LESSON 20 Scenes in canton
The recently arrived stranger naturally manifests surprise and incredulity on being told that the estimated population of Canton exceeds a million. When, however, he visits the close streets, with their dense population and busy wayfarers, huddled together in lanes from five to nine feet wide, where Europeans could scarcely inhale the breath of life, the greatness of the number no longer appears incredible. After the first feelings of novelty have passed away, disappointment, rather than admiration, occupies the mind. On leaving the open space before the factories, we behold an endless succession of narrow avenues, scarcely deserving the name of streets.
As the visitor pursues his course, narrow lanes still continue to succeed one another, and the conviction is gradually impressed on the mind that such is the general character of the streets of the city. Along these, busy traders, mechanics, barbers, venders, and porters, make their way; while occasionally the noisy abrupt tones of vociferating coolies(1) remind the traveller that some materials of bulky dimensions are on their transit, and suggest the expediency of keeping at a distance, to avoid collision. Now and then the monotony of the scene is relieved by some portly mandarin,(2) or merchant of the higher class, borne in a sedan chair(3) on the shoulders of two, or sometimes four men. Yet, with all this hurry and din, there seldom occurs any accident or interruption of good nature.
On the river the same order and regularity prevail. Though there are probably not fewer than 200,000 denizens of the river, whose hereditary domains are the watery element that supports their little dwellings, yet harmony and good feeling are conspicuous in the accommodating manner with which they make way for each other. These aquatic tribes of the human species show a most philosophic spirit of equanimity, and contrive in this way to strip daily life of many of its little troubles; while the fortitude and patience with which the occasional injury or destruction of their boats is borne are remarkable.
To return from the wide expanse of the river population to the streets in the suburbs, the same spirit of contented adaptation to external things is everywhere observable; and it is difficult which to regard with most surprise—the narrow abodes of the one, or the little boats which serve as family residences to the other.
There is something of romance in the effect of Chinese streets. On either side are shops, decked out with native wares,—furniture and manufactures of various kinds.
These are adorned by pillar sign-boards, rising perpendicularly, and inscribed from top to bottom with the various kinds of saleable articles which may be had within. Native artists seem to have lavished their ingenuity on several of these inscriptions, in order to give, by their caligraphy,(4) some idea of the superiority of the commodities for sale. Many of these sign-boards contain some fictitious emblem, adopted as the name of the shop—similar to the practice prevalent in London two centuries ago.
On entering, the proprietor, with his assistants or partners, welcomes a foreigner with sundry salutations; sometimes advancing to shake hands, and endeavouring to make the most of his scanty knowledge of English. They will show their goods with the utmost patience, and evince nothing of disappointment if, after gratifying his curiosity, he depart without purchasing.
At a distance from the factories, where the sight of a foreigner is a rarity, crowds of idlers, from fifty to a hundred, rapidly gather round the shop, and frequent embarrassment ensues, from an imperfect knowledge of their language. In these parts, the shopkeepers know no language but their own, are more moderate in their politeness, and, as a compensation, put a smaller price on their wares. To write one's name in Chinese characters is a sure method of securing their favour.
Sometimes no fewer than eight or ten blind beggars find their way into a shop, and there they remain, singing a melancholy, dirge-like strain, and most perseveringly beating together two pieces of wood. At length the weary shopman takes compassion on them, and provides for the quiet of his shop by giving a copper cash to each; on receiving which they depart, and repeat the same experiment elsewhere.
The streets abound with these blind beggars, who are seldom treated with indignity. A kindly indulgence is extended to them, and they enjoy a prescriptive(5) right of levying a copper cash from every shop or house they enter. It is said that this furnishes a liberal means of livelihood to an immense number of blind persons, who in many instances are banded together in companies or societies, subject to a code of rules, on breach of which the transgressor is expelled the community.
In every little open space there are crowds of travelling doctors, haranguing the multitude on the wonderful powers and healing virtues of the medicines which they expose for sale. Close by, some cunning fortune-teller may be seen, with crafty look, explaining to some awe-stricken simpleton his destiny in life, from a number of books arranged before him, and consulted with due solemnity. In another part some tame birds are exhibiting their clever feats, in singling out, from amongst a hundred others, a piece of paper enclosing a coin, and then receiving a grain of millet(6) as a reward of their cleverness.
At a little distance are some fruit-stalls, at which old and young are making purchases, casting lots for the quantity they are to receive. Near these, again, are noisy gangs of people, pursuing a less equivocal course of gambling, and evincing, by their excited looks and clamour, the intensity of their interest in the issue. In another part may be seen disposed the apparatus of some Chinese tonsor,(7) who is performing his skilful vocation on the crown of some fellow-countryman unable to command the attendance of the artist at a house of his own.
What is the estimated population of Canton? What is the general character of its streets? How many of the inhabitants live on the river? What spirit is generally observable among them? Describe the sign-boards of Chinese shops. How do the shopkeepers treat foreigners? How are poor blind persons supported in Canton? What people pursue their callings in the open air?