There is a strange absence of the fear of death among the Chinese. One often sees large planks of wood stored in a corner of a house and one is told that these are destined to become the coffins of the man’s father or mother, even though his parents may at the time be enjoying the most robust health. Indeed, among the poorer classes, a coffin is considered a most fitting gift for a son to present to his father.
We established our camp on the porch of the temple at Li-chiang and from its vantage point could watch the festivities going on about us. The feasting continued until after dark and at daylight the kettles were again steaming to prepare for the second day’s celebration.
By ten o’clock the court was crowded and a hour later there came a partial stillness which was broken by a sudden burst of music (?) from Chinese violins and pipes. Going outside we found most of the guests standing about an improvised altar. The foot of the coffin was just visible in the midst of the paper decorations and in front of it were set half a dozen dishes of tempting food. These were meant as an offering to the spirit of the departed one, but we knew this would not prevent the sorrowing relatives from eating the food with much relish later on.
In a few moments a group of women approached, supporting a figure clothed in white with a hood drawn over her face. She was bent nearly to the ground and muffled shrieks and wails came from the depths of her veil as she prostrated herself in front of the altar. For more than an hour this chief mourner, the wife of the deceased, lay on her face, her whole figure shaking with what seemed the most uncontrollable anguish. This same lady, however, moved about later among her guests an amiable hostess, with beaming countenance, the gayest of the gay. But every morning while the festivities lasted, promptly at eleven o’clock she would prostrate herself before the coffin and display heartrending grief in the presence of the unmoved spectators in order to satisfy the demands of “custom.”
Custom and precedent have grown to be divinities with the Chinese, and such a display of feigned emotion is required on certain prescribed occasions. As one missionary aptly described it “the Chinese are all face and no heart.” Mr. Caldwell told us that one night while passing down a deserted street in a Chinese village he was startled to hear the most piercing shrieks issuing from a house nearby. Thinking someone was being murdered, he rushed through the courtyard only to find that a girl who was to be married the following day, according to Chinese custom, was displaying the most desperate anguish at the prospect of leaving her family, even though she probably was enchanted with the idea.
On the third day of the celebration in the temple at Li-chiang the feasting ended in a burst of splendor. From one o’clock until far past sundown the friends and relatives of the departed one were fed. Any person could receive an invitation by bringing a small present, even if it were only a bowl of rice or a few hundred cash (ten or fifteen cents).