Read CHAPTER VII of In Eastern Seas The Commission of H.M.S. 'Iron Duke‚' flag-ship in China‚ 1878-83 , free online book, by J. J. Smith, on

“Then Kublai Khan gave the word of command
And they all poured into the Central Land.”

I suppose there are few amongst us, sailors though we are, who, as boys at school when reading of China, have never expressed a wish to see that land for themselves, to say nothing of making the acquaintance of its quaint old-world people in their very own homes. In my imagination I had covered its goodly soil with wondrous palaces, all sparkling with splendour and embellished with all that art could furnish or riches command. I had peopled its broad plains with bright beautiful forms in silken attire, amongst whom a love of the elegant and the beautiful pervaded all classes of the community, and who in long ages ago had attained to arts and learning which it has taken us centuries of careful study and elaborate research to acquire. Yea, it was always a wonderland to me, even down to the present year; such is the power which the associations formed by the child exercise over the mind of the man. Yet were we prepared to meet a people who should, in almost all things, differ from almost all other peoples. In the last particular we are not deceived; in all else, yes. But I wont anticipate.

In this little book I shall not be able to tell you a tithe of what may be told of this land did I feel competent to do so. Volumes have been written on the subject, and still the half has not been said. I purpose, therefore, henceforward to intersperse with the narrative of our own doings, just so much of the manners and customs of the Chinese and Japanese, as every sailor possessed of the ordinary powers of vision may see for himself.

January 4th. The harbour of Hong Kong is reached from the sea by means of a rather long and tortuous passage, with bleak barren heights on either hand, the channel being in some parts so narrow that there is scarce room for the ship to turn.

The island itself rendered either “red harbour” or “fragrant streams,” which you prefer, though neither seems applicable, certainly not the latter if by fragrance is meant what we mean by it lies on the southern seaboard of China. It became British in 1842, on the conclusion of the first Chinese war. The city of Victoria is situated on its northern side, and stands on a beautiful land-locked harbour, formed by the island on the one hand and the peninsula of Kowloon (also British) on the other a sheet of water which always presents a gay and animated appearance, from the thousands of vessels and boats which cover its surface like a mosaic.

It is not without some difficulty that we push our way through the thronging craft, principally little boats termed “sampans,” to our moorings abreast of the Dockyard. Curious craft withal, and serving a double purpose; for besides their legitimate one, whole families live and move, are born, and die in them; the necessary accommodation being furnished by an ingenious arrangement of hatches, floors, and partitions, and, as it seems highly fashionable that the Chinese mammas should be making constant additions to the population, the squalling of the young celestials betrays a healthiness of lung, and a knowledge of its capabilities, scarcely to be credited of such small humanity.

The earlier fate of these infantile members of the boat population is sad. They are exposed to a “rough-and-tumble” existence as soon as they are ushered into the world, especially should the poor innocent have the misfortune to be born a girl baby, for in that case she has simply to shift for herself, the inhuman parents considering themselves fortunate if they lose a girl or two overboard. The boys, or “bull” children, as they are termed, meet with rather more care relatively speaking. As, from the nature of their occupation, but little time can be devoted to nursing the mother being compelled to constant labour at the oar the child is slung on to her back, and, as she moves to and fro with the stroke of the oar, the babe’s soft face bobs in unison against its mother’s back, a fact which will perhaps explain how it is that the lower class Chinese wear their noses flattened out on their two cheeks rather than in the prominent position usually selected by that organ.

It is amazing how wonderfully quick the Chinese pick up a colloquial foreign tongue; the same tailor for instance experiencing no difficulty in making himself understood in English, French, Russian, or Spanish; English, though, is the language par excellence along all the China seaboard. So universal is it that a foreigner must needs know something of our tongue to make himself intelligible to the ordinary Chinaman; and, more remarkable still, there is such a vast difference between the spoken dialects of north and south China nay, even between any two provinces in the “Flowery Land” that I have known some of our native domestics from the Canton district, when talking with their countrymen of Chefoo, communicate their ideas and wants in English, because their own medium failed them; the difference between the native dialects being as broad as that between English and Dutch.

Though such a diversity exists orally, the written character is common, and expresses exactly the same idea all over the empire, and beyond it in Japan, Corea, and the Loo Choo islands.

The Chinese are splendid workmen, providing you can furnish them with a model or copy, for there is very little genius, properly so-called, attached to John Chinaman.

Their imitative faculty and powers of memory are really wonderful; as an instance of the former perhaps the following may not be amiss:

“In the earlier days of the first occupation, the English residents of Hong Kong were often placed in difficulties about their clothing, Chinamen not having attained to that perfection in the tailors’ art which they now have acquired. On one occasion an old coat was supplied to a native tailor as a guide to the construction of a new one; it so happened the old garment had a carefully mended rent in its sleeve a circumstance the man was prompt to notice setting to at once, with infinite pains, to make a tear of a similar size and shape in the new coat, and to re-sew it with the exact number of stitches as in the original.”

The old stories we have heard at home about a Chinaman’s tail being designed that by it he may be hoisted to heaven, and that if he lose it he may never hope to reach that desirable altitude, have really no foundation in fact, nor is it a fact, as sailors are apt to believe, that it is nurtured for their special benefit as a convenient handle for playing off practical jokes on the luckless possessors; the truth being that the “queue,” now so universally prized amongst them, is a symbol of conquest forced upon them by their hated Tartar-masters. Previous to the seventeenth century the inhabitants of the middle kingdom wore their hair much after the style of the people of Corea, but after the Manchu conquest they were compelled to adopt the present mode.

The city of Victoria is very prettily situated on the slopes of an eminence which culminates in a peak at an altitude of 1300 feet, and from which a most charming and cheerful view of the sea on the one side, and the harbour and the yellow sand-stone hills of China on the other.

It is allowed to be the most cosmopolitan city in the world. Representatives of races far in excess of the Pentecostal catalogue, may be encountered in its streets in any hour’s walk; men of all shades of colour and of every religious creed live here side by side in apparent perfect harmony. The Chinese who form the bulk of the population live entirely apart from the “Ung-moh” (red hair devils) as they flatteringly term us. English manners and customs do not seem to have influenced the native mind in the smallest degree, in spite of our charities and schools a fact we cannot wonder at, taking into account our diabolical origin.

The town by which I mean the European part of it possesses many public and private buildings of almost palatial grandeur. Of these, Government house, the City hall including the museum and reading room, the cathedral and college, the various banks, and the residences of the great merchants may be cited as examples. There is also a fine botanical garden, not nearly so large as that at Singapore, but perhaps scarcely less beautiful, and an extensive recreation and drill ground, where one may see curious sights! pigtailed, loose-robed Chinamen wielding the cricket-bat, and dealing the ball some creditable raps too.

There is perhaps only one good street in the colony, Victoria street or Queen’s road; this traverses the city from end to end, and constitutes the great business thoroughfare of the place. After about an hour’s walk along it, for the first part under an arcade of trees, we find ourselves in the filthy, unsavoury Chinese quarter, as the nose is careful to remind you if there be any doubt about it. They are certainly a very dirty race, these Chinamen; the dirtiest on earth, I should be inclined to say, considering their boasted civilization and vaunted morals; and, though compelled by our sanitary laws to live somewhat more cleanly than their enthralled brethren on the continent, still they are dirty, and I’ll hazard to say a sight of the Chinese of this town would soon dispel any illusions one might have nourished to the contrary. A subsequent visit to the native city of Shanghai shewed us to what disgusting depths humanity can descend in this particular.

This enterprising people possess some very fine shops, where you can purchase every known European commodity at cheaper rates than of the European firms. Every shop has a huge sign-board depending from the top of the house to the bottom, whereon is recorded in vermillion and gold characters, not so much the name as the virtues of the man within, sometimes, too, his genealogical tree is appended. Such expressions as “no cheating here” or “I cannot deceive,” are common, but, in nearly every case, belie the character of the proprietor, who is a living libel on the word honesty. Honesty! old Shylock even would blush for them.

Here, where there is protection for life and property, a shopkeeper surprises you at the rich and grand display of his wares. In China proper, a dealer dare not show all he is worth for fear of the mandarins, who, should one chance to pass that way, would in all probability, cast his covetous eyes on the poor man’s property, and demand whatever had taken his fancy. Nor may a poor man be in possession of an article inconsistent with his position in the social scale he may not be the owner of a tiger’s skin, for instance, as none but mandarins and people of similar position, are permitted such luxuries. This reminds one of the time, not so very remote, when similar restrictions were placed on dress in England.

This system of mulcting is known all over China as “cum-shaw,” a system, too, which I would advise all sailors to adopt in their dealings with the slippery race if they would not be robbed. The vendor dare not say nay to a mandarin; and, though it is a point of etiquette on the part of the big man to offer payment, it is equally a point of etiquette for the tradesman to refuse: a fact, it is said, the mandarin always calculates on.

In addition to the orthodox shop, the streets are lined with itinerants, orange stalls, betel-nut tables, heaps of rags, and sundries, baskets of vegetables of very strange appearance and strong penetrating odours, half-cooked roots and leaves for the people never eat a well-cooked root or vegetable; it is from these principally that the intolerable stench is proceeding.

What the Chinese eat is a mystery, and such queer compounds enter into their menu that I would give everybody who dines with a Chinaman this advice don’t enquire too minutely into what is placed before you, or you will eat nothing, and so offend your host; bolt it and fancy it is something nice and fancy goes for something at times, I can assure you. That it requires a tremendous effort on the part of the human stomach, the subjoined “Bill of Fare” of a dinner given to Governor Hennessey by one of the Chinese guilds will, perhaps, serve to shew:

Birds’ Nest Soup.

