THE CHINESE LITERATURE OF THE MARVELLOUS.
THE common notion about China that it is a country whose inhabitants are so strictly utilitarian that no room is left for the action of the fancy or the imagination, will hardly survive the perusal of Dr. N. B. Dennys's very amusing as well as instructive book on the Folk-lore of China.* From that book the first impres- sion to be gathered would be that the popular superstitions of the Chinese and the English are extremely similar in character, though very often, as is natural in relation to the arbitrary symbols of the fancy, founded on precisely opposite assumptions as to the meaning of these symbols, but that these superstitions have a practical dominance over the life of the Chinese, such as, within the historical period at least, they have never even approached in relation to the practical life of the people of these islands. We fancy both conclusions 'will be a little startling. The common notion of the Chinese as a race of secu- larists who see nothing beyond the clay of the globe on which they live, is, at first sight, very unlike that by which Dr. Dennys bids us replace it, in the following words :—" China presents the now-a-days singular spectacle of an entire nation, numbering ever three hundred millions of souls, where every-day life is framed to meet the exigencies of a puerile system of superstition." And again :—" The one grand distinction between Chinese and European folk-lore lies, as above intimated, in the different power they exert over the respective communities. In the one case, it is either a matter only of amused indifference, or of in- terested research to all but the lowest classes of the population. In the other, it presents an all-pervading system of regulations, believed in or complied with by high and low alike." But there is more difference, we suspect, between the nature of the Western and the Chinese folk-lore than Dr. Dennys admits. He is quite right in saying that all the popular superstitions of China have their parallel in European superstitions, and that the most im- portant difference between the two is that the former are slavishly believed in and obeyed, while the latter are treated half- disrespectfully even by the most superstitious of the popula- tion. But there seems to us to be another and a more import- ant difference closely allied to this, namely, that that free, idealising spirit which shapes for itself in the folk-lore of a ,people something either humorous, or pathetic, or fanciful, or beautiful, or otherwise appealing to the higher faculties of man, has been far more powerfully at work in the folk- lore and fairy-tales of the West than in the folk-lore and fairy-tales of China. The purely uninteresting and arbitrary, in a word, the grovelling side of superstition, as distin- guished from the imaginative, or humorous, or tragic side, appears to take up a far greater proportion of the Chinese folk-lore than it does of our own. Dr. Dennys himself virtually admits this when be says (p. 3), "The myth-making faculty is in any case the common heritage of mankind ; and narrow as are the limits within which it has been exercised by the Chinese, and grotesque as are the forms assumed by its productions, they evidence the same yearning to idealise the mysterious powers of the universe, the same poetic faculty, if more rudely expressed, as has characterised mankind since the Chaldrean astrologers kept their lonely vigils, and found in the star-studded heavens materials for the Mythic beliefs of the long-forgotten past." The truth is, however, that the myths of China are astonishingly deficient in this poetic element of which Dr. Dennys speaks, and their superstitions are therefore all the more leaden and onerous for not being pervaded and fired by that ideal feeling which singles out the humour, and wonder, and beauty, and passion of human life for its especial themes, and is apt to drop quietly the more vulgar superstitions in which no such matter of interest can be found. Such superstitions, for instance, as the English one as to the sorrow which is to come of spilling salt, and which is paralleled in China by a like super- The Polk-lore of China, and its Affinities with that of the Aryan and Semitic Rates. fly N. B. Dennye, rILD., k.c. London: Triibuer and CO.
stition as to the result of upsetting the oil-jar, are simply so much lumber of the trembling fancy, worthless for all imagina- tive purposes, and mischievous for a people who really burden their minds with such a weight of imaginary care. But these are the kinds of auguries of which the Chinese folk-lore is fullest. China has, indeed, no monopoly of such superstitions. Such rites as the following have been common in all barbarous countries, and some of the superstitions at the root of them linger among us still ; but in no Western country does this sordid sort of fancy fill nearly so large a space in the superstitions of the people as in China :—
" To break a mirror augurs a separation from one's wife by death, or otherwise, and is only second in ominous portent to breaking an oil- jar. And this superstition of a connection existing between the mirror and its owner's life is evidenced also by its use in cases of sickness to form the head of a sort of figure made of one of the sick man's coats which, suspended to a bamboo with the end-leaves still on it, is carried about in the vicinity of the house in the hope of attracting the depart-
ing soul back to its body Who has not noticed or heard of the bizarre arrangements of Chinese gardens and rockeries? The motive for this laying out the pleasure-grounds attached to large houses is not simply ornamental. No doubt the Chinaman is one of the most ingenious of landscape gardeners, but the crooked walks and abrupt turns not only economise space but are 'lucky,' inasmuch as they dis- courage the advent of evil spirits, who like the 'broad way' in China much as they are reputed to do in Europe."
