My Chinese Fan

IT lies before me as I write, — nothing remarkable, seemingly, but on closer acquaintance it has for me a strange significance. It is a palm-leaf fan, but with variations. The leaf is trimmed in the usual way and bound with the familiar rattan, but over this is a cloth binding, or rather, three bindings, for three strips of cloth are carried round the fan, the colored edges of the two under ones showing neatly on both sides beneath the outer one, which is of pretty figured stuff. The stem of the leaf, which we use for a handle, has here been cut away, the thick base of the leaf pared down, and the spot covered by a large folded rosette of celluloid colored in imitation of tortoiseshell. This is inserted in a handle of bamboo which has been carefully sawed part way down for the purpose, and is securely fastened by a tiny wooden pin. The handle is decorated with color, and since bamboo is hollow, the end is closed with a turned knob or stopper of bone which is pierced with two holes made by a hand-drill, to receive a loop of cord by which to hang up the fan as required. All the work is careful and neat. And I bought this fan for a cent and a quarter.

It was not a fire sale, a bankrupt sale, or anything of the sort. It was not a bid for larger purchases. It was a regular store and the dealer undoubtedly had his profit. Probably my Chinese ‘ boy,’ who acted as interpreter, had his ‘squeeze.’ I have no reason to suppose the maker of the fan got less than the going wage. What must that wage be?

On that point I was not left wholly in the dark. I bought the fan at Chungking, a city of half a million inhabitants, the commercial metropolis of western China. Chungking is a treaty port situated about fifteen hundred miles up the Yangtse. For something over a thousand miles the river flows calm and untroubled through the great Chinese lowlands, affording a singularly practicable highway for the great steamers of thousands of tons’ burden, which handle the traffic with the coast. Then of a sudden come the mountains, first of that series of barriers which culminate in the table-land of Tibet and the mighty Himalayas. Through this barrier the river foams and surges in great whirlpools and rapids that make of it the most difficult and dangerous of all navigable rivers. And four hundred miles farther up this rushing torrent lies Chungking, chief purveyor to a district of perhaps fifty million people.

Of late, steamers have begun to risk the dangerous passage, but they have as yet made little change in the timehonored methods of navigation, which are unique. The sails of the heavy junks hang limp in the narrow gorges of the upper river, whose current would defy their propelling power at its best. So for the four hundred miles to Chungking the junks must be dragged by gangs of coolies, thirty, forty, even seventy or eighty of whom tug at the end of a thousand-foot rope. There is no semblance of a towpath, and the channel is difficult in the extreme. There are shoals to be steered round, rocks over which the line must be lifted, sharp promontories which make a straight pull impossible, tributaries to be waded, and so forth. These ‘trackers,’ as they are called, work for the most part entirely naked, even the loin-cloth of the savage being dispensed with. At the most, they protect their naked bodies from the scorching sun by an enormous straw hat. They are at work at four in the morning, and when darkness shuts down between seven and eight, they are still tugging at the rope, admonished by their own monotonous chant and the stout bamboo rod of the vigilant overseer. Six weeks the average journey lasts, and when it is finished, the tracker receives, besides his daily ration of rice, a wage of eighty cents. This must keep him till he gets another job, and provide all other necessities.

The tracker is perhaps at the bottom of the industrial scale, but he has near neighbors. I saw a gardener spading some heavy ground, and was told that he received two hundred cash—about five and a half cents — per day. He of course furnished his own rice. The maker of the fan probably earned somewhat more than this if a man; if a woman or child, as is probable, somewhat less. Such are the wages in the great province of Szechuan, one of the richest and most advanced, if one of the most remote, in the Chinese Republic.

But there is another side to all this, as has doubtless occurred to the reader before now. If the Chinese gets very little for his fans and his labor, he also pays very little for his fans and for the labor of his fellows. The fan, indeed, is quite a case in point, for the poorest coolie, if he wears so much as a loincloth, always has a fan stuck in his belt, — not a palm leaf, but a folding fan such as ladies carry, — with which he solaces himself in the intervals between his herculean tasks. Such a fan hardly costs him more labor than it costs his high-paid counterpart in other lands. It is much the same with other things. Even in the maritime provinces good tenderloin is often sold for three to four cents per pound. Native silks and other fabrics are often fabulously cheap in the interior. Tea for which the Tibetan pays twenty cents a pound, is sold at the place of origin for a cent and a half.

