which belong to the temple, are in this man’s yard as if they were his own.

“Intelligent men of this village, when asked why some of them do not protest against this usurpation, always make the same reply: “Who wants to stir up a lawsuit, out of which he will gain nothing but loss? It is certainly no affair of mine.” This particular village is scarcely a type of the average, but it is a very fair sample of the more flagrant cases in which a small knot of men fasten themselves upon a Chinese community, by the same process by which many years ago the Tweed ring saddled themselves upon the city of New York. If any objection is made to their procedure, the ring inquire disdainfully, in the language of Mr. Tweed, “What are you going to do about it?” And all the people hasten to reply, “Oh, nothing at all. It is all right as it is.”

Conflicts Over Using Farmland to Build a Flood Bank

Smith wrote: “An instance of the facility with which trouble may arise in village affairs was afforded in this same town, during one of the years in which heavy rains threatened the lands of the village. A part of these lands were situated in a region subject to inundation, and the rest on higher ground. As soon as the danger of a flood became apparent, the village headmen ordered relays of men to work on a bank, which was made of whatever soil was at hand, and in order to strengthen this bank, the standing millet was pulled up by the roots, and buried in the earthwork. Those whose crops were thus ruined, had for this loss no redress whatever. It is held that the exigency of a public need justifies any injury of this kind, the persons who benefit by the sacrifice, always largely in the majority, having no disposition to make up the incidental losses. [Source: “Village Life in China” by Arthur Henderson Smith, Fleming H. Revell Company, 1899, The Project Gutenberg]

Some days after this occurred, the headmen went about collecting a definite assessment from each acre of land in the village, for the purpose of paying for the labour upon the bank previously made. They visited the house of one of the men whose crops had been destroyed, at a time when he chanced to be away from home and were met by his son, who not only manifested no awe of the village authorities, but expressed his indignation at the destruction of the family crops, and declared that instead of being called upon to contribute to the cost of the ruin which had been wrought, his family ought to be reimbursed for their own losses. However compatible such a view may appear with abstract justice, to the minds of the village headmen this was nothing less than rank treason of the most dangerous type.

“When the head of the family returned, it was to find that the headmen had already left the village on their way to the District city, to enter a complaint against him, as one who refused to pay his just dues to the defence of the village. A lawsuit begun upon such a basis meant nothing less than a calamity greater than any flood that was likely to overtake him, so the distracted father hastened to pursue the headmen with offers of adjustment, made through third parties. By dint of an immense amount of talking, the headmen were induced to return to the village, without entering the city and making a formal complaint.

“The father of the offending lad then appealed to certain friends living in another village, to come and intercede for him with the outraged guardians of the welfare of his own village. In the course of the next forenoon, the persons who had been entrusted with this difficult task, made their way to the village, and had interviews with some of the headmen. It was impossible to get all of these men together at any one time, but one set was first seen, and then another, until the matter had been thoroughly discussed in all its bearings. These conferences, including plans of adjustment offered, modified, rejected, amended, and afterward brought up again and again, actually consumed the whole day, and all the next night until the crowing of the cocks announced the dawn, and it was not until daylight on the second day, that the weary and disgusted “middlemen” returned to their own village, having at last succeeded in securing a reduction of the proposed fine, which was to have been an exemplary one, to a merely nominal amount. “This instance is a type of countless cases everywhere in which the evil forces of Chinese society effect a cooperation of their own, seriously modifying all other social phenomena, and leading to results of great importance.

Poor Relations Between Villages in 19th Century China s

Arthur Henderson Smith wrote in “Chinese Characteristics”: ““The lack of cordial relations between villages which may happen to be contiguous is frequently illustrated in the insecurity of moveable property, especially of the crops. As these are more exposed to depredation than other forms of property, they are guarded with peculiar care. Sometimes a local league protects the standing crops, and any one caught trespassing is liable to be severely punished. But these stringent regulations apply only to those villages in which there is a common organization for watching the crops. To pilfer from other villages, albeit close neighbours, is considered to be good form. This places those who own land which is situated on the confines of the territory tributary to any particular village, at a disadvantage, and such land may be sold at a price distinctly less than that of the same producing power, on account of its special liability to crop-thieves. [Source:“Chinese Characteristics” by Arthur Henderson Smith, 1894]

