Story of China - R. Van Bergen

A Chinese City

The first thing that strikes a foreigner in a Chinese city is the streets. They are exceedingly narrow, are paved with stone slabs, and there are no sidewalks. These slabs are wonderfully irregular, because the Chinese think it unlucky to put them down evenly. The houses are packed as closely as possible, and are generally of one story. There are no public squares, gardens or parks. The only open spaces are those found in front of the temples. If a fire breaks out, there is no means of stopping it, for such a thing as a fire department does not exist. The owners, however, do not wait for the ground to get cool before they are building again.



Signboards and advertisements are seen everywhere. The houses are low, but there are signboards eight or ten feet long. The Chinese do not put them up lengthwise, as we do, but hang them down; because they do not write as we do, from left to right, but from top to bottom. Every store has a name, generally a high-sounding one. Here is a coal dealer. Those two characters are the name of his store. They signify in plain English: Heavenly Ornament. That does not mean that coal is a heavenly ornament, but that the owner is modest enough to think he is. Across the street is an undertaker whose sign reads: United and Prosperous. That fur merchant yonder seems to be satisfied with himself, for he calls his place of business: Virtuous and Abundant. Perhaps the Chinese are not often praised by other people, so they praise themselves.

The streets are too narrow and the roads too uneven for carriages. There is no opportunity to take a ride, but when we are tired of walking, we can hire a sedan chair. The officers and wealthy Chinese have handsome ones, but those for hire at the street corners are very shabby. Most of them are made of bamboo, and look as if they would break down if a man of ordinary weight were to sit in them. It seems almost impossible for two chairs to pass in these crowded, narrow streets. But they do, and you can hear the coolies shout: "Look out for your backs! Look out for your backs!". There are also queer-looking wheel-barrows that are made so that two people can sit on them and be trundled along by a coolie. They are all busy, these Chinese. You do not see any ladies out shopping, nor gentlemen walking in the streets. But you see hundreds of coolies, some carrying baskets of rice, others buckets slung from the ends of a pole, and filled with river or well water, which they sell to their customers. Water pipes and faucets are luxuries which these people do not possess.

Passenger wheelbarrow


Here is another traveler in the shape of a water buffalo, plodding his way along, guided by his driver, a small boy, proudly sitting upon the animal's back. There is a barber, busily employed in cutting the hairs from a customer's ear. Behind the buffalo comes a procession. First two Yamen runners, messengers of a high official, armed with whips. They are followed by some fourteen-year-old boys carrying large painted boards, inscribed with the characters: "Stand aside," and "Respectful silence, please!"

Chinese Barber


Then follows the handsomely decorated sedan chair of the Mandarin (mahn-dah-reen), in his fine robes of satin. His umbrella-bearer comes right behind the chair.

The streets are narrow enough, yet at both sides are stalls or booths occupied by traveling tradesmen. In one of these a tinker is busy mending some old iron ware; next to him is a physician who seems to be recommending his medicine to the gaping crowd around him. Opposite him, in quiet contemplation of his wealth, sits the money-changer. His capital does not seem to exceed five dollars, but probably he does not care to display any more. Some of these poor-looking money-changers would astonish us considerably if they could be made to tell us of the sums of money they control.

Would you like to try a Chinese luncheon? The smell is enough for you, you think? Still, we may as well take a look. I am sure that you will not find any puppies, cats, rats, snakes, or worms in this shop, and I do not think that the Chinese are very fond of them themselves. Here are sausage balls smelling of garlic, minced beef and celery, slices of fried fish, dumplings of fat pork sprinkled with sugar, and other Chinese delicacies.

There is a man in a loose yellow robe who is a begging priest; he has no queue, for his head is shaved. As he walks along he strikes a wooden drum fastened around his waist. It makes a dull and hollow sound. Such drums are used in the temples while the priests are chanting their prayers. The Chinese are taught that if they give alms to these begging priests it will help them after they are dead. What they give is dropped in the small wallet or satchel which you see strapped on the back of the priest.

Beggars! They are as thick in China as flies in June. Here is a whole string of blind men, moving along in Indian file, and holding by each other's coats. They go from one store to another, and every storekeeper gives them something. But sometimes they will pass one or more stores without stopping. The owners of these stores give every year a certain sum of money to the King of the Beggars to secure them from daily annoyance.

