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


The Chinese share with the rest of the human race a desire to make a marriage ceremony an occasion of joy. One of the most frequent périphrases for a wedding, is the expression “joyful event.” It is in China preA"minently true that the highest forms of “joy,” find expression in eating. While marriage feasts are no doubt to be found in all lands at all times, they are especially Oriental, and are characteristic of the Chinese.

Owing to the extent and the intricate ramifications of Chinese relationships, the number of persons who must be invited to a wedding is very large. In some regions it is customary for women only to contribute a “share” (fen-tsA-) to a wedding, while the men give a present at that part of the ceremony when the bridegroom salutes the guests in turn with a prostration. As the name of each guest is called to be thus honoured, he hands over the amount of his offering. But in other places men and women contribute in the same way. Of two things, however, one may be confident; that nearly all those invited will be present either in person or by a representative; and that nearly every woman will be accompanied by children, who contribute nothing to the revenues, but add enormously to the expenses.

Marriage customs in China certainly vary widely, but of such a thing as being present at “the ceremony,” but not at “the wedding breakfast,” we have never heard. Indeed, it can scarcely be said that, in our sense of the word, there is any “ceremony.” Whatever may be added or subtracted from the performances, the essence of a Chinese wedding seems to consist in the arrival of the bride at her future home. The “feast” is the main feature of the occasion. Sometimes the relatives are not invited at all upon the wedding day, but at a subsequent one; yet it is not the less true that when the guests do come, the “feast” is the centre and soul of the occasion.

If there is anything which the Chinese have reduced to an exact science, it is the business of eating. The sign of real friendship is to invite a man to a meal, and it is a proverbial saying that he who comes bearing a vessel of wine on his shoulder and leading a sheep, is the truly hospitable man, for he shows by his acts that his invitation is a real one. The great mass of the Chinese spend their days in a condition which is very remote from affluence, but the expenses of weddings and funerals in the mere matter of eating, are such as must, from the extent of such expenses and the frequency of the occasions upon which they are required, reduce any but a very affluent family to utter poverty.

Under the pressure of these inexorable circumstances, the Chinese have long ago hit upon an application of the share principle, by means of which wedding and funeral feasts become quite practicable, which would otherwise remain an utter impossibility. It can seldom be known with certainty how many guests will attend a wedding, or funeral, but the provision must be made upon the basis of the largest number likely to appear. Each guest, or rather each family, is not only expected, but by a rigid code of social etiquette required, as already mentioned, to contribute to the expenses of the occasion by a “share.” This will sometimes be in food, but the general practice is to bring money, according to a scale which is perfectly understood by every one. The amount varies greatly in different places, from a trifling sum of the value of about five or six cents up to a quarter of a dollar or more, according to the degree of intimacy between the persons, and the ability of the guests to contribute. In some parts of China, the ordinary amount taken to such a feast seems to be twice as great as in others. Sometimes the standard is so well understood, that the phrase “a share” has a local meaning as definite as if, for example, the sum of 250 cash were expressly named.

In some places while the rate of “a share” for a funeral is 250 cash, that for a wedding is just double. This is because the food at a funeral is “plain” (su), while that for the wedding is of meat (hun) and much more expensive. It is not uncommon to find that “a share” for a person who comes from another city or district is two or three times that of a native of the place where the feast is given. To give only the same as a native would do would be considered for the person from a distance as a loss of “face”!

It is a characteristic example of Chinese procedure that the sums contributed upon occasions of this sort are in reality seldom what they profess to be. If local custom considers ninety-eight or ninety-six cash as a hundred, the temptation to put in a less number as a contribution is generally too strong to be resisted; the more so as in the confusion of receiving the numerous amounts, it is generally difficult to tell which particular string of cash was sent in by which persons, although the amounts are all entered in an “account,” to be presently noticed.

Those householders who are very anxious to keep exact track of the relative honesty of the respective contributors, sometimes do so by having ready a long cord to which each successive sum of cash is tied by its string, after the sum is entered on the account. When the proceedings are ended, it will then be possible for the master of the house to go over the multitudinous strings of cash, ascertaining how much each one is short, and tracing it to its donor by its place on the cord, corresponding to the order of entry in the account-book. But this plan is not regarded with favour by the guests, and is not generally adopted, because it makes so much trouble. The advantage of it is that it enables the householder to pay off the debt to the family which gave short cash, at exactly the same rate, whenever they invite him to a wedding or a funeral. In some places it is well understood that though each guest contributes “a share” of 250 cash, it will take five “shares” to make 1,000, since every “hundred cash” is in reality only eighty.

