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In many parts of China the farmer comes much nearer to independence as regards producing what he needs, than any class of persons in Western lands. This is especially the case where cotton is raised, and where each family tries to make its own clothing from its own crops. But even with the minute and indefatigable industry of the Chinese, this ideal can be only imperfectly reached. No poor family has land enough to raise all that it requires, and every family not poor has a multitude of wants which must of necessity be supplied from without. Besides this, in any district most families have very little reserve capital, and must depend upon meeting their wants as they arise, by the use of such means as can be secured from day to day. The same comparative poverty makes it necessary for a considerable part of the population to dispose of some portion of its surplus products at frequent intervals, so as to turn it into the means of subsistence. The combined effect of these various causes is to make the Chinese dependent upon local markets to an extent which is not true of inhabitants of Occidental countries.

The establishment of any market, and even the mere existence of the class of buyers and of sellers, doubtless involves a certain amount of cooperation. But Chinese markets while not differing materially from those to be found in other lands, exhibit a higher degree of cooperation than any others of which we know. This cooperation is exhibited in the selection both of the places and of the times at which the markets shall be held. The density of population varies greatly in different provinces, but there are vast tracts in which villages are to be met at distances varying from a quarter of a mile to two or three miles, and many of these villages contain hundreds, and some of them thousands of families.

At intervals of varying frequency, we hear of towns of still larger size than these called chen-tien, or market towns, and in them there is sure to be a regular fair. But fairs are not confined to the chen-tien, or the needs of the people would by no means be met. Many of the inferior villages also have a regular market, frequented by the neighbouring population, in a circle of greater or smaller radius according to circumstances. As a rule a village seems to be proud of its fair, and the natives of such a place are no doubt saved a vast amount of travel for the number of people who do not attend a fair is small.

We have met with one case of a village which once had a market, and gave it up in favour of another village, for the reason that the collection of such a miscellaneous assemblage was not for the advantage of the children and youth.

The market is under the supervision of headmen of the town, and some markets are called “official,” because the headmen have communicated with the local magistrate, and have secured the issuing of a proclamation fixing the regulations under which business shall be transacted. This makes it easier to get redress for wrongs which may be committed by bad characters who abound at village markets in the direct ratio of the number of people assembled. Many of the larger markets bring together several thousand people, sometimes exceeding ten thousand in number, and among so many there are certain to be numerous gamblers, sharpers, thieves, and pick-pockets, against whom it behoves every one to be upon his guard. It occasionally happens that a feud arises between two sets of villages, as for example over an embankment which one of them makes to restrain the summer floods, which would thus be turned toward the territory of the other villages. In such cases it is not uncommon for the parties to the quarrel to refuse to attend each other’s markets, and in that case new ones will be set up, with no reference to the needs of the territory, but with the sole purpose of breaking off all relations between neighbours.

In regions where animals are employed for farm-work, all the larger markets have attached to them “live-stock fairs,” at which multitudes of beasts are constantly changing hands. It is common to find these live-stock fairs under a sort of official patronage, according to which the managers are allowed to levy a tax of perhaps one per cent. on the sales. Of this sum perhaps ten per cent. is required by the local Commissioner of Education (hsiao-li) for the purpose of supporting his establishment. The rest will be under the control of the village headmen, perhaps for the nominal purpose of paying the expenses of a free school, the funds for which not improbably find their way largely or wholly into the private treasuries of those who manage the public affairs of the village.

The times at which village markets are held vary greatly. In large cities there is a market every day, but in country places this would involve a waste of time. Sometimes the market takes place every other day, and sometimes on every day the numeral of which is a multiple of three. A more common arrangement however seems to be that which is based upon the division of the lunar month into thirty days. In this case “one market” signifies the space of five days, or the interval between two successive markets. It is in the establishment of these markets that cooperation is best illustrated. If a market is held every five days, it will occur six times every moon, for if the month happens to be a “small” one of twenty-nine days, the market that belongs on the thirtieth is held on the following day, which is the first of the next month. The various markets will be designated by the days on which they occur, as “One-Six,” meaning the market which is held every first, sixth, eleventh, sixteenth, twenty-first, and twenty-sixth day of the moon. In like manner “Four-Nine,” denotes the market attended on the fourth, ninth, fourteenth, nineteenth, twenty-fourth, twenty-ninth days, similarly with the rest. Every village will probably have a market within reach every day in the month, that is to say, every day in the year. In one direction for example is to be found a “One-Six” market, in another “Two-Seven,” in still others a “Three-Eight,” a “Four-Nine,” and a “Five-Ten.” Some of these will be small markets, and some much larger, but the largest one will be attended by customers, especially wholesale dealers in cotton, cloth, etc., from great distances. The Chinese make nothing of walking to a market three, eight, or even ten miles away; for it is not a market only, but a kind of general exchange, where it is proverbially likely that any one will meet any one else.

