"Children Playing in an Autumn Garden" and "Children at Play on a Winter Day" are hanging scrolls by the Song Dynasty artist Su Hanchen (active 1130s–1160s) depicting scenes of children having fun in garden settings. “Autumn” measures 197.8 x 108.4 centimeters, Winter, 198 x 107 centimeters. According to the National Palace Museum, Taipei: On the right side of "Children Playing in an Autumn Garden" is a tall garden rock and hibiscus as a pair of children hunch over a stool and concentrate on their game of spinning dates. On the left side of "Children at Play on a Winter Day" are garden rocks, plum blossoms, bamboo, and camellia as a pair of children play and tease a kitten. [Source: National Palace Museum, Taipei,]

Both feature a boy and a girl. In "Children Playing in an Autumn Garden," the girl with her hair tied in two knots appears at the moment of explaining the game of spinning dates to the little boy. The girl carrying a colored banner with her hair tied up in "Children at Play on a Winter Day" seems to lead the boy holding the red string. Both paintings not only convey the innocence of children, they also emphasize their harmonious relationship. Despite their tender age, the static and active portrayals in these two paintings express a deeper sense of peace and harmony, signifying a unique branch in the overall development of raucous children playing.

“These two paintings reveal not only a firm grasp of minute details concerning the children, even the garden rocks and flowers are all exceptionally precise. The two black lacquer stools with floral motifs in "Children Playing in an Autumn Garden," including such toys and children’s objects as the figures-on-horseback spinner, Eight Treasures checker, and red-lacquered Buddhist pagoda and two bowls, are all rendered with the greatest finesse. "Children at Play on a Winter Day" also reveals a firm and lifelike grasp of the kitten’s fur and pose. Not much is known about Su Hanchen, but he was active as a court painter in the Northern and Southern Song period and famous in painting histories for his skill at depicting children.

“In "Children Playing in an Autumn Garden" the girl is slightly older than the boy. She is wearing a white gown with light floral patterning, her high collar and long sleeves lined with a pressed reddish-brown edge. She also wears white pants with darker floral decoration. Her hair is tied into a pair of knots with bluish-green and red ribbons, jade hairpins, and pearl ornaments. The boy is wearing a red shirt with gold patterning as well as white print pants. His hair has been shaved to leave only a tuft at the front, known as a "flat iron," which was a common hairstyle for children.

“On the right stool in "Children Playing in an Autumn Garden" is a figures-on-horseback spinner, Eight Treasures checker, tortoise-shell dish, small spinning top, and red-lacquered Buddhist pagoda with two bowls. A small pair of cymbals is on the ground next to the stool. On the stool to the left is a spinner made from cut dates, with both children concentrating on their game of spinning dates. “Of the two kids in "Children at Play on a Winter Day," one drags a red string to which is attached a peacock feather, and the other holds a colorful banner as they tease a kitten.

Good Websites and Sources: Busy Kids ; Precious Children PBS piece Young People ; Sheyla’s News blog / ; Human Trafficking Human Trafficking and Modern Slavery in China International Labor Organization

Children in the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368)

“Children Playing on the Dragon Boat Festival”, attributed to Song Dynasty artist Su Tso (fl. 12th century) is a is an ink and colors on silk hanging scroll, measuring 88.9 x 51.3 centimeters. According to the National Palace Museum, Taipei: “ This painting depicts three plump children. One is wearing red and holds a branch with two ripe pomegranates in one hand and, in the other, hangs a toad at the end of a string over a frightened child's head. The poor little boy squats with his hands over his head, his expression full of fear. A third boy jumps to the rescue of the squatting child. The children are all wearing jewelry and lucky amulets, revealing their upper class status. The expressions of the children are rendered with vigor, using fine and understated brushwork. Even the toad seems to bear a sly grin. The blank background highlights the excitement of the scene. The clothing is carefully designed and done with strong brushwork, while the colors are pure and elegant. [Source: National Palace Museum, Taipei,]

“In the lower left corner is a seal for Su Tso; hence, this work has been traditionally attributed to him. Su Tso, son of the famous painter of children Su Han-ch'en, followed his father in specializing in figures, especially lively children, as well as more serious Buddhist and Taoist subjects. Also like his father, in the Lung-hsing era (1163-1164), Su Tso was made Painter-in-Attendance at court. The seal here, however, appears to be a later addition. Although this work with fluid and assured drapery lines has fresh coloring, the colors are not as substantial or reserved as that of Song painters. In terms of realism, it does not match up to the finesse of Song painting, especially in terms of the faces, which appear too mature for the age of these children. Furthermore, the obvious auspicious meaning behind pomegranates (numerous seeds represents descendants) is more in keeping with later developments in the theme of children playing during the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) period.

