Popular Science Monthly/Volume 32/April 1888/Chinese Superstitions



THE superstitious beliefs and observances of the Chinese are numberless, and they occupy more or less the time and mind of every individual in the nation. Those here recorded are common among the people near Swatow. I am unable to say how many of them are purely local.

When a child is just one month old, the mother, carrying it in a scarf on her back, induces it to look down into a well. This is supposed to have a mentally invigorating effect, producing courage, and deepening the understanding.

A mother feeds her young infant from a cup rather than from a bowl or plate, because a bowl, being capacious, has an occult influence in making the child a large eater; while a plate, being shallow, causes him to throw up his food on slight provocation. The cup, being small and deep, insures his taking but little food, and keeping it for assimilation.

When a child becomes ill, the mother gathers thorns from twelve species of plants and makes an infusion in which she washes the child, hoping to wash the disease, with the demon that produces it, into the water. She then carries the water to an open space where many people go to and fro, and there throws it upon the ground. As she goes from her own house, the inhabitants of the streets she traverses shut their doors, to prevent the disease from entering their abodes. A woman of my acquaintance recently told me that, having no fear of demons, she did not shut her door when a neighbor passed her house carrying water in which a child having fever and ague had just been washed, and the very next day she herself had chills I

If a child falls from a high place to the ground, spirit-money is immediately burned upon the spot by the mother, to propitiate the demon who is trying to pull the child down to destruction.

When a child has fallen, there is danger that he may have left his twelve wits in the earth on which he fell, so the mother at once makes with her empty hand the motion of dipping from the ground to the child's chest. Thus she replaces in the child what might otherwise be permanently lost in the soil. If a man falls into a cesspool or well, a long-handled dipper is used to dip out and restore to his bosom his scattered senses; then three sheets of spirit-money are thrown burning into the well, and a heavy stone is cast after it.

It is unlucky to leave much hair on a boy's head when he is old enough to wear a queue; therefore the head should be shaved so as to leave but a small patch on the crown. Abundant hair is symbolic of a burden on the head, and a heavy queue may soon bring the care of the family upon the boy through the death of his father.

During the month succeeding the birth of a child the mother must not cross the threshold of another person's room. Should she do this, she will endanger the welfare of the occupants, and in her next life she will perpetually scrub the floor of the room entered.

A girl who is partaking of the last meal she is to eat in her father's house previous to her marriage, sits at the table with her parents and brothers; but she must eat no more than half the bowl of rice set before her, else her departure will be followed by continual scarcity in the domicile she is leaving.

If a bride breaks the heel of her shoe in going from her father's to her husband's house, it is ominous of unhappiness in her new relations.

A piece of bacon and a parcel of sugar are hung on the back of a bride's sedan-chair as a sop to the demons who might molest her while on her journey. The "Three Baneful Ones" are fond of salt and spices, and the "White Tiger" likes sweets.

A bride may be brought home while a coffin is in her husband's house, but not within one hundred days after a coffin is carried out. Domestic troubles are sure to come upon one who is married within a hundred days after a funeral.

A bride, while putting on her wedding garments, stands in a round, shallow basket. This conduces to her leading a placid, well-rounded life in her future home. After her departure from her father's door, her mother puts the basket over the mouth of the oven, to stop the mouths of all who would make adverse comment on her daughter, and then sits down before the kitchen range, that her peace and leisure may be duplicated in her daughter's life.

A bride must not, for four months after her marriage, enter any house in which there has recently been a death or a birth, for if she does so there will surely be a quarrel between her and the groom. If a young mother goes to see a bride, the visitor is looked upon as the cause of any calamity that may follow.

One who has ordered a coffin must guide its bearers by the shortest road to the house in which the corpse lies. The bearers of an empty coffin may not inquire their way at any house nor of any person. To mistake the road when carrying a coffin, or to take it to any house other than that where it is wanted, brings terrible misfortunes on persons thereby disturbed. Any insult may with impunity be offered to coffin-sellers who mistake the destination of their goods.

One should not catch butterflies, since departed spirits frequently incorporate themselves in these insects, and flit back to see what is being done in their old dwelling. A man is known to have died the day after killing a butterfly.

When a cow's tooth is found in a field, it is put on a shelf with the gods, and keeps demons from entering the house.

If, when one is under the open sky, a bird drops excrement upon one, the omen is bad, and must be immediately offset by going to persons of three different surnames, all unlike one's own, and begging a little rice to eat.

If one, who is walking along a road, has a sudden attack of colic, he procures three paper bags that have held incense, and burns them on the spot where he was when he began to feel the pain, to pacify the demon of the locality. A demon's day is man's night, and man's night is a demon's day; therefore candles are lighted when offerings are made to demons by daylight.

If a fly falls into the porridge, if a magpie chatters on the roof, or if two chickens fight, it is a sign that a guest is coming.

A cock that crows before midnight foretells a death in the family. Spirit-money must be burned, a hoop must be put in the front door at its top, and the crowing fowl must be given away or sold. No one would knowingly buy a fowl that crowded before midnight, and, if it were sold, no one would dare use the cash received for it.

When a person commits suicide by hanging, the beam from which the body hung is cut out from the roof and burned, or thrown into the river to be carried away by the current. The floor underneath the feet of the hanging corpse is also dug up and replaced by new material. Thus the evil influence which would inhere in the spot is eradicated from the house.

If a pot of money is found, a rice-flour cake is put in the place of each coin taken, and spirit-money is burned as an offering to any spirit that might be irritated by the removal of the treasure.

No one picks up a girdle found in the road, through fear that some one may have been hung by it, and that the spirit may follow and worry the possessor. If a single coin or other article is found, it is picked up with fear; but if a pair or an even number of things be found, they are taken without anxiety, for odd numbers are unlucky, while even numbers are lucky. Three is a particularly unlucky number. Three persons, therefore, never sit together at a table, and no couple marries when there are six years of difference in age, because six is twice three.

It is not considered respectable for an old man to be without a beard, nor for a young man to wear one. A youth w ho puts on an air of wisdom is called a beardless old man. When a man decides to let his beard grow, his sons and sons-in-law make a feast for him, and congratulate him on his longevity. No one who has once grown a beard cuts it off, as such an act would inevitably bring disasters upon his family.

If one sneezes on New-Year's-eve while preparing for bed, he fears misfortune during the next year, unless he goes to three families of different surnames, and begs from each a little cake, shaped like a tortoise, and in common use at the end of the year as an emblem of long life. These cakes must be eaten by the sneezer before midnight.

Sneezing is generally a sign that somebody is thinking of one. A man walking along the road knew that a stranger was walking behind him. The first man sneezed, and, though he was a bachelor, he liked to appear to be the head of a household, and exclaimed, "Ah, my wife is thinking of me!" The second man, on reaching home, asked his wife why she had not thought of him at all that day. The wife inquired why he asked that unusual question, and, after much persuasion, got him to reveal the reason for his unjust accusation of disregard. When he told her that he had not sneezed, while his fellow-traveler had received that proof of a wife's remembrance, the wise little woman told her jealous spouse that on the morrow he would have evidence of her consideration. The next morning he went to carry two jars of oil to a neighboring village, and, as the sun was hot, his wife urged his wearing a wet towel on his head under his hat to protect him from the heat. The towel was cold, and gave the poor man a chill. Just as he was going down a steep slope he sneezed violently, stumbled, fell, and spilled the oil. When he reached home that evening, he said to his wife, "If you are going to think of me when I am absent, I wish you would do it when I am on level ground, and not when I am going down-hill!"