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The Adventures of Wu

The Adventures of Wu: The Life Cycle of a Peking Man

With an Introduction by Derk Bodde
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  • Book Info
    The Adventures of Wu
    Book Description:

    Based on first-hand experience, this entrancing narrative of daily life in Peking in the first decades of this century makes vivid the milieu of a fictional family--the traditionally-minded, lower middle- class family of Wu. The author uses experiences of the Wu family's son from birth to marriage to convey in rich detail a vanished way of life, including children's games, nursery rhymes, and education; flowers and foods; street entertainers, folk amusements, and acrobatics; religions; jokes and poems; and a great deal more.

    Originally published in 1983.

    ThePrinceton Legacy Libraryuses the latest print-on-demand technology to again make available previously out-of-print books from the distinguished backlist of Princeton University Press. These paperback editions preserve the original texts of these important books while presenting them in durable paperback editions. The goal of the Princeton Legacy Library is to vastly increase access to the rich scholarly heritage found in the thousands of books published by Princeton University Press since its founding in 1905.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-5589-6
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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    (pp. v-vi)
    (pp. xiii-xx)
    Derk Bodde

    This book is the story of a Chinese boy named Wu, but in a larger sense it is also the story of one of the world’s great cities, Peking. The book begins with the birth of the hero in Peking early in the present century, continues with his upbringing and education, and ends with his marriage, all in Peking. Converted into the temporal framework of a city as old as Peking, this span of somewhat over twenty years corresponds very roughly, perhaps, to half a year or slightly more than that in the life of such a city. For Peking...

    (pp. xxi-xxii)
    H. Y. L.

    Since my school days I have often been asked by my foreign teachers and friends to explain certain things about the customs and habits of the Chinese people, and it has always been a cause for elation and minor satisfaction when I succeeded in giving the desired information, particularly when some misunderstanding was thus cleared up such as may be represented by the typical remark of “Oh, these Chinese pagans! You can never understand them.”

    And so when it was made known to me that The Peking Chronicle was interested in a daily feature describing the everyday life of a...

  4. I

      (pp. 1-10)

      WHOEVER has paid a visit to the Lung Fu Ssu fair will remember the narrow lanes branching eastward from the main thoroughfare as one approaches from the south the Four Arches at the junction of the Hata Men, the Chao Yang Men and Pig Streets and the prolongation of the boulevard that leads north to the Tartar City wall. The small lanes look so alike to a stranger that it is difficult for him to distinguