Story of China - R. Van Bergen

Games and Holidays

Chinese boys are, as a rule, more quiet than our boys, but they are quite as fond of play and fun. When a new boy enters a school, it is not at all unusual for some other boy, who ought to know better, to take the newcomer's nicely-plaited queue and slyly tie it to that of another boy, all the time shouting his lessons, so that the teacher will not notice what he is doing.

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


Chinese boys know nothing of football, baseball, or any such games. If you were to ask one of them what game he likes best, he would probably answer: kite-flying. That is a game which their fathers and even grand-fathers like. The Chinese know how to make kites to perfection. Some of them look like birds or butterflies, with wings cleaving the air; others are in the shape of animals, and many are like dragons. Sometimes a tiny lighted lantern is fastened to the tail of a kite, which, when it rises, looks like a little star. Sometimes a number of kites, in the form of birds, are fastened by short strings to the principal cord. When they rise in the air they look like a flock of birds flying around one center.

Boys begin to fly their kites on the ninth day of the ninth month. If you ask them why they do so, they will tell you that once upon a time a man was warned that he would have a great misfortune on a certain day. The man decided to prevent it by taking all the members of his household into the mountains for that day. He did so, and when he returned in the evening, he found that all his domestic animals were dead. This was on the ninth day of the ninth month, so, the people think, it must be an unlucky day. Therefore, they go out and fly kites to spend the time.

From the tenth to the fifteen of the first month most of the stores are closed, and nobody does any business except the men who sell lanterns. There are any number of peddlers in the streets, with their lanterns hung from long bamboo poles, and they do a brisk trade.

You have seen these Chinese lanterns with their light bamboo frame covered with bright colored paper. They are of all shapes. Most of them are made in the shape of a ball, fixed to the end of a stick, but there are some in the form of rabbits, horses, fowls, shrimps, crabs, beetles, and some very handsome ones imitate the lotus or other flowers. Wealthy people have their lanterns made of gauze or silk, and the most expensive ones are ornamented with small figures, to whose heads, legs, or arms fine wires are attached. When the lantern is lighted the heated air makes these wires revolve, and the figures on the outside begin to move, and you see an old man fishing, or a ferryman rowing across a stream, or two Chinese gentlemen wishing each other a Happy New Year.

The Chinese have a feathered ball, very much like our shuttlecock. They make it rebound on the thick sole of the shoe or on the instep of the foot. They can do it sometimes two or three hundred times without missing once. When they bounce the ball up and down with the hand they call it playing Ta chiau (tah chee-ow).

When Chinese boys play with tops they call it Ta teh-lo (tah tey-loh). Their tops are made of bamboo, with a piece of wood going through it, and a hole cut in the side, which causes a humming sound when it spins. Blind man's buff is called by them "Hiding from the cat."

In early spring they have a ceremony called "Turning the Dragon." The dragon, sometimes thirty or forty feet long, is made of a large number of lanterns fastened together and covered with colored paper and cloth. Being made of lanterns it has so many joints that it can be easily turned and twisted by the carriers. Long poles are fastened to a number of the joints, and in the evening it is lighted up. As the big dragon, with wide-open mouth, is carried through the streets, turning and twisting in every direction, and rearing its horrible head, it is followed by a large crowd of people. Gongs are beaten, crackers are fired, and there is yelling and shouting. The Chinese think that this dragon will frighten the evil spirits and drive sickness away.

The greatest holiday is China is New Year's Day, between the middle of January and that of February. It is not on the first of January, as with us, because the Chinese month begins with every new moon.

Most of the Chinese would not dream of going to bed on New Year's Eve. They believe that if they watch for the dawn of New Year's morning for several years in succession, they will surely have long life. The children also sit up "to round the year" as they call it. Everybody, young and old, burns firecrackers.

Several days before the New Year the people begin making preparations. The principal streets are filled with booths where articles of various kinds are sold. Houses are cleaned, new charms and scrolls are bought, and new clothes are rented or purchased, while debts are paid before the old year ends. If the whole debt can not be paid in full, the creditor is at least given something on account. Stocks of provisions are laid in, for the stores will be closed perhaps for five or six days. In former years it was customary to close for fourteen days, but that is not done now.

As soon as midnight is passed, the Chinese worship at the ancestral tablet. Then the family go out by the front door, while the servants or women lift up the lanterns or lamps to light them. They then bow down toward a part of the heavens which the almanac has indicated as the proper place. They call this worshiping the heaven and earth, and think that in doing so they will be receiving the spirit of Good Luck which is supposed to come out of that quarter.

At this moment all the Chinese are terribly anxious, for they believe that the first person they see or the first word they hear will influence, for good or ill, their fortune in the coming year. If the first person they see coming along should be a priest with his shaven head, what a terrible misfortune that would foretell! They tremble as they listen to hear the first word. If it should refer to fire, loss of office, failure in business, sickness, or death, they would enter with a heavy heart upon the new year. But if the first word they hear is one of joy or prosperity, how glad they are, for that means a lucky year for them.

When the morning breaks, the streets are found to be covered with crimson paper of burnt-out crackers. These are fired to frighten evil spirits. The beggars are about, and take in a rich harvest, for no Chinese would refuse alms, and thus run the risk of beginning the new year badly.

Upon almost every front door you will see new men shin (main shin), or door spirits. They are cheaply colored pictures of two generals. It is said that once upon a time the Emperor had a dream that evil spirits would enter his palace. He ordered two of his bravest generals to guard the gate, and the spirits were so frightened by them that they were afraid to enter. When those two brave generals died, it was thought that the evil spirits would be as much afraid of their pictures as they had been of the men themselves, and that is why they are used to guard the house.

There are other cheap ornaments about the doors, houses, and windows, but they have all the same purpose, namely, to drive away evil spirits and to invite such as are good.

When a Chinese gentleman meets a friend on New Year's morning, he clasps his own hands, keeping them well within his long sleeves, moves them up and down before him, bows low, and says several times "Kung-she, Kung-she," (koongshay) which, I suppose, means about the same as our "Happy New Year."

"Receiving the Spring" is another holiday, although it is not observed by everybody. The "Feast of the Dragon Boats" is sometimes spoken of as the Children's Festival. It is chiefly the racing of so-called dragon boats, which are long and narrow, and carry from twenty to thirty men. The waist and stern are painted, and the bow is shaped like the head of a dragon with gaping jaws. A boy or man sits upon the dragon's neck and directs the oarsmen by means of a flag which he holds in his hand.

Crowds of people upon the river banks watch the races, and accidents from collision are frequent. The winning crew receives prizes.

This holiday is about 2,400 years old, and this is the story they tell about it: There once lived a very wise Minister of State named Ken Yuen (can yooen), who urged his Emperor to introduce reforms. But the Emperor, who did not wish to help the people, grew angry and dismissed him. Ken Yuen could not survive this disgrace, so he threw himself into the river and was drowned. Some fishermen who saw him disappear searched for his body, but it could not be found. Some time after this Ken Yuen's spirit appeared and complained that the offerings which the people brought him were always stolen by a big reptile. So these dragon boats are made to frighten away the monster.

In the eighth month of the year comes the "Festival of the Moon," when the people, and especially the children, eat moon cakes, which are shaped like the moon, and painted with spots of bright color. The Chinese tell this story about it:

Chinese cake-seller


One evening the Emperor Ming Wong was walking in his garden with some of his councilors. Suddenly the Emperor's son asked if the moon was inhabited or not. "Would you like to see for yourself?" asked the tutor of the young prince, and, of course, the boy said yes. The tutor threw his staff into the air, and it was at once changed into a bridge, over which he and his pupil walked to the moon. They found it inhabited by beautiful women, living in splendid palaces surrounded by charming gardens. The prince wished to remain, but the tutor told him that it was time to go home. When they were about half-way over the bridge, the tutor asked the prince to play upon the lute which he carried with him. This the prince did. They happened then to be directly over the city of Nanking, and the people could be seen rushing to the roofs of their houses. "Give them what money you have in your pockets," said the tutor. The prince did so, and he and the tutor reached home in safety. The next day the prince thought that his trip to the moon must have been a dream, but very soon a letter came from the Governor of Nanking saying that on the fifteenth of the eighth month, heavenly music was heard, and a shower of money fell from the sky. Then the prince knew that his journey to the moon was true, and so the day was made into a holiday.