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If the foreigner who has lived in China long enough to take in its external phenomena, but not long enough to perceive the causes of them, were to explain to one of less knowledge his views as to the leading features of the change from one Chinese year to another as exhibited in the life of the Chinese, he would probably name (and with much plausibility) one or more of the following particulars.


The customs of different parts of the wide empire doubtless vary, but probably there is no part of it in which either dumplings or some similar article are not inseparably associated with New Year’s Day, in the same way as plum-pudding with an English Christmas, or roast-turkey and mince pie with a New England Thanksgiving. As compared with Western peoples the number of Chinese who are not obliged to practice self-denial either in the quantity or the quality of their food, and in both, is small. The diet of the vast mass of the nation is systematically and necessarily abstemious. Even in the case of farmers’ families who are well enough off to afford the year round good food in abundance, we do not often see them indulging in such luxury. Or if the males of the elder generation indulge, the women and children of a younger generation are not allowed to do so. Hereditary economy in the item of food is a marked Chinese trait. To “eat good things” is a common phrase denoting the occurrence of a wedding, a funeral, or some occasion upon which “good things” cannot be dispensed with. To eat cakes of ordinary grain on New Year’s Day, and not to get any dumplings at all, is proverbially worse than not to have any New Year.

Moreover, the keen joy with which every member of a Chinese family looks forward to the dietetic aspect of their New Year, the still keener joy with which every member is absorbed in devouring all he can get of the best there is to be got, and the scarcely less keen joy with which each one recalls the details of the menu when the family is once more launched upon the Sahara of ordinary fare these are full of suggestion and instruction to Occidentals who habitually have so much to eat that they seldom secure the best sauce of gnawing hunger, and are more likely than not to be bored by being asked out to an elaborate dinner with many courses. The most robust imagination finds it impossible to conceive of a Chinese who should take this view of what always appeals to the finest feelings of his nature. There is therefore much reason in placing Dumplings in the forefront of a Chinese New Year.


No feast-day in any Western land the two previously mentioned not excepted can at all compare with Chinese New Year, as regards powers of traction and attraction. We consider the gathering of families on these special occasions as theoretically desirable, and as practically useful. But we have this fatal disadvantage; our families divide and disperse, often to the ends of the earth, and a new home is soon made. Whole families cannot be transported long distances, especially at inclement seasons of the year, even if average dwellings would hold them all.

But in China, the family is already at home. It is only some of its male members who are absent, and they return to their ancestral abode, with the infallible instinct of the wild fowl to their southern haunts. If vast distances should make this physically impossible as is the case with the countless Shan-hsi men scattered over the empire doing business as bankers, pawn-brokers, etc., or as happens with many from the northern provinces who go “outside the Great Wall,” still the plan is to go home, perhaps one year in three, and the time selected is always at the close of the year.

A cat in a strange garret, a bird with a broken wing, a fish out of water are not more restless and unhappy than the average Chinese who cannot go home at New Year time. In addition to his personal deprivations, he has the certainty of being ridiculed not only by the persons with whom he is obliged to stay, but also by the people of his own village when he does go home. The Chinese dread ridicule, even more than they dread the loss of a good meal, and unless the circumstances are altogether exceptional, one can depend upon it that every Chinese can only be kept away from his home at New Year by circumstances over which he has no control. There is, therefore, good ground for regarding reunion as a leading feature of a Chinese New Year.


Whoever takes even a superficial view of the Chinese in their towns, cities and villages during the period from the first day of the first moon to the fifteenth of the same, will be struck with the display of new and bright-coloured garments. Every article of apparel, both of the men and of the women, and still more of the children, may be of any or all the colors of the rainbow. The Chinese do not seem to us to be conspicuous for what we call good taste, but rather at times to emulate the vagaries of the African savages, and never more so than at this time of holiday show. Combinations of colour which would cause Western ladies to shrug their shoulders, and to shiver with horror, appear to recommend themselves to the Chinese taste as the correct thing, and as good form. Bright green and blue, accompanied by deep scarlet, purple, lilac or orange, do not seem to “kill each other,” as our modistes would shudderingly affirm, but they convey such evident and such universal pleasure to wearers and spectators alike, that it becomes plain to the most prejudiced foreigner, that here, at least, his standards do not apply. In consideration of the stress which the Chinese lay upon this feature of their great anniversary, we should be justified in assuming fine clothes as a main characteristic of the occasion.


