Story of China - R. Van Bergen

The Tie That Binds

The word religion means "the tie that binds." The belief in Feng Shui (feng shooee), or the air-and-water spirit, is so general in China, that it may be called a part of the religion. But the real tie that binds is filial piety and ancestral worship. This is what holds the Chinese together, and molds them into one people.

You know that the national character of a people depends greatly upon its belief or creed. The Chinese believe in a life after death, or they would not worship the spirits of their ancestors. Every religion has certain outward signs or ceremonies. If we wish to know something of a people, we must find out what they believe, and how that belief influences them. If a Chinese should wish to find out something of our belief, he would probably go to the different churches, and have a talk with their ministers. So the best we can do is to visit different temples in China, and to hear what their priests tell us.

In Chinese cities you will frequently see a high wall, apparently surrounding an open space. If you enter through the gate, you will see first a large open court, with a stage for a theater at one end. A temple opens on the side opposite the stage. As you enter you will see no idols, but instead a greater or less number of tablets, as the temple is old or new.

If we ask the priest, he will tell us that this temple was built so many years, sometimes hundreds of years, ago by a wealthy man in honor of his father, and the tablets which we see are supposed to contain the spirits of this father and of all his descendants. These tablets are made of wood, and are about a foot high, three inches wide, and are placed upright in a block. The characters written upon them give the name and title of the deceased, the exact hour of his birth and of his death, and the names of his sons. The Chinese suppose that a man has three spirits, one of which, after death, dwells in this tablet, another in the tomb, and the third goes to a lower world, where it remains until it comes back to earth in another form.

The temple also contains a number of paintings supposed to be likenesses of the deceased, although they are very unlike any living person. These paintings are brought out and worshiped only at the beginning of the new year, on the birthday anniversaries of the deceased, and when a theatrical exhibition is given in their honor.

All over China a holiday is kept in the beginning of April. It is' called Pai Shan (pie shahn), or "Worshiping at the Hills." Everybody, men, women, and children, go to their family tombs, carrying a tray containing the sacrifices or food, and the candles, paper, and incense, for burning. Here the family pray, and worship the spirits of the dead. The grave is carefully repaired and swept, and before leaving, three pieces of turf are placed at the back and front so as to hold long strips of red and white paper. These strips show that the usual ceremonies have been performed, and that the grave has been cared for. If a grave has been neglected for three years, the land may be sold.

There is no more sacred spot to the Chinese than that occupied by the ancestral temple. Here rest the spirits of his ancestors; here the members of the family meet on their own holidays, and here he expects his own spirit will finally rest, and receive its share of the worship. You know now the reason why the Chinese who come to the United States always provide for the return of their bodies to China, if they should have the misfortune to die here. They wish their bones to rest among those of their ancestors, so that their spirit may dwell in the ancestral temple. They can not imagine a more dreadful condition than for their spirit to roam in a strange land, homeless, uncared for, and unfed.

On the day when the spirits of the ancestors are worshiped, food and drink are placed upon the grave. If you were to say to a bright Chinese: "They can not, and do not, eat anything; the food and drink, when you take it away to eat and drink it yourselves, is just the same as when you placed it there," he would probably answer: "That is quite true; we know very well that nothing is eaten or drunk; but we wish to give some outward token that we are grateful to them; we wish to show how much we love the memory of our ancestors, how happy we should be if they could sit down to enjoy themselves with us, and if we could provide for their wants."

Because all the Chinese worship in this manner, this ancestral worship is really the Chinese religion, or the tie that binds. There are a great many other temples, and people go there to pray, but only when they want something, and think this the speediest way to obtain it.

The word "Kiau" means "to teach" or "a system of teaching." The Chinese use this word in speaking of the different temples, and what the priests teach. But since very few Chinese care anything for this teaching, it can not properly be called religion.

Still, there are three different kinds of teaching, and just as many kinds of temples. The first is known as Ju-Kiau (joo kiow), which means "System of Teaching of the Learned." It is really nothing more than the worship of Confucius and his teaching. Over fifteen hundred of these temples are connected with the examination halls, and it is said that in one year over sixty-six thousand pigs, rabbits, sheep and deer, are offered and eaten by the worshipers, who also use the twenty-seven thousand pieces of silk presented as offerings.

The Tao-Kiau or Tao System of Teaching, is the oldest in China. It was founded by Lao-tsz' (lou-tsz), meaning "The Old Boy," because he was an old man when he was born. It is named Tao-ism (tou-ism) after the first word of Laotsz's book, which is Tao or Truth. His teachings recommend retirement and contemplation as the best means of purifying the nature. But the Chinese do not care to worship him. They have a greater respect for gods who are supposed to do them harm, than for those who may be able to help them. In the Tao temples the god who is most worshiped is Lu-tsu (loo-tsoo), who is thought to be the great medicine god, so they go to him to get a prescription. Here is the story of how Lu-tsu was changed into a god:

