China's Story - William Griffis

Who and Whence?

The people called Chinese are a composite formed of hundreds of tribes. The Chinaman, like the American, is made up of many kinds of man. The reason why there is no common spoken language all over the empire is because of these ancient bodies of foreigners, now fused into the mass, whose thought and speech have made dialects, just as in Southern Europe are many languages.

To the "griffin" or foreigner newly arrived on Chinese soil all Chinese look exactly alike. Even the traveler who penetrates the interior can only by keen observation and long experience distinguish a Mongol from a Manchu or a Tibetan from a Cantonese. The expert also is puzzled when many subjects of the Chinese emperor gather in one company from all parts. When they dress in foreign clothes, few Europeans can tell whether the men whom they see are Japanese, Koreans, Annamese, or Pekingese.

In a word, in China a great many different kinds of men of various origins have been so blended together by one social system and one general method of dress, manners, and life that they cannot at first be distinguished. Never elsewhere on earth did so many millions of people become so much like one another as those who dwell in the eastern half of Asia. If all the tribes and nations of humanity were to stream past a certain point, every fourth person would be a Chinese.

All this, however, is very different from the reality in early ages. So many human beings have been made like one another, first, because of a wonderful social system that, like a crucible set in white-hot anthracite, melts into uniformity whatever falls into it; and, second, because they were so long separated from the rest of the world by the great impassable things in nature. Steppes and deserts on the north, high mountains on the west, and the ocean on the east walled them in. In the days before the magnetic compass, when keeled ships did not exist, and there were no routes by water, except those within sight of the coast, the fearsome Sea of Darkness sufficed to keep strangers away. The mountains shut in and kept out, and on the deserts men could not live. China thus escaped conquest.

Gorge leading to Jin Fu San.


So, as in a walled garden, or like squirrels in a cage, having a similar environment and living on much the same food, it is no wonder that the Chinese have become as much alike as they are. The "Hundred Families," as they call themselves, formed for ages a self-centered hermit nation. Yet there are mighty differences in China, even as inside the forest there are various trees, and these we shall consider. Let us now look at their home:

The empire on the map is shaped like a rough triangle with its point toward Europe, its jagged base resting along the sea, while the irregular side lines from east to west converge in Central Asia, near Kashgar.

From west to east the land consists of height, slope, and level. Its physical geography is more interesting than any description. China owns the roof of the world, which is Tibet. There we find a region, cold, full of mountains and of the sand and gravel which have been ground from them. It is rich in ice and snow, with a few fertile plains and many valleys. On this plateau are the cradles of Asia's great rivers. Those flowing outside the mountain walls make the Ganges, Irawaddy, Sal-win, and Mekong. Those which rush eastward across China, cutting deep gorges through the in-cline before reaching level land, are the Whang Ho, Yang-tse, and Si rivers.

This long slope, or vast inclined plane, through which three great rivers have worn their way, furnishes the second division or set of altitudes in the great empire. Three immense gorges, or defiles, like mighty canals, have thus been cut out during the long ages. The billions of tons of earth which these streams have brought down from the higher land have been deposited below, forming the great fertile plains, both inland and along the sea, on which the larger part of the population of China is found to-day. A steady river of wind also, blowing from the west, after ages of activity, has deposited the vast yellow beds of loess, or loam, of various height, forming the great plain of northern China, on which many tens of millions of people live.

Thus the landscape is a triple formation, consisting of plateau, incline, and sea-level; the first averaging in altitude 12,000 feet; the second being roughly from 3000 to 6000 feet high; while the densely populated rolling land rises from 600 to 3000 feet above the sea-plain. Not a little of the fertile soil in the northeast, in the Yang-tse basin, and along the West River valley to the south, is almost on the level of the sea. The Yang-tse River is "the girdle of China," is most navigable of all China's streams, and is in the centre of its largest trade.

Large areas of the empire are uninhabited, or sparsely settled. A redistribution of population is needed in order that waste land shall be tilled and the pressure on the food-supply relieved. The replanting of the forests with greater variety of grain food, other than rice, the opening of the mines, the exploitation of the metallic and mineral wealth, and the building of railroads, making all regions accessible, will accomplish this with benefit to all. The masses are crowded in river valleys and on plains where rice is most easily cultivated.

The Chinese suffer to-day because they abused nature in early times. With the prodigality of youth, and never thinking of want, they cut down their forests without replanting. Now, over large areas the rain falls, but runs off at once as if from a roof, carrying down into the rivers and the sea billions of tons of earth that would be fertile if kept in place with its moisture retained. From the treeless hills, and from land robbed of its roots and underbrush for fuel, the soil is blown out to sea by the winds. To clothe the hills again with Nature's covering is China's duty. This lack of forests is the cause of alternate droughts and floods, which cause untold suffering and the loss of many millions of lives because of famine and drowning. China needs the engineer, the forester, the miner, and the railway builder. She may then be able to support a vastly greater population, for no land on earth of equal area exceeds China proper in fertility.

The various countries make up an empire containing one third of Asia, or about four and a half million square miles. No one knows its population, which is supposed by many to be over four hundred millions, but some think it less. The government claims a total of four hundred and twenty-six millions.

Notable differences exist, not only between the people of the North and those of the South, but also between the highlanders, the valley men, and those dwelling on the sea-plains. There is not, and never has been, a uniform speech. Writing and literature have always been the national bond. Indeed, the history of China will show us that in no country in the world have letters had a more profound influence, not only on the social, but also on the political development of a nation. Dialects arose in China very much as did French, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, and other Romance languages of Southern Europe. The speech of the conquerors won, but the old ideas, idioms, thought-forms, and much of the vocabulary remained. Chinese dialects are as truly languages as are those in Europe derived from the Latin. The "Mandarin," created from the written forms, is the standard of the spoken language.

