Folk-Lore/Volume 14/Some Chinese Folklore

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Some Chinese Folklore.

(Ante, p. 114.)

The folklore of China is as yet so incompletely known, and, in particular, the charms and amulets commonly worn on the person and hung in buildings are treated so briefly in the more familiar books on China, that a few notes on the objects exhibited at the Society's meeting on the 25th of March last may not be without interest. A full list of the objects will be found on pp. 11 4-5 of this volume, and eight of the charms are shown in the accompanying plate (VIII.). The size of the charms illustrated may be estimated from that of No. 7, which is 2⅛ inches in diameter.

Many members will remember the "Anchor" puzzles, "made in Germany," which were very popular a few years ago, and the first and simplest of which consists of a square cut up into five triangles of various sizes, a small square, and a rhomboid. By arranging these seven blocks in various ways, figures resembling the ten numerals, the letters of the alphabet, and a number of geometrical shapes can be made up, using for each figure the whole of the seven blocks. The Chinese use the same seven blocks to make up a much larger number of figures of a different character, not geometrical like the German designs, but rough pictures of birds, beasts, fishes, and Chinese men and women. They have also in common use a very much more elaborate and ingenious set of fifteen blocks, cut out from a square, for use for kindergarten purposes, and known as "the Fifteen Magic Blocks." These fifteen blocks are used both to amuse children and to make pictures illustrating history and morality, and passages of poetry to be learnt by heart, and also to teach some of the more famous mythical stories. The fifteen blocks, made of cardboard or lead,

Plate VIII.

Plate 8. Folk-Lore, vol. 14.png


To face p. 292.

fit into a depression about three inches square in one of the covers of a kind of portfolio which holds two volumes of outline pictures to be made from the blocks. Each picture, with its explanation, is on the lower half of a page, the upper half being left blank, possibly to allow a key to the picture to be filled in if desired. The blocks are all in pairs, except one rhomboid, and include semicircles and curved pieces, and their straight sides are all exactly proportional. From them over two hundred story-pictures can be made, many of which relate to the three national religions, Confucianism, Buddhism, and Taoism. The Chinese boy thus learns impartially the myths of each religion, in his kindergarten, and seeks during after life to get the benefit of all of them, while at his funeral probably both Buddhist and Taoist priests will read prayers. Many of the pictures are reproduced, with explanations, in Professor I. T. Headland's The Chinese Boy and Girl, so that it is not necessary to say more about them here.

The first picture given to the child for making with the "Fifteen Magic Blocks" is the "dragon-horse of Fuh-hi." According to the tale told him, which is mentioned by Confucius, about 4,800 years ago, the divine rulers who had governed the world for untold years were succeeded by Fuh-hi, the ancestor of the Chinese people. Heaven helped him by sending up from the waters of the Yellow River a dragon-horse carrying on its back a scroll with fifty-five spots representing the ying and yang or male and female principles, which were used by Fuh-hi to make the pa kwa or eight trigrams shown in Fig. 8 of the plate, and now in very common use as a charm. From these trigrams and the movements of the heavenly bodies Fuh-hi prepared the system of written characters by which he replaced the older method of keeping records by knotted cords (quipus). The eight trigrams are possibly a record of all possible throws with three divining sticks with two different sides (such as the split bamboo roots, &c., still in use). The eight trigrams, with the sixty-four further combinations possible by taking two of them together, and with certain explanations said to be given by Fuh-hi and two later sages, together with a commentary said to be by Confucius, form the Yih-king, the most honoured of all the Chinese classics. The Yih-king is constantly used, in a similar manner to the Bible in rural England, to obtain oracles by chance selection. Importance is, however, attached by the Chinese not, as in the West, to the particular sentence chanced upon, but to the particular character touched. For instance, if this character includes the sign for "women," it is of evil significance. The pa kwa charm is to be seen everywhere in China, both as a personal amulet and on buildings, and especially on square boards erected on roofs. The specimen shown in Fig. 6 is intended for a roof beam. The different trigrams, reading from ☰ to the right in Fig. 6, signify heaven, heavenly (running) water, thunder, mountains, earthly (stagnant) water, light (or fire), earth, and wind. On these trigrams and on the Yih-king is based the system of fêng-shui, or divination by the lines of streams and hills, &c., which has been such a hindrance to progress in China. Fêng-shui is used especially for choosing favourable sites for graves, and it is easy to understand how a new road, or a railway cutting, or a telegraph line, may alter the lines of a neighbourhood, and thus, by making uncomfortable the graves of past generations, bring down upon the neighbourhood the calamitous anger of ancestral ghosts.

