"Arrived there, the little house they fill,
LIFE IN THE VILLAGES
AN INTRODUCTION TO CHINESE HOME LIFE
THE house at Hwochow, which we were to inhabit, was still in the hands of workmen. We therefore decided to delay the unpacking of our boxes, and to spend several months in visiting the homes of the Christians throughout the four counties for which we were then responsible. Our travelling paraphernalia was simple, luggage being limited to the amount that a small donkey could carry in addition to a rider. Clothes and books were tied up in large square handkerchiefs and distributed as evenly as possible, along with a folded, wadded quilt in a long bed-bag which, thrown over the donkey's saddle, reached nearly to the ground on either side. On the early morning of the day decided on for our departure, two donkeys thus laden stood at our gate. On to one of them I was hoisted, and took my first lesson in how to sit happily, perched high on the voluminous luggage with neither reins for my hands nor stirrups for my feet, for sometimes as long as twelve hours' travelling with but a short break for food and rest at midday. From village to village we wandered, received everywhere with cordial hospitality, pressed to extend our visit, and followed on our departure by the reiterated cry: "Come again, come again, come again soon!"
All was fresh and delightful to me and brimful of interest, from the hour when I rode through the city gate, passed the great tanks of lotus bloom to the edge of the swift, shallow river, where my servant stripped off his shoes and socks to lead my donkey knee-deep over the ford.
By narrow roads we travelled where the tall grain stood like a wall on either side, ripening in the fierce sunshine which bathed the landscape in a dazzling glare. Through occasional villages we rode, where the women called to each other to hurry and see the strange sight, and groups of naked and semi-naked children commented freely on the appearance of the "foreign devils."
A few miles farther and the first stage was reached -- a deep courtyard backing the hillside, from which had been hollowed a row of caves according to the economical method of the country. Scarcely any bricks are required for such building, and the deep, lofty, arched room affords the warmest shelter in our bitter Shansi winter cold, as it does the coolest refuge from the burning summer heat.
"Come again, come again soon," and we were off again, refreshed by a delicious, beautifully cooked meal, and our hearts warmed by the evident pleasure which our visit had given and the cordial hospitality which had sought to let us know how welcome we were. And now we left the fertile plain and well-watered land which lay all along the river-bed to climb steep, stony roads, and follow narrow footpaths, where the difficulty of its broad load made my donkey step gingerly as near to the chasm's edge as she could secure a foothold, and I dug my knees into the soft bed-bag and longed for something on which I could get a grip. How pleasant and easy such journeying became before the end of that autumn's wandering, and how familiar the life of the village homes. Almost day by day the confused sounds took form to my unaccustomed ears, and I was soon able to differentiate quite clearly between the two inevitable questions, "How old are you?" and "How many brothers and sisters have you?" I ceased to cover myself with confusion, by answering that my brothers and sisters numbered twenty-three, and that my age was six -- though now that the days of helpless shame are passed, I would not not have made these mistakes, so keen is the enjoyment still felt when some one repeats the old joke, and all laugh merrily at the recollection.
Happy, irresponsible days, in which I learned to know and love the Chinese. I saw them now to best advantage, simple, patriarchal, industrious and thrifty, extraordinarily resourceful, and independent of all that their own fields and farm do not supply. I saw the women's activities, and how they picked the cotton in the fields, spun and carded it, then wove it into strong cloth on the loom made for them by their own husbands; how they dyed the cloth with indigo of their own growing, and finally converted it into the garments, and even the shoes and socks, worn by the whole family. I saw how those same garments were wadded with a layer of cotton-wool as the cold season approached, and behold, the whole family was made proof against the severe onslaughts of the keenest frosts and bitterest winds. I saw how a measure of wheaten or maize flour, a vessel of water, and a few vegetables dug from the field were daily converted into the three meals on which young and old alike thrived, the men showing a muscular development and endurance and an agility unequalled by anything I had met in other countries. I learned to recognise their simple, unexpressed joys, and to realise the deep tragedies which lay beneath the surface of their laborious lives.