Pigeons’ Egg Soup.

Fungus Soup.

Fried Sharks’ Fins.

Bêche-de-mer and Wild Duck.

Stewed Chicken and Sharks’ Fins.

Fish Maw.

Minced Partridge.

Ham and Capon.

Meat Ball and Fungus.

Boiled Shell Fish.

Pig’s Throat, stewed.

Minced Shell Fish with Greens.

Chicken Gruel Salad.

Stewed Mushrooms.

Pig’s Leg, stewed.

Roast Capon. Roast Mutton.

Roast Pig. Roast Goose.

Fruits. Melon Seeds.

Preserves. Almonds.

Cats, too, are entertained as food, though I believe only by the extremely poor, to whom nothing seems to come amiss. One may frequently meet in the streets vendors of poor puss, easily recognisable by their suggestive cry, “mow (miow?) youk” cat-meat!

One is struck with astonishment at the vast crowds which always throng the streets, each unit of which seems intent on some most important business, and looks as though its accomplishment absorbed his whole being. Perhaps it is only a few ounces of fish which he carries suspended from his ringer by a cord; but if it were the emperor’s diamonds he could not conduct himself with more importance.

The ordinary means of conveyance in China is by the sedan chair, a sort of box of cane-work supported on poles for the convenience of the bearers, of whom there are generally two, but frequently as many as six. The riding is comfortable enough, and the springy motion imparted by the rider’s weight is one of the pleasantest sensations I know of. Of course our tars, immediately they come on shore and see something new, want to find out all about it: hence sedan chairs are all the go, and a bad time the poor coolies have of it, too; for “Jack” is all motion, especially if he be in that semi-apathetic state known as “east half south,” as it not unfrequently happens that he is. He compels his bearers to tax their powers of endurance to the utmost, urging them by all the endearing epithets in the nautical vocabulary to unheard-of exertions, regardless of the luckless pedestrians in the way.

Whilst we are on the return voyage through Queen’s road, I must just say a word or two about the people’s costume, which, as we observe, is nearly the same for both sexes; for if there be any difference, it is but slight in detail. Their dress is the most unbecoming and ungraceful it is possible to conceive, and yet, we are bound to admit, most refined. Had the women the redeeming quality of beauty, or the charm of a pretty face, possibly even this dress might appear to better advantage. A coarse-looking black or blue blouse, of that material known to us as “nankeen,” a tiny apron confined to the waist by a slender scarlet cord their only bit of bright color short wide trousers, almost as broad at the bottoms as they are long, bare legs and feet such is a vision of the Chinese woman of the working classes. The dress of a lady differs from this only in the nature of the material of which the garments are made in their case, silk as a rule stockinged feet, and silk shoes with thick while, though extremely light, soles. Nations, like individuals, have their fopperies; the celestials display this quality, particularly in the coverings for the feet. The shoe, especially of the females, is, beyond question, the most tasteful article in their costume. It is, as I have said before, made of silk, generally of a lavender, salmon, or rose color, embroidered in beautiful and artistic patterns of leaves, flowers, and insects. The soles are of the whitest doeskin; and so particular are they that they shall retain their unsullied appearance, that, like the cats, they seldom walk through a wet or muddy street.

The system of binding the feet of the women is by no means so universal as we have been led to believe, and we must confess to having been deceived in this matter; we all thought, probably, to have seen all the women with that useful member reduced to the dimensions of a baby’s foot instead of which, what do we really see? scarce one deformed woman in all our walks. Yet this nation considers this cramped, tortured lump (it has lost all semblance to a foot) an index of beauty.

Their hair is by far their finest possession, which, with their large almond-shaped eyes, is invariably of a black color. I once saw a Chinaman with red hair, and you cannot think how ludicrous his queue looked beside the sable tails of his brethren. The manner in which the women dress their hair is most wonderful, and materially helps to give them their uninviting appearance. They have a fashion of sticking it out around the head in the shape of a teapot, stiffened with grease and slips of bamboo. That this style of head-dress enhances their ugliness very few Europeans I think will deny; for some women whom we have seen, with their hair combed neatly back over their heads and coiled up in a trace behind, looked not altogether uncomely.

The head is dressed but once in ten days; and as the people sleep in their day clothes, the possibility is they entertain about their persons a private menagerie of those interesting creatures whose name looks so vulgar in print. It is one of the commonest scenes in the streets to see a Chinaman squat on the kerb-stone and turn up a fold or two of his trousers to manipulate these little pests; and even the high officials and well-to-do people look upon it as no outrage to the proprieties, to be seen removing one of “China’s millions” from the garment of a friend or guest.