Popular Science Monthly/Volume 21/September 1882/The Chinese: Their Manners and Customs


THE manners and customs of the Chinese—an extensive subject, and our canvas a narrow one.

But where to begin?—Domestic life, religion, war, courts of justice, schools, literature, are all alike almost unknown. Be chance our guide. A paper is lying open on our table: it is the "Times." Let us follow the order of its articles and commence at once with the article of births, marriages, and deaths.

Births will afford us but little subject for remark. Let us, however, suppose that the solemn bath appointed for the third day is over, which would seem to be almost a Chinese baptism, and the mother to be convalescent. If the offspring be a girl, there will probably be no rejoicing, but, if a boy, the mother will go in state to the temple frequented by her family and offer thanks to Tien How, the queen of heaven. The only time it was our fortune while in China to see a native lady of any standing was on such an occasion. A wife of Howqua, the son of the celebrated Hong merchant, had gone to the Temple of Honam to return thanks for the birth of a son. The shrine in the temple which she was visiting had been founded by the elder Howqua in honor of his ancestors: it was a lofty hall with roof open to the beams, closed in the rear and at the sides, but in front opening with richly carved doors on a raised terrace surrounded by a stone balustrade and overlooking a square, turfed inclosure containing two or three fine specimens of the Chinese banyan, or Ficus religiosa, and a pond of water covered with the broad green leaves and rose-tipped flowers of the lotus, the sacred plant of Buddha, who is often represented as seated on its open flower. Crossing this pond and skirting it were a bridge and gallery of massive stone carving, corresponding with the balustrades and communicating with the terrace. On the opposite side of the gallery was seen the rear of another shrine, colored of a deep vermilion like the one in front, with its high arched roof sweeping down like the curved outline of a Tartar tent (from which the Chinese style of architecture is supposed to be borrowed), and adorned with dragons, birds, and dolphins in glazed pottery of the brightest colors. Down either side stretched a line of gloomy cloisters communicating with the rest of the building. At one end of the terrace were two or three small tables arranged with viands placed upon them and surrounded by a considerable party of Chinese, among whom we noticed several females standing, evidently in attendance upon some lady, as in China the servants are almost invariably of the other sex. Knowing the scruples of the Chinese against admitting foreigners into the presence of the female members of their families, we turned back, and were on the point of leaving that part of the temple, no little disappointed at being unable to see the whole of the building, when two members of the group, one of whom was a son of Howqua, came forward and requested us to continue our examination, if we wished. We did so. The shrine at which the ceremony was going on had been decked with flowers, while on the long, counter-like altar in front of the figure of the goddess, between the jars of porcelain and bronze half filled with sandal-wood ashes in which sticks of incense were burning, and upon two square pedestals in front of the altar, were piled up pyramids of fruits and sweetmeats. On either side of these pedestals were two of smaller size, on each of which was placed a book apparently of religious service, and by its side a small wand and a hollow, red, kidney-shaped gourd, which when struck gave a hollow and not unmusical sound, each blow upon it marking the repetition of a prayer. These, as it were, formed the lecterns of the officiating priests; and between them, facing the central vase on the high altar, were placed a cushion and a mat on which the fair devotee might kneel and perform the kotou, or ceremony of kneeling and touching the ground with the head at certain periods during the service. At either side of the central door of the shrine stood a large bronze vase heaped with silvered paper formed into boxes about the size and shape of steel-pen boxes, and emblematical of bars of Sycee silver, which is burned at the conclusion of the ceremony as an offering to the queen of heaven.

On passing out of the shrine, still accompanied by the two Chinese who had joined us, we passed near the banqueting party, when the lady rose, supported by two of her servants, and, crossing her hands, saluted us in the Chinese fashion. Of her beauty I can say nothing; neither my companion nor myself could remember anything save a face painted à la Chinoise, and hair tied up in the usual tea-pot form, dressed with magnificent pearls, jade ornaments, and natural flowers. The golden lilies, as the inhabitants of the Flowery Kingdom call the crippled feet of the higher classes of their women, and the splendidly embroidered robes, attracted our attention far more than the eyes and features, which doubtless ought to have been our only consideration.

