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In the northern part of China, although the streams are not so numerous as at the south, they form more of an obstruction to travel, on account of the much greater use made of animals and of wheeled vehicles. The Chinese cart is a peculiarly northern affair, and appears to be of much the same type as in ancient days. The ordinary passenger cart is dragged by one animal in the cities, and by two in the country. The country cart, employed for the hauling of produce and also for all domestic purposes by the great bulk of the population, is a machine of untold weight. We once put the wheel of one of these carts on a platform-scale and ascertained that it weighed 177 pounds, and the axle fifty-seven pounds in addition, giving a total of 411 pounds for this portion of the vehicle. The shafts are stout as they have need to be, and when the cart upsets a not infrequent occurrence they pin the shaft animal to the earth, effectually preventing his running away. Mules, horses, cows, and donkeys, are all hitched to these farm carts, each pulling by means of loose ropes anchored to the axle. To make these beasts pull simultaneously is a task to which no Occidental would ever aspire, nor would he succeed if he did aspire. General Wolseley mentions in his volume describing the campaign in 1860, when the army marched on Peking, that at Ho Hsi Wu all the Chinese carters deserted, and the British troops were totally unable to do anything whatever with the teams.

Under these conditions of travel, a Chinese ferry is one of the most characteristic specimens of the national genius with which we are acquainted. Ferries are numerous, and so are carts to be ferried. The interesting thing is to watch the process, and it is a spectacle full of delightful surprises.

At a low stage of water the ferry-boat is at the base of a sloping bank, down which in a diagonal line runs the track, never wide enough for two carts to pass each other. To get one of these large carts down this steep and shelving incline requires considerable engineering skill, and here accidents are not infrequent. When the edge of the ferry is reached the whole team must be unhitched, and each animal got on the boat as best may be. Some animals make no trouble and will give a mighty bound, landing somewhere or everywhere to the imminent peril of any passengers that may be already on board. None of the animals have any confidence in the narrow, crooked, and irregular gang planks which alone are to be found. The more crooked these planks the better, for a reason which the traveller is not long in discovering. The object is by no means to get the cart and animals on with the minimum of trouble, but with the maximum of difficulty, for this is the way by which hordes of impecunious rascals get such an exiguous living as they have. When an animal absolutely refuses to budge an occurrence at almost every crossing its head is bandaged with somebody’s girdle, and then it is led around and around for a long time so as to induce it to forget all about the ferryboat. At last it is led to the edge and urged to jump, which it will by no means do. Then they twist its tail unless it happens to be a mule put a stick behind it as a lever and get six men at each end of the stick, while six more tug at a series of ropes attached to the horns. After a struggle lasting in many cases half an hour, often after prolonged and cruel beatings, the poor beasts are all on board, where the more active of them employ their time in prancing about among and over the human passengers, to their evident danger.

Sometimes the animals become excited and break away, plunging over the edge of the ferry, which has no guards of any kind, and in such cases it is not uncommon for them to be floated away, or even lost. The writer is cognizant of a case in which the driver was himself pulled into a swift and swollen stream while struggling to restrain his mules, and was drowned, a circumstance which probably caused his “fare” a scholar on his way to or from a summer examination endless delay, as he would be detained at the district yamen for a witness.

But while we have been busy with the animals, we have neglected the cart, which must be dragged upon the ferryboat by the strength of a small army of men. There may be only one man or a man and a boy on a ferry, but to pull a loaded cart over the rugged edges of the planks, up the steep incline, requires perhaps ten or fifteen men. This is accomplished by the process so familiar at Chinese funerals, the wild yelling of large bands of men as they are directed by the leader.

Every individual who so much as lays a hand upon the cart must be paid, and the only limit is the number who can cluster around it. As in all other Chinese affairs there is no regular tariff of charges, but the rule is that adopted by some Occidental railway managers to “put on all the traffic will bear.” Suppose for example that the passenger cart only pays a hundred cash for its transport across the stream; this sum must be divided into three parts, of which the ferry gets but one and the bands of volunteer pullers and pushers on the two banks the other two-thirds. In this way it often happens that all that one of these loafing labourers has to show for his spasmodic toil may be four cash, or in extreme cases only two, or even one.

On the farther bank the scene just described is reversed, but occupies a much shorter time, as almost any animal is glad enough to escape from a ferry. The exit of the carts and animals is impeded by the struggles of those who want to get a passage the other way, and who cannot be content to wait till the boat is unloaded. There is never any superintendent of the boat, any more than of anything else in China, and all is left to chance or fate. That people are not killed in the tumultuous crossings is a constant wonder.

It is not unnatural for the Occidental whose head is always full of ideas as to how things ought to be done in the East, to devise a plan by which all this wild welter should be reduced to order. He would, to begin with, have a fixed tariff, and he would have a wide and gently sloping path to the water’s edge. He would have a broad and smooth gang-plank, over which both animals and carts could pass with no delay and no inconvenience. He would have a separate place for human passengers and for beasts, and in general shorten the time, diminish the discomforts and occidentalize the whole proceedings.

Now stop for a moment and reflect how any one of these several “reforms” is to be made a fact accomplished. The gently sloping banks will wash away with the first rise of the river; who is to repair them? Not the boatman, for “it is not the business of the corn-cutter to pull off the stockings of his customers.” If the ferry is an “official” one, that only means that the local magistrate has a “squeeze” on the receipts, not that there are any corresponding obligations toward facilitating travel. Who is to provide those wide gang-planks over which the passage is to be so easy? Not the boatman. Not the passenger, whose only wish is to get safely over for that single time. Not the swarm of loafers whose interest it is not to have any gang-planks at all, or as nearly as possible none.

And even if the roads were made, and the gang-planks all provided by some benevolent despot, it would not be a week before the planks would be missing, and all things going on as they have been since the foundation of the Chinese world. The appointment of inspectors, police, etc., etc., would do no manner of good, unless it should be to their interest to further the reform, which would obviously never be the case.

Imagine an Anglo-Indian official, whose knowledge of Oriental races and traits is profound, in charge of the ferries for a single stretch, say of the Grand Canal. What would he do? what could he do, even if backed up by a force theoretically irresistible? Nothing whatever to any lasting or good purpose until the need of some alteration in their system, or rather lack of system, forces itself upon the Chinese mind. How long in the ordinary process of human evolution it would take to bring this about, it is easy to conjecture. Think for an instant of the objections which would be made on every hand to the innovations. Who are these fellows? What are their motives? No Chinese can for a moment comprehend such a conception as is embodied in the phrase Pro bono publico. He never heard of such a thing, and what is more he never wants to hear of it.

We have wasted an undue amount of time in crossing a Chinese river, for it is a typical instance of flagrant abuses which the Chinese themselves do not mind, which would drive Occidentals to the verge of insanity if not over the brink and which it seems easy, but is really impossible to remedy. Mutatis mutandis, these things are a parable of the empire. The reform must come. It must be done from within. But the impulse can come only from without.