Myths and Legends of China

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An almost infinite variety of superstitious practices, due to the belief in the good or evil influences of departed spirits, exists in all parts of China. Days are lucky or unlucky. Eclipses are due to a dragon trying to eat the sun or the moon. The rainbow is supposed to be the result of a meeting between the impure vapours of the Page 54sun and the earth. Amulets are worn, and charms hung up, sprigs of artemisia or of peach-blossom are placed near beds and over lintels respectively, children and adults are ‘locked to life’ by means of locks on chains or cords worn round the neck, old brass mirrors are supposed to cure insanity, figures of gourds, tigers’ claws, or the unicorn are worn to ensure good fortune or ward off sickness, fire, etc., spells of many kinds, composed mostly of the written characters for happiness and longevity, are worn, or written on paper, cloth, leaves, etc., and burned, the ashes being made into a decoction and drunk by the young or sick.

Divination by means of the divining stalks (the divining plant, milfoil or yarrow) and the tortoiseshell has been carried on from time immemorial, but was not originally practised with the object of ascertaining future events, but in order to decide doubts, much as lots are drawn or a coin tossed in the West. Fêng-shui, “the art of adapting the residence of the living and the dead so as to co-operate and harmonize with the local currents of the cosmic breath” (the yin and the yang: see Chapter III), a doctrine which had its root in ancestor-worship, has exercised an enormous influence on Chinese thought and life from the earliest times, and especially from those of Chu Hsi and other philosophers of the Sung dynasty.


Having noted that Chinese education was mainly literary, and why it was so, it is easy to see that there would be little or no demand for the kind of knowledge classified in the West under the head of science. In so far as any demand existed, it did so, at any rate at first, only because it subserved vital needs. Thus, astronomy, Page 55or more properly astrology, was studied in order that the calendar might be regulated, and so the routine of agriculture correctly followed, for on that depended the people’s daily rice, or rather, in the beginning, the various fruits and kinds of flesh which constituted their means of sustentation before their now universal food was known. In philosophy they have had two periods of great activity, the first beginning with Lao Tzŭ and Confucius in the sixth century B.C. and ending with the Burning of the Books by the First Emperor, Shih Huang Ti, in 213 B.C.; the second beginning with Chou Tzŭ (A.D. 1017–73) and ending with Chu Hsi (1130–1200). The department of philosophy in the imperial library contained in 190 B.C. 2705 volumes by 137 authors. There can be no doubt that this zeal for the orthodox learning, combined with the literary test for office, was the reason why scientific knowledge was prevented from developing; so much so, that after four thousand or more years of national life we find, during the Manchu Period, which ended the monarchical régime, few of the educated class, giants though they were in knowledge of all departments of their literature and history (the continuity of their traditions laid down in their twenty-four Dynastic Annals has been described as one of the great wonders of the world), with even the elementary scientific learning of a schoolboy in the West. ‘Crude,’ ‘primitive,’ ‘mediocre,’ ‘vague,’ ‘inaccurate,’ ‘want of analysis and generalization,’ are terms we find applied to their knowledge of such leading sciences as geography, mathematics, chemistry, botany, and geology. Their medicine was much hampered by superstition, and perhaps more so by such beliefs as that the seat of the intellect is in the stomach, that thoughts proceed from the heart, that the pit of the stomach is the seat of Page 56the breath, that the soul resides in the liver, etc.—the result partly of the idea that dissection of the body would maim it permanently during its existence in the Otherworld. What progress was made was due to European instruction; and this again is the causa causans of the great wave of progress in scientific and philosophical knowledge which is rolling over the whole country and will have marked effects on the history of the world during the coming century.


Originally polysyllabic, the Chinese language later assumed a monosyllabic, isolating, uninflected form, grammatical relations being indicated by position. From the earliest forms of speech several subordinate vernacular languages arose in various districts, and from these sprang local dialects, etc. Tone-distinctions arose—i.e. the same words pronounced with a different intonation came to mean different things. Development of these distinctions led to carelessness of articulation, and multiplication of what would be homonyms but for these tones. It is incorrect to assume that the tones were invented to distinguish similar sounds. So that, at the present day, anyone who says ma will mean either an exclamation, hemp, horse, or curse according to the quality he gives to the sound. The language remains in a primitive state, without inflexion, declension, or distinction of parts of speech. The order in a sentence is: subject, verb, complement direct, complement indirect. Gender is formed by distinctive particles; number by prefixing numerals, etc.; cases by position or appropriate prepositions. Adjectives precede nouns; position determines comparison; and absence of punctuation causes ambiguity. The latter is Page 57now introduced into most newly published works. The new education is bringing with it innumerable words and phrases not found in the old literature or dictionaries. Japanese idioms which are now being imported into the language are making it less pure.

The written language, too well known to need detailed description, a thing of beauty and a joy for ever to those able to appreciate it, said to have taken originally the form of knotted cords and then of notches on wood (though this was more probably the origin of numeration than of writing proper), took later that of rude outlines of natural objects, and then went on to the phonetic system, under which each character is composed of two parts, the radical, indicating the meaning, and the phonetic, indicating the sound. They were symbols, non-agglutinative and non-inflexional, and were written in vertical columns, probably from having in early times been painted or cut on strips of bark.

Achievements of the Chinese

As the result of all this fitful fever during so many centuries, we find that the Chinese, after having lived in nests “in order to avoid the animals,” and then in caves, have built themselves houses and palaces which are still made after the pattern of their prototype, with a flat wall behind, the openings in front, the walls put in after the pillars and roof-tree have been fixed, and out-buildings added on as side extensions. The k’ang, or ‘stove-bed’ (now a platform made of bricks), found all over the northern provinces, was a place scooped out of the side of the cave, with an opening underneath in which (as now) a fire was lit in winter. Windows and shutters opened upward, being a survival of the mat or shade Page 58hung in front of the apertures in the walls of the primitive cave-dwelling. Four of these buildings facing each other round a square made the courtyard, and one or more courtyards made the compound.