It is after this festival, not always, of course, celebrated with the magnificence we have described, that the relatives of the child present it either with plate, or bangles of silver or gold, on which are inscribed the characters signifying long life, honor, and felicity. It is also at this period that it receives its "milk-name," or the pet name by which it is known in its family, the name by which it is known to others being only given to it at the completion of its fourth year, when its education is supposed to commence.

We have all heard the Chinese charged with infanticide. We believe that crime to be less prevalent with them than it is with us. If children are ever exposed, as has been seen on a way-side altar near Honam, we believe that bitter want and a hope that charity would provide for the child better than the mother could have been the moving causes. As a general rule, self-interest acts as the strongest bar to this vice. That the life of the male children should be preserved is most important, as the Chinese law will compel the sons to maintain their parents, and, in the event of all the sons dying, no one would be able to offer that worship at the tomb of the father and mother on which their happiness in another state is supposed to depend. With the girls preservation is almost as important, and they are a marketable commodity, either as wives or as servants. Indeed, it is no very rare thing to see a basketful of babies sent down from Canton to Hong-Kong for sale at prices ranging from two to five dollars. These are all girls; and the purchase of one or more of them is generally the first investment that a Chinese Aspasia makes of her earnings, a speculation sure ultimately to pay a very large interest on the money sunk.

In denying the existence of infanticide it is necessary to make one exception. This is among the Tan-kia, or boat-population. These are a race of people of different descent and different religion from the Chinese, governed by their own magistrates, and so looked down upon by the other classes that no child of a boat-woman can compete in the literary examinations, or, whatever his ability may be, become an aspirant for office. This class is excessively superstitious, and we have heard it stated by missionaries that, when a child belonging to people of this class suffers from any lingering malady, and recovery becomes hopeless, they will put it to death with circumstances of great cruelty, believing it to be not their child but a changeling, and fancying that a demon has taken the place of their offspring for the purpose of entailing on them expense and trouble for which they could never get any return.

The next article we come to is marriage: hedged in with formalities in all countries, but in none more so than in China. As we have just been speaking of the Tan-kia people, let us take Dr. Yvan's account of one of their marriages, and have done with them:

"In harvest-time," says the doctor, "any man of their class who wishes to marry goes into the next field and gathers a little sheaf of rice, which he fastens to one of his oars. Then, when he is in presence of the Tan-kia girl of his choice, he puts his oar into the water, and goes several times round the boat belonging to the object of his affections. The next day, if the latter accept his homage, she, in her turn, fastens a bunch of flowers to her oar, and comes rowing about near her betrothed."

The relatives on both sides assemble on board the girl's boat; there is a general feast, a great firing of fire-crackers, beating of tom-toms and burning of joss-paper to frighten off evil spirits, the cup of union is drunk together, the bride is taken to her new floating home in a closed sedan of red and gold, and the ceremony is at an end. The rice in the above case is emblematic of the support promised by the man, the flowers of the happiness offered by the woman.

