CHAPTER XVI. THE JOURNEY FROM YUNNAN CITY TO TALIFU.
When a well-bred Chinaman, of whatever station, meets you for the first time, he thus addresses you, first asking you how old you are:
"What is your honourable age?"
"I have been dragged up a fool so many years," you politely reply.
"What is your noble and exalted occupation?"
"My mean and contemptible calling is that of a doctor?"
"What is your noble patronymic?"
"My poverty-struck family name is Mo."
"How many honourable and distinguished sons have you?"
"Alas! Fate has been niggardly; I have not even one little bug."
But, if you can truthfully say that you are the honourable father of sons, your interlocutor will raise his clasped hands and say gravely, "Sir, you are a man of virtue; I congratulate you." He continues -
"How many tens of thousands of pieces of silver have you?" meaning how many daughters have you?
"My yatows" (forked heads or slave children), "my daughters," you answer with a deprecatory shrug, "number so many."
So the conversation continues, and the more minute are the inquiries the more polite is the questioner.
Unlike most of the Western nations, the Chinese have an overmastering desire to have children. More than death itself the Chinaman fears to die without leaving male progeny to worship at his shrine; for, if he should die childless, he leaves behind him no provision for his support in heaven, but wanders there a hungry ghost, forlorn and forsaken - an "orphan" because he has no children. "If one has plenty of money," says the Chinese proverb, "but no children, he cannot be reckoned rich; if one has children, but no money, he cannot be considered poor." To have sons is a foremost virtue in China; "the greatest of the three unfilial things," says Mencius "is to have no children." (Mencius, iv., pt. i., 26).
In China longevity is the highest of the five grades of felicity. Triumphal arches are erected all over the kingdom in honour of those who have attained the patriarchal age which among us seems only to be assured to those who partake in sufficient quantity of certain fruit-salts and pills. Age when not known is guessed by the length of the beard, which is never allowed to grow till the thirty-second year. Now it happens that I am clean-shaven, and, as it is a well-known fact that the face of the European is an enigma to the Oriental, just as the face of the Chinaman is an inscrutable mystery to most of us, I have often been amused by the varying estimates of my age advanced by curious bystanders. It has been estimated as low as twelve - "look at the foreigner," they said, "there's a fine fat boy!" - and never higher than twenty-two. But it is not only in China that a youthful appearance has hampered me in my walk through life.
I remember that on one occasion, some years ago, I obliged a medical friend by taking his practice while he went away for a few days to be married. It was in a semi-barbarian village named Portree, in a forgotten remnant of Scotland called the Isle of Skye. The time was winter. The first case I was called to was that of a bashful matron, the baker's wife, who had lately given birth to her tenth child. I entered the room cheerfully. She looked me over critically, and then greatly disconcerted me by remarking that: "She was gey thankfu' to the Lord, that it was a' by afore I cam', as she had nae wush to be meddled wi' by a laddie o' nineteen." Yet I was two years older than the doctor who had attended her.
If in China you are so fortunate as to be graced with a beard, the Chinaman will add many years to your true age. In the agreeable company of one of the finest men in China, I once made a journey to the Nankow Pass in the Great Wall, north of Peking. My friend had a beard like a Welsh bard's, and, though a younger man than his years, forty-four, there was not a native who saw him, who did not gaze upon him with awe, as a possible Buddha, and not one who attributed to him an age less than eighty.
Next day, the 28th of April, despite my misgivings, my men fulfilled their promise, and led me into Tali on the ninth day out from Yunnan. We had come 307 miles in nine days. They walked all the way, living frugally on scanty rations. I walked only 210 miles; I was better fed than they, and I had a pony at my hand ready to carry me whenever I was tired.
My men thus earned a reward of eighteen pence each for doing thirteen stages in nine days. Long before daylight we were on our way. For miles and miles in the early morning we were climbing up the mountains, till we reached a plateau where the wind blew piercingly keen, and my fingers ached with the cold, and the rarefaction in the atmosphere made breathing uneasy. The road was lonely and un-irequented. We were accompanied by a muleteer who knew the way, by his sturdy son of twelve, and his two pack horses. By mid-day we had left the bare plateau, had passed the three pagoda peaks, and were standing on the brow of a steep hill overlooking the valleys of Chaochow and Tali. The plains were studded with thriving villages, in rich fields, and intersected with roadways lined with hedges. There on the left was the walled city of Chaochow, beyond, to the right, was the great lake of Tali, hemmed in by mountains, those beyond the lake thickly covered with snow, and rising 7000 feet above the lake, which itself is 7000 feet above the sea.