“While these 1 lines are in the process of being, committed to paper, an excellent illustration of the relations which frequently subsist between adjacent villages is afforded by a young man who has called to ask advice. He lives in a relatively small village, which is at a short distance from a relatively large one. The latter is mainly composed of a single family, proud and overbearing. Like every other family of any size, it has many poor members, and among them are many bad characters. In fact the whole village is termed by its neighbouring villages a bad one, that is, it is among villages a hilly. Now this young man happens to own six acres of land, which is surrounded by land belonging to the large village. Strangely enough, this land is situated in the bed of a river, which is mostly used as a viaduct for the surplus waters o'f the Grand Canal when the latter overflows. During the first part of the year this land is quite dry, and may be cultivated, but during the summer the waters are liable to come down at any time and inundate the crops. It is customary, therefore, to plant mainly tall millet and hemp, or to raise the arundo indica, a reed out of which the ordinary mats are made. All these growing to a great height, the two former are able to " keep their heads above water'' for some time, while the latter is an aquatic plant. Now in the bed of a river, there are no regular roads, and the only way in which the young man is able to get to his land to cultivate or plant it, is by passing across the edge of another piece of ground, being careful, however, to do no injury to the standing crops. In these villages there is no public system of crop-watching, but each villager makes his own arrangements.

Knowing the risks to which he is subjected from the contiguity of his land to a bully village, the young man was particular to employ a man from that village to watch the six acres. According to the ordinary programme in such cases, the man hired to watch the crops himself stole a part of them, but was detected in the act, and according to the usual course of proceedings would have been severely dealt with. But knowing that the young man was of a yielding disposition, the man who' stole the crop which he is paid to guard, not only defied the owner, but sent a woman of his clan to the dwelling of the young man, to demand several bushels of grain, as a payment for the privilege of crossing the outer strip of land. This demand was complied with, but the young man does not venture to go to law about the crop-stealing (although almost certain to win the case so far as the decision goes) because of the inevitable expenses, amounting to more than the whole value of the crop and the land. Yet if he allows the matter to drop, he justly fears that he will not be allowed in future to cultivate the land at all.

Dominance of Large Villages Over Smaller Villages

Arthur Henderson Smith wrote in “Chinese Characteristics”: “It is an instructive fact that sometimes the village itself is a bully, and its victims are the smaller villages lying around it, which dare not provoke their adversary. Among such tyrannizing communities are to be numbered some — though by no means all — villages which have for the principal surname either K'ung or Meng, the inhabitants of which make it their boast that they are the lineal descendants of the two great sages of antiquity, and therefore feel themselves entitled to enjoy that variety of " liberty," outlined in the descriptive expression, " doing as I please, and making everything else do so too." A few months ago a company of men belonging to a bully village near the home of the writer, having occasion to dig earth from their land, did so in such a way as to encroach a little on a grave-lot belonging to a family in another village. The latter family remonstrated in vain, but as their surname was Meng they did not feel altogether helpless. After the brawl had gone on for a long time, with every prospect of serious fights and interminable law-suits,, the aggrieved party prepared to send a messenger to Tsou hsien, the ancestral seat of the descendants of Mencius, to invoke their powerful aid to resent an attack upon a grave-yard of a branch of the clan. At this point the " peacetalker" emerged, and by a vast amount of palaver the matter was adjusted. [Source:“Chinese Characteristics” by Arthur Henderson Smith, 1894]

“The assumption by these great families of extraordinary prerogatives is in striking contrast to the pre-eminently humble behaviour which is obligatory on those families who happen to be the only one of their name in a good sized village. Such families always expect to "eat imposition" and they are seldom disappointed. It has already been remarked that the Chinese contempt for the " outside" nations, although under conditions necessarily different, is of the same type as their contempt for an " outside village." The fixity of residence of the Chinese is such that it is generally difficult to move from one village to another, especially to a village at a distance. Such transfers are indeed constantly taking place, in consequence of the stress of poverty and other causes, but it is, to be noted that the incoming man is not regarded as identified with the village where he " stays," but as an outsider. Even if he has been for a long time in the new home, he still tells you that he "lives" in the old place, no matter what its distance, and quite irrespective of whether he intends to return. In a village visited for famine relief, a woman complained that her name had been left out of the list by the headmen, who, upon being called to account, said that she did not " belong" to that village. In reply to a question, it was represented that she had only° lived there about twelve years! A similar attitude, it may be observed, is entertained in regard to a child which has been adopted from an " outside" village. It makes no difference that the parentage of the child is perfectly well-known; he is only "picked up," and so he continues as long as he lives. Indeed, we have known instances in which the same treatment is extended even to the second generation.

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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