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


In a country where the poor are in such a majority as in China, and where the fields are altogether open, it is desirable if not necessary to have some plan by which property so unprotected can be effectively watched. In every orchard, as soon as the fruit begins to show the smallest sign of ripeness, the owner keeps some of his family on guard day and night, until the last apricot, plum or pear is removed from the trees. The darker and the more rainy the night, the more is vigilance required, so that a family with a bearing orchard is under the most absolute bondage to this property for a part of every year. During the months of July and August the fields are dotted with little booths some of them overrun with climbing vines, and each of these frail tenements is never for a moment deserted until the crops have all been removed. In some regions the traveller will observe these huts built upon a lofty staging so as to command a wide view, and they are often put up even in fields of sorghum, which would not seem likely to be stolen. But the lofty growth of this stalwart plant is itself a perfect protection to a thief, so that it is much more difficult to watch than crops far less elevated from the ground. Growing to an altitude of from ten to fifteen feet, it completely obscures the horizon, and practically obliterates all landmarks. So far as knowing where one goes, a traveller might as well be plunged into an African jungle. Even the natives of a region sometimes get lost within a few li of their own village on a cloudy day. The autumn crops of Shan-tung consist of the innumerable kinds of millet, sorghum, (which, though called “tall millet,” has no affinity with real millet;) beans; Indian corn, or maize; peanuts; melons and squashes; sweet-potatoes and other vegetables (the others mostly in small patches); hemp; sesame; and especially cotton. There are many other items, but these are the chief.

Of all these diverse sorts of produce, there are hardly more than two which do not cause the owners anxiety, lest they be stolen from the field. The heads of sorghum and of millet are easily clipped off. Nothing is easier than rapidly to despoil a field of corn, or to dig sweet-potatoes. The latter, indeed, are not safe from the village dogs, which have learned by ages of experience that raw vegetable food is much better than no food at all. What requires the most unceasing vigilance, however, are the melon patches and the orchards. Of watermelons, especially, the Chinese are inordinately fond. Every field is fitted with a “lodge in a garden of cucumbers,” and there is some one watching day and night. The same is true of the “fruit rows,” familiarly called hang-tzA1/4. Birds, insects, and man are the immitigable foes of him who has apples, pears, peaches, plums, cherries, apricots and grapes. If the orchard is of any size, there may be collusion between the thieves, who appear at both ends at once. Both sets cannot be pursued. The crows and the blue-jays are the worst bird robbers, but they can be scared off, especially with a gun. The human pilferers are not to be so easily dealt with. The farmer’s hope is that seeing that some one is on guard they will go elsewhere, and steal from those not on guard. Hence everybody is obliged to stand guard over everything.

Where the population is densest, the extent to which this must be carried passes belief. In such regions about dusk an exodus sets forth from a village like that in the early morning to go to the fields to work. By every path the men, women, and even children stream forth. Light wooden beds, covered with a layer of the stiff sorghum stalk, are kept out in the fields for constant use. A few sorghum stalks are twisted together at the top, and a piece of old matting tacked on the sunny side, and under such a wretched shelter sits a toothless old woman all day and all night with alternations.

Very few farmers have their land all in one plot. A farm of not more than eighty Chinese acres may consist of from five to fifteen pieces lying on different sides of the village. And how do you contrive to “watch all these all night”? you inquire. “Oh we have to go from one to the other,” you are told. In the case of cotton, the temptation to pick that of others is absolutely irresistible. The watchman sees some one at the end of the field meandering slowly along with a basket on his arm, picking cotton as he goes. The watchman yells, “Who are you?” and the figure moves along a little faster, but does not stop picking. If he disappears into the patch of some one else, that is success. But should the watchman become angry, as he certainly will, and should he pursue, as he is likely to do, and should he overtake, as is possible, then the trouble begins. Should the thief not get away in the scuffle, he ought to be taken before the village headmen and dealt with. If from another village, he probably will be tied up in the village temple, possibly beaten, and subsequently released upon payment of a fine. But the real difficulty is that many of the thieves are from the same village as the owners of the land the products of which they are appropriating. Not improbably they are “cousins” of the farmer himself. Perhaps they are his “uncles” or even his “grandfathers.” If so, that complicates matters very much. Chinese ideas of meum and tuum are to our thought laxity itself under the most favourable conditions. But these conditions are the most unfavourable. The unity of the family is as that of a compound individual.