It is the duty of the committee which looks after the finances, to take charge of all sums which may be brought by the guests, and to keep a record of the amount paid by each. This is a matter of great importance, as every such contribution occupies the double position of a repayment of some similar gift to the family of the giver, by the family which now receives the gift, and also of a precursor of similar return gifts in time to come. The amount which is sent by each person will depend upon the relations existing between the families, and especially upon the amount received by them on some former similar occasion. To disregard the unwritten code which demands from guests proportional contributions, is regarded as a grave offence against decorum, because of its serious consequences to the family concerned, in diminishing their receipts.

To attend a feast, but not to bring any contribution, either in money or in kind, seems to be practically unknown, though it constantly happens that the quantity of food which on certain occasions may be substituted for money, is less than half of what is eaten by the donor. This is especially the case when the giver is a woman, who, as already mentioned, is likely to bring one or more voracious children, who must be pacified by food at every stage of the performances, their capacities being apparently absolutely unlimited.

In cities and large towns, the business of managing a wedding or a funeral feast, is conducted much as it would be in any country of the West. A food shop contracts to deliver so many bowls of food of a definite quality and at a fixed price. Provision is also made for additional supplies should the number of guests be unexpectedly great. But if the feast is to be on a large scale, it is not unlikely that the cooking will be done on the premises by the professional caterers. It is usual to speak of an affair of this sort as embracing so many “feasts,” a “feast” denoting not a single individual, as might be supposed, but the number who can sit at one table. This number, like everything Chinese, varies in different places. Sometimes it is eight, and the phrase, “eight fairy table” is the common designation of the articles of furniture required for the purpose.

In other regions, while all the tables are of the same size and shape as these, one side is left open for convenience in passing the food, and a “feast” signifies six persons only. When the feasts are provided by contract, the establishment also furnishes waiters, who convey the food to the guests, and to these waiters a small gratuity is given at the close.

The number of families who are within reach of facilities such as these, is but a small proportion of those who are obliged to arrange for feasts at weddings and funerals. For those to whom no such resource is open, there is no other way but to put the matter into the hands of certain experts, of great experience in such matters a class of persons to be found everywhere. Every village or group of villages can furnish a professional cook, who devotes much of his time to the conduct of affairs of this sort. If he is a man of wide reputation, and employed by rich families, he will have a number of assistants who work under his direction, all of whom at the close of the feast will be rewarded with suitable gratuities.

The staff of persons into whose hands the business of arranging for a feast is committed, is divided into three departments or committees, the Stewards (chih fang), the Culinary Department (ch’u-fang), and Finance Department (chang-fang). Each of them is a check upon the other two, although in the smaller and less expensive affairs all three will naturally run together and be merged in a single head. The Stewards purchase such supplies as are supposed to be necessary, embracing the best which the local market affords.

In the northern part of China, the two items which prove the most expensive are wheaten bread-cakes (man-t’ou) and wine. If the accommodation of the dwelling admit of it, the articles which have been bought for the feast are placed in a separate apartment, under the exclusive charge of one of the stewards, by whose order alone can anything be paid out to the kitchen, on demand of the head cook. But in practice it is found that at this point there is always a serious leak, for many of the relatives and neighbours of the family which is to have the feast, will send over their children to the storeroom to “borrow” a few bread-cakes, or a few cups of wine. For a steward to refuse (as a foreigner would be likely to do), is to incur the ill-will of the family which wishes to “borrow,” and the only advantage to the steward would be that he would be reviled, which no Chinese relishes. As a matter of practice therefore, it is customary to “give to him that asketh,” and from him that would “borrow” not to turn away, even though, as the old English saying runs, “Broad thongs are cut out of other people’s leather.”

It not infrequently happens that the stewards who are in charge of the entertainment are smokers of opium, in which case the expenses are sure to be much heavier than otherwise. It has also come to be a custom in some regions, to furnish opium to the guests at weddings, and this may become an item of a very elastic nature. Besides this, a man who smokes opium is naturally incapacitated from taking even ordinary care of the stores under his charge. If he is himself a smoker, and if opium is one of the articles provided for the occasion, it will not be strange if all his opium-smoking comrades embrace the opportunity to visit him, when they must be invited to take a pipe of course at the expense of the master of ceremonies.

