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21: Natural Phenomena

It is a question of more than ordinary interest to those who regard the Chinese people as a worthy object of study, What are the speculations of the working and uneducated classes concerning such natural phenomena as it is quite impossible for them to ignore? Their theory of eclipses is well known, foreign ears being periodically stunned by the gonging of an excited crowd of natives, who are endeavouring with hideous noises to prevent some imaginary dog of colossal proportions from banqueting, as the case may be, upon the sun or moon. At such laughable exhibitions of native ignorance it will be observed that there is always a fair sprinkling of well-to-do, educated persons, who not only ought to know better themselves, but should be making some effort to enlighten their less fortunate countrymen instead of joining in the din. Such a hold, however, as superstition on the minds of the best informed in a Chinese community, that under the influence of any real or supposed danger, philosophy and Confucius are scattered to the four winds of Heaven, and the proudest disciple of the Master proves himself after all but a man.

Leaving the literati to take care of themselves, and confining our attention to the good-tempered, joyous, hospitable working-classes of China, we find many curious beliefs on subjects familiar among western nations to every national school-boy. The earth, for instance, is popularly believed to be square; and the heavens a kind of shell or covering, studded with stars and revolving round the earth. We remember once when out of sight of land calling the notice of our native valet to the masts of a vessel sinking below the horizon. We pointed out to him that were the earth a perfectly flat surface its disappearance would not be so comparatively sudden, nor would the ship appear to sink. But at the last moment, when we felt that conviction was entering into his soul and that another convert had been made to the great cause of scientific truth, he calmly replied that it was written--"Heaven is round, earth is square," and he didn't very well understand how books could be wrong!

The sun is generally supposed to pass at sunset into the earth, and to come out next morning at the other side. The moon is supposed to rise from and set in the ocean. Earthquakes are held to result from explosions of sulphur in the heart of the earth; rain is said to be poured down by the Dragon God who usually resides on the other side of the clouds, and the rainbow is believed to be formed by the breath of an enormous oyster which lives somewhere in the middle of the sea, far away from land. Comets and eclipses of the sun are looked upon as special warnings to the throne, and it is usual for some distinguished censor to memorialise the Emperor accordingly. The most curious perhaps of all these popular superstitions are those which refer to thunder, lightning, and hail, regarded in China as the visitation of an angry and offended god. In the first place it is supposed that people are struck by thunder and not by lightning--a belief which was probably once prevalent in England, as evidenced by the English word _thunderstruck_. Sir Philip Sydney writes:--"I remained as a man thunder-stricken." Secondly, death by thunder is regarded as a punishment for some secret crime committed against human or divine law, and consequently a man who is not conscious of anything of the kind faces the elements without fear. Away behind the clouds during a storm or typhoon sit the God of Thunder armed with his terrible bolts, and the Goddess of Lightning, holding in her hand a dazzling mirror. With this last she throws a flash of lightning over the guilty man that the God of Thunder may see to strike his victim; the pealing crash which follows is caused by the passage through the air of the invisible shaft--and the wrongs of Heaven are avenged. Similarly, hail is looked upon as an instrument of punishment in the hands of the Hail God, directed only against the crops and possessions of such mortals as have by their wicked actions exposed themselves to the slow but certain visitation of divine vengeance.

Each province, nay, each town, has its own particular set of superstitions on a variety of subjects; the above, however, dealing with the most important of all natural phenomena, will be found common to every village and household in the Chinese Empire. The childlike faith with which such quaint notions are accepted by the people at large is only equalled by the untiring care with which they are fostered by the ruling classes, who are well aware of their value in the government of an excitable people. The Emperor himself prays loud and long for rain, fine weather, or snow, according as either may be needed by the suffering crops, and never leaves off until the elements answer his prayers. But here we are ridiculing a phase of superstition from which nations with greater advantages than China are not yet wholly free.