Ancestor Altar

Hsiang-ming kung wrote in the “International Encyclopedia of Marriage and Family”: “The large, complex family has been viewed as the typical form of the Chinese family. In this type of family, parents commonly lived with more than one married son and their families, or two or more married brothers lived with or without their parents in the same unit. However, under the effects of the material conditions, demographic factors, and cultural ideals, the predominant pattern was co-residence of parents with only one married son and his family. That is, three-generation-stem-family (san-dai-tong-tang) was generally the traditional, typical, and prevalent form of family. [Source:Hsiang-ming kung, “International Encyclopedia of Marriage and Family”, Gale Group Inc., 2003]

In 1899, Arthur Henderson Smith wrote in “Village Life in China”:“All Chinese may be said to have strongly developed an attachment to the family in which they were born, and most of them have also strong family affections running in specific and limited channels, and by no means evenly distributed. They share a desire to make their families perpetual, and when they fail, as they so frequently do, their failure is the more conspicuous by reason of their inalienable attachment to their natal soil. In order more deeply to explore some of the causes of their want of success, it will be necessary to go farther below the surface of the Chinese family. [Source: “Village Life in China” by Arthur Henderson Smith, Fleming H. Revell Company, 1899, The Project Gutenberg; Smith (1845 -1932) was an American missionary who spent 54 years in China. In the 1920s, “Chinese Characteristics” was still the most widely read book on China among foreign residents there. He spent much of his time in Pangzhuang,a village in Shandong.]

“The family is the unit of Chinese social life and, as we have often had occasion to observe, the Chinese Family is a highly complex organization, with many aspects which sometimes appear mutually contradictory. To the consideration of one of these polyhedral faces we now turn, asking the reader to bear well in mind that while what we have to say contains important truth, this is but one out of many points of view. To give a correct diagnosis of the inner causes of the disunity of Chinese social and family life without at the same time grossly misrepresenting both the Chinese character and society, is a hopeless undertaking. Merely to note even the most authentic and typical facts is to convey an impression which is incorrect because it is not proportional. Every family contains within itself the seeds of disunity, and if they do not in all cases produce their appropriate harvest, it is because they are mercifully blighted or counteracted in their development.

“To this dark catalogue of maleficent forces must be added one more, violation of social morality. To what extent this prevails in any given place it is impossible for any Chinese — much less for any foreigner — to say with authority. There is among the people, despite their loquacity — an instinct of reticence in every way commendable. Little value is placed upon infant life. The air is always full of rumors and suspicious whispers, so that the judicious will believe nothing of which there is not positive evidence. The Chinese code of morals is a lofty one, both in theory and in practice. The social arrangements are all made with a carefulness which to the Occidental seems mere prudery, but which the accumulated experience of millenniums has convinced the Chinese to be not only wise, but indispensable.

“Yet in the conditions of everyday life it is simply impossible that theoretical regulations should be reduced to practice. The elderly women die, and courtyards are left from sheer necessity in a condition to invite catastrophe. Against a bad father-in-law especially if he be a widower — there is in the Chinese social economy no provision and no defence. It is proverbial that insinuations lurk about the dwelling-place of widows. In a word it may almost be said that no one has absolute confidence in any one else.

Extended Family and Its Implications in 19th Century China

Arthur Henderson Smith wrote in “Chinese Characteristics” in 1894: ““A Chinese family, let us not forget, does not consist as in our thought a " family" does, of a man, his wife and their children. In China a " family" denotes a multitude of persons of the same surname and descended from the same ancestors. Political convulsions may have led to a break in the connection between the present and the past, but after every such interruption the family begins again its processes of expansion, accumulation, and ramification. [Source:“Chinese Characteristics” by Arthur Henderson Smith, 1894. Smith (1845 -1932) was an American missionary who spent 54 years in China. In the 1920s, “Chinese Characteristics” was still the most widely read book on China among foreign residents there. He spent much of his time in Pangzhuang, a village in Shandong.]

Let us suppose the case of a family, using the term for the moment in the more restricted sense, having five sons, and three daughters. The father has several brothers and sisters, and the mother likewise has her brothers and her sisters. The eight children grow up, and at an early period marriages are arranged for them all, the five young men bringing their five little brides into the " yard," in which quarters must have been provided for their expansion. A foreign census-taker would now report six " families" instead of one, but the foreign census-taker would be wrong. It is very likely that the whole of this compound family will continue as before to " have all things common," and even if they have divided their land so that each married couple cultivates its own portion, they still constitute one " family," and are so regarded by others.

