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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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Wang Hui - Peach-Blossom-Fishing-Boat-1

Peach Blossom Springs

In the Taiyuan period of the Jin Dynasty (AD 376-396), there was a man from Wuling, who was a fisherman by trade.

One day, he was fishing his way up a stream in his small wooden boat. Not paying attention to how far he’d gone, he suddenly came upon a wood of peach trees that he had never seen or heard of before. On both banks for several hundred yards there were no other kinds of trees either, and the fragrant grasses beneath their boughs, were patterned with peach blossom, and peach blossom only.

Surprised yet filled with curiosity, the fisherman went on further, determined to find out more about this wood. He found that the end of the wood and the source of the stream both came together at the foot of a cliff, and in this cliff there was a small cave, in which there seemed to be a faint light. Leaving his boat, the fisherman went in through the mouth of the cave. At first, it was very narrow, only just wide enough for a man, but after forty or fifty yards, it then widened out again, and the fisherman found himself back out in the open.

The place that the fisherman had come to was level and spacious. There were houses and cottages, all arranged in a planned order; there were fine fields and beautiful pools; there were mulberry trees, bamboo groves, and many other kinds of shrubs and trees; there were raised pathways round the fields; and the fisherman could hear the sound of chickens and dogs, in all the four directions.

Going to and fro in all of this, were people, both men and women, busy working and planting vegetables, herbs, flowers and spices. Their dress was not unlike the people who lived outside, but all of them, whether they were old people with white hair, or children with their black hair tied up in a knot, all of them wore smiles that spoke of their contentment, not only with their surroundings but also with themselves and the other people there.

When they saw the fisherman, they were amazed and asked him where he had come from. Intrigued by where that was, and what people did there, they then asked him other things about his daily life. Delighting in the fisherman’s answers and in his good company, the villagers then asked him to join them in their homes, where they put jugs of wine in front of him, killed chickens and prepared a sumptuous array of spice laden dishes in the fisherman’s honour.

When the other people in the village heard about this visitor, they also came to ask the fisherman questions. They told him that their ancestors had escaped from the wars and confusion in the time of the Qin Dynasty (221-207 BC). Bringing their wives and children with them, all the people of their district had reached this inaccessible place, and had never left it since. Because of this, they had lost all contact with the world outside. They asked the fisherman what dynasty it was now.

“What?” they said. They hadn’t even heard of the Han, let alone the Wei or Jin. So, the fisherman then explained to them everything he could of the world he knew, and on hearing about all these changes and upheavals in the world outside, the villagers all sighed with deep sorrow.

Afterwards, yet more villagers invited the fisherman to visit them in their homes and to talk with them more. Accepting their offers gladly, the fisherman stayed on in the village for several more days, feasting on freshly prepared food and enjoying their generous hospitality.

Finally, the time came for the fisherman to return home. Before he departed, the villagers all gathered round the fisherman and implored of him,  “Please, never speak to anyone outside, about this place or us!”

Nodding, the fisherman bade them all farewell.

Heading out through the cave, the fisherman found his small boat and then set off for home, following the same route as he had taken there. However, this time, he left marks, as he traveled home, to ensure that if he wanted to, the fisherman could find his way back to that wood of peach trees, and, in turn, the village and its people.

When the fisherman got back to the provincial town he called on the prefect and told him all about his experience. More than intrigued, the prefect at once sent for a group of men to accompany him on his own journey to this wondrous place. Yet, even though the fisherman was with the prefect and his men, they could not follow the marks he had left. Completely confused, as to which way was what, and what way was which, they had no choice but to give up their search and return to their small town.

Upon hearing of this matter, Liu Ziji, a highly reputed scholar from Nanyang, quickly offered, with the utmost enthusiasm, to go out with the fisherman and try once more to find a way back there. But this, alas, came to nothing either, for he fell ill and died.

After that, no one went to look for the stream anymore.

Tao Yuanming [陶淵明]

Translation: Gladys Yang

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Liu Hai

The Silver Ingot

When Chin saw that two of his sons did not believe him, he was all the more eager to get at the truth. So he asked his way to the village he had been told of in the dream, and there sure enough lived a Mr Wang. Knocking at the door and entering, Chin saw that bright candles were lit in the hall and sacrifices had been set out for the gods. When he asked the reason for this, the servants went to find their master; and presently Mr Wang appeared, greeted the old man and invited him to be seated. Then he asked Chin what had brought him here.

“Something is puzzling me,” said Chin, “and I have come to see if you can shed any light on it. But I notice that you are offering sacrifices today. May I ask the reason?”

