I AM not making any pretence of dealing consecutively with events that enter my mind. They come, and I deal with the procession as it passes by. For the time being my mind dwells on China, and so I will continue my mental ramblings in that ancient empire. The subject is a vast one, and I can only at best present oddments and scraps which may interest and help my own people and perhaps others, especially to-day, when interest in the Chinese and their destiny has been aroused afresh in such dramatic fashion.
I have already spoken of China as a naval paradise. It undoubtedly was so to me, and it was more, it was - and is - a land of constant adventure and romance, and, what is quite as important, of comfort. To the delights of studying the country and its amazing history is added the never-ending fascination of watching the people, with their quaint and inscrutable characteristics, and of trying to do something, however small, to help them to work
out their salvation. Personally, I never tire of this study, and that must be my excuse for giving so considerable a part of my recollections and reflections to China.
I visited Peking in 1911, before the revolution had taken place. Naturally I went sight-seeing, and the first visit I made was to the famous Temple of Heaven. The compound enclosing this Temple, the marble Altar of Heaven and many other temples, can be said to enclose the Holy of Holies of China.
Here once a year, for hundreds of years, the Emperor proceeded in stately procession to make his annual report to his god, a ceremony unique in the magnificence of its state, and yet in its extreme simplicity. For here, annually, the Emperor slowly approached this once beautiful white marble altar, slowly mounted its marble steps, leaving members of his personal suite as he did so, according to their rank, until they became fewer and fewer, and only his sons remained in his train ; then he walked alone to the centre of this altar, and alone, unheard except by the god to whom he prayed and in whom he believed, he, the Son of Heaven, made his report as to how he had carried out his duties as Emperor during the past year.
Can any more beautiful or inspiring ceremony be imagined? The approaches to this vast compound, for it is several miles in circumference, are paved with stones worn smooth and thin by the feet of the countless numbers of devoted officials and others who have formed part of these annual ceremonies. And yet this Altar of Heaven, this Temple of Heaven, and all the other temples that should have been so sacred to the ruling dynasty, were dirty and unkempt and overgrown with moss and weeds when I saw them.
What would be thought of us if we allowed Westminster Abbey to fall into decay and neglect ? And yet this is a fair parallel. It must have taken a great number of years to produce the state in which I found the Altar of Heaven and its surroundings. And remember that the Manchu dynasty still occupied the Dragon Throne at that time.
The marble pillars forming part of the altar were displaced and, in many cases, lying on the ground, and the beautiful yellow and blue and green tilings of the roofs, overgrown with weeds, were cracked and broken and numerous pieces were scattered about the ground ready for anybody to take away and keep as souvenirs.
But the dynasty was about to fall with a crash from which it would never recover. The rulers of four centuries over four hundred million souls were to see the last of their proud line about to be ignominously imprisoned in his own palace. And can it be wondered at when their very Holy of Holies was allowed to rot and decay ?
Surely these Sons of Heaven must have turned in their graves.
I loved Peking for all that, and look forward to revisiting the old capital. It is truly Chinese, and the coming of the foreigner has made but a small mark on it. It has a mystery and charm and atmosphere which cannot be defined, and all who have once visited Peking with its ancient walls pierced by their majestic gates, its enclosed Forbidden City where the Emperor and his personal attendants lived in undisturbed seclusion, are for ever loud in its praise and jealous of those who have the good fortune to live there.
We have seen so many strikes of late that we are coming to look upon some of them as matters of course, for liberty has grown into licence - and there is the dole to cheer the loafer and comfort the shirker. But though we have at home travelled
far on the road to strike efficiency and universality, yet we have not by any means reached the perfection of the Chinese in this respect, for even the beggars amongst them have struck. Such a strike occurred only a short time before I arrived on the China Station, and the scene of what will be looked upon as an almost incredible happening was Macao.