“By the marriage of the eight children, the "family" is brought into intimate relations with eight other "families," each of which in turn has its own circle of connections and relationships, and each one of these relationships bears a more or less important part in the affairs of the original "family" which is our point of departure. If the star of any one of these numerous families wanes, this Circumstance cannot fail to affect every family with which it is connected by marriage. If any one of these related femiles grows rich, the pulsations of this newly acquired wealth will necessarily be felt to the outermost circle df relationship, whether of blood or of marriage. In the course of a few years, the eight children will be surrounded by a vigorous crop of little ones, and thus a whole army of grandchildren comes into the rapidly widening circle, and a little later each of these Children will be a problem both as to its own support and as to openings into some means of helping to support the "family." Those parents who are well off will have no difficulty in settling this problem easily and satisfactorily} but out of such a large circle as we have now brought into view, the proportion of those who will be independent of outside help will be smalL And if help ii required, of whom should it be sought, if not from those in the wide circle of relatives and connections, who are best able to give it?

Division of Family Property in 19th Century China

In 1899, Arthur Henderson Smith wrote in “Village Life in China”:“”Should the property be held in common according to Chinese traditions, it is a physical, a psychological, and a moral impossibility that there should not be ceaseless friction among so many claimants for what is often at best a most inadequate support. The Chinese ideal is to hold the family property in common indefinitely. But the Chinese themselves are conscious that theirs is not an ideal world, so that division of the land cannot always be postponed. It not infrequently happens that one of the sons becomes discontented, and commissions one of the neighbours to tell the father that it is time to effect a division. [Source: “Village Life in China” by Arthur Henderson Smith, Fleming H. Revell Company, 1899, The Project Gutenberg]

At such times the family affairs are put into the hands of third parties who are supposed to be entirely disinterested, but sometimes the family has itself so well under control as to be able to dispense with this important assistance. The middlemen who have to conduct operations, begin by taking an inventory of the numerous pieces of land, the buildings, etc., which they then appraise roughly, endeavouring to separate these assets into as many portions as there are to be shares.

A certain part of the land is set aside for “nourishing the old age” of the parents; and perhaps another section is reserved for the wedding expenses of unmarried daughters or younger sons. What remains is to be divided, which is accomplished by grouping the portions, and writing the descriptions of the several pieces of land, houses, etc., on pieces of paper which are rolled up and placed in a rice-bowl. This is shaken up and it is a courtesy to allow the youngest son to draw first. Whatever is noted on his bit of paper represents his share, and so on until all are drawn. The household furniture, water-jars, utensils of every kind, and all the grain and fuel on hand must be all taken out in public in the presence of the middlemen to be sure that nothing is secreted. We have known a particularly obstreperous son to come to his father’s house the day after a division, and under pretence of looking for something which he had lost, to feel in every jar and pot to be sure that no beans or millet had escaped him. In a family where harmony reigns, all this trouble is avoided, but such are altogether exceptional. Shrewd Chinese estimate that out of every ten families which “divide” seven, if not nine, will have a domestic tempest as a concomitant, and these storms vary all the way from a short, sharp squall, to a hurricane which leaves everything in a wreck.

“If a member of a family is absent when a division is made, it is common to hear that advantage has been taken of that fact to assign to him a portion which he would not have quietly accepted had he been present. This is particularly the case with the family debts, often aggregating a large sum. Sometimes a young man is forced to begin life weighted down with several hundred thousand cash worth of these liabilities due to some unprofitable partnership of his father with his uncles — which may have extended over a period of perhaps many years.

