collections

My Diary in a Chinese Farm (1894)


Mrs Archibald Little, My Diary in a Chinese Farm (Shanghai: Kelly & Walsh, 1894)

With her first novel, Flirts and Flirts (1868), which sharply criticised the socialisation of Victorian girls in relations to marriage, Alicia Bewick (later Alicia Little or “Mrs Archibald Little”) began a prolific two decade literary career in London focused primarily on highlighting the plight of women. During this time she was also active politically in the feminist movement, penning pamphlets, lecturing, and campaigning around women’s property rights suffrage. In 1886, she married Archibald Little, a merchant, scholar, and (later) travel writer who’d spent many years in China. The following year she moved with him to Chungking, an isolated city to the far west of the country. Impossibly hot in the summer, the couple had planned to build a holiday home in the cooler countryside, but the authorities blocked the idea after concern that the locals would not take kindly to foreigners. An idea was then hatched for the Littles to move onto a local farm by the Yangtse River for a few months, with the hope that it might get the locals used to their presence. While there Alicia kept a journal, later published as My Diary in a Chinese Farm (1894). In her introduction she explains her reasons for beginning the diary:

It was very hot in the daytime and all day long I was shut up in the one Farm house sittingroom, so I started a Diary for much the same reason probably, that I have often observed people do so on a Sea Voyage. They generally do not keep it up till the end, neither did I ; but I noted down every thing I could observe of interest, as long as 1 wrote in it, and here it is, recalling many simple pleasures and some painful days.

The book provides a wonderfully intimate and unique insight into rural Chinese life at the end of the nineteenth century — albeit from a European perspective. Amid the daily observations of domestic life are printed numerous photographs of the region taken by the Japanese photographer Ogawa Kazumasa whom she met in 1894 on a trip to Japan. As for Alicia, she remained in China until her husband’s death in 1908, devoting much of her time to campaigning against foot binding, the Chinese custom of applying tight binding to the feet of young girls to modify the shape and size of their feet. Toes were often broken beforehand and it severely limited the physical (and therefore social) mobility of women. In 1898, she founded Tien Tsu Hui (The Natural Foot Society) and delivered a number of lectures in leading cities in China, Hong Kong, and Macau arguing against the practice, utilising the then new technology of x-ray to highlight the deformity of the feet caused by binding. Alicia continued to write novels and numerous non-fiction works including, in 1899, the epic 600-page tome Invisible China which was adorned with more than 100 of her own photographs and whose section on foot binding garnered much attention. The foot binding practice aside, she clearly had much love for China, calling it “one of the greatest nations the world has yet seen”.

In 2010, Cambridge University Press brought out a reprint of the book as part of their Travel and Exploration in Asia series.