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


Many of the phenomena of village life which we shall have occasion to notice, are instances of the Chinese talent for cooperation.

Perhaps no more important exemplification of this principle is to be found in Chinese society than that embodied in the local self-government of the small communities of which the greater part of the empire is composed. The management of the village is in the hands of the people themselves. At first this condition of affairs is liable to be mistaken for a pure democracy, but very slight inquiry is sufficient to make it evident that while all matters of local concern are theoretically managed by the people, in practice the burden falls not upon the people as a whole, but upon the shoulders of a few persons, who in different places are called by different titles and whose functions differ as much as their designations.

The apparent dead-level uniformity of China is found upon investigation to be subject to surprising variations, not only in parts of the empire remote from one another, but in those which are separated by but a short distance. On this account it is difficult to generalize in regard to the government of villages in general, but easy to describe that of some villages, with the explanation that elsewhere the same results may be attained by means slightly different, or by the same means under different names.

Every Chinese village is a little principality by itself, although it is not uncommon for two or more which are contiguous and perhaps otherwise linked together, to manage their affairs in unison, and perhaps by the same set of persons. These headmen are sometimes styled village elders (hsiang chang, or hsiang lao), and sometimes they are termed merely managers (shou shih jen). The theory in regard to these persons is that they are chosen, or rather nominated, by their fellow-townsmen, and confirmed in their position by the District Magistrate. In some regions this is actually done, and for the good conduct of the headmen in their office the leading land-owners are required to become a security.

The designation “village elders” might be understood to denote that the persons who bear it are the oldest men in the village, but this is not necessarily the case. Neither are they necessarily the wealthiest men, although it is probable that every family of property will be in some way represented among them. They are not necessarily men of literary attainments, although this may be the case with a few.

In those regions where the method of selection is most loose, the number of headmen has no necessary relation to the size of the village; the position is not hereditary, neither is there any fixed time of service. A man may act in this capacity at one time, and refuse or neglect to do so at another time. Where this plan prevails, the headmen are not formally chosen, nor formally deposed. They drop into their places or perhaps climb into them by a kind of natural selection. The qualities which fit a villager to act as headman are the same which contribute to success in any line of business. He must be a practical person who has some native ability, acquainted with the ways of the world, as well as able and willing to devote upon occasion an indefinite amount of time and attention to the affairs which may be put in his charge.

The duties and functions of the headmen are numerous. They may be classified as those which have relation to the government of the District, those which relate to the village as such, and those which concern private individuals, and are brought to the notice of the headmen as being the persons best able to manage them.

Of the affairs which concern the government, the most important is the imperial land or grain-tax, the nature of which and the mode of collecting which vary greatly. Calls are constantly made by the local officials for government transportation, provision for the entertainment of officers on government business, materials for the repairs of the banks of rivers, work on river-banks, patrols for the Imperial roads at the season of year when travel is at its maximum, and many other similar objects.

The medium through whom the District Magistrate communicates with the village, is the “local constable,” (called the ti-fang or ti-pao,) and this individual has necessarily intimate relations with the headmen, who constitute the executive board, through which alone definite action is taken.

Among affairs which relate to a village as such, are to be named the construction and repair of the wall (if it has one), and the care of the gates (if they are closed at night), the establishment and supervision of fairs and markets, the engagement of theatrical companies, the organized watching of the crops, together with the punishment of persons detected in violating the rules which have been agreed upon, the building and repair of temples, the sinking of wells for the use of the village, or the cleaning of those which are already in use, and a great variety of other similar duties, depending upon the situation of the village and its traditions and circumstances.

It is a noteworthy fact that the government of China, while in theory more or less despotic, places no practical restrictions upon the right of free assemblage by the people for the consideration of their own affairs. The people of any village can if they choose meet every day in the year. There is no government censor present, and no restriction upon liberty of debate. The people can say what they like, and the local Magistrate neither knows nor cares what is said. The government has other security for itself than espionage, and by a system of graded responsibility, is able to hold all its subjects under strict control. But should insurrection break out, these popular rights might be extinguished in a moment, a fact of which all the people are perfectly well aware.

The methods of Chinese management being what they are, it is not surprising that those who are in the position of headmen find it, or rather make it to their advantage to stay in it. The ways in which this comes about are numerous.

