Should we approach a group of Chinese merchants in Canton, and ask any one of them "How many children have you?" we could be almost certain that he would not think of counting his daughters, or that he would at least make this distinction - "I have two children, and one girl." For to a Chinaman nothing in life is so important as to have a son to offer sacrifices for him after death and worship at his grave, since, in their opinion, a daughter is not capable of doing this. When a boy is born, therefore, the father is overwhelmed with congratulations, but if the newcomer be a girl, as little reference as possible is made to the misfortune. Friends are informed of the birth of a child by strips of paper carried through the street. If it be a boy, yellow paper is used, but in case of a girl any color will do. This feeling, intensified by poverty, is the cause of the infanticide which has been, and still is, in certain provinces, so dark a blot on the domestic history of China. It is said, for example, that in the vicinity of Amoy thirty per cent, of all new-born girls are strangled or drowned, as unwelcome kittens sometimes are with us.
On our second day in Canton we investigated another phase of Chinese life, in some respects stranger than anything we had thus far seen. Along the shores of the Canton river, and in its various canals, is a population of a quarter of a million souls, living on thousands of peculiar boats crowded together side by side, and forming streets, and even colonies, of floating dwellings. Moreover, these conditions prevail in every river- town throughout the empire.
A Chinese Lady.
Each of these "sampans," as they are called, though only about twenty feet in length, constitutes the home of an entire family. Eight people frequently live on one boat - grandpa and grandma, father and mother, uncle and aunt, two or three children, and a baby. The latter is tied to the back of its mother, even when she is rowing. As for the other children, their parents fasten around them pieces of bamboo, like life-preservers, and tie them to the rail by a cord. If they tumble over, they float until some one gets a chance to pull them in. Upon these little boats thousands are born, eat, drink, cook, and sleep, and finally die, having known no other home. Under the flooring are stored their cooking utensils, bedding, clothing, provisions, oil, charcoal, and other requisites of their aquatic life. Above them, usually, are movable roofs of bamboo wicker - work, to give protection from the sun and rain.
The Homes Of Thousands.
A Chinese Paterfamilias.
A Market - Place.
Some of these families even take boarders! I verified this by going at night among this floating population, and found that sleeping space on the boats is rented to those who have no fixed abode. Planks are laid over the seats to form a floor, and on these lie the numerous members of the household and the lodgers. Conspicuous figures in this boat-life are the itinerant barbers and physicians, who go about in tiny sampans, ringing a bell and offering their services.
Occasionally, however, we beheld a boat much larger and finer than the craft around it. It proved to be one of the Chinese flower-boats, which are the pleasure resorts of China's jeunesse doree. By day they are conspicuous by their size and gilded wood-work, and in the evening by their many lights. Never, while memory lasts, shall I forget an excursion made at night with our hotel-proprietor among these flower-boats and their surroundings. Many of them were anchored side by side, and planks were stretched from one to the other, like a continuous sidewalk. As we walked along, we passed by countless open doors, each of which revealed a room handsomely furnished with mirrors, marble panels, and blackwood furniture. Here were usually grouped a dozen or more hilarious Chinamen, who were eating, drinking, and smoking, together with professional singing-girls, who are hired by the owners of these flower-boats to entertain their guests with songs and dances. We could not pause to observe them carefully, for foreigners are not wanted here, either as visitors or patrons. Meanwhile, at the very doorways of these handsome rooms, beggars in greasy garments crowded around us and almost threateningly demanded alms. "Look out for your pockets," was the proprietor's constant warning.