Popular Science Monthly/Volume 35/July 1889/Farm-Life in China

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THE number of persons that may subsist upon the products of an acre of land appears to have been practically determined by the Chinese. On ground that has been tilled for thousands of years they, by a skillful use of fertilizers and by attention to the welfare of each plant, raise crops that would honor a virgin soil.

In this Swatow region probably nine tenths of the men are engaged in agriculture. The farmers live in villages, isolated dwellings being uncommon. The villages are walled, contain no wasted space, and are densely peopled. The wide-spreading, flat fields, lying along the river-banks at the foot of the hills, may be made to yield here on the Tropic of Cancer a constant series of crops without interval on account of winter. Their chief productions are rice, sugar-cane, sweet potatoes, pulse, garden vegetables, peanuts, indigo, sesamum, ginger, the grass-cloth plant, tobacco, and wheat. Rice is the staple food of the people, and in the best years the local product just supplies the local demand. Sugar is the principal export. The cane requires less labor than any other crop, and will grow upon unwatered land, which is unsuitable for rice-culture. One crop of cane or two crops of other produce may be grown in the same year upon unwatered land. On the best rice-fields three crops are sometimes raised. The early rice is sowed in April and harvested in July; the late rice is sowed in August and harvested in November, and the field is then sometimes planted with garden vegetables, which are pulled in March. The expense of fertilizing the third crop is so nearly equal to its value that it is never reckoned as a source of profit to the cultivator.

The. whole country belongs theoretically to its sovereign, and upon all land that can be tilled with profit a tax is paid into the imperial treasury. The sum due annually to the Government for the use of land is fixed for each field, amounts to from sixty cents to two dollars, and averages a dollar and a half upon each English acre.

When a father dies his land is divided equally among his sons, the eldest receiving an additional tenth on account of the extra expense to which he is put in worshiping the manes of the ancestor. The land is distributed very generally, though unequally, among the people, and is usually tilled by its peasant proprietor. Few own so much as two hundred acres; one who owns ten acres is reckoned wealthy, and he who owns one acre possesses a competence. Those who own from one tenth to one half an acre are most numerous, and therefore there are many who till land for a share of the produce.

Land that is too sterile for profitable cultivation or for taxation sells for from six to sixty dollars an acre, while good farmland is valued at from three hundred to eight hundred dollars an acre. Rice-fields not in the vicinage of a city sell readily for six hundred dollars an acre, and are not always to be bought at that price, because those who own land find it the safest investment, and part with it only when under the stress of debt. The bursting of dikes, drought, and bad habits are the chief causes of the transfer of land, and the sale of a child often precedes that of the rice-field. Interest on money lent is from twelve to twenty per cent, according to agreement between lender and borrower.

The chief expense of tillage is in fertilizers, beans and sesamum-seeds from which the oil has been expressed being commonly used, at an outlay of from six to forty and an average of twenty-four dollars upon every acre of land. Besides this, potato-peelings, hair from shaven heads, and all other vegetable and animal refuse is carefully husbanded and methodically applied to the soil. The clods of the field are laid up into little ovens to retain and be enriched by the smoke of the stubble burned underneath them. Adobe houses, whose walls have for many years absorbed the fumes of a kitchen and the exhalations of human inmates, are pulverized and added to the ever-hungry earth. Each growing plant separately receives distinguished consideration, a scrap of tobacco-stalk being sometimes put beside its root to destroy underground grubs, while its leaves are frequently examined and sedulously freed from vermin. The rotation of crops is always practiced.

As no milk, butter, or cheese is used, the only quadruped seen on the farms is the water-buffalo, or the zebu, which assists in plowing and harrowing. Many farmers rear ducks, which are taken to the fields to devour the snails, crabs, and young frogs which thrive there at planting-time. Fowls often accompany the harvesters, picking up the last grains left among the stubble.

Few families are without the ubiquitous black hog, whose usual habitat is the door-step. Its food is the bran of the rice hulled and eaten in the house; its head is the chief offering set before the lares and penates, and its flesh is most highly esteemed among festive viands. It is reared at small expense, makes no disputed demand on space, furnishes the unctuous element in a satisfying bill of fare, and can always be sold at ten cents a pound.

The farming appliances are simple, and a complete outfit can be bought for forty dollars. A plow with two shares, a pair of harrows, and a fanning-mill each cost two dollars; a pump worked by treadles in irrigating the fields, four dollars; a water-buffalo, twenty dollars; hoes, sickles, baskets, and sundries, nine dollars.

When land is leased, the owner pays the taxes, and the lessee furnishes all that is required in tillage. Payment to the landlord is always made in unhusked rice, and when the land is worked on shares this amounts to about one half the crop. The usual bargain for the use of land is a ton and a quarter of unhusked rice, worth about thirty dollars, for each acre. If the year be remarkably bad, the lessee may insist upon the landlord's taking one half the crop, though that be manifestly much less than the amount agreed upon as payment. If the year be good and the land excellent, the lessee may pay one third of his crop to the landlord, may have expended another third upon fertilizers, and may have the other third as net profit for his labor. As one man is unable to till more than one acre alone, the average yearly earnings of men who work land on shares is less than thirty dollars. One acre of good land produces on the average 3,648 pounds of clean rice.

