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


It is difficult to project ourselves backward to the times of our great-grandfathers when mails were carried on horseback, the postman leisurely knitting stockings as he rode. Yet however slow, measured by modern standards, the rural life of a century and more ago, it was a varied life, ultimately anastomosing with the great currents of the age. The rate of progress of thought has no necessary correlation to the versatility or the virility of mental processes. Our ancestors may perhaps have been peasants, but they were an integral part of the land in which they dwelt, and they rose and fell with the national tides of life like boats in a harbor.

A Chinese village is physically and intellectually a fixture. Could one gaze backward through a vista of five hundred years at the panorama which that vast stretch of modern history would present, he would probably see little more and little less than he sees to-day. The buildings now standing are not indeed five hundred years old, but they are just such houses as half a millennium ago occupied the same sites, “similar and similarly situated.” Some families that then lived in adobe dwellings now flourish under roofs of tile in houses of brick. Other families have become extinct. Now and then a new one may have appeared, but this is irregular and exceptional. Those who now subsist in this collection of earth-built abodes are the lineal descendants of those who lived there when Columbus discovered America. The descendants are doing just what their ancestors did, no more, no less, no other. They cultivate the same fields in the same way (albeit a few of the crops are modern); they go to the same markets in the same invariable order; buy, sell, and wear the same articles; marry and are given in marriage according to the same pattern.

It was a shrewd suggestion of a philosopher that if we wish to understand a people, we should note what things they take for granted. The pre-suppositions of a Chinese villager are the same as those of his ancestry near and remote. There is in a Chinese village as such no intellectual life. If there happen to be literary men living in it, they form a little clique by themselves, largely out of relation to their neighbours, and likewise to most of their own families. It is an ancient aphorism that “Scholars talk of books butchers of pigs.” We have already abundantly seen that the processes of Chinese education are narrowing processes, fitting the accomplished student to run only in grooves. It is almost incredible how narrow these ruts become. Each literary examination is a crisis at which one either becomes a graduate or does not; in either case the result, whether appertaining to the student himself, the pupils whom he has coached, or his own sons, is contemplated purely as a personal and an individual matter. It is a literary lottery upon which much has been risked, and out of which it is desirable to recover if possible a prize. If that is out of the question all interest in the literary business is at an end.

Unlike his representative in Western lands, the Chinese village scholar is not a centre or source of illumination to others. His life is the ideal of “subjectivity” the quintessential essence of selfishness. It is a venerable superstition of the Chinese that though the graduate does not emerge from his own door, he knows the affairs of all under heaven. As we have already had occasion to point out, among the many rhetorical exaggerations of Chinese proverbial philosophy this aphorism may be held to take the lead. The typical scholar knows nothing whatever about all-under-heaven. He has no decided opinions one way or the other as to whether the earth is round or flat, for it is no concern of his. Neither is the current history of his own country. National affairs belong to the mandarins who get their living by them; what have such matters to do with a literary man who has taken his degree?

The writer is acquainted with an ex-schoolmaster who went into a business which often led him to a distance from home. About a year after peace had been concluded with Japan, this much-travelled merchant inquired during the progress of a call if we could inform him how the war turned out, explaining that he had heard such contradictory accounts at the capital of his province and at Tientsin that he knew not what to believe, and had judiciously held his mind entirely in suspense until he had an opportunity to see his foreign friend, who might, he thought, know for certain!

Linked with this dense ignorance and more impenetrable indifference is a most unbounded credulity. Faith in the feng-shui, or geomancy of a district is still as firmly rooted as ever in the minds of the leading literary men of the empire, as is shown by memorials in the Peking Gazette calling for changes in buildings, the erection of lucky towers, etc., because the number of successful competitors is not greater.

A scholar who thinks it necessary to beat drums in order to save the sun in an eclipse from the “Dog” which is devouring it, receives with implicit faith the announcement that in Western lands the years are a thousand days in length, with four moons all the time. If some one who has dabbled a little in chemistry reports to him a rudimentary experiment in which carbonic dioxide poured down a trough extinguishes a row of burning candles, he is at once reminded that The Master refused to speak of feats of magic, and he dismisses the whole topic with the verdict: “Of course it was done by malign spirits.”

In this fertile soil every kind of mischievous tale takes root downward, and in due time bears its bitter fruit, as many foreigners in China know to their cost. Were it not for the credulity of the literary men in China, riots against foreigners would seldom or never occur. It is a melancholy fact that vast numbers of this class, especially in the rural districts, are profoundly convinced of the truth of the worst allegations made against the men of the West, while still greater numbers are absolutely indifferent to the matter unless it happens in some way to affect themselves.

The learned and semi-intelligent vacuity of the village scholar is more than matched by the ignorant vacuity of his illiterate neighbours. If he happens to have travelled, the latter has indubitably the better education of the two, for the reason that it is based (as far as it goes) upon facts. But if he is a typical villager he has never been anywhere to speak of, and knows nothing in particular. His conversation is filled with unutterable inanitiés till he is gathered to his fathers. In every Chinese village one sees, except at the busiest times, groups of men sitting in the sunshine in winter, in the shade in summer, on some friendly stick of timber, and clustered in the little temples which constitute the village exchange. Even in the depth of winter they continue to huddle together in a vain effort to be comfortable as well as sociable, and chatter, chatter all the day, or until it is time to go to their meals. The past, present, and future state of the weather, the market prices, local gossip, and especially the details of the latest lawsuit form the warp and woof of this unending talk. What the Magistrate asked of Chang when he was examined, what Chang replied, what Wang retaliated, as well as what the Official had to say to that, with interminable iterations and profuse commentary furnish the most interesting and the most inexhaustible themes for discourse.

For any official changes unless it be that of his own District Magistrate the villager cares very little. At a time when it was supposed that His Majesty Kuang HsA1/4 had been made way with, the writer remarked to a Chinese friend that there was reason to fear that here was an empire without an Emperor. A villager of the sluggish type just mentioned, who had heard nothing of the news from Peking, inquired of what country the observation had been made, and when the answer had been given that it was the Central Empire, he reflected for a moment, and merely replied, “Oh”, with the air of one who had feared it might be worse! Yet the rustic of this class is shrewd in his own affairs, and by no means deficient in practical intelligence. He is passionately fond of hearing story-tellers and of witnessing plays having for their heroes the great men of the Three Kingdoms seventeen hundred years ago, and on occasion he might be able to tell us much about these characters and their deeds. But modern and contemporaneous history is out of his line, and lacks flavour. It is most literally none of his business, and he knows nor cares nothing about it. The whole map of Asia might be reconstructed, and it would have for him no interest whatever, provided it did not increase his taxes nor raise the price of grain.

We have already mentioned that the villager who has been far from home is a conspicuous exception to the general vacuity of mind so often to be met. He has a rich and a varied experience which he is willing although not forward to relate. But it is a striking fact that the man of this sort when he returns to go abroad no more, tends speedily to relapse into the prevailing type. He may have been in every one of the Eighteen Provinces, or possibly in foreign lands, yet on his settling down to his old ways he has no more curiosity to know what is going on elsewhere, than a man who had at some time in his life been shipwrecked would have to know what had become of the schools of fish with which for a time he was in fortuitous proximity. When it is considered how vast a proportion of the whole population live in villages, and when we contemplate in detail the meagreness and poverty of the mental output, an impressive conception is gained of the intellectual barrenness of the Flowery Empire. The phenomena which we everywhere see are the outward expression of inner forces which have been at work for more than two thousand years. The longer they are considered and the more thoroughly they are understood the more profoundly will it be seen and felt that the “answer to Confucianism is China.”