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


The Chinese have always divided themselves into the four classes of scholars, farmers, workmen, and merchants. Considering their singular penchant for trade, it is a surprise to find them putting traders at the foot of the list.

If any one has an idea that the life of a Chinese dealer is an easy one, he has a very inaccurate idea indeed, and the smallest investigation of any specific case will be sufficient to disabuse him of it. Indeed there are not many people in China whose life is an easy one, certainly not the officials and the rich, who are at once the most envied and the most misunderstood persons in the empire.

In Shan-tung, every village of any size has its little “tsa-huo-p’u,” or shop of miscellaneous goods. It is not at all like a huckster’s shop at home, for the goods kept are not intended to be disposed of at once. Many of them may remain in stock for many years, but they will probably all be worked off at last. Occidentals often suppose that the Chinese live on “curry and rice.” Very few people in Shan-tung ever tasted rice in their lives, but there is generally a small quantity kept at the “tsa-huo-p’u” in case there should be a call for use at feasts, or for the sick. There is a good supply of red paper used for cards of invitation, and white paper for funeral announcements, the need for which must be met promptly, without waiting for a trip to a distant market-town. Besides this there is a large stock of fire-crackers which are wanted whenever there is a feast-day, a wedding or a funeral, and also paper money and other materials for the idolatrous ceremonies which these occasions involve. There are many other kinds of wares, for there is almost nothing for which a demand may not be made; but the greatest profit is derived from the articles last named.

Let not the reader, inexpert in Chinese affairs, suppose that the keeper of the “tsa-huo-p’u” sits all day in a chair awaiting customers, or spends the intervals between their infrequent arrivals in playing Chinese fox and geese or chess. He does nothing of the kind. If his shop is a very small one it is not tended at all, but simply open when occasion serves. If it is a larger affair, it requires the time of more than one person, not to tend it but to carry on the rural trade. For the larger part of the business of the “tsa-huo-p’u” is not at home, but at five-day markets all about. The proprietors of some shops take their wares to a fair every day in the month, on the first and sixth to one place, on the second and seventh to another, on the third and eighth to another, and on the fifth and tenth to still another, by which time the circle is completed.

Going to one of these markets is no holiday work. It is necessary to rise either at daylight or before, select the goods to be taken, pack them carefully, make an accurate list of them, and then wheel the barrow to the fair, sometimes over very bad roads in very bad weather. Arrived at the market-town there are no stalls or booths for the dealers to occupy, but each plants himself in a spot for which he has to pay a small ground-rent to the owner, who is always on hand to collect this rent. All day long the barrow must be tended assiduously, bickering with all sorts and conditions of men and women, and when the people have begun to scatter, the articles must be packed up again, and the barrow wheeled home.

Then comes the wearisome taking account of stock, in regard to which the proprietor is exceedingly particular. In China nobody trusts anybody else, for the excellent reason that he is aware that in similar circumstances it might not be safe to trust himself. Hence the owner of the little shop, or some one who represents him, looks carefully over the goods brought home and compares them with the invoice made out in the morning. This is a check upon the temptation to sell some things without giving an account of them. The sales which have been made during the day are for small sums only, and as all the cash has to be counted and strung on hemp cords so as to make the full string of 1,000 cash (or 500 in some parts of the country), this counting and stringing of the money takes a great deal of time, and is very tiresome work when done by the quantity though this remark is applicable to most Chinese occupations viewed from an Occidental point of view.

The employee of the “tsa-huo-p’u” gets his meals when he can, which is after he has finished everything which his employer wants him to do. It is necessary for him to be a rare hand if he is to be so useful that he will not be sent away if business is slack when the year closes, or if the proprietor gets better service from some one else. The supply of labour of every description, is so excessive, that it is very hard to get a place, and harder still to keep it.

A country villager with whom the writer is well acquainted had too little land to support his family, so he accepted the offer of a neighbour to help him with the business which he had lately undertaken. This consisted of sending four wheel-barrows daily to different villages to sell meat at the markets. The men who did this had to rise long before daylight in order to get the meat ready, that is to cut it from the bones, which are disposed of at a separate rate. The weight of meat on each barrow had to be entered and also the weight of the bones. On the return of the barrows at night it was necessary to weigh what was left from the sales and compare it with the returns of cash. This must be gone through with for each barrow. The assistant to the meat-dealer had to keep in all fourteen different account books. “But,” we said to him, “after the barrows are gone, and before they come back, there must be a little interval of comparative peace in which you can do what you like?” “Alas, no,” was the reply, “it takes all of that time to balance up the fourteen entries of the day before;” and judging from what one knows of Chinese bookkeeping the time allowed would not be at all too much. Entries in Chinese account-books are not set down in columns, so as to be conveniently added, but strung along a page like stockings on a clothes-line. Each entry must be treated by itself on the suan-pan or reckoning-board, and there is no check against errors. Our informant was so tired of his contract that he seized the occasion of a funeral in a family with which he was connected, and which he was in theory bound to attend, to break away and make a brief call on the foreign friend who had generally been able to sympathize with certain of his previous woes.

A year later the writer met him again, ascertained that he had abandoned the intricate bookkeeping which selling meat appeared to involve, for another kind of account-keeping in a well-to-do family, where there is a good deal of land and much resulting activity. He was asked if he had any time to read his book of which he seemed to be fond and he replied with a decisive negative. Not if he got up early? No, indeed, he had to begin work the minute he was dressed. Not if he went to bed a little later? Certainly not; he had to go to bed late as it was no time then. But he might at least snatch a little leisure while he was eating. “Far from it,” was the response, “the woman who is at the head of affairs takes that opportunity to consult about the work.”

In the case of firms having any considerable business, after the day’s work is all over, the clerks are liable to be required to spend the evening in untying all the numerous strings of cash that have come in, with a view to the discovery of any rare coins that might be sold at a special price. All is fish that comes to a Chinese net, and sooner or later there is very little that does not find its way there to the profit of its owner. If the time should ever come, as come it may, when the far-distant West comes into close and practical competition with the patient Chinese for the right to exist, one or the other will be behind-hand in the race and it is safe to venture the prediction that it will not be the Chinese!

The village shop keeps different kinds of weighing poles for buying and for selling, works off all its uncurrent cash and bad bills on any one upon whom it can impose, and generally drives a hard bargain with those who deal with it, who retaliate in kind as opportunity offers. But as elsewhere in this mixed world, much depends upon the individuality of its head manager.