The very first aspect in which Chinese New Year presents itself, no matter in what part of the world we happen to meet it, is that of noise. All night long, there is a bang! bang! bang! of firecrackers large and small, which, like other calamities, “come, not single spies, but in battalions.” The root of all this is undoubtedly connected with religion, as in other similar performances all over the world. But though the explosion of gunpowder is the most prominent, it is far from being the most important act of New Year worship. There is the despatch of the last year’s kitchen-god, generally on the twenty-third of the twelfth moon, and the installation of his successor at the close of the year. On the last evening of the year, there is the family gathering either at the ancestral temple, or should there not be one, in the dwelling-house, for the worship of the tablets of the past few generations of ancestors. In some parts of China ancestral tablets are comparatively rare among the farming and working people, and the place of them as regards the practical worship at New Year’s eve, is taken by a large scroll, containing a portion of the family genealogy, which is hung up, and honoured with prostrations and the burning of incense. On the morning of the second day of the new first moon, perhaps at other times also, all the males of a suitable age go to the family or clan graveyard, and there make the customary offerings to the spirits of the departed. There has been considerable controversy among foreigners expert in Chinese affairs as to the true value of these various rites from a religious point of view, but there is no doubt on the part of any one that they constitute a most essential ingredient in a Chinese New Year, and that in the present temper of the Chinese race, a New Year without such rites is both inconceivable and impossible. We do well, therefore, to place Religious Rites prominently in our catalogue.


It requires but a slight acquaintance with the facts, however, to make us aware that while the ceremonies connected with the dead are important, they are soon disposed of once for all, and that they do not form a part of the permanent New Year landscape. It is quite otherwise with the social ceremonies connected with the living. The practice of New Year calls, as found in some Western lands is a very feeble parody of the Chinese usage. We call on whom we choose to call upon, when we choose to go. The Chinese pays his respects to those to whom he must pay his respects, at the time when it is his duty so to do and from this duty there is seldom any reprieve. For example, not to press into undue prominence local practices, which vary greatly, it may be the fashion for every one to be up long before daylight. After the family salutations have been concluded, all but the older generation of males set out to make the tour of the village, the representatives of each family entering the yard of every other family, and prostrating themselves to the elders who are at home to receive them. This business goes by priority in the genealogical table, as military and naval officers take rank from the date of their commissions. Early marriages on the part of some members of a collateral branch of a large clan, late marriages on the part of other branches, the adoption of heirs at any point, and other causes, constantly bring it about that the men oldest in years are by no means so in the order of the generation to which they belong. Thus we have the absurd spectacle of a man of seventy posing as a “nephew” or, if worst comes to worst as the “grandson” of a mere boy. One often hears a man in middle life complain of the fatigues of the New Year time, as he being of a “late generation,” is obliged “to kotow to every child two feet long” whom he may happen to meet, as they are “older” than he, and in consequence of this inversion of “relative duties,” the children are fresh as a rose, while the middle-aged man has lame knees for a week or two!

If the first day is devoted to one’s native town or village, the succeeding ones are taken to pay calls of ceremony upon one’s relatives living in other towns or villages, beginning with the mother’s family, and branching into relationships the names of which few foreigners can remember, and which most cannot even comprehend. That all this social ceremony is upon the whole a good thing cannot be doubted, for it prevents many aliénations, and heals in their early stages many cases of strained relations. Yet, to us such a formal and monotonous routine would prove insufferable.

To the Chinese, these visits are not only an important part of New Year, presumptively they are in real sense New Year itself. Every visit involves a “square meal,” and (from the Chinese point of view) a good time. To omit them, would be not only to deprive oneself of much pleasure, it would be to commit a social crime, which would almost certainly give great offence.


Greater familiarity with the conditions and details of Chinese life lead us to wonder that so laborious a people find time for all this junketing and vain display. The marvel is indeed a permanent one, but it ceases to surprise us when we have once taken in the fact that the whole Chinese race have as a unit, practically agreed to deduct from the twelve available months, an entire half moon, from New Year till the Feast of Lanterns. Within this twenty-fourth part of the year, nothing shall be done which can be left undone. The outgo is to be put down to the expense account of the whole year, and the main purpose is to have a good time. This period thus becomes a safety-valve for the nation, which else might go distraught in all its otherwise ceaseless toils. If the Chinese did not as a rule, work so hard, they could not so heartily enjoy their long vacation. If they did not so heartily enjoy their vacation, they could not during the rest of the year work so well. We are therefore authorized, in arranging our table of contents of the Chinese New Year, to give large place to the almost complete cessation of productive industry. It is the epoch of national leisure.