But the matter of vital concern to all Chinese is rice, which forms almost the exclusive diet of all but the highest classes, and an indispensable element in theirs. The normal price in Chungking is said to be about a cent and three quarters a pound, expensive living for a man who earns five cents a day, but still very cheap as compared with our own. But while living is dear to the Chinese, which should not surprise us in a country where population crowds so close upon the means of subsistence, the low price of labor and of the products of labor has much of mutual compensation. This general low level of prices merely means that China is economically isolated, and that there is too little communication with the outside world to bring about an equalization of price levels. This is partly due to artificial barriers. The export of rice, for instance, is prohibited. Duties on both exports and imports impede, if they do not prevent, free interchange and price adjustment. More often the barrier is a natural one. Transportation is enormously difficult and expensive. The tea that is bought for a cent and a half in western China and sold for twenty cents in Tibet, is carried hundreds of miles by coolies over mountain passes ten and fifteen thousand feet high. The increase in price is only normal. The new steamer on which I write makes the difficult passage of the gorges in four days instead of the six weeks required by the trackers and junks, thus seemingly annihilating the barrier between eastern and western China; but the charge for freight is a cent and a quarter a pound, a charge which would raise the price of rice to a figure at which millions would starve in a single province. This accounts for the fact that there may be famine in one province and a bumper crop in the next.

There are other barriers, some physical and some mental, but the important fact is that prices are lower in China than in other countries, and lower in some parts of China than in others. But since every man is both buyer and seller, what is the harm?

There would be no harm if China could be left alone. But that is precisely what she cannot be. The other nations are knocking at her doors on every side and demanding admittance. Her hesitation is accounted bigotry and intolerance. It is so in part, but not more so than our uncompromising gospel of progress. China may not know what modernization is worth, but she alone knows what it will cost. We talk glibly of the open door, with its suggestion of liberty, opportunity, and fellowship. To the Chinese it is rather the opening of a dike, with its concomitant of flood and destruction. None the less, it is to be opened. That issue was settled fifteen years ago. The Boxer movement was both patriotic and heroic, but it was utterly, convincingly futile. The Chinese know as well as we do that the floodgates are opened past all closing, and they have manfully accepted the issue. They are even learning to welcome, to seek, the longdreaded transformation. When British capital built the first railroad in China, patriotic citizens secured its purchase by the government and tore up every rail and sleeper. To-day they are canvassing the markets of the world to secure capital for the building of railways. And not railways only: they are ready to go the whole figure.

But they are not blind to the cost, and we are. That cost is one to justify hesitation if hesitation were possible.

First of all, there must be an equalization of price levels. That means that the Chinese must sell some of their useful goods for money, until money becomes more plentiful and prices rise. To illustrate by an extreme case, let us take the example of rice, which is raised largely in the coast districts, and even with present transportation facilities could be easily exported. At two cents or less, Chinese rice could hardly fail to find a foreign market. On the other hand, the Chinese could hardly import any of the high-priced foreign foodstuffs in return. So rice would be shipped out and money brought in, until rice became dear through scarcity and money became plentiful and cheap. But meanwhile China would have parted with rice which she could not spare, in return for money which she could not eat. This would cause distress under the most favorable conditions; and under existing conditions in China, it would mean the death of multitudes from literal starvation. Famine, of course, would bring its inevitable accompaniment of brigandage and rebellion, as it has done periodically in Chinese history.

Of course the effect is less serious if we take commodities in general; but the great fact remains that if China is to enter the great family of nations on a basis of commercial liberty, as we are inviting and compelling her to do, she must first stock up with enough money to raise the price of all her transactions to something like the level of similar transactions abroad, and she can get this money only by giving real goods for it. How much will be required it is impossible to say. It has been estimated that the reform of her currency (a very different and much smaller affair) would cost $700,000,000.