Referring to the plate. Fig. 1 shows T'ung chih or poetry cash, which protects wayfarers from accidents on land or sea. Twelve small cash are arranged in such an order that the names of the mints can be read as a jingle. The charm is most powerful if the cash are of the reign of the famous emperor K'ang-Hsi. Fig. 2 is bronze fêng tsien or dragon money; a protective against disease. The two dragons shown are two of the four divine beasts. Figs. 3 and 4 illustrate the Chinese estimate of woman, 3 being a pih kea so or hundred families, cash lock for a boy, and 4 a king keuen so or neck ring lock for a girl. (The latter is a Korean specimen, but, I understand, is identical with a Chinese charm.) For the former, the father of an only or dearly-loved son will collect three or four copper cash from one hundred different persons, add what more money may be wanted, and then have the silver purchased therewith made into a padlock such as that shown, which is used to lock a silver chain or ring round the boy's neck, and so lock him to life. The one hundred sureties for long life suggest the Devonshire practice by which thirty pennies are collected from as many different persons or from different parishes, changed into silver sacrament-money, and made into a charm-ring for epilepsy, etc. The silver lock shown is a real lock, the bar across the top being the bolt, and the keyhole being at the side; but the corresponding neck-ring lock for a girl or grown woman, fig. 4, is a mere symbol of a lock, without bolt or keyhole. The inscription on the girl's lock runs "Longevity, riches, and all you wish." The inscriptions on the birthday amulets (given to children on their birthday) also exhibited were, on the boy's amulet "Long life, happiness, wealth, honours, and promotion," and on the girl's amulet, marked with sacred red paint, "Long life and happiness" only. As Professor Headland of Peking writes in The Chinese Boy and Girl of the coming of a baby to a Chinese home: "If the child is a boy the parents are congratulated on every hand because of the "great happiness" that has come to their home. If it is a girl, and there are more girls than boys in the family, the old nurse goes about as if she had stolen it from somewhere, and, when she is congratulated, if congratulated she happens to be, she says with a sigh and a funereal face, "Only a 'small happiness,' but that isn't bad."

The following extract from the Nü Erh Ching or Classic for Girls, one of the two principal guides to right conduct in Chinese women, as translated in the rhythm of the original by Professor Headland in the Chinese Repository for December, 1895, similarly enforces the subordinate position of women, and is also of interest as giving the Chinese explanation of footbinding:—

Then a woman's upper garment,
And her skirt should teach again
That, though living with her husband, she is on a different plane,
She should follow and be humble, that it ne'er be said by men,
That "the morning there is published by the crowing of the hen."

Have you ever learned the reason
For the binding of your feet?
'Tis from fear that 'twill be easy to go out upon the street.
It is not that they are handsome when thus like a crooked bow.
That ten thousand wraps and bindings are thus bound around them so!

The greater value placed upon a boy naturally leads to the use by women of charms to secure the birth of a son rather than of a daughter, and Fig. 7 shows nan tsien or male money worn for this purpose. The side not seen is inscribed "wealth and long life," while the side seen shows a fir tree and the mythical beast kylin, which appeared to the mother before the birth of Confucius, and has been described as like a small cow with one horn, and covered with scales.

Fig. 5 is a shou taou or longevity peach, in the shape of a conventional peach, with a representation of a peach tree and fruit. The reverse is inscribed "Heaven grant length of years." At New Year peach blossom is hung in doorways to exclude evil spirits, and the word shou, or longevity, written by the "vermilion pencil" of the emperor is one of the greatest favours he can grant to an official, and is looked upon as a certain charm for long life.

Fig. 8 shows a brass tablet to be fixed against the wall of a house as a protection against the malignant ghost of one who has met a violent death there, and especially against the ghost of a suicide. The Chinese characters are a jumble, and may be either a kind of magic square or a meaningless formula to detain and harmlessly occupy the ghost in the same way as certain English charms against witches.