“Another most undesirable but unavoidable asset is “empty grain-tax land!” This means a liability to pay the tax on land which is non-existent, but which has been made to appear to exist by mismeasurements in former years, either by accident or design. Suppose, for example, that a family has a hundred acres of land, which has to be sold in small pieces from time to time as occasion arises. Each surveying party works from such indefinite boundaries as the stump of an aged mulberry bush to another stump which may prove to be missing. The one who buys the land will use his best efforts to see that he gets good measure, which it is no concern of the measurers to refuse. No one knows exactly what is left until some final measurement becomes necessary, when it often appears that there is a shortage of a considerable amount. From deficits like this there arises the necessity of paying “empty taxes,” and though the tax itself is sufficiently solid and substantial, there is no way known to Chinese practice by which such injustice can be rectified. The son who finds himself saddled with this sort of a burden is not likely to contribute to the harmony of the household in future, and were he ever so much inclined to bury the matter in oblivion and “eat a dumb man’s loss,” his wife would never stop talking about it, unless she chanced to be dumb herself. A complete catalogue of the possible and indeed inevitable occasions which produce family alienations and bitterness would of itself fill a volume, but those which have been suggested may serve as samples of them all.

“It deserves mention that when the strain has reached the breaking point, especially when it is difficult for the aggrieved individual to go off to a great distance and escape his woes, he is often seized by the idea of administering poison to the person hated. Were the list of toxic substances available to the Chinese larger, poisoning would be far more frequent than at present. As it is cases are everywhere to be heard of, and occasionally foreigners are the victims.

Social Mobility, Dependence and Lack of Opportunities

Formal education provided the best and most respected avenue of upward mobility, and by the nineteenth century literacy rates in China were high for a traditional peasant society. Chances of receiving a good education were highest for the upper classes in and around coastal cities and lowest for the farmers of the interior. If schooling was not available, there were other avenues of mobility. Rural people could move to cities to seek their fortunes (and in some cases the cities were in Southeast Asia or the Americas). People could go into business, gamble on the market for perishable cash crops, try money-lending on a small scale or, as a long shot, join the army or a bandit group. Late traditional society offered alternate routes to worldly success and a number of ways to change one's position in society; but in all routes except education the chances of failure outweighed those of success. [Source: Library of Congress *]

“In many cases, whether in business or banditry, success or failure depended to a great degree on luck. The combination of population pressure, the low rate of economic growth, natural disasters, and endemic war that afflicted the Chinese population in the first half of the twentieth century meant that many families lost their property, some starved, and almost all faced the probability of misfortune. From the perspective of individuals and individual families, it is likely that from 1850 to 1950 the chances of downward mobility increased and the ability to plan ahead with confidence decreased. *

Arthur Henderson Smith wrote in “Chinese Characteristics”: That instinct of independence, which leads a young man of the Anglo-Saxon race to scorn the help of his rich relatives and which nerves his arm, and steadies his brain, while he fights his own way in the battle of life, to a Chinese is entirely inconceivable. In the case of the Saion, it is partly a matter of heredity, but it is due to heredity compassed with a suitable environment. England is a young country when compared with China” and has a splendid array of Colonies” and an “Army and the Navy which receive so much o'f the restless ambition of British youth. [Source:“Chinese Characteristics” by Arthur Henderson Smith, 1894]

“None of these avenues, nor any others at all resembling them, are open to a Chinese lad, nor if they were all open, has he the instincts which would enable him to take advantage of them, nor if he had* would be able to do so, while Chinese society is constituted as it is, that is, while the Chinese continue to be Chinese. The English boy who runs away, goes to sea, travels all over the world, learns more or less Of everything that is bad, comes back like Robinson Crusoe, after twenty years of absence, with a harvest of experience and sacks of Spanish doubloons. The Chinese boy who runs away, steers with precision toward some spot, where there is some relative, townsman, or acquaintance, on whom he can fasten himself, until they find him something to do. In nine cases out of ten the family know with reasonable certainty where they can find their runaway son, by considering in what accessible places he has uncles, cousins, or friends.

Meanness Within Chinese Families

Arthur Henderson Smith wrote in “Chinese Characteristics”: “ “The whole family life of the Chinese illustrates their lack of the quality of sympathy. Not one parent in fifty has any care what his children are about,, when their help is not needed in work. Few fathers have the smallest thought as to what their children are learning, if they are at school, or ever think of visiting the school-house to ascertain. This is one of many reasons why it is so common to find persons who have been years at school, who cannot read ten consecutive characters taken at random. Sometimes pupils spend two years in what is miscalled study, and do not get through the Trimetrical Classic. While there are very great differences in different households, and while from the nature of the case, generalization is precarious, it is easy to see that most Chinese homes which are seen at all are by no means happy homes. It is impossible that they should be so, for they are deficient in that unity of feeling which to us seems so essential to real home-life. A Chinese family is generally an association of individuals who are indissolubly tied together, having many of their interests the same, and many of them very different. The result is not our idea of a home, and it is not sympathy. [Source:“Chinese Characteristics” by Arthur Henderson Smith, 1894]