Among the pure Chinese, and especially among the higher classes, the affair is a much longer and more serious one. From the almost Turkish strictness with which females are secluded, it is comparatively rare that a couple see each other previous to betrothal, and still more so that there should be any acquaintance between them. This has given rise to the necessary employment of a character equivalent to the bazvalan or marriage-broker of ancient Brittany, to Mr. Foy's Parisian Matrimonial Agency Office, or the daily marriage advertisements of our own papers. If your wish is for marriage in the abstract, the broker will find you a fitting partner first, and negotiate the transfer after. If you are less purely philosophical, and wish to consult your own tastes as well as the interests and increase of the nation, you are only to name the party, and the broker becomes your accredited embassador. There is, however, one preliminary point to be ascertained. Has your intended the same surname as yourself? If so, it is a fatal difficulty, as the laws of China would not permit the marriage. If, however, she is Chun and you are Le, or she is Kwan or Yu, and you rejoice in any other patronymic monosyllable, the next step is for the broker to obtain from each a tablet containing the name, age, date and hour of birth, etc. These are then taken to a diviner and compared, to see if the union promises happiness; if the answer is favorable (and crossing the palm with silver is found to be as effectual with fortune-tellers in China as it is elsewhere), and the gates are equal, that is, if the station and wealth of the two families are similar, the proposal is made in due form. The wedding-presents are then sent, and, if accepted, the young couple is considered as legally betrothed. A lucky day must next be fixed for the wedding, and here our friend the diviner is again called upon. Previous to the great day the bridegroom gets a new hat and takes a new name, while the lady, whose hair has hitherto hung down to her heels in a single heavy plait, at the same time becomes initiated into the style of hair-dressing prevalent among Chinese married ladies, which consists in twisting the hair into the form of an exaggerated tea-pot, and supporting it in that shape with a narrow plate of gold or jade over the forehead, and a whole system of bodkins behind it. On the wedding morning, presents and congratulations are sent to the bridegroom, and among the rest a pair of geese; not sent, as we might imagine, by some wicked wag or irreclaimable bachelor as a personal reflection on the intellectual state of his friend, but as an emblem of domestic unity and affection. The ladies, too, in China as well as elsewhere, indulge in a little fashionable crying on the occasion, and so the relatives of the bride spend the morning with her, weeping over her impending departure, or, more probably, their own spinsterhood. They do not, however, forget to bring some contributions for her trousseau. In the evening comes the bridegroom with a whole army of his friends, a procession of lanterns, a long red cloth or silk tapestry embroidered with a figure of the dragon, borne on a pole between two men, and a large red sedan covered with carving and gilding, and perfectly close. In this the bride is packed up securely out of sight, and the whole procession, preceded by a band of music and the dragon and closing with the bride's bandboxes, starts for home. On arrival she is lifted over the threshold, on which a pan of charcoal is burning, probably in order to prevent her bringing any evil influence in with her. She then performs the kotou to her husband's father and mother, worships the ancestral tablets of her new family, and offers prepared betel-nut to the assembled guests. Up to this time she has been veiled, but she now retires to her chamber, where she is unveiled by her husband; she then returns, again performs obeisance to the assembled guests, and partakes of food in company with her husband; at this meal two cups of wine, one sweetened, the other with bitter herbs infused in it, are drunk together by the newly married pair, to symbolize that henceforth they must share together life's sweets and bitters. The bride then retires, escorted by the matrons present, some one of whom recites a charm over her, and arranges the marriage-couch. The next morning the gods of the household and the hearth are worshiped, and the six following days are devoted to formal receptions at home of different members of the two families or equally formal visits paid to the family of the bride. During the whole of this period she still travels in her red-and-gold sedan, and is still escorted by her band of music and dragon.

Such are the ceremonies with which the chief or number one wife is espoused, and of this rank there can be but one. Taste and depth of pocket give the only limit to the number of subsidiary wives that may be taken. These are married with far less ceremony than the first, are often from a different class of society, being literally purchased, and act to a certain extent as servants or attendants to the chief wife. They are, however, legal wives, with recognized rights and position; their children are legitimate, and inherit in equal shares with those of the first wife. Indeed, this last is considered as the mother of the whole family, and the children are bound to display toward her more reverence than even toward their natural parent.

But even in the Flowery Land, people sometimes find that the bitter predominates over the sweet in the cups of alliance, and that the geese borne in the marriage procession are emblematical of something else besides domestic affection. In a word, they occasionally want to be unmarried. And really they have made a very fair provision for enabling themselves to loose the knot. Not only do they admit such grounds of divorce as would satisfy Sir Cresswell Cresswell, but they add to them inveterate infirmity, disrespect to the husband's parents, thieving, and, most comprehensive class of all, ill-temper and talkativeness. However, if the husband has acquired property since his marriage, if the wife has no parental home to which she may return, or if she has mourned for her husband's parents, divorce can not take place. It is one of the many exemplifications of the Chinese maxim that the laws should be severe, but tempered with mercy in their administration.

There is, however, another dissolution of marriage over which law has no power—that which is effected by the hand of death. The widow is not forbidden to remarry, but by so doing she loses many privileges, and her conduct is considered somewhat light and irregular. Nature, however, will occasionally speak louder than fashion, and it may be worth while to repeat the tale told by Chwângtsze, the great Chinese philosopher.

