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


No adequate understanding of the life of the Chinese is possible without some comprehension of the place therein of the bully, and conversely it might almost be said that a just apprehension of the character and functions of the Chinese bully is equivalent to a comprehension of Chinese society.

So far as we know, the Chinese bully is a character peculiar to China. By this it is not of course meant that other lands do not have and have not always had their bullies, but that the mode in which Chinese bullies exert their power is unique. It depends largely upon the peculiar characteristics of the Chinese race, prominent among which is the desire for peace, and a reluctance to engage in a quarrel. The traits of a bully among a savage and warlike people such as our ancestors once were, and of a bully among such a quiet folk as the Chinese, are inherently different.

The Chinese have many terms to designate the individual whom we have termed a bully, among which one of the most common is that which means literally “bare-stick” (kuang-kun), in allusion to the fact that those who are most frequently bullies are generally those who have no property to lose. But the general term is applicable to any one who plays the part, whatever his social condition may be, and it is in this sense that we shall employ it.

In considering the social functions of the bully, it is necessary to distinguish him from several classes of persons, to any one of which he may belong, but from each one of which he may be different. These four classes are, first, headmen of the village (called also, as we have already remarked, by many other names); second, intermediaries (not “middlemen” in the technical sense, but those who as peace-talkers, intervene in the affairs of others) etc.; third, beggars; and lastly thieves.

In China next in importance after the division of human beings into two sexes, is another classification which every Chinese instinctively adopts. According to this arrangement, all members of society are rated according to their probable behaviour under bad treatment, just as the chemist considers all substances in the light of their capacity for combination with other elements.

In the popular speech of the people, every Chinese villager is said to be either “lao-shih” or not “lao-shih.” The words “lao-shih” mean literally “old and solid,” or in a derived sense gentle, tractable, from which again arises a third signification of stupid, and gullible. The highest degree of this latter quality is expressed in the phrase “ssA1/4-lao-shih,” which literally denotes one who is “dead-stupid”; that is, one who can be imposed upon to any extent. Such a one, in a common adage, is compared to the toes on an old woman’s feet, which have been suppressed all their life, without any power of asserting themselves.

The village bully is, (as we used to be taught of vulgar fractions) of three kinds, simple, compound, and complex. The simple bully is a unit by himself, managing his own affairs with his own resources. The compound bully calls to his aid the power of numbers, and the mysterious and almost irresistible talent for combination inherent in the Chinese. The complex bully is not a bully merely, but has some business or profession, in the management of which he is materially aided by the fact that he is a man to be feared.

In his simplest form, a Chinese bully is a man of a more or less violent temper and strong passions, who is resolved never to “eat loss,” and under all circumstances to give as good (or as bad) as he gets. Fortunately for the peace of society, the overwhelming majority of the Chinese belong to the “lao-shih” variety. In order to secure the reputation of being not “lao-shih," a shrewd villager will sometimes adopt the expedient, not unknown to other lands, of wearing his clothes in a loose and rowdy-like fashion, talking in a boisterous tone, and resenting contradiction or any overt lack of compliance with his opinions.

His cap is worn studiedly awry; his outer garment instead of being decorously fastened, is left purposely unlooped; his abundant hair is braided into a loose cue apparently as thick as his arm, the plaiting beginning several inches away from the head: the end of the cue is generally coiled about his neck or over his head (a gross breach of Chinese etiquette), as if to show that he thirsts for a fight. His outer leggings are not improbably so tied as to display a lining which is more expensive than the outside; and his shoes are invariably worn down at the heel, perhaps to make an ostentatious display of a silk embroidered heel to the cotton stocking a touch of splendour adapted to strike awe into the rustic beholder. In a time of intense excitement over alleged kidnapping of children, we have known a man to be apprehended in open court and examined as a bad character, because the colour of his clothes was unusual.

By persistently following out his peculiar lines of action, he will not unlikely succeed in diffusing the impression that he is a dangerous man to interfere with, and will in consequence be let severely alone. A cat of even a small experience will not improbably manifest considerable hesitation before attempting to swallow a lizard. It is evident, therefore, that if any small reptile is obliged to associate with cats, the art of simulating a lizard is a valuable one. The grade of bully of which we are now speaking is in all Chinese society too common to attract much notice, and he can be avoided by letting him alone. His weapons, like the walls of Chinese cities, are defensive only.

