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27: Suicide

Suicide, condemned among western nations by human and divine laws alike, is regarded by the Chinese with very different eyes. Posthumous honours are even in some cases bestowed upon the victim, where death was met in a worthy cause. Such would be suicide from grief at the loss of a beloved parent, or from fear of being forced to break a vow of eternal celibacy or widowhood. Candidates are for the most part women, but the ordinary Chinaman occasionally indulges in suicide, urged by one or other of two potent causes. Either he cannot pay his debts and dreads the evil hour at the New Year, when coarse-tongued creditors will throng his door, or he may himself be anxious to settle a long-standing score of revenge against some one who has been unfortunate enough to do him an injury. For this purpose he commits suicide, it may be in the very house of his enemy, but at any rate in such a manner as will be sure to implicate him and bring him under the lash of the law. Nor is this difficult to effect in a country where the ends of justice are not satisfied unless a life is given for a life, where magistrates are venal, and the laws of evidence lax. Occasionally a young wife is driven to commit suicide by the harshness of her mother-in-law, but this is of rare occurrence, as the consequences are terrible to the family of the guilty woman. The blood relatives of the deceased repair to the chamber of death, and in the injured victim's hand they place a broom. They then support the corpse round the room, making its dead arm move the broom from side to side, and thus sweep away wealth, happiness, and longevity from the accursed house for ever.

The following extract from the _Peking Gazette_ of 14th September 1874, being a memorial by the Lieutenant Governor of Kiangsi, will serve to show--though in this case the act was not consummated--that under certain circumstances suicide is considered deserving of the highest praise. In any case, public opinion in China has every little to say against it:--

"The magistrate of the Hsin-yu district has reported to me that in the second year of the present reign (1863) a young lady, the daughter of a petty official, was betrothed to the son of an expectant commissioner of the Salt Gabelle, and a day was fixed upon for the marriage. The bridegroom, however, fell ill and died, on which his _fiancee_ would have gone over to the family to see after his interment, and remain there for life as an unmarried wife. As it was, her mother would not allow her to do so, but beguiled her into waiting till her father, then away on business, should return home. Meanwhile, the old lady betrothed her to another man belonging to a different family, whereupon she took poison and nearly died. On being restored by medical aid, she refused food altogether; and it was not until she was permitted to carry out her first intentions that she would take nourishment at all. Since then she has lived with her father and mother-in-law, tending them and her late husband's grandmother with the utmost care. They love her dearly, and are thus in a great measure consoled for the loss of their son. Long thorns serve her for hair-pins;[*] her dress is of cotton cloth; her food consists of bitter herbs. Such privations she voluntarily accepts, and among her relatives there is not one but respects her.

"The truth of the above report having been ascertained, I would humbly recommend this virtuous lady, although the full time prescribed by law has not yet expired,[+] for some mark[:] of Your Majesty's approbation." Rescript:--Granted!

[*] Instead of the elaborate gold and silver ornaments usually worn by Chinese women.

[+] A woman must be a widow before she is thirty years old, and remain so for thirty years before she is entitled to the above reward. This is both to guard against a possible relapse from her former virtuous resolution, and to have some grounds for believing that she was prompted so to act more by a sense of right than by any ungallant neglect on the part of the other sex.

[:] Generally a tablet or banner, inscribed with well-chosen words of praise.

The only strange part in this memorial is that the girl's mother was not censured for trying to prevent her from acting the part of a virtuous wife and filial daughter-in-law. It is also more than probable that her early attempts at suicide, rather than any subsequent household economy or dutiful behaviour, have secured for this lady the coveted mark of Imperial approbation.

Suicide, while in an unsound state of mind, is rare; insanity itself, whether temporary or permanent, being extremely uncommon in China. Neither does the eye detect any of the vast asylums so numerous in England for the reception of lunatics, idiots, deaf-mutes, cripples, and the blind. There are a few such institutions here and there, but not enough to constitute a national feature as with us. They are only for the poorest of the poor, and are generally of more benefit to dishonest managers than to anybody else. And yet in the streets of a Chinese town we see a far less number of "unfortunates" than among our own highly civilised communities. Blindness is the most common of the above afflictions, so many losing their sight after an attack of small-pox. But a Chinaman with a malformation of any kind is very seldom seen; and, as we have said before, lunacy appears to be almost unknown. Such suicides as take place are usually well-premeditated acts, and are committed either out of revenge, or in obedience to the "despotism of custom." Statistics are impossible, and we offer our conclusions, founded upon observation alone, subject to whatever correction more scientific investigators may hereafter be enabled to produce.