Or take the following instance of the serious result of the belief in demonology which is said to have prevailed during the T'ang dynasty in China :—" In those days, adds the account from which the foregoing is quoted, the demons had such unlimited power to transform themselves, that a son would not leave his father, or a husband his wife, without secret tickets, which they- carried about with them and compared on meeting. If a person was unable to produce the ticket, he was believed to be a demon in human form. This is the origin of the proverb, 'If your ticket be loot,
you are hopeless.'" It is hardly possible to imagine a more con- vincing test of the frightful matter-of-factness and burdensome- ness of superstition than this, or a more entire absence ia it of any ideal elements. The demon could imitate the form, and mien, and character of those about to separate, but could not produce the ticket by which alone the personal identity could be verified ! You ought to distrust every evidence of identity, every sign of love, every indication of intimate personal knowledge; but if the distrusted one could but produce his tally, you should keep your distrust no longer ! Could an age of thoroughly artificial superstitions be better typified than by a morbid dread of that sort ? We suspect Europe could produce no parallel to it. Again, take the Chinese equivalent for the judgment of Solomon :— "A version,, ho waver, of the real Solomonaic story is to be found in China. As in the Hebrew tale, two women had each of them an infant, one of which died by misadventure, the bereaved mother claiming- the surviving child. The official before wham they came did not suggest so cruel a measure as the division of the infant, but simply ordered that it should be banded to a domestic in his yanign, to be brought up for official life. He rightly surmised that the real mother would gladly accept so good a chance for her offspring, while the pretended mother, who only wanted the child in order to dispose of it, would demur. Judgment was accordingly given in favour of the tearful acceptor of the proposition, and the story, which is alleged to be historical, is widely believed."
That the final and extreme test of maternal tenderness should be willingness to band over the child "to be brought up for official life," presents us with a very striking conception of the unim- aginative character of the Chinese affections.
Again, the-fairy-tales of China are wanting in that idealistic touch which so excites the fancy and imagination as to feed the mind of the nation's children,—whether children in age or merely in wis- dom,—with something more valuable,—at least for them, and at
that period of their growth,—than mere naked fact. There is apt to be a touch of sheer ugliness about Chinese wonder-tales, such as we find, for instance, in the following,—a tale which might nourish all kinds of superstitious suspicion, but would hardly
stimulate a healthy fancy :—
" That snakes contain in their beads certain precious stones is an old belief common to most branches of the human family. A story in a native book of anecdotes relates how a foreigner passing a perk- butcher's shop asks the master what he will take for the bench on which the pork is exposed. The answer, given in fun, is 'fifty teals.' The foreigner offers to pay the money. This convinces the butcher that there must be something valuable in the bench, so he declines to sell it, and carefully puts it by. The foreigner leaves the place and returns after a year's absence. Seeing the butcher he asks after the bench, and in answer to a very natural inquiry why he deems it so valuable, informs him that lodged in a cavity within it is a snake, holding in its mouth a precious gem. He further adds that the snake lives on the blood that soaks through the wood from the raw meat ex- posed on it, and that when this supply is cut off the snake will die, and the gem become worthless. Cursing his own stupidity, the butcher seizes a hatchet and splits the bench open, finding the snake dead, while the jewel it undoubtedly holds in its mouth is of the 8117210 oolonr as the eye of a dried fish."
Or take this somewhat more fantastic, but certainly in no degree less disagreeable superstition :—
" At Leong Chow, in the province of Kansuh, the people sometimes do homage to the ghost of a cat. The same thing is mentioned in the history of the North. The way they proceed with this monstrous thing is first to hang the cat, and then perform certain ceremonies of fasting and requiems for seven weeks, when the spiritual communication is established. This is afterwards transferred to a wooden tablet, and put up behind the door, where the owner of the cat honours it with offerings. By the side of it is placed a bag about five inches long, intended for the cat's use. From time to time it goes and steals people's things, and then, about the fourth watch of the night, before cock-crowing, the bag Is amissing. After a little while it is hung up on the corner of the binge, and the person uses a ladder to fetch it down. When the mouth of the bag is opened, and the bag inverted over a chest, as much as two hundred catties of rice or peas are got out of it, so much does the de- praved imp manage to make the little space hold. Those who serve it always get rich very fast."
To make the carnage of butchers' shops, or the ghosts of strangled eats, an essential element in your fairy-lore, implies a subordina- tion of the imagination, properly so called, to the coarsest and most ugly detail of common life, certainly not promising well for the spiritual aspirations of the people who engender and accept those legends as the natural fruit and food of their sense of the marvel of the universe. The Nature-myths recorded by Dr. Dennys have almost all of them the same mark of what may be called a dull or numb—in place of an ideal and plastic—imagination, upon them, —an imagination which seems to have no tendency to dwell on what is deeper, and sweeter, and higher, and brighter, and richer than human life, but rather on what is denser, more leaden- coloured, and more prosaic.
And yet, we suspect, this is just the kind of imagination which really fastens the severest fetters on human action. The imagi- nation which has an ideal life of its own, more and more tends to fuse and recast in a nobler shape the traditionary materials with which it has to deal,—till the spirit at length completely trans- mutes the form. But the imagination which clings to the base form of arbitrary marvels, with even more tenacity than it does
to nobler and more ideal elements, has at once fewer links with the humour and comedy of human life, and fewer also with the spirit 'of religious hope. The folk-lore of China is curious chiefly as shcrwing us what our own would be, if all the brighter popular fancy and all the grander spiritual feeling, were lost out of it. It is the same in essence, but with more lead and less gold, with
more abject realism and less brilliant magic, with more plodding and less soaring, with more punctiliousness and less passion. It is the folk-lore of an over-weighted race, the popular fancies of a people who go about, like the caryatides of the old temples, with burdens on their heads, and apparently also burdens still heavier on their hearts.