Much more to be dreaded is the bully who will not let others alone, but who is always inserting himself into their affairs with a view to extracting some benefit for himself. The most dangerous type of these men is the one who makes very little ado, but whose acts are ruinous to those whom he wishes to injure. Such a one is aptly likened to a dog which bites without showing his teeth.

The tactics which such a man adopts to establish his claim to the rank of “village king,” are the same with which we are only too familiar in other lands, and which an advancing civilization has not yet succeeded in rendering wholly obsolete. If there is no overt act which he sees his way to commit, he can always pick a quarrel by reviling, which is regarded as throwing down a glove of defiance. Not to notice such a challenge is from a Chinese standpoint almost impossible. “To be reviled and to feel no pain,” this is the Chinese ideal of shamelessness. Nothing is rarer than to find a Chinese who has been reviled, and who, when he was strong enough to demand an apology, has allowed the matter to drop.

The intricate constitution of Chinese society is such that there is a great variety of acts which, while they may not be directly hostile, must be understood in the light of a challenge. If for example a bully has let it be known that he is determined that a theatrical representation shall take place the next autumn in his village, for some one to oppose it might not improbably be such an act of hostility as to amount to a challenge. The bully must then see that the theatre is engaged, or his “face” is lost, which one may be sure will never happen as long as he is able to prevent it.

There is always about one of these village bullies a general atmosphere of menace, as if he were thirsting for an opportunity to issue an ultimatum. He often does so, in a singularly vague manner, the significance of which is, however, perfectly well understood. If A is the bully, and B is known to oppose him, then A publicly states that if B does so and so, A will not put up with it (pu suan t’a, literally, “will not take the account,” but insinuating a dark hint as to consequences). If B takes the hint and quietly retires, there is peace, but otherwise there is war.

One of the qualifications which is very convenient for the village bully, although not absolutely indispensable, is physical strength. One of the nicknames of the local bully as just remarked, is that of village king. Among those whose forte is violence, the king must be a man who has inherent power, “the man who can,” for it is impossible to say at what moment all his strength will be needed in some fight.

It is in view of this consideration, that it is very common for young fellows who wish to distinguish themselves among their comrades, to take systematic lessons in “fist-and-foot,” that is, in gymnastics. A high degree of skill in wrestling, and the ability (as alleged) to deliver such a blow with the fist as shall knock out a brick from a wall a foot thick, are in many circumstances valuable accomplishments.

The writer is well acquainted with a young man who enjoyed the reputation of being the strongest person in his village. Being sent on an errand to a distant city, he had occasion to pass through a smaller city some forty li from his home, where he was not known. Here a number of bullies, who happened to be gathered in front of the district yamen, struck with his rusticity, stopped him, and demanded who he was and where he was going. His replies to their inquiries not being sufficiently prompt to give satisfaction, he was set upon by several men, who attacked him simultaneously. Here his “fist-and-foot” skill was of great service; for though two men were on top of him, he was able to seize the ankle of one of them and to give it such a fearful twist as almost to dislocate the joint, whereupon his assailants, howling with pain, were only too glad to release him. At a later date the matter was looked into, and at the feast which the attacking party was compelled to give, by way of apology, one of those present hobbled around in a particularly feeble manner, and freely expressed the opinion that upon this occasion he had mistaken his man!

In the numerous cases in which persons are imposed upon by a bully who is too much for them, their earliest thoughts are how it may be practicable to collect a band of men, expert in the “fist-and-foot” practices, and make an attack upon the aggressive party, by which means he may be suppressed. The writer once met a man whose home is in a village noted as the headquarters of a daring and unscrupulous band of thieves. Having been robbed by them with no prospect of any redress through legal channels, this man collected a band of athletes and attacked the thieves in the vicinity of the village where they made their home, so belabouring them that the band removed its headquarters elsewhere.

It is a useful, but by no means a necessary qualification of the bully, that he should be a poor man, with nothing to lose. Poverty in China is often a synonym for the most abject misery and want. The entire possessions of great numbers of the people would not amount in value to five dollars, and thousands of persons never know whence the next meal is to come. Such persons would in European countries constitute what are called “the dangerous classes.” In China, unless their distress is extreme, they do not mass themselves, and they seldom wage war against society as a whole. But individuals of this type may, if they have other requisite abilities, become “village kings,” and order the course of current events much according to their own will.

