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Fun in A Chinese School Room

by William Elliot Griffis

These five Chinese boys (except the one whose ear is being pulled) are having fine fun. The Fu-tse, or old teacher, has gone out of the room for a few minutes to fill his tobacco pouch. Let us look round and see what kind of school-rooms they have in China, and how the pupils study.

The boys in this case are all of one family, and the old gentleman is their private tutor. He is white-bearded and shaven-pated, and has rather long finger-nails, as the fashion is in China among those who do not have to work with their hands. Long finger-nails with them are like white hands and tapering fingers among us.

The floor of the room is of stone set in squares like a checker-board. It is very pleasant and cool in summertime, and in all weathers the lads keep on their velvet and maple-wood shoes. These are thick-soled and warm, slightly turned up at the end, but do not "draw" the feet, as our leather or rubber shoes do. The three younger boys wear embroidered coats. All except the "baby" have plaits of hair on the side of the head; but the little fellow, who is not yet six years old, still wears the very young child's circle of hair.

Every day or so their heads are neatly shaved; and when they are twelve years old, there will be a family party, and each one will lose his boyish locks, and begin to raise a "pigtail," or queue, which hangs down his back. Then they will feel as proud as our boys when they sport their first attempt at a mustache.

The walls of the school-room are plain, but are not complete without the usual picture of the bamboo swaying in the wind or soughing in the moonlight. The Chinese have thousands of stanzas and ditties of which the graceful bamboo is the subject.

Notice the tables: they are of hard polished wood, with colored marble tops. The seats are of round hollow wood, with leather tops. They look like ginger jars with paper covers. On these the boys sit while tracing the characters which we see on real Chinese tea boxes (for those made in New York are almost always upside down, as if they had turned a somersault). Every boy must learn from two hundred to ten thousand of these characters, and many years of hard study are required. Their books, ink-stones, brush-pens, water-pot, and pen-rests are all on the table. They use "India" ink, and write with a brush.

In learning their lessons the scholars study out loud, and a Chinese school-room is a very noisy place, and worse than the buzzing of many bee-hives.

When a boy has learned his lesson he comes to the teacher, and then "backs his book"; that is, he hands his book to the instructor, and then turns his back, so as not to see the page or face of the teacher, and then recites. At the same time he holds out two of his fingers, first of one hand and then of the other, beating them up and down alternately, like a music leader beating time.

The boys in the picture have become tired of so much sitting; so, as soon as the cat leaves the room, the mice begin to play. One of them mounts the table, taking the master's wooden seat with him. On this he poses himself, foot over knee, and dons Fu-tse's hat, on which is the crystal button and horse-hair plume, of which all dignified men are very proud. He quickly anchors the huge goggle spectacles astride his nose, with the aid of the guy-ropes around his ears, seizes the empty pipe in one hand, and with fan in the other, calls out to the oldest boy to "back his book."

The big boy begins to see-saw his fingers up and down, and to bawl out his lesson, but quickly turns round to see the fun. The next oldest boy is pulling the ears of "the baby," who squeals out, while the boy on the floor, who pretends to be in disgrace, and can not rise, calls on the teacher to speak to the mischievous urchin.

But the old Fu-tse has heard the squealing and the racket, and is hurrying along the corridor to see what is the matter.

What will be done? There will be no rattan or ruler used, or ears boxed, but each one will receive a lecture on propriety, and an extra lesson. The bigger boys will be ordered to learn fifty new characters, and the smaller ones will each have a longer copy to write after school.