The Chinese are comparatively a temperate people. This is owing principally to the universal use of tea, but also to taking their arrack very warm and at their meals, rather than to any notions of sobriety or dislike of spirits. A little of it flushes their faces, mounts into their heads, and induces them when flustered to remain in the house to conceal the suffusion, although they may not be really drunk. This liquor is known as toddy, arrack, saki, tsiu, and other names in Eastern Asia, and is distilled from the yeasty liquor in which boiled rice has fermented under pressure many days. Only one distillation is made for common liquor, but when more strength is wanted, it is distilled two or three times, and it is this strong spirit alone which is rightly called samshu, a word meaning ‘thrice fired.’ Chinese moralists have always inveighed against the use of spirits, and the name of Í-tih, the reputed inventor of the deleterious drink, more than two thousand years before Christ, has been handed down with opprobrium, as he was himself banished by the great Yu for his discovery.
The Shu King contains a discourse by the Lord of Chau on the abuse of spirits. His speech to his brother Fung, B.C. 1120, is the oldest temperance address on record, even earlier than the words of Solomon in the Proverbs. “When your reverendfather, King Wăn, founded our kingdom in the western region, he delivered announcements and cautions to the princes of the various states, their officers, assistants, and managers of affairs, saying, ‘For sacrifices spirits should be employed. …… further, the ruin of the feudal states, small and great, may be traced to this one sin, the free use of spirits.’ King Wăn admonished and instructed the young and those in office managing public affairs, that they should not habitually drink spirits.”
The general and local festivals of the Chinese are numerous, among which the first three days of the year, one or two about the middle of April to worship at the tombs, the two solstices, and the festival of dragon-boats, are common days of relaxation and merry-making, only on the first, however, are the shops shut and business suspended.
The return of the year is an occasion of unbounded festivity and hilarity, as if the whole population threw off the old year with a shout, and clothed themselves in the new with their change of garments. The evidences of the approach of this chief festival appear some weeks previous. The principal streets are lined with tables, upon which articles of dress, furniture, and fancy are disposed for sale in the most attractive manner. Necessity compels many to dispose of certain of their treasures or superfluous things at this season, and sometimes exceedingly curious bits of bric-a-brac, long laid up in families, can be procured at a cheap rate.
A still more praiseworthy custom attending this season is that of settling accounts and paying debts; shopkeepers are kept busy waiting upon their customers, and creditors urge their debtors to arrange these important matters. No debt is allowed to overpass new year without a settlement or satisfactory arrangement, if it can be avoided; and those whose liabilities altogether exceed their means are generally at this season obliged to wind up their concerns and give all their available property into the hands of their creditors.
De Guignes mentions one expedient to oblige a man to pay his debts at this season, which is to carry off the door of his shop or house, for then his premises and person will be exposed to the entrance and anger of all hungry and malicious demons prowling around the streets, and happiness no more revisit his abode; to avoid this he is fain to arrange his accounts. It is a common practice among devout persons to settle with the gods, and on new year’s eve, the temples are unusually thronged by devotees, both male and female, rich and poor. Some persons fast and engage the priests to intercede for them that their sins may be pardoned, while they prostrate themselves before the images amidst the din of gongs, drums, and bells, and thus clear off the old score.
At Canton, some are busy pasting the five slips upon their lintels, signifying their desire that the five blessings which constitute the sum of all human felicity (namely, longevity, riches, health, love of virtue, and a natural death) may be their favored portion. Such sentences as “May the five blessings visit this door,” “May heaven send down happiness,” “May rich customers ever enter this door,” are placed above them; and the doorposts are adorned with others on plain or gold sprinkled red paper, making the entrance quite picturesque. In the hall are suspended scrolls more or less costly, containing antithetical sentences carefully chosen. A literary man would have, for instance, a distich like the following:
May I be so learned as to secrete in my mind three myriads of volumes.
May I know the affairs of the world for six thousand years.
A shopkeeper adorns his door with those relating to trade:
May profits be like the morning sun rising on the clouds.
May wealth increase like the morning tide which brings the rain.
Hold on to benevolence and rectitude in all your trading
The influence of these mottoes, and countless others like them which are constantly seen in the streets, shops, and dwellings throughout the land, is inestimable. Generally it is for good, and as a large proportion are in the form of petition or wish, they show the moral feeling of the people.