About a thousand years ago there lived a scholar named Lu-tsu, who had passed the examination for the second degree. Being an ambitious man, he started for the capital to be examined for the last or highest degree, and on his journey he stopped at an inn. He was very weary, for he had made a long march. A servant handed him a pillow to rest upon while supper was being prepared, and the scholar soon fell asleep. He dreamed that he had passed the examination, and was appointed to be an officer in the government. He was promoted very rapidly, until at last he was prime minister. Then he dreamed that he was an old man, and that it was his birthday. He was just celebrating it with his sons and their children, and his friends when he awoke. When the servant entered he said to Lutsu: "So you have been prime minister, have you?" "You must be one of the genii," replied the scholar, "for you have guessed it." The servant said: "I don't see why you should be disappointed that it was only a dream. Suppose your dream had come true? When death comes, what is it all but a dream?" Lu-tsu began to ponder what the servant had said, and at last he came to the conclusion that the man was right. He made up his mind to give up his ambitions plans, and to do his best to be a good man. The servant guessed what Lu-tsu was thinking of, for he said: "If you desire to be a good man, I will teach you a secret by means of which you can change anything you point at into gold. Then you may help the poor, and do other kind acts." "Will the gold ever turn back to its previous condition?" asked Lu-tsu. "Yes, after many years." "In that case I do not wish to know your secret," said the scholar, "for I should not care to make a man glad, if he must be disappointed afterwards." "Why," exclaimed the servant, who was really one of the genii, "if you are such an honest fellow now, I will change you into one of us." He was as good as his word, and Lu-tsu was at once promoted to the rank of god of medicine.

You have all seen the Chinese flag. It is in the form of a triangle, a blue dragon upon a yellow shield. The dragon is also one of the gods of Taoism. All the divisions of water are subject to him, as well as all that live in them. He is also master of clouds, and waterspouts. He is so mighty a god that his name, "Dragon," is used to show the power of the Chinese Emperor, who, they say, is seated on the Dragon throne, and when you see him you see the Dragon face. Therefore, the Dragon is upon the flag and upon the Emperor's coat-of-arms.

[Illustration] from The Story of China by R. Van Bergen


The Chinese believe that there really is a dragon, and some of them say that they have seen one. At all events, it is a familiar object on articles made by them. But all the representations of the dragon look very much alike. If you were to ask a Chinese scholar the reason of this he would probably tell you this story: "During the reign of the Tsin emperors (A.D. 265-317), one of these rulers decided to build a bridge over the surface of the sea, that he might enjoy the fresh salt air. The Dragon had a liking for this emperor, and because the work was to be done in his realm, he offered to take charge of it. The Emperor gladly agreed. One day, as he was going to see how the bridge was getting on, he met the Dragon in disguise, but he knew him at once. "Dragon," said he, "I would like to see you as you really are." "Well," replied the Dragon, "I don't mind; only you must promise me not to have my picture taken." "All right," said the Emperor; and he saw the Dragon in all his beauty, just as you see him on the flag. But the Emperor forgot his promise, and had the picture taken by a skillful artist. The Dragon was very angry, but when the Emperor built him a temple his anger was appeased.

Such stories as these make up Taoism or the Religion of Truth. The Chinese believe them, and a great many tales more wonderful still. There are not many Taoist priests, and when you ask them what they wish most, they answer that they hope to be one of the Sien-jin (seen-gin) or genii. Genii, they think, do not die, but pass from this life into another airy state, where they enjoy an everlasting dreamy happiness.

In the hills or the forests, the temples and cloisters of the Buddhists are found. They search for solitude and peace, because they desire to think of nothing except rest. These temples, therefore, are always found in beautiful spots, and are always built on the same plan.

They consist of several buildings, one directly behind the other. If the ground slopes, each building rises several feet above the one in front of it, and is reached by a flight of stone steps. Artistically laid out paths lead to these temples, winding through groves of pine and bamboo, and over fine arched bridges. These parks are among the most beautiful spots in China.

When you enter the first building, you see before you a large statue or image with an expression of contempt upon its face. This image is called Mi-leh-fuh (mee-lay-foo). It guards the temple, and is supposed to smile at the folly of man, who cares only for pleasure. Back of this image and facing the door is another image, dressed in armor, and with a large battle club in the hand. This is Wei-to Poo-sah (wie-toh poho-sah), who, as the guardian god of the temple, protects it from thieves, evil spirits, etc. There are several other idols in this building.

The building immediately in the rear is about ninety feet wide, seventy feet deep, and from forty to fifty feet high. There are some temples even larger than this. It is called in Chinese: The Great, Glorious, Precious Temple. There are three images of Buddha or Fuh, as they call him here, viz., the Past, the Present, and the Future Fuh. These images are made of metal, stone, wood or clay. The largest have a framework of wood, covered with mortar and gilded on the outside. They have, or are supposed to have, a heart and other imitations of the human body, and are well executed.

Flower Pagoda


Some of the Buddhist temples have pagodas attached to them. These are built of stone or brick in many different stories, and are from eighty to two hundred feet high. They are a peculiar feature of the landscape. In Canton there are two pagodas and many temples, halls and pavilions. The appearance of a large Buddhist temple is really imposing, and the building shows great skill in architecture. The roof is covered with fretwork, and figures of horses, elephants, etc. The interior is handsomely carved. These temples have rooms specially prepared to receive wealthy guests. Foreigners in Peking usually pass the hot summer months in such temples in the hills west of the capital. The majority of worshipers of Buddha are women.