The Shandong Province has been a hub of economic, political, and cultural activity for hundreds of years. The late-nineteenth century was particularly influential in amplifying the region’s historical significance as a wave of instrumental events simultaneously crippled the wobbling Qing Empire. Intimate perspectives shared in sources such as Liu’s The Travels of Lao Can and Pruitt’s A Daughter of Han help to highlight the anecdotal causes of this societal evolution.
When analyzing a historical artifact, it is important to consider both context and bias. The Travels of Lao Can, written by Liu (1857-1909) in 1904 (and later translated into English), is a social satire that provides a window into inner-workings of Chinese society. The semi-autobiographical novel traces the journey of Lao Can, a traveling medical-practitioner who engages with many demonstrative characters (officials, scholars, prostitutes, peasants). Actually published in 1907, years into the terminating collapse of the Qing, Liu’s account likely overemphasizes many of the bureaucracy’s social ills (bribery, fraudulence, piracy) in order to fit the narrative of Qing defeatism. A Daughter of Han documents the life of Ning Lao T’ai-t’ai (1867-1938), a Chinese peasant who shared her story with Ida Pruitt (the novel’s author) in the 1930s. The arc of the quasi-biography follows “Old Lady Ning’s” turbulent existence as she deals with incredibly demanding circumstances. Ning’s series of unfortunate events, from begging through wretched poverty to struggling with relational abuse, is tragic but not necessarily unique for the time period. It is very plausible that hyperbolic prose was used to magnify her conditions and bring attention to the many inequitable qualities of nineteenth-century Chinese living. Both narrators, Can and Ning, anchor their perspectives against the government and gravitate towards the shared-sentiment of the “common person.” Viewpoints over the condition of the country vary drastically across socioeconomic class. Wealthy officials would likely provide a rosy portrayal of order whereas resentful peasants (more similar to the two aforementioned authors) would share the opposite response. These caveats limit the reach of our conclusions but strengthen the accuracy of the analysis.
The most prominent challenges of this era can be grouped into four major themes: corruption, addiction, inequality, and foreign entanglement. These ills, underscored by both Liu and Pruitt, were eminent in shaping China’s social history.
Recovering from an overwhelming sequence of wars (Opium) and rebellions (Taiping, Miao), the Qing entered the final quarter of the nineteenth-century in a vulnerable state. The Empire’s thin layer of distributed governance was highly susceptible to corruption. Lao Can’s conversations with various townspeople over the fairness of their district magistrate (Yu) expose gaping flaws in the administration. From a naive, outsiders’ point of view, the magistrate appears to be a “honest and good official,” a leader who works relentlessly to protect his territory and arrest dangerous criminals (Liu 68). Can quickly uncovers that this facade has no real substance. The magistrate is in fact a corrupt official who is guilty of framing innocent citizens to accelerate his promotions (against the wills of both Nature and principle). “I hear that whenever he [the magistrate] sees anybody whose looks he does not like, he will put him in the pillory, and if a man speaks rashly when he falls into his hands, he will also be killed” (Liu 69). “It does not matter if you are really guilty or not, if he wants to put you in the pillory, he will” (Liu 100). Can’s animosity towards the “incredibly unqualified” magistrate builds as he becomes fed up with the hypocrisy of the unjust system (Liu 41). It is important to point out that Liu, the author, was only semi-educated and never lived up to his father’s reputation as an important state official. This may provide explanation for at least some of the motivation behind this characterization of the magistrate. The challenge with the justice system is that the real robbers always managed to escape imprisonment by unpretentiously paying off obstacles in their paths (Liu 92). It was standard for “officials to not have salary but rather earn their shares of what is paid [in taxes] by those who go to law” (Little 115). The sheer size of the bureaucratic system, which employed an over-abundance of “magistrates, assistants, prefects, judges, runners, etc.”, created extreme inefficiency that disproportionately impacted those at the bottom of the food chain (Little 140).
This cycle of corruption is unbounded, “when people are unjustly treated by the authorities, what can they do but endure it? If you report to a superior officer, according to law, your case will simply end up back in the hands of the same corrupt district magistrate” (Liu 65). “Official court hearings” are never trustworthy, anyhow, as district magistrates minimize their workloads and “are always partial to the living party” (Little 41). Even if you are innocent, “when they are an official and we are common residents – how could we win the case? Nothing really could be done” (Liu 66). The gradual disempowerment of ordinary citizens (eradicating their freedoms and imposing overbearing constraints) drove boiling tensions and an inevitable weakening of the Qing state. The authors stress bureaucratic incompetence and administrative corruption as the major drivers behind public turmoil.
Widespread opium addiction, driven originally by foreign intervention, tormented Qing society. By the end of the nineteenth century, opium consumption was ubiquitous (no longer just reserved for the elite). “In those days (1895), everyone took opium to some extent” (Little 88). It was a terribly addictive substance that hooked anyone who tried it. Can explains this phenomenon – “none of my friends started smoking with the intention of becoming addicts, all taking it as a relaxation, until they found themselves addicts. By that time not only were they unable to use it as a relaxation, but it became a never-ending burden instead” (Liu 123). This all-too-common progression led to a pervasive decrease in productivity, as opium consumed users’ lives. Drug addiction tortured Ning throughout her life, as she says that “opium had been the curse of the lives of women of her family” (Little 172). Her husband was an opium sot; he took every item [Ning] had and sold it for opium. He went as far to sell her children to further fund his addiction. Both Ning and Can are able to point out the negative effects of drug usage. “Those who eat opium have no face. There is no form of decency in their minds” (Little 57). This observation indicates that even working-class citizens were aware of the harmful health effects of opium.