Of the other charms exhibited, and not illustrated, perhaps the most interesting is a paper charm against sickness and goblins, obtained from a Taoist priest in Shantung, and a characteristic specimen of the charms folded up and worn in the girdle or in a red bag hung from the buttonhole. Such charms are also burnt, and their ashes given in liquor to the sick or to children. It consists of a piece of paper 9⅛ inches broad by 7⅛ inches long, of which the right-hand half reads "Ch’ih ya fêng. Tzü fü yü ping jen p’ei," literally "To license inferior fêng" (the fêng of fêng-shui, generally "wind," but here "influence," the passage meaning "Evil influence is controlled "). "This charm give sick man to wear" (on girdle or pendant). The left hand half reads "Chen qu’ai. Jih jih jih jih t’ien. Shih jih chi k’ou t’u. Jih jih jih jih t’ien. Chu shu tzu fu," or "A charm to control goblins. Day, day, day, day, field. Ten days fortunate in mouth and earth (i.e., person and land). Day, day, day, day, field. This charm to be written in vermilion."

The pih kea or hundred families' charm exhibited is made nominally from one hundred cash collected with good wishes as for the hundred families' lock, and is inscribed on one side "Long life and precious things," and on the other shows the seven stars of the Great Bear, two Buddhist Arhats, and the lunar hare squatting at the foot of the cassia tree in the moon and pounding drugs for the genii to prepare the elixir of life. The warding-off-evil cash is a favourite charm for children, and on one side has felicitous or protective characters, and on the other the twelve animals of the Chinese duodenary time cycle, viz., the rat, ox, tiger, hare, dragon, snake, horse, goat, monkey, cock, dog, and pig. These animals are used to name successive hours, days, months, and years, which are under their influence, and they are of much importance in Chinese folklore. For example, one of the most necessary parts of the funeral rites is the burning of "treasury money," which is intended not only to provide comforts for the soul in the land of the dead, but also to enable it to repay other souls from which it has probably borrowed the heavy fine paid by it at birth to the god of the dead for permission to leave his realm and to be born into this world. The amount of this fine is fixed by the particular year of the duodenary cycle in which the soul was born, being highest for the ox year and lowest for the monkey year. The "treasury money" consists of paper stamped in imitation of the edges of regular rows of metal money, and either tinned to represent silver or coloured yellow with cassia to represent gold. The paper money exhibited, however, was in oblong pieces of coarse paper merely stamped with squares and concentric circles to represent copper cash and burnt in a temple on certain occasions. The lung fêng or dragon and phœnix charm exhibited is inscribed, "Great prosperity, promotion, and happiness" on one side, the other bearing a dragon and a phœnix. The Great Spreading of the Five Elements charm shows on one side a tortoise, snake, sword, and the Great Bear constellation. The koo tung king, or old brass mirror, is hung up outside a bed curtain or in a bedroom, and frightens away evil spirits by reflecting them, or heals those who have become mad through seeing an evil spirit. The older the mirror the greater its power. It may be flat, like the specimen exhibited, or convex, but must always be round. The eight felicitous words charms have various lucky inscriptions on one side, while the other is decorated with suitable birds, flowers, &c., one, however, being of special interest as it shows the god of the North Polar Star holding a pencil as the patron of learning and also the stars near the pole, in one of which is his home. Deities are not usually, I am told, figured on charms. The t'ai p'ing charm reads t'ien p'ing tai hsia, "peace throughout the empire," and both chwang yuan charms read "May you win the chwang yuan" (the highest place at triennial examination at Peking); the obverse in one case being engraved with two dragons. Ancient cash are commonly hung as charms, by red string, from the person, or out side a bed curtain, or tied to the wrist of a baby; or a number of cash from the reigns of different emperors may be placed under a bridal bed. Some of the cash so used and exhibited are current in Pekin only.

The cash sword shown is too familiar to need description. It may be noted that many brought home by travellers are not genuine charms, but only copies made for sale to tourists as curios. The cash sword is specially valued as a protection for a bridal bed, outside the curtains of which it is hung with its blade parallel to the horizon. The last charm shown, ma tsien or horse money, is blank on one side, and on the other shows a horse with the inscription "shadow of the footprints" (a wish for a safe and speedy return).

A. R. Wright.