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The genius of the Chinese for combination is nowhere more conspicuous than in their societies which have a religious object. Widely as they differ in the special purposes to which they are devoted, they all appear to share certain characteristics, which are generally four in number the contribution of small sums at definite intervals by many persons; the superintendence of the finances by a very small number of the contributors; the loan of the contributions at a high rate of interest, which is again perpetually loaned and re-loaned so as to accumulate compound interest in a short time and in large amounts; and lastly, the employment of the accumulations in the religious observance for which the society was instituted, accompanied by a certain amount of feasting participated in by the contributors.

A typical example of the numerous societies organized for religious purposes may be found in one of those which have for their object a pilgrimage to some of the five sacred mountains of China. The most famous and most frequented of them all is the Great Mountain (T’ai Shan) in Shan-tung, which in the second month of the Chinese year is crowded with pilgrims from distant parts of the empire. For those who live at any considerable distance from this seat of worship, which according to Dr. Williamson is the most ancient historical mountain in the world, the expense of travel to visit the place is an obstacle of a serious character. To surmount this difficulty, societies are organized which levy a tax upon each member, of (say) one hundred cash a month. If there are fifty members this would result in the collection of 5,000 cash as a first payment. The managers who have organized the society, proceed to loan this amount to some one who is willing to pay for its use not less than two or three per cent. a month. Such loans are generally for short periods, and to those who are in the pressing need of financial help. When the time has expired, and principal and interest is collected, it is again loaned out, thus securing a very rapid accumulation of capital. Successive loans at a high rate of interest for short periods, are repeatedly effected during the three years, which are generally the limit of the period of accumulation. It constantly happens that those who have in extreme distress borrowed such funds, find themselves unable to repay the loan when it is called in, and as benevolence to the unfortunate forms no part of the “virtue practice” of those who organize these societies, the defaulters are then obliged to pull down their houses or to sell part of their farms to satisfy the claims of the “Mountain Society.” Even thus it is not always easy to raise the sum required, and in cases of this sort, the unfortunate debtor may even be driven to commit suicide.

“Mountain Societies” are of two sorts, the “Travelling,” (hsing-shan hui), and the “Stationary,” (tso-shan hui). The former lays plans for a visit to the sacred mountain, and for the offering of a certain amount of worship at the various temples there to be found. The latter is a device for accomplishing the principal results of the society, without the trouble and expense of an actual visit to a distant and more or less inaccessible mountain peak. The recent repeated outbreaks of the Yellow River which must be crossed by many of the pilgrims to the Great Mountain, have tended greatly to diminish the number of “Travelling Societies,” and to increase the number of the stationary variety.

When the three years of accumulation have expired, the managers call in all the money, and give notice to the members who hold a feast. It is then determined at what date a theatrical exhibition shall be given, which is paid for by the accumulation of the assessments and the interest. If the members are natives of several different villages, a site may be chosen for the theatricals convenient for them all, but without being actually in any one of them. At other times the place is fixed by lot.

During the performance of the theatricals, generally three days or four, the members of the society are present, and may be said to be their own guests and their own hosts. For the essential part of the ceremony is the eating, without which nothing in China can make the smallest progress. The members frequently treat themselves to three excellent feasts each day, and in the intervals of eating and witnessing theatricals, they find time to do more or less worshipping of an image of the mountain goddess (T’ai Shan niang-niang) at a paper “mountain,” which by a simple fiction is held to be, for all intents and purposes, the real Great Mountain. While there does not appear to be any deeply-seated conviction that there is greater merit in actually going to the real mountain than in worshipping at its paper representative at home, this almost inevitable feeling certainly does exist, and it expresses itself forcibly in nicknaming the stationary kind “squatting and fattening societies” (tun-piao hui). But while the Chinese are keenly alive to the inconsistencies and absurdities of their practices and professions, they are still more sensible of the delights of compliance with such customs as they happen to possess, without a too close scrutiny of “severe realities.” The religious societies of the Chinese, faulty as they are from whatever point of view, do at least satisfy many social instincts of the people, and are the media by which an inconceivable amount of wealth is annually much worse than wasted. It is a notorious fact, that some of those which have the largest revenues and expenditures, are intimately connected with gambling practices.

Many large fairs, especially those held in the spring, which is a time of comparative leisure, are attended by thousands of persons whose real motive is to gamble with a freedom and on a scale impossible at home. In some towns where such fairs are held, the principal income of the inhabitants is derived from the rent of their houses to those who attend the fair, and no rents are so large as those received from persons whose occupation is mainly gambling. These are not necessarily professional gamblers, however, but simply country people who embrace this special opportunity to indulge their taste for risking their hard-earned money. In all such cases it is necessary to spend a certain sum upon the underlings of the nearest yamen, in order to secure immunity from arrest, but the profits to the keeper of the establishment (who generally does not gamble himself) are so great, that he can well afford all it costs. It is probably a safe estimate that as much money changes hands at some of the large fairs in the payment of gambling debts, as in the course of all the ordinary business arising from the trade with the tens of thousands of customers. In many places both men and women meet in the same apartments to gamble (a thing which would scarcely ever be tolerated at other times), and the passion is so consuming that even the clothes of the players are staked, the women making their appearance clad in several sets of trousers for this express purpose!

The routine acts of devotion to whatever god or goddess may be the object of worship are hurried through with, and both men and women spend the rest of their time struggling to conquer fate at the gaming-table. It is not without a certain propriety, therefore, that such fairs are styled “gambling fairs.”

The “travelling” like the “sitting” society gathers in its money at the end of three years, and those who can arrange to do so, accompany the expedition which sets out soon after New Year for the Great Mountain. The expenses at the inns, as well as those of the carts employed, are defrayed from the common fund, but whatever purchases each member wishes to make must be paid for with his own money. On reaching their destination, another in the long series of feasts is held, an immense quantity of mock money is purchased and sent on in advance of the party, who are sure to find the six hundred steps of the sacred mount, (popularly supposed to be “forty li” from the base to the summit), a weariness to the flesh. At whatever point the mock money is burnt, a flag is raised to denote that this end has been accomplished. By the time the party of pilgrims have reached this spot, they are informed that the paper has already been consumed long ago, the wily priests taking care that much the larger portion is not wasted by being burnt, but only laid aside to be sold again to other confiding pilgrims.

If any contributor to the travelling society, or to any other of a like nature, should be unable to attend the procession to the mountain, or to go to the temple where worship is to be offered, his contribution is returned to him intact, but the interest he is supposed to devote to the virtuous object of the society, for he never sees any of it.

The countless secret sects of China, are all of them examples of the Chinese talent for cooperation in the alleged “practice of virtue.” The general plan of procedure does not differ externally from that of a religious denomination in any Western land, except that there is an element of cloudiness about the basis upon which the whole superstructure rests, and great secrecy in the actual assembling at night. Masters and pupils, each in a graduated series, manuscript books containing doctrines, hymns which are recited or even composed to order, prayers, offerings, and ascetic observances are traits which many of these sects share in common with other forms of religion elsewhere. They have also definite assessments upon the members at fixed times without which, for lack of a motive power, no such society would long hold together.