Read CHAPTER I of Village Life in China A Study in Sociology, free online book, by Arthur H. Smith, on


There are in India alone over half a million villages. In all Asia, not improbably, there may be four times that number. By far the larger part of the most numerous people on the globe live in villages. The traveller in the Chinese Empire may start from some seaport, as Tientsin, and journey for several months together in the same general direction, before reaching its frontiers on the other side. In the course of such a tour, he will be impressed as only one who has ocular evidence can be impressed with the inconceivably great number of Chinese altogether outside of the great centres of urban population. Contrary to the current notions of Westerners, the number of great cities is not, relatively to the whole population, anything like so large in China as in Western lands. Many of the district cities, capitals of divisions analogous to what we call counties, are merely large villages with a wall and with government bureaus called yamens. It is known that in India three-fourths of the population are rural. In China there is perhaps no reason for thinking the proportion to be less.

On such a journey as we have supposed, the traveller unacquainted with the Chinese, finds himself perpetually inquiring of himself: What are these incomputable millions of human beings thinking about? What is the quality of the life which they live? What is its content and its scope?

Questions like these cannot be answered intelligently without much explanation. The conditions and environment of Chinese life are so totally unlike those to which we are accustomed, that it is unsafe to take anything for granted. Amid certain fundamental unities the life of the Chinese is full of bewildering and inexplicable variety. No matter how long one may have lived in China, there is always just as much as ever that he never before heard of, but which every one is supposed to have known by intuition. The oldest resident is a student like the rest.

This state of things is the inevitable result of the antiquity of Chinese civilization, as well as of the enormous scale upon which it has operated to produce its effects. It is a sagacious remark of Mr. A. R. Colquhoun that “the product resulting from duration multiplied by numbers must be immense, and if to this we add a third factor, isolation, we have no right to be surprised either at the complex character of Chinese civilization, or at its peculiarly conservative form.” For this reason a connected and orderly account of the phenomena of Chinese life we believe to be a hopeless impossibility. It would require the combined information of all the residents of China to make it complete, to coordinate it would be the work of several life-times, and the resultant volumes would fill the Bodleian library. The only practicable way to extend our knowledge of so oceanic a subject, is to examine in more or less detail such phenomena as happen to have come within our restricted horizon. No two persons will have the same horizon, and no horizon will belt a sphere.

A good way to see what is happening in a building would be to take its roof off, could that be done without disturbing its inmates. If we wish to comprehend the Chinese, we must take the roof from their homes, in order to learn what is going on within. This no foreigner can do. But he can imitate the Chinese who apply a wet finger to a paper window, so that when the digit is withdrawn there remains a tiny hole, through which an observant eye may see at least something. The heterogeneous, somewhat disconnected, very unequally elaborated chapters which comprise this book, have this in common, that they are all studies of the phenomena seen at a peep-hole into the actual life of the Chinese people. Any one who knows enough about the subject to be entitled to have an opinion, cannot help perceiving how imperfect and inadequate they are. Yet they represent, nevertheless, realities which have a human interest of their own.

The traveller in China, constantly surrounded by countless towns and hamlets, naturally thirsts to know in a general way the population of the region which he is traversing. Should he venture, however, to ask any one the number of people in a city, or the district which it governs, he would get no other information than that there are “not a few,” or “who knows?” Almost any intelligent person could tell approximately how many villages there are in his own county, but as some of them are large and some small, and as Chinese like other Orientals care absolutely nothing for statistics and have the crudest notion of what we mean by an average, one is none the wiser for their information.

It appears to be well settled that no real dependence can be placed upon the Chinese official returns, yet that they are the only basis upon which rational estimates can be based, and therefore have a certain value. So far as we are aware, efforts to come at the real population per square mile, have generally proceeded from such extensive units as provinces, or at least prefectures, the foundation and superstructure being alike a mere pagoda of guesses.

Some years ago an effort was made in a certain district to make a more exact computation of the population of a very limited area, as a sort of unit of measure. For this purpose a circle was taken, the radius of which was twenty li, the foreign residence being at the centre. A list was drawn up of every village having received famine relief in the year 1878, so that it was not difficult to make a proximate guess at the average number of families. The villages were 150 in number, and the average size was taken as eighty families, which, reckoning five persons to the family, gave a total of 60,000 persons. Allowing six miles to be the equivalent of twenty li, the population of the square mile would be 531, about the same as the average of the kingdom of Belgium (the most densely populated country in Europe), which had in 1890 an average of only 534 to the square mile.

At a distance of a few miles beyond this circle, there is a tract called the “Thirteen Villages,” because that is the number within a distance of five li! This shows that the particular region in which this estimate was made, happens to be an unfavourable one for the purpose, as a considerable part of it is waste, owing to an old bed of the Yellow River which has devastated a broad band of land, on which are no villages. There is also a water-course leading from the Grand Canal to the sea, and a long depression much below the general average, thinly occupied by villages, because it is liable to serious inundation.

For these reasons it seemed desirable to make a new count in a better spot, and for this purpose a district was chosen, situated about ninety li east of the sub-prefecture of Lin Ch’ing, to which it belongs. The area taken was only half the size of the former, and instead of merely estimating the average population of the villages, the actual number of families in each was taken, so far as this number is known to the natives. The man who prepared the village map of the area is a native of the central village, and a person of excellent sense. He put the population in every case somewhat below the popular estimate so as to be certainly within bounds. The number of persons to a “family” was still taken at five, though, as he pointed out, this is a totally inadequate allowance. Many “families” live and have all things in common, and are therefore counted as one, although as in the case of this particular individual, the “family” may consist of some twenty persons. To the traveller in this region, the villages appear to be both large and thickly clustered, and the enumeration shows this to be the case. Within a radius of ten li (three miles) there are sixty-four villages, the smallest having thirty families and the largest more than 1,000, while the average is 188 families. The total number of families is 12,040, and the total number of persons at five to the family, is 60,200, or more than double the estimate for the region with twice the diameter. This gives a population of 2,129 to the square mile.

So far as appearances go, there are thousands of square miles in southern and central Chih-li, western and southwestern Shan-tung, and northern Ho-nan, where the villages are as thick as in this one tract, the contents of which we are thus able proximately to compute. But for the plain of North China as a whole, it is probable that it would be found more reasonable to estimate 300 persons to the square mile for the more sparsely settled districts, and from 1,000 to 1,500 for the more thickly settled regions. In any case a vivid impression is thus gained of the enormous number of human beings crowded into these fertile and historic plains, and also of the almost insuperable difficulties in the way of an exact knowledge of the facts of the true “census.”