Folk-Lore/Volume 1/Notes on Chinese Folk-Lore

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THE accompanying notes in various topics of Chinese folk-lore are, without exception, translations made by myself from the Chang Ngoi San Po, one of the Chinese daily papers, published in Hong Kong. The editor of that journal discussed in the columns of his paper the various subjects of folk-lore tabulated by the Folk-Lore Society, and translated by me into Chinese, and the translations which are now published are made from the articles which appeared. It would be well if the example now set by the Chinese press in Hong Kong were followed by our press at home. Folk-lore investigations would be much assisted by the aid of the press, and especially the provincial press; and I would suggest for the consideration of the Council of the Society the advisability of taking steps to secure the co-operation of the press in furthering the objects of the Society.

Before, however, doing this, the Council should, I humbly submit, devise a better and more thorough system of local secretaries than at present exists. Instead of there being a local secretary for a country, there should be at least one or two secretaries for each county. Folk-lore is a subject interesting to many, and there should be no difficulty in securing persons willing to act and—better still—to work. Through the local secretaries the press could be approached, and with the aid of both, it must be evident that the Society would be materially strengthened, and more capable of fulfilling its objects at home.

As regards the field abroad it sadly requires cultivating. Speaking from experience, I feel sure that the Society, with a little trouble, could secure that assistance from residents abroad which is now so conspicuous by its absence, and which renders the study of comparative folk-lore so difficulty and unsatisfactory.

Fung Shui, or Geomancy.

In Sui Pui, in the district of Shuntak, Kwangtung Province, there is a monumental gateway in an uninhabited part of the country which is said to resemble in shape a rat-trap. It is related that the crops in the neighbourhood having failed for several seasons in succession, the aid of the geomancers was invoked in order to discover the reason. After carefully considering the surroundings of the place, they found that the hills opposite to where the crops were grown presented the appearance of a rat. This rat, they said, devoured the crops, so they advised the construction of a rat-trap to prevent its depredations. No sooner was the rat-trap erected than the crops yielded grain in abundance.

In Lung Shan, Kwangtung Province, in front of the ancestral temple of the Wan family, is a fish and shrimp market, which omits an odour by no means pleasant to the nostrils. The geomancers say that the appearance of the country resembles a crane; that fish and shrimps are the food of cranes; and that, therefore, the prosperity of the inhabitants can be prognosticated from the prosperity or otherwise of the market.

In King-sai, if a pregnant woman dies before she has given birth to her offspring, it is supposed that the ghost of the unborn child returns to demand the life of a newly born infant. On this account, on the birth of the child, the mother is carefully watched by women inside her room, whilst males keep strict guard outside. At the same time a youth is made to stare with fixed eyes at the spot in which the ghost is supposed to be secreted, while others drive it away. If these precautions are not taken, it is popularly believed that mother and child will fall victims to the ghost’s desire.

If a mother dies in child-birth, and the child lives, there is a belief that the ghost of the mother will return to the house and, taking the child in its arms, cause its death. To avoid this, a white fowl is procured and kept in the house, while at the same time the child is nursed by members of the family night and day. If the ghost returns, the white fowl is handed to it, and it at once departs. Next day a visit is made to the mother’s grave. If there is a hole in it, the ghost never comes back; if no hole can be found, another fowl must be purchased to be given to the ghost when it revisits the house, and this must be repeated until the hole can be seen.


A certain fair maiden was betrothed to a man who, being suddenly visited by a serious illness, was anxious that the marriage should take place before he died. The maiden, however, refused. Before long the man died, and the maiden married some one else. But as soon as the wife appeared before her husband her head became much larger than its normal size, her face turned blue, and her teeth projected like swords. In fact, she presented such a frightful appearance that her husband fled on beholding it, and though they were married for several years, husband and wife never exchanged a word.

In High Street, Canton, there is a house which is said to be haunted by the ghost of the wife of a salt-monopolist. The salt-monopolist was arrested for peculation of public moneys, and this so affected his wife that she committed suicide by hanging herself. She is said to have committed the deed arrayed in a red robe, with dishevelled hair, and in front of a looking-glass, and it is now reported that the house is haunted by her ghost, which presents a most savage appearance and pursues people.[1]

In a village in the Canton Province there is a temple, the idol in which has its face turned towards the wall and its back to the entrance. The legend explaining the peculiar position of the idol is as follows. A certain person, who belonged to the village, had just returned from abroad, having acquired, while in distant regions, the sorcerer’s art. Some of the villagers remembered him, and consequently, when one of the neighbours was giving a house-warming, he was not among the invited. His wife, who felt the slight, jeered at his powers of sorcery, seeing that they could not even succeed in getting them an invitation to a dinner. Incited to action by these remarks, the sorcerer bade his wife take a bamboo and place it transversely inside the house, and hold a white and black handkerchief in her hand. The banqueters were at this time in the midst of their cups, when they were suddenly startled by beholding a large white snake with its head hanging down from the main beam of the house, its eyes glittering, and thrusting out its tongue, which appeared like a sword, and by seeing another black snake.

