in the matter, the match being arranged by the parents of the parties; the lifting of the bride’s veil, so that the bridegroom may see her face, is the very last act of the long and complicated ceremony.
In the traditional Chinese social system four classes are distinguished: the literary, the agricultural, the artisan and the trading class. Hereditary nobility, in the European sense, scarcely exists, and the possession of an hereditary title gives in itself no special privileges. Official position is more highly esteemed than birth and the bureaucracy takes the place of the aristocracy in the west. There are, nevertheless, besides personal decorations for merit, such as the yellow jacket, five hereditary rewards for merit; these last only for a fixed number of lives. A few Chinese families, however, enjoy hereditary titles in the full sense, the chief among them being the Holy Duke of Yen (the descendant of Confucius). The Imperial Clansmen consist of those who trace their descent direct from the founder of the Manchu dynasty, and are distinguished by the privilege of wearing a yellow girdle; collateral relatives of the imperial house wear a red girdle. Twelve degrees of nobility (in a descending scale as one generation succeeds another) are conferred on the descendants of every emperor; in the thirteenth generation the descendants of emperors are merged in the general population, save that they retain the yellow girdle. The heads of eight houses, the “Iron-capped” (or helmeted) princes, maintain their titles in perpetuity by rule of primogeniture in virtue of having helped the Manchu in the conquest of China. Imperial princes apart, the highest class is that forming the civil service. (See also § Government and Administration.) The peasant class forms the bulk of the population. The majority of Chinese are small landowners; their standard of living is very low in comparison with European standards. This is in part due to the system of land tenure. A parent cannot, even if he wished to do so, leave all his land to one son. There must be substantially an equal division, the will of the father notwithstanding. As early marriages and large families are the rule, this process of continual division and subdivision has brought things down to the irreducible minimum in many places. Small patches of one-tenth or even one-twentieth of an acre are to be found as the estate of an individual landowner, and the vast majority of holdings run between one and three acres. With three acres a family is deemed very comfortable, and the possession of ten acres means luxury.
The only class which at all resembles the territorial magnates of other countries is the class of retired officials. The wealth of an official is not infrequently invested in land, and consequently there are in most provinces several families with a country seat and the usual insignia of local rank and influence. On the decease of the heads or founders of such families it is considered dignified for the sons to live together, sharing the rents and profits in common. This is sometimes continued for several generations, until the country seat becomes an agglomeration of households and the family a sort of clan. A family of this kind, with literary traditions, and with the means to educate the young men, is constantly sending its scions into the public service. These in turn bring their earnings to swell the common funds, while the rank and dignity which they may earn add to the importance and standing of the group as a whole. The members of this class are usually termed the literati or gentry.
The complex character of the Chinese is shown in various ways. Side by side with the reverence of ancestors the law recognizes the right of the parent to sell his offspring into slavery and among the poor this is not an uncommon practice, though in comparison with the total population the number of slaves is few. The kidnapping of children for sale as slaves is carried on, but there is no slave raiding. There are more female than male slaves; the descendants of male slaves acquire freedom in the fifth generation. While every Chinese man is anxious to have male children, girls are often considered superfluous.
The position of women is one of distinct inferiority; a woman is always subject to the men of her family—before marriage to her father, during marriage to her husband, in widowhood to her son; these states being known as “the three obediences.” Sons who do not, however, honour their mothers outrage public opinion. Polygamy is tolerated, secondary wives being sometimes provided by the first wife when she is growing old. Secondary wives are subordinate to first wives. A wife may be divorced for any one of seven reasons. The sale of wives is practised, but is not recognized by law. Women of the upper classes are treated with much respect. The home of a Chinese man is often in reality ruled by his mother, or by his wife as she approaches old age, a state held in veneration. Chinese women frequently prove of excellent business capacity, and those of high rank—as the recent history of China has conspicuously proved—exercise considerable influence on public affairs.
Deforming the feet of girls by binding and stopping their growth has been common for centuries. The tottering walk of the Chinese lady resulting from this deformation of the feet is the admiration of her husband and friends. Foot-binding is practised by rich and poor in all parts of the country, but is not universal. In southern and western China Hakka women and certain others never have their feet bound. It has been noted that officials (who all serve on the itinerary system) take for secondary wives natural-footed women, who are frequently slaves. Every child is one at birth, and two on what Europeans call its first birthday, the period of gestation counting as one year.