It is a venerable maxim that “Satan finds some mischief still, for idle hands to do.” Probably no race that ever lived could resist the strain of such a sudden transition from constant industrial activity, to complete industrial inactivity, to be followed half a month later by the old routine and another year of bondage. They could not resist the strain, that is to say, without a corresponding reaction; neither can the Chinese. It is not in human nature to find consecutive enjoyment merely in the directions which have been named, without trying to go farther and to get more. This is precisely what the Chinese do, and they do it by the excitement of gambling. This, with opium smoking, is the greatest vice in China, and the most ruinous. But after all, taking the country districts through, the proportion of gamblers among the working classes, so far as we are aware, is limited, though vast sums are everywhere annually squandered in this way. But the remarkable thing is that at New Year’s time all restrictions seem to be removed, and both men and women give themselves up to the absorbing excitement of cards, dominoes, etc., with money stakes of varying amount, and with no fear or even thought of future evil harvests. In the abstract, gambling is of course recognized as wrong and not to be indulged, as likely to lead to trouble. But at New Year’s time “everybody does it,” “it is only for amusement,” and “there is nothing else to do,” the latter an important fact to be taken account of at a time when even cooking is often prA|termitted as much as possible. Merchants do not take down their shutters, but one can hear the clerks noisily gambling inside. Innkeepers will not open their front doors, but landlord and servants are all gambling together and will refuse to stop a game to feed your animals or get you a meal, telling you that it is no time to travel, and that business is business, and amusement amusement.

Old women and young women squatted on their mats or their k’angs, feverishly shuffle their cards and pay their little stakes, and all are having a good time.

That this state of things will not stop suddenly on the day after the Feast of Lanterns, is obvious. It often never stops at all, but goes on with a widening and lengthening trail of ruin, not ending even with the grave, but lasting to the third and fourth generation. Surely we are right in calling gambling a leading feature of a Chinese New Year. And yet after all, perhaps we have not got to the bottom of the matter.


However little attention he may pay to the Chinese calendar, every foreigner in China is sure to be reminded in a very effective way of the approach of the close of the Chinese year, long before the edge of the New Year is to be seen above the horizon. At some time during the twelfth moon, the “boy” makes his appearance, and with an unusual animation in his unanimated face, explains that owing to a combination of circumstances which seem to be to a large extent incapable of elucidation to us, he is obliged to request the advance of his wages for the current month, and also for the one to come. This may be contrary to rule, doubtless is so, but owing to the combination above alluded to, is an imperative necessity. Otherwise ruin impends. It is not long before a similar statement is made by the cook, with regard to his affairs, and by the various coolies as to theirs. In each case the necessity turns out upon investigation to be so real, and the pressure of the combination of circumstances so powerful, that we are, in a manner, forced to do violence to our own judgment, in order to avert the imminent ruin of those who are in our employ, and in whom we feel, perhaps, some interest. But it is a long time before it occurs to us to look into the matter more deeply than sufficiently to ascertain what everybody knew before, that Chinese New Year is preceded by a universal season of debt-paying from which no one is exempt. If we insist upon following up any specific case with a rigid examination into its remoter causes, we soon learn from the principal party such facts as appear to justify his assertion of an emergency, and also that there is nothing peculiar in his case, but that other people are in the same predicament. If these inquiries are carried far enough, and deep enough, they will bring to light the seven deadly sins of Chinese social financiering.

1. Everybody always needs to borrow. That the business of the world even in Western lands depends upon the borrowing of money, and that credit is the largest factor in trade, are positions which we do not for a moment forget. But Chinese borrowing is of a different type from that with which the great expansion of modern commerce has made us familiar. We do not affirm that there are not Chinese who do not need the money of other people for the conduct of their affairs, but only that these people are so rare that they may as well be disregarded. The whole scale of Chinese living and the whole system of economics are of such a sort, that as a rule there is but a narrow margin of financial reserve. With all their practicality and skill in affairs, it is a constant source of wonder that so few Chinese ever have anything to fall back upon. One reason for this is the fact that it is very difficult for them to accumulate a reserve, and another equally potent is the fact that there is nothing which can be safely done with it pending its use. There are no savings-banks, and there are no investments which are safe. The only thing which can be done with ready money, is to lend it to those who need it, which is generally done with some reluctance, as the lender justly fears lest he should never again see either interest or principal. Whoever has a wedding in his family, is liable to have to borrow money to carry it through, and if it be a funeral the necessity will be still more urgent. He needs money to start in business, and he needs more to settle up at the end of the year, when, if their own accounts are to be trusted, nine Chinese out of ten who engage in business in a small way, find that they have “lost money”; though this often signifies that they have not realized so much as they had hoped. In short it is hard to find a Chinese to whom the loan of a sum of money at any time, would not be as welcome as “water to a fish in a dry rut.” It is this all-prevailing need which smoothes the surface of the spot where the pit is to be dug.