The disappearance of wine and bread-cakes, on occasions of this sort, even before a single bowl of food has been set before a guest, suggests the evaporation of water on a hot summer day. It was reported to the writer, that on the occasion of a funeral in a neighbour’s family, about sixty catties of wine vanished, without leaving behind any trace of its devious course.

The reason for such occurrences, which are of universal notoriety, is not that the stewards are not able to do that which they are set to do, nor is the explanation necessarily to be found in their indifference to the interests of the host. The real seat of the difficulty is, that every family sufficiently well-to-do to have a large feast is surrounded with a swarm of poor relatives, who have no other opportunities than these to make their connection of any service to themselves, and who on such occasions are determined not to be ignored. A poor family of the same surname as the host will stand at the door of the mansion where a great feast is in preparation, with bowls in hand, demanding that a share of the good things in course of being served shall be apportioned to them. Even if the master of the house should absolutely refuse his consent, and if the stewards should follow his directions and give nothing, it would be of no avail, for the poor family would raise such an uproar as practically to prevent further proceedings, and all the guests would take the part of the poor relatives, exhorting the host to give them what they asked.

The habit of levying tribute upon those who happen to be in a position to pay it, is, as already remarked, deeply rooted in Chinese life. To what this practice leads, may be seen in the extreme cases of which one now and then hears, such as the following, detailed to the writer by the principal sufferer. A man had a dispute with one of his uncles about a tree, the value of which did not amount to more than a dollar. As he was a person without force of character, and unable to get his rights, he was obliged to “eat loss.” This enraged his wife to such an extent that she hung herself. It was now open to her husband to bring a suit at law, accusing the other party of “harrying to death” (pi ssA-) the deceased wife. Perhaps this would have been the best plan for the injured husband, but “peace-talkers” persuaded him to compromise the matter for a money payment. The other party had a powerful advocate in a relative who was a notorious blackleg, expert in lawsuits, and who freely gave his advice. Even under these advantages, the middlemen into whose hands the matter was put, decided that the uncle should pay 30,000 cash to the family of the woman, as a contribution to the funeral, which was done.

It is not usual to make much parade over the funerals of suicides, unless the sum to be expended is exacted from those who are supposed to have impelled to the suicide. In this instance, half the amount paid would have been amply sufficient for the funeral and for all its expenses. The “family friends” of the husband, uncles, cousins, nephews, etc., took charge of the proceedings, which they contrived to drag out for more than a week, and when the funeral was over, the husband, whose crops had been that year totally destroyed by floods, ascertained that these “family friends” had not only made away with the 30,000 cash awarded as a fine, but that he was saddled with a debt of immediate urgency amounting to 20,000 more for bread-cakes and wine, which had been consumed (as alleged) by the “family friends” during the protracted negotiations. No clear accounts of the expenditure were to be had, and the only thing of which the poor husband was sure, was that he was practically ruined by his “family friends.”

It is always taken for granted by the Chinese, that any family rich enough to spend a large amount of money on the funeral of a parent, will be mercilessly pillaged on that particular occasion. The reason for this is that, at such a time, the master of the house is (theoretically) overcome by grief, and ordinary propriety requires that he himself should take no part in the management of affairs, but should give his exclusive attention to the mourning rites. Even though he clearly perceives that everything is going wrong, he must act as if he were blind and deaf, and also dumb. Long practice has made the Chinese very expert in such an accomplishment, which, it is needless to say, for an Occidental would be difficult, not to say impossible. If the householder is a man for any reason generally unpopular, his disadvantages will be greatly increased, as is illustrated by the following case, narrated to the writer by a man who lived within two miles of the village in which the event occurred.

