The Golden Chersonese and the way thither, by Isabella L. Bird

Letter iv

“Faithful unto Death” — “Foreign Devils” — Junks and Boats — Chinese Luxury — Canton Afloat — An Al Fresco Lunch–Light and Color — A Mundane Disappointment — Street Sights and Sounds — Street Costume — Food and Restaurants — A Marriage Procession — Temples and Worship — Crippled Feet

REV. B. C. HENRY’S, CANTON, January 6.

In the week in which I have been here I have given myself up to ceaseless sight-seeing. Almost the first sight that I saw on arriving in this quarter, which is in Canton itself, was a number of Christian refugees, old men, women, and children, who, having fled from a bloody persecution which is being waged against Christianity about ninety miles from Canton, are receiving shelter in the compound of the German mission. It was late in the evening, and these poor refugees, who had sacrificed much for their faith and had undergone great terror, were singing hymns, and reading and worshipping in Chinese. In the place from which they came a Christian of wealth wished to build a church, and last week he was proceeding to do so, when the heathen, instigated by the district mandarin, seized upon him and four other Christians, and when he would neither say the word nor make the obeisance which is regarded as equivalent to denying Christ, they wrapped him in cotton wadding soaked in oil, tied him to a cross, and burned him, no extremity of torture availing to shake his constancy. They cut off the arms and legs of the four other persons, tied crosses to the trunks, and then burned them. This deed, done so near Canton, has caused great horror among the foreigners both here and at Hong Kong, and the deepest sympathy is felt both with the converts and the missionary priests. In the sympathy with the heroism and sufferings of those who have been “faithful unto death,” all the Protestant missionaries join heartily, as in the belief that these victims are reckoned among “the noble army of martyrs.” It is estimated that there are seven hundred and fifty thousand Romish Christians in China, many of them of the third or fourth generation of Christians, and in some places far in the interior there are whole villages of them. The Portuguese and French missionary priests who devote themselves for life to this work, dress, eat, and live as Chinamen, and are credited with great devotion.

It is most interesting to be brought by the spectacle of these poor refugees so near to the glory and the woe of martyrdom, and to hear that the martyr spirit can still make men “obedient unto death, even the death of the cross.” A placard was posted up some time ago calling for a general massacre of the native Christians on Christmas Day. It attributes every vice to the “Foreign Devils,” and says that, “to preserve the peace and purity of Chinese Society, those whom they have corrupted must be cut off.” One phrase of this placard is, “The wickedness of these foreign devils is so great that even pigs and dogs would refuse to eat their flesh!”

Mr. and Mrs. Henry speak Chinese, and are both fearless, and familiar with the phases of Canton life. Of all the places I have seen, Canton is the most overwhelmingly interesting, fascinating, and startling. “See Canton and die,” I would almost say, and yet I can give no idea of all that has taken such a strong hold of me. I should now be quite content to see only the manifold street life, with its crowds, processions, and din, and the strange and ever-shifting water life, altogether distinct from the land life. The rice-paper pictures give a very good idea of the forms and colors of the boats, but the thousands of them, and the rate at which they are propelled, are altogether indescribable, either by pen or pencil.

There are junks with big eyes on either side of the stem, “without which they could not see their way,”* and with open bows with two six-pounders grinning through them. Along the sides there are ten guns, and at the lofty, square, quaint, broad, carved stern, two more. This heavy armament is carried nominally for protection against pirates, but its chief use is for the production of those stunning noises which Chinamen delight in on all occasions. In these helpless and unwieldy-looking vessels which are sailed with an amount of noise and apparent confusion which is absolutely shocking to anyone used to our strict nautical discipline, the rudder projects astern six feet and more, the masts are single poles, the large sails of fine matting; and what with their antique shape, rich coloring, lattice work and carving, they are the most picturesque craft afloat. Then there are “passage boats” from the whole interior network of rivers and canals, each district having its special rig and build, recognizable at once by the initiated. These sail when they can, and when they can’t are propelled by large sweeps, each of which is worked by six men who stand on a platform outside. These boats are always heavily laden, crowded with passengers and “armed to the teeth” as a protection against river pirates, and they carry crews of from thirty-five to fifty men.

[*These eyes are really charms, but the above is the explanation given to “griffins.”]