Macao is a very old Portuguese settlement on the mainland, near Hong Kong. From the sailor's point of view its history has many attractions, for it is in the pirate region, and it was from Macao that Anson sailed to intercept the famous Spanish treasure-ship. He spent five months there refitting the battered rotten Centurion, which for two years had been fighting her way round the world with the handful of survivors of her scurvy-smitten crew. It was to Macao that Anson returned with the treasure-ship - the galleon Nuestra Signora de Cabadonga, which had on board 1,313,843 pieces of eight and 35,682 oz. of virgin silver. From Macao the Centurion sailed for Canton, and afterwards returned to England by the Cape of Good Hope. When she anchored at Spithead she had made her famous voyage of three years and nine months.
Apart from such memories Macao is a "one-horse" sort of place, and it has a way of raising the financial wind which is in keeping with its want of dignity in this respect, for the revenue is mostly derived from taxes on gambling-houses which visitors from Hong Kong are in the habit of visiting, to put their money on those sure things whose only infallibility is that they win for the bank.
This method of raising money is bad enough, but there is a very much more objectionable one, and again the gentle stranger is the fair game or victim, call it what you will.
In those days, if you visited Macao, you had no peace whatever from the moment of your landing. Filthy beggars, with diseased limbs, thrust them into your face, until in sheer disgust and self-defence you bought them off with cumshaw, which is another word for baksheesh. And when you had settled these truly obnoxious creatures and thought your way was clear you found your progress blocked by equally filthy beggars who were crawling on all-fours on the pavement. Try as you would there was no getting away from them - they were like persistent vermin, and you were completely at their mercy, with no hope of protection or redress.
Appeals to the police were useless - the police seemed always to be looking the other way. And why ? Because the beggars paid a good honest tax to the Government for the privilege of being allowed to extract your money! No wonder they looked upon you as their lawful prey.
Bear in mind that in every district in China the beggars have a guild (or union) to which they one and all belong. No unauthorised beggar is allowed to beg, and there is a head beggar to each district, who is in charge and sees that the rules of the guild are rigidly obeyed. It is said that there is a king of all the beggars who lives in great state in his palace in Peking, and has an eight-man chair and other luxuries, and is a political force in China. But of this I am not convinced.
Well, during the year in question (1909, I think), through one thing and another, the revenue fell to a very low ebb, and the council, or governing body, had to put their heads together and see about it. Naturally they went through the various sources of supply, and naturally they eventually came to the beggars' tax.
Here was a lemon that would stand some more squeezing, if you liked! What were the beggars
paying now ? 10 cents a head a week? Very well, make it 15 cents !
The guild, through the head beggar, were notified as to this, and . . . you 've guessed it . . . the beggars went on strike.
Visitors could roam about the place at peace ; not a beggar could be seen anywhere ; the police had no cause to look the other way. But the revenue from that quarter dried up absolutely.
A week passed, a month, two months. Things were getting serious. At last an official had so to demean himself as to approach the head beggar in his filthy hovel, which he doubtless called his office, and seek an explanation. It was readily forthcoming. Go back to the old tax, and the beggars would condescend to continue to beg ; otherwise, they would continue to rest.
The next day the place was once more swarming with beggars, and I have no doubt that, with a little added persistence, they soon made up for this two months' enforced rest.
I once told this story to a resident in Shanghai, and he said: "Why, that's nothing! A short while ago we had a thieves' strike here, andů.."
But I will spare the reader. Perhaps in another
book, if I ever write one, I will pluck up courage and tell the story - a true one - of how the thieves struck at Shanghai, and how they came out on top.
To be kind to beggars is part of a Chinaman's religion. By doing so he acquires merit. That the beggar is an obvious fraud makes not the slightest difference, consequently this huge and organised system of professional begging has arisen and become a permanent institution in the country.
I am reminded that when I visited Peking a friend of mine who lived there was walking with me in the evening back to our hotel. We were passing an angle made by two walls of the Forbidden City, and I noticed an enormous pile of feathers which completely filled the angle. I did not think much about this spectacle until I noticed, to my astonishment, a filthy beggar walk up, stoop down on all-fours, and work himself into the pile of feathers until he was out of sight. My friend, who was quite unperturbed, said that the pile of feathers was for beggars to sleep in. They paid a few "cash" a night for the privilege, and were quite satisfied with the result. The money collected in this manner went into the funds of the beggars' guild, or union.