A wealthy man lost his father, and made preparations for an expensive funeral. He took a hundred strings of cash in a large farm-cart, and went to a market to buy swine to be slaughtered for the feast. On the way he was waylaid by a party of his own relatives, and robbed of all the money, in such a way as to render recovery of it hopeless. Having afterward bought four swine and an ox (a most generous provision for the feast), the arrangements were put into the hands of managers (tsung-li) as usual. These persons found themselves wholly unable to restrain the raids made upon the stores by “friends,” neighbours and others, and the night before the funeral was to occur, thieves broke into the storeroom and carried off every scrap of meat, leaving nothing whatever for the feast. The managers were frightened and ran away. The feast was of necessity had with nothing but vegetables and was of a sort to bring the householder into disgrace. As a result he was afraid to try to have any more funerals, and there are at present on his premises two unburied coffins awaiting sepulture, perhaps by the next generation.

As soon as the “shares” have all been sent in and reckoned up, it is known how much the host is out of pocket by the affair, and this information is so far from being private that it is sometimes at once announced to the guests, and if the amount is a large one the host gets credit for doing business on an extensive scale, regardless of expense. This gives him a certain amount of honour among his neighbours, and honour of a kind which is particularly prized. Among poor families, where “face” is of much less consequence than cash, it is not uncommon to find the feasts on a scale of such extreme economy that the cost is very trifling, although the “shares” are as great as at much better entertainments. It occasionally happens that a family is able to reduce the expenses so that the contributions are large enough to cover them, and even to leave a margin. A man who has carried through an enterprise of this sort is regarded as worthy of a certain admiration; and not without reason, for the feat implies generalship of no mean order.

Another illustration of the application of cooperative principles is found in the organization of the men of a village into details, or reliefs, as bearers of the catafalque of a specified size, each having its own leader. Whenever a funeral is to take place, notice is sent to the head of the division whose turn it is to serve, and he calls upon the men of his detail in a regular order. If any one is not on hand to take his turn, he is subjected to a fine.

In country districts, the funeral catafalque, with its tremendous array of lacquered poles upon which it is borne, is often the property of a certain number of individuals, who are also ordinary farmers. On being summoned to take charge of a funeral, they often perform the service gratuitously for people living in their own village, but charging a definite sum for the rent of the materials, which sometimes represent a considerable capital. Wedding chairs are often owned and managed in the same way, of which the advantage is that an investment which it is so desirable for the community to have made, and which is too large for an individual, is made by a company, the members of which receive a small dividend on its cash outlay, and an acknowledgment in food, presents, etc., of the manual labour involved in serving those who invite their aid.

The principle is capable of indefinite expansion. The writer once lived in a Chinese village, where there was a “Bowl Association,” owning 100 or 200 bowls which were rented to those who had occasion for a feast, at such a rate as to be remunerative to the owners, and at the same time more economical to the householder than the purchase of a great number of dishes for which on ordinary occasions he would have no use.

Societies for the assistance of those who have funerals are of common occurrence, and are of many different kinds. There is special reason for the organization of such leagues (called pai-she), since, while weddings may be postponed until suitable arrangements can be made, it is generally difficult, and sometimes impossible, to do the same with a funeral.

Sometimes each family belonging to the league pays into the common fund a monthly subscription of 100 cash a month. Each family so contributing is entitled upon occasion of the death of an adult member of the family (or perhaps the older generation only) to draw from this fund, say, 6,000 cash, to be used in defraying the expenses. If there is not so much money in the treasury as is called for by deaths in families of the members, the deficiency is made up by special taxes upon each member. According to a plan of this sort, a subscriber who drew out nothing for five years would have contributed the full amount to which he is entitled, without receiving anything in return. A mutual insurance company of this nature is probably entered into on account of the serious difficulty which most Chinese families experience in getting together ready money. From a financial point of view there may be nothing saved by the contribution, but practically it is found to be easier to raise 100 cash every month, than to get together 6,000 cash at any one time.

Another form of mutual assistance in the expenses of funerals is the following: A man whose parents are well advanced in life knows that he may at any time be called upon to spend upon the ceremonies at their death an amount which it will be difficult to raise. He therefore “invites an association” (ch’ing hui), each member of which is under obligation upon occasion of the death of a parent to contribute a fixed sum, say 2,000 cash. The membership will thus be composed exclusively of those who have aged parents. The number of names may be forty, which would result, whenever a call shall be made, in the accumulation of 80,000 cash. With this sum a showy funeral can be paid for. It is customary to provide in the document which each signs, and which is deposited with the organizer of the association, that the funeral shall be conducted on a specified scale of expense, nor can the funds be diverted to any other use than for a funeral.