“Festivities All Together”, attributed to an anonymous Yuan Dynasty artist Is an ink and colors on silk hanging scroll, measuring 158.9 x 103.3 centimeters In a winter garden setting, four children are shown here in Mongolian dress with a screen to block the cold wind as they sit around a burner to keep warm. The central figure sits on a chair as two boys roast stuffed buns over the fire. Although enjoying their meal, they seem to have their eye on the roasting buns as well. A kitten waits and looks up at one side, hoping to steal a bite. Only a small child plays in the lower right, having taken a bun and tied it to a string. Pomelo, narcissus, camellia and daisies surround the figures and decorate the scene.

“The title and content of the painting reflects a play on words in Chinese for "children" and "togetherness," reflecting the auspicious theme of descendants in harmony. In other words, the atmosphere of a warm fire and good food in cold weather brings families together and fosters harmony. The clothing and accessories here reflect those of the Yuan dynasty, while the expressions are slightly stiffer than those of the Song Dynasty (960-1279), thus reflecting the Yuan date for this work.

Children in the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912)

“Joy at the New Year” by Qing Dynasty artist Yao Wen-han (fl. 1736-1795), is an ink and colors on paper hanging scroll, measuring 82.4 x 55 centimeters. According to the National Palace Museum, Taipei: “Here, it seems that the whole family has gathered together to celebrate the joyous season of the New Year. Elders sit in the hall at a table. Off to the right, foods are being prepared by women, while children play in the courtyard with dolls, firecrackers, and instruments. In the back, decorations are being put up. Then, as now, children especially enjoy playing with firecrackers. Two kids are shown by a basket with an array of firecrackers. Another child in red takes a lit incense stick and carefully approaches firecrackers on the ground. A child in green covers his ears, filling the air with anticipation and excitement [Source: National Palace Museum, Taipei,].

“Child Playing with a Puppet” by Ch'en Tzu (1634-after 1713) is an ink and colors on silk album leaf, measuring 26.5 x 30.4 centimeters. “This is the fourth leaf from the album "Precious Objects from the Scholar's Studio." Depicted herein is a small child concentrating on holding a stick from which is suspended on string a puppet in the form of Chung K'uei, the Demon Queller in Chinese folklore. The long sleeves and dancing figure present a humorous and endearing scene of a child at play.

As far back as the Song Dynasty (960-1279), street performers had assumed the costume and role of Chung K'uei, dancing and chasing demons in New Year performances that were known as "Dancing Chung K'uei." The idea of Chung K'uei as a puppet in this theme known as "Children Playing with Puppets" appears related to this tradition. Thus, the spiritual function associated with Chung K'uei chasing away demons appears gradually to have become a theme also for the entertainment of children.

Children in 19th Century China

Arthur Henderson Smith wrote in “Chinese Characteristics”: “The Chinese have in general so much precocity of judgment and intelligence, that they are capable of attending to serious business at an age when European children think only of play; and though somewhat inclined to moroseness and melancholy, the juvenile inhabitants of the Celestial Empire are early accustomed to the realities of life. The children of the great towns soon learn, to understand commercial affairs, industrial speculations, and moreover all the knaveries of stockjobbing; and the children of the country know perfectly well how much a field of rice will produce, and can calculate as well as any grown man the profits derivable from the culture of the mulberry, or the tea-plant. These little materialists appear to have somewhat withered hearts, and are by no means remarkable for candour or simplicity; they have seldom any aspirations toward generous ideas or noble sentiments, and one may see in the very look of their narrow oblique eyes, the indications of roguery, cupidity and cunning." It should be added, that the precocious development of Chinese children, is by no means so applicable to those from the country, taken as a class, as to those born in the city. Many of the former grow up without ever having come in contact with an idea worth mentioning and in their later development they produce those perfect specimens of “intellectual turbidity “of which we have already spoken.[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.]

