Chinese Sketches‎ > ‎

12: Postal Service

Many residents in China are profoundly ignorant of the existence of a native postal service; and even the few who have heard of such an institution, are not aware of the comparative safety and speed with which even a valuable letter may be forwarded from one end of the Empire to the other. Government despatches are conveyed to their destinations by a staff of men specially employed for the purpose, and under the control of the Board of War in Peking. They ride from station to station at a fair pace, considering the sorry, ill-fed nags upon which they are mounted; important documents being often carried to great distances, at a rate of two hundred miles a-day. The people, however, are not allowed to avail themselves of this means of communication, but the necessities of trade have driven them to organise a system of their own.

In any Chinese town of any pretensions whatever, there are sure to be several "letter offices," each monopolising one or more provinces, to and from which they make it their special business to convey letters and small parcels. The safety of whatever is entrusted to their care is guaranteed, and its value made good if lost; at the same time, the contents of all packets must be declared at the office where posted, so that a corresponding premium may be charged for their transmission. The letter-carriers travel chiefly on foot, sometimes on donkeys, to be found on all the great highways of China, and which run with unerring accuracy from one station to another, unaccompanied by any one except the hirer. There is little danger of the donkeys being stolen, unless carried off bodily, for heaven and earth could no more move them from their beaten track than the traveller who, desirous of making two stages without halting, could induce them to pass the door of the station they have just arrived at. Carrying about eighty or ninety pounds weight of mail matter, these men trudge along some five miles an hour till they reach the extent of their tether; there they hand over the bag to a fresh man, who starts off, no matter at what hour of the day or night, and regardless of good or bad weather alike, till he too has quitted himself of his responsibility by passing on the bag to a third man. They make a point of never eating a full meal; they eat themselves, as the Chinese say, six or seven tenths full, taking food as often as they feel at all hungry, and thus preserve themselves from getting broken-winded early in life. Recruited from the strongest and healthiest of the working-classes, it is above all indispensable that the Chinese letter-carrier should not be afraid of any ghostly enemy, such as bogies or devils. In this respect they must be tried men before they are entrusted with a mail; for an ordinary Chinaman is so instinctively afraid of night and darkness, that the slightest rustle by the wayside would be enough to make him fling down the bag and take to his heels as if all the spirits of darkness had been loosed upon him at one and the same moment.

The scale of charges is very low. The cost of sending a letter from Peking to Hankow--650 miles, as the crow flies--being no more than eight cents, or four pence. About thirty per cent. of the postage is always paid by the sender, to secure the office against imposition and loss; the balance is recoverable from the person to whom the letter is addressed. These offices are largely used by merchants in the course of trade, and bills of exchange are constantly being thus sent, while the banks forward the foil or other half to the house on which it is drawn, receipt of which is necessary before the draft can be cashed. Such documents, together with small packets of sycee, make up a tolerably valuable bag, and would often fall a prey to the highwaymen which infest many of the provinces, but that most offices anticipate these casualties by compounding for a certain annual sum which is paid regularly to the leader of the gang. For this blackmail the robbers of the district not only agree to abstain from pilfering themselves, but also to keep all others from doing so too. The arrangement suits the local officials admirably, as they escape those pains and penalties which would be exacted if it came to be known that their rule was too weak, and their example powerless to keep the district free from the outrages of thieves and highwaymen. Large firms, which supply carts to travellers between given points, are also often in the habit of contracting with the brigands of the neighbourhood for the safe passage of their customers. In some parts soldiers are told off by the resident military officials to escort travellers who leave the inns before daybreak, until there is enough light to secure them against the dangers of a sudden attack. In others, there are bands of trained men who hire themselves out in companies of three to five to convey a string of carts with their dozen passengers across some dangerous part of the country, where it is known that foot-pads are on the look-out for unwary travellers. The escort consists of this small number only, for the reason that each man composing it is supposed to be equal to five or six robbers, not in mere strength, but in agility and knowledge of sword-exercise. To accustom themselves to the attacks of numbers, and to acquire the requisite skill in fighting more than one adversary at a time, these men practise in the following remarkable manner. In a lofty barn heavy bags of sand are hung in a circle by long ropes to the roof, and in the middle of these the student takes up his position. He then strikes one of the bags a good blow with his fist, sending it flying to a distance from him, another in the same way, then another, and so on until he has them all swinging about in every possible direction. By the time he has hit two or three it is time to look out for the return of the first, and sometimes two will come down on him at once from opposite quarters; his part is to be ready for all emergencies, and keep the whole lot swinging without ever letting one touch him. If he fails in this, he must not aspire to escort a traveller over a lonesome plain; and, besides, the ruthless sand-bag will knock him head over heels into the bargain.