Theoretically, the Chinese are fatalists in the fullest sense of the word. Love of life and a desire to enjoy the precious boon as long as possible, prevent them from any such extended application of the principle as would be prejudicial to the welfare of the nation; yet each man believes that his destiny is pre-ordained, and that the whole course of his life is mapped out for him with unerring exactitude. Happily, when the occasion presents itself, his thoughts are generally too much occupied with the crisis before him, to be able to indulge in any dangerous speculations on predestination and free-will; his practice, therefore, is not invariably in harmony with his theory.
On the first page of a Chinese almanack for the current year, we have a curious woodcut representing a fly, a spider, a bird, a sportsman, a tiger, and a well. Underneath this strange medley is a legend couched in the following terms:--"Predestination in all things!" The letterpress accompanying the picture explains that the spider had just secured a fat fly, and was on the point of making a meal of him, when he was espied by a hungry bird which swooped down on both. As the bird was making off to its nest with this delicious mouthful, a sportsman who happened to be casting round for a supper, brought it down with his gun, and was stooping to pick it up, when a tiger, also with an empty stomach, sprang from behind upon the man, and would there and then have put an end to the drama, but for an ugly well, on the brink of which the bird had dropped, and into which the tiger, carried on by the impetus of his spring, tumbled headlong, taking with him man, bird, spider, and fly in one fell career to the bottom. This fable embodies popular ideas in China with regard to predestination, by virtue of which calamity from time to time overtakes doomed victims, as a punishment for sins committed in their present or a past state of existence. Coupled with this belief are many curious sayings and customs, the latter of which often express in stronger terms than language the feelings of the people. For instance, at the largest centre of population in the Eighteen Provinces, there is a regulation with regard to the porterage by coolies of wine and oil, which admirably exemplifies the subject under consideration. If on a wet and stormy day, or when the ground is covered with snow, a coolie laden with either of the above articles slips and falls, he is held responsible for any damage that may be done; whereas, if he tumbles down on a fine day when the streets are dry, and there is no apparent cause for such an accident, the owner of the goods bears whatever loss may occur. The idea is that on a wet and slippery day mere exercise of human caution would be sufficient to avert the disaster, but happening in bright, dry weather, it becomes indubitably a manifestation of the will of Heaven. In the same way, an endless run of bad luck or some fearful and overwhelming calamity, against which no mortal foresight could guard, is likened to the burning of an ice-house, which, from its very nature, would almost require the interposition of Divine power to set it in a blaze. In such a case, he who could doubt the reality of predestination would be ranked, in Chinese eyes, as little better than a fool. And yet when these emergencies arise we do not find the Chinese standing still with their hands in their sleeves (for want of pockets), but working away to stop whatever mischief is going on, as if after the all the will of Heaven may be made amenable to human energy. It is only when an inveterate gambler or votary of the opium-pipe has seen his last chance of solace in this life cut away from under him, and feels himself utterly unable any longer to stem the current, that he weakly yields to the force of his destiny, and borrows a stout rope from a neighbour, or wanders out at night to the brink of some deep pool never to return again.
There is a charming episode in the second chapter of the "Dream of the Red Chamber," where the father of Pao-yu is anxious to read the probable destiny of his infant son. He spreads before the little boy, then just one year old, all kinds of different things, and declares that from whichever of these the baby first seizes, he will draw an omen as to his future career in life. We can imagine how he longed for his boy to grasp the manly bow, in the use of which he might some day rival the immortal archer Pu:--the sword, and live to be enrolled a fifth among the four great generals of China:--the pen, and under the favouring auspices of the god of literature, rise to assist the Son of Heaven with his counsels, or write a commentary upon the Book of Rites. Alas for human hopes! The naughty baby, regardless alike of his father's wishes and the filial code, passed over all these glittering instruments of wealth and power, and devoted his attention exclusively to some hair-pins, pearl-powder, rouge, and a lot of women's head-ornaments.