2. Everybody is obliged to lend money. We have just remarked that the man who happens to have a little surplus cash does not like to lend it, lest he should never see it again. But there are various kinds and degrees of pressure which can be brought to bear upon the capitalist. One of these is connected with the solidarity of the Chinese family, or clan. If one of the members has money which he might lend and another is desperately in need of it, the latter will get a member of the generation higher than that to which the capitalist belongs, to intercede for him. This may be done unwillingly, but it will probably be done. To a sufficient amount of pressure of this ancestral description, the capitalist will find it best to yield, though not improbably against his financial judgment. But every Chinese is from infancy accustomed to the idea that it is seldom easy to have one’s own way in all things, and that when one cannot do as he would, he must do as he must. If the borrower does not belong to the same family or clan as the lender, the difficulty will be greater, but it may perhaps be overcome by the same description of pressure, by means of friends. A would-be borrower is often obliged to make a great many kotows before he can secure the favour of a loan (at an extortionately high rate of interest), but he is much aided in his efforts by the Chinese notion that when a certain amount of pressure has been brought to bear, a request must be granted, just as one of a pair of scales must go down if you put on enough weights. Thus it comes about that in all ranks of Chinese, the man who has, is the man who must be content to allow to share in his wealth (for a handsome remuneration).

3. From the foregoing propositions, it follows with inevitable certainty, that almost everybody owes some one else. There is never any occasion to ask a Chinese whether he owes money. The proper formula is, How much do you owe, and to whom, and what is the rate of interest?

4. No Chinese ever pays cash down, unless he is obliged to do so. To us this may appear a most eccentric habit, but it seems to be almost a law. The Chinese has learned by ages of experience, that he no sooner pays away money to satisfy one debt, than he needs that same money to liquidate other debts. In their own figuratively expressive phrase, a single cup of water is wanted in three or four places at once, and the supply is always as inadequate, as the classical “cup of water to put out the fire in a cart-load of fuel.” Knowing this with a keenness of apprehension which it is difficult for us to appreciate, the Chinese holds on fast to his cash till it is wrung from him by a force which overcomes his own tenacity of grip.

5. No Chinese ever pays a debt till he is dunned. To us this also seems a strange practice. Most of us have grown up with a fixed idea that as a debt must be paid, “if it were done when ’tis done, then ’twere well it were done quickly.” The mind of a Chinese operates in quite a different way. His view is, “If it must be done, it were best done when it is done as deliberately as the case admits.”

6. It seems also to be the rule, that no Chinese will pay his debts till he has been dunned a great number of times. Here again he is at the opposite pole from that which we occupy. We do not like to be dunned, and would rather make considerable sacrifices than to have needy persons dogging us for the collection of debts which we honestly owe, which we must ultimately pay, and not to arrange for the payment of which at once is more or less of a disgrace. By “we” we mean of course the average foreigner, for it is not to be denied that Western lands have their full proportion of impecunious and shameless rascals who “live off the interest of their debts,” and who swindle all those whom they can. But the Chinese of whom we are speaking do not belong to this class. The mass of the Chinese people we believe to be honest, and they fully intend to pay all that they owe, but they do not intend to pay until they are ready to do so, and neither gods nor men can tell when that will be. It is a current saying that when a person has many debts he is no longer concerned about them, just as when one has many parasites he ceases to scratch!

7. In a large proportion of cases, the Chinese who pays a debt, pays but a part of it at a time. The rest he will try to get together in the “third month,” “the ninth month,” or at the “end of the next year.” The practical outcome of these last three peculiarities is, that the twelfth moon of every Chinese year is a time of maximum activity all over the empire. One would suppose that a vast amount of work was being accomplished, but the facts are otherwise. One is reminded of the Witch in “Alice Behind the Looking-Glass,” where the child was hurried along on a broomstick at such a rate as to take her breath away. She thought she must be traversing illimitable space, but when this idea was communicated to the Witch, the latter only laughed, and replied that this was nothing at all, for they had to go like that to “keep up with things” and if they were really to get ahead to any extent, the rate of travel must be enormously faster than that! The racing around of the Chinese in their final moon, is just “to keep up with things.” Every shop, no matter how trifling the sum total of its business, has its army of runners out, each “demanding debts,” or rather endeavouring to do so; for to achieve it is no such easy matter. The debtor is himself a creditor, and he also will be occupied in the effort to call in the sums which are owing to him. Each separate individual is engaged in the task of trying to chase down the men who owe money to him, and compel them to pay up, and at the same time in trying to avoid the persons who are struggling to track him down and corkscrew from him the amount of his indebtedness to them? The dodges and subterfuges to which each is obliged to resort, increase in complexity and number with the advance of the season, until at the close of the month, the national activity is at fever heat. For if a debt is not secured then, it will go over till a new year, and no one knows what will be the status of a claim which has actually contrived to cheat the annual Day of Judgment. In spite of the excellent Chinese habit of making the close of a year a grand clearing-house for all debts, Chinese human nature is too much for Chinese custom, and there are many of these postponed debts which are a grief of mind to many a Chinese creditor.