At some distance below Shameen there are moored tiers of large, two-storied house boats, with entrance doors seven feet high, always open, and doorways of rich wood carving, through which the interiors can be seen with their richly decorated altars, innumerable colored lamps, chairs, and settees of carved ebony with white marble let into the seats and backs, embroidered silk hangings, gilded mirrors and cornices, and all the extravagances of Chinese luxury. Many of them have gardens on their roofs. These are called “flower boats,” and are of noisy and evil reputation. Then there are tiers of three-roomed, comfortable house boats to let to people who make their homes on the water in summer to avoid the heat. “Marriage boats,” green and gold, with much wood carving and flags, and auspicious emblems of all kinds; river junks, with their large eyes and carved and castellated sterns lying moored in treble rows; duck boats, with their noisy inmates; florists’ boats, with platforms of growing plants for sale; two-storied boats or barges, with glass sides, floating hotels, in which evening entertainments are given with much light and noise; restaurant boats, much gilded, from which proceeds an incessant beating of gongs; washing boats, market boats, floating shops, which supply the floating population with all marketable commodities; country boats of fantastic form coming down on every wind and tide; and, queerest of all, “slipper boats,” looking absurdly like big shoes, which are propelled in and out among all the heavier craft by standing in the stern.

One of the most marvelous features of Canton is the city of house boats, floating and stationary, in which about a quarter of a million people live, and it may with truth be added are born and die. This population is quite distinct in race from the land population of Canton, which looks down upon it as a pariah and alien caste. These house boats, some of which have a single bamboo circular roof, others two roofs of different heights, and which include several thousand of the marvelous “slipper boats,” lie in tiers along the river sides, and packed closely stem and stern along the canals, forming bustling and picturesque water streets. Many of the boats moored on the canals are floating shops, and do a brisk trade, one end of the boat being the shop, the other the dwelling-house. As the “slipper boats” are only from fifteen to twenty feet long, it may be imagined, as their breadth is strictly proportionate, that the accommodation for a family is rather circumscribed, yet such a boat is not only the home of a married pair and their children, but of the eldest son with his wife and children, and not unfrequently of grandparents also! The bamboo roofs slide in a sort of telescope fashion, and the whole interior space can be inclosed and divided. The bow of the boat, whether large or small, is always the family joss house; and the water is starred at night with the dull, melancholy glimmer, fainter, though redder than a glow-worm’s light, of thousands of burning joss-sticks, making the air heavy with the odor of incense. Unlike the houses of the poor on shore, the house boats are models of cleanliness, and space is utilized and economized by adaptations more ingenious than those of a tiny yacht. These boats, which form neat rooms with matted seats by day, turn into beds at night, and the children have separate “rooms.” The men go on shore during the day and do laborer’s work, but the women seldom land, are devoted to “housewifely” duties, and besides are to be seen at all hours of day and night flying over the water, plying for hire at the landings, and ferrying goods and passengers, as strong as men, and clean, comely, and pleasant-looking; one at the stern and one at the bow, sending the floating home along with skilled and sturdy strokes. They are splendid boat-women, and not vociferous. These women don’t bandage their feet.

Their dress is dark brown or blue cotton, and consists of wide trousers and a short, loose, sleeved upper garment up to the throat. The feet are big and bare, the hair is neat and drawn back from the face into a stiff roll or chignon, and they all wear jade-stone earrings. You see a woman cooking or sewing in most housewifely style in one of these “slipper boats;” but if you hail it, she is plying the heavy oar in one moment, and as likely as not with a wise-looking baby on her back, supported by a square piece of scarlet cloth embroidered in gold and blue silks. Not one of this river population has yet received Christianity. Very little indeed is known about them and their customs, but it is said that their morals are low, and that when infanticide was less discouraged than it is now, the river was the convenient grave of many of their newly-born female children. I spent most of one afternoon alone in one of these boats, diving into all canals and traversing water streets, hanging on to junks and “passage boats,” and enjoying the variety of river life to the full.