Such persons, in the figurative language of the Chinese, are called “barefoot men,” in allusion to their destitute condition, and it is a common saying that “the barefoot man (otherwise known as ‘mud-legs’) is not afraid of him who has stockings on his feet,” for the former can at once retreat into the mud, where the latter dare not follow. In other words, the barefoot man is able to hold in terror the man who has property to lose, by an open or an implicit threat of vengeance, against which the man of property cannot safeguard himself.

The forms which this vengeance will take vary according to circumstances. One of the most common is that of incendiary fires, which, in a thickly inhabited village, where there is often a large accumulation of fuel stacked up, is a mode of attack particularly to be dreaded. It is always easy to set a fire, but difficult and frequently impossible to extinguish it. We have known numberless instances of this sort, in which, despite all diligence, no one was ever detected in setting the fire. The terror which such fires inspire is so great, that the man who is thought to be specially liable to them may be marked and avoided for that reason alone. It is considered unsafe to have anything to do with him, much less to aid him in extinguishing his fires. In one case of this sort, the same individual was repeatedly visited with incendiary fires, and on the last occasion all his carts were totally destroyed, nothing remaining but the tires of the wheels. It was afterward found that strong leather straps had been used to bind the wheels to the framework of the shed in which they were kept, so that any attempt to drag the carts out was certain to fail.

Another method by which the bully signifies his dissatisfaction with his enemy, is by injuring his crops. In a country where the farms are subdivided into mere fragments, every farmer’s land is contiguous to that of a great number of other persons. As already mentioned a large farm will often consist of scores of different pieces of ground, which have been bought as opportunity offered. When the land is planted, and again when the harvest is gathered, excellent opportunity is afforded for disputes. The little bushes which serve as boundaries of the fields of different owners, in regions where stone posts are too expensive, are readily destroyed or removed, and in any case the boundaries are more or less inexact, leaving room for uncertainty as to the precise point at which one piece of ground ends and another begins.

It is in such situations as this that the bully is at his best. It is well understood that he will suffer no loss, and that whoever happens to be his neighbour, will literally have “a hard row to hoe.” There are sometimes sections of ground, such as those belonging to public uses, river embankments, the land of certain temples, and the like, which no one but a bully could cultivate at all, because the crops must be defended against invasion from all quarters, and only a bully can furnish the necessary skill and ferocity to protect himself.

In his essay on Lord Clive, Macaulay mentions the circumstance which was still remembered in Shropshire, that in his boyish days the great Indian soldier “formed all the idle lads of the town into a kind of predatory army, and compelled the shopkeepers to submit to a tribute of apples and half-pence, in consideration of which he guaranteed the security of the windows.” Young Robert Clive had hit upon the precise principle by which the Chinese bully maintains himself in perpetual rule, a principle indeed as old as the race:

“The good old rule, the simple plan
That those should take who have the power,
And those should keep who can.”

The means of enforcing these exactions is always at hand, and is expressed in one fateful and compound noun, law-suit. The bully who understands his business is well acquainted with every one at the district yamen, and is in fact one of their best customers, or rather the man who brings them their custom. The yamen is the spider’s web, and the bully is the large insect which drives the flies into the net, where it will go ill with them ere they escape.

If his adversary is rich, the bully may adopt the plan of leaving a bag of smuggled salt in the doorway of the rich man, at the same time taking care to have a “salt inspector” ready to seize the salt, and bring an accusation against the man of means as a defier of the law. The “salt inspectors” are themselves smugglers, selected for their expertness in the art, and like all other underlings in Chinese official life they are quite free from the trammels of any sort of conscience. From a suit of this kind no rich man would be likely to escape without the sacrifice of many thousand strings of cash, being not improbably forced to furnish the funds for repairing a city wall, for rebuilding a temple, or some other public work. The capacity to conduct successfully a lawsuit is in China what it must have been in Bagdad during the time of the Caliph Haroun Al Raschid to wear the Cap of Darkness and Shoes of Swiftness. Such agencies defy all foes except those similarly equipped. And as in the Arabian Nights there are many stories of magicians warring with magicians who also “did so with their enchantments,” in like manner when Chinese bullies meet in a legal fight at a yamen, it is a battle of giants.

The most expert of all this dreaded class is the bully who is also a literary man, perhaps a hsiu-ts’ai, or Bachelor of Arts, and who thus has a special prestige of his own, securing him a hearing where others would fail of it, guaranteeing him immunity from beating in open court, to which others are liable, and enabling him to prepare accusations for himself or others, and to be certain of the bearing of these documents upon the case in hand.

