The Middle Kingdom by S. Wells Williams

November 23rd

We are within a day’s sail of the Equator. The weather is charming, a delightful cool breeze all the time; as yet have not suffered in the least from heat and if we escape calms, it is not likely that we shall.

We all continue to go on in our quiet ways. Our deck which was oiled in China is being planed off. The carpenter has been at work ever since we left St. Helena and it will be two or three days ere he has finished. It is delightful to see it look so white and clean again, but it is a noisy job and I shall be glad when finished. A ship is a very noisy place at times, particularly when the work is going on overhead.

I have not felt quite well for several days; think it is in part owing to the change in the weather.

For the last three days have discontinued Willie’s morning nap. I intended to have kept the habit up till our arrival home, then I know he would find enough to do to pass away the day pleasantly, but his father wished it, and so we have commenced now. Thus far he has found the mornings long and seemed to get tired out before dinner. His occupations and amusements are so much the same day after day. However, he does very well.

Two or three days ago he carried some cakes from the table into my room, broke it up in small pieces and threw it on the floor. I told him to pick it up and give it to me. He hesitated a moment, then looked up in my face (meantime gesticulating with his hands in a most forcible manner), and said, “do you pick them up yourself”. I could not help a smile and could scarce keep from laughing. The young gentleman spoke with such a determined, also theatrical, air. However, I told him if he did not do it, I should have to shut him in the room As he showed no signs of compliance, but only laughed, I left him and shut the door. As I had smiled at his little impertinence, and he had felt inclined to laugh, I hardly knew how he would take the shutting up. As I heard no noise in the room, I opened the door in a minute or two, not knowing but that I might find him in some mischief, but I wronged the little fellow. There he sat on my low bench, his head hanging down, his little face looking very much ashamed and very red. “Come, jump Willie, and give Mama all the pieces of cracker”. He instantly picked them all up and gave them to me and was as good and bright as possible.

Sometimes we have a little exciting conversation. Some days ago at dinnertime, it was about American and English ships. Williams, to my amazement, took the side of English, and had the others against him. He would have it that they built as fine and fast sailing vessels as we. All became considerably excited and in the midst of the talk, Mr. Taylor made a remark which Williams answered by telling him his remark showed he knew nothing about the subject. Mr. Taylor thereon gave a jump and vaulting over the seat, snatched up his hat and went to the deck. Mr. Contee was accused of a want of knowledge, and Williams of obstinacy, and the final remark was made by Mr. Contee as Williams was leaving the Cabin. “That he had never before heard an American express such opinions”. The fact was, I think, that they all got excited, and said more for the two sides than they meant. However, when they next met, all were pleasant but for a day or so, perhaps a little cool. This is one of the evils of a long voyage with a few companions.

Yesterday, another subject was discussed. Williams differed. “Well”, said Mr. Contee, “as a naval officer I should think I ought to know”. The subject was connected with American Consuls in foreign countries. Who was right I know not, but certainly our little naval officer thinks he knows a great deal, and seems to fancy himself somewhat better than those around him. He gives himself airs many and has plenty of little disagreeable ways – many which I think very ungentlemanly. I have wished him back in China more than once.

I find parts of Mr. Williams’ work on China very interesting, none of it as dry as Mr. Contee represented. Yesterday I was much interested with the subject of Chinese education. I rather think no other nation would exhibit father, son and grandson all contending at the same time for the same prize, and on the father’s part, after repeated failures year after year, will they still try for the prize. Some are so old that they die from fatigue and excitement. This intense desire for success in literary studies does not arise from the love of learning itself, for there is little of beauty in their literature to repay them, but the hope of civil advancement. Learning being the great and only stepping stone to power.

In another chapter the Chinese family relation is spoken of: the respect and care taken of age, etc.; the love of children, particularly of sons. They would consider it a dreadful calamity not to have a son to revere the memory of their ancestors and worship at their graves. Large families are common with them; nine families of Chung Kung’s inhabit one house. All these were his descendants and at the table of Chin, seven hundred mouths were daily fed.

Speaking of the cultivation of the land and its various products, Mr. Williams says that it is not known that one acre of land in all the Chinese Empire is sown with grass seed.

In China the stork is considered with the Tortoise and Fir trees – one of the emblems of longevity, and the three are grouped together on visiting cards at New Year’s in a pretty picture implying the wish that there may be many happy returns of the season.

Mr. Williams also speaks of Tibet as connected with the empire. Speaking of their dead, says they are exposed in the same manner as with the Parsees, the bodies of the lama only being burned. It seems to be one of the great objects of this people to prevent their increase as much as possible. The priests and lama are not allowed to marry, and one wife is sufficient for a large family of sons, the elder son has the right of choosing who shall be. In this he consults his fancy as the sexes are not kept apart as in China.

Mr. Williams gives a very interesting account of the Chinese pheasants; they are a magnificent bird. There are the golden and silver pheasants. The prevailing colors of the golden are yellow and red, finely blended with each other in different shades. The silver pheasant is the largest and is more stately in its gait. Its silver back and tail only show the more beautifully in contrast with the steel blue of the breast and belly. It is one of the most splendid birds known. The females of both species present a remarkable contrast by their plainness and humble bearing. The Phasianus Superbus, or bar tailed pheasant, is another magnificent member of the genus, remarkable for the great length of its tail feathers, some have been seen seven feet long; generally they are four feet. Their body is not so large or showy as the silver pheasant, nor so graceful in its movements.

One of the most remarkable of the tribe of monkeys is the Douc or Cochin-China monkey which is also found in Kwangsi, a province of China – one of the eighteen. It is a large species of great rarity and remarkable for the variety of colors with which it is adorned. Its body is about two feet long, and when standing in an upright position, its height is much greater. Its face is of an orange color and flattened in its form. A dark bank runs across the front of the forehead and the sides of the countenance are bordered by long spreading yellowish tufts of hair. The body and upper part of the forearms are brownish grey, the lower portions of the arms to the wrists being white. Its hands and thighs are black and the legs of a bright red color; while the tail and a large triangular spot above it, are pure white.