“One of the ways in which the native insincerity of the Chinese is most characteristically manifested, is their demeanour towards children, who are taught to be insincere, without consciousness of the fact either on their own part, or on the part of those who teach them. Before he is old enough to talk, and when he can attach only the vaguest significance to the words which he hears, a child is told that unless he does as he is bid, some terrific object, said to be concealed in the sleeve of a grown person, will catch him. It is not uncommon for foreigners to be put in the place of the unknown monster, and this fact alone would be sufficent to account for all the bad words which we frequently hear applied to ourselves. Why should not children who may have been affrighted with our vague terrors when they were young, hoot us in the streets, as soon as they have grown large enough to perceive that we are not dangerous, but only ridiculous? The expressions, "I'll beat you; I'll kill you," are understood by a Chinese child of some experience, to constitute an ellipsis for “Stop that! “We have heard of a little foreign miss of tender years, whose association with a Chinese nurse had wrought its natural effect, so that when the child was removed from her cradle at a time which did not commend itself to her feelings, she compendiously observed in Chinese, "with injurious pleonasm “" I'll gore you, I'll kick you, I'll rail at you, I'll beat you, I'll kill you!"

“As we have noticed in speaking of filial piety, it is a constituent part of the theory that the younger are relatively of little account. They are valued principally for what they may become, and not for what they are. Thus the practice of most Western lands is in China reversed. The youngest of three travellers is proverbially made to take the brunt of all hardships. The youngest servant is uniformly the common drudge of the rest. In the grinding poverty of the mass of the people, it is not strange that the spirit even of a Chinese boy often rebels against the sharp limitations to which he finds himself pinned, and that he not infrequently runs away. That he almost invariably steers 'of some relative or friend, has been already remarked in speaking 'of parasitism. But the boy who has made up his mind to go will seldom fail to find some slight thread by which he may attach himself to some one else. The causes for this behaviour on the part of boys are various, but so far as we have observed, the harsh treatment of others is by far the most common.

“In the eye of Chinese law brothers are equal, and though the elder has some advantages, a portion larger than that of the others.Sometimes the young married pair are given an outfit, say of cotton, for spinning and weaving, and are thenceforth expected to support themselves by this capital and their own added labour. Not infrequently an unequal distribution of the land is made among several brothers by the father while living, a wrong for which there is no remedy other than remonstrance. Neither if the father should conceive the idea of depriving a son of any portion at all in the land, is there effective redress.

Girls and Boys in 19th Century China

In 1899, Arthur Henderson Smith wrote in “Village Life in China”:“There is a passage in one of the oldest Chinese Classics, the Book of Odes, which, in describing the palace of an ancient king, shows in a striking light the relative estimation at that remote time put upon boys and upon girls. After speaking of the dreams of the king, the poet adds a couple of stanzas, which, according to Dr. Legge’s translation, are as follows: [Source: “Village Life in China” by Arthur Henderson Smith, Fleming H. Revell Company, 1899, The Project Gutenberg]

They will be clothed in robes; they will have sceptres to play with;
Their cry will be loud.
They will be (hereafter) resplendent with red knee-covers,
The (future) king, the princes of the land.
Daughters will be born to him. They will be put to sleep on the ground;
They will be clothed with wrappers; they will have tiles to play with.
It will be theirs neither to do wrong nor to do good.
Only about the spirits and the food will they have to think,
And to cause no sorrow to their parents.

“From the sentiment of this poem alone it would be easy to determine the Chinese of to-day to be lineal descendants of their ancient ancestors. The early years of a Chinese boy are spent in what, viewed from the experience of a decade later, must appear to him a condition of supreme happiness. He is welcomed to the household with a wild delight, to which it is wholly impossible for an Occidental to do any justice. He begins life on the theory that whatever he wants, that he must have; this theory is also the one acted upon by those who have him in charge, to an extent which seems to us, who occupy the position of impartial critics, truly amazing. A Chinese mother is the literal slave of her children. If they cry, they must be coddled, most probably carried about, and at whatever expense, if it is possible to prevent such a terrible state of things. They must not be allowed to cry continuously. In this respect, at least, it does not appear that there is much distinction between the treatment of boys and girls.

Birth of a Child in 19th Century China

Smith wrote in “Village Life in China”:“A description of the ceremonious superstitions common among the Chinese on occasion of the birth of a child, especially of a son, and most especially of a firstborn son, would fill a volume. These are far more rigorously observed in the southern part of the empire than at the north, and more in cities than in the country village, where many of these customs may be wholly unknown. [Source: “Village Life in China” by Arthur Henderson Smith, Fleming H. Revell Company, 1899, The Project Gutenberg]

“There is the highest Chinese classical authority for the proposition that if a mother is really anxious to do the best that she can for her infant, although she may not succeed perfectly, she will not come far short of success. There is equally trustworthy Occidental medical authority for the statement that, as applied to Chinese women, this proposition is a gross error. Undoubtedly superstition directly or indirectly destroys the lives of many Chinese children. But this cause, which is complex in its operations, is probably much less efficient for evil than the utter lack, on the part of the parents, of the instinct of conformity to the most obvious of Nature’s laws.