These advantages are so great, that it is not uncommon to find persons who make no secret of the fact that their main motive in submitting to the toils requisite to gain the lowest literary degree, is that they may be able, during the rest of their lives, to make use of this leverage as a means of raising themselves and of harming their neighbours. Any Chinese bully is greatly to be feared, but none is so formidable as the literary bully.

One other type of Chinese bully must not fail of mention, for it is in some respects the most unique of all, to wit the female bully. Her traits are, mutatis mutandis, the same as those of the individuals already mentioned, but her mere existence is so great a departure from our ordinary conceptions of Chinese social life, that it needs a word of explanation. She is simply an evolution of her surroundings. Skill in speech, physical violence in act, and an executive talent are her endowments, and her usefulness to the perennially hungry “wolves and tigers” of the yamen is such that she is called their draught-horse to draw victims. Like her male compatriots, she is able from her value to the underlings of the yamen to conduct a lawsuit of her own, without any of those numberless and vexatious expenses which suck out the lifeblood of ordinary victims. This makes her a terrible, if not an invulnerable, foe, and those who are wise will beware of her. According to a Chinese proverb, a woman is more to be dreaded in such cases than a graduate of the second degree. It is a saying of a certain humorous philosopher, that “one hornet can break up a whole camp-meeting, when he feels well.” How much mischief one Chinese bully can accomplish in an average lifetime, it is impossible to estimate.

While the government of China appears to have elements of extreme stability, it is at the same time often practically weak in the very points where it most needs strength, namely, in its capacity to put forth powerful and sudden efforts. Whenever any uprising of the people takes place, there is generally nothing to prevent its gaining a great momentum, owing to the incapacity of the local authorities to cope with it. The same phenomenon is seen in any personal affray between single individuals. There are no police to arrest the one who commits a breach of the peace, and it is only by the intervention of third parties, friendly to the principals, that order is restored. But if either of the parties is able to bring a large force to bear upon the person whom he attacks, he is almost certain to be victorious.

It is at this point that the organisation of the followers of the bully proves a formidable foe to the peace of Chinese society. Let us suppose that a man has a violent personal quarrel with an enemy. An outbreak of their feud occurs at a great fair, such as abound at almost all seasons of the year. One of the men is intimate with another man who is a professional bully and who has within call a number of associates who can be depended upon in an emergency. The man who knows the bully goes to him and tells him of the grievance and asks his help. The bully lets it be known among his comrades that a friend is in need of assistance, and that their services will be called for. The party assembled goes to that section of the fair-ground where congregate the dealers in sticks used for supports for awnings, etc., and each man “borrows” a stout sapling, promising to return it later. With this lawless band, like the forces of Robin Hood, the bully sets upon his victim and wins an easy victory. None of the spectators will interfere in a brawl of this sort, for the consequences might be most serious. It does not follow that there is any regular organization among the rough members of the dangerous classes who are assembled, except that they are ready to unite in anything which promises the joy of battle, and a probable reward in the shape of a complimentary feast.

Cases of this sort, which are by no means of infrequent occurrence, exhibit the weakness of the Chinese government, but they also exhibit its strength. If the millions of China were not satisfied with the existing rule, nothing would be easier than for them to unite and overthrow it. But the security of the government is based mainly upon the well-understood and well-ascertained fact that the people as a whole have no wish to overturn the system under which they live, as well as upon the equally indisputable fact that, with the Chinese, effective combination is an exceedingly difficult matter.

The assemblage of bands of men under the virtual direction of a leader is a menace to the peace of the whole region in which they live, and it is not strange that Magistrates of such Districts live a life which is not to be envied. As plunder is often the real object of these combinations, the yamen of the Magistrate is as likely to be the point of attack as any other place, which makes it necessary that the official shall provide himself with trained athletes, who shall be able to meet and repel assaults made at night. Cases are occasionally reported in the Peking Gazette, where in spite of this precaution the yamen was robbed, and the seal actually carried off, to the ruin of the Magistrate, upon whom perhaps the people are glad to be revenged.

The existence of such small and lawless forces in the midst of Chinese social life, quiet and orderly as that life ordinarily is, renders it certain that outbreaks will continually occur. But these attacks are not all from one side. There are in Chinese many proverbial sayings referring to the tiger, which have a metaphorical significance, and really denote the person whom we have named the bully, who is regarded as a social tiger. One of these sayings is to the effect that a tiger who has wounded too many men, is liable to fall into a mountain ravine. This means that the bully who has made enemies of too many people will at last himself fall into trouble, and then his enemies will be able to have their revenge upon him.