Traditionalist Chinese customs called for the confinement of the “woman identity.” This extensive disenfranchisement materialized in a number of ways. Females were often treated as objects and stripped of fundamental human rights. Ning’s contemptible husband took advantage of this immorality, as he explains how “having girls is not such a bad business. Each one will sell for three hundreds taels and we can live on that a long time” (Little 168). Though technically illegal, organized prostitution, effectively sexual enslavement, had a large presence across China. Can’s interactions with prostitutes surfaced the brutality of this business. Women were beaten and often killed by their procurers (Liu 136). Life for “free women” was not particularly easy either. Even P’englai, a fairly traditionalist town, was considered too dangerous a place for a young woman to be out alone. Respectful women were not even allowed to leave the courtyard and covered their faces with squares of black cloth whenever they did meander (Little 47, 55). “My father was very strict and would not even let my mother and aunt out to see the plays” (Little 20). Women were judged harshly for their appearances and foot-binding was a common practice (Little 121). “A girl’s beauty and desirability were counted more by the size of her feet than the beauty of her face” (Little 22). Arranged marriages were very transactional. Ning (and her sister) were married-off at age fifteen and had no voice in the whole ordeal (Little 30). Ning, characterized as very strong-willed and stubborn, found considerable conflict with all of these societally-imposed limitations…but what could she do but complain? Her temper got her nowhere. Can, too, finds this accepted order as unjust. He fights back by going out of his way to help Ring Emerald (an enslaved prostitute) find safety. Can’s altruistic decision, though likely to have been embellished, is emblematic of an evolving social order that would modernize China over the coming decades.
Foreign influence over China during the late-nineteenth century played a major role in shifting the cultural tide. An array of unequal treaties (Nanjing, Beijing) gave external powers, namely Britain, France, and Germany, economic and political leverage to do as they pleased. Veterans of the Qing army, who were heavily defeated by foreigners just years back, paired with supporters of the Self-Strengthening Movement to propel xenophobia into public discourse. “People told terrible stories of the foreigners and believed them…they were said to have captured and sold people for their weight in silver. Every bad omen was blamed on the foreigners” (Little 63). Incidents such as the Tianjin Massacre (1870) illustrate the consequences (and transpiration) of this hatred. Can’s dream reveals similar sentiment as the Captain juxtaposes “using a foreign compass” with “being a traitor sent by the foreign devils” (Liu 22). “The first time I [Ning] had seen the tall man with the black beard, when I was a child, I thought he was the devil” (Little 145). As Ning grew older, she began to question this negative stereotype. She eventually signed to work for a foreign family, and knew that “they were a charitable people of a kind heart” (Little 63). Foreign families came to China for two primary purposes: religious and financial. Though Ning never converts to Christianity, she is able to recount the numerous baptism attempts by foreign missionaries (Little 151). The second motivation for foreign immersion is financial. Immigrants created businesses that were advantaged by the benefits inherent to the unequal treaties (monopolization, reduced tariffs). Although there were many stereotypes, it is important to recognize their respective nuances: not all outsiders held the same status in the eyes of the locals. Mohammedans, for instance, had many customs “very different from traditional Chinese” and were known to be “very fierce and revengeful” (Little 132). Europeans brought their own unique set of customs to intertwine with (and likely upset) Chinese culture. While foreign intervention certainly did affect the Empire, it is probable that its tangible impact was over-exaggerated by Qing loyalists as to describe a more appealing, less embarrassing story. As is the case with most all political discussions, reality was likely to be far less extreme than the typical headlines suggest: most foreign immigrants were not terrorizers but rather ordinary civilians.
The primary challenges faced by China during the late-nineteenth century (corruption, addiction, inequality, and foreign entanglement) greatly contributed to inevitable revolution. The stories of Lao Can and Ning Lao T’ai-t’ai highlight these factors as instrumental in determining the quality of life for a Chinese citizen living in the Shandong Province. Furthermore, the historical accounts help to illuminate the region’s social history, providing dozens of raw and informal anecdotes.
Published decades later (1945), Ning’s final chapter speculates over the future of the weakening Chinese state. Set in 1938, Ning narrates a time of both tranquility and fear. Ning’s entire existence had been a challenge. “From the time I [Ning] was conceived, the fortunes of the family went down” (Little 12). But she always remained cautiously optimistic, even as a beggar she found the positive qualities around her (Little 72). Written in the present time of 1938, Ning questions her next steps (as she has now grown old and frail). The Japanese had become more threatening and Ning does not know what will happen next…“perhaps it is a new dynasty coming to rule us. Perhaps a New China is being born” (Little 241, 246). Ning’s expression of fright towards the future but acceptance of the present is perhaps emblematic of the late-nineteenth century social identity: submissive, curious, and persistent.