Myths and Legends of China

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During the lapse of the long ages of monarchical rule funeral rites became more elaborate and magnificent, but, though less rigid and ceremonious since the institution of Page 41the Republic, they have retained their essential character down to the present day.

Funeral ceremonial was more exacting than that connected with most other observances, including those of marriage. Invitations or notifications were sent to friends, and after receipt of these fu, on the various days appointed therein, the guest was obliged to send presents, such as money, paper horses, slaves, etc., and go and join in the lamentations of the hired mourners and attend at the prayers recited by the priests. Funeral etiquette could not be pu’d, i.e. made good, if overlooked or neglected at the right time, as it could in the case of the marriage ceremonial.

Instead of symmetrical public graveyards, as in the West, the Chinese cemeteries belong to the family or clan of the deceased, and are generally beautiful and peaceful places planted with trees and surrounded by artistic walls enclosing the grave-mounds and monumental tablets. The cemeteries themselves are the metonyms of the villages, and the graves of the houses. In the north especially the grave is very often surmounted by a huge marble tortoise bearing the inscribed tablet, or what we call the gravestone, on its back. The tombs of the last two lines of emperors, the Ming and the Manchu, are magnificent structures, spread over enormous areas, and always artistically situated on hillsides facing natural or artificial lakes or seas. Contrary to the practice in Egypt, with the two exceptions above mentioned the conquering dynasties have always destroyed the tombs of their predecessors. But for this savage vandalism, China would probably possess the most magnificent assembly of imperial tombs in the world’s records. Page 42

Laws of Intercourse

Throughout the whole course of their existence as a social aggregate the Chinese have pushed ceremonial observances to an extreme limit. “Ceremonies,” says the Li chi, the great classic of ceremonial usages, “are the greatest of all things by which men live.” Ranks were distinguished by different headdresses, garments, badges, weapons, writing-tablets, number of attendants, carriages, horses, height of walls, etc. Daily as well as official life was regulated by minute observances. There were written codes embracing almost every attitude and act of inferiors toward superiors, of superiors toward inferiors, and of equals toward equals. Visits, forms of address, and giving of presents had each their set of formulae, known and observed by every one as strictly and regularly as each child in China learned by heart and repeated aloud the three-word sentences of the elementary Trimetrical Classic. But while the school text-book was extremely simple, ceremonial observances were extremely elaborate. A Chinese was in this respect as much a slave to the living as in his funeral rites he was a slave to the dead. Only now, in the rush of ‘modern progress,’ is the doffing of the hat taking the place of the ‘kowtow’ (k’o-t’ou).

It is in this matter of ceremonial observances that the East and the West have misunderstood each other perhaps more than in all others. Where rules of etiquette are not only different, but are diametrically opposed, there is every opportunity for misunderstanding, if not estrangement. The points at issue in such questions as ‘kowtowing’ to the emperor and the worshipping of ancestors are generally known, but the Westerner, as a rule, is ignorant of the fact that if he wishes to conform Page 43to Chinese etiquette when in China (instead of to those Western customs which are in many cases unfortunately taking their place) he should not, for instance, take off his hat when entering a house or a temple, should not shake hands with his host, nor, if he wishes to express approval, should he clap his hands. Clapping of hands in China (i.e. non-Europeanized China) is used to drive away the sha ch’i, or deathly influence of evil spirits, and to clap the hands at the close of the remarks of a Chinese host (as I have seen prominent, well-meaning, but ill-guided men of the West do) is equivalent to disapproval, if not insult. Had our diplomatists been sociologists instead of only commercial agents, more than one war might have been avoided.

Habits and Customs

At intervals during the year the Chinese make holiday. Their public festivals begin with the celebration of the advent of the new year. They let off innumerable firecrackers, and make much merriment in their homes, drinking and feasting, and visiting their friends for several days. Accounts are squared, houses cleaned, fresh paper ‘door-gods’ pasted on the front doors, strips of red paper with characters implying happiness, wealth, good fortune, longevity, etc., stuck on the doorposts or the lintel, tables, etc., covered with red cloth, and flowers and decorations displayed everywhere. Business is suspended, and the merriment, dressing in new clothes, feasting, visiting, offerings to gods and ancestors, and idling continue pretty consistently during the first half of the first moon, the vacation ending with the Feast of Lanterns, which occupies the last three days. It originated in the Han dynasty 2000 years ago. Innumerable Page 44lanterns of all sizes, shapes, colours (except wholly white, or rather undyed material, the colour of mourning), and designs are lit in front of public and private buildings, but the use of these was an addition about 800 years later, i.e. about 1200 years ago. Paper dragons, hundreds of yards long, are moved along the streets at a slow pace, supported on the heads of men whose legs only are visible, giving the impression of huge serpents winding through the thoroughfares.