“The Chinese have always divided themselves into the four classes of scholars, farmers, workmen, and merchants. Considering their singular penchant for trade, it is a surprise to find them putting traders at the foot of the list. If any one has an idea that the life of a Chinese dealer is an easy one, he has a very inaccurate idea indeed, and the smallest investigation of any specific case will be sufficient to disabuse him of it. Indeed there are not many people in China whose life is an easy one, certainly not the officials and the rich, who are at once the most envied and the most misunderstood persons in the empire. [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 considering the social functions of” a village’ it is necessary to distinguish several classes of persons. These four classes are, — first, headmen of the village (called also, as we have already remarked, by many other names); second, intermediaries (not “middlemen” in the technical sense, but those who as peace-talkers, intervene in the affairs of others) etc.; third, beggars; and lastly thieves.

“In China next in importance after the division of human beings into two sexes, is another classification which every Chinese instinctively adopts. According to this arrangement, all members of society are rated according to their probable behaviour under bad treatment, just as the chemist considers all substances in the light of their capacity for combination with other elements.

“In the popular speech of the people, every Chinese villager is said to be either “lao-shih” or not “lao-shih.” The words “lao-shih” mean literally “old and solid, ” or in a derived sense gentle, tractable, from which again arises a third signification of stupid, and gullible. The highest degree of this latter quality is expressed in the phrase “ssü-lao-shih, ” which literally denotes one who is “dead-stupid”; that is, one who can be imposed upon to any extent. Such a one, in a common adage, is compared to the toes on an old woman’s feet, which have been suppressed all their life, without any power of asserting themselves.

Village Headman in 19th Century China

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.

Shop Owners in 19th Century China

Arthur Henderson Smith wrote in “Village Life in China”: “In Shandong, every village of any size has its little “tsa-huo-p‘u, ” or shop of miscellaneous goods...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. [Source: “Village Life in China” by Arthur Henderson Smith, Fleming H. Revell Company, 1899, The Project Gutenberg]

“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.

“Then comes the wearisome taking account of stock, in regard to which the proprietor is exceedingly particular. In China nobody trusts anybody else, for the excellent reason that he is aware that in similar circumstances it might not be safe to trust himself. Hence the owner of the little shop, or some one who represents him, looks carefully over the goods brought home and compares them with the invoice made out in the morning. This is a check upon the temptation to sell some things without giving an account of them. The sales which have been made during the day are for small sums only, and as all the cash has to be counted and strung on hemp cords so as to make the full string of 1, 000 cash (or 500 in some parts of the country), this counting and stringing of the money takes a great deal of time, and is very tiresome work when done by the quantity — though this remark is applicable to most Chinese occupations viewed from an Occidental point of view.

“The employee of the “tsa-huo-p‘u” gets his meals when he can, which is after he has finished everything which his employer wants him to do. It is necessary for him to be a rare hand if he is to be so useful that he will not be sent away if business is slack when the year closes, or if the proprietor gets better service from some one else. The supply of labour of every description, is so excessive, that it is very hard to get a place, and harder still to keep it.

“In the case of firms having any considerable business, after the day’s work is all over, the clerks are liable to be required to spend the evening in untying all the numerous strings of cash that have come in, with a view to the discovery of any rare coins that might be sold at a special price. All is fish that comes to a Chinese net, and sooner or later there is very little that does not find its way there to the profit of its owner. If the time should ever come, as come it may, when the far-distant West comes into close and practical competition with the patient Chinese for the right to exist, one or the other will be behind-hand in the race and it is safe to venture the prediction that it will not be the Chinese!

“The village shop keeps different kinds of weighing poles for buying and for selling, works off all its uncurrent cash and bad bills on any one upon whom it can impose, and generally drives a hard bargain with those who deal with it, who retaliate in kind as opportunity offers. But as elsewhere in this mixed world, much depends upon the individuality of its head manager.

Traders and Peddlers in 19th Century China

Arthur Henderson Smith wrote in “Village Life in China”: ““A country villager with whom the writer is well acquainted had too little land to support his family, so he accepted the offer of a neighbour to help him with the business which he had lately undertaken. This consisted of sending four wheel-barrows daily to different villages to sell meat at the markets. The men who did this had to rise long before daylight in order to get the meat ready, that is to cut it from the bones, which are disposed of at a separate rate. The weight of meat on each barrow had to be entered and also the weight of the bones. On the return of the barrows at night it was necessary to weigh what was left from the sales and compare it with the returns of cash. This must be gone through with for each barrow. The assistant to the meat-dealer had to keep in all fourteen different account books. “But, ” we said to him, “after the barrows are gone, and before they come back, there must be a little interval of comparative peace in which you can do what you like?” “Alas, no, ” was the reply, “it takes all of that time to balance up the fourteen entries of the day before;” and judging from what one knows of Chinese bookkeeping the time allowed would not be at all too much. Entries in Chinese account-books are not set down in columns, so as to be conveniently added, but strung along a page like stockings on a clothes-line. Each entry must be treated by itself on the suan-pan or reckoning-board, and there is no check against errors. Our informant was so tired of his contract that he seized the occasion of a funeral in a family with which he was connected, and which he was in theory bound to attend, to break away and make a brief call on the foreign friend who had generally been able to sympathize with certain of his previous woes.

“A year later the writer met him again, ascertained that he had abandoned the intricate bookkeeping which selling meat appeared to involve, for another kind of account-keeping in a well-to-do family, where there is a good deal of land and much resulting activity. He was asked if he had any time to read his book — of which he seemed to be fond — and he replied with a decisive negative. Not if he got up early? No, indeed, he had to begin work the minute he was dressed. Not if he went to bed a little later? Certainly not; he had to go to bed late as it was — no time then. But he might at least snatch a little leisure while he was eating. “Far from it, ” was the response, “the woman who is at the head of affairs takes that opportunity to consult about the work.”

Smith wrote in “Chinese Characteristics”: “Many articles constantly required by the Chinese are not to be had on demand, but only when the dealer in the same happens to make his irregular appearance. At all other times, one might as well find himself dropped in the interior of the Soudan, so far as the supply of current wants is concerned. In the city everyone carries a lantern at night, yet in some cities at least, lanterns are to be had only when the peddler brings them around, and those who want them buy at such times, as we do of a milkman, or a dealer in fresh yeast. That percentage of the whole population which lives in Chinese cities cannot be a large one, and in the country this, limitation of traffic is the rule and not the exception. In some districts, for example, it is customary to sell timber for house building in the second moon, and the same logs are often dragged about the country from one large fair to another, till they are either sold, or taken back to their point of departure. But should any inexperienced person be so rash as to wish to buy timber in the fifth moon, he will soon ascertain why the wisest of Orientals remarked that “there is a time to every purpose under the heaven."

Village Scholars in 19th Century China

Smith wrote: There is in a Chinese village as such no intellectual life. If there happen to be literary men living in it, they form a little clique by themselves, largely out of relation to their neighbours, and likewise to most of their own families. It is an ancient aphorism that “Scholars talk of books — butchers of pigs.” We have already abundantly seen that the processes of Chinese education are narrowing processes, fitting the accomplished student to run only in grooves. It is almost incredible how narrow these ruts become. Each literary examination is a crisis at which one either becomes a graduate or does not; in either case the result, whether appertaining to the student himself, the pupils whom he has coached, or his own sons, is contemplated purely as a personal and an individual matter. It is a literary lottery upon which much has been risked, and out of which it is desirable to recover if possible a prize. If that is out of the question all interest in the literary business is at an end. [Source: “Village Life in China” by Arthur Henderson Smith, Fleming H. Revell Company, 1899, The Project Gutenberg]

“Unlike his representative in Western lands, the Chinese village scholar is not a centre or source of illumination to others. His life is the ideal of “subjectivity” — the quintessential essence of selfishness. It is a venerable superstition of the Chinese that though the graduate does not emerge from his own door, he knows the affairs of all under heaven. As we have already had occasion to point out, among the many rhetorical exaggerations of Chinese proverbial philosophy this aphorism may be held to take the lead. The typical scholar knows nothing whatever about all-under-heaven. He has no decided opinions one way or the other as to whether the earth is round or flat, for it is no concern of his. Neither is the current history of his own country. National affairs belong to the mandarins who get their living by them; what have such matters to do with a literary man who has taken his degree?

“The writer is acquainted with an ex-schoolmaster who went into a business which often led him to a distance from home. About a year after peace had been concluded with Japan, this much-travelled merchant inquired during the progress of a call if we could inform him how the war turned out, explaining that he had heard such contradictory accounts at the capital of his province and at Tianjin that he knew not what to believe, and had judiciously held his mind entirely in suspense until he had an opportunity to see his foreign friend, who might, he thought, know for certain!

Illiterate Villagers in 19th Century China

Smith wrote: “The learned and semi-intelligent vacuity of the village scholar is more than matched by the ignorant vacuity of his illiterate neighbours. If he happens to have travelled, the latter has indubitably the better education of the two, for the reason that it is based (as far as it goes) upon facts. But if he is a typical villager he has never been anywhere to speak of, and knows nothing in particular. His conversation is filled with unutterable inanities till he is gathered to his fathers. In every Chinese village one sees, except at the busiest times, groups of men sitting in the sunshine in winter, in the shade in summer, on some friendly stick of timber, and clustered in the little temples which constitute the village exchange. Even in the depth of winter they continue to huddle together in a vain effort to be comfortable as well as sociable, and chatter, chatter all the day, or until it is time to go to their meals. The past, present, and future state of the weather, the market prices, local gossip, and especially the details of the latest lawsuit form the warp and woof of this unending talk. What the Magistrate asked of Chang when he was examined, what Chang replied, what Wang retaliated, as well as what the Official had to say to that, with interminable iterations and profuse commentary furnish the most interesting and the most inexhaustible themes for discourse. [Source: “Village Life in China” by Arthur Henderson Smith, Fleming H. Revell Company, 1899, The Project Gutenberg]

“For any official changes unless it be that of his own District Magistrate the villager cares very little. At a time when it was supposed that His Majesty Kuang Hsü had been made way with, the writer remarked to a Chinese friend that there was reason to fear that here was an empire without an Emperor. A villager of the sluggish type just mentioned, who had heard nothing of the news from Peking, inquired of what country the observation had been made, and when the answer had been given that it was the Central Empire, he reflected for a moment, and merely replied, “Oh”, with the air of one who had feared it might be worse! Yet the rustic of this class is shrewd in his own affairs, and by no means deficient in practical intelligence. He is passionately fond of hearing story-tellers and of witnessing plays having for their heroes the great men of the Three Kingdoms seventeen hundred years ago, and on occasion he might be able to tell us much about these characters and their deeds. But modern and contemporaneous history is out of his line, and lacks flavour. It is most literally none of his business, and he knows nor cares nothing about it. The whole map of Asia might be reconstructed, and it would have for him no interest whatever, provided it did not increase his taxes nor raise the price of grain.

“We have already mentioned that the villager who has been far from home is a conspicuous exception to the general vacuity of mind so often to be met. He has a rich and a varied experience which he is willing although not forward to relate. But it is a striking fact that the man of this sort when he returns to go abroad no more, tends speedily to relapse into the prevailing type. He may have been in every one of the Eighteen Provinces, or possibly in foreign lands, yet on his settling down to his old ways he has no more curiosity to know what is going on elsewhere, than a man who had at some time in his life been shipwrecked would have to know what had become of the schools of fish with which for a time he was in fortuitous proximity. When it is considered how vast a proportion of the whole population live in villages, and when we contemplate in detail the meagreness and poverty of the mental output, an impressive conception is gained of the intellectual barrenness of the Flowery Empire. The phenomena which we everywhere see are the outward expression of inner forces which have been at work for more than two thousand years. The longer they are considered and the more thoroughly they are understood the more profoundly will it be seen and felt that the “answer to Confucianism is China.”

Village Bully in 19th Century China

In 1899, Arthur Henderson Smith wrote in “Village Life in China”: “No adequate understanding of the life of the Chinese is possible without some comprehension of the place therein of the bully, and conversely it might almost be said that a just apprehension of the character and functions of the Chinese bully is equivalent to a comprehension of Chinese society. So far as we know, the Chinese bully is a character peculiar to China. By this it is not of course meant that other lands do not have and have not always had their bullies, but that the mode in which Chinese bullies exert their power is unique. It depends largely upon the peculiar characteristics of the Chinese race, prominent among which is the desire for peace, and a reluctance to engage in a quarrel. The traits of a bully among a savage and warlike people such as our ancestors once were, and of a bully among such a quiet folk as the Chinese, are inherently different. [Source: “Village Life in China” by Arthur Henderson Smith, Fleming H. Revell Company, 1899, The Project Gutenberg]

“The Chinese have many terms to designate the individual whom we have termed a bully, among which one of the most common is that which means literally “bare-stick” (kuang-kun), in allusion to the fact that those who are most frequently bullies are generally those who have no property to lose. But the general term is applicable to any one who plays the part, whatever his social condition may be, and it is in this sense that we shall employ it.

On one incidents involving a local bully, Smith wrote in “Chinese Characteristics”: ““In a village near to the writer's home, a child who was playing in a temple happened to jostle one of the gods, so that one of the clay fingers fell off. The natural thing to do, if anything was to be done at all, was to require the child's father to put the image in the same condition as before. But this did not suit the local bully who managed the affair, and the result was a row of grand proportions, and a fine in money which was itself a grievous burden, and a feast of " harmony" for all concerned. Disturbances of this sort are constantly happening everywhere, being too common to attract any notice, but they attain their maximum when the occasion is the death of some one, under such conditions that they can be made use of for the purpose of extortion. This is the form in which the Chinese respect for human life most conspicuously asserts itself. It is a proverb of deep meaning, that while a man is alive he is as insignificant as a mere blade of grass, but if he is killed he becomes to his family a mine of wealth. To such a pitch is a matter of adjustment of such cases carried, albeit wholly contrary to law, that it often seems that one might take his stand on the most crowded thoroughfare, shoot the first man whom he happened to meet ahd yet be reasonably secure of settling the matter by a payment of money. It is eminently true of China, that earth has no sbrrows that cash cannot heal. [Source:“Chinese Characteristics” by Arthur Henderson Smith, 1894]

Types of Village Bullies in 19th Century China

Smith wrote in “Village Life in China”: The village bully is, (as we used to be taught of vulgar fractions) of three kinds, simple, compound, and complex. The simple bully is a unit by himself, managing his own affairs with his own resources. The compound bully calls to his aid the power of numbers, and the mysterious and almost irresistible talent for combination inherent in the Chinese. The complex bully is not a bully merely, but has some business or profession, in the management of which he is materially aided by the fact that he is a man to be feared. [Source: “Village Life in China” by Arthur Henderson Smith, Fleming H. Revell Company, 1899, The Project Gutenberg]

“In his simplest form, a Chinese bully is a man of a more or less violent temper and strong passions, who is resolved never to “eat loss, ” and under all circumstances to give as good (or as bad) as he gets. Fortunately for the peace of society, the overwhelming majority of the Chinese belong to the “lao-shih” variety. In order to secure the reputation of being not “lao-shih, ” a shrewd villager will sometimes adopt the expedient, not unknown to other lands, of wearing his clothes in a loose and rowdy-like fashion, talking in a boisterous tone, and resenting contradiction or any overt lack of compliance with his opinions.

“His cap is worn studiedly awry; his outer garment instead of being decorously fastened, is left purposely unlooped; his abundant hair is braided into a loose cue apparently as thick as his arm, the plaiting beginning several inches away from the head: the end of the cue is generally coiled about his neck or over his head (a gross breach of Chinese etiquette), as if to show that he thirsts for a fight. His outer leggings are not improbably so tied as to display a lining which is more expensive than the outside; and his shoes are invariably worn down at the heel, perhaps to make an ostentatious display of a silk embroidered heel to the cotton stocking — a touch of splendour adapted to strike awe into the rustic beholder. In a time of intense excitement over alleged kidnapping of children, we have known a man to be apprehended in open court and examined as a bad character, because the colour of his clothes was unusual.

“By persistently following out his peculiar lines of action, he will not unlikely succeed in diffusing the impression that he is a dangerous man to interfere with, and will in consequence be let severely alone. A cat of even a small experience will not improbably manifest considerable hesitation before attempting to swallow a lizard. It is evident, therefore, that if any small reptile is obliged to associate with cats, the art of simulating a lizard is a valuable one. The grade of bully of which we are now speaking is in all Chinese society too common to attract much notice, and he can be avoided by letting him alone. His weapons, like the walls of Chinese cities, are defensive only.

“Much more to be dreaded is the bully who will not let others alone, but who is always inserting himself into their affairs with a view to extracting some benefit for himself. The most dangerous type of these men is the one who makes very little ado, but whose acts are ruinous to those whom he wishes to injure. Such a one is aptly likened to a dog which bites without showing his teeth.

Barefoot Men, Bully Scholars and Female Bullies

In 1899, Arthur Henderson Smith wrote in “Village Life in China”: “It is a useful, but by no means a necessary qualification of the bully, that he should be a poor man, with nothing to lose. Poverty in China is often a synonym for the most abject misery and want. The entire possessions of great numbers of the people would not amount in value to five dollars, and thousands of persons never know whence the next meal is to come. Such persons would in European countries constitute what are called “the dangerous classes.” In China, unless their distress is extreme, they do not mass themselves, and they seldom wage war against society as a whole. But individuals of this type may, if they have other requisite abilities, become “village kings, ” and order the course of current events much according to their own will. [Source: “Village Life in China” by Arthur Henderson Smith, Fleming H. Revell Company, 1899, The Project Gutenberg]

“Such persons, in the figurative language of the Chinese, are called “barefoot men, ” in allusion to their destitute condition, and it is a common saying that “the barefoot man (otherwise known as ‘mud-legs’) is not afraid of him who has stockings on his feet, ” for the former can at once retreat into the mud, where the latter dare not follow. In other words, the barefoot man is able to hold in terror the man who has property to lose, by an open or an implicit threat of vengeance, against which the man of property cannot safeguard himself.

“The most expert of all this dreaded class is the bully who is also a literary man, perhaps a hsiu-ts‘ai, or Bachelor of Arts, and who thus has a special prestige of his own, securing him a hearing where others would fail of it, guaranteeing him immunity from beating in open court, to which others are liable, and enabling him to prepare accusations for himself or others, and to be certain of the bearing of these documents upon the case in hand. These advantages are so great, that it is not uncommon to find persons who make no secret of the fact that their main motive in submitting to the toils requisite to gain the lowest literary degree, is that they may be able, during the rest of their lives, to make use of this leverage as a means of raising themselves and of harming their neighbours. Any Chinese bully is greatly to be feared, but none is so formidable as the literary bully.

“One other type of Chinese bully must not fail of mention, for it is in some respects the most unique of all, to wit the female bully. Her traits are, mutatis mutandis, the same as those of the individuals already mentioned, but her mere existence is so great a departure from our ordinary conceptions of Chinese social life, that it needs a word of explanation. She is simply an evolution of her surroundings. Skill in speech, physical violence in act, and an executive talent are her endowments, and her usefulness to the perennially hungry “wolves and tigers” of the yamên is such that she is called their draught-horse to draw victims. Like her male compatriots, she is able from her value to the underlings of the yamên to conduct a lawsuit of her own, without any of those numberless and vexatious expenses which suck out the lifeblood of ordinary victims. This makes her a terrible, if not an invulnerable, foe, and those who are wise will beware of her. According to a Chinese proverb, a woman is more to be dreaded in such cases than a graduate of the second degree. It is a saying of a certain humorous philosopher, that “one hornet can break up a whole camp-meeting, when he feels well.” How much mischief one Chinese bully can accomplish in an average lifetime, it is impossible to estimate.

Attributes of a 19th Century Chinese Village Bully

Smith wrote: “If there is no overt act which he sees his way to commit,” a “village king” can always pick a quarrel by reviling, which is regarded as throwing down a glove of defiance. Not to notice such a challenge is from a Chinese standpoint almost impossible. “To be reviled and to feel no pain, ” this is the Chinese ideal of shamelessness. Nothing is rarer than to find a Chinese who has been reviled, and who, when he was strong enough to demand an apology, has allowed the matter to drop. [Source: “Village Life in China” by Arthur Henderson Smith, Fleming H. Revell Company, 1899, The Project Gutenberg]

“The intricate constitution of Chinese society is such that there is a great variety of acts which, while they may not be directly hostile, must be understood in the light of a challenge. If for example a bully has let it be known that he is determined that a theatrical representation shall take place the next autumn in his village, for some one to oppose it might not improbably be such an act of hostility as to amount to a challenge. The bully must then see that the theatre is engaged, or his “face” is lost, which one may be sure will never happen as long as he is able to prevent it.

“There is always about one of these village bullies a general atmosphere of menace, as if he were thirsting for an opportunity to issue an ultimatum. He often does so, in a singularly vague manner, the significance of which is, however, perfectly well understood. If A is the bully, and B is known to oppose him, then A publicly states that if B does so and so, A will not put up with it (pu suan t‘a, literally, “will not take the account, ” but insinuating a dark hint as to consequences). If B takes the hint and quietly retires, there is peace, but otherwise there is war.

“One of the qualifications which is very convenient for the village bully, although not absolutely indispensable, is physical strength. One of the nicknames of the local bully as just remarked, is that of village king. Among those whose forte is violence, the king must be a man who has inherent power, “the man who can, ” for it is impossible to say at what moment all his strength will be needed in some fight.

“It is in view of this consideration, that it is very common for young fellows who wish to distinguish themselves among their comrades, to take systematic lessons in “fist-and-foot, ” that is, in gymnastics. A high degree of skill in wrestling, and the ability (as alleged) to deliver such a blow with the fist as shall knock out a brick from a wall a foot thick, are in many circumstances valuable accomplishments.

19th Century Chinese Bully Tactics

In 1899, Arthur Henderson Smith wrote in “Village Life in China”: “The forms which this vengeance will take vary according to circumstances. One of the most common is that of incendiary fires, which, in a thickly inhabited village, where there is often a large accumulation of fuel stacked up, is a mode of attack particularly to be dreaded. It is always easy to set a fire, but difficult and frequently impossible to extinguish it. We have known numberless instances of this sort, in which, despite all diligence, no one was ever detected in setting the fire. The terror which such fires inspire is so great, that the man who is thought to be specially liable to them may be marked and avoided for that reason alone. It is considered unsafe to have anything to do with him, much less to aid him in extinguishing his fires. In one case of this sort, the same individual was repeatedly visited with incendiary fires, and on the last occasion all his carts were totally destroyed, nothing remaining but the tires of the wheels. It was afterward found that strong leather straps had been used to bind the wheels to the framework of the shed in which they were kept, so that any attempt to drag the carts out was certain to fail. [Source: “Village Life in China” by Arthur Henderson Smith, Fleming H. Revell Company, 1899, The Project Gutenberg]

“Another method by which the bully signifies his dissatisfaction with his enemy, is by injuring his crops. In a country where the farms are subdivided into mere fragments, every farmer’s land is contiguous to that of a great number of other persons. As already mentioned a large farm will often consist of scores of different pieces of ground, which have been bought as opportunity offered. When the land is planted, and again when the harvest is gathered, excellent opportunity is afforded for disputes. The little bushes which serve as boundaries of the fields of different owners, in regions where stone posts are too expensive, are readily destroyed or removed, and in any case the boundaries are more or less inexact, leaving room for uncertainty as to the precise point at which one piece of ground ends and another begins.

“It is in such situations as this that the bully is at his best. It is well understood that he will suffer no loss, and that whoever happens to be his neighbour, will literally have “a hard row to hoe.” There are sometimes sections of ground, such as those belonging to public uses, river embankments, the land of certain temples, and the like, which no one but a bully could cultivate at all, because the crops must be defended against invasion from all quarters, and only a bully can furnish the necessary skill and ferocity to protect himself.

Chinese bullies sometimes form groups of thugs that extort money from shop owners “The means of enforcing these exactions is always at hand, and is expressed in one fateful and compound noun, law-suit. The bully who understands his business is well acquainted with every one at the district yamên, and is in fact one of their best customers, or rather the man who brings them their custom. The yamên is the spider’s web, and the bully is the large insect which drives the flies into the net, where it will go ill with them ere they escape.

“If his adversary is rich, the bully may adopt the plan of leaving a bag of smuggled salt in the doorway of the rich man, at the same time taking care to have a “salt inspector” ready to seize the salt, and bring an accusation against the man of means as a defier of the law. The “salt inspectors” are themselves smugglers, selected for their expertness in the art, and like all other underlings in Chinese official life they are quite free from the trammels of any sort of conscience. From a suit of this kind no rich man would be likely to escape without the sacrifice of many thousand strings of cash, being not improbably forced to furnish the funds for repairing a city wall, for rebuilding a temple, or some other public work. The capacity to conduct successfully a lawsuit is in China what it must have been in Bagdad during the time of the Caliph Haroun Al Raschid to wear the Cap of Darkness and Shoes of Swiftness. Such agencies defy all foes except those similarly equipped. And as in the Arabian Nights there are many stories of magicians warring with magicians who also “did so with their enchantments, ” in like manner when Chinese bullies meet in a legal fight at a yamên, it is a battle of giants.

Bully Fights in 19th Century China

In 1899, Arthur Henderson Smith wrote in “Village Life in China”: ““The writer is well acquainted with a young man who enjoyed the reputation of being the strongest person in his village. Being sent on an errand to a distant city, he had occasion to pass through a smaller city some forty li from his home, where he was not known. Here a number of bullies, who happened to be gathered in front of the district yamên, struck with his rusticity, stopped him, and demanded who he was and where he was going. His replies to their inquiries not being sufficiently prompt to give satisfaction, he was set upon by several men, who attacked him simultaneously. Here his “fist-and-foot” skill was of great service; for though two men were on top of him, he was able to seize the ankle of one of them and to give it such a fearful twist as almost to dislocate the joint, whereupon his assailants, howling with pain, were only too glad to release him. At a later date the matter was looked into, and at the feast which the attacking party was compelled to give, by way of apology, one of those present hobbled around in a particularly feeble manner, and freely expressed the opinion that upon this occasion he had mistaken his man! [Source: “Village Life in China” by Arthur Henderson Smith, Fleming H. Revell Company, 1899, The Project Gutenberg]

“In the numerous cases in which persons are imposed upon by a bully who is too much for them, their earliest thoughts are how it may be practicable to collect a band of men, expert in the “fist-and-foot” practices, and make an attack upon the aggressive party, by which means he may be suppressed. The writer once met a man whose home is in a village noted as the headquarters of a daring and unscrupulous band of thieves. Having been robbed by them with no prospect of any redress through legal channels, this man collected a band of athletes and attacked the thieves in the vicinity of the village where they made their home, so belabouring them that the band removed its headquarters elsewhere.

Smith wrote in “Chinese Characteristics”: ““It is well-known that there are some species of wolves which hunt in enormous packs. If a hard pressed traveller should shoot one of them so that he is disabled, the rest of the pack, or a part bf it, will suspend their pursuit for a few moments, while they devour their companion. That there should be any phenomena at all similar to this among so peaceable and amicable a people as the Chinese, does not at first appear probable or even credible. But it often happens that a single fact, seen in all its relations, is sufficient to explain a great variety of other facts'. [Source:“Chinese Characteristics” by Arthur Henderson Smith, 1894]

The Chinese bully in his various forms of manifestation is responsible for many of the evils of Chinese society, in a manner which it is by no means difficult to understand. The national dread of giving 'offence has been already described; Once postulating a man of the type here represented, furnished with occasions for a quarrel; there is no force in Chinese society which is adequate to deal with him. Public sentiment is indeed against him, but what does he care for sentiment? It is a phrase which is in constant use in regard to such a person, that he is one whom we " dare hot provoke.'' Having nothing to lose himself, he is on general principles in favor of anything which promises a disturbance of the existing order of things. Without being aware of it, he is an Anarchist and a Nihilist in one. It is from this class, never small, that infant rebellions gather their momentum, until, like the Taipings, they roll a slow spreading wave of ruin all over the Empire. The least opening is sufficient for the entrance of mischief in irresistible forms.

Combating a 19th Century Chinese Bullies

In 1899, Arthur Henderson Smith wrote in “Village Life in China”: “While the government of China appears to have elements of extreme stability, it is at the same time often practically weak in the very points where it most needs strength, namely, in its capacity to put forth powerful and sudden efforts. Whenever any uprising of the people takes place, there is generally nothing to prevent its gaining a great momentum, owing to the incapacity of the local authorities to cope with it. The same phenomenon is seen in any personal affray between single individuals. There are no police to arrest the one who commits a breach of the peace, and it is only by the intervention of third parties, friendly to the principals, that order is restored. But if either of the parties is able to bring a large force to bear upon the person whom he attacks, he is almost certain to be victorious. [Source: “Village Life in China” by Arthur Henderson Smith, Fleming H. Revell Company, 1899, The Project Gutenberg]

“It is at this point that the organisation of the followers of the bully proves a formidable foe to the peace of Chinese society. Let us suppose that a man has a violent personal quarrel with an enemy. An outbreak of their feud occurs at a great fair, such as abound at almost all seasons of the year. One of the men is intimate with another man who is a professional bully and who has within call a number of associates who can be depended upon in an emergency. The man who knows the bully goes to him and tells him of the grievance and asks his help. The bully lets it be known among his comrades that a friend is in need of assistance, and that their services will be called for. The party assembled goes to that section of the fair-ground where congregate the dealers in sticks used for supports for awnings, etc., and each man “borrows” a stout sapling, promising to return it later. With this lawless band, like the forces of Robin Hood, the bully sets upon his victim and wins an easy victory. None of the spectators will interfere in a brawl of this sort, for the consequences might be most serious. It does not follow that there is any regular organization among the rough members of the dangerous classes who are assembled, except that they are ready to unite in anything which promises the joy of battle, and a probable reward in the shape of a complimentary feast.

“Cases of this sort, which are by no means of infrequent occurrence, exhibit the weakness of the Chinese government, but they also exhibit its strength. If the millions of China were not satisfied with the existing rule, nothing would be easier than for them to unite and overthrow it. But the security of the government is based mainly upon the well-understood and well-ascertained fact that the people as a whole have no wish to overturn the system under which they live, as well as upon the equally indisputable fact that, with the Chinese, effective combination is an exceedingly difficult matter.

“The assemblage of bands of men under the virtual direction of a leader is a menace to the peace of the whole region in which they live, and it is not strange that Magistrates of such Districts live a life which is not to be envied. As plunder is often the real object of these combinations, the yamên of the Magistrate is as likely to be the point of attack as any other place, which makes it necessary that the official shall provide himself with trained athletes, who shall be able to meet and repel assaults made at night. Cases are occasionally reported in the Peking Gazette, where in spite of this precaution the yamên was robbed, and the seal actually carried off, to the ruin of the Magistrate, upon whom perhaps the people are glad to be revenged.

“The existence of such small and lawless forces in the midst of Chinese social life, quiet and orderly as that life ordinarily is, renders it certain that outbreaks will continually occur. But these attacks are not all from one side. There are in Chinese many proverbial sayings referring to the tiger, which have a metaphorical significance, and really denote the person whom we have named the bully, who is regarded as a social tiger. One of these sayings is to the effect that a tiger who has wounded too many men, is liable to fall into a mountain ravine. This means that the bully who has made enemies of too many people will at last himself fall into trouble, and then his enemies will be able to have their revenge upon him.

“Cases of this sort are constantly occurring, and often result in one or more murders, which must be reported, and which are sometimes narrated in detail in the Peking Gazette. It is not uncommon to hear of instances in which bullies have been attacked by large bands of men, many of them formerly the victims of the bully. Sometimes he is kidnapped, and sometimes he is killed outright. The method by which the village wars and clan fights of the Fujian and Guangdong provinces are conducted, probably bears a close analogy to these proceedings. They appear to be trials of strength between neighbouring rivals, conducted upon the plan of warfare during the middle ages in which the feudal system reigned. The local Magistrates take care not to interfere too soon or too far, lest it be the worse for them. When the fight is over the officers put in an appearance, arrests are made, and the machinery of government recovers from its temporary paralysis.

Combating a 19th Century Chinese Bullies with Political Connections

Smith wrote: “We have spoken of the literary bully as one of those most to be dreaded in China. But there is another qualification which a bully may possess, either with or without that of learning, which makes him an almost irresistible enemy. If he belongs to a family, one or more members of which are in official life and have a certain degree of power with the official class, such a man is a dangerous foe. Instances are constantly coming to light, not only in the native papers of China but also in memorials in the Peking Gazette (to which we have so frequently had occasion to refer), showing how difficult, or rather how altogether hopeless, it is to deal with such offenders. Even in cases of the most wanton murder, there is always some way by which the matter can be adjusted, and there is no assurance that the influential culprit gets any real punishment at all.

“The following instance which occurred more than a generation ago, in a District near to that in which the writer lived for a long time, illustrates the kind of proceedings to which reference is made. “During the eighteenth century there lived in that County a family named Lu, one of the members of which attained to the lofty eminence of Ko Lao, or Grand Secretary. A family of this class, especially if it should be the only one of the sort in the District, exerts a commanding influence, and it is necessary for the local Magistrate to conduct himself discreetly, in order not to win the ill-will of such a powerful corporation. It is well if he is able to collect from them even the ordinary land-tax, which all the soil of the empire is supposed to pay.

“It is related of this family that, upon one occasion having been ordered by the District Magistrate to collect this tax, the local constable was unable to do as he was told. Having been repeatedly beaten for his delinquencies in this respect, he presented himself at the entrance of the premises of his wealthy neighbour, and with earnest prostrations begged the gatekeeper to intercede for him, and get the tax paid.

“The elderly widow who was the manager of the establishment, having been informed of this plea, ordered her cart harnessed, and proceeded to the District Magistrate’s yamên, for an interview. The official perhaps entertained a wild hope that she had come to settle up her arrears of taxes, and even planned to borrow a sum of money of her, but she soon dispelled this idea, by telling him in so many words that she herself required a “loan” of a certain number of thousands of tæls, which the Magistrate was obliged to promise to get for her, at the earliest possible moment. As she rose to take her leave, she remarked incidentally that her gatekeeper had been much annoyed by some of the yamên underlings who hung about the premises under pretence of wanting a grain-tax, adding that she should expect to hear no more of such proceedings in future!

“Upon another occasion, while the Ko Lao himself was alive, a complaint was made to the District Magistrate that a son of the Ko Lao had a maidservant, who was virtually imprisoned in the family mansion. She was originally hired having been betrothed, but although it was time for her to be married, her employer refused to let her go. The Magistrate sent for the son of the Ko Lao, made known the charge, and desired the release of the person detained. He even went to the length of beating the attendant of the Lu family, who had accompanied his master, the latter being himself too lofty a subject for punishment. The son went to his home in a towering rage, and wrote a letter to his father in Peking, detailing the circumstances. Soon after this, the Magistrate received the news of his promotion from the grade of Sub-prefect to that of Prefect, in the province of Ssŭ-ch‘uan.

“The journey to a new post is often a most serious matter for an official, and where, as in this case, he has the entire empire to cross, the trouble and expense are very great. He had no sooner reached this distant post, than he received a notification that he was promoted to another in the province of Yün-nan, again involving an expensive and tedious journey. When he had at length taken up the duties of this office it was only to be informed that he was promoted afresh to the high rank of Tao-t‘ai in a region beyond the Great Wall. He now began to perceive the significance of this strange series of events, and wholly unable either to bear the ills which he already had, or to support the prospect of perhaps greater ones yet to come, he “swallowed gold, ” and thus escaped further promotion and ruin!

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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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