Story of China - R. Van Bergen

The Belief in Spirits

No Chinese would start on a journey, build a house, marry, bury a relative, or even close a bargain, without first consulting the spirit world. He has no idea, and does not care to know, how many spirits there are; but he thinks that the earth and the air are full of them. While he believes that there are kindly spirits who bring him good luck, he is far more concerned with the bad spirits, of whom he thinks there are a great number, all anxious to do him harm. He gives the latter presents in order to make them friendly toward him.

It is not strange that where so many people believe in spirits, men should be found who believe, or pretend to believe, that they can communicate with the spirit world. Every city in China has hundreds of such men, who do a thriving business, being consulted by rich and poor alike, and they charge a good price, according to the wealth or poverty of their customers.

The priests in most of the temples make a living by foretelling the future. These temples have an altar, and a big box in which the people throw their least valuable copper coins. Before the altar are several other boxes, shaped like part of a stovepipe, each containing little sticks with a number printed on them. There are also several wooden balls, cut in two.

Chinese God


When a man wishes to know what will happen to him in the future, he goes to such a temple, and throws into the box as much cash as he thinks proper. He then burns a candle and some incense before the horrible image of the god. After this, he takes one of the small boxes in his hand, and, kneeling before the altar, shakes it gently until one of the numbered sticks drops out of it. At the same time he asks the question which he would like to have answered. Then he picks up the stick, places it before the god, and returns the box to its place. To make sure that he has the right number, he takes two of the half balls in his hand, and drops them on the floor. If they fall on the flat side, the stick is the right one; but if they roll on the round side, the stick is wrong, and he must go through the ceremony all over again. After he has in this manner discovered the right number, he takes the stick to the priest, who selects a paper with the corresponding number on it, and gives it to him. On this paper is written a sentence just like those we sometimes find wrapped around some of our candy. That is the answer to his question. He may explain it as best suits himself, and if the answer proves wrong, his own explanation is at fault.

When a Chinese finds out that a thief has visited his house, he does not call in a policeman or a detective, but a priest. This priest takes a plate and smoothes over it a carefully moistened paper. He then makes mystic motions over it, and rubs it with another wad of paper tightly rolled up, which he takes from his sleeve. Figures and houses appear on the paper in the plate, and at last comes the picture of the thief. I do not know if it is always the right picture, but if it is, we might learn something from the Chinese, as it is certainly a cheap way to play detective.

Every Chinese believes in the Yau-Kwei (yah-oo kwy), or genii. These are supposed to be men who have escaped death and entered upon spirit life. The Chinese believe that the Yau-Kwei can reappear in the body or without it, just as it suits them.

When a person suffers from nightmare or sleeplessness, the Yau-Kwei are the cause of it. They are also blamed for bad dreams. The first and easiest way to get rid of them is to scold them roundly as soon as awakened. If that does not succeed, one or two strong, healthy people are called in to pass the night with the patient, because it is thought that these spirits are afraid of the strong and only attack the weak. Should this fail to bring relief, a sword, wet with human blood, is brandished over the bed, or else a man is engaged who is said to be able to shoot spirits. Looking-glasses are hung upon the four walls of the bedroom, so that the Yau-Kwei has no opportunity to enter unperceived. If the spirit still declines to leave, a complaint is made against it at the office of Chang-tien-tsz' (chahng-teents') or Chang the Son of Heaven, who resides in the province of Kiang-si, and who is supposed to rule over the Yau-Kwei, and even over some of the gods. He has a seal containing a charm, and when he issues a command over it, all the genii tremble and obey.

The patient, after paying well for it, receives a paper containing his name, place of residence, age, and a statement of the facts of his case, sealed by Chang's magic seal. The paper, after it has been burned, is supposed to be received by some god, who must see to it that the guilty Yau-Kwei is caught and punished. When such offending genii are caught, they are confined in sealed bottles. The Chinese, one and all, believe this to be true. They say that visitors have heard the noise made by these bottled Yau-Kwei, who make every effort to escape from their uncomfortable prison.