“The deep poverty of the masses of the people of the Chinese Empire, and the terrible struggle constantly going on to secure even the barest subsistence, have familiarized them with the most pitiable exhibitions of suffering of every conceivable variety. Whatever might be the benevolent impulses of any Chinese, he is from the nature of the case wholly helpless to relieve even a thousandth part of the misery which he sees about him all the time, misery multiplied many times in any year of special distress. A thoughtful Chinese must recognize 'the utter futility of the means which are employed to alleviate distress, whether by individual kindness, or by government interference. All these methods, even when taken at their best, amount simply to a treatment of symptoms and do absolutely nothing toward removing disease. Their operation is akin to that of societies which should distribute small pieces of ice among the victims of typhoid fever — so many ounces to each patient, with no hospitals, no dieting, no medicine and no nursing. It is not therefore strange that the Chinese are not more benevolent in practical ways, but rather, that with the total lack of system, of prevision and of supervision, benevolence continues at all. We are familiar with the phenomenon of the effect upon the most cultivated persons, of constant contact with misery which they have no power to help or to hinder, for this is illustrated in every modern war. The first sight of blood causes a sinking of the epigastric nerves, and makes an indelible impression. But this soon wears away, and is succeeded by a comparative callousness, which is a perpetual surprise even to him who experiences it. In China there is always a social war, and everyone is too accustomed to its sickening effects, to give them more than a momentary attention. The instinct of relieving distress is an exotic unknown in China. A boy lying on a dunghill, in a fit, his swollen features covered with filth and flies, while the whole population of the village engage in their usual occupations in utter indifference — this is a type of wretchedness in many forms, everywhere to be seen. This represents the stage in whjch help might save life, if help were to be had. The dead body of a boy lying in a field, half-devoured by dpgs, even now engaged in taking their horrid meal, within half a mile of where twenty people are at work in the fields, this represents the latter stages when help is forever impossible. Each of these sights, seen on a journey in one o( the central provinces, is, we must repeat, typical, and a comprehension of the causes of such phenomena is a comprehension of some of the deepest needs of the Chinese people.

“It remains to speak of the most conspicuous of all the many exhibitions of the Chinese lack of sympathy, that, namely, which is to be found in their cruelty. It is popularly believed by the Chinese that the Muslims in China are more cruel than the Chinese themselves. However this may be, there can be no doubt in the mind of anyone who knows the Chinese, that they display an indifference to the sufferings of others, which is probably not to be matched in any other civilized country. That children at home are almost wholly ungoverned, has been already mentioned'. Yet the moment their career of education is begun, the reign of mildness ceases. The Trimetrical Classic, the most general of the minor text-books of the Empire, contains a,line to the effect that to teach without severity is a fault in a teacher. While this motto is very variously acted upon, according to the temperament of the pedagogue and the obtuseness of his pupils, great harshness is certainly common. We have seen a scholar flesh from a preceptor who was struggling to induct his pupils into the mysteries of examination essays, when the former presented the appearance of having been through a street fight, his head covered with wounds, and streaming with blood. It is not rare that pupils are thrown into fits from the abuse which they receive from angry teachers. On the other hand, it is not unusual for mothers whose children are so unfortunate as to be subject to fits, to beat them in those paroxysms, as an expression of the extreme disgust which such inconvenient attacks excite. It is not difficult to perceive that mothers who can beat children because they fall intb convulsions, will treat any of their children with cruelty when irritated by special provocation.

Mutual Suspicion Within 19th Century Chinese Households

Arthur Henderson Smith wrote in “Chinese Characteristics”: “Not to enlarge upon this aspect of domestic life, which by itself might occupy a chapter, we pass to the notice of the same general state of things among those who are not united by the complex ties of Chinese family life. A company of servants in a family often stand to one another in a relation of what may be called armed neutrality, that is, if they have not been introduced by some one who is responsible for them all. If anything comes out to the disadvantage of anyone of them, his first question to himself is not, " How did the master find that out?" but " Who told him of me?" Even if the servant is well aware that his guilt has been proved, his first thought will be to show that some other servant had a grudge against him. [Source:“Chinese Characteristics” by Arthur Henderson Smith, 1894]