A Chinaman died soon after his marriage with a young and lovely woman. As he was dying, the wife was loud in her protestations of grief, and her determination not to marry again. The husband was not unreasonable; he only asked that if she did take another spouse she would wait till the earth upon his grave was dry. He died and was buried; and many a young and handsome bachelor of the province of Shantung was present at his funeral. She listened to no suitor, for woman's heart is tender, and she could not so soon forget the lost one. Daily she stole to his grave. She wept, but no tear fell upon the soil, she took good care of that. At last, after a few days, Chwângtsze happened to pass, and saw her fanning, not herself, but the damp earth. He asked the reason. She told him of her husband's last request, and begged him to assist her. She offered him a fan to assist her, and there they sat to fan away the moisture: the grave was so long a-drying!

Poor Chwang! He was not much more lucky himself. He did not take the widow, but neither did he take warning. The geese were carried for him, and were very typical of himself. He had nothing to do for it at last but to quit political life, in which he had gained some distinction, and turn philosopher. But we will have "no more scandal about Queen Elizabeth," lest rosy English cheeks should take the part of China's golden lilies, as we have known widows at home almost in as great a hurry as those of the province of Shantung.

But even to the poor Chinaman death must come at last, even though there is no paper in Canton, so far as we know, to furnish a notice of his life and death, and to publish an abstract of his will, as is the case in more civilized countries. To him it comes armed with few terrors, so long as he leaves behind him male offspring to make the prescribed offerings at his tomb. We have stood by many a Chinese death-bed, and though the dying man might "prattle o' green fields," and fancy himself once more surrounded by his friends amid the peach-groves of Hiang Shan, while his frail body was tossing on the stormy waves of the Indian Ocean, yet there was no sign of dread with regard to the future that awaited him. But there, far out at sea, there was no opportunity for witnessing the ritual of death But one brief hour after the eye has glazed, and the jaw has fallen, the canvas-shrouded and shotted corpse takes its last plunge into the blue ocean depths, without a prayer, without a rite save the few cash sprinkled by his remaining comrades over his watery tomb.

On shore a very different spectacle is presented. As the last hour draws near, the relatives wander round the house with cries, the gong is incessantly beaten, and packet after packet of fire-crackers gives out its short, sharp series of detonations, sounding like irregular platoon-firing, to frighten away the evil spirits supposed to be watching round the house to seize the departing soul; while, within, upon the filming eye the smoke of the ever-burning incense mingles with death's gray shadow. The eye has closed, the spirit has departed, and now every door and window is flung wide open, and the "keen" rises wildly to recall the wandering guest to its deserted tenement. And now the death is announced to all the relatives; the door is hung with white drapery, and down each lintel hangs a scroll of white, on which appear funereal inscriptions in blue. Large blue-and-white lanterns are hung on either side of the entrance, and probably a bamboo portico, thatched with matting, is erected to preserve lanterns, inscriptions, and garlands from the weather. Should it be a parent who has passed away, two figures of the stork, the emblem of longevity, appear amid the decorations. The relatives of the deceased, robed in white, and with white cloths bound about their heads, now go in procession to the nearest spring or river; before them is supported the nearest heir of the deceased, wearing a white veil, showing signs of the deepest affliction, and bearing in his hand a bowl in which are two copper coins, whose united value is about half a farthing. This company, uttering the most dismal howls, and having in its train musicians whose performances are scarcely less doleful, has gone to purchase water to wash the dead. This ceremony having been performed, the body is dressed as in life, and placed in its coffin, which has previously been half-filled with quicklime. The lid is then put on, and cemented down, the whole of it being afterward highly polished, and the name of the deceased inscribed upon it.

The coffin, it may be as well to remark, is not a slight shell like those in use among us, but is either a hollowed tree or made in the form of one—the sides being rounded, and five or six inches in thickness. They are formed of very hard and costly woods, reaching occasionally the price of five hundred pounds. A handsome coffin is considered as acceptable a birthday present as a son can offer to his father, and coffins so given are often preserved unused for years.

