Chinese Characteristics (5th edition)/Chapter II

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Chinese Characteristics (5th edition)  (1894)  by Arthur Henderson Smith
Chapter II: Economy.
Chinese Characteristics - A Chinese Kitchen, Showing Method of Preparing Food.jpg

A Chinese Kitchen, Showing Method of Preparing Food.



THE word "economy" signifies the rule by which the house should be ordered, especially with reference to the relation between expenditure and income. Economy, as we understand the term, may be displayed in three several ways: by limiting the number of wants, by preventing waste, and by the adjustment of forces in such a manner as to make a little represent a great deal. In each of these ways the Chinese are pre-eminently economical.

One of the first things which impress the traveller in China is the extremely simple diet of the people. The vast bulk of the population seems to depend upon a few articles, such as rice, beans in various preparations, millet, garden vegetables, and fish. These, with a few other things, form the staple of countless millions, supplemented it may be on the feast-days, or other special occasions, with a bit of meat.

Now that so much attention is given in Western lands to the contrivance of ways in which to furnish nourishing food to the very poor, at a minimum cost, it is not without interest to learn the undoubted fact that, in ordinary years, it is in China quite possible to furnish wholesome food in abundant quantity at a cost for each adult of not more than two cents a day. Even in famine times, thousands of persons have been kept alive for months on an allowance of not more than a cent and a half a day. This implies the general existence in China of a high degree of skill in the preparation of food. Poor and coarse as their food often is, insipid and even repulsive as it not infrequently seems to the foreigner, it is impossible not to recognise the fact that, in the cooking and serving of what they have, the Chinese are past-masters of the culinary art. In this particular, Mr. Wingrove Cooke ranked them below the French, and above the English (and he might have added the Americans). Whether they are really below any one of these nationalities we are by no means so certain as Mr. Cooke may have been, but their superiority to some of them is beyond dispute. In the few simple articles which we have mentioned, it is evident that even from the point of view of the scientific physiologist, the Chinese have made a wise choice of their staple foods. The thoroughness of their mode of preparing food, and the great variety in which these few constituents are constantly presented, are known to all who have paid the least attention to Chinese cookery.

Another fact of extreme significance does not force itself upon our notice, but can easily be verified. There is very little waste in the preparation of Chinese food, and everything is made to do as much duty as possible. What there is left after an ordinary Chinese family have finished one of their meals would represent but a fraction of the net cost of the food. In illustration of this general fact, it is only necessary to glance at the physical condition of the Chinese dog or cat. On the leavings of human beings it is the unhappy function of these animals to "live," and their lives are uniformly protracted at "a poor dying rate." The populations of new countries are proverbially wasteful, and we have not the least doubt that it would be possible to support sixty millions of Asiatics in comparative luxury with the materials daily wasted in a land like the United States, where a living is easily to be had. But we should like to see how many human beings could be fattened from what there is left after as many Chinese have "eaten to repletion," and the servants or children have all had their turn at the remains! Even the tea left in the cups is poured back into the teapot to be heated again.

It is a fact which cannot fail to force itself upon our notice at every turn, that the Chinese are not as a race gifted with that extreme fastidiousness in regard to food which is frequently developed in Western lands. All is fish that comes to their net, and there is very little which does not come there first or last. In the northern parts of China the horse, the mule, the ox, and the donkey are in universal use, and in large districts the camel is made to do full duty. Doubtless it will appear to some of our readers that economy is carried too far, when we mention that it is the general practice to eat all of these animals as soon as they expire, no matter whether the cause of death be an accident, old age, or disease. This is done as a matter of course, and occasions no remark whatever, nor is the habit given up because the animal may chance to have died of some epidemic malady, such as the pleuro-pneumonia in cattle. Such meat is not considered so wholesome as that of animals which have died of other diseases, and this truth is recognised in the lower scale of prices asked for it, but it is all sold, and is all eaten. Certain disturbances of the human organisations into which such diseased meat has entered are well recognised by the people, but it is doubtless considered more economical to eat the meat at the reduced rates, and run the risk of the consequences, which, it should be said, are by no means constant. Dead dogs and cats are subject to the same processes of absorption as dead horses, mules, and donkeys. We have been personally cognisant of several cases in which villagers cooked and ate dogs which had been purposely poisoned by strychnine to get rid of them. On one of these occasions some one was thoughtful enough to consult a foreign physician as to the probable results, but as the animal was "already in the pot," the survivors could not make up their minds to forego the luxury of a feast, and no harm appeared to come of their indulgence!

