Story of China - R. Van Bergen

Products of China

Poor as the great number of Chinese are, the country is well cultivated, and unless some disaster occurs produces large crops. The first thing that strikes a visitor is the exceedingly small size of the farms; next, the simplicity of the farming implements; and, lastly, the variety of the crops.

The vast number of people accounts easily for the small size of the farms; there are very few farmers in China, but the number of peasants is very great. They do not like to use machinery, but prefer to employ men and women. What implements they have are exactly the same as those which their ancestors used two thousand years ago. They use plows, harrows, and hoes, and sometimes a spade, but all of very simple make. The plow is sometimes drawn by buffaloes, but often men and women are employed. They use water wheels and chain-pumps to irrigate the land. Water wheels are seen on the banks of most rivers, the current moving the wheel, and pouring the water into a large trough. This trough empties into several channels, which run in various directions through the fields, and thus keep them constantly watered. The wheel itself is a large machine, but very light, since it is made of bamboo, as are the buckets for raising the water. The chain-pump is used to draw water from wells and ponds, and is very useful because it can be easily moved.

Plowing with buffalo


The principal food of the Chinese is rice, and the plains often seem one vast rice field, of a bright green color at first, but turning yellow when the rice is getting ripe The seed is sown first in small patches; as soon as the shoots are five or six inches high, they are transplanted to the fields, where the laborers drop them into holes, about six together. These men stand up to the ankles in water, for the rice must be kept constantly wet, or it would be spoiled. As soon as the rice is ripe the fields are drained. The harvest is about midsummer. A second crop is usually planted at once, which is harvested in November, after which the ground is planted with cabbages or some other vegetable. Sometimes there is no second crop of rice, but cotton is planted instead.

In the northwestern provinces, where it is often too cold or dry to raise rice, wheat, millet, or some other grain is grown.

Rice field


One of the most important of Chinese productions is the tea shrub, which is a species of camellia bearing a white flower without odor. It is most frequently seen about the Yang tsz', and in the province of Fuh-Kien. In these tea districts large quantities of young plants are raised every year from seeds. These seeds are gathered in October and kept during the winter months mixed with sand and earth. They are sown thickly in the spring in the corner of a farm, and transplanted when they are about a year old and ten inches high. They are then planted in rows about four feet apart. Five or six plants are placed in each hole, the holes again being four feet apart. They are allowed to grow three years, the ground between them being used to raise vegetables.

The first crop of leaves, which produces the finest quality of tea, is picked in April. One person picks about thirteen pounds of leaves a day. These leaves are brought from the plantations and spread out thinly on small bamboo trays and exposed to the sun in order that the moisture may evaporate. In about two hours the leaves are dry. They are then thrown into roasting-pans, and rapidly moved about and shaken up. The leaves make a crackling noise, and after five minutes they are drawn out quickly and dropped upon the rolling-table, where a number of men are waiting.

Each of these men takes as many leaves as he can press with his hands, and makes them up in the form of a ball, which is then rolled upon the table and pressed tightly, so that no moisture can remain. After this the leaves are shaken out upon flat trays, and again taken to the roasting-pan, where they are kept in rapid motion by the hands of the workmen.

The tea is then passed over sieves of various sizes, so that no dirt can remain, and is then assorted. When this is finished, it is refined—the coarse kinds once, the finer kinds twice.

Green tea is made either by a different method in curing the leaves, or by adding coloring matter. "Foreigners," the Chinese say, "like to have their tea uniform and pretty;" so a little Prussian blue is used. The Chinese do not drink such tea.

Sorting tea leaves


A true Chinese will not drink cold water, because he dislikes it, and believes it will make him sick; but he can drink tea all day long. When they make it, they put a few leaves in the cup, and pour hot water over them when wanted; but in stores and other places tea is always kept ready made. No milk or sugar is added. If a Chinese is traveling, he stops at an inn to take a cup of tea; if he makes a call, he is offered tea as soon as he arrives; and if he receives a caller, he at once offers him a cup of tea. He takes a cup of tea before his meal so as to get an appetite, and after a meal to promote digestion. This excessive use of tea, however, does not seem to injure him.

I will give here the advice of a Chinese expert as to how best to make tea: "Whenever the tea is to be infused for use," says Tung-po (toong-poh), "take water from a running stream and boil it over a lively fire." It is an old custom to use running water, boiled over a lively fire; that from springs in the hills is said to be the best, and river water the next, while well-water is the worst. "When making an infusion do not boil the water too hastily, as first it should begin to sparkle like crabs' eyes, then somewhat like fishes' eyes, and lastly to boil up like pearls innumerable, springing and waving about." This is his elaborate description of the way to boil the water.

These are the names of six kinds of tea much liked by the Chinese: 1. First Spring Tea. 2. White Dew. 3. Coral Dew. 4. Dewy Shoots. 5. Money Shoots. 6. Rivulet Garden Tea. Others are called White Hairs, Red Plum Blossoms, Prince's Eyebrows, and Sparrow's Tongue.

The tea shrub is from three to six feet high; the leaf has a dark green color, and an oblong, oval shape. Each plant produces about half a pound of dried leaves a year.