If China were a wealthy country, with a vast economic surplus in the shape of luxuries which would serve as a cushion between emergency and distress, the case would be different; but in China such a cushion hardly exists. The nation as a whole lives almost on a subsistence basis. They cannot exchange their luxuries for the needed treasure; they must part with their necessities. The mere accident, therefore, that China has been getting along with a small amount of specie and doing business on a lower price basis than other nations, means that the open door will cost her at the outset the price of a people’s ransom. Like a war of liberation, it will burden her with debt and dot her hillsides with graves. And all this will not give her a railway or a schoolhouse or a factory.

This brings us to China’s second great need. Let us call it an up-to-date social and industrial plant. Of this China has hardly a beginning. She has a plant of course, elaborate and costly, but it is almost wholly obsolete. She has roads, for instance, built at a cost of millions, but they are only coolie paths. No automobile, no wheeled vehicle, not even a pack mule can traverse them. The new highways can make no use whatever of these ancient constructions. The cities, chief repositories of the nation’s accumulated wealth, are in no better case.

Chungking may serve as an example. Built at a strategic point on the Yangtse, it presents a long, high front to the river, and its streets climb higher and higher as they recede two or three miles from the water-front. Though as large as Boston, it never saw a wheeled vehicle, nor has it a street through which one could pass. Through these tiny passages surges the densest mass of humanity upon which I ever gazed. There are coolies trudging with their two huge pails of river water, — for Chungking has no waterworks, and every drop used by this half-million people, even in the most inaccessible quarters, is carried thus from the turbid river. There are scavengers with their attention-compelling buckets, — for Chungking has no sewers, and the day’s riddance must be effected by the same primitive agency. There are porters bent double under bales that compel pedestrians in the narrow streets to take refuge in doorways near by, — for Chungking has no trucks or beasts of burden. There are citizens in their sedan chairs, borne by vociferating carriers, — for walking is impossible if one has a care for person or clothes. And then there is the nameless throng of half-naked coolies, hucksters, peddlers, sellers of street lunches, shoppers, hobbling, cripple-footed women, loafers, beggars, and the like, all trudging along in water-carriers’, scavengers’, and house-wives’ slop. We may waive all claims of health and taste, may ignore all protests of offended sense, and still the judgment is unavoidable that the transformation which modern conditions imperiously demand will leave not one stone upon another in antiquated Chungking.

If we consider Chinese agriculture, Chinese manufactures, Chinese navigation, Chinese education, no matter what department of Chinese activity, the verdict is the same. Everywhere is elaborate and painstaking development unavailable for modern requirements. China confronts the new era much as might a time-honored stage line which offers a lot of well-worn stage-coaches as its contribution to the building of the new railway.

Such a programme of radical reconstruction suggests to the American immense advantages and few deterrents; to the Chinese it suggests the reverse, and rightly. Not that China any longer resists. It cannot be too often insisted that great as are the difficulties in the way of overcoming Chinese inertia, the die is cast, and the best elements of the nation have accepted the responsibility of the tremendous task. But we may well note the difficulties which cause and justify Chinese misgivings.

To begin with, this new industrial and social apparatus must, for a long time to come, be purchased abroad. The steamers on Chinese rivers are still built in Great Britain, though by nature the Yangtse is a better place to build them than the Clyde. And the same is true of railway equipment, for China has outdone us in wasting her forests. So with the cities. If Chungking ever has waterworks, the plant must be imported.

And now we come back to our old difficulty. These things must be bought on the high-price level, and they must be paid for with products on the lowprice level. To put it in the concrete, China must pay for five-dollar labor with five-cent labor. For a locomotive she must give several hundred thousand days of coolie labor. We have seen that the Chinese can now exchange products with other nations only at an immense disadvantage. It is peculiarly trying that at such a time she should be compelled to buy on an unprecedented scale. It may be suggested that by borrowing, China can delay payment till prices change and exchanges are more equitable, a happy suggestion which the Chinese have not failed to consider. But postponement means not only interest charges, of course on the highprice level, but also foreign dictation and control, which China finds more onerous than inequitable exchange.