Another example of Chinese economy in relation to the preparation of food is found in the nice adjustment of the material of the cooking-kettles to the exigencies of the requisite fuel. The latter is scarce and dear, and consists generally of nothing but the leaves, stalks, and roots of the crops, making a rapid blaze which quickly disappears. To meet the deeds of the case the bottoms of the boilers are made as thin as possible, and require very careful handling. The whole business of collecting this indispensable fuel is an additional example of economy in an extreme form. Every smallest child, who can do nothing else, can at least gather fuel. The vast army of fuel-gatherers, which in the autumn and winter overspread all the land, leave not a weed behind the hungry teeth of their bamboo rakes. Boys are sent into the trees to beat off with clubs the autumnal leaves, as if they were chestnuts, and even straws are scarcely allowed leisure to show which way the wind blows, before some enterprising collector has "seized" them.

Every Chinese housewife knows how to make the most of her materials. Her dress is not in its pattern or its construction wasteful like those of her sisters in Occidental countries, but all is planned to save time, strength, and material. The tiniest scrap of foreign stuff is always welcome to a Chinese woman, who will make it reappear in forms of utility if not of beauty, of which a whole parliament of authoresses of "Domestic Economies" would never have dreamed. What cannot be employed in one place is sure to be just the thing for another, and a mere trifle of bias stuff is sufficient for the binding of a shoe. The benevolent person in London or New York who gives away the clothing for which he has no further use entertains a wild hope that it may not be the means of making the recipients paupers, and so do more harm than good. But whoever bestows similar articles upon the Chinese, though the stuffs which they use and the style of wear are so radically different from ours, has a well-grounded confidence that the usefulness of those particular articles has now at last begun, and will not be exhausted till there is nothing left of them for a base with which other materials can unite.

The Chinese often present their friends with complimentary inscriptions written on paper loosely basted upon a silk background. Basting is adopted instead of pasting, in order that the recipient may, if he chooses, eventually remove the inscription, when he will have a very serviceable piece of silk!

Chinese economy is exhibited in the transactions of retail merchants, to whom nothing is too small for attention. A dealer in odds and ends, for example, is able to give the precise number of matches in a box of each of the different kinds, and he knows to a fraction the profit on each box.

Every scrap of a Chinese account-book is liable to be utilised in pasting up windows, or in the covering of paper lanterns.

The Chinese constantly carry their economy to the point of depriving themselves of food of which they are really in need. They see nothing irrational in this, but do it as a matter of course. A good example is given in Dr. B. C. Henry's "The Cross and the Dragon." He was carried by three coolies for five hours a distance of twenty-three miles, his bearers then returning to Canton to get the breakfast which was furnished them. Forty-six miles before breakfast, with a heavy load half the way, to save five cents!

In another case two chair coolies had gone with a chair thirty-five miles, and were returning by boat, having had nothing to eat since 6 a.m., rather than pay three cents for two large bowls of rice. The boat ran aground, and did not reach Canton till 2 p.m. next day. Yet these men, having gone twenty-seven hours without food, carrying a load thirty-five miles, offered to take Dr. Henry fifteen miles more to Canton, and but for his baggage would have done so!

Many of the fruits of Chinese economy are not at all pleasing to the Westerners, but we cannot help admitting the genuine nature of the claim which may be built on them. In parts of the Empire, especially (strange to say) in the north, the children of both sexes roam around in the costume of the Garden of Eden, for many months of the year. This comes to be considered more comfortable for them, but the primary motive is economy. The stridulous squeak of the vast army of Chinese wheelbarrows is due to the absence of the few drops of oil which might stop it, but which never do stop it, because to those who are gifted with "an absence of nerves" the squeak is cheaper than the oil.