In the provinces near the Yang tsz' cotton is largely cultivated. Nanking has long been famous for its cotton cloth. Where mills have not yet been built, the weavers and spinners work at home. Before the planting of cotton was introduced, pastures with horses, cattle, and sheep were common in the southern part of China; but when the land began to be used for cultivation, these domestic animals were driven to the mountains. At present very few of them are seen in the plains.

The silk districts are among the most populous and prosperous of China. The peasants are employed in taking care of the mulberry plantations, which require great attention. The silkworms are kept in houses surrounded by trees, for they must have absolute quiet, because it is known that any noise hurts the younger ones especially. The women of the family have the care of the worms, and of the silk as soon as it is spun. The best silk is produced in the provinces near the lower part of the Yang tsz', but this silk is not sold except to the richest Chinese. Their damasks and crepes are finer than those made in Europe, but their velvets are not so good. Women sometimes make thirty dollars a month by embroidering shawls. This is very large pay in a country where a laborer often makes only ten cents a day.

One of the most useful plants is the bamboo. There are a great many varieties of this tree, differing in size, strength and color. It is used to build houses, to make water pipes, the cabins of sampans or family boats, ropes, etc. But the most useful articles made from it are paper and hats.

The Chinese use an enormous amount of paper. They all like to read and write, and besides, paper is always used in their sacrifices. The paper used for printing books is very thin and transparent, so that it can only be printed on one side and folded; in a Chinese book every leaf is double, with the edge uncut. They do not bind books as we do, but every work is divided into a number of separate parts, with strong paper covers. The parts in this shape are placed together, loosely, in a square case or envelope, perhaps because they do not like to hold a thick volume in the hand.



The Chinese understood the art of printing hundreds of years before we did. There are so many thousands of characters in their language that every time a book is printed, separate type must be made. The usual method of printing is this: The copy is written on very thin paper and pasted on plain blocks, from which all the blank parts are carefully cut away. Thus the characters are left raised on the surface, and the type is an exact reproduction of the writing. Movable type has now been introduced at Peking, Shanghai, and Hongkong, but this is very expensive, and the Chinese dislike to learn anything new.

In the large cities there are streets occupied by book-sellers only. The older the book, the higher the price. They say that in olden times men were better, wiser, and more honest. The Chinese like books on history best; but there are also books on medicine, agriculture, the Chinese language, religion, poetry, novels, and plays.

Besides the bamboo, the tallow tree and the camphor tree are very valuable. The first produces a vegetable wax from which candles are made, but which is also sold and exported. Camphor is a gum procured from the fresh gathered branches of the camphor tree; of its wood trunks, chests, and household furniture are made.

There is a small tree, a species of sumac, from which oozes a gum producing a varnish used to make lacquer. This varnish must be laid on perfectly smooth, and, as it requires many coats, each must be spread with the same nicety. This varnish will take any color without losing its brilliancy, so that all the painting is done upon the lacquered surface.

In the southern provinces, that is, south of the Yang tsz', may be found: oranges, lemons, pomegranates, black and white mulberries, the vine, walnut, chestnut, peach, apricot, and fig trees. There are several fruits for which we have no English names, such as the lai-chi (lie-chee), the lung-yen (loong-yen), sometimes called dragon's eye. Many of these fruits are liked by foreigners. Potatoes, yams, turnips, onions, beans, and a white kind of cabbage called pih-tsie (pee-tsie), are carefully cultivated.

In some parts of China the elephant, the rhinoceros, and the dromedary are found. There are bears in the hilly country west of Peking, and their paws are considered a delicacy by the people. Deer, wild boars, and foxes, are numerous in some provinces. There are tigers, leopards, lynxes, hyenas, and jackals. The Chinese look upon the wildcat, of which there are large numbers in the forests, as a kind of game, and eat it after it has been fed in a cage for some time.

Fishing Cormorants


Some of the native birds are beautiful. The gold and silver pheasants have been brought to America, but the Reeves' pheasant is rare, even in China. Its tail feathers are exceedingly beautiful, and six feet long. Another is called the medallion pheasant from the shape of a variety of colors which appear when it is excited. Immense flocks of wild geese and ducks cover the rivers and lakes in winter. A teal duck, known as the mandarin drake, is very common. The fishing cormorant is a brown bird resembling a pelican, with yellow bill, white throat, and whitish breast spotted with brown. When they are employed in fishing for their owners, the birds have a ring around the lower part of the neck, so that they can not swallow the fish. When they have finished their work, this ring is removed, and they are allowed to fish for themselves. A family owning two or three of these birds can easily support itself. Quails are very plentiful, and the "rice bird" appears about Canton during the harvest. Fish is eaten in large quantities by the people, and almost every variety known to us is found along the coast or in the rivers and lakes. Foreigners are fond of sturgeon, soles, carp, and shrimps. Our beautiful silver and gold fish came first from China.

Among the insects is a monstrous spider that feasts upon small birds just as our spiders eat flies. Locusts sometimes spread over a section of land and devour the crops. In the hills east of Canton butterflies of large size and brilliant colors are found; also night moths, which are caught and sent to Peking. Throughout the south, sphinx-moths of great beauty are common, as are crickets and fireflies. The most valuable insect is, of course, the silkworm.