The coffin having been closed, it is covered with a white cloth, and watched for twenty-one days. During this period a small red board, with the names of the deceased in raised gilt letters, standing on a pedestal, and having an opening in the back, stands near the corpse, and is the object of a species of worship. It is called the ancestral tablet, and the hole in the back of it is intended to give admission to the spirit which is supposed to inhabit it. Should the family possess no available burial-ground, a diviner is consulted to choose some lucky spot for a tomb, which must be outside a town, and generally at some distance from it, a favorite spot being on the slope of a hill overlooking water. The tombs are formed in the shape of a horseshoe, consisting of a flat platform, under which the body is laid, surrounded by a raised wall, in the center of which a stone is placed, bearing a copy of the inscription on the ancestral tablet. Of course, the degree of ornament about the tomb depends in great measure on the rank and wealth of the deceased.

It by no means follows, however, that the body is buried at the close of the twenty-one days. The necessity to choose a lucky site, or the wish to transport the coffin to some distant burial-ground, may cause delays; and cases have been known where the delay has arisen from less justifiable motives. The Chinese law will not enforce the payment of rent so long as the body of the tenant's grandfather remains unburied in the house; nor is a man's property distributed till his funeral rites are completed. Hence the necessity which sometimes arises of taking legal steps to compel the burial.

Under different circumstances, the body of the great viceroy Yeh lay for months unburied. Let us give a description of his coffin, as it was not many months ago. A few rods outside the east gate of Canton, back from the street, stands an unpretending Taonist temple. A plain, unornamented gate opens the way into a long, narrow inclosure, which leads up to the shrine. The grounds seem deserted, save that one old Chinaman stands by the inner gate. He is no door-keeper, but a street beggar. Yeh, the viceroy of Canton, has no door-keepers now.

We pass beneath another archway, and up a passage hung with white, till we reach the apartment of the dead. Here, at length, we meet a few attendants, and a Taonist priest officiates as our guide. He leads us into a small hall about twenty-five feet by twenty, hung with blue cloth, on which funereal inscriptions are embroidered in white silk. An altar stands in the middle of the room, on which are placed some dozen bowls of cooked vegetables and piles of artificial fruit, and sticks of burning incense. Behind the altar is a tablet of white silk on which are embroidered the names and titles of the late viceroy, and behind this, again, a curtain hangs from the roof to the ground. We raise and pass the curtain, and before us stands the coffin.

It is a plain box, but of great size, being twelve feet in length and four in thickness, each side consisting of a single slab of hard and costly wood brought from the province of Sze Chuen, far in the interior. Its cost was over fifteen hundred dollars. The man who for years ruled with a rod of iron—before whose mandate one hundred thousand heads fell in the execution-ground of Canton, whose diplomatic skill baffled for years the ministers of European powers, who, when his city was little better than a ruin and a desert, could not fight, and would not yield lest he should betray the prestige of the inviolability of Canton, after all his power, skill, and obstinacy—lies unhonored and almost unattended without the walls of the city which he could rule but could not save.

But we must hasten to a close. The grave having been fixed upon and the day for interment appointed, an altar is prepared in the room in which the body lies, and upon it are piled fruits and cakes, while in front of it we see a roast pig and a goat, the two latter being often made in lacquer-ware, and hired for the occasion. At the door are placed musicians, and from time to time large masses of silvered paper are burned at the entrance of the room. The body is then escorted to the tomb, all the mourners dressed in white, and the offerings, pig, goat, and all, form part of the pageant. But the principal object is the ancestral tablet, borne in a red shrine, and often accompanied by the figures of the household gods. On reaching the grave some religious ceremonies are performed, large quantities of silvered and gilt paper, and imitations of clothes, ships, etc., are burned, this being the readiest way of supplying the wants of the deceased, and forwarding his luggage to the spirit-land. The provisions furnish forth a feast, the coffin is interred, and the ancestral tablet borne back to the ancestral hall, where we will leave it, until the return of the period for the worship of the dead leads us back to the now closing grave.—Temple Bar.