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On the Great Plain of North China the wells are generally shallow, ranging from ten to thirty feet in depth; one of fifty feet would be unusual, though they are occasionally much deeper. The well is a very important feature of the outfit of a Chinese village, though never the scene of ablutions as in India. To save the labour of carrying water, all the animals are led to the well to drink, and the resultant mud makes the neighbourhood, especially in winter, very disagreeable. Rarely have they a cover of any sort, and the opening being level with the surface of the ground, it would seem inevitable that animals, children and blind persons, should be constantly falling in, as indeed, occasionally, but seldom happens. Even the smallest bairns learn to have a wholesome fear of the opening, and ages of use have accustomed all Chinese to view such dangers with calm philosophy.

The business of sinking wells is an art by itself, and in regions where they are commonly used for irrigation, the villagers acquire a great reputation for expertness in the process. A village which desires a new well sends an invitation to the experts, and a party of men, numbering perhaps fifteen or twenty, responds. Though the work is fatiguing, difficult, and often dangerous, no money payment is generally offered or desired, but only a feast to all the workers, of the best food to be had. If the well is to be anything more than a water-pit, it is dug as deep as can be done without danger of caving in, and then the brick lining is let down from above. The basis of this is a strong board frame of the exact size of the opening, and wide enough to place the walling upon. A section of the wall is built upon this base, and the whole is firmly bound to the baseboard within and without by ropes or reed withes. The lining then resembles a barrel without the heads, and when completed is so strong that, though it be subjected to considerable and unequal strains, it will neither give nor fall apart.

Several feet of the lining are lowered into the cavity, and as the digging proceeds the lining sinks, and the upper wall is built upon it. If it is desired to strike a permanent spring, this is accomplished by means of a large bamboo tube to which an iron-pointed head is fixed. The tube is driven down as far as it will go, the earth and sand being removed from within, and when a good supply of water is reached the opening is bricked up as usual. Such wells are comparatively rare, and proportionately valuable.

Wherever the soil and water are favourable for market-gardens, the country-side abounds in irrigation wells, often only six feet in width, and provided with a double windlass or sweep. One may meet the gardeners carrying home the ropes, buckets, and the windlass itself, none of which can safely be left out over night. Village wells are often sunk on ground which is conjointly owned by several families. Like everything else Oriental, they furnish frequent occasions now, as in patriarchal times, for bitter feuds. Whenever one is especially unpopular in his village, the first threat is to cut off his water supply, though this is not often done.

In some districts quicksands prevent the sinking of any permanent wells. The villagers are obliged to be up all night in order to take their turn at the scanty water supply, and fights are not infrequent. In a dry year the suffering is serious. For evils of this sort tube-wells would seem to provide a remedy, but thus far there has been great difficulty in getting down to such a depth as to strike good water. The nature of the trouble was aptly described by a coolie employed by a foreigner on a work of this kind, who was asked why the pipe was not driven deeper. He replied that it was, but “the deeper they went the more there wasn’t any water” It would appear that in the direction of a good water supply, Western knowledge might be applied for the benefit of great numbers of Chinese and on a large scale, or if not on a large scale, then on a small one.

As an illustration of the process by which this may be done, an experience of many years ago in a Shan-tung village is worthy of mention. One of the missionaries had the happiness of welcoming a second son to his household, an event which seemed to the Chinese of such happy omen that they were moved to unite in subscribing a fixed sum from each family in the village, to purchase a silver neck ornament for the infant. As the suggestion was not absolutely and peremptorily vetoed, the committee in charge went on and ordered the silver chain and padlock, after which the delicate question arose by what means this gift should be acknowledged. After canvassing many plans, one was at length hit upon which appeared to satisfy the requisite conditions, which were in brief that the thing bestowed should be a distinct benefit to all the people, and one which they could all appreciate. It was proposed to put a force-pump in a village well not far from the mission premises, where much water was daily drawn by a great many people with a great deal of labour. The force-pump would make this toil mere child’s play. The plan was so plainly fore-ordained to success, that one of the missionaries although not having the felicity of two sons was moved to promise also a stone watering trough, which in Chinese phrase, would be a “Joy to Ten Thousand Generations.” The village committee listened gravely to these proposals without manifesting that exhilaration which the obviously successful nature of the innovation seemed to warrant, but promised to consider and report later. When the next meeting of this committee with the missionaries took place, the former expressed a wish to ask a few questions. They pointed out that there were four or five wells in the village. “Was it the intention of the Western foreign ‘shepherds’ to put a ‘water-sucker’ into each of these wells?” No, of course not; it was meant for the one nearest the mission premises. To this it was replied that the trinket for the shepherd’s child had been purchased by uniform contributions from each family in the village. Some of these families lived on the front street and some on the back one, some at the east end and some at the west end. “Would it be consistent with the ideal impartiality of Christianity to put a ‘water-sucker’ where it could only benefit a part of those for whom it was designed?”

After an impressive silence the committee remarked that there was a further question which had occurred to them. This village, though better off than most of those about, had some families which owned not a foot of land. These landless persons had to pick up a living as they could. One way was by carrying and selling water from house to house in buckets. According to the account of the shepherds the new “water-sucker” would render it so easy to get water that any one could do it, and the occupation of drawers of water would be largely gone. It could not be the intention of the benevolent shepherds to throw a class of workmen out of work. What form of industry did the shepherds propose to furnish to the landless class, to compensate them for the loss of their livelihood? At this point the silence was even more impressive than before. After another pause the village committee returned to their questions. They said that Western inventions are very ingenious, but that Chinese villagers “attain unto stupidity.” As long as the Western shepherds were at hand to explain and to direct the use of the “water-suckers,” all would doubtless go well; but they had noticed that Western inventions sometimes had a way of becoming injured by the tooth of time, or by bad management. Suppose that something of this sort took place with the “water-sucker,” and suppose that no shepherd was at hand to repair or replace it, what should then be done after the villagers had come to depend upon it? This recalled the fact that a force-pump had been tried several years before in Peking, in the deep wells of that city, but the fine sand clogged the valves, and it had to be pulled up again! In view of these various considerations, is it surprising that the somewhat discouraged shepherds gave up the plan of interfering with Oriental industries, or that the obligation to the village was finally acknowledged by the payment of a sum of money which they used ostensibly for the repair of the rampart around the village, but which really went nobody knows where or to whom?