“The newborn infant is laid upon the kang where it is sometimes warmly covered, and sometimes exposed to excessive changes of temperature. Many children continue to nurse at the breast for a series of years, and whenever they cry this is the sole method of effectually quieting them, even though they be thus fed an hundred times a day. When the baby is large enough to eat miscellaneous food, there is almost no restraint either upon the kind or the quantity. He is allowed to swallow unripe fruits and melons to almost any extent, and raw sweet-potatoes or turnips are gnawed on by very small infants in arms.

Death of Infants and Toddlers in 19th Century China

Smith wrote: “When children are able to run about they are likely to be constantly nibbling at something, often sucking their father’s tobacco pipe, sometimes producing serious weakening of the system and atrophy. In Shan hsi mere babies learn to smoke opium, which thus becomes at once a natural and an invincible appetite. [Source: “Village Life in China” by Arthur Henderson Smith, Fleming H. Revell Company, 1899, The Project Gutenberg]

“Taking into account the conditions of their early life, it is by no means improbable that more than half the whole number of Chinese infants die before they are two years old. This result is greatly promoted by many of those superstitions which sometimes have more than the force of law. Thus in some regions there is an absolute interdict on seeing either mother or child until forty days shall have elapsed from its birth. During this critical period myriads of young lives disappear almost without the knowledge of near neighbours. Similar bans are laid upon the period of some of the most common and most fatal of infantile diseases, such as measles, diphtheria, and smallpox, the mortality frequently attending which is enormous.

“Multitudes of Chinese children die in fits, the causes of which are sufficiently obvious to foreigners who see the carelessness with which Chinese children are handled. We have known a Chinese mother, in a moment of dissatisfaction, to throw her young and naked infant out of doors into a snowbank. Another cut off one of her baby’s fingers with a pair of dull shears, to save it from fits, and was rewarded by seeing it die in convulsions. Such a practice is said to be not uncommon. “Who would have supposed that it would have done so?” her mother remarked to a foreigner. But even if the young mother were endowed with the best of judgment, it would still be impossible for her to secure proper care for her children, for the reason that she is herself only a “child”and in her management of her children, as in other affairs, is wholly subject to the dictation of her mother-in-law, as well as to the caprices of a platoon of aunts, grandmothers, etc., with whom nearly all Chinese courtyards swarm.

“The severe labour entailed upon Chinese women in the drudgery of caring for large families, assisting in gathering the crops, and other outside toils, and the great drafts made upon their physical vitality by bearing and nursing so many children, amply suffice to account for the nearly universally observed fact that these women grow old rapidly. A Chinese bride, handsome at the age of eighteen, will be faded at thirty, and at fifty wrinkled and ugly.

Poor Health Care for Women and Children

Smith wrote in “Chinese Characteristics”: “In a country like China, the poor have no time to be sick. Ailments of women and children are apt to be treated by the men of the family as of no consequence, and are constantly allowed to run into incurable maladies, because there was no time to attend to them, or because the man " could not afford it * In one case with which we happened to be acquainted of harsh treatment by a father, the lad fled several hundred miles, to Tianjin, whence he returned, after a month's absence, for the truly amazing reason that he was unable to endure the smells of that fragrant metropolis! In another case, a boy recently recovered from a run of typhus fever, being possessed by the hearty appetite common to such patients, and finding the coarse black bread of the family fare, hard eating, went to a loofil market, and indulged in the luxury of expending cash to the value of about twenty cents. For this he was severely reproved by his father, upon which the lad ran away to Manchuria, an unfailing resort of lads all over the north-eastern provinces, and was never heard of again. [Source:“Chinese Characteristics” by Arthur Henderson Smith, 1894]

“Enough has already been said to make it apparent that there is in most Chinese homes abundant material for domestic conflagrations, if it is duly fanned, and unfortunately there is seldom any permanent lack of fanning. The Chinese are a most loquacious race, and even the dullest of them can become eloquent in defence of his rights, real or supposed.*

“The degree of interest felt by some Chinese in their wives, was illustrated by a remark made to the writer, by a man who had imprudently married a widow with several children. He was explaining the undesirability of continuing to occupy the shed in which the family had made their temporary abode, and which had been seriously undermined by the heavy rains, so that it was liable at any time to fall, and kill the occupants. He added apologetically, " Crushing to death a grown person (that is, his wife) would be a matter of no consequence, but it would be a pity to smash the children! "

Parents and Environment of 19th Century Chinese Children

In 1899, Arthur Henderson Smith wrote in “Village Life in China”: “The age at which a boy is too large to be carried is a very indefinite one, and it is common to see distracted mothers staggering with their little goat-feet under the weight of children half their own size, lugging their offspring about for the reason that “they would not stand it” to be put down. A preparatory discipline of this nature is not adapted to teach children independence, self-control, or any useful lessons, and the result is such as might have been expected. But the Chinese child is an eminently practical being, and he finds by experience that, when there are half a dozen children smaller than himself, the period of his own supreme rule has passed away, and has passed away never to return. To this altered condition he soon learns to adapt himself. [Source: “Village Life in China” by Arthur Henderson Smith, Fleming H. Revell Company, 1899, The Project Gutenberg]

“Of that sympathy for childhood as such, which is so distinguishing a part of our modern civilization, an average Chinese father has no conception whatever. By this is not meant that he is not fond of his children, for the reverse is most palpably true. But he has no capacity for entering into the life of a child, and comprehending it. His fondness for his children is the result of the paternal instinct, and is not an intelligent and sympathetic appreciation of the mind of a child. He not only has no conception of such a thing, but he would not be able to understand what is meant by it, if the possibility of such sympathy were pointed out. The invariable reply to all suggestions, looking toward such sympathy coming from a foreigner, seems to be, “Why, he is only a mere child!” It is by the slow moulding forces of maturing life alone that the boy is expected to learn the lessons of life, and these lessons he must learn largely — though not altogether — by himself.

“To most Chinese children, there is very little that is attractive in their own homes. The instinct of self-preservation does of course lead them to fly thither, as soon as they meet with any repulse from without, but this instinct they share with animals. That Chinese parents should take occasion to have a romp with their children, or even to engage with them in any game whatever, is, so far as we have observed, a thing wholly outside of the range of their wildest imagination. Children have very few games which can be played in the house, and the time which is to our little ones the cream of the whole day, that namely in which they can gather “around the evening lamp,” is to the Chinese a period of dismal obscurity. By the dim light of a small and ill-trimmed wick, dipped into a few spoonfuls of crude vegetable oil, the evening’s occupations are carried on as best they may be; but to a foreigner a Chinese home is at such times most ideally comfortless, especially if the season be winter. No wonder that those members of the family who can do so, are glad to crawl upon the more or less perfectly warmed k‘ang, and wrap themselves in their wadded bedclothes. During the portion of his existence in which the father and the mother of the Chinese child most gladly forsake him, kind Morpheus takes him up, and claims him for his own.

Play and Children’s Games in 19th Century China

In 1899, Arthur Henderson Smith wrote in “Village Life in China”: “The outdoor games of Chinese children are mostly of a tame and uninteresting type. Tossing bits of earth at a mark, playing shuttlecock with his toes and heels, striking a small stick sharpened at the ends so as to make it jump into a “city,” a species of “fox and geese,” a kind of “cat’s-cradle,” a variety of “jack-stones,” — these are among the most popular juvenile amusements in the rural regions with which we happen to be acquainted. Chinese cities have allurements of their own, some of which do not differ essentially from those found in other parts of the world than China. [Source: “Village Life in China” by Arthur Henderson Smith, Fleming H. Revell Company, 1899, The Project Gutenberg]

“Chinese courtyards are almost invariably very contracted, and allow little scope for enterprising youth to indulge in any but the most crude and simple forms of amusement. The Chinese lad generally has but few toys, and those of the simplest and most clumsy description. At certain festivals, especially in the cities, one sees the children loaded down with all varieties of playthings often of a flimsy and highly inexpensive character. In the country the same phenomenon is observed wherever there has been a large fair, at which the provision for the children is always on a scale commensurate with their known wants. But of these articles made of earth, paper, bits of cloth, clay, reeds, sugar, and other perishable substances, nothing will be left when the next moon shall have completed its orbit. In regions where bamboo is to be had, there are a few more serviceable and less fragile articles constructed expressly for the children, and such articles doubtless have a longer lease of life.

“Even in the country, where restrictions are at a minimum, Chinese lads do not appear to take kindly to anything which involves much exercise. One does not ordinarily see them running races, as foreign boys of the same age cannot fail to do, and their jumping and climbing are of the most elementary sort. We have never heard of a crow which was so injudicious as to build its nest in a spot where it would be visible to the eye of an Anglo-Saxon boy, unless the owner of the eye had previously made a long journey with it to a distance from all human habitations. But Chinese crows build their huge nests in all sorts of trees, in and about every Chinese village. It is not uncommon to see an old poplar with ten or twelve of these huge nests of sticks, which are undisturbed from year to year and from generation to generation.

“The writer once counted twenty-four such nests in a single moderate sized elm, and this in the suburbs of a Chinese city. Buddhist teachings in regard to the sacredness of animal life do not suffice to account for the singular inviolability which crows’ nests enjoy in China. In the spring they are sometimes defended with the query; “How would you like to have your house pulled down?” But in a region where every stick of fuel is precious, what sacredness can attach to a bushel or two of large twigs, when the crows have visibly done using them? Neither does superstition in regard to ill-luck arising from demolition of the nests of crows explain their security, although at first sight this may seem to be the case. Extensive inquiries have satisfied us that the true explanation is simply the natural one, that the Chinese boy is afraid to climb so high as a crow’s-nest. “What if he should fall?” says every one when applied to for information on the point, and it is this unanswered and unanswerable question which seems to protect young Chinese crows from age to age.

Girls in 19th Century China

Smith wrote in “Chinese Characteristics”: ““In speaking of the Chinese theory and practice of filial piety, references have been made to that singular perversion of human nature, by which the birth of one half of the children of China is regarded by their parents as a calamity. Daughters in China are from the beginning of their existence more or less unwelcome, This fact has a most important bearing on their whole subsequent career, and furnishes many significant illustrations of the absence of altruism. [Source:“Chinese Characteristics” by Arthur Henderson Smith, 1894]

Smith wrote in “Village Life in China”:“Girls as a rule have next to no opportunities for cultivating friendships with one another. The readiness with which under favorable condition such attachments are formed and perpetuated, shows how great a loss is their persistent absence. When it is considered that each Chinese family consists not of a man and his wife and their children, but of married sons, and of their several wives, each one introduced into the circle in the same compulsory way, each with a strong and an uncurbed will, yet powerless to assert herself except by harsh speeches and bad temper, it is evident that the result is not likely to be unity. [Source: “Village Life in China” by Arthur Henderson Smith, Fleming H. Revell Company, 1899, The Project Gutenberg]

“With the humdrum routine of her life at home, the occasional visits to relatives, and now and then a large fair or a theatrical exhibition, the Chinese girl grows to be what we should call a “young schoolgirl,” by which time all her friends begin to be very uneasy about her. This uneasiness, we need scarcely remark, has not the smallest connection with her intellectual nature, which, so far as any culture which it receives is concerned, might as well be non-existent. Unless her father happens to be a schoolmaster, and at home with nothing to do, he never thinks of teaching his daughter to read. Even in the case of boys, this would be exceptional and irregular, but in the case of girls it is felt to be preposterous. And why? asks the incredulous foreigner. It will take the average Chinese a long time to explain the nature of his objection, and when he does so he will not have stated the whole of the case, nor have gone to the root of the matter. The real difficulty is that to educate a girl is like weeding the field of some other man. It is like putting a gold chain around the neck of some one else’s puppy, which may at any moment be whistled off, and then what will have become of the chain? It is a proverbially mean man in China, who, when marrying his daughter, wants to be paid for the food he has wasted upon her up to the date of marriage. But the expression illustrates clearly one of the underlying assumptions of Chinese society, that it is the body of the girl for which the parents are responsible, and not the mind. To almost any Chinese it would probably appear a self-evident proposition that to spend time, strength, and much more money in educating the daughter-in-law of some one else is a sheer waste. But, you say to him, she is your daughter. “Not after she is married,” he replies; “she is theirs, let them educate her themselves if they want her educated.” “Why should I teach her how to read, write and reckon, when it will never do me any good?” With which utilitarian inquiry, the education of most Chinese girls has been banished from human thought for the space of some millenniums.

“The anxiety which all her friends begin to feel about a Chinese girl, as soon as she attains any considerable size, is exhibited in the inquiries which are made about her whenever she happens to be spoken of. These inquiries do not concern her character or her domestic accomplishments, much less her intellectual capacity — of which she has, theoretically, none to speak of — but they may all be summed up in the single phrase, “Is she said?” meaning by the term “said” “betrothed.” If the reply should be in the negative, the intelligence is received in much the same way as we should receive the information that a foreign child had been allowed to grow to the age of sixteen without having been taught anything whatever out of books. “Why?” we should say, “what is the explanation age of this strange neglect?” The instinctive feeling of a Chinese in regard to a girl is that she should be betrothed as soon as possible. This is one of the many points in regard to which it is almost impossible for the Chinese and the Anglo-Saxon to come to terms. To the latter the betrothal of a mere child, scarcely in her teens, is a piece of absolute barbarity.