Cases of this sort are constantly occurring, and often result in one or more murders, which must be reported, and which are sometimes narrated in detail in the Peking Gazette. It is not uncommon to hear of instances in which bullies have been attacked by large bands of men, many of them formerly the victims of the bully. Sometimes he is kidnapped, and sometimes he is killed outright. The method by which the village wars and clan fights of the Fu-kien and Kuang-tung provinces are conducted, probably bears a close analogy to these proceedings. They appear to be trials of strength between neighbouring rivals, conducted upon the plan of warfare during the middle ages in which the feudal system reigned. The local Magistrates take care not to interfere too soon or too far, lest it be the worse for them. When the fight is over the officers put in an appearance, arrests are made, and the machinery of government recovers from its temporary paralysis.

We have spoken of the literary bully as one of those most to be dreaded in China. But there is another qualification which a bully may possess, either with or without that of learning, which makes him an almost irresistible enemy. If he belongs to a family, one or more members of which are in official life and have a certain degree of power with the official class, such a man is a dangerous foe. Instances are constantly coming to light, not only in the native papers of China but also in memorials in the Peking Gazette (to which we have so frequently had occasion to refer), showing how difficult, or rather how altogether hopeless, it is to deal with such offenders. Even in cases of the most wanton murder, there is always some way by which the matter can be adjusted, and there is no assurance that the influential culprit gets any real punishment at all.

The following instance which occurred more than a generation ago, in a District near to that in which the writer lived for a long time, illustrates the kind of proceedings to which reference is made.

During the eighteenth century there lived in that County a family named Lu, one of the members of which attained to the lofty eminence of Ko Lao, or Grand Secretary. A family of this class, especially if it should be the only one of the sort in the District, exerts a commanding influence, and it is necessary for the local Magistrate to conduct himself discreetly, in order not to win the ill-will of such a powerful corporation. It is well if he is able to collect from them even the ordinary land-tax, which all the soil of the empire is supposed to pay.

It is related of this family that, upon one occasion having been ordered by the District Magistrate to collect this tax, the local constable was unable to do as he was told. Having been repeatedly beaten for his delinquencies in this respect, he presented himself at the entrance of the premises of his wealthy neighbour, and with earnest prostrations begged the gatekeeper to intercede for him, and get the tax paid.

The elderly widow who was the manager of the establishment, having been informed of this plea, ordered her cart harnessed, and proceeded to the District Magistrate’s yamen, for an interview. The official perhaps entertained a wild hope that she had come to settle up her arrears of taxes, and even planned to borrow a sum of money of her, but she soon dispelled this idea, by telling him in so many words that she herself required a “loan” of a certain number of thousands of tA|ls, which the Magistrate was obliged to promise to get for her, at the earliest possible moment. As she rose to take her leave, she remarked incidentally that her gatekeeper had been much annoyed by some of the yamen underlings who hung about the premises under pretence of wanting a grain-tax, adding that she should expect to hear no more of such proceedings in future!

Upon another occasion, while the Ko Lao himself was alive, a complaint was made to the District Magistrate that a son of the Ko Lao had a maidservant, who was virtually imprisoned in the family mansion. She was originally hired having been betrothed, but although it was time for her to be married, her employer refused to let her go. The Magistrate sent for the son of the Ko Lao, made known the charge, and desired the release of the person detained. He even went to the length of beating the attendant of the Lu family, who had accompanied his master, the latter being himself too lofty a subject for punishment. The son went to his home in a towering rage, and wrote a letter to his father in Peking, detailing the circumstances. Soon after this, the Magistrate received the news of his promotion from the grade of Sub-prefect to that of Prefect, in the province of SsA ch’uan.

The journey to a new post is often a most serious matter for an official, and where, as in this case, he has the entire empire to cross, the trouble and expense are very great. He had no sooner reached this distant post, than he received a notification that he was promoted to another in the province of YA1/4n-nan, again involving an expensive and tedious journey. When he had at length taken up the duties of this office it was only to be informed that he was promoted afresh to the high rank of Tao-t’ai in a region beyond the Great Wall. He now began to perceive the significance of this strange series of events, and wholly unable either to bear the ills which he already had, or to support the prospect of perhaps greater ones yet to come, he “swallowed gold,” and thus escaped further promotion and ruin!