On another day I was carried eighteen miles through Canton on a chair by four coolies, Mr. Smith and his brother walking the whole distance — a great testimony to the invigorating influences of the winter climate. As to locomotion, one must either walk or be carried. A human being is not a heavy weight for the coolies, but it is distressing to see that the shoulders of very many of them are suffering from bony tumors, arising from the pressure of the poles. We lunched in the open air upon a stone table under a banyan-tree at the “Five-storied Pagoda” which forms the north-east corner of the great wall of Canton, from which we looked down upon the singular vestiges of the nearly forgotten Tartar conquest, the walled inner city of the Tartar conquerors, containing the Tartar garrison, the Yamun (official residence) of the Tartar governor, the houses of the foreign consuls, and the unmixed Tartar population. The streets of this foreign kernel of Canton are narrow and dirty, with mean, low houses with tiled roofs nearly flat, and small courtyards, more like the houses of Western than Eastern Asia. These Tartars do not differ much in physiognomy from the Chinese. They are somewhat uglier, their stature is shorter, and the women always wear three rings in their ears. I saw more women in a single street in one day in the Tartar city than I have seen altogether in the rest of Canton.

The view from that corner of the wall (to my thinking) is beautiful, the flaming red pagoda with its many roofs; the singularly picturesque ancient gray wall, all ups and downs, watch-towers, and strongholds, the Tartar city below, with the “flowery pagoda,” the mosques, the bright foliage of the banyan, and the feathery grace of the bamboo; outside the wall the White–Cloud hills, and nearer ranges burrowed everywhere for the dead, their red and pink and orange hues harmonized by a thin blue veil, softening without obscuring, all lying in the glory of the tropic winter noon-light without heat, color without glare. Vanish all memories of grays and pale greens before this vividness, this wealth of light and color! Color is at once music and vitality, and after long deprivation I revel in it. This wall is a fine old structure, about twenty feet wide and as many high, with a broad pavement on which to walk, and a high platform on the outside, with a battlement pierced for marksmen. It is hardly ever level for ten yards, but follows the inequalities of the ground, and has picturesque towers which occur frequently. It is everywhere draped with ferns, which do not help to keep it in repair. The “Five-storied Pagoda” which flames in red at one of its angles, is a striking feature in the view. As we sat on stone seats by stone tables in what might be called its shadow, under the cloudless heaven, with the pure Orientalism of the Tartar city spread out at our feet, that unimaginable Orientalism which takes one captive at once, and, like the first sight of a palm or a banana, satisfies a longing of which one had not previously been conscious, a mundane disappointment was severely felt. We had been, as the Americans say, “exercising” for five hours in the bracing air, and I had long been conscious of a craving for solid food which no Orientalism could satisfy; and our dismay was great not only to find that the cook had put up lunch for two when there were three hungry persons, but that the chicken was so underdone that we could not eat it, and as we were not starving enough to go and feed at a cat and dog or any other Chinese restaurant, my hosts at least, who had not learned that bananas are sustenance for men as well as “food for gods,” were famished. As we ate “clem pie” or “dined with Duke Humphrey,” two water buffaloes, dark gray ungainly forms, with little more hair than elephants, recurved horns, and muzzles like deer, watched us closely, until a Tartar drove them off. Such beasts, which stand in the water and plaster themselves with mud like elephants, are the cows and draught oxen of China. Two nice Chinese boys sat by us, and Mr. Smith practiced Chinese upon them, till a man came out angrily and took them away, using many words, of which we only understood “Barbarian Devils.” The Cantonese are not rude, however. A foreign lady can walk alone without being actually molested, though as a rule Chinese women are not seen in the streets. I have certainly seen half a million men, and not more than ninety women, and those only of the poorest class. The middle and upper class women never go out except in closed palanquins with screened windows, and are nearly as much secluded as the women of India.

Passing through the Tartar city and some streets of aristocratic dullness, inhabited by wealthy merchants, we spent some hours in the mercantile quarter; which is practically one vast market or bazaar, thronged with masculine humanity from morning till night. Eight feet is the width of the widest street but one, and between the passers-by, the loungers, the people standing at stalls eating, or drinking tea, and the itinerant venders of goods, it is one long push. Then, as you are elbowing your feeble self among the big men, who are made truly monstrous by their many wadded garments of silk and brocade, you are terrified by a loud yell, and being ignominiously hustled out of the way, you become aware that the crowd has yielded place to a procession, consisting of several men in red, followed by a handsome closed palanquin, borne by four, six, or eight bearers in red liveries, in which reclines a stout, magnificently dressed mandarin, utterly oblivious of his inferiors, the representative of high caste feeling all the world over, either reading or absorbed, never taking any notice of the crowds and glitter which I find so fascinating. More men in red, and then the crowd closes up again, to be again divided by a plebeian chair like mine, or by pariahs running with a coffin fifteen feet long, shaped like the trunk of a tree, or by coolies carrying burdens slung on bamboo poles, uttering deafening cries, or by a marriage procession with songs and music, or by a funeral procession with weeping and wailing, succeeding each other incessantly. All the people in the streets are shouting at the top of their voices, the chair and baggage coolies are yelling, and to complete the bewildering din the beggars at every corner are demanding charity by striking two gongs together.