Beggars suffering from every disease are squatting or crawling about on the street corners. Their whining cries for alms are scarcely less distressing than their horrid appearance. When they notice a well-dressed Chinese approaching, they kow-tow, that is, they knock their fore-heads against the hard stones of the street. Some of them wear a thick leather pad around the head.

Here is the stall of a fortune teller. Let us watch him. That young man is telling him that he is thinking of leaving home for a while, and wants to know if his journey will be lucky or not. The fortune teller takes a cage with several birds in it, and, picking up a few grains of rice, calls one of the birds. Then he shuffles what looks like a pack of cards—papers with answers to the most common questions written on them. The bird is told to pick out a card. He pecks at one of them, and the fortune teller reads what is written on it. "The journey will not be lucky at this time. You will lose money by it. Stay at home and wait for a lucky day!" The young man pays his fee and goes away. You may be sure that he will postpone his journey.

Let us look in at this florist's shop. Here he comes himself, with several shallow bamboo baskets filled with fine plants. In early spring he sells the sweet-scented flowers of the lamei (lah-may) and the pretty pink blossoms of the almond. Later on in the season, he has azaleas, roses, pinks, and peonies, pomegranates, and water lilies. In early fall the brilliant coxcombs, with their large flowers, are the favorite. The Chinese are fond of the chrysanthemum, the passion flower, and the aster. The sweet scent of the Kwei-wha (kwy-whah), or fragrant olive, is very pleasant, especially among the vile odors of a Chinese street. The flower pots which you see in the store, some of which are very handsome, come from the famous potteries of Chin-teh-tsin (chin tay-tsin), near Po-yang (poh-yahng) Lake.

Wealthy Chinese engage florists by the year to bring them fresh flowers. Thus you may see in their courtyards the narcissus and camellia in the middle of winter.

This open space shows that we are near a Yamen, or judge's office. That gate is the entrance. Those odd-looking stone animals guarding it are supposed to be lions. Do you notice how timidly the children look at them? They believe that they are stone lions only in the daytime but that at night they come to life and roam through the streets of the city.

Here is a man walking along with two large and deep bamboo baskets slung from a pole, and a little flag with the characters: "Respect printed paper!" They seem to expect him in this street, for doors open and menservants come out with waste-paper baskets, which they empty into his. What do you think he will do with these scraps? He is paid by a society to gather them, and they are sent to a temple where there is a furnace to burn them. The Chinese have the greatest respect for learning, and think it is a shame to treat written paper with disrespect. They can not understand how we can step upon it in the street, or use it to wrap parcels in. They think that we can not have any good writers, because we care so little for written or printed paper.

Now let us go into this handsome crockery store. After we have entered, a servant comes and offers us a cup of tea. Those vases, some of them five feet high and painted in delicate colors, are very expensive. You may take your choice of wine pots, teacups, and articles which we use, such as tea sets with handles to the cups, teapots, plates, dishes, etc. Offer the shopman about one-half of the price he asks. Never fear! he will take it, and make a good profit. He would be greatly disappointed if you were to pay him his own price, for then he would blame himself for not asking twice as much. A Chinese storekeeper loves to bargain.

Here is a tea-house. This is the place where the Chinese meet their friends. They drink tea, and nibble at peanuts and melon seeds, and talk over the news of the day. They will sit here for hours, and when they leave and pay the bill, it is about—one penny!

What are the names of the streets we have passed? I will tell you. We began with that of Perpetual Comfort, then we passed through Filial Piety Lane, and turned into the Court of Eternal Harmony; where we saw the Judge's Yamen. Afterwards we went through New Street, Horsetail Lane, Thread-and-Needle Alley, the Street of Heavenly Treasures, and now we are in the Chia Family Street, which leads to the gate: This gate is closely covered with advertisements. There are notices of Buddhist celebrations, rewards for the finding of people who have disappeared, advertisements of patent medicines, kerosene oil, and other goods, just as we see in our cities. But we see something here that we have never seen at home,—the heads of criminals, hanging in small bamboo cages, just beyond the heavy stone gateways. Looking at them we remember that we are in China.