The Kwei are supposed to be the ghosts of the dead. They are thought to be the spirits of those men whose sins were not so bad as to condemn them to the place of the wicked, but who must wander about until they are fit to reappear in another state. These Kwei are very troublesome to the Chinese. They roam about in search of food, or rather of the smell of food, and when they visit a house and do not find what they want, they are angry and somebody in that house falls ill. Then the master of the house sends for a priest, who must find out what kind of a Kwei has been around, and what sort of food he likes. Sometimes the patient gets better, but very often he does not. In that case it is probably the priest's fault.

In the central and southern part of China, the climate is very unhealthful during August and September, and a great many people fall sick. The Chinese explain this by saying that during those two months the gates of hell are opened and the spirits are allowed a vacation or holiday. This accounts for the Fang yin-kau (fahng yen-kow), a sort of spirit holiday, sometimes called Shi-shih (shee-she). During these months every locality has a day appointed when a feast is set out upon tables in open places or courts. Patterns of clothing made of paper in different sizes and colors are hung around, and priests are engaged to see that everything is done properly. As soon as it grows dark, lanterns are suspended from high bamboo poles to guide the Kwei to the food. The priests begin to howl their incantations, while others beat upon the tom-toms, producing a deafening noise. All this excitement is kept up until daylight, when the spirits are supposed to be satisfied and to have left for another spot. The patterns of clothing are burned for their benefit, and the food, always of an inferior quality, is given to beggars.

It is impossible to mention all the different names given by the Chinese to the supposed dwellers of the air and water. But special notice must be taken of the Feng Shui, because it exercises great influence upon the daily life of the people, and is the real cause of their dislike of foreigners. The characters used in writing this word mean air and water, but the word Feng Shui should be translated by the phrase, "Principle of Life," although to the Chinese its meaning is "luck."

Not one among those hundreds of millions of Chinese, from the Emperor down to the poorest coolie, would think of burying his father without first employing a Feng Shui man to find out a lucky spot. They suppose that by doing so the spirit of luck will enter into the body of the dead, and that it will follow his children and their children, wherever they may be found.

From what I have seen in China, I think that the Feng Shui sin-sang, or Feng Shui doctors, honestly believe that they are able to discover lucky spots. It is certain that they have studied, for their conversation shows it, and they are held in great respect. Their charges are high, and their directions are strictly obeyed.

When these Feng Shui or "luck doctors," are employed to find the lucky spot for a grave, they pass some days in examining the general outline of the country, the hills, canals, rivers, any height or declivity, etc They then secure the dates of the birth and death of the deceased and of other members of the family, and return home to consult their books. Sometimes the result is not given to the family for weeks, and the funeral is postponed. When the decision of the Feng Shui doctors is received, the land indicated as the lucky spot for the grave is bought at any price, if the family can afford it. This accounts for the fact that grave mounds are found all over China. There is no greater punishment for a Chinese than to have the tomb of his ancestors destroyed. He firmly believes that it ruins all his chances of luck, and this renders him desperate.

Tombs near Peking


If the spot thus selected fails to bring the expected good luck, the Feng Shui doctors have always plenty of excuses to show that the luck was good at the time of the funeral, but that it must have changed since. Defacing a tomb, or cutting down a tree near it, destroys the Feng Shui. A man convicted of such an offense is punished with great severity by the courts.

When a Chinese decides to build a house, the Feng Shui doctor is in even greater demand than the architect. He determines the location of the doors and windows, points out where the furniture must be placed, and enters into the most minute details. If, after all these precautions, sickness or other misfortune follows, another Feng Shui sin-sang is called in. After examining the premises, he may order one door closed and another made, or decide upon some slight change in the position of the furniture. If ill-luck continues, the doctor is again changed. Whatever disappointment a Chinese may meet, his faith in the Feng Shui is never shaken.

When new canals are constructed, or railroads laid out, the general outline of the country must necessarily change somewhat. This disturbs the Feng Shui of every grave within sight, and fully accounts for the opposition shown by the people to such improvements. Nor is it only the ignorant who are governed by this belief. The more highly a man is educated among the Chinese, the greater is his faith in, and fear of, the Feng Shui. But it must be remembered that Chinese education means the knowledge of Chinese literature only. That is the study of what was known two thousand years ago, and no account is taken of the progress made since that time.