The Chinese are at once the most practical and the most sentimental of the human race. New Year must not be violated by duns for debts, but the debt must be collected New Year though it be. For this reason one sometimes sees an urgent creditor going about early on the first day of the year carrying a lantern looking for his creditor. His artificial light shows that by a social fiction the sun has not yet risen, it is still yesterday and the debt can still be claimed!

We have but to imagine the application of the principles which we have named, to the whole Chinese empire, and we get new light upon the nature of the Chinese New Year festivities. They are a time of rejoicing, but there is no rejoicing so keen as that of a ruined debtor, who has succeeded by shrewd devices in avoiding the most relentless of his creditors and has thus postponed his ruin for at least another twelve months. For, once past the narrow strait at the end of the year, the debtor finds himself again in broad and peaceful waters, where he cannot be molested. Even should his creditors meet him on New Year’s day, there could be no possibility of mentioning the fact of the previous day’s disgraceful flight and concealment, or indeed of alluding to business at all, for this would not be “good form,” and to the Chinese “Good Form” (otherwise known as Custom), is the chief national divinity.

An ingenious device by which to secure the desirable result that a family shall be sure to have a supply of the food most indispensable for a proper treatment of guests at the festive New Year season, is found in what are called New Year Societies. Each member of the society contributes a few hundred or perhaps a thousand cash a month for the first five months of the year, until the wheat harvest in June when wheat is at its lowest price, for example 1,200 cash for 100 catties or picul. During the five months which have elapsed, the money thus assessed upon the members has been put at interest, and has already accumulated a handsome income. As soon as the new wheat is in the market, the loans are all called in, and the treasurer takes the whole of the sum belonging to the association and invests it in wheat. This he keeps until the close of the year, by which time it is not at all unlikely that the price of the grain has doubled. He then exchanges the wheat, at the current rate, with some maker of bread-cakes (man-t’ou), and these are divided among the stockholders. In this way, each one gets not only the benefit of the interest on loans for five months, but also nearly or quite double the value of the wheat bought just after harvest. Sometimes the monthly payments are continued throughout the year, and the sum is then expended in a lump for bread-cakes, wheat, cotton, or whatever each family most needs for the New Year season. In societies of this kind, the rate of interest is sure to be at least three per cent. per month, and perhaps four per cent. The amounts borrowed are usually small, and each borrower must have a security from among the contributors to the fund. In case payment is not forthcoming at the due date, the next step is to raise an uproar, and if possible to collect the debt by force. The inevitable and universal uncertainty and difficulty attending the collection of any money on loan, give emphasis to the adage that “where the profit is large, the risk is correspondingly great.”

Extortionate as are the ordinary rates of Chinese interest, ranging from twenty-four to forty eight or more per cent. per annum, there are other ways than direct loans, by which even greater profits may be gathered. The passion for gambling seems to be all-pervasive among the Chinese, and it is perhaps a greater bar to the prosperity of the common people than any other habit of their lives. Many of the phenomena of Chinese cooperation are associated with gambling practices, from which the profit to those who manage the finances is very great. In all cases where there is money to loan, it is possible to employ it for gaming, under the direction of the managers, or trustees. Those who are in the habit of gambling do not stop when their supply of money fails, but draw upon the bank of the loan association at terms which are agreed upon, but which differ according to circumstances. In an emergency, it might happen that a person whose fortune had failed him, would be obliged to borrow of the bank, say 800 cash, which in a short time he must replace with 1,000. At the end of the year when the accounts are made up and the money paid in, it is equally divided among the contributors of the society, whether they may have used the capital for gambling or not. In case they have borrowed a part of the capital and are not able to repay it, their debt is set against their contribution, and they lose their investment.