I was in the midst of the province which -- in the very year when I was born -- had been swept by the horrors of a famine and pestilence which left whole villages with no other survivor than perhaps two or three wailing children, feeding on garbage torn from the grasp of the dead hand.
My servant remembered the time well. His whole family had been wiped out, and he had escaped as by a miracle. "In those days, dogs ate dogs and men ate men," was the refrain of his tale, only too literally and absolutely true, for no man dared to venture on the lonely path leading from one village to another, knowing that the likelihood was that murderers lay in wait, and that a few picked bones alone would tell the tale even if, satiated with horrors to the point of indifference, any one cared to inquire of it.
When I expressed surprise at the many rows of caves allowed to fall into utter ruin, and the traces of whole villages now returned to waste land: "Famine year," he would briefly answer, "dogs ate dogs and men ate men."
I learned, too, why it was that no merry groups of children wandered away from the village, even now when no evil-doers lay in wait, upon some game or exploring adventure. I first discovered the reason of this through meeting a woman whose face was scarred and mutilated so as to bear small likeness to the human, and on inquiry I was informed that, as a little girl, she had strayed away from home and been attacked by a wolf; men had rushed to her rescue, but her face, which is generally the part first attacked, was torn beyond recognition. I then learned what a common thing it is for wild beasts, wolves or leopards, to come down from the hills, and steal children even as they play around the courtyard grinding-stone. I could not be surprised at the intense anxiety of a woman whose son was half an hour late returning from an errand, when I heard that her eldest child had strayed off one day, and never been seen again. I was told of yet another woman who, nursing her baby in the cave, saw a leopard spring on her eldest child in the courtyard. Frantic, she left the baby to raise the alarm, and when she returned bearing the little mangled body in her arms, she found that the wild beast's mate had noted her absence and carried the baby off to its lair.
I also heard, and found myself compelled to believe, things which I should have dismissed with an incredulous smile some few months earlier.
It was now that I found myself brought face to face with the strange phenomenon of demon possession. There is so much to be said on this interesting topic, that it will require a chapter under its own heading to note even a portion of what has come under my personal notice. For the first time I heard, often in the midnight stillness, the high-pitched voice, intoning the magic incantations whereby some young woman yielded herself to be the medium of communication between the spirit and the material, the wild chant sometimes dying away in the distance, as she led a group of inquirers over wild mountain paths in obedience to the directions of her control.
A few weeks were spent in the home of an elder of the Church, Giang by name, as from this centre it was easy to make daily itinerations in the neighbourhood. What a welcome we received there! The deep cave set apart for our use was decorated with flowers, everything was clean and comfortable, and we were made to feel "at home." Being guests in the house, our meals were always served separately, but we liked to take our bowls into the courtyard and enjoy the family life. We were able to consult with our host concerning many whom we had visited during the day, and discuss our plans for the morrow.
As the daylight faded we joined in prayer and praise, and listened to much that was of interest to us as the Elder told of early years spent in dissipation, opium smoking, and gambling; of his conversion through Pastor Hsi, and of first efforts to preach the Gospel. Meanwhile, the shepherd folded his sheep, carefully counting them lest one should be missing, and the women prepared the millstones for grinding on the morrow. I saw much illustrated that had been familiar to me from childhood in the Gospel stories, even to the midnight cry announcing the arrival of the bridal party to a neighbour's house. A little oil was added to our long-extinguished lamp, as, being first to hear the clanging of the cymbals, we hastened to the bridegroom's home to help arouse the drowsy guests.
We returned in due course to Hwochow, urged by our kind hostess to come again at any time. Such homes are resting-places to those who have left home for the Kingdom of God's sake, and are part of the literal fulfilment of the promise: "An hundredfold now in this time."
Nowhere are we more sure of a welcome than in some of these Chinese courts, and for the Church of Christ in the home of Elder Giang, I for one shall ever be thankful.