The Chinese beggar is a first-class actor. His duty
is to make out that he is terribly poor or cold or ill, or all three together. That he is not at all poor, or that it happens to be a broiling day in midsummer, or that he is feeling particularly fit, makes no difference. He has his part to play, and the passer-by his. The result is that the one obtains cumshaw and the other acquires merit - an exchange eminently satisfactory to both.
A good illustration of this astonishing custom is afforded by a visit I made to the native city of Shanghai in the summer of 1922.
During the course of a shopping expedition I found myself at a spot where several roads crossed, in the heart of the city. The traffic here was particularly dense, but in spite of this I saw a woman crouching on the ground on all-fours, in the middle of the "Square," and covering a naked infant which lay on the ground. You see the idea ? She is so poor that she cannot afford to clothe her child, and so she has perforce to cover it with her own body to keep it warm! And this in a temperature of 90 degrees in the shade ! The traffic, much to everybody's inconvenience, makes a detour round this living fraud, but nobody complains. She is playing her part, and no doubt paying a pretty big rent
to some official for the privilege of being allowed to do so. And the passers-by may acquire merit "While you wait" by the simple expedient of parting with a few "cash."
All Chinese "boys" like to have a "chit" from their last employer giving them a character and stating the degree of their ability. They are very proud of these chits, though often enough they are quite unable to understand what is written on them.
A friend of mine once told me that he was in need of a cook, and a Chinaman applying for the post presented a "chit" from his late master. It read as follows : "Ah Loong has served as cook in my house for three months. It seemed longer. He left on account of ill-health - mine." The "boy" was so proud of his "chit," which he did not in the least understand, that he was completely mystified when he knew that even the "chit" had failed to secure the job for him.
The following is a story against the British Navy, but as the event took place many years ago and gives an insight into the psychology of the Chinaman, I think I can risk putting it into print.
A small British gunboat was made fast to a bank of the West River, Canton. The place was some
where near the middle of a well-known shooting district ; the time, about three o'clock on a summer's afternoon. Naturally the captain and surgeon, keen sportsmen both, were ashore with their guns. Equally naturally - it being a very hot day - the ship's company were asleep. A supreme quiet reigned over all, and the great heat and one thing added to another (which would include a very hearty luncheon, for the British bluejacket must have his pound of beef, even in the tropics), and, well, the quartermaster joined his brethren in the land of nod.
The only person stirring was the wardroom "boy," who was preparing tea in the galley.
Fate would naturally arrange that at that moment a band of brigands, headed by an arch-brigand and intent on brigandage (a quite normal occupation in China), should pass that way.
Now these particular brigands were new to the river, having only recently arrived from the interior. It naturally followed that the arch-brigand, seeing an apparently defenceless steamer extending such a warm invitation to be looted, stalked on board with his company.
Hearing a noise, the "boy" ran out of the galley and confronted him.
"What do you think you are doing?" asked the " boy."
"None of your lip," said the arch-brigand, or words to that effect in Chinese. "We propose to loot this fine ship forthwith and," holding a pistol at his head, "you shall show us the way to the treasures ! "
"But you can't do that," protested the "boy." "This is a British warship!"
"Oh, sorry," said the arch-brigand, most politely and considerately. "But why didn't you say so before ? "And he and his men stalked ashore again.
Perhaps some of my readers will need an assurance that this strange tale is true. It is.
I will end this rambling chapter with a little illustration of the smallness of the world, when it comes to meeting people you know in odd parts of it.
At this time (1911) I had not seen my youngest sister for about two years, that is, since about three months before leaving England for the China Station. She was in Germany at the time, undergoing that mysterious educational process known as "finishing." But I had often heard from her, and her last letter
on this occasion was to tell me how sorry she was that the only other English girl at the school was leaving to join her people in some remote part of the world, with a quite unpronounceable name.
We were cruising in North China at this time, and amongst other places visited Newchwang, in those days a small shipping port.
I was walking ashore with another officer in the afternoon, when we were passed by a girl who looked so hard at me that I took my hat off and stopped.
"Are you Mr. Hartford?" she said. "Well, you will be interested to hear that two months ago I left the school in Germany where your sister and I were the only two English girls. She is my greatest friend, and I recognised you by your resemblance to her!"
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