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Village Life in China A Study in Sociology

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There are in India alone over half a million villages. In all Asia, not improbably, there may be four times that number. By far the larger part of the most numerous people on the globe live in villages. The traveller in the Chinese Empire may start from some seaport, as Tientsin, and journey for several months together in the same general direction, before reaching its frontiers on the other side. In the course of such a tour, he will be impressed as only one who has ocular evidence can be impressed with the inconceivably great number of Chinese altogether outside of the great centres of urban population. Contrary to the current notions of Westerners, the number of great cities is not, relatively to the whole population, anything like so large in China as in Western lands. Many of the district cities, capitals of divisions analogous to what we call counties, are merely large villages with a wall and with government bureaus called yamêns. It is known that in India three-fourths of the population are rural. In China there is perhaps no reason for thinking the proportion to be less.

On such a journey as we have supposed, the traveller unacquainted with the Chinese, finds himself perpetually inquiring of himself: What are these incomputable millions of human beings thinking about? What is the quality of the life which they live? What is its content and its scope?

Questions like these cannot be answered intelligently without much explanation. The conditions and environment of Chinese life are so totally unlike those to which we are accustomed, that it is unsafe to take anything for granted. Amid certain fundamental unities the life of the Chinese is full of bewildering and inexplicable variety. No matter how long one may have lived in China, there is always just as much as ever that he never before heard of, but which every one is supposed to have known by intuition. The oldest resident is a student like the rest.

This state of things is the inevitable result of the antiquity of Chinese civilization, as well as of the enormous scale upon which it has operated to produce its effects. It is a sagacious remark of Mr. A. R. Colquhoun that “the product resulting from duration multiplied by numbers must be immense, and if to this we add a third factor, isolation, we have no right to be surprised either at the complex character of Chinese civilization, or at its peculiarly conservative form.” For this reason a connected and orderly account of the phenomena of Chinese life we believe to be a hopeless impossibility. It would require the combined information of all the residents of China to make it complete, to coördinate it would be the work of several life-times, and the resultant volumes would fill the Bodleian library. The only practicable way to extend our knowledge of so oceanic a subject, is to examine in more or less detail such phenomena as happen to have come within our restricted horizon. No two persons will have the same horizon, and no horizon will belt a sphere....