Marrying Off Girls Early in 19th Century China

Smith wrote in “Village Life in China”:“As soon as a Chinese girl is once betrothed, she is placed in different relations to the universe generally. She is no longer allowed such freedom as hitherto, although that may have been little enough. She cannot go anywhere, because it would be “inconvenient.” She might be seen by some member of the family into which she is to marry, than which it is hardly possible to think of anything more horrible. “Why?” the irrepressible Occidental inquires; and is quenched by the information that “it would not be proper.” [Source: “Village Life in China” by Arthur Henderson Smith, Fleming H. Revell Company, 1899, The Project Gutenberg]

“The imminent risk that the girl might in some unguarded moment be actually seen by the family of the future mother-in-law is a reason why so few engagements for girls are made in the town in which the girl lives, an arrangement which would seem to be for the convenience of all parties in a great variety of ways. It would put a stop to the constant deceptions practiced by the middle-women, or professional match-makers, whose only object is to carry through whatever match has been proposed, in order to reap the percentage which will accrue to the agent. It would do away with the waste of time and money involved in transporting brides from one of their homes to the other, often at great inconvenience and loss. It would make the interchange of little courtesies between the families easy and frequent. But for all these advantages the Chinese do not seem to care, and the most frequent explanation of the neglect of them is that there would be the risk already mentioned. When these two families are such as would in the ordinary course of events be likely to meet, nothing is more amusing to a foreigner than to watch the struggles which are made to avert such a catastrophe. One is reminded of some of our childhood’s games, in which one party is “poison” and the other party is liable to be “poisoned” and must at all hazards keep out of the way. The only difference between the cases is that in the Chinese game, each party is afraid of being “poisoned,” and will struggle to prevent it. There is one set of circumstances, however, in which, despite their utmost efforts, Fate is too much both for the poisoners and the poisoned. If during the betrothal a death of an older person takes place in the family of the mother-in-law, it is generally thought necessary that the girl (who is considered as already “belonging” to that family) should be present and should perform the same reverence to the coffin of the deceased as if she had been already married. She is (theoretically) their daughter; why should she not come and lament like the rest?If it is possible to arrange it, however, the marriage will be hastened, in the event of a death of a person belonging to an older generation, even if a later date had been previously set.

“To a foreigner, the Chinese habit of early engagements appears to have no single redeeming feature. It hampers both families with no apparent corresponding advantages, if indeed there are advantages of any kind. It assumes, what is far from certain, and often not at all likely, that the relative position of the two families will continue to be the same. This assumption is contradicted by universal experience. Time and change happen to all, and the insecurity of human affairs is nowhere more manifest than in the tenure of Chinese property. Families are going up and coming down all the time. It is a well-settled principle in China that matches should be between those who are in the same general circumstances. Disregard of this rule is sure to bring trouble. But if early betrothals are the practice, the chances of material alteration in the condition of each of the families are greatly increased. When he is engaged, the character of the boy, upon which so much of a bride’s happiness is to depend, has not perhaps been formed. Even if it has been formed, it is generally next to impossible for the girl’s family to learn anything authentic as to what the character is, though to all appearance it would be so easy for them to ascertain by latent methods. But as a rule, it would appear that they do not concern themselves much about the matter after the engagement is proposed and accepted, and at no time do they give it a hundredth part of the investigation which it seems to us to warrant. If the boy becomes a gambler, a profligate, or dissipated in any other way, there is no retreat for the family of the girl, no matter to what extremities they may be driven. Chinese violation of the most ordinary rules of prudence and common sense in the matter of the betrothal of their daughters is, to a Westerner, previous to experience and observation, almost incredible.

Boys in 19th Century ’s Life

In 1899, Arthur Henderson Smith wrote in “Village Life in China”:“The Chinese boy can seldom get access to running water; that is to say, the proportion of Chinese who can do so is infinitesimal. Most of them have no lakes, rivers, or ponds in which they can plunge and learn to swim, or in which they can fish. The village mud-hole is the nearest approach to the joys of a “watering-place” to which Chinese children can ordinarily aspire. These excavations are the hole whence the material for the village houses was originally dug. During the summer time these pits, many of them as large as a dry-dock, are filled to the brim with dirty water, and at such times they are sure to be surrounded by groups of children clad in the costume of the garden of Eden, enjoying one of the few luxuries of their mundane existence. When the boys are too large to indulge in this amusement, there is much reason to fear that most of them have taken their last bath, no matter to what age their lives may be prolonged!