Whenever a member wishes for his own use to make a call for the quota from each member, he must previously find two bondsmen, who will be surety for him that he will continue to pay his share on demand, otherwise the other subscribers might be left in the lurch. Only those known to be able to meet their assessments would be likely to be invited to join such an association, and if for any reason a member should fail to furnish his quota, he would be heavily fined.

At each funeral, all the subscribers to the funeral fund are present ex officio, and it is not necessary for them to contribute any other share than that represented by the 2,000 cash of the assessment. Each member of the association appears in mourning costume, and wailing as would become a near relative of the deceased. The presence of so large a number of mourners in addition to those really near of kin, gives a great deal of “face” to the individual whose parent has died, and this is perhaps quite as attractive a feature of the arrangement as the financial assistance.

If it should happen that for a long time no one dies in the families of any subscribers to the funeral fund, it may be thought best to summon the members to a feast, at which the project is broached of making a call for a share to be used for a wedding, or some other purpose outside of the constitutional limits of the society. In any arrangement of this nature the feast is an indispensable concomitant of the proceedings. Without it nothing can begin, and without it nothing can end.

Associations of this nature are much more common in connection with funerals than with weddings, yet they are not unknown for the latter purpose. A family, for example, wishes to marry a son on a scale which the family resources will not warrant. It then resorts to an expedient, which is called “drawing friends by means of other friends.” Let us suppose that it is desired to raise the sum of 100,000 cash. A hundred cards of invitation are prepared, ten of which are sent to ten friends of the family, who are invited to a preliminary feast. These friends receive the extra cards of invitation, and each one gives a card to nine other “friends” of his own, who agree to attend the wedding in question, each one bringing with him as a share a string of cash. By this means a family with little wealth and few connections is able suddenly to blossom out at a wedding with a hundred guests (many of whom nobody knows), and all expenses are provided for by the liberal contribution of the “friends,” and of the friends of the “friends.”

The only motive for the act, on the part of the original “friends” is friendship, and the gustatory joy of the wedding feast. The only motives for the friends of the “friends,” are their friendship, and the same joyful feast. It is needless to observe that the 100,000 cash thus suddenly raised is a debt, which the family receiving it must repay in future contributions.

To a Westerner, it doubtless appears a preposterous proceeding to saddle a family with a liability of this sort, for the mere sake of a temporary display. But love of display is by no means confined to the Chinese, although doubtless they are satisfied with manifestations of it which to us are far from being attractive. It is a characteristic in the Chinese conduct of affairs, to make heavy drafts on the future in order to satisfy a present need. Many a family will sell all their land, and even pull down their house, to provide for a funeral of a parent, because to bury the deceased without a suitable display would be a loss of “face.” And this irrational procedure is executed with an air of cheerfulness and of conscious virtue, which seems to say, “Behold me! I will do what is becoming at any personal inconvenience whatever!”

The elaborateness of a Chinese funeral may be roughly determined in advance by calculating the product of two factors, the age (especially the rank of the deceased by generations) and the social rank of the family. As soon as a death occurs the wailing begins, and at once, or possibly at sunset, the temple of the local-god is visited to make the announcement to him, accompanied with more wailing. Further exercises of this sort take place on “the third day,” that is in some regions the next day, which is held to be to all intents “the third”! In case of an affair of great ceremony there will be special performances on every seventh day (a strange and apparently unique survival of the hebdominal division in China) for seven times, the funeral occurring on the forty-ninth day. During the whole of this period there is no quiet time for the distracted family. Perhaps both Buddhist and Taoist priests are chanting their Sacred Books in extemporized mat-shed pavilions of a tawdry splendour; for it is often considered safest in the dim uncertainty as to the best way to reach the regions of the blest, to take passage by both of these religious routes. Excruciating music rends the air from morn till eve, and bombs are detonating at frequent intervals to terrify malignant spirits, and to delight the swarms of village boys who riot in ecstasies during the whole procedure.

English-speaking peoples have been criticised for taking their pleasures sadly. The Chinese, on the contrary, often contrive to get through their mourning not without considerable enjoyment. Under no other mundane circumstances is so much to be had to eat on such easy terms. The adage says truly,

“When old folks die, the rest feed high.”

