Few things are more noticeable in China than the incessant chattering kept up by servants, coolies, and members of the working classes. It is rare to meet a string of porters carrying their heavy burdens along some country road, who are not jabbering away, one and all, as if in the very heat of some exciting discussion, and afraid that their journey will come to an end before their most telling arguments are exhausted. One wonders what ignorant, illiterate fellows like these can possibly have to talk about to each other in a country where beer-shop politics are unknown, where religious disputations leave no sting behind, and want of communication limits the area of news to half-a-dozen neighbouring streets in a single agricultural village. Comparing the uncommunicative deportment of a bevy of English bricklayers, who will build a house without exchanging much beyond an occasional pipe-light, with the vivacious gaiety of these light-hearted sons of Han, the problem becomes interesting enough to demand a solution of the question--What is it these Chinamen talk about? And the answer is, _Money_. It may be said they talk, think, dream of nothing else. They certainly live for little besides the hope of some day compassing, if not wealth, at any rate a competency. The temple of Plutus--to be found in every Chinese city--is rarely without a suppliant; but there is no such hypocrisy in the matter as that of the Roman petitioner who would pray aloud for virtue and mutter "gold." And yet a rich man in China is rather an object of pity than otherwise. He is marked out by the officials as their lawful prey, and is daily in danger of being called upon to answer some false, some trumped-up accusation. A subscription list, nominally for a charitable purpose, for building a bridge, or repairing a road, is sent to him by a local magistrate, and woe be to him if he does not head it with a handsome sum. A ruffian may threaten to charge him with murder unless he will compromise instantly for Tls. 300; and the rich man generally prefers this course to proving his innocence at a cost of about Tls. 3000. He may be accused of some trivial disregard of prescribed ceremonies, giving a dinner-party, or arranging the preliminaries of his son's marriage, before the days of mourning for his own father have expired. No handle is too slight for the grasp of the greedy mandarin, especially if he has to do with anything like a recalcitrant millionaire. But this very mandarin himself, if compelled by age and infirmities to resign his place, is forced in his turn to yield up some of the ill-gotten wealth with which he had hoped to secure the fortunes of his family for many a generation to come. The young hawks peck out the old hawks' e'en without remorse. The possession of money is therefore rather a source of anxiety than happiness, though this doesn't seem to diminish in the slightest degree the Chinaman's natural craving for as much of it as he can secure. At the same time, the abominable system of official extortion must go far to crush a spirit of enterprise which would otherwise most undoubtedly be rife. Everybody is so afraid of bringing himself within the clutch of the law, that innovation is quite out of the question.
Neither in the private life of a rich Chinese merchant do we detect the same keen enjoyment of his wealth as is felt by many an affluent western, to whom kindly nature has given the intellect to use it rightly. The former indulges in sumptuous feasts, but he does not collect around his table men who can only give him wit in return for his dinner; he rather seeks out men whose purses are as long as his own, from amongst whose daughters he may select a well-dowried mate for his dunderheaded son. He accumulates vast wardrobes of silk, satin, and furs; but he probably could not show a copy of the first edition of K'ang Hsi, or a single bowl bearing the priceless stamp of six hundred years ago. These articles are collected chiefly by scholars, who often go without a meal or two in order to obtain the coveted specimen; the rich merchant spends his money chiefly on dinners, dress, and theatrical entertainments, knowing and caring little or nothing about art. His conversation is also, like that of his humbler countrymen, confined to one topic; if he is a banker, rates of exchange haunt him day and night; whatever he is, he lives in daily dread of the next phase of extortion to which he will be obliged to open an unwilling purse. How different from the literati of China who live day by day almost from hand to mouth, eking out a scanty subsistence by writing scrolls for door-posts, and perhaps presenting themselves periodically at the public examinations, only to find that their laboured essays are thrown out amongst the ruck once more! Yet these last are undeniably the happier of the two. Having no wealth to excite the rapacious envy of their rulers, they pass through life in rapt contemplation of the sublime attributes of their Master, forgetting even the pangs of hunger in the elucidation of some obscure passage in the Book of Changes, and caring least of all for the idol of their unlettered brethren, except in so far as it would enable them to make more extensive purchases of their beloved books, and provide a more ample supply of the "four jewels" of the scholar. Occasionally to be seen in the streets, these literary devotees may be known by their respectable but poverty-stricken appearance, generally by their spectacles, and always by their stoop, acquired in many years of incessant toil. These are the men who hate us with so deep a hate, for we have dared to set up a rival to the lofty position so long occupied by Confucius alone. If we came in search of trade only, they would tolerate, because they could understand our motives, and afford to despise; but to bring our religion with us, to oppose the precepts of Christ to the immortal apophthegms of the Master, this is altogether too much for the traditions in which they have been brought up.
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