POPULATION GROWTH DURING THE QING DYNASTY
According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “The effectiveness of the Chinese style of rule during the Qing period is most evident when one thinks about the number of people that the Qing state governed. The population of China in the 1600s, when the Manchu Qing conquered China, was somewhere in the vicinity of 100 million people. At the beginning of the 1800s, China had about 300 million people (a number that was not greatly influenced by the new areas that the Qing had added to the empire in the 18th century, which were relatively sparsely populated border regions). By the time the Qing dynasty fell in 1911, China had close to 400 million people. Thus, there was a fourfold increase in population during the period of Qing rule, yet the institutions that were put into place in the 1640s when Qing rule began (institutions largely inherited from earlier dynasties) managed to sustain a well-functioning state all the way to the fall of the empire in 1911. [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University, Madeleine Zelin, Consultant, learn.columbia.edu/nanxuntu]
Ken Pomeranz and Bin Wong wrote: “One of the real signs of the tremendous success of the Qing dynasty in the eighteenth century in what historians like to call the High Qing (1680 to about 1830 or so) was the enormous increase in population. Looking back...we tend to think of population growth as not such a great thing, but at the time, it was really looked on as a sign that the regime was doing its job. It enabled more people to come into the world, to have the satisfactions of being alive, and to live something vaguely approximating the Confucian good life. [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University afe.easia.columbia.edu]
“The Qing were able to preside over a rough tripling of the Chinese population between about 1680 and maybe 1820. This growth was achieved without a decrease in the standard of living, thanks to the increasing sophistication of the economy, to state efforts to shore up regions that couldn't produce enough food for themselves, or through such areas being able to produce some other commodity that they could trade for food.
Population statistics (Year — Population)
1578 (before the Manchus) — 10,621,463 families or 60,692,856 people
1662 — 19,203,233 families and about 100,000,000 people
1710 — 23,311,236 families and about 116,000,000 people
1729 — 25,480,498 families and about 127,000,000 people
1741 — 143,411,559 people
1754 — 184,504,493 people
1778 — 242,965,618 people
1796 — 275,662,414 people
1814 — 374,601,132 people
1850 — 414,493,899 people
(1953) — (601,938,035 people)
[Source: “A History of China” by Wolfram Eberhard, 1951, University of California, Berkeley]
Wolfram Eberhard wrote in “A History of China”: “It may be objected that these figures are incorrect and exaggerated. Undoubtedly they contain errors. But the first figure (for 1578) of some sixty millions is in close agreement with all other figures of early times; the figure for 1850 seems high, but cannot be far wrong, for even after the great Taiping Rebellion of 1851, which, together with its after-effects, costs the lives of countless millions, all statisticians of today estimate the population of China at more than four hundred millions. If we enter these data together with the census of 1953 into a chart (see p. 273), a fairly smooth curve emerges; the special features are that already under the Ming the population was increasing and, secondly, that the high rate of increase in the population began with the long period of internal peace since about 1700. From that time onwards, all China's wars were fought at so great a distance from China proper that the population was not directly affected. Moreover, in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the Manchus saw to the maintenance of the river dykes, so that the worst inundations were prevented. Thus there were not so many of the floods which had often cost the lives of many million people in China; and there were no internal wars, with their heavy cost in lives.
Website on the Qing Dynasty Wikipedia Wikipedia ; Qing Dynasty Explained drben.net/ChinaReport ; Recording of Grandeur of Qing learn.columbia.edu
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Reasons for Population Growth in Qing China and Inability of Agriculture to Keep Up
Ken Pomeranz and Bin Wong wrote: “The population grew because of various technological changes, mostly in agriculture. The Qing were very good at taxing relatively lightly in this period while providing order and making sure that very basic survival services—such as flood control— were provided, whether by the government or by private parties encouraged by the government. This population growth, in some cases, eventually became a problem. In the eighteenth century, however, it was still overwhelmingly seen as a blessing. It happened very differently in different parts of the country. The Yangzi delta, the richest part of the country, had almost zero population growth between about 1770 and 1850 for a number of reasons, including the conscious use of various methods of birth control
Wolfram Eberhard wrote in “A History of China”: “But while the population increased, the tillage failed to increase in the needed proportion. I have, unfortunately, no statistics for all periods; but the general tendency is shown by the following table (Date — Cultivated area mou — per person in mou
1578 — 701,397,600 — 11.6
1662 — 531,135,800
1719 — 663,113,200
1729 — 878,176,000 — 6.1
(1953) — (1,627,930,000) — (2.7) [Source: “A History of China” by Wolfram Eberhard, 1951, University of California, Berkeley]
“Six mou are about one acre. In 1578, there were 66 mou land per family of the total population. This was close to the figures regarded as ideal by Chinese early economists for the producing family (100 mou) considering the fact that about 80 per cent of all families at that time were producers. By 1729 it was only 35 mou per family, i.e. the land had to produce almost twice as much as before. We have shown that the agricultural developments in the Ming time greatly increased the productivity of the land. This then, obviously resulted in an increase of population. But by the middle of the eighteenth century, assuming that production doubled since the sixteenth century, population pressure was again as heavy as it had been then. And after c. 1750, population pressure continued to build up to the present time.
Effects of the Population Growth in Qing China
According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “The rapid growth in population” contributed “to what came to be one of the greatest weaknesses within the Qing bureaucratic system — the local magistrate. The magistrate was at the lowest level of the bureaucracy and had a very large area to control, but he was not always able to do so effectively with the resources that were given to him by the state. By the end of the Qing period, when the Chinese population had increased fourfold, a single magistrate and his office could be responsible for as many as 300,000 people.” [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University, Madeleine Zelin, Consultant, learn.columbia.edu/nanxuntu]
Wolfram Eberhard wrote in “A History of China”: “Internal colonization continued during the Manchu time; there was a continuous, but slow flow of people into Guangxi, Kweichow, Yunnan. In spite of laws which prohibited emigration, Chinese also moved into South-East Asia. Chinese settlement in Manchuria was allowed only in the last years of the Manchus. But such internal colonization or emigration could alleviated the pressure only in some areas, while it continued to build up in others. [Source: “A History of China” by Wolfram Eberhard, 1951, University of California, Berkeley]
“In Europe as well as in Japan, we find a strong population increase; in Europe at almost the same time as in China. But before population pressure became too serious in Europe or Japan, industry developed and absorbed the excess population. Thus, farms did not decrease too much in size. Too small farms are always and in many ways uneconomical. With the development of industries, the percentage of farm population decreased. In China, however, the farm population was still as high as 73.3 per cent of the total population in 1932 and the percentage rose to 81 per cent in 1950.
Arthur Henderson Smith wrote in “Chinese Characteristics”: “It must ever be borne in mind that the population of China is dense The disasters of flood, and, famine are of periodical occurrence in almost all parts of the Empire. The Chinese desire for posterity is so overmastering a passion, that circumstances which ought to operate as an effectual check upon population, and which in many other countries would do so, appear to be in China relatively inefficient for that purpose. The very poorest people continue to marry their children at an early age and these children bring up large families, just as if there were any provision for their maintenance. The result of these and other causes is, that a large proportion of the population lives in the most literal sense from hand to mouth. This may be said to be the universal condition of day labourers, and it is a condition from which there appears to be no possibility of escape.” [Source:“Chinese Characteristics” by Arthur Henderson Smith, 1894]
Myth of the Big Chinese Family
Ken Pomeranz and Bin Wong wrote: “One of the great myths about China is that of the Chinese family that so desperately wants a son that they have as many kids as possible and end up having enormous families. Although Chinese families did very much want sons, they were also perfectly conscious of the fact that their ability to support children was limited and that, in the long run, they didn't improve their odds by simply having the maximum number of births. And, in fact, births per woman in late imperial China are actually, on average, probably somewhat lower than in early modern Europe. [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University afe.easia.columbia.edu ]
“There are various theories as to what kinds of birth control were practiced during this time. This is actually quite controversial and hard to reconstruct, but we do know that one way or another, they seemed to keep births down. This is very different from the traditional image of China as this land of Malthusian horror where, because they couldn't restrain their population, it was only kept in check by floods and famines.
“That's not the story at all. And it's again a good example of how we find the things we're trained to find. Western-trained demographers understood that in Europe, population control worked as people delayed marriage in hard times. They assumed that this was the main mechanism for fertility control available to premodern societies, so it didn't even occur to them when they looked at societies like China to think about the possibility that there might be effective birth control within marriage. Therefore, when they looked at China, they saw that access to marriage wasn't economically regulated the way it was in Europe—the average age at marriage doesn't seem to get older at hard times, women marry young anyway—and they said, "Aha, society with no control on fertility. Therefore, if fertility is unchecked, they must have had all these enormous problems of overpopulation."
“It turns out the Chinese found ways to control fertility within marriage, which many scholars thought simply did not happen before modern chemical and mechanical contraception. Population growth was concentrated not in the advanced regions of the coast, which were running out of land and realized it, but out on the frontier”.
Impact of New World Crops on China
Crops like the potato, the sweet potato, the peanut, corn, the chili pepper and the tomato were introduced to China and Asia from America as they were to Europe, and their impact was just as profound. It is hard to imagine spice Hunan and Sichuan food without the chili pepper.
In some cases, the New World foods were actually adopted faster in East Asia than they were in most of Europe. And they fit very particular ecological niches that were quite important. The potato, the sweet potato, corn, the peanut, all made it to China by 1600, on a very small scale, but they really took off in the eighteenth century. Not only did they improve and boraden Chinese cuisines, they also increased agricultural yields and helped feed China’s huge population. Corn, for example, is grown today across vast swaths of northern China that is too far north to grow rice and is better suited for corn than wheat. [Source: "Miracle Strains," by Susan V. Lawrence, Far Eastern Economic Review, 162/15, April 15, 1999]
Susan V. Lawrence wrote in the Far Eastern Economic Review, “When Christopher Columbus first laid eyes on the moonlit hills of San Salvador on the night of October 12, 1492, he could hardly have guessed at the impact that his discovery would eventually have on China, half a world away. In the subsequent decades, Spanish traders carried high-yielding crops from Spain's dominions in the Americas to the Philippines, which was Spain's main foothold in Asia. In the late 1500s, those crops, among them corn, sweet potatoes, white potatoes and peanuts, made their way to China. There, beginning in the second half of the 1600s, they fuelled a population explosion... which saw numbers swell from 150 million in the early 1700s to 450 million by the mid-1800s.”
Money and Prices in the Qing Era (1644-1912)
Arthur Henderson Smith wrote in “Chinese Characteristics” in 1894: “A hundred cash are not a hundred, and a thousand cash are not a thousand, but some other and totally uncertain number, to be ascertained only by experience. In wide regions of the Empire, one cash counts for two, that is, it does so in numbers above twenty, so that when one hears that he is to be paid five hundred cash he understands that he will receive two hundred and fifty pieces, less the local, abatement, which perpetually shifts in different places. There is a constant intermixture of small or spurious cash, leading to inevitable disputes between dealers in any commodity. At irregular intervals, the local magistrates become impressed with the evil of this debasement Of the currency, and issue stern proclamations against it. This gives the swarm of underlings in the magistrate's yamen an opportunity to levy squeezes on all the cash shops in the districts, and to make the transaction of all business more of less difficult. [Source:“Chinese Characteristics” by Arthur Henderson Smith, 1894. 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.]
“Prices at once rise, to meet the temporary necessity for pure cash. As soon as the paying ore in this vein is exhausted, and it is not worked to any extent, the bad cash returns, but prices do not fall. Thus the irrepressible law by which the worse currency drives out the better, is never for an instant suspended. l The Condition of the cash becomes worse and worse, until as in some parts of the province of Honan, everyone goes to market with two entirely distinct sets of cash, one of each is the ordinary mixture of good with bad, and the other is composed exclusively of counterfeit pieces. Certain articles are paid for with the spurious cash only. But in regard to other commodities this is matter of special bargain, and accordingly there is for these articles a double market price. That enormous losses must result from such a state of things; is to any Westerner obvious at a glance, although the Chinese are so accustomed to inconveniences of this sort, that they seem almost unconscious of their existence, and the evils are felt only as the pressure of the atmosphere is felt.
“Chinese cash is emphatically "filthy lucre." It cannot be handled without contamination. The strings, of five hundred or a thousand (nominal) pieces, are exceedingly liable to break, which involves great trouble in recounting and re-tying. There is no uniformity of weight in the current copper cash, but all is both bulky and heavy. Cash to the value of a Mexican dollar weigh not less than eight pounds avoirdupois. A few hundred cash are all that anyone can carry about in the little bags which are suspended for this purpose from the girdle. If it is desired to use a larger sum than a few strings, the transportation become a serious matter. The losses on transactions in ingots of sycee are always great, and the person who uses them is inevitably cheated both in buying and in selling. If he employs the bills of cash-shops, the difficulty is not greatly relieved, since those of one region are either wholly uncurrent in another region not far away, or will be taken only at a heavy discount, while the person who at last takes them to be redeemed, has in prospect a certain battle with the harpies of the shop by which the bills were issued, as to the quality of the cash which is to be paid for them. Under these grave disabilities the wonder is that the Chinese are able to do any business at all; and yet, as we daily perceive, they are so accustomed to these annoyances, that their burden appears scarcely felt, and the only serious complaint on this score comes from foreigners.”
Some of the “Twenty-Four Exemplars of Filial Piety"
The excerpts below are from a popular tract — “Twenty-four Exemplars of Filial Piety” — widely circulated from the Yuan through the Qing dynasties in many different editions. “3) A Bitten Finger Pains the Heart Zeng Shen of the Zhou dynasty had the honorific name Ziyu. He served his mother with extreme filiality. One day when Shen was in the mountains gathering firewood a guest came to the house. His mother had made no preparations and she kept hoping that he would return, but he did not. Then she bit her finger, and at the same time Shen suddenly felt a pain in his heart. He shouldered his firewood and returned home; kneeling, he asked his mother what the matter was. His mother said, “A guest came unexpectedly and I bit my finger to make you aware of it.”
“8) Acting As a Laborer to Support His Mother Jiang Ge lived in the Eastern Han dynasty. His father died when he was young, and he lived alone with his mother. Disorders broke out, so he fled, carrying his mother. Again and again they encountered bandits who wanted to force him to join them. But Ge burst into tears and told them that he had his mother with him. The bandits could not bring themselves to kill him. They took up residence in Xiapei. Impoverished and without shirt or shoes, he hired himself out as a laborer to support his mother. He gave her whatever she needed.”
“10) Breast-Feeding Her Mother-in-law: Madame Zhangsun was the great.grandmother of Cui Nanshan of the Tang dynasty. When she was old and toothless, every day Cui’s grandmother, Madame Tang, after combing her hair and washing her face, entered the main hall and breast.fed her. Although the old lady did not eat a grain of rice, after several years she was still in good health. One day she fell sick, and young and old gathered about her as she announced, “There is no way that I can repay my daughterin-law’s goodness to me. If the wives of my sons and grandsons are as filial and respectful as this daughter-in-law, it will be enough.”
“11) Mosquitoes Gorged Freely on His Blood: Wu Meng of the Jin dynasty was eight years old and served his parents with extreme filiality. The family was poor, and their bed had no mosquito net. Every night in summer many mosquitoes bit him, gorging on his blood. But despite their numbers he did not drive them away, fearing that they would go and bite his parents. This is the extreme of love for parents.”
“12) Lying on Ice Seeking for Carp: Wang Xiang of the Jin dynasty was young when his mother died. His stepmother, named Zhu was unloving toward him and constantly slandered him to his father. Because of this he lost the love of his father. His stepmother liked to eat fresh fish. Once it was so cold the river froze. Xiang took off his clothes and lay on the ice to try to get some fish. Suddenly the ice opened and a pair of carp leaped out. He took them home and gave them to his stepmother.”
See Selections from The Twenty-four Exemplars of Filial Piety [PDF] afe.easia.columbia.edu
Education of Women in the Qing Dynasty
Lü Kun (1536-1618) was a scholar-official of the Ming dynasty who wrote on education from a number of perspectives. Here in “Preface to Models for the Inner Quarters” he writes on the education of women: “The early kings valued the instruction of women. Therefore women had female teachers, who would explicate the sayings of old and cite examples from ancient worthies so that [the women] would carefully adhere to the principle of “thrice obeying” (sancong) [i.e., to obey one’s father when young, one’s husband when married, and one’s son when old] and to revere the four virtues [i.e., proper behavior, speech, demeanor, and employment] so as to bring glory on their husbands and not bring down shame on their parents. [Source: “Preface to Models for the Inner Quarters” by Lu Kun, 1536-1618 from “Sources of Chinese Tradition”, compiled by Wm. Theodore de Bary and Irene Bloom, 2nd ed., vol. 1 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999), 897-898. Asia for Educators, Columbia University, Primary Sources with DBQs, afe.easia.columbia.edu ]
“With the decline of education today women in the inner quarters have really ceased to be governed by rites and laws. Those born in villages are accustomed to hearing coarse words and those [born] in rich households have loose proud, and extravagant natures. Their heads are covered with gold and pearls and their entire bodies with fine silks. They affect lightheartedness in behavior and cleverness in speech, but they mouth no beneficial words and perform no good deeds. Their parents and sisters-in-law will not be able to pass on reputations for worthiness or filiality, and neighbors and relatives will hear only of their obstinacy — all because they are uneducated.
“At the high end are those [women] who wield their writing brushes and aspire to [develop] their talents in sao poetry so as to brag that they are superb scholars. At the low end are those who strum vulgar [tunes] on their stringed instruments and sing lascivious words, almost like prostitutes — all because of the spread of depraved instruction. If in its myriad forms, education for the women’s quarters is like this, then how might the governance of the inner [quarters] be rectified? Various books for the instruction of women have been prepared by the ancients. But being numerous, they are difficult to master; being abstruse, they are difficult to understand; being diverse, their quality cannot be clearly differentiated; and being dull and flavorless, they cannot move others to feel awe. … Alas, [moral sentiments of] filiality, prudence, chastity, and martyrdom [in choosing death over remarrying] are inherent in one’s Heaven.given nature. To have a fine reputation that lasts for generations, one need not be literate, but it is rare that someone who learns to recite orally [accounts about] those with fine lasting reputations, fails to follow their good example.”
"In the Country of Women"
According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “The Qing dynasty is known for authors specializing in tales of ghosts and fantasies. Li Ju.chen (ca. 1763-ca. 1830) is representative of this fantasy genre. In Flowers in the Mirror (Jing hua yüan), the hero, Lin Zhiyang (Lin Chih-yang), travels to many strange lands. In the excerpt below, Lin finds himself in the “Land of Women.” The palace maids of the country of women have captured Lin and are preparing him to become a male “concubine” for their female ruler. He is, accordingly, bathed, dressed in skirts, his face powdered, lips reddened, his arms decorated with bangles and his fingers with rings. He has just had his ears pierced by a formidable white.bearded palace maiden when the procedure described in the excerpt below takes place. [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University, Primary Sources with DBQs, afe.easia.columbia.edu ]
“In the Country of Women” Li Ju-chen wrote: “The palace maidens were all immensely strong, and seized hold of Lin Chih-yang as a hawk seizes a sparrow — there was no question of his being the master. As soon as they had taken off his shoes and undressed him, fragrant water was brought for his bath. They changed his coat and trousers for a tunic and skirt, and for the time being put socks of thin silk on his dainty great feet. They combed his hair into plaits, pinning it with phoenix pins, and rubbed in scented oils. They powdered his face and smeared his lips with bright red lipstick. They put rings on his hands and bangles on his wrists, and arranging the curtains of the bed invited him to take his seat upon it.
“Lin Chih-yang felt as though he were dreaming or drunk, and could only sit there in misery. Closely questioning the palace maidens, he discovered for the first time that the ruler of the country had chosen him to be a royal concubine, and that he was to enter the palace as soon as an auspicious date had been picked. As he was reflecting on this alarming news, more palace maidens came in. These were of middle age, all tall and strong, and with jowls covered in hair. One of the maidens, who had a white beard and held in her hand a needle and thread, advanced before the bed and there knelt and said, “Gracious lady, with your permission, I have been ordered to pierce your ears.” Already four maidens had come forward and were gripping him firmly. The white.bearded maiden approached and took hold first of his right ear. She rolled a few times between her fingers the lobe where the needle was to go, and then straight away drove the needle through.
“Lin Chih-yang shrieked out, “The pain’s killing me,” and would have fallen over backwards had the maidens not been supporting him. She then got hold of his left ear, rolled it a few times and stuck the needle through. The pain brought continuous shouts and cries from Lin Chihyang. Both ears pierced, white lead was smeared on them and rubbed in, after which a pair of golden earrings of the “eight jewel” design was fixed to them. When the white-bearded maiden had finished her task she withdrew, and another maiden, this time with a black beard, came up. This one had in her hand a roll of thin white silk.
See Li Ju-chen, ca. 1763-ca. 1830 "In the Country of Women" [PDF] afe.easia.columbia.edu
"On Being Happy Though Poor" in the Qing Era
According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “In addition to formal essays and bureaucratic documents, educated men also wrote “random jottings” — a few sentences here, a short essay there — reflecting their thoughts an a myriad of subjects in an informal way. Substantial collections of such “random jottings” exist from the Ming and Qing dynasty. They supply another perspective on the thoughts, concerns, and feelings of literary men on a variety of topics. The example below is taken from a collection of random jottings, entitled “Random Relaxations,” by the playwright Li Yü (Li Liweng, 1611.ca. - 1680). [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University, Primary Sources with DBQs, afe.easia.columbia.edu ]
In “On Being Happy Though Poor” Li Yü wrote: “The recipe for being happy when one is poor contains nothing more arcane than the simple prescription, “one step back.” I may consider myself poor; but there will be other men poorer than I. I may count myself lowly; but there will be other men lowlier than I. I may regard my wife as an encumbrance; but there are widows and widowers, orphans, and childless folk who strive in vain to acquire just such an encumbrance. I may deplore the calluses on my hands; but there are men in the jails and in the wild lands who long without prospect for a livelihood with plough or shovel.
“Rest in such thoughts as these, and the sea of sorrows gives place to a land of joy; but if all your reckoning is in a forward direction, weighing yourself against your betters, then you will know not a moment’s peace but live fettered forever in a prison cell. A man of substance once spent the night in a courier station. The humid summer was at its height and his bed-curtains admitted swarms of mosquitoes which would not be driven off.
“He fell prey to reminiscences of home, of a lofty hall arching like the sky itself over him, of bamboo matting cool as ice, and a whole bevy of fan.wielding concubines. There he would hardly be aware of summer’s presence; how had he ever managed to get himself into his present predicament? Thoughts of bliss increased his frustrations, and the upshot was a night of total sleeplessness.
See Li Yü (Li Liweng), 1611-ca. 1680 "On Being Happy Though Poor" [PDF] afe.easia.columbia.edu
“The station sergeant had lain down on the steps outside where clouds of mosquitoes gnawed at him until it seemed his bones must be exposed. In desperation at last he began running up and down the yard, his arms and legs ceaselessly flailing so as to afford no foothold to his attackers. His movements back and forth were those of a man bothered and annoyed, yet the sighs he gave were sighs of relief and satisfaction, as though he had found a source of pleasure in the midst of his misery.
“The rich man was puzzled, and called him over to question him. “Your sufferings,” he said, “are a dozen or a hundred times more severe than mine, yet I am miserable and you seem to be enjoying yourself. Can you explain this?” “I was just remembering,” said the sergeant, “the time some years ago when an enemy of mine brought charges against me and had me thrown into jail. That was summer too, and the jailor to prevent my running away bound my wrists and ankles every night so that I could not move. There were more mosquitoes then than tonight, and they bit me at will, for however I longed to dodge and hide I could make no effort to do so. But see how tonight I can run up and down, moving my arms and legs just as I wish — it’s like I’m comparing a living man with a devil in hell. Thinking of the past I realize how pleasant things are now, and I can ignore whatever sufferings there might be.” His words roused the rich man to the understanding of his own error; for what he had heard was the secret of being happy though poor.
"On His Chair-bearers—A Case of Misplaced Sympathy"
According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “ Yuan Mei (1716-1798) is one of the most celebrated poets of the Qing dynasty (1644.1912). Yuan received a Confucian education and passed the examinations, but he had a lackluster official career, serving in minor posts and retiring in his mid-thirties. In retirement, Yuan Mei lived in a large and luxurious garden estate in Nanjing, the Sui Garden, and traveled extensively in southern China. His writings include books on how to take the civil service examinations, as well as travel writings and poetry. As a poet, Yuan Mei was unorthodox and creative. His position was that one should write poetry as one pleased, without being captive to traditional thinking, morality, or form. The poem below refers to Yuan’s chair-bearers — the men who carried the poet’s sedan chair as he travelled from one place to another. The “Owl and the Black” referred to in the poem are the names of two dice-throws. [Source: "On His Chair-bearers—A Case of Misplaced Sympathy" by Yuan Mei, ca. 1716-ca. 1798, from “Anthology of Chinese Literature, Volume II: From the Fourteenth Century to the Present Day,” edited by Cyril Birch (New York: Grove Press, 1972), 194-195. Asia for Educators, Columbia University, Primary Sources with DBQs, afe.easia.columbia.edu ]
"On His Chair-bearers—A Case of Misplaced Sympathy", Yuan Mei wrote: “Today my carriers have had a double task;
We have gone up a mountain and down into a valley.
For the moment they are through with their hardships and dangers;
Night is falling, and at last they can rest their feet
I was quite certain that directly they put down their burden
Tired out, they would sink into a heavy sleep
To my great surprise they re.trimmed the lamp
And all night long played at games of chance
A quarrel began; feeling ran high
One of them absconded; another went in chase
All the fuss was about a handful of pence;
Hardly enough to pay for a cup of gruel
Yet they throw down those pence with as high and mighty an air
As if they were flinging a shower of golden stars
Next day when they shouldered their burdens again
Their strength was greater than that of Pen and Yü
The same thing happened five nights on end;
It is almost as if some demon possessed them
See Yuan Mei, ca. 1716-ca. 1798 "On His Chair-bearers—A Case of Misplaced Sympathy" [PDF] afe.easia.columbia.edu
Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons
Text Sources: Asia for Educators, Columbia University afe.easia.columbia.edu ; University of Washington’s Visual Sourcebook of Chinese Civilization, depts.washington.edu/chinaciv /=\; National Palace Museum, Taipei \=/; Library of Congress; New York Times; Washington Post; Los Angeles Times; China National Tourist Office (CNTO); Xinhua; China.org; China Daily; Japan News; Times of London; National Geographic; The New Yorker; Time; Newsweek; Reuters; Associated Press; Lonely Planet Guides; Compton’s Encyclopedia; Smithsonian magazine; The Guardian; Yomiuri Shimbun; AFP; Wikipedia; BBC. Many sources are cited at the end of the facts for which they are used.
Last updated August 2021