The Magiciam of Sai-nám.

There was a certain man. around whose left arm was always wound a yellow cloth, which was never removed, and who was well known to be possessed of the power of magic. On one occasion he arrived at the town of Sai-nám, which is situated on a river, along the banks of which were anchored junks discharging their cargoes of rice. One of the rice coolies was a man of gigantic strength, who could carry three sacks of rice at once. While he was descending the gangway with a load some of his fellow emyloyés tilted it aside in fun, in order to give him a tumble. Unfortunately, however, his load fell on him, and he was killed on the spot. The magician comforted the coolies, who were much agitated, by telling them that he would make matters right, and commanded them to wrap up the deceased in the bedding he was accustomed to use, and place him on a bed. This done, he wrote a magic spell and recited an incantation, when the deceased coolie began to show signs of life, and, pulling off the quilt in which he had been wrapped, arose as if nothing had happened.

About the same time as the incident at Sai-nám occurred the house of a certain rich man was infested by an evil demon. Without any apparent reason the house took fire; clothes were burnt, money was lost, his wives and concubines were harassed, and as soon as the lid was removed from the rice-pan the food in it was at once rendered uneatable by some dirt falling into the pan. Magicians were engaged to put an end to these evils, but the demon, knife in hand, chased them away. The magician of Sai-nám was also invited to lend his services, but always refused. The rich man tried to escape the evil by moving to a distant place, but without avail, for the demon followed in his train. At length a relation of the magician of Sai-nám undertook, for a handsome consideration, to induce the magician of Sai-nám to get rid of the pest, and, by continually harping on the contempt in which the demon held the magician’s powers, finally persuaded him to exercise his arts in order to drive it away. The magician and his relations proceeded to the rich man’s house together, and, just as they were about to enter, the door closed, and the magician was caught in it, but was at once freed on unwinding the yellow cloth from his left arm. The battle between magician and demon commenced, and was carried on for three days, the demon still remaining unconquered, and mocking his adversary by advising him to study his art for a few years more if he wanted to be victorious. The magician in despair sent for his master, who loudly upbraided him for having listened to the persuasive words of his relations and having fallen into this snare without having first carefully considered the circumstances of the case. He then went on to explain that the rich man’s house was haunted, not by a demon, but by himself, on account of its owner having forcibly robbed another person’s wife and forced her to become his concubine; and that only by repentance and by compensating the injured husband could the rich man free himself from the evil influence that had dogged his steps. This the rich man was only too ready to acquiesce in, and when he had vowed repentance and made restitution to him whom he had wronged, his house was restored to peace, and he breathed freely once more.

The Fair of Fair Maidens.

In Chan Fan, in the Kwangtung Province, there is a temple dedicated to the three maidens, which is built by the side of a river. In ordinary times it is almost deserted, but in the first decade of the third moon the maidens of Lung Shan repair to it to worship in large numbers. After their devotions are over they sit on the temple steps, and allow themselves to be gazed at and criticised by the onlookers, who gather in crowds—fathers to select suitable brides for their sons, and sons to enjoy the attractive scene. Males are not allowed to cross the river, but are only permitted to gaze from the other side. Any infraction of this regulation is met by repeated strokes from the rattan of the police who keep guard.


In Kwongsai, in the event of a fire, the goods of the people who have been burnt out of house and home are refused shelter by their friends and neighbours until the god of fire has been driven away. It would be considered unlucky, and likely to bring about disaster, if they acted otherwise.


In the village of Kim Kong, in the Nam Hoi district, Kwangtung Province, males marry at the age of twenty, and girls at the age of eighteen. A few days after the marriage the bride returns to her mother’s family, and during the first and second years of the marriage returns to her husband’s home on four nights only. On the 14th of the eighth moon and the 30th of the twelfth moon she goes to her husband’s house, returning on the mornings of the 16th of the eighth moon and 2nd of the first moon. In the third and fourth years of the marriage she also sometimes visits her husband for two nights at the Ts’ing Ming, or winter festivals. On the occasion of a marriage or death in the husband’s family, the husband sends for his wife, and she lives with him for a night or two. If the wife has no child she will not live with her husband for good until five, six, and even eight or ten years have elapsed. It is stated, as a result of this custom, that the men of Kun Kong are long-lived, any person dying at fifty being considered short-lived; that the affection between man and wife is very strong, a wife refusing to marry again if her first husband dies before her; and that concubinage is almost unknown.

