Educated Chinamen loudly disclaim any participation in the superstitious beliefs which, to a European eye, hang like a dark cloud over an otherwise intellectually free people. There never has been a State religion in China, and it has always been open to every man to believe and practise as much or as little as he likes of Buddhism, Taoism, or Mahomedanism, without legal interference or social stigma of any kind. Of course it is understood that such observances must be purely self-regarding, and that directly they assume--as lately in the case of Mahomedanism--anything of a political character, the Chinese Government is not slow to protect the unity of the Empire by the best means in its power. And so, but for the suicidal zeal of Christian missions and their supporters, who have effected an unnatural amalgamation of religion and politics, and carried the Bible into China at the point of the bayonet, the same toleration might now be accorded to Christianity which the propagators of other religions have hitherto been permitted to enjoy.
As to religion in China, it is only of the ethics of Confucius that the State takes any real cognizance. His is what John Stuart Mill alluded to as "the best wisdom they possess;" and, as he further observed, the Chinese have secured "that those who have appropriated most of it shall occupy the posts of honour and power." His maxims are entirely devoid of the superstitious element. He recognises a principle of right beyond the ken of man; but though he once said that this principle was conscious of his existence and his work on earth, it never entered his head to endow it with anything like retributory powers. Allusions to an unseen world were received by him with scorn; and as regards a future state, he has preserved a most discreet silence. "While you do not know life, how can you know about death?" was the rebuke he administered to a disciple who urged some utterance on the problem of most interest to mankind. And yet, in spite of the extreme healthiness of Confucian ethics, there has grown up, around both the political and social life of the Chinese, such a tangled maze of superstition, that it is no wonder if all intellectual advancement has been first checked, and has then utterly succumbed. The ruling classes have availed themselves of its irresistible power to give them a firmer hold over their simple-hearted, credulous subjects; they have practised it in its grossest forms, and have written volumes in support of absurdities in which they cannot really have the slightest faith themselves. It was only a year or two ago that the most powerful man in China, a distinguished scholar, statesman, and general, prostrated himself before a diminutive water-snake, in the hope that by humble intercession with the God of Floods he might bring about a respite from the cruel miseries which had been caused by inundations over a wide area of the province of Chihli. The suppliant was no other than the celebrated Viceroy, Lu Hung-chang, who has recently armed the forts at the mouth and on the banks of the Peiho with Krupp's best guns, instead of trusting, as would be consistent, the issue of a future war to the supernatural efforts of some Chinese Mars.
Turning now to the literature of China, we cannot but be astonished at the mass of novels which are one and all of the same tendency; in fact, not only throughout the entire stratum of Chinese fiction, but even in that of the gravest philosophical speculations, has the miraculous been introduced as a natural and necessary element. The following passage, taken from the writings of Han Wen-kung, whose name has been pronounced to be "one of the most venerated," is a fair specimen of the trash to be met with at every turn in that trackless, treeless desert, which for want of a more appropriate term we are obliged to call the literature of China:--
"There are some things which possess form but are devoid of sound, as for instance jade and stones; others have sound but are without form, such as wind and thunder; others again have both form and sound, such as men and animals; and lastly, there is a class devoid of both, namely, devils and spirits."
Descending to the harmless superstition of domestic life, we find that the cat washing her face is not, as with us, a sign of rain, but that a stranger is coming. On the other hand, "strangers" in tea portend, as with us, the arrival of some unlooked-for guest, tall or short, fat or lean, according to the relative proportions of the prophetic twig. Aching corns denote the approach of wet weather--we do not quote this as a superstition--and for a girl to spill water on fowls or dogs will ensure a downpour of rain on her wedding-day. Any one who hears a crow caw should shatter his teeth three times and blow; and two brooms together will bring joy and sorrow at the same time, as a birth and a death on the same day. "Crows' feet" on the face are called "fishes' tails," and in young men mean what the widower's peak is supposed to signify with us.
Superstition is China's worst enemy--a shadow which only the pure light of science will be able to dispel. There are many amongst us who would give her more: but they will not succeed.