“If he cannot fish, neither can the Chinese boy go a-hunting, for in the most populous parts of the plains, of which so large a portion of the empire is composed, there is nothing to hunt. A few small birds, and the common hare, seem to constitute the objects most frequently shot, but except in the case of the limited number of those who make a business of securing such game to sell as a means of support, there are very few persons who devote their energies to any form of hunting. Indeed, the instinct which is said to lead the average Englishman to remark “It is a fine day, let us go and kill something,” is totally lacking in the Chinese.

“In those relatively limited parts of the empire where ice forms to a sufficient thickness to bear the weight of human beings, one does see considerable frolicking upon frozen rivers and ponds. But the propulsion of the ice-sleds with passengers is a matter of business with those boatmen who during the season of navigation have no other means of earning a living. Chinese children do not take to them as our boys do to sleds, and even if they wish to do so, their parents would never dream of furnishing the children with such an ice-sled simply for amusement. To earn one, as a boy at home earns a sled or a pair of skates, by doing extra work, by picking up old iron, and other similar expedients, would be for a Chinese lad an impossibility.

Work of 19th Century Chinese Boys

Smith wrote in “Village Life in China”:“If the amusements of the Chinese lad are relatively scanty and uninteresting, there is one feature of his life which is a fixed fact, and upon which nothing is allowed to intrude. This is his work. The number of Chinese children within any given area is literally incalculable, but it may be safely laid down as a general truth, that by far the larger part of these children are for the greater part of their time made to do some useful work. There is scarcely any handicraft in which even the very smallest children cannot be utilized, and it is for this reason in part that hereditary occupations are so commonly the rule. The child bred up to one mode of physical activity is fitted for that, if he is fitted for nothing else. If he is the son of a farmer, there is a very small portion of the year during which there is not some definite work for him to do, by way of assisting in the cultivation of the land. This is no doubt true of farming everywhere, but the unfailing industry of the Chinese and the heavy pressure of the common poverty give to this fact an emphasis not so strongly felt in other lands. [Source: “Village Life in China” by Arthur Henderson Smith, Fleming H. Revell Company, 1899, The Project Gutenberg]

“But even if the work on the land were all done, which is never the case until the winter has actually set in, there are two occupations at which the children may be set at any time, and at which more myriads of young persons are probably employed, than in any other portion of the planet. These two employments are gathering fuel and collecting manure. In a land where the expense of transportation forbids the use of coal in places distant even a few miles from the mouth of the pit, it is necessary to depend upon what comes from the soil in any particular place, for fuel to cook the food and furnish such warmth as can be got. Not a stalk, not a twig, not a leaf is wasted. Even at the best, the products of a field ill suffice in the item of fuel for the wants of those who own it. The Chinese habit of constantly drinking hot water, which must be furnished afresh as often as it cools and for each chance comer, consumes a vast amount of fuel over and above what would be strictly required for the preparation of food. The collection and storage of the fuel supply is an affair second in importance only to the gathering of the crops. But in every village, a considerable although varying proportion of the population is to be found who own no land. These people pick up a precarious living as they can, by working for others who have land, but their remuneration is slight, and often wholly insufficient for the food supply of the many mouths clamouring to be filled.

“Farm labourers can be hired by the year in Shan-tung, for a sum equal to not more than five dollars in gold, with food but no perquisites. If the year has an intercalary month the labourer sometimes gets less than two cents a day. When refugees from regions flooded by the Yellow River abound, workmen can be obtained at merely nominal wages.

“The writer has known an able-bodied boy engaged for a year for a sum equal to about a dollar and a half (gold). In another case a lad was offered about a dollar for a year’s toil, and was required to find some one as security that he would not abscond! For the fuel wherewith to cook the exiguous supplies of this uncertain food, the family is wholly dependent upon what the children can scratch together. Any intermission of this labour is scarcely less a check upon the means of existence, than the interruption of the work of the bread-winner himself. In this dismal struggle for a basket full of leaves and weeds, the children of China expend annually incomputable millenniums of work.

“In the midst of such a barren wilderness as constitutes the life of most Chinese children, anything which breaks the dull monotony is welcomed with keen joy. The feast-days, the annual or semiannual fairs held at some neighbouring town, an occasional theatrical exhibition, the humbler Punch and Judy performance, the peripatetic story-teller, the unfailing succession of weddings and funerals, and most of all the half-month holiday at New Year all serve as happy reliefs to the unceasing grind of daily toil.

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Last updated September 2021

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