Nobody knows whence or how the first people, the primeval fathers of the Chinese, came into the old home, but all traditions point to their entrance from the West. The fortieth parallel of north latitude is the oldest pathway of nations. They passed from central Asia down the valley of the Tarim, where are still famous cities, through Turkestan, across the Gobi desert, and into the valleys of the Yellow River.

This great stream, called the Hoang Ho, or Whang Ho, flows southeastwardly from the high-lands of Tibet. After cutting out mighty gorges in the long slope, it makes a tremendous bend to the north. Then flowing southward, it turns eastward from its great loop and debouches at present into the Gulf of Pechili. It has changed its course very many times, so that a map of the old channels, now dry and become fields, looks like a tangled skein of thread. Oftener, in ages past, it flowed into the sea at different points north of the promontory province of Shantung, but in many other cases it leaped southward, occasionally emptying its waters only a few miles away from its greater comrade, the Yang-tse. Its yellow color, whence its name, reveals its history. For ages past, "China's Sorrow" has wrought vast destruction of property, ruining houses and fertile fields and drowning millions of human beings, or bringing them to their death through famine. It constantly tends to raise its bed, and needs a greater engineer than China has yet produced to curb it. In history it has been what the Rhine is to Western Europe.

Into the Yellow River valley, before written history, bands of people entered with their faces to the rising sun. Industrious, peacefully inclined, ready to learn and to progress, they showed very early a capacity for self-development, and began an evolution, through ceaseless industry, toward the great triumphs of to-day. While most of what is Chinese has been evolved from within, much also has been imported from the West. We cannot say how much, though some have tried to tell us. China's astronomy and measurements of time are certainly borrowed from the same source as ours, Chaldea.

The Chinese is frugal, temperate, and laborious.

He runs to muscle rather than to nerve, and to body rather than to brain. Whereas the Hindoo is small of limb and frame, and large in head development, the Chinese tends to stockiness. The typical man of India enjoys intellectual discipline, but while the normal Chinese cultivates his mind, he does not give himself to abstractions. He lives on the earth. The mind of Confucius rose no higher.

Besides its fertility and variety of soil and scenery, China proper, where most of the people live, contains eighteen provinces and one third of the empire. It is well watered, and has many lake regions, which are yet to become playgrounds for the world's tourists. China proper is shaped, very appropriately, like a great round-bodied teapot, with one foot resting upon Hai-nan Island and another upon Burma. Shantung is its spout, while the eyes for the loops of the handle are the provinces of Chili on the east and Kangsi on the northwest.

Tibet, the cold highland of Asia and the cradle of its rivers, long the dwelling-place of the Grand Lana, and mysterious because unknown, the Pure Wrest, or Paradise of the Buddhists, the land of sheep and the yak, has only in late years been penetrated by daring explorers. It contains 812,000 square miles, and about 2,300,000 people.

In the extreme northwest, and north of Tibet, are East Turkestan and Ili, or Sungaria. Here, as in Mongolia, are great desert plateaus of dry sand. Of their early history we know but little, yet they were once populous. Beneath their drifting sands and dust are many buried cities. The name Gobi means "dried-up sea." Here water is worth more than gold, and the guide-marks for the routes of caravans are the bones of camels and horses. Yet large armies have crossed this desert waste, aided by the oases which dot the plain. In the Russian expeditions of Generals Skobeleff and Kaufmann to Mery and Khiva, in the last century, about twenty thousand camels died. In reality this is debatable land between the Russians and Chinese. The population in both provinces does not exceed two millions.

Mongolia, high, cool, and grassy, has much desert land, but is rich in camels, herds, and flocks. Out of these highlands, as from a geyser, in recurrent overflows, have gone forth both to the East and to the West many streams of humanity to influence history and civilization. To this source we can trace the Huns, Vandals, and other destructive hordes which assisted in breaking up the Roman Empire, and the Turks of later days. Going southward and eastward, as they scattered, they took on different names.

Ming tombs


The Mongols overwhelmed China. In India they were called Moguls. Moving westward in a cloud of devastation they camped on Russian soil for over two centuries. To-day the Mongol coming to Peking, as camel driver, with long trains of camels, is the object of chaffing by his more civilized neighbor, the Chinese. The term "Mongolian," absurdly applied in late times to the Chinese, is a relic of the days when the science of ethnology was in its infancy.

Manchuria, with its area of 363,610 square miles, much of it fertile, includes the three eastern, or imperial, provinces. These in recent years have become famous as the seat of Japan's two wars, with China and with Russia. It is the bean-garden of the world. Its silkworms, that feed on oak-leaves instead of the mulberry, produce vast quantities of pongee, which means either "home-made " or "wild" silk. One third of its area is nearly as low as the sea-level. Since about 1860 there has been an active immigration thither, so that the population, greatly increased in recent years, numbers now probably 25,000,000.

Out of this region came the Manchus, who, since 1644, have given to China her ruling dynasty and most of her soldiers. They introduced the current style of dressing the hair, compelling the shaving of the forehead and the wearing of the queue in token of loyalty. Until very recently, Manchus never traveled abroad. Indeed, very few Chinese have ever been in America except those coming from the southern region around Canton. There has never been any sign of a large immigration from China to the United States from northern, central, western, or eastern China; but only from the South, where for centuries the emigrants, have gone out into peninsular and island Asia.