In the prefecture of Ug Chan and the district of Ts’am, in the province of Kwongsai, the women arise early in the morning and go to the hills to cut wood, afterwards selling it in the market, while their husbands remain at home attending to the household and children. As a consequence of this a widow is prized more highly as a wife than a maiden, as she is more experienced and able to do more work. If a woman loses her husband and marries again, the parents of her former husband have no scruples about receiving betrothal money when she marries.

When the bride ascends the bridal sedan she wears a hat of paper, and an old woman who has sons and grandsons holds an umbrella over her. A man carries a bamboo sieve containing rice, which he scatters as he proceeds along the road.

On the third day after marriage a ceremony called “washing the feet” takes place. It consists in the bride washing the feet of her mother-in-law, and is supposed to be a sign that the mother-in-law will be no longer troubled with domestic affairs.

The Goddess of Mercy and Her Treasury.

At the season when the Goddess of Mercy is supposed to open her treasury, matrons and maidens repair to her shrine to pray for riches. Some deposit gold and silver paper-money in her treasury as a provision against expenses in the other world, while others deposit real money and pray for increase of riches.

In Lung Shán, on the Kam Tsy Hill, in the Kwangtung Province, there is a temple dedicated to the Goddess of Mercy, with a thousand steps leading up to it. When the goddess opens her treasury, women repair to the temple, dressed in their finest garbs, and adorned with their most precious jewellery. Arrived at the steps, they seat themselves down, while their attendants run up and down looking for her who may be most conspicuous for her array. If anyone is found more handsomely adorned than the others, the servant reports to her mistress, who at once arises and seats herself by the side of the person whose raiment and jewels appear to be the finest, in order that she may contrast her own with them. This is called “a contest of riches”.

The Bob-tailed Dragon of Kwai Fung Shan, San-ai.

In the Kwai Fung Mountains in San-ni, Kwangtung Province, lives a bob-tailed dragon. When it comes forth from its retreat, storms of wind and rain immediately arise and many buildings are destroyed. The story of how this dragon was reared is as follows. Li Chung-kan, alias Mawing, when a boy was one day going to school. Seeing a small snake on the roadside, he picked it up and put it in his sleeve. Arrived at the school, he placed it in a drawer until he went home, when he took it with him. Arrived at his house, he carefully hid it under his bed. This he continued to do every day, feeding the snake morning and evening, until at last it became quite attached to him. His pet was, however, ultimately discovered by his teacher, who ordered him to let it loose on the Kwai Fung Hill. He did as he was told, but, though released, the snake kept coming back to Li Chung-kan’s house to be fed, or Chung-kan used to repair to the hillside to feed it there. As time went on, the snake and his master became full-grown, and as Li Chung-kan had to go to the capital to attend the examinations, they had to part. Before leaving, however, Chung-kan had some wheat planted at the foot of the hill, and told the snake that it could live on it, but that it must not injure any living thing, and that, if it acted in accordance with his directions, he could ensure its ultimately ascending to heaven as a dragon. Chung-kan was successful in his examinations, and, having obtained his degree, returned to his home to worship his ancestors. On his arrival the snake was falsely accused of having devoured animals belonging to the neighbourhood and of being a great pest to the district. These reports so incensed Chung-kan, that he seized a knife, and, going to the retreat of the snake, cut off its tail. Hence the name it now bears, “the bob-tailed dragon”.

On one occasion a distinguished scholar was paying a visit to the head of the Taoist sect, “the Preceptor of Heaven,” in order to consult him as to a lucky day for putting in the main beam of a house he was building. While they were engaged in conversation, a visitor was announced, and a ferocious-looking person, dressed in the guise of a Tamên runner, entered. The head of the Taoist sect asked the scholar to withdraw while he received the new arrival. After they had been engaged in conversation for some time, he heard “the Preceptor of Heaven” say, “Although such is heaven’s decree, you must deal with a lenient hand with a view to your own happiness.” After the visitor had retired, the scholar inquired who the person was to whom such respect had been shown. The Heavenly Preceptor replied that he was the dragon of the Kwai Fung Hill, and that he had come to inform him that heaven was about to visit the province of Kwangtung with a great disaster, the carrying out of which had been entrusted to the “bob-tailed dragon”.

The Cantonese firmly believe in the existence of this fabulous monster, and regard it as the instrument of violent storms, etc.

  1. The Chinese believe that the ghosts of persons who commit suicide in front of a looking-glass are fiercer on that account.