In their social intercourse the Chinese are polite and ceremonious; they do not shake hands or kiss, but prostrations (kotowing), salutations with joined hands and congratulations are common. They have no weekly day of rest, but keep many festivals, the most important being that of New Year’s Day. Debts are supposed to be paid before New Year’s Day begins and for the occasion new clothes are bought. Other notable holidays are the Festival of the First Full Moon, the Feast of Lanterns and the Festival of the Dragon Boat. A feature of the festivals is the employment of thousands of lanterns made of paper, covered with landscapes and other scenes in gorgeous colours. Of outdoor sports kite-flying is the most popular and is engaged in by adults; shuttle-cock is also a favourite game, while cards and dominoes are indoor amusements. The theatre and marionette shows are largely patronized. The habit of opium smoking is referred to elsewhere; tobacco smoking is general among both sexes.
Except in their head-dress and their shoes little distinction is made between the costumes of men and women. Both sexes wear a long loose jacket or robe which fits closely round the neck and has wide sleeves, and wide short trousers. Over the robe shorter jackets—often sleeveless—are worn, according to the weather. For winter wear the jackets are wadded, and a Chinaman will speak of “a three, four or six coat cold day.” A man’s robe is generally longer than that of a woman. Petticoats are worn by ladies on ceremonial occasions and the long robe is removed when in the house. “It is considered very unwomanly not to wear trousers, and very indelicate for a man not to have skirts to his coat.” No Chinese woman ever bares any part of her body in public—even the hands are concealed in the large sleeves—and the evening dress of European ladies is considered indelicate; but Hakka women move about freely without shoes or stockings. A Chinese man will, however, in warm weather often strip naked to the waist. Coolies frequently go bare-legged; they use sandals made of rope and possess rain-coats made of palm leaves. The garments of the poorer classes are made of cotton, generally dyed blue. Wealthy people have their clothes made of silk. Skirts and jackets are elaborately embroidered. Costly furs and fur-lined clothes are much prized, and many wealthy Chinese have fine collections of furs. Certain colours may only be used with official permission as denoting a definite rank or distinction, e.g. the yellow jacket. The colours used harmonize—the contrasts in colour seen in the clothes of Europeans is avoided. Dark purple over blue are usual colour combinations. The mourning colour is white. Common shoes are made of cotton or silk and have thick felt soles; all officials wear boots of satin into which is thrust the pipe or the fan—the latter carried equally by men and women. The fan is otherwise stuck at the back of the neck, or attached to the girdle, which may also hold the purse, watch, snuff-box and a pair of chop-sticks.
Formerly Chinese men let their hair grow sufficiently long to gather it in a knot at the top; on the conquest of the country by the Manchu they were compelled to adopt the queue or pigtail, which is often artificially lengthened by the employment of silk thread, usually black in colour. The front part of the head is shaved. As no Chinese dress their own hair, barbers are numerous and do a thriving trade. Women do not shave the head nor adopt the queue. Men wear in general a close-fitting cap, and the peasants large straw hats. Circular caps, larger at the crown than round the head and with an outward slope are worn in winter by mandarins, conical straw hats in summer. Women have elaborate head ornaments, decking their hair with artificial flowers, butterflies made of jade, gold pins and pearls. The faces of Chinese ladies are habitually rouged, their eyebrows painted. Pearl or bead necklaces are worn both by men and women. Officials and men of leisure let one or two finger nails grow long and protect them with a metal case.
The staple food of the majority of the Chinese in the south and central provinces is rice; in the northern provinces millet as well as rice is much eaten. In separate bowls are placed morsels of pork, fish, chicken, vegetables and other relishes. Rice-flour, bean-meal, macaroni, and shell fish are all largely used. Flour balls cooked in sugar are esteemed. Beef is never eaten, but Mahommedans eat mutton, and there is hardly any limit to the things the Chinese use as food. In Canton dogs which have been specially fed are an article of diet. Eggs are preserved for years in a solution of salt, lime and wood-ash, or in spirits made from rice. Condiments are highly prized, as are also preserved fruits. Special Chinese dishes are soups made from sea-slugs and a glutinous substance found in certain birds’ nests, ducks’ tongues, sharks’ fins, the brains of chickens and of fish, the sinews of deer and of whales, fish with pickled fir-tree cones, and roots of the lotus lily. A kind of beer brewed from rice is a usual drink; samshu is a spirit distilledfrom the same grain and at dinners is served hot in small bowls. Excellent
- Evidences of the social changes taking place in China are to be found in the strong movement for the education of girls, and in the formation of societies, under official patronage, to prevent the binding of women’s feet.
- It must be remembered that there is great variety in the costumes worn in the various provinces. The particulars here given are of the most general styles of dress.