Friday, August 29, 2008

Farmers of Forty Centuries Grave Lands Of China


The launch had returned the passengers to the steamer at 11:30; the captain was on the bridge; prompt to the minute at the call "Hoist away" the signal went below and the Yamaguchi's whistle filled the harbor and over-flowed the hills. The cable wound in, and at twelve, noon, we were leaving Nagasaki, now a city of 153,000 and the western doorway of a nation of fifty-one millions of people but of little importance before the sixteenth century when it became the chief mart of Portuguese trade. We were to pass the Koreans on our right and enter the portals of a third nation of four hundred millions. We had left a country which had added eighty-five millions to its population in one hundred years and which still has twenty acres for each man, woman and child, to pass through one which has but one and a half acres per capita, and were going to another whose allotment of acres, good and bad, is less than 2.4. We had gone from practices by which three generations had exhausted strong virgin fields, and were coming to others still fertile after thirty centuries of cropping. On January 30th we crossed the head waters of the Mississippi-Missouri, four thousand miles from its mouth, and on March 1st were in the mouth of the Yangtse river whose waters are gathered from a basin in which dwell two hundred millions of people.
The Yamaguchi reached Woosung in the night and anchored to await morning and tide before ascending the Hwangpoo, believed by some geographers to be the middle of three earlier delta arms of the Yangtse kiang, the southern entering the sea at Hangchow 120 miles further south, the third being the present stream. As we wound through this great delta plain toward Shanghai, the city of foreign concessions to all nationalities, the first striking feature was the "graves of the fathers", of "the ancestors". At first the numerous grass-covered hillocks dotting the plain seemed to be stacks of grain or straw; then came the query whether they might not be huge compost heaps awaiting distribution in the fields, but as the river brought us nearer to them we seemed to be moving through a land of ancient mound builders and Fig. 24 shows, in its upper section, their appearance as seen in the distance.
As the journey led on among the fields, so large were the mounds, often ten to twelve feet high and twenty or more feet at the base; so grass-covered and apparently neglected; so numerous and so irregularly scattered, without apparent regard for fields, that when we were told these were graves we could not give credence to the statement, but before the city was reached we saw places where, by the shifting of the channel, the river had cut into some of these mounds, exposing brick vaults, some so low as to be under water part of the time, and we wonder if the fact does not also record a slow subsidence of the delta plain under the ever increasing load of river silt.
A closer view of these graves in the same delta plain is given in the lower section of Fig. 24, where they are seen in the midst of fields and to occupy not only large areas of valuable land but to be much in the way of agricultural operations. A still closer view of other groups, with a farm village in the background, is shown in the middle section of the same illustration, and here it is better seen how large is the space occupied by them. On the right in the same view may be seen a line of six graves surmounting a common lower base which is a type of the larger and higher ones so suggestive of buildings seen in the horizon of the upper section.
Everywhere we went in China, about all of the very old and large cities, the proportion of grave land to cultivated fields is very large. In the vicinity of Canton Christian college, on Honam island, more than fifty per cent of the land was given over to graves and in many places they were so close that one could step from one to another. They are on the higher and dryer lands, the cultivated areas occupying ravines and the lower levels to which water may be more easily applied and which are the most productive. Hilly lands not so readily cultivated, and especially if within reach of cities, are largely so used, as seen in Fig. 25, where the graves are marked by excavated shelves rather than by mounds, as on the plains. These grave lands are not altogether unproductive for they are generally overgrown with herbage of one or another kind and used as pastures for geese, sheep, goats and cattle, and it is not at all uncommon, when riding along a canal, to see a huge water buffalo projected against the sky from the summit of one of the largest and highest grave mounds within reach. If the herbage is not fed off by animals it is usually cut for feed, for fuel, for green manure or for use in the production of compost to enrich the soil.
Caskets may be placed directly upon the surface of a field, encased in brick vaults with tile roofs, forming such clusters as was seen on the bank of the Grand Canal in Chekiang province, represented in the lower section of Fig. 26, or they may stand singly in the midst of a garden, as in the upper section of the same figure; in a rice paddy entirely surrounded by water parts of the year, and indeed in almost any unexpected place. In Shanghai in 1898, 2,763 exposed coffined corpses were removed outside the International Settlement or buried by the authorities.
Further north, in the Shantung province, where the dry season is more prolonged and where a severe drought had made grass short, the grave lands had become nearly naked soil, as seen in Fig. 27 where a Shantung farmer had just dug a temporary well to irrigate his little field of barley. Within the range of the camera, as held to take this view, more than forty grave mounds besides the seven near by, are near enough to be fixed on the negative and be discernible under a glass, indicating what extensive areas of land, in the aggregate, are given over to graves.
Still further north, in Chihli, a like story is told in, if possible, more emphatic manner and fully vouched for in the next illustration, Fig. 28, which shows a typical family group, to be observed in so many places between Taku and Tientsin and beyond toward Peking. As we entered the mouth of the Pei-ho for Tientsin, far away to the vanishing horizon there stretched an almost naked plain except for the vast numbers of these "graves of the fathers", so strange, so naked, so regular in form and so numerous that more than an hour of our journey had passed before we realized that they were graves and that the country here was perhaps more densely peopled with the dead than with the living. In so many places there was the huge father grave, often capped with what in the distance suggested a chimney, and the many associated smaller ones, that it was difficult to realize in passing what they were.
It is a common custom, even if the residence has been permanently changed to some distant province, to take the bodies back for interment in the family group; and it is this custom which leads to the practice of choosing a temporary location for the body, waiting for a favorable opportunity to remove it to the family group. This is often the occasion for the isolated coffin so frequently seen under a simple thatch of rice straw, as in Fig. 29; and the many small stone jars containing skeletons of the dead, or portions of them, standing singly or in rows in the most unexpected places least in the way in the crowded fields and gardens, awaiting removal to the final resting place. It is this custom, too, I am told, which has led to placing a large quantity of caustic lime in the bottom of the casket, on which the body rests, this acting as an effective absorbent.
It is the custom in some parts of China, if not in all, to periodically restore the mounds, maintaining their height and size, as is seen in the next two illustrations, and to decorate these once in the year with flying streamers of colored paper, the remnants of which may be seen in both Figs. 30 and 31, set there as tokens that the paper money has been burned upon them and its essence sent up in the smoke for the maintenance of the spirits of their departed friends. We have our memorial day; they have for centuries observed theirs with religious fidelity.
The usual expense of a burial among the working people is said to be $100, Mexican, an enormous burden when the day's wage or the yearly earning of the family is considered and when there is added to this the yearly expense of ancestor worship. How such voluntary burdens are assumed by people under such circumstances is hard to understand. Missionaries assert it is fear of evil consequences in this life and of punishment and neglect in the hereafter that leads to assuming them. Is it not far more likely that such is the price these people are willing to pay for a good name among the living and because of their deep and lasting friendship for the departed? Nor does it seem at all strange that a kindly, warm-hearted people with strong filial affection should have reached, carry in their long history, a belief in one spirit of the departed which hovers about the home, one which hovers about the grave and another which wanders abroad, for surely there are associations with each of these conditions which must long and forcefully awaken memories of friends gone. If this view is possible may not such ancestral worship be an index of qualities of character strongly fixed and of the highest worth which, when improvements come that may relieve the heavy burdens now carried, will only shine more brightly and count more for right living as well as comfort?
Even in our own case it will hardly be maintained that our burial customs have reached their best and final solution, for in all civilized nations they are unnecessarily expensive and far too cumbersome. It is only necessary to mentally add the accumulation of a few centuries to our cemeteries to realize how impossible our practice must become. Clearly there is here a very important line for betterment which all nationalities should undertake.
When the steamer anchored at Shanghai the day was pleasant and the rain coats which greeted us in Yokohama were not in evidence but the numbers who had met the steamer in the hope of an opportunity for earning a trifle was far greater and in many ways in strong contrast with the Japanese. We were much surprised to find the men of so large stature, much above the Chinese usually seen in the United States. They were fully the equal of large Americans in frame but quite without surplus flesh yet few appeared underfed. To realize that these are strong, hardy men it was only necessary to watch them carrying on their shoulders bales of cotton between them, supported by a strong bamboo; while the heavy loads they transport on wheel-barrows through the country over long distances, as seen in Fig. 32, prove their great endurance. This same type of vehicle, too, is one of the common means of transporting people, especially Chinese women, and four six and even eight may be seen riding together, propelled by a single wheelbarrow man.

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