Read CHAPTER XVI of Village Life in China A Study in Sociology, free online book, by Arthur H. Smith, on


It is one of the eccentricities of the Chinese, that although they have developed elaborate philosophies, none of them have led them to confidence in the uniformity of nature. Polytheism has no basis for such a view. Thus it comes about that in an empire which is one of the most conspicuous examples of homogeneity the world has ever seen, neither the people nor their rulers have any fixed opinions as to the causes upon which the rain-fall depends. In the province of Shan-tung a great variety of beings real and imaginary are worshipped to cause the fall of water to adjust itself to the needs of the farmers. Among the divinities thus honoured are the Goddess of Mercy who in the south of China is generally regarded as male; the God of War; the Dragon God, or Lung Wang; and a Tai Wang, which is popularly supposed to be incarnated in a serpent, frequently a water-snake, but in default of that a common garter-snake will do just as well. Whenever one of these Tai Wangs is discovered, it is common to notify the nearest local official, and it is expected that he will go and worship it. Many years ago Li Hung Chang performed this service at Tientsin, where there is a very large temple to Tai Wang.

As if these incongruous adjuvants of nature were not enough, there are some who worship YA1/4 Huang Shang Ti, or Pearly Emperor Supreme Ruler, and still others think they have warrant in offering sacrifice and worship to “Sun Ta Sheng,” who is nothing more than an imaginary character in the novel known as “Travels to the West.” Sun was originally a monkey hatched by a process of evolution out of a stone, but his exploits are so many and so striking that the popular mind has settled on him as a suitable being to superintend the rain-fall. Yet his worship is apparently limited, and like that of all the divinities mentioned extremely irregular. The same village that worships the God of War now, may worship the Goddess of Mercy next time, perhaps on the principle of judicious rotation.

Besides all these, there is another and quite a different plan in extensive use. In the ancient but now ruined city of Han Tan Hsien, (in Western Chih-li) there is a temple on the premises of which there is a famous well, in which are a vast number of iron tablets. Whenever there is a scarcity of rain, it is almost always a last resort, after the District Magistrate has made the rounds of all the temples in and about his city, to post off an official messenger to Han Tan Hsien a journey of several days to get an iron tablet out of the well. The messenger takes an iron tablet from the city whence he starts on which is inscribed the date of the journey, and the name of the District which makes the petition, and on his arrival repairs to the Taoist temple, where for a certain sum he is provided with another iron tablet taken from the well, into which the tablet now brought is thrown.

On his return journey the messenger is supposed to eat nothing but bran, and to travel at the top of his speed day and night. His arrival is anxiously awaited. And now emerges a characteristic Chinese performance. The counties through which his route lies are not unlikely just as much in need of rain as the one which sends the messenger: the people of these districts not infrequently waylay the messenger temporarily, and “borrow” his tablet, which is thus “invited” to the other district, and the rain-fall will take place there, instead of in the one to which it ought to belong.

At first glance it certainly appears singular that so practical a people as the Chinese can put the least faith in mummeries of this sort, but the truth seems to be that very little actual faith is exercised, these performances only taking place in default of an acquaintance with the laws which govern the meteorology of the empire. Besides this, the months in which the most resort is had to such performances are the fifth and the sixth, and these are the ones in which the rain-fall is due. As a limit of some ten days is generally set for the efficacy of these petitions, it is extremely likely that the term will be coincident with a fall of rain, which fall will be credited to the petition; whereas the failure of the petition is set down to some wholly different reason.

An incident which occurred in one of the western counties of Shan-tung makes plain even to the most obtuse Chinese intellect the inconveniences of a wrong theory of the universe. A party of villagers with flags and a drum were on their way to a temple to pray for rain. They met a man leading a horse, on which was seated a married woman returning from one of the customary visits to her mother’s family. She had a child in her arms, and the hired labourer leading the horse had on a wide straw hat. Now it is one of the eccentricities of the inaccurate views of those who pray for rain to non-existent monkeys and to garter-snakes, that they also entertain misconceptions as to the causes which hinder rain. Foreigners carrying umbrellas have been mobbed as the efficient cause of drought. The water-spouts of a new consulate in a treaty-port have been complained of as drawing off the moisture that was meant for the whole province. So in this case the big straw-hat of the rustic was resented as “contra-indicated” as the physicians say by the rain-prayers. The peasant was roared at, and a long pike-staff was thrust into his hat which was thrown from his head upon the horse, which being frightened pulled away and plunged ahead. The woman could not keep her seat, first dropping her child which was dashed to the ground and killed. The woman’s foot caught in a stirrup and she was dragged for a long distance and when the horse was at length stopped she too was dead. She was pregnant, so that in one moment three lives had been sacrificed. The hired man ran on a little way to the woman’s home, told his story, and as the men of the family happened to be at home, they all seized whatever implements they could find and ran after the rain-prayers, with whom they fought a fierce battle killing four or five of them outright. The case went into the District yamen, and what became of it then, we do not know.

Among the other eccentricities of rain-producing, is the borrowing of a god from one village for use in another. If he succeeds in getting rain he is taken back in honour; otherwise he is not unlikely to be left where he happened to be deposited when worshipped, the villagers like a set of commissioners for educational examination being solely influenced by “results.” In other instances if the god does not show signs of appreciation of the need of rain, he may be taken out into the hot sun and left there to broil, as a hint to wake up and do his duty. A bunch of willows is thrust into his hand, because the willow is sensitive to the smallest moisture. It is a common saying in China that “when the Floods wash away the temple of Lung Wang (the Dragon King) it is a case of not knowing one’s own folks.” Yet this is what constantly happens.

It is more than forty years since the Yellow River changed its course to its present one, taking the bed of a small stream known as the Clear River and bringing with the turbid torrent devastation and utter ruin. During more than an entire generation Central Shan-tung has been cursed with “China’s Sorrow,” and even when the course was altered again in 1887, the Government spent fabulous sums, and at last brought the stream back again into its former bed a feat which few foreigners who saw the new channel thought it possible to execute.

The next year the region was visited by a corps of Dutch engineers, who made an elaborate survey and published an exhaustive report, to which the Chinese Government paid no attention whatever. The plea at that time was lack of money, but the funds could have been had if the execution of the work had been put into foreign hands, than whom no more competent ones than the Dutch could have been found. But at the time when the Director General of the Yellow River a title the humour of which is lost on the Chinese memorialized the Throne on the necessity of employing foreign science for this otherwise hopeless task, his proposal was rebuked by the Empress Dowager as “premature and ostentatious!”

According to Chinese ideas the “Three Harmonies” are “Heaven, Earth, and Man.” All three of them are at present out of sorts with each other. What is imperatively needed is a reconciliation, but this can never be had until the Chinese come to a more accurate appreciation of the limits of the powers of each of the triad. A new set of men would soon make a new earth, and then the heavens would be found to be well enough as they are. In the course of ten years enough water falls for the use of all, and not too much to be managed. But man must learn how to control it, and until he does so, “Heaven, earth and man” will never be in right relations.