It is to afford some relief from these almost insupportable evils that societies for watching the crops have originated. They are by no means of universal occurrence, but like most other Chinese institutions, are to be met with in some districts, while others immediately adjoining may be wholly unacquainted with their working. We have known a District Magistrate in trying a case in which one of the defendants was a professional watcher of the crops, to be completely mystified by the term “crop-watcher” which had to be explained to him, as if to a foreigner, although he was himself a native of an adjacent province.

The villages which have entered into some one of the associations for the protection of their crops, generally proclaim this fact by painting or whitewashing upon the side of some conspicuous temple four characters (Kung k’an i p’o,) signifying that the fields are looked after in common. This proposition embodies a meaning which varies in different places. Sometimes it denotes that a certain number of persons are on guard each night, in which case the number (or some number which purports to be the real one) will perhaps be found posted on a temple wall with a view to striking awe into intending depredators (in case they should be persons of education), by showing how numerous are the chances of detection.

When a fixed number of persons is employed, the expense is shared by the village, being in fact a tax upon the land, paid in the direct ratio of the amount of land which each one owns. In other cases the arrangement for guarding standing crops is entered into by a single village, or more probably by a considerable number of contiguous villages. The details are agreed upon at a meeting called for the purpose in some temple convenient to all the villages, and the meeting is attended by representatives of each village interested. At this meeting are settled the steps to be taken in case of the arrest of offenders. This is a matter of supreme importance, being in fact the pivot upon which the whole machinery turns. If there is weakness here, the whole machine will be a failure.

It must be borne in mind that the reason for the organization of such a society as this is the fact that so many poor people everywhere exist, whose only resource is to steal. In the consultations preliminary to the organization of a crop-protecting league, the poor people of the various villages concerned have no voice, but they must be considered, for they will contrive to make themselves felt in many disagreeable ways. It will be agreed that any person owning land in any village belonging to the league is bound to seize and report any person whatever whom he may find stealing the crops of any person in any of these villages. But as this is the weakest point of all such agreements among the Chinese, it is further provided that if any person finds some one stealing and fails to seize and report the offender, and if the fact of this omission is ascertained, the person guilty of such omission shall be held to be himself guilty of the theft, and shall be fined as if he were the thief.

To provide an adequate tribunal to take cognizance of cases of this sort, the representatives of the several villages concerned, in public assembly nominate certain headmen from each village, who constitute a court before which offenders are to be brought, and by which fines are to be fixed. When a thief is captured he is brought to the village, and the men appointed for the purpose are summoned, who hear the report of the captors, and decide upon the fine. In cases of special importance the village gong may be beaten, so as to collect the headmen with the greater celerity. Much will depend upon what kind of a man the culprit is, and upon the status of the family to which the culprit belongs may be. There are some well-to-do people who are not above stealing the crops of others, and such persons are certain to be subjected to a heavy fine by way of “exemplary damages.” The select-men who manage these cases have no regular way of punishing offenders but by the infliction of a fine, though culprits are undoubtedly sometimes tied up and beaten by exasperated neighbours, as the writer at one time happened to see for himself. But such cases must be relatively rare. The fines imposed must be paid immediately, and should this be refused or delayed, the penalty would be an accusation at the yamen of the District Magistrate, which being backed by all the principal men of the village, or of a group of villages, would be certain to issue in the punishment of the prisoner, as the Magistrate would be sure to assume that a prosecution of this nature was well grounded. The poorest man would have reason to dread being locked up in a cangue for a month or two at the busy time of harvest, when it is especially important for him to be at liberty.

