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Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 57.djvu/631

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621
MODERN MONGOLS.

den thaw was always apt to turn brooks into rivers and rivers into raging seas. The summers, at the same time, became warmer and drier. Famines, such as only India had seen before, crowded the cities with refugees. Charitable institutions were managed by agents of a paternal government, and paupers were rarely suffered to perish in wayside ditches, but hundreds of thousands were huddled together in parish suburbs and fed on minimum rations of the cheapest available food.

It was then that the masses were forced to apostatize from the dietetic tenets of Buddhism; abstinence from animal food became impossible; sanitary scruples had to be disregarded; whole settlements of famine victims were compelled to subsist exclusively on offal.

Millions of mechanics had to fight to struggle for existence by reducing their wants. The prices of food had doubled, and in order to pay the cost of one daily meal all luxuries had to be relinquished. Sleep and oblivion of misery became the only alternatives of hopeless toil, and those who could save a few taels yielded to the temptation of supplementing those blessings by means of chemical anodynes. Opium-smoking became a national vice.

The 'opium war' did not rivet the yoke of that curse. It merely clinched the grip of a British trading company. The Chinese government had attempted to cancel their franchise, but only with a view to diverting its profits into the pockets of their own speculators. The total suppression of the traffic would have been not only difficult, but practically impossible. We might as well try to prohibit tobacco in North America.

Yet the results of these cooperating factors of degeneracy have stopped short of the extremes that might have been expected in a land of earth-despisers. Buddhism in its orthodox Chinese form is radically pessimistic. It inculcates a belief in the worthlessness of all terrestrial blessings, and considers life a disease, with no cure but death. And not death by suicide, either; the victims of misery must drain life's cup to the dregs, to cure the very love of existence, and thus prevent the risk of re-birth.

The value of health and wealth is thus depreciated in a manner that might tend to aggravate the recklessness of life-weariness; yet the South Mongol is conservative, even in his vices. An inalienable instinct of thrift makes him shrink from senseless excesses. Tavern brawls are less frequent in Canton than in Edinburgh; the topers of the Flowery Kingdom get less efflorescent than ours, their love-crazed swains less extravagant. Absolute imbecility, as a consequence of poison habits, is a rare phenomenon in Mongoldom; nine out of ten sots remain self-supporting; the heritage of industrial habits is hardly ever lost altogether.