In 1899, a French military physician, Dr J.-J. Matignon, attaché to the French Legation in Peking, published a series of articles and lectures under the title ‘Superstition, Crime et Misère en Chine’, essentially comprising studies of what the author terms ‘social biology’, on such varied topics as feng-shui, footbinding, eunuchs, homosexuality, and Chinese medicine, accompanied by numerous woodblock prints, photographs and illustrations. The general tone and approach belong very much to the school of thinking, popular at that time, known as the study of national characteristics. After going through a number of reprints, this work was later revised and augmented, in 1936, as ‘La Chine Hermétique’, though amputated of a couple of chapters, either deemed too risqué or simply out-of-date, as well as about half of the illustrations – but with a few more photographs not present in the first edition included.
First of all, however, it should be noted that the work is far from being a sensationalist account of Chinese superstition, a genre much in vogue at the turn of the last century (for example, Arthur Smith’s ‘Chinese Characteristics’). Most of the articles had previously been published in scholarly journals of medecine and anthropology, and the first edition was part of a series on criminology. This specialized audience, and the lack of such previous studies, the author writes, explains the nature and the variety of the subjects dealt with.
Ce n’est ni un livre d’histoire, ni un récit de voyages, ni des collections d’anecdotes que j’apporte, mais une documentation sur la biologie sociale des Chinois. (from the preface)
One curious chapter, entitled ‘L’auto-crémation des prêtres bouddhistes’ (‘The Self-Immolation of Buddhist Priests’) examines in depth the ascetic practices of Buddhist monks, including the phenomena of self-immolation and self-combustion. This section, essentially based on an earlier paper by Dr. D.J. MacGowan; ‘Self-Immolation by Fire in China’ (1888), looks at some of the historical and doctrinal reasons for such practices, along with reporting a number of anecdotes and legends. A recent academic work; ‘Burning for the Buddha: Self-Immolation in Chinese Buddhism’ by J.A. Benn extensively deals with the subject.
The illustrations found throughout the book are quite interesting for this kind of work. There are numerous photographs of buildings and monuments, as well as of people; beggars and eunuchs, for the most part, especially in the revised edition. One often-reproduced picture is that of a young eunuch, with a striking look on his face. But perhaps more interesting are the woodcuts and prints, both in colour as well as black and white. These come from a wide variety of sources; illustrated novels, official announcements, classic works, religious literature, folk art and auspicious inscriptions, as well as advertisements.
We present a representative selection of these pictures below, with brief captions taken from the book itself. (Click to enlarge)
The Golden Lily – Footbinding
A print from the 24 Examples of Filial Duty
The King of the Beggars
The Art of Pulse-Reading
A Buddhist Monk undergoing austerities
A Young Eunuch
Lao-tzu on his ox
Taoist Medicinal Talismans
The Spirit of Suicide
Infanticide: A woman who drowned her daughters gives birth to a snake with a human head.
Infanticide: Those who oppose drowning touch the hearts of the gods.
A Turtle inscribed with the words ‘Son of a Turtle’, a sign equivalent to ‘No Littering’.
Readers knowledgeable of French will find a number of different editions and formats of Matignon’s book online. All 3 contain illustrations, though with varying degrees of quality. Medical works aside, Dr Matignon also authored a number of other books on the Far East; ‘L’Orient Lointain’ (1901), and ‘Dix Ans au Pays du Dragon’ (1910), among others.
Read the second part of this study; ‘The Hermit of Peking’ – ‘La Chine Hermétique’.