CHAPTER XI. THE CITY OF TONGCHUAN; WITH SOME REMARKS UPON INFANTICIDE.
When I entered Tongchuan the town was in commotion; kettledrums and tomtoms were beating, and crackers and guns firing; the din and clatter was continuous and deafening. An eclipse of the sun was commencing - it was the 6th of April - "the sun was being swallowed by the Dog of Heaven," and the noise was to compel the monster to disgorge its prey. Five months ago the Prefect of the city had been advised of the impending disaster, and it was known that at a certain hour he would publicly intervene with Heaven to avert from the city the calamity of darkness. I myself saw with my own eyes the wonderful power of this man. The sun was darkened when I went to the Prefect's yamen. A crowd was already gathered in the court. At the foot of the steps in the open air, a loosely built framework of wood ten feet high was standing, displaying on its vertex a yellow disc of paper inscribed with the characters for "voracity."
As we waited the sun became gradually clearer, when, just as the moon was disappearing across its edge, the Prefect in full dress, stepped from his yamen into the court, accompanied by the city magistrate and a dozen city fathers. Every instrument of discord was still clanging over the city. Then all these men of weight walked solemnly three times round the scaffold, and halted three times, while the Prefect went down on his knees, and did obeisance with nine kotows to the rickety frame and its disc of yellow paper. There was almost immediate answer to his prayer. With a sigh of relief we saw the lingering remnant of darkness disappear, and the midday sun shone full and bright. Then the Prefect retired, his suite dividing to let him pass, and we all went home blessing the good man whose intercession had saved the town from darkness. For there can be little doubt, I hope, that it is due to the action of this Prefect that the sun is shining to-day in Tongchuan. The Chinese might well ask if any barbarian missionary could do as he did.
Eclipses in China are foretold by the Government almanac published annually in Peking by a bureau of astrology attached to the Board of Rites. The almanac is a Government monopoly, and any infraction of its copyright is a penal offence. "It monopolises the management of the superstitions of the people, in regard to the fortunate or unlucky conjunctions of each day and hour. No one ventures to be without it, lest he be liable to the greatest misfortunes and run the imminent hazard of undertaking important events on blackballed days."
The Chinese almanac is much more comprehensive than ours, for even eclipses are foretold that never happen. Should an error take place in their almanac, and an expected eclipse not occur, the royal astronomers are not disconcerted - far from it; they discover in their error reason for rejoicing; they then congratulate the Emperor that "the heavens have dispensed with this omen of ill-luck in his favour." For eclipses forebode disaster, and every thoughtful Chinaman who has heard of the present rebellion of the Japanese must attribute the reverses caused by the revolt to the eclipse of April 6th, occurring immediately before the insurrection.
Tongchuan is one of the most charming towns I have ever visited; it is probably the cleanest city in China, and the best governed. Its prefect is a man of singular enlightenment, who rules with a justice that is rarely known in China. His people regard him as something more than mortal. Like Confucius "his ear is an obedient organ for the reception of truth." Like the Confucian Superior Man "his dignity separates him from the crowd; being reverent he is beloved; being loyal he is submitted to; and being faithful he is trusted. By his word he directs men, and by his conduct he warns them."
For several years he was attached to the Embassy in Japan, and he boasts that he has made Tongchuan as clean a city as any to be found in the empire of the Mikado. The yamen is a model of neatness. Painted on the outflanking wall there is the usual huge representation of the fabulous monster attempting to swallow the sun - the admonition against extortion - and probably the only magistrate in China who does not stand in need of the warning is the Prefect of Tongchuan.
Prices in Tongchuan at the time of my visit were high and food was scarce. It was difficult to realise that men at that moment were dying of starvation in the pretty town. Rice cost 400 cash for the same quantity that in a good season can be bought for 60 cash; maize was 300 cash the sheng, whereas the normal price is only 40 cash. Sugar was 15 cash the cake instead of 6 cash the cake, and so on in all things. Poppy is not grown in the valley to the same extent as hitherto, because poppy displaces wheat and beans, and the people have need of all the land they can spare to grow breadstuffs. In the other half of the year, rice, maize, and tobacco are grown together on the plain, and at the same season potatoes, oats, and buckwheat are grown in the hills.
Part of the plain is permanently under water, but it was the drought in the winter and the rains in the summer of successive years that caused the famine. There are no Mohammedans in the town - there have been none since the rebellion - but there are many small Mohammedan villages across the hills. No district in China is now more peaceful than the Valley of Tongchuan. The Yangtse River - "The River of Golden Sand " - is only two days distant, but it is not navigable even by Chinese boatmen. Sugarcane grows in the Yangtse Valley in little pockets, and it is from there that the compressed cakes of brown sugar seen in all the markets of Western Yunnan are brought. Coal comes from a mine two or three days inland; white-wax trees provide an important industry; the hills to the west contain the most celebrated copper mines in the empire.