A farmer may be hired by the year for from eight to fourteen dollars, with food, clothing, head-shaving, and tobacco. Those who work by the day receive from eight to ten cents, with a noonday meal. At the planting and harvesting of rice, wages are from ten to twenty cents a day, with five meals; or thirty cents a day without food. Few land-owners hire hands, except for a few days during the planting and harvesting of rice. Those who have more land than they and their sons can till, lease it to their neighbors.

Much land is held on leases given by ancient proprietors to clansmen whose descendants now till it, paying from seven to fourteen dollars' worth of rice annually for its use.

Food averages little more than a dollar a month for each member of a farmer's family. One who buys, cooks, and eats his meals alone, spends from one and a half to two dollars a month upon the raw material and fuel. Two pounds of rice, costing three and a half cents, with relishes of salt fish, pickled cabbage, cheap vegetables and fruits, costing a cent and a half, is the ordinary allowance to each laborer for each day. Abernethy's advice to a luxurious patient, "Live on sixpence a day and earn it," is followed by nearly every Chinaman. One or two dependent relatives frequently share with him the sixpence.

Five dollars, wisely spent, each year, will keep up a comfortable and even elegant outfit of clothing for a man or a woman. The clothing is usually woven in hand-looms in the farmer's house, from the fiber of the grass-cloth plant (Boehmeria nivea), or from imported cotton yarn. The average amount of clothing possessed by a farmer may be reckoned at four dollars in value.

A room may be comfortably furnished by an outlay of five dollars, and such a room would usually be occupied by three or four persons. The house varies in value, from the twenty-dollar cabin of the poor to the thousand-dollar dwelling of the rich. The value of the land in the villages in which the agriculturists live is from six to eight hundred dollars an acre.

As the emigration of men is constant, and the smothering of female infants is common, it is probable that the land will support no more than its present population. One sixth of an acre to each mouth to be filled is commonly declared to be the least that will enable the cultivator to live upon his own land, even with the highest tillage and the utmost frugality. One acre, tilled by the peasant proprietor alone, will feed six persons—the peasant, his wife, his aged father and mother, and his two young children. It will yield rice, hulled in the house, and vegetables, raised between rice-crops, sufficient for food. The straw and stubble will serve as fuel, and the pig and fowls will supply meat. The clothing will be woven and made by the wife, while the old couple take care of the children. The aged and the young are thus provided for through the land which has been the property of the one and will be the inheritance of the other. If dirt, superstition, and mendacity were eliminated from such a home, its inmates would appear eminently fit to survive. A process of natural selection has doubtless adapted the Chinese to their environment.

Two brothers, aged thirty-one and thirty-two years, inherited from their father one acre of land, half of which is watered. Their house, with the ground on which it is built, is worth fifty, their furniture fifteen, their clothing twenty, and their farming appliances thirty dollars. They live as well as do their neighbors, have paid up a debt inherited with their land, and are now laying up money to invest in wives. Twenty years ago a wife could be betrothed for thirty dollars, whereas none can now be obtained for less than a hundred dollars, and the price is rapidly rising. Last year they got twenty-seven dollars' worth of rice from one half their farm, after having put on twelve dollars' worth of fertilizers. On the other half they planted sugar-cane, put on fifteen dollars' worth of manure, and sold the standing crop for forty dollars. The younger brother did nearly all the work.

Pong Hia lives in a village of three hundred persons, in which about thirty men are land-owners, having altogether forty-five acres of land. Pong Hia owns two acres, inherited from the father who adopted him. His land is worth one thousand dollars. His family consists of ten persons. He is himself forty-six years old, his wife is forty-one, his son is twenty-two, his son's wife is twenty-one, his four daughters are from ten to seventeen, and his two grandchildren are three and seven years old. He and his son till the land, hiring help at harvest-time, and weaving straw mats on rainy days. The women-folk make the clothing, rear pigs and fowls, and do all the house-work. Their dwelling, with its site, is valued at a hundred and twenty dollars, their furniture at forty-four dollars, their clothing at forty dollars, their farming appliances at forty dollars. They have a water-buffalo, two hogs, thirty fowls, ten ducks, a pair of geese, a dog, and a cat. Last year Pong Hia sold twenty dollars' worth of rice from his farm, and paid $3.60 in taxes. He has two hundred dollars out at interest, at eighteen per cent.

At this rate of production and consumption, the arable land in the State of New York, with a reduction of one half its returns on account of its more northern latitude, would support the total population of the United States at the present time; and the occupied arable land of the United States, with its producing power diminished, on account of climate, to one half that of land at Swatow, would feed a population equal to that of the whole world, or over 1,400,000,000.