Story of China - R. Van Bergen

The Chinese at Home

In China the houses of the poor are almost without exception mud hovels, without any attempt at comfort, and barely serving as shelter against the weather. A cow-shed in the United States would appear luxurious to millions of Chinese, for there are more poor people than we can imagine. The officials and wealthy people are, of course, better housed, although their ideas of comfort are quite different from ours. Thus, for instance, the Chinese are quite anxious that there should always be a draught in the house, a discomfort which we avoid as much as possible. "We like a current of air," say the Chinese, but that is only an excuse. The true reason is that they all believe the air to be occupied by spirits, good and bad, and, if a bad spirit enters their house, they wish to give it an opportunity to leave.

In the north the houses of most of the people are built of mud. There is so little wood that it is used only in the framework of the houses of the rich and of the high officials. The walls are thick and curve slightly at the top. Most of these houses are of one story, having neither cellar nor basement. If they are composed of two, the upper one is used for recreation. The rooms on the ground floor serve for all the purposes of daily life.

The general arrangement of a Chinese dwelling of the better class is a series of rooms, separated and lighted by intervening courts. Upon entering, the door opens into a sort of waiting-room, with a servants' room on each side. Three doors, one large and two small, are opposite the entrance. The large one serves for the owner and for visitors whose rank or wealth entitles them to its use. One is reserved for the women and children, and visitors of less importance, and the third is used by the servants and humble retainers. These doors open upon a courtyard, which is entered by descending three steps. On each side is a paved gallery, in front of a room. One of these apartments is set apart for the use of the children, the other is used by the owner as a lounging-room, or to receive people whose rank does not demand ceremony. In country houses of the wealthy class the courts and apartments are broken by pretty gardens containing fountains and fish pools.

Home of wealthy chinese


Three steps, opposite those by which the courtyard is entered, lead to the drawing-room or reception room. This is flanked on both sides by several rooms, according the rank and wealth of the owner, which are reserved for his use. Behind this room are the women's quarters, where no man, except the owner and his servants, may enter. But if a man can not visit these rooms, a woman can. Miss E. R. Scidmore, in her book on China, has given us a description of her visit to the Yamen, or official residence, of a high officer whose Tai-tai (tie-tie), or lady of the house, she was permitted to see. The party were carried through four gates and into as many courtyards, in the last of which they were received by the master of the mansion. The following is an extract from her account:

"Then the ladies were led to the last dragon gate, which parted magically and brought us facing a solid screen. We rounded it, and saw the pretty tableau of the Tai-tai of the yamen and her seven young sons ranged in a row before the bright red curtain that concealed the door-way of her own boudoir or living-room. The Tai-tai stood on the tiniest of pointed slippers, and from their tips to her throat she was a mass of embroidered satins of brilliant, contrasting colors. Full trousers and skirts, each heavily embroidered, and coat upon coat, weighted the slender figure, and her blue-black hair was almost concealed with wing-like pieces, butterflies, pins, and clasps of pearls. A string of finely cut ivory beads and phenix plastrons on the back and front of her outer coat declared her official quality, and the fine, pale-yellow face was alight with an expression of pleasure that lent emphasis to the cordial, soft-voiced greetings. An attendant lifted the screen curtain, and she led us into her lofty, stone-floored room, furnished with deep, square, carved chairs and round center table, and hung with the gold-lettered red scrolls of holiday ornament. Tea was brought, and the Tai-tai, swaying on her stumps of feet, served each one with her own ivory chopsticks to fruits and cakes of many kinds."

Upper class woman


After partaking of these refreshments, her seven sons, ranging from about fourteen years to a baby in arms, were introduced, and then the Tai-tai's bedroom was thrown open for inspection. It had a stone floor, hand-carved chairs and tables along the walls, which were hung with vermilion scrolls, "a mirror and dressing-table before the window, and facing it a monumental carved canopy or alcove-bed. The bed was a hard marble shelf with many thick blankets folded at the farther side. Not a soft chair nor a floor-covering, not a common comfort, as we consider such things, was provided for this gentle, delicate, high-bred woman, despite the considerable wealth of the family."

The Tai-tai did not need much urging to remove the many superfluous garments which weighed her down, and then the wardrobe and trinkets were inspected. Ladies seem to have at least one common feeling in Asia and America! Then a visitor, the wife of another official, called, and while the Tai-tai was discussing the strangers with her latest guest, time began to hang heavily upon the hands of the first callers, and they left.

Even if the Chinese would learn nothing else from us, they could at least secure greater happiness by imitating our family life. But the Chinese will not change, and it is exactly his idea of the relation between man and wife which keeps him back from every reform.

Social life, as we understand it, does not exist in China. There are rich men, but their number is very small compared to the population. Most of the Chinese are poor, and a very large number of them are so poor that if for half-a-day they are thrown out of work, they know that during that time there will be nothing for them to eat. They are up at daybreak, and work until dark, and the word Sabbath has no meaning for them. They have three holidays in the year, and their highest idea of happiness is that on those days, and on the occasion of a wedding or a funeral, they may have a small piece of meat to eat with their rice and cabbage. Everybody in China works, except those who absolutely can not. The beggars one sees on the bridges and in the crowded streets, beg only because they have no other means to keep from starving.

It is, however, not only the poor man who must work without ceasing, but the highest officers, and even the Emperor himself, have very little time for leisure or recreation. A Cabinet Minister at Peking once gave an account of his daily duties as follows: He left his house every morning at two o'clock, because the Emperor received him in audience at three, and he was charged to remain at the palace until six. From six to nine he attended the meeting of the Privy Council, which advises the Emperor upon difficult questions. From nine until eleven he was at the War Department, and from eleven to two he sat as a member of the Supreme Court. From two to five or six he was at the Tsung-li Yamen, or Foreign Office. Such was his round of duties without intermission, and it evidently left him little time for pleasure or social life.

Whatever social life there is contains not a sign of friendship or good feeling. To slap a Chinese on the back and call him "a good old fellow," would make him your enemy for life. It would be a dire insult to ask him after the health of his wife. Wife and daughters must not be referred to by the slightest word.

Not so many years ago, the Chinese Government sent a number of boys to the United States to be educated. One day one of the boys, while walking with an American girl, met the carriage of the old Chinese who was in charge of the party. The young man took off his hat to salute. According to Chinese good manners this was a direct insult, but it was a still greater offense for him to be walking with a young lady. The members of the Chinese Government were terribly shocked when they heard of this apparently innocent matter, and it was one of the reasons why all these young men were ordered to return to China.

When a Chinese gentleman receives a caller, every word he speaks and every motion he makes is prescribed by law. Foreigners know nothing of this law, and, beyond the common rules of what we consider good-breeding, do not attempt to rival the politeness of the Chinese. Many Chinese who do not understand this consider foreigners very impolite, and consequently dislike them.

It sometimes happens that the Chinese meet their foreign acquaintances at dinner. If the dinner is given by a Chinese, the foreigner feels clumsy and awkward in handling the chopsticks. But when a Chinese is entertained by a foreigner, he does not allow himself to be inconvenienced by the knife and fork; he simply puts them down and helps himself with his fingers. He considers the foreigners very stupid not to learn how to use chopsticks, as every civilized man has done since the days of Confucius.