Color riots in these narrow streets, with their high houses with projecting upper stories, much carved and gilded, their deeply projecting roofs or eaves tiled with shells cut into panes, which let the light softly through, while a sky of deep bright blue fills up the narrow slit between. Then in the shadow below, which is fitfully lighted by the sunbeams, hanging from all the second stories at every possible interval of height, each house having at least two, are the richly painted boards of which I wrote before, from six to ten feet long, some black, some heavily gilded, a few orange, but the majority red and perfectly plain, except for the characters several inches long down the middle of each, gold on the red and black, and black on the gold and orange — these, with banners, festoons, and the bright blue draperies which for a hundred days indicate mourning in a house, form together a spectacle of street picturesqueness such as my eyes have never before beheld. Then all the crowd is in costume, and such costume! The prevailing color for the robe is bright blue. Even the coolies put on such a one when not working, and all above the coolies wear them in rich, ribbed silk, lined with silk of a darker shade. Over this a sleeveless jacket of rich dark blue or puce brocade, plain or quilted, is worn; the trousers, of which little is seen, being of brocade or satin. The stockings are white, and the shoes, which are on thick, white, canoe-shaped soles, are of black satin. The cap, which is always worn, and quite on the back of the head, is of black satin, and the pigtail, or plait of hair and purse silk mixed, hangs down nearly to the bottom of the robe. Then the most splendid furs are worn, and any number of quilted silk and brocade garments, one above another. And these big, prosperous-looking men, who are so richly dressed, are only the shopkeepers and the lower class of merchants. The mandarins and the rich merchants seldom put their feet to the ground.

The shops just now are filled with all sorts of brilliant and enticing things in anticipation of the great festival of the New Year, which begins on the 21st. At the New Year they are all closed, and the rich merchants vie with each other in keeping them so; those whose shops are closed the longest, sometimes even for two months, gaining a great reputation for wealth thereby. Streets are given up to shops of one kind. Thus there is the “Jade–Stone Street,” entirely given up to the making and sale of jade-stone jewelry, which is very costly, a single bracelet of the finest stone and workmanship costing 600 pounds. There is a whole street devoted to the sale of coffins; several in which nothing is sold but furniture, from common folding tables up to the costliest settees, bedsteads, and chairs of massive ebony carving; chinaware streets, book and engraving streets, streets of silk shops, streets of workers in brass, silver, and gold, who perform their delicate manipulations before your eyes; streets of second-hand clothing, where gorgeous embroideries in silk and gold can be bought for almost nothing; and so on, every street blazing with colors, splendid with costume, and abounding with wealth and variety.

We went to a “dog and cat restaurant,” where a number of richly dressed men were eating of savory dishes made from the flesh of these animals. There are thousands of butchers’ and fishmongers’ shops in Canton. At the former there are always hundreds of split and salted ducks hanging on lines, and pigs of various sizes roasted whole, or sold in joints raw; and kids and buffalo beef, and numbers of dogs and cats, which, though skinned, have the tails on to show what they are. I had some of the gelatinous “birds’-nest” soup, without knowing what it was. It is excellent; but as these nests are brought from Sumatra and are very costly, it is only a luxury of the rich. The fish shops and stalls are legion, but the fish looks sickening, as it is always cut into slices and covered with blood. The boiled chrysalis of a species of silkworm is exposed for sale as a great delicacy, and so are certain kinds of hairless, fleshy caterpillars.

In our peregrinations we came upon a Yamun, with its vestibule hung with scarlet, the marriage color as well as the official color. Within the door the “wedding garments” were hanging for the wedding guests, scarlet silk crepe, richly embroidered. Some time later the bridal procession swept through the streets, adding a new glory to the color and movement. First marched a troop of men in scarlet, carrying scarlet banners, each one emblazoned with the literary degrees of the bride’s father and grandfather. Then came ten heavily gilded, carved, and decorated pavilions, containing the marriage presents, borne on poles on the shoulders of servants; and after them the bride, carried in a locked palanquin to the bridegroom’s house, completely shrouded, the palanquin one mass of decoration in gold and blue enamel, the carving fully six inches deep; and the procession was closed by a crowd of men in scarlet, carrying the bridegroom’s literary degrees, with banners, and instruments of music. It is the China of a thousand years ago, unaltered by foreign contact.

There are many beggars, and a “Beggars’ Square,” and the beggars have a “king,” and a regular guild, with an entrance fee of 1 pound. The shopkeepers are obliged by law to give them a certain sum, and on the occasion of a marriage or any other festivity, the giver sends a fee to the “king,” on the understanding that he keeps his lieges from bothering the guests. They make a fearful noise with their two gongs. There is one on the Shameen bridge who has a callosity like a horn on his forehead, with which he strikes the pavement and produces an audible thump.

After the cleanliness, beauty, and good repair of the Japanese temples, those of Canton impress me as being very repulsive. In Japan the people preserve their temples for their exquisite beauty, and there are a great many sincere Buddhists; but China is irreligious; a nation of atheists or agnostics, or slaves of impious superstitions. In an extended tramp among temples I have not seen a single male worshiper or a thing to please the eye. The Confucian temples, to which mandarinism resorts on certain days to bow before the Confucian tablets, are now closed, and their courts are overgrown with weeds. The Buddhist temples are hideous, both outside and inside, built of a crumbling red brick, with very dirty brick floors, and the idols are frightful and tawdry. We went to several which have large monasteries attached to them, with great untidy gardens, with ponds for sacred fish and sacred tortoises, and houses for sacred pigs, whose sacredness is shown by their monstrous obesity. In the garden of the Temple of Longevity, the scene of the “Willow Pattern,” dirty and degraded priests, in spite of a liberal douceur to one of them, set upon us, clamoring kum-sha, attempting at the same time to shut us in, and the two gentlemen were obliged to use force for our extrication. In the court of the “Temple of Horrors,” which is surrounded by a number of grated cells containing life-sized figures of painted wood, undergoing at the hands of other figures such hell-torments as are decreed for certain offences, there is perpetually a crowd of fortune-tellers, and numbers of gaming tables always thronged with men and boys. Each temple has an accretion of smaller temples or shrines round it, but most, on ordinary occasions, are deserted, and all are neglected and dirty. Where we saw worshipers they were always women, some of whom looked very earnest, as they were worshiping for sick children, or to obtain boys, or to insure the fidelity of their husbands. “Worship” consists in many prostrations, in the offering of many joss-sticks, and in burning large squares of gilded paper, this being supposed to be the only way in which gold can reach either gods or ancestors. One or two of the smaller temples were thronged by women of the poorest class, whose earnest faces were very touching. Idolatry is always pathetic. It is not, however, idol worship which sits like a nightmare on China, and crushes atheists, agnostics, and heathens alike, but ancestral worship, and the tyranny of the astrologers and geomancers.

I like the faces of the lower orders of Chinese women. They are both strong and kind, and it is pleasant to see women not deformed in any way, but clothed completely in a dress which allows perfect freedom of action. The small-footed women are rarely seen out of doors; but the sewing-woman at Mrs. Smith’s has crippled feet, and I have got her shoes, which are too small for the English baby of four months old! The butler’s little daughter, aged seven, is having her feet “bandaged” for the first time, and is in torture, but bears it bravely in the hope of “getting a rich husband.” The sole of the shoe of a properly diminished foot is about two inches and a half long, but the mother of this suffering infant says, with a quiet air of truth and triumph, that Chinese women suffer less in the process of being crippled than foreign women do from wearing corsets! To these Eastern women the notion of deforming the figure for the sake of appearance only is unintelligible and repulsive. The crippling of the feet has another motive.

I. L. B.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/b/bird/isabella/golden/chapter4.html

Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:31