The strain upon the exiguous resources of a single courtyard or set of yards in preparing food simultaneously for the guests, often numbering hundreds, is very great; yet the inevitable waiting, the crowding, the turmoil, and discomfort are all borne without a tenth of the complaint and resentment which a tithe of the same annoyances and provocations would probably cause the readers of these lines. In China there is no other way to bury the dead, and there never has been any other way. Ceremony is the very life of the Chinese race, and on no other occasion is ceremony so triumphantly tyrannical as at a Chinese funeral. Yet in the most showy pageantry there is likely to be an element of unutterable shabbiness. In city processions flags, banners, umbrellas, screens, and handsome wooden tablets shining with lacquer and glittering with gilt are carried in great numbers before and behind the coffin of notables, but the bearers are not infrequently dirty, ragged beggars, straggling along without aim and without order. Little or nothing of this is to be seen in the rural districts, but the confusion and disorderliness are omnipresent and inevitable. There is in the Chinese language no word meaning solemn, for there is no such thing as solemnity in the Chinese Empire.

White being the mourning colour, at a funeral swarms of people appear, some with a mere fillet about their head, others with square caps, and others with a more abundant display, up to those whose near relationship to the deceased requires that they be covered entirely with the coarse cloth which denotes the deepest depth of mourning, their feeble steps being supported by a short stick of willow upon which they ostentatiously lean, particularly at the numerous junctures when wailing is to take place. Generally speaking, the wearers of white are those who come within the “Five Degrees of Relationship” (wu fu), that is, all directly descended from one’s grandfather’s grandfather (the steps being indicated in Chinese by separate names for each generation, to wit, kao, tseng, tsu, fu, and shen, viz., three generations of “grandfathers,” my father, and myself). The family in mourning furnishes material for all the cloud of mourners, but if the married daughters are provided by their husband’s family with a supply, this is a mark of special honour. Sometimes women are seen proudly carrying a huge bolt of wholly superfluous cloth on their arm all through a funeral, furnishing a public testimonial that their husbands or fathers-in-law have done the correct thing, thus giving the daughter-in-law a large supply of “face.”

Since family graveyards are surrounded by planted fields, if a funeral happens to be held in the spring or early summer, it is inevitable that by the trampling of so many persons much damage should be done to growing crops. A space twenty feet wide or more would be required by the bearers of a catafalque, and if the funeral is a large one it will be followed all the way by a dense crowd. The unhappy owners of adjacent land sometimes provide themselves with shovels, and throw quantities of earth into the air so as to fall on the heads of the trespassers on their grain, as a protest (like all Chinese protests wholly futile) against the invasion of their rights.

Angry words and reviling are not infrequent concomitants of Chinese funerals, for the provocation is often grievous. To interfere with a funeral is a serious offence, but disputes sometimes arise between the participants. The writer once saw a coffin left for many days by the side of a public road because the bearers of the two coffins that were to have been buried together, differed as to which set should first leave the village, the disagreement terminating in a fight and an angry lawsuit, pending the settlement of which the dead man could not stir.

It is when the almost interminable feasts are at last over, and the loud cry is raised, “Take up the coffin,” that the funeral’s climax has arrived. Sixteen bearers, or some multiple of sixteen (and the more the better) wrestle with the huge and unwieldy burden of the ponderous coffin and the enormous catafalque supporting it. Only the bearers in the immediate front can see where they are going, so that it is necessary that a funeral director take charge of their motions, which he does by shrill shouts in a falsetto key ending in a piercing cry by no means unlike the scream of a catamount. To each of his directive yells the whole chorus of bearers responds with shouts resembling those of sailors heaving an anchor. These cries mingled with the ostentatious wails of the mourners piled into a whole caravan of village farm-carts, combine to produce a total effect as remote from our conception of what a funeral ought to be as can easily be imagined. When, by a slow and toilful progress, the family graveyard has been reached, the lowering of the coffin into the grave sometimes a huge circular opening is the culminating point of the many days of excitement. The cries of the director become shrieks, the responses are tumultuous and discordant, every one adding his own emendations according to his own point of view, and no one paying any attention to any one else. Thus, amid the explosion of more crackers and bombs, the fiercer wails of the mourners, the shouts of the bearers and the grave-diggers, and the buzz of the curious spectators, the Chinese is at last laid away to his long rest.