The coloured resident of Georgia who complained that a black man had no chance in that State, being obliged “to work hard all day and steal all night in order to make an honest living,” represented a class to be found in all parts of China, and a class which must be taken into account. Wherever arrangements are made for the protection of the crops from thieves, it is a necessary adjunct of the rules that the owners of the fields must follow the judicious plan of Boaz of ancient Bethlehem, who ordered his reapers not to be too careful to gather closely, that the gleaners might not glean in vain. Matters of this sort, even to the length of the stubble which shall be left in the fields, are not infrequently the subject of agreement and of regulation, for they are matters of large importance to many poor people.

In districts where the kao-liang (or sorghum) plant is cultivated it is common to strip off some of the lower leaves with a view, as one is told, to allowing the stalks “to breathe” more freely that the grain may ripen better. Where this practice prevails, the day on which the stripping of the leaves shall begin is sometimes strictly regulated by agreement, and no person, rich or poor, is allowed to anticipate the day. But on that day any one is at liberty to strip leaves from the fields of any one else, provided he does not go above the stipulated height on each plant. These leaves are much prized as food for animals. The day before the stripping of kao-liang leaves is to begin, warning is sounded on the village gong, and the next day all the people make this their main business.

Far more important than leaf-stripping is the regulation of the gleaning of cotton. In many parts of China, the cotton crop is the most valuable product of the soil, and it enjoys the distinction of being perhaps the only article raised in the empire which is to every man, woman and child an absolute necessity. As soon as the cotton-picking season sets in, women and children in the regions where this is the staple crop are absorbed in this fatiguing labour to the exclusion of almost everything else. With the first frost falls, the best of the season has passed, though the cotton balls continue to open for a long time afterward. It is considered to be the prerogative of the poor people to pick cotton wherever they can find it after a certain (or rather a very uncertain) date, and the determination of this date is settled in some districts by a proclamation of the Magistrate himself, for no lesser authority would be heeded. But in other regions this affair, like most others, is altogether relegated to local agreement, either of a single village, or a group of villages with each other. The day upon which it first becomes lawful to pick indiscriminately in any cotton field, a joyful one for the poor, is called “relaxation of punishment,” because the fines are no longer to be enforced. At this time swarms of people are to be seen streaming to the fields, and many people go great distances from home, because the picking there is better. An acquaintance of the writer remarked that his wife had been gone from home for more than ten days gleaning in some region where the crops were better than nearer home, sleeping meantime in any doorway or cart-house from which she was not driven away.

It sometimes happens that the rich people attempt to exclude the poor from the large estates belonging to the former, but this is seldom successful, and can never be good policy. The writer once saw a dispute between the owner of a large cottonfield and many hundred poor women and children who were about to precipitate themselves upon the remnants of the crop. Even while the debate as to the proprieties of the case was in progress, a very large number of the poor people who cared much more for the cotton than for the proprieties, pressed on to gather what they might, leaving others to settle the question of abstract right as pleased themselves.

Reference has been repeatedly made to the fines imposed for a violation of the village laws or agreements, and it was remarked that the crucial point of the protection of crops, is found here. It is customary to employ the fines collected from such offenders for the purpose of hiring a theatrical company, which always proves to be a very expensive method of enjoying a surplus of money, since the incidental expenses of a theatrical representation, especially in the entertainment of guests, are often ten times greater than the sum paid to the players.

Spending the night in the fields during the harvest season, when the ground is generally saturated with moisture, constantly induces malaria, rheumatism and pneumonia, as well as many other ailments. But the necessity is imperative, and all risks must be disregarded, or there would be nothing to eat for a year. The quarrels which inevitably arise from crop pilfering and the other concomitants of an autumn harvest, give rise to serious feuds, as well as to devastating lawsuits, the money cost of which may be a thousand times the value of the property in question. But under such conditions every Chinese crop is gathered in year by year, and such have apparently been perpetuated from the earliest dawn of Chinese history.