A Chinese Story
They exclaim against the greed and the selfishness of the age!
Open the thousand books, the thousand papers, the thousand pamphlets,
which the Parisian presses throw out every day on the country; is not
all this the work of little saints?
What spirit in the painting of the vices of the time! What touching
tenderness for the masses! With what liberality they invite the rich to
divide with the
poor, or the poor to divide with the rich! How many
plans of social reform, social improvement, and social organization!
Does not even the weakest writer devote himself to the well-being of the
laboring classes? All that is required is to advance them a little money
to give them time to attend to their humanitarian pursuits.
There is nothing which does not assume to aid in the well-being and
moral advancement of the people--nothing, not even the Custom House. You
believe that it is a tax machine, like a duty or a toll at the end of a
bridge? Not at all. It is an essentially civilizing, fraternizing and
equalizing institution. What would you have? It is the fashion. It is
necessary to put or affect to put feeling or sentimentality everywhere,
even in the cure of all troubles.
But it must be admitted that the Custom House organization has a
singular way of going to work to realize these philanthropic
It puts on foot an army of collectors, assistant collectors, inspectors,
assistant inspectors, cashiers, accountants, receivers, clerks,
supernumeraries, tide-waiters, and all this in order to exercise on the
industry of the people that negative action which is summed up in the
word to prevent.
Observe that I do not say to tax, but really to prevent.
And to prevent, not acts reproved by morality, or opposed to public
order, but transactions which are innocent, and which they have even
admitted are favorable to the peace and harmony of nations.
However, humanity is so flexible and supple that, in one way or another,
it always overcomes these attempts at prevention.
It is for the purpose of increasing labor. If people are kept from
getting their food from abroad they produce it at home. It is more
laborious, but they must live. If they are kept from passing along the
valley, they must climb the mountains. It is longer, but the point of
destination must be reached.
This is sad, but amusing. When the law has thus created a certain amount
of obstacles, and when, to overcome them, humanity has diverted a
corresponding amount of labor, you are no longer allowed to call for the
reform of the law; for, if you point out the obstacle, they show you
the labor which it brings into play; and if you say this is not labor
created but diverted, they answer you as does the Esprit
Public--The impoverishing only is certain and immediate; as for the
enriching, it is more than problematical.
This recalls to me a Chinese story, which I will tell you.
There were in China two great cities, Tchin and Tchan. A magnificent
canal connected them. The Emperor thought fit to have immense masses of
rock thrown into it, to make it useless.
Seeing this, Kouang, his first Mandarin, said to him: Son of Heaven,
you make a mistake. To which the Emperor replied: Kouang, you are
You understand, of course, that I give but the substance of the
At the end of three moons the Celestial Emperor had the Mandarin
brought, and said to him: Kouang, look.
And Kouang, opening his eyes, looked.
He saw at a certain distance from the canal a multitude of men
laboring. Some excavated, some filled up, some leveled, and some laid
pavement, and the Mandarin, who was very learned, thought to himself:
They are making a road.
At the end of three more moons, the Emperor, having called Kouang, said
to him: Look.
And Kouang looked.
And he saw that the road was made; and he noticed that at various
points, inns were building. A medley of foot passengers, carriages and
palanquins went and came, and innumerable Chinese, oppressed by fatigue,
carried back and forth heavy burdens from Tchin to Tchan, and from Tchan
to Tchin, and Kouang said: It is the destruction of the canal which has
given labor to these poor people. But it did not occur to him that this
labor was diverted from other employments.
Then more moons passed, and the Emperor said to Kouang: Look.
And Kouang looked.
He saw that the inns were always full of travelers, and that they being
hungry, there had sprung up, near by, the shops of butchers, bakers,
charcoal dealers, and bird's nest sellers. Since these worthy men could
not go naked, tailors, shoemakers and umbrella and fan dealers had
settled there, and as they do not sleep in the open air, even in the
Celestial Empire, carpenters, masons and thatchers congregated there.
Then came police officers, judges and fakirs; in a word, around each
stopping place there grew up a city with its suburbs.
Said the Emperor to Kouang: What do you think of this?
And Kouang replied: I could never have believed that the destruction of
a canal could create so much labor for the people. For he did not think
that it was not labor created, but diverted; that travelers ate when
they went by the canal just as much as they did when they were forced to
go by the road.
However, to the great astonishment of the Chinese, the Emperor died, and
this Son of Heaven was committed to earth.
His successor sent for Kouang, and said to him: Clean out the canal.
And Kouang said to the new Emperor: Son of Heaven, you are doing
And the Emperor replied: Kouang, you are foolish.
But Kouang persisted and said: My Lord, what is your object?
My object, said the Emperor, is to facilitate the movement of men and
things between Tchin and Tchan; to make transportation less expensive,
so that the people may have tea and clothes more cheaply.
But Kouang was in readiness. He had received, the evening before, some
numbers of the Moniteur Industriel, a Chinese paper. Knowing his
lesson by heart, he asked permission to answer, and, having obtained it,
after striking his forehead nine times against the floor, he said: My
Lord, you try, by facilitating transportation, to reduce the price of
articles of consumption, in order to bring them within the reach of the
people; and to do this you begin by making them lose all the labor which
was created by the destruction of the canal. Sire, in political economy,
The Emperor. I believe that you are reciting something.
Kouang. That is true, and it would be more convenient for me to read.
Having unfolded the Esprit Public, he read: In political economy the
absolute cheapness of articles of consumption is but a secondary
question. The problem lies in the equilibrium of the price of labor and
that of the articles necessary to existence. The abundance of labor is
the wealth of nations, and the best economic system is that which
furnishes them the greatest possible amount of labor. Do not ask whether
it is better to pay four or eight cents cash for a cup of tea, or five
or ten shillings for a shirt. These are puerilities unworthy of a
serious mind. No one denies your proposition. The question is, whether
it is better to pay more for an article, and to have, through the
abundance and price of labor, more means of acquiring it, or whether it
is better to impoverish the sources of labor, to diminish the mass of
national production, and to transport articles of consumption by canals,
more cheaply it is true, but, at the same time, to deprive a portion of
our laborers of the power to buy them, even at these reduced prices.
The Emperor not being altogether convinced, Kouang said to him: My
Lord, be pleased to wait. I have the Moniteur Industriel to quote
But the Emperor said: I do not need your Chinese newspapers to tell me
that to create obstacles is to turn labor in that direction. Yet that
is not my mission. Come, let us clear out the canal, and then we will
reform the tariff.
Kouang went away plucking out his beard, and crying: Oh, Fo! Oh, Pe! Oh,
Le! and all the monosyllabic and circumflex gods of Cathay, take pity on
your people; for, there has come to us an Emperor of the English
school, and I see very plainly that, in a little while, we shall be in
want of everything, since it will not be necessary for us to do