But this is not all, perhaps not the worst. Every industrial transformation dislocates labor with resulting distress and disorder. This must happen in China on a scale never known before. Again let us take concrete cases. Suppose Chungking builds waterworks: what is to become of the thousand coolies who now supply her wants? When a score of steamers ply on the upper Yangtse, what will become of the fifty thousand trackers who now drag the laden junks up to Chungking? When railways gridiron the country, what will become of the million carriers whose services they will displace? The economist’s answer is familiar. This labor will be ‘absorbed in the new industries.’ Yes, as regards the class, it will work out all right. Economic laws may be trusted to send labor where it is needed. But they will not husband it, will not hoard and protect the individual unit; they will spill and waste a lot on the way. And this wayside spilling of labor is like the spilling of dynamite. These offcasts will perish, but they will first beg, rob, and kill. Make the mildest supposition, that one in ten will become a beggar, and one in a hundred a brigand, and figure out the result. The condition here predicated now exists in large parts of China, and its extension is inevitable. It may be questioned whether any government can endure the threatened strain.

Of all this our own country knows next to nothing. Our railways have displaced no millions of carrier coolies. They have penetrated the wilderness, and population has followed where the locomotive led. Labor, displaced by new methods, has been absorbed, not by the new industries thus created so much as by the mere growth of a rapidly expanding industry. If there was no employment in the East, men went West. With a scanty labor-supply, labor-saving devices have met a want more cheerfully recognized than in any other time or place. But you cannot tell a Chinese to go West and grow up with the country. He has no unpeopled West. You cannot tell him to save for to-morrow. If he did, he would die to-day. Labor-saving devices! With what utter consternation must they fill the Chinese mind! Labor is the one redundant commodity, and yet the one commodity which must perforce be fully utilized. In this human welter the development of unproductive and fictitious employments is inevitable, and the demand grows by what it feeds on. The obstacle to labor-saving becomes colossal; yet labor waste is China’s curse, and labor-saving her supreme need. Recognize it, convince China of it, and there still remains the awful problem. Will the China which must will this change and effect this change, survive the terrible ordeal?

What does China need from us at such a time? The Gospel, says one. Yes, undoubtedly; but after all, one must be either very blind or very seeing thus to phrase his answer in the face of these vast concrete needs. Will the process of winning ‘converts’ one by one, no matter to what doctrine or life, be speedy enough, comprehensive enough, organic enough, to steady China for the great ordeal? Some think so; some think not; some do not think.

I met a remarkable missionary in Chungking. A firm believer in the Gospel, he somehow saw it less as a formula than as a programme of things concrete. Finding that the thoughtful Chinese, who must be China’s dependence in the coming days, could not be interested in the abstract principles of his faith, he reached the unusual conclusion that this was not wholly due to hardness of heart. They had integrity and not a little of disinterestedness and public spirit. Was there no common ground of action looking to human betterment (the new term for the Kingdom of God) ? It was worth trying. The result is a Men’s Club, for men helpfully minded, of all nationalities and faiths. There are about five hundred of them, nine tenths Chinese, nearly all of the merchant class, the financial and moral backbone of China. The fifty foreigners are officials, missionaries, and business men. They have built a new clubhouse, and paid for it themselves. (The founder says that he never asked a Chinese for a contribution without getting it.) They have lectures on scientific subjects, X-rays, sanitation, modern government, and so forth, and they come and hear them, too. They have offered prizes for the best essays on how to clean up Chungking. They have started educational enterprises and now want a kindergarten for their children and are willing to pay for it. The founder tells them that all these good things are due to Christianity; this does not seem to interest them much, but the good things themselves do. With these men who fashioned the ideals of old China, he is conspiring to fashion the new. The home board is restive that he reports so few converts; but when the new world-Messiah comes, what, think you, will he say of the Men’s Club of Chungking?