There is in every village an unceasing supply of matters which do not belong to the public, but which must be adjusted by some man or men who are in the habit of transacting business, and who not only know what is to be done but how to do it. There are always Chinese who like to engage in these affairs, such as the adjustment of domestic quarrels, differences between neighbours, and the like. The headmen of the village will be certain to be frequently called upon for services of this sort.

But such labours, onerous as they often are, will be acknowledged only by the thanks of those interested, and a participation in the inevitable final feast. It is quite otherwise with such public matters as the collection of material for public uses, and the disbursement of public funds. Every village has numerous enterprises which involve the handling of money, and these enterprises must be in the hands of those competent to take charge of them.

There is not in such cases that constant struggle between the “ins” and the “outs,” which is seen in lands where the democracy is of a more flagrant type than in China. Yet even in China such contests do sometimes occur. We know of one village in which the public business had for a long time been monopolized by a band of men who had subjected themselves to the criticisms of those who, although younger, felt sure that they were not on that account the less capable. The result of the criticisms was that the incumbents withdrew from their places, leaving them to those who offered the criticisms, a method of adjustment which is known to be practiced in the government of the empire.

But it is probable that cases of such easy victory are relatively rare, for the reason that the “ins” have every opportunity to keep themselves in their position and they are for the most part not at all sensitive to criticism, being quite content to reap the substantial benefits of their position, and to leave the talking to spectators. In the ordinary matters of routine, it is easy for them to find abundant precedents for almost any irregularity, and to the Chinese precedents are most precious, as marking out the natural limits of human action.

In many villages but a small portion of the population can read well enough to inspect accounts, and many of those whose knowledge is equal to this strain upon it, have no practical familiarity with public business, with which they have never had any opportunity to become acquainted.

Many who clearly recognize the evils attending the methods in which the business of their village is managed, do not for two excellent reasons make any protest. In the first place, to do so would raise a storm about their heads, which they have no wish to encounter. Even if the movement should prove completely successful, and the present incumbents should all be removed from their places, it would be difficult, not to say impossible, to find others who would manage matters upon any plan essentially different. A change would be simply the removal of a well-fed swarm of flies, to make way for a set much more hungry, a substitution against which the fox in the fable wisely remonstrated. The Chinese wholly agree with the sagacious fox.

The course which matters take when complaint is really made, may be understood by an illustrative example with which the writer is acquainted. During one of the years in which the Yellow River made destructive breaks in central Shan-tung, an order was issued that all the counties in the province accessible to the river should furnish a certain quota of millet stalks to be used in the repair of the river-banks. These stalks were to be paid for in ready money by the government agents. But as some of the counties were situated more than two days’ journey from the river-banks, the amount received for the stalks did not cover the cost of the feed of men and animals for so long a journey. Besides this, the government officials had a ready means by which to exercise complete control over those who brought the stalks, by refusing to take over the material or to weigh it until such time as the officials might be ready. By this means, both men and teams were kept on expense, so that at last the persons who hauled stalks were only too glad to be allowed to depart without any pay at all for the loads which they had brought.

Abuses of this sort were said to be exceedingly common at that time, although on subsequent occasions we have been assured by those who have taken stalks to river-embankment, that full pay in good money was invariably given. In the village to which we refer, the business of providing and delivering the stalks was put by the District Magistrate into the hands of an elderly headman, a literary graduate. This man naturally called about him some of his former pupils, who did the practical part of the work. They took stalks three times to the place of deposit, and received in payment about 70,000 cash. Taking advantage of the general uncertainty which prevailed in regard to payments, these managers rendered no accounts to the village, but proceeded to appropriate a certain part of their receipts to their own use.

Matters continued in this way for more than a year, when some of those who were dissatisfied, called a public meeting in a village temple, and demanded a clear account of receipts and expenses, which for reasons well understood, it was impossible to give. Finding that the affair was becoming serious, the graduate got some residents of the same village to “talk peace” to the excited villagers. Their argument was this: “If we press this matter, and take it before the District Magistrate, the old graduate, who is really altogether innocent, will lose his button and will be disgraced. The others concerned will all be beaten, and this will engender hatred and feuds which will last for generations.” The middlemen then proposed that by way of settlement a feast should be prepared by the graduate, at which a representative of every surname in the village should be present, and this plan being adopted, because nothing else was feasible, the matter was buried in compulsory oblivion. This is a type of a large class of cases.

