In every large Chinese city are to be found several spacious buildings which are generally reckoned among the sights of the place, and are known by foreigners under the name of guilds. Globe-trotters visit them, and admire the maximum of gold-leaf crowded into the minimum of space, their huge idols, and curious carving; of course passing over those relics which the natives themselves prize most highly, namely, sketches and scrolls painted or written by the hand of some departed celebrity. Foreign merchants regard them with a certain amount of awe, for they are often made to feel keenly enough the influence which these institutions exert over every branch of trade. They come into being in the following manner. If traders from any given province muster in sufficient numbers at any of the great centres of commerce, they club together and form a guild. A general subscription is first levied, land is bought, and the necessary building is erected. Regulations are then drawn up, and the tariff on goods is fixed, from which the institution is to derive its future revenue. For all the staples of trade there are usually separate guilds, mixed establishments being comparatively rare. It is the business of the members as a body to see that each individual contributes according to the amount of merchandise which passes through his hands, and the books of suspected defaulters are often examined at a moment's notice and without previous warning. The guild protects its constituents from commercial frauds by threatening the accused with legal proceedings which an individual plaintiff would never have dared to suggest; and the threat is no vain one when a mandarin, however tyrannical and rapacious, finds himself opposed by a body of united and resolute men. On the other hand, these guilds deal fairly enough with their own members, and not only refuse to support a bad case, but insist on just and equitable dealings with the outside world. To them are frequently referred questions involving nice points of law or custom, and one of the chief functions of a guild is that of a court of arbitration. In addition to this they fix the market rates of all kinds of produce, and woe be to any one who dares to undersell or otherwise disobey the injunctions of the guild. If recalcitrant, he is expelled at once from the fraternity, and should his hour of need arrive he will find no helping hand stretched out to save him from the clutches of the law. But if he acknowledges, as he almost always does, his breach of faith, he is punished according to the printed rules of the corporation. On a large strip of red paper his name and address are written, the offence of which he has been convicted, and the fine which the guild has determined to impose. This latter generally takes the form of a dinner to all members, to be held on some appointed day and accompanied by a theatrical entertainment, after which the erring brother is admitted as before to the enjoyment of those rights and privileges he would otherwise infallibly have lost.
On certain occasions, such as the birthday of a patron saint, the guild spends large sums from the public purse in providing a banquet for its members and hiring a theatrical troupe, with their everlasting tom-toms, to perform on the permanent stage to be found in every one of these establishments. The Anhui men celebrate the birthday of Chu Hsi, the great commentator, whose scholarship has won eternal honours for his native province; Swatow men hold high festival in memory of Han Wen-Kung, whose name is among the brightest on the page of Chinese history. All day long the fun goes on, and as soon as it begins to grow dusk innumerable paper lanterns are hung in festoons over the whole building. The crowd increases, farce succeeds farce without a moment's interval, and many a kettle of steaming wine warms up the spectators to the proper pitch of enthusiasm and delight. Before midnight the last song has been sung, a considerable number of people have quietly dispersed without accident of any kind, and the courtyard of the guild is once more deserted and still.
It is open to any trader to join the particular institution which represents his own province or trade without being either proposed, seconded, or balloted for. He is expected to make some present to the resources of the guild, in the shape of a new set of glass lanterns, a pair of valuable scrolls, some new tables, chairs, or in fact anything that may be needed for either use or ornament. Should he be in want of money, a loan will generally be issued to him even on doubtful security. Should he die in an impoverished condition, a coffin is always provided, the expenses of burial undertaken, and his wife and children sent to their distant home, with money voted for that purpose at a general meeting of the members. Were it not for the action of these guilds in regard to fire, life and property in Chinese cities would be more in danger than is now the case. Each one has its own fire-engine, which is brought out at the first alarm, no matter where or whose the building attacked. If belonging to one of themselves, men are posted round the scene of the conflagration to prevent looting on the part of the crowd, and the efforts of the brigade are stimulated by the reflection that their position and that of the present sufferers may at any moment be reversed. Picked men are appointed to perform the most important task of all, that of rescuing from the flames relics more precious to a respectable Chinaman than all the jade that K'un-kang has produced. For it often happens that an obstructive geomancer will reject site after site for the interment of some deceased relative, or perhaps that the day fixed upon as a lucky one for the ceremony of burial may be several months after death. Meanwhile a fire breaks out in the house where the body lies in its massive, air-tight coffin, and all is confusion and uproar. The first thought is for the corpse; but who is to lift such a heavy weight and carry it to a place of safety without the dreaded jolting, almost as painful to the survivors as would be cremation itself? Such harrowing thoughts are usually cut short by the entrance of six or eight sturdy men from the nearest guild, who, armed with the necessary ropes and poles, bear away the coffin through flame and smoke with the utmost gentleness and care.