Every village being thus surrounded with a ring of markets, each of these is also a cog in a wheel, playing into other wheels on each side of it. All those who attend a large market come to have a wide acquaintance with persons for great distances on each side of them, and the needs of all persons both buyers and sellers are adequately met.

The word which we have translated “market” (chi) denotes merely a gathering, and another character, (hui) is reserved for an assemblage of a much larger character, which is properly a fair. The number of persons who attend these fairs frequently rises to between ten and twenty thousand, giving a stranger the impression that the entire population of several counties must have been turned loose at once. Fairs are to be found in the largest Chinese cities, as well as in towns of every grade down even to small hamlets, though the proportion of towns and villages which support a fair is always a small one. It appears to be a general truth that by far the larger part of these large fairs owe their existence to the managers of some temple. The end in view is the accumulation of a revenue for the use of the temple, which is accomplished by levying certain taxes upon the traffic, and by the collection of a ground-rent. The latter is also a feature of the village market, the proprietor of each bit of ground appearing at each market to collect of the persons who have occupied his land, either a fixed amount, or a percentage upon their sale or supposed sales.

In the larger centres of population, it is common to find fairs held for a month or more at a time, and in some places there are several of these fairs every year, forming the centres of activity around which all the life of the place revolves. In such places the inhabitants make a good profit by renting buildings to the multitudes who come from a distance to sell and to buy, and where this is the case, when the fair is not in operation the city frequently appears to be nearly extinct. But trade no sooner begins, than countless thousands throng the lately almost deserted streets.

In order to make a fair a success, it is necessary that the managers should be men of enterprise and of sufficient business ability to deal with the many difficulties which are likely to arise. They exercise a certain supervision over everything, and are technically responsible for what goes wrong, though this responsibility they frequently evade. In order to attract a large attendance, it is generally necessary for fairs which are to last four days, to begin with a theatrical representation, which continues till the close. Sometimes, however, the players fail to appear, and in that case the whole fair may come to nothing. These large fairs are attended by merchants representing cities many hundred miles distant, and dealing in every article which is likely to attract customers.

As the means of transportation are very inadequate and locomotion is always slow and difficult, the merchants who go about from one fair to another for many months of the year, lead a life, or rather an existence, which is far from enviable. The half-month holiday with which the Chinese year begins is no sooner over than the large fairs begin also, and they continue with intermissions throughout the rest of the year. There is a brief interval for the wheat harvest, an event of the greatest importance to every class of the population, and the rainy season generally causes another interruption, often so serious a one as to upset all plans for two months or more.

The principal cooperative element in fairs lies in so arranging them as to dovetail into one another with least loss of time to the travelling merchants. The success generally attained is offset by many conspicuous failures, due to the Chinese thirst for gaining advantage over rivals, irrespective of the interests of others, which in matters involving cooperation, often results in disappointment. Thus, it is not uncommon to find that while the posters announcing a fair have been put up all through the country-side for an entire month, no one can tell when it is really to begin. That the day for beginning is “fixed” is a point of no consequence whatever, for with the exception of eclipses nothing in China is so “fixed” that it is not subject to alteration, and this exception may be thought to be due to the circumstance that eclipses are not under the supervision of the Chinese. We have known repeated instances in which persons who wished to attend a large fair, the date of which has been “fixed” for generations, have travelled many miles at great inconvenience, once and again, only to find that it was delayed owing to the fact that nobody had come, every one being apparently engaged in waiting for every one else. But infelicities like this are universal and constant in China, where punctuality is “a lost art.”