Posts Tagged ‘J.-J. Matignon’

Persons frequently ask…

“What is China’s real religion? What do people believe and worship?”

“Do they believe in an after-life? And what are the conditions of this life?”

With the first of its many volumes published by T’usewei Press, Shanghai in 1914, “Researches into Chinese Superstitions”, is a thorough, if not exhaustive, study of the questions posed above. Written and compiled by the Rev. Henri Doré, “Researches into Chinese Superstitions” is a multi-volume collection of the ‘superstitions’, which ‘swayed the family and social life’ of the Chinese people at that time.

As mentioned in previous articles, there was great interest is this area of Chinese life at the turn of the last century. Fortunately, like Dr J.-J. Matignon’s study of the subject, these studies by Doré also managed to avoid the sensationalism to which other studies around that time succumbed. Indeed, whilst Rev. Doré was a Jesuit missionary, it could be said that his own beliefs only strengthened his objective or nominal approach when it came to recording and examining these Chinese ‘superstitions’. Therefore, whatever reasons Doré may have had for producing this work, they should not deter us nor distract us from examining what is presented within the many volumes of this collection.

As far as a study of religion as a factor in social life is concerned, it may make little difference whether the anthropologist is a theist or an atheist, since in either case he can only take in to account what he can observe. But if either attempts to go further than this, each must pursue a different path. The non-believer seeks for some theory – biological, psychological, or sociological – which will explain the illusion; the believer seeks rather to understand the manner in which a people conceives of a reality and their relation to it. For both, religion is part of social life, but for the believer it has also another dimension.

E. E. Evans Pritchard, Theories of Primitive Religion, Clarendon Press, 1965

Links to the Volumes in this Collection on Archive.org:

Volume I, Volume II, Volume III, Volume IV, Volume V, Volume VI, Volume VII, Volume VIII, Volume IX, Volume X, Volume XI (Original French), Volume XII (Original French), Volume XIII, Volume XIV, Volume XVVolume XVII (Original French), Volume XVIII (Original French)

President Yuang Shikai - Ming money ceremony 1914

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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.

 A scan of the first edition @ the Internet Archive.

A scan (OCR) of the second edition @ Gallica.

A text edition of the second edition @ Les classiques des sciences sociales.

Chinese Characteristics by Arthur Smith @ the Internet Archive

Read the second part of this study; ‘The Hermit of Peking’ – ‘La Chine Hermétique’.

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