“Recently my wife fell ill,” replied Wang, “and I consulted a fortune-teller, who declared that she would get better if her bed were moved. Yesterday, still ailing, she thought she saw eight big fellows in white gowns and red belts. ‘We used to be in the Chin family,’ they told her, ‘but we have done with them now and come to you.’ Having said this they crawled under the bed; and my wife broke into a cold sweat, after which she felt better. When we moved the bed, there in the dust we found eight great silver ingots bound round the middle with red cord. We have no idea where these have come from; but since Heaven has been so kind to us we have bought offerings to sacrifice. Now you have come to question me, perhaps you know something about this?”

Stamping his feet, Chin answered, “It took me a lifetime to save up that silver. Last night I had a dream too, and when I woke the silver had vanished. But in the dream my ingots mentioned your name and address; that’s how I found my way here. It is the will of Heaven; I can’t complain. But if I could see them once more I should feel better.”

“That is easy,” said Mr Wang.

He left the room, smiling, and returned with four serving boys each of whom was carrying a tray bearing two ingots fastened with red cord – the selfsame ingots Chin had treasured.

The old man’s eyes nearly started from his head, but there was nothing he could do. Big tears rolled down his cheeks as he stroked the silver.

“Fate must be against me,” he said, “if I am not allowed to keep these.”

Though Wang ordered the boys to put the ingots away again, he felt rather sorry for the old man. So he got out three taels of loose silver, put them in a packet and offered it to Chin as a parting gift. Chin, however, was unwilling to take it.

“I have been too luckless to keep my own,” protested the old man, “how can I take yours?”

He declined again and again, until Wang pushed the silver up his sleeve. Wanting to give it back, Chin fumbled for the packet but could not find it. He blushed with confusion. And finally since Wang insisted that he accept it, he bowed and left.

Upon reaching home he told his sons what had happened, and they sighed. He also mentioned Mr Wang’s kindness in giving him three taels as a parting gift; but when he searched in his sleeve he could not find the silver, and was forced to conclude that he must have dropped it on the way home.

In fact, while Chin was modestly refusing the silver Wang had thrust the packet through a hole in the lining of his sleeve; and by the time the old man felt for it to return it, it had already dropped out and rolled under the door sill. Later when the floor was swept, Wang got it back.

So it seems that each bite or sup we take is preordained. Chin, who was not destined to possess money, could not even keep three taels, let alone eight hundred. But Wang, who was destined to possess it, could not get rid of three taels. Thus, regardless of either man’s intention, a have became a have-not and a have-not became a have.

Translated by Yang Hsien-yi and Gladys Yang

50 Great Oriental Stories,  Bantam Books, 1965

The Silver Ingot, from The Tangerines and the Tortoise Shell, is part of the Feng and Lin collection of hua pen literature; written between the tenth and seventeenth centuries. During that period, professional storytellers improved upon traditional tales, later transcribing them and handing them down as hua pen or ‘storytellers scripts’.

Liu Haichan

Liu Hai (刘海), in the painting above, was a fabled 10th-century Chinese alchemist who learned the secret of immortality from the Chan Chu (蟾蜍) – the three legged money toad sitting upon his shoulder – and became an immortal.

According to Chinese legend, the Chan Chu, or, Jin Chan (金蟾), was the wife of one of the Eight Immortals. However, when she was caught stealing one of the peaches of immortality, she was punished and turned into a toad.

Greedy by nature, she has a constant craving for money, and whenever people see her in their dreams, there is always a bed of money surrounding her.

According to the Chinese philosophical system of Feng Shui, the Chan Chu helps to attract and protect wealth, and also guards against bad luck. Because the Chan Chu symbolizes the flow of money, a statue of the Chan Chu should never face the main door (“outward”), nor should it ever be kept “in the bathroom, bedroom, dining room or kitchen”.

Liu Hai and Jin Chan by a Waterfall

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Mr Five Willows is a native of one knows not where. Nor does one know his name.
Since there are five willows by his house, he has been given the sobriquet of “Mr. Five Willows.”

He is a man of few words, retiring by nature. He has no desire for money or for fame. An avid reader, he does not however, seek extraneous interpretations. Whenever he finds certain books arresting his interest, he forgets his meals.

He has a special weakness for wine, but being poor he cannot always afford it. His friends, aware of this, often invite him to drink. Then he drinks to his heart’s content. But when he is drunk, he takes leave at once.

The walls surrounding his house are dilapidated, giving little protection from the sun or wind. His coarse gown is shabby and threadbare; his rice jar is frequently empty. Yet he lives in contentment, and writes poetry to amuse himself and to express how he feels. Worldly gain or loss does not concern him. This is his way of life.

Biography Of Mr Five Willows, Tao Yuan-Ming (365-427)

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