We have known a Chinese woman to change colour and leave a room in great dudgeon on hearing loud voices in the yard, because she supposed that as there was an angry discussion, it must be about her, whereas the matter was in relation to a pile of millet stalks bought for fuel, for which a dealer demanded too high a price. It is this kind of suspicion which fans the fires of dissension, which are almost sure to arise 'when a servant has been unexpectedly discharged. He suspects everyone but himself, is certain that some one has been speaking ill of him, insists upon being told the allegations against him, although he knows that there are half a score of reasons, any of which would justify him immediate dismissal. His "face" must be secured, and his suspicious nature must be gratified. These occurrences take place in Chinese families, as well as in foreign families with Chinese servants, but not in the same degree, because a Chinese servant has learned how far he can impose upon the good nature of the foreigner, as he would never think of doing in the case of a Chinese master. It is for this reason that so many foreigners have in their employ Chinese servants whom they ought to have discharged long ago, and would have discharged if they had dared. They know that the mere proposal of such a thing will be the stirring up of a hornet's nest, the central figure of which will be the accused and " disgraced" servant, and they have not the courage to make a strike for liberty, lest in the case of failure their condition should be worse than before. There is a story of an Austrian city which was besieged by the Turks in the Middle Ages, and which was just on the point of capture. At a critical moment, an Austrian girl bethought herself of a number of beehives, which she at once brought, and tumbled over the wall on the Turks now almost up to the parapet. The result was a speedy descent on the part of the Turks, and the saving of the city. [Source:“Chinese Characteristics” by Arthur Henderson Smith, 1894] The tactics of a Chinese often resemble that of the Austrian maiden and his success is frequently as signal, for this kind of a disturbance is such that as a Latin professor said of a storm, one would much rather " face it per alium? than "face it perse." No wonder that the adage runs "if you employ one, do not suspect him; if you suspect him, do'not employ him." The Chinese way in such cases is simply to close one's eyes, and to pretend that one does not see, but for a foreigner this may not be so simple and easy to achieve.

“We find it necessary to impress upon our children, when they come to be of an age to mingle in the world on their own account, that it is well not to be too confiding in strangers. This kind of caution does not need to be conveyed to the Chinese in their early years; for it is taken in with their mother's milk. It is a proverb that one man should not enter a temple, and that two men should not look together into a well. And why, we inquire, in surprise, should one man not enter a temple court alone? Because the priest may take advantage of the opportunity to make away with him! Two men should not gaze into a well, for if one of them is in debt to the other, or has in his possession something which the other wants, that other may seize the occasion to push his companion into the well!

What a Chinese Family Does When There is No Son

In 1899, Arthur Henderson Smith wrote in “Village Life in China”: “It is a postulate of Chinese ethics that no branch of any family should be allowed to be without its living representative, in order that the ancestral rites may be duly performed. As it constantly happens that there are no sons, it becomes necessary to adopt those of other brothers, or failing these the grandson of an uncle, or the great-grandson of a granduncle. Sons thus adopted are on the same footing as if they were own children, and cannot be displaced by such sons born later. The universality of these adoptions often makes it difficult to ascertain with precision the real relationship of a man to others of his family. Sometimes he continues to call his real father by that title, and sometimes he terms the uncle who has adopted him his “father” and his own father “uncle.” Again, he may be nominally adopted by an uncle, but continue to live with his own parents as before. The adoption of relatives is expressed by the general term “crossing over,” (kuo). While it is rooted in ancestral worship it is kept alive among even the poorest classes in the social scale by their very poverty. [Source: “Village Life in China” by Arthur Henderson Smith, Fleming H. Revell Company, 1899, The Project Gutenberg]

If a man has no heir he can be compelled to adopt some one of the numerous candidates who are thirsting to enter into prospective possession of even a small holding. But whoever is thus adopted becomes responsible for the funeral expenses of the one who adopts him. Innumerable lawsuits arise out of these complex conditions. If there are no suitable persons for adoption among the family or clan of the adopter, he is often obliged to content himself with the son of his sisters, or even the grandchildren of his aunts. To our thought one “nephew” is as good as another, but it is otherwise with a Chinese, to whom the children of his sister (being of a different surname) are much farther off than those of his brothers. Besides this, on occasion of the death of the adopter, the position of a sister’s son is liable to be very insecure. Rather than take such an heir many Chinese will pick up a mere stranger, but in this case he can be easily got rid of should he turn out unsatisfactory. Outsiders thus adopted although they may be as filial and in every way as satisfactory as an own son, never escape the stigma of being only “picked up,” and this taint lasts to distant generations. A man told the writer that he was wholly without influence in the village where he was born, since his grandfather had been adopted as a stranger.