If a Japanese emigrates, it is specified in his contract that he is to be furnished daily with so many gallons of hot water, in which he may, according to custom, parboil himself. The Chinese have their bathing-houses too, but the greater part of the Chinese people never go near them, nor indeed ever saw one. "Do you wash your child every day?" said an inquisitive foreign lady to a Chinese mother, who was seen throwing shovelfuls of dust over her progeny, and then wiping it off with an old broom. "Wash him every day!" was the indignant response; "he was never washed since he was born!" To the Chinese generally, the motto could never be made even intelligible which was put in his window by a dealer in soap, "Cheaper than dirt."

The Chinese doubtless regard the average foreigner as it is said the Italians do the English, whom they term "soap-wasters." Washing of clothes in China by and for the Chinese there certainly is, but it is on a very subdued scale, and in comparison with what we call cleanliness it might almost be left out of account. Economy of material has much to do with this, as we cannot help thinking, for many Chinese appreciate clean things as much as we do, and some of them are models of neatness, albeit under heavy disadvantages.

It is due to the instinct of economy that it is generally impossible to buy any tool ready-made. You get the parts in a "raw" shape, and adjust the handles, etc., yourselves. It is generally cheaper to do this for one's self than to have it done, and as every one takes this view of it, nothing is to be had ready-made.

We have spoken of economical adjustments of material, such as that found in ordinary houses, where a dim light, which costs next to nothing, is made to diffuse its darkness over two apartments by being placed in a hole in the dividing wall. The best examples of such adjustments are to be found in Chinese manufactures, such as the weaving of all kinds of fabrics, working in pottery, metal, ivory, etc. Industries of this sort do not seem to us to exemplify ingenuity so much as they illustrate Chinese economy. Many better ways can be devised of doing Chinese work than the ways which they adopt, but none which make insignificant materials go further than they do with the Chinese. They seem to be able to do almost everything by means of almost nothing, and this is a characteristic generally of their productions, whether simple or complex. It applies as well to their iron-foundries, on a minute scale of completeness in a small yard, as to a cooking-range of strong and perfect draft, made in an hour out of a pile of mud bricks, lasting indefinitely, operating perfectly, and costing nothing.

No better and more characteristic example of economy of materials in accomplishing great tasks could be found, even in China, than the arrangements, or rather the entire lack of arrangements, for the handling of the enormous amount of grain which is sent as tribute to Peking. This comes up the Peiho from Tientsin, and is discharged at T'ung-chou. It would surprise a "Corn Exchange" merchant to find that all the machinery needed for unloading, measuring, and removing this mountain of rice and millet is simply an army of coolies, a supply of boxes made like a truiicated cone, which are the "bushel" measures, and an indefinite number of reed mats. Only this and nothing more. The mats are spread on the ground, the grain is emptied, remeasured, sacked, and sent off, and the mats being taken up, the Emperor's Com Exchange is once more a mere mud-bank!

On an American tobacco plantation one of the heaviest expenses is the building of the long and carefully constructed sheds for drying. In Chinese tobacco farms there is for this object no expense at all. The sheds are made of thatch, and when they are worn out the old material is just as good for fuel as the new. When the tobacco is picked, the stout, stiff stalks are left standing. Straw ropes are stretched along these stalks, and upon the ropes are hung the tobacco leaves, which are taken in at night with the ropes attached, like clothes hung to a line. For simplicity and effectiveness this device could hardly be excelled.

Every observant resident in China would be able to add to these illustrations of a Chinese social fact, but perhaps no more characteristic instance could be cited than the case of an old Chinese woman, who was found hobbling along in a painfully slow way, and on inquiry of whom it was ascertained that she was going to the home of a relative, so as to die in a place convenient to the family graveyard, and thus avoid the expense of coffin-bearers for so long a distance!