In many villages, there are those who are never so happy as when they are in a disturbance with others, and such men will be a thorn in the side of any “board of aldermen” to whose councils admission is not to be had. It is very common indeed to hear of lawsuits arising about village temples, and there is good reason to believe that it is exceptional to meet with a large ancestral temple, in connection with which quarrels have not arisen and perhaps lawsuits been prosecuted.

In some districts the temples are built rather from a general impulse to do as others do than from any sense of the need of such structures, which become a perpetual tax on the revenues of the people and a source of dispute. In such regions it is a common thing to meet with temples from which the priests have been ousted, or which they have voluntarily abandoned, finding the place too hot for them.

In one instance of this description, which occurred near the writer’s home, a certain prominent headman set on foot a lawsuit which drove several priests from a Buddhist monastery, and left only one priest where before there had been many. After the priests had left, this headman kindly took charge of the temple lands, and absorbed the entire income himself to the exclusion of the priest, dispensing altogether with rendering any account whatever for the proceeds. Even the cart and the harness which belong to the temple, are in this man’s yard as if they were his own.

Intelligent men of this village, when asked why some of them do not protest against this usurpation, always make the same reply: “Who wants to stir up a lawsuit, out of which he will gain nothing but loss? It is certainly no affair of mine.” This particular village is scarcely a type of the average, but it is a very fair sample of the more flagrant cases in which a small knot of men fasten themselves upon a Chinese community, by the same process by which many years ago the Tweed ring saddled themselves upon the city of New York. If any objection is made to their procedure, the ring inquire disdainfully, in the language of Mr. Tweed, “What are you going to do about it?” And all the people hasten to reply, “Oh, nothing at all. It is all right as it is.”

An instance of the facility with which trouble may arise in village affairs was afforded in this same town, during one of the years in which heavy rains threatened the lands of the village. A part of these lands were situated in a region subject to inundation, and the rest on higher ground. As soon as the danger of a flood became apparent, the village headmen ordered relays of men to work on a bank, which was made of whatever soil was at hand, and in order to strengthen this bank, the standing millet was pulled up by the roots, and buried in the earthwork. Those whose crops were thus ruined, had for this loss no redress whatever. It is held that the exigency of a public need justifies any injury of this kind, the persons who benefit by the sacrifice, always largely in the majority, having no disposition to make up the incidental losses. Some days after this occurred, the headmen went about collecting a definite assessment from each acre of land in the village, for the purpose of paying for the labour upon the bank previously made. They visited the house of one of the men whose crops had been destroyed, at a time when he chanced to be away from home and were met by his son, who not only manifested no awe of the village authorities, but expressed his indignation at the destruction of the family crops, and declared that instead of being called upon to contribute to the cost of the ruin which had been wrought, his family ought to be reimbursed for their own losses. However compatible such a view may appear with abstract justice, to the minds of the village headmen this was nothing less than rank treason of the most dangerous type.

When the head of the family returned, it was to find that the headmen had already left the village on their way to the District city, to enter a complaint against him, as one who refused to pay his just dues to the defence of the village. A lawsuit begun upon such a basis meant nothing less than a calamity greater than any flood that was likely to overtake him, so the distracted father hastened to pursue the headmen with offers of adjustment, made through third parties. By dint of an immense amount of talking, the headmen were induced to return to the village, without entering the city and making a formal complaint.

The father of the offending lad then appealed to certain friends living in another village, to come and intercede for him with the outraged guardians of the welfare of his own village. In the course of the next forenoon, the persons who had been entrusted with this difficult task, made their way to the village, and had interviews with some of the headmen. It was impossible to get all of these men together at any one time, but one set was first seen, and then another, until the matter had been thoroughly discussed in all its bearings. These conferences, including plans of adjustment offered, modified, rejected, amended, and afterward brought up again and again, actually consumed the whole day, and all the next night until the crowing of the cocks announced the dawn, and it was not until daylight on the second day, that the weary and disgusted “middlemen” returned to their own village, having at last succeeded in securing a reduction of the proposed fine, which was to have been an exemplary one, to a merely nominal amount.

This instance is a type of countless cases everywhere in which the evil forces of Chinese society effect a cooperation of their own, seriously modifying all other social phenomena, and leading to results of great importance.