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Robert Van Bergen

Marriage, Birth, and Death

Young men or women are not supposed to have anything to say about marriage. When the father of a son thinks that it is about time that the young man should marry, he sends for a woman who is employed by families in the neighborhood to help at weddings and funerals, as it would be very improper for one parent to call on the other to arrange the matter. Such a woman is employed to find somebody of the same position and wealth as the young man's father who has a daughter of suitable age. If all is satisfactory, presents are exchanged, and the parents of the bride give a written agreement to those of the groom. The prospective bride and groom may be children, but that makes no difference. They are engaged, and nothing but death can end the engagement.

When it has been decided that the marriage shall take place, the first thing to do is to choose a lucky day. Nothing can be done without that. After the day has been selected, the bride begins preparations by having her eyebrows pulled out, so that she may be known as a married woman. On the morning of the "lucky" day, she is carried from her own home to that of her future husband in a beautiful sedan chair, used only for such purposes. After she has arrived at the groom's house, the young couple worship together before the spirit tablets of the groom's ancestors. The bride in doing so, parts from her own family to enter into that of her husband. This worshiping together is the real marriage ceremony. Then the bride and groom drink sam-shu, or native wine, out of the same cup, when the bride removes her veil, and the young husband sees her for the first time. The day is spent in feasting and receiving congratulations.


A wedding scene—feasting the bride.

Meng tsz', or Mencius as he is called by us, is considered by the Chinese as the wisest man after Confucius. He says in one of his writings: "There are three kinds of impiety, but the greatest of these is to be without sons." All the Chinese think that it is of the highest importance that every family should have at least one son. They want to be sure that the spirits of the dead ancestors will be supplied with food, and that sacrifices will be made at their tombs. If a wife has no children when she is forty years old, the husband may marry again; but if the second wife has children, the first wife is looked upon as the mother.

When there are many girls in a poor family, girl babies are sometimes drowned because the parents can not support them. In many parts of China the bodies of children are frequently seen floating in a river, or wrapped up in a mat outside a city wall, or hung from the branches of trees to keep them from the dogs. These babies have not been killed, but may have died of sickness. Some of them may have even been nursed tenderly. When a child dies the parents grow very angry. They think that some of their ancestors must have left a debt unpaid, and that the man to whom the money was due, entered into the body of the child to cause anxiety, trouble, and expense. So the body of the poor child is thrown anywhere, and the house is swept, crackers are fired and gongs beaten, to frighten the Twan-ming Kwei (twahn-ming kwy), or short-lived devil, that it may never dare to enter the house again.

It is on the funeral of parents that the Chinese spend most money. When a well-to-do man dies, the house is filled with people weeping and wailing, and calling upon the spirit to come back. Candles, incense, and food, are placed before the body. A company of priests is hired to come and chant prayers for the dead, and a quantity of clothing is put in the coffin. For several days after the death different ceremonies are performed, and every seventh day until the forty-ninth day.


Chinese Funeral.

The coffin is of well-seasoned wood, the planks sawed very thick and nailed together with large spikes, and coated over with a very hard varnish. The lid is nailed down in cement so that it is perfectly air-tight. The most valued present a dutiful son can make to his parent, is a fine coffin. It is kept in the house near the entrance, so that guests and visitors may examine and admire it. When the coffin is carried out for burial, from ten to twenty men are required. Men and sometimes women follow in the procession, dressed in coarse white clothes, for white is the color of mourning. The men braid their queues with white, and keep them so for several months, just as we wear a black band around our hat or arm. The women in the procession weep and wail.

The Chinese usually bury near the surface, and heap the earth over the grave until it looks like a mound. The rich people have the coffin placed upon a cement floor, and covered with an arch of brick laid in cement.

In less thickly settled districts, the poor bury their dead on hillsides which are bound to be lucky, and such spots look like a cemetery. Near Hankow is a burying ground about ten miles long and one mile wide. But graves are found almost everywhere throughout China.