“There is still another method of securing a son which is far less common than we should expect it to be. This is that of finding a suitable husband for a daughter, and then adopting him as a son. By this means the parents are enabled to have the services of an own daughter all their lives — a rare privilege in China, and an adopted heir of this kind is certainly much more closely bound to the family than any other of a different family would be likely to be. But there are not many clans which do not have a number of candidates available for an adoptive vacancy. It would be necessary to conciliate whoever was entitled to adoption by dividing the property with him, which, in the case of those with but small resources, would be tantamount to perpetual pauperism. For this reason most cases of “calling a son-in-law” occur in families where there are no sons of brothers or cousins available.

“Another of the many devices which the Chinese have chosen for perpetuating a branch of the family which might otherwise become extinct, is to have a single individual represent two branches. Thus suppose there are two brothers only one of whom has a son, he may be married to two wives, one for each branch. The establishment must be a double one, and he will probably be obliged to divide his time equally between his partners, even having to change all his clothing in going from one house to the other. It is needless to remark that the jealousies thus provoked are such as would destroy any home. If there is very little sentiment connected with the introduction of a daughter-in-law into a family, on the part of the husband’s family at least, there is often not much more on the occasion of her death. But this is generally regretted, if for no other reason, on account of the trouble and expense involved.

“In cases where it has been decided to adopt a son, and where there are no suitable candidates within the family circle, a lad may be taken from a different family, sometimes related, sometimes connected, sometimes neither related nor connected, and sometimes he may even be a total stranger merely “picked up.” The result of this latter practice especially is often very disappointing and painful for the couple who have gone to so much trouble to find an heir, and who too often discover that they have spent their strength in vain, and that filial piety is not a commodity to be had for the asking. But whatever its attendant evils, which are undoubtedly many and great, the Chinese plan of adoption is always incomparably preferable to that of bringing into the yard a “little wife” [a concubine].

Name Changes an Efforts to Take the Property of Another Family

In 1899, Arthur Henderson Smith wrote in “Village Life in China”: “As a rule every Chinese is as wide awake to opportunities for laying claim to the property of some one else, as a cat apparently asleep is to seize an injudiciously venturesome bird. The writer is acquainted with a man who had adopted a son-in-law in legal form, but who at the funeral of his own father was surprised to see a large band of strangers enter his courtyard clad in mourning, and set up a simultaneous wail for their “Uncle,” “Grandfather,” etc., according to the alleged relationship. Upon inquiry he learned that they came from a village at some distance, and bearing the same surname as the deceased had determined to claim kinship with him in order to fall heirs to the property which consisted of but little more than enough to support a moderate sized family. The result was a lawsuit in which the pretenders being unable to produce any family register to the purpose, were severely beaten by the District Magistrate as a penalty for their presumption. [Source: “Village Life in China” by Arthur Henderson Smith, Fleming H. Revell Company, 1899, The Project Gutenberg]

“One is constantly surprised in China to hear that a Chinese whose name he knows perfectly well, has taken an entirely different surname, so that Mr. Wang Spring-Flowers suddenly appears as Mr. Ma Illustrious-Virtue. This is called “reverting to the original name,” and may be due to any one of a great variety of causes. Even while these lines are being committed to paper, a friend of the writer has called to mention the experiences through which he has recently passed, a résumé of which may throw a little light on the Chinese theory and practice of adoption. This man is the second of four brothers, the eldest of whom was adopted into a somewhat distant branch of the family, and has three sons. Number two has two sons, the youngest of whom is adopted by number three, who has none of his own. Number four died some time ago without a son. The funeral has never been held, and the body has been encoffined awaiting a favorable time, that is to say, a period of financial prosperity. Number four owed to a grain-shop in which numbers two and three are interested, several hundred strings of cash. To pay up this debt and to have a proper funeral, would require the sale of all the forty acres of land, so that the right of adoption has not seemed worth contesting. But of late a son of number one has set up a claim to this inheritance, and it is this which has been in active dispute for a period of twelve days. To adjust the matter, “peace-talkers” have been summoned to the number of thirty-eight, many of them literary graduates. There have been angry disputes between them and some of the members of the family, and an actual fight. The “peace-talkers” were reviled, and took revenge by beating the son of number one who was in fault. This involved fresh complications, which had just been settled by a final feast.

“During the course of the intricate controversies the eight and thirty men had by no means omitted to eat and drink (one of the leading functions of “peace-talkers” and for the sake of which many quarrels are purposely stirred up, and many more kept unsettled for long periods). They consumed in all seventy catties of wine, and a hundred more of bread-cakes, and the total cost to number two is about two hundred and thirty strings of cash, one hundred of which are paid by number two to number one’s family as “consolation money.” Yet in this whole matter the financial interest of number two is absolutely nil!

Bitter Family, Clan and Village Dispute in 19th Century China

Smith wrote in “Village Life in China”:““An elder sister of a teacher was married to a very poor man in a village called the “Tower of the Li Family,” an insignificant hamlet consisting of only four families. In a year of great famine (1878), both the sister and her husband died, leaving three sons, all married. Of these the second died, and his widow remarried. The wife of the elder nephew of the teacher also died, and this nephew married for his second wife a widow, who had a daughter of her own, twelve years of age. This widow enjoyed the not very assuring reputation of having beaten her former mother-in-law, and also of having caused the death of her first husband. The wife of the third nephew was a quarrelsome woman, and the two sisters-in-law were always at sword’s points, especially as all four of the adults and their four children shared the house and land together. [Source: “Village Life in China” by Arthur Henderson Smith, Fleming H. Revell Company, 1899, The Project Gutenberg]

“In the month of August the third nephew started for a distant market, with a boat-load of watermelons. On leaving he ordered his wife to fetch his winter garments, which she refused to do, upon which they had a fight, and he left. The next day was cold and rainy. The elder nephew was sitting in a neighbour’s house, and heard his wife engaged in a violent quarrel with her sister-in-law, but he did not even rise to look into the merits of the case, and no other neighbour intervened to exhort to peace. The younger sister-in-law left the house in a fury, and from that time she disappeared. About noon her continued absence became alarming to the elder brother, who searched for her till dark, and then sent word to her mother’s family at a village called “The Little Camp” two li distant. This family, upon hearing of the disappearance of their daughter, raised a company of ten or a dozen persons, went over to the “Tower of the Li Family,” entered the yard, and smashed all the water-jars and other pottery-ware which they could. “Peace-talkers” emerged, and succeeded in preventing the attacking party from entering the house, or the damage would have been still greater.

“After they had gone, the “Lord-of-bitterness” (i. e., the elder brother) begged his friends to interfere and “talk peace,” for as he was a resident of a small village, he could not for a moment stand before the men of “The Little Camp,” which is a large village. These latter belonged to one of the numerous small sects which are styled “black-doors,” or secret societies. In these societies there is often a class of persons called “Seers” or “Bright-eyes” (ming-yen), who profess to be able to tell what progress the pupils have made in their learning of the doctrine. Sometimes, as in this instance, they also undertake the functions of fortune-tellers. To the Bright-eye of their sect, the Little Campers applied for information as to what had become of the missing woman. In response they learnt that she had been beaten to death and buried in the yard of the “Lord-of-bitterness.” Upon hearing this, the family of the murdered woman went to every door in their village, making a kotow at each door, a common and significant mode of imploring their help. Thus a large force was raised, which went to the “Tower of the Li Family,” armed with spades to dig up the body. Warned of their coming, all the male residents of this latter village fled, the family of the “Lord-of-bitterness” taking refuge at the village in the house of the local constable who had charge of several villages. The teacher in question, being a near relative of the “Lord-of-bitterness,” and a man of intelligence and pleasant manners, was asked to look after the house of his nephew, which he did. Owing to his presence and his politeness, no further damage was then done to the property, but the whole yard was dug over to find the body. On the failure of this quest, the Bright-eye modified the former announcement by the revelation that the body was outside the yard, but not more than thirty paces distant. The search was kept up with spades and picks by day and by night for a week. After repeated attempts had been made by the Lord-of bitterness to get the matter adjusted, and after the other party had refused to listen to any terms, the latter lodged an accusation in the District Magistrate’s yamên. The Magistrate heard the case twice, but each time the family of the missing woman behaved in such an unreasonable and violent manner that the official dismissed their case, merely ordering the local constable to enlist more peace-talkers, and make the parties come to some agreement.

“It happened that about that time another case somewhat resembling this had occurred in that neighbourhood, in which a woman was suspected of having drowned herself. On this account a sharp watch was kept at the ferry of the District city, some miles lower down the river, for any floating body. About the time of the Magistrate’s decision, a woman’s body appeared abreast of the ferry and was identified as that of the missing woman from the Li Family Tower. The official held an inquest, in which all parties made diligent search for wounds, but none being found the Magistrate compelled the family of the woman to affix their thumb marks to a paper recognizing this fact. He ordered the Lord-of-bitterness to buy a good coffin, clothes, and prepare other appointments for a showy funeral, including chanting by Buddhist priests, and to have the body taken to his house. He also instructed the constable once more to secure peace-talkers, to arrange the details and to hold the funeral.

“But the Little Campers proved to be the most obstinate of mortals, and would not only listen to no reason, but drove the peace-talkers from their village with reviling language, never so exasperating to a Chinese as when employed against those who are sacrificing their interests for those of the public. At this juncture the husband of the drowned woman returned from the watermelon market, went himself to the home of his late wife, and expostulated with her family and also urged peace through still other third parties. But the Little Campers insisted upon funeral paraphernalia which would have cost 10,000 strings of cash. One more effort at compromise was made, by the visit of an uncle of the teacher who was guarding the house of the Lord-of-bitterness, to the Little Campers. The latter now altered their demands to a payment of 800 strings of cash, which by much chaffering was eventually reduced to 400. The Lord-of-bitterness offered 250 strings, but this was rejected with disdain.

“Upon the failure of these numerous negotiations, the local constable presented another complaint to the Magistrate, reciting the facts in the repeated refusal, on the part of the family of the woman, to come to any terms. The Magistrate, recognizing the case as one in which the relatives were resolved to make the utmost possible capital out of a dead body, ordered eight men from his own yamên to go on that very day and attend the funeral, in order to insure that there should be no breach of peace. These yamên-runners, after the customary Chinese manner, hoped to be bribed to do as they were ordered and did not go to the place at all. The Lord-of-bitterness and all his neighbours continued in obscurity, but in the interval the men from the Little Camp again gathered their hosts, and made four more visits to the premises at the Li Family Tower, breaking everything which they could lay their hands upon. The next day the yamên-runners arrived, and the Lord-of-bitterness, now thoroughly exasperated, succeeded in collecting a force of several hundred men from other villages, intending at all hazards to hold the funeral and also to have a general fight, if need arose. But the men of the Little Camp failed to put in an appearance at this time, and the funeral accordingly at last took place. The friends of the woman, however, obstinately refused to consider the matter as settled, at which point the curtain falls, with a plentiful promise of future lawsuits, fights, and ruin.

“The reader who is sufficiently interested in the inner-working of the life of the Chinese to follow the tangled thread of a tale like this, is rewarded by the perception of several important facts. It is an axiom in China that the family of the married daughter holds its head down, while the family of the man whom she has married holds its head up. But in case of the violent death of the married woman all this is reversed, and by a natural process of reaction the family of the married woman becomes a fierce and formidable antagonist.

“Principles such as these have but to be put in issue between two large villages, or families, and we have the well-known clan fights of southern China, in all their perennial bitterness and intensity. One of the weakest parts of the Chinese social fabric is the insecurity of the life and happiness of woman, but no structure is stronger than its weakest part, and Chinese society is no exception to this law. Every year thousands upon thousands of Chinese wives commit suicide, tens of thousands of other persons are thereby involved in serious trouble, hundreds of thousands of yet others are dragged in as co-partners in the difficulty, and millions of dollars are expended in extravagant funerals and ruinous lawsuits. And all this is the outcome of the Confucian theory that a wife has no rights which a husband is bound to respect. The law affords her no protection while she lives, and such justice as she is able with difficulty to exact is strictly a post mortem concession.

Image Sources: 1) Posters,Landsberger Posters ; 2) Family photos, 3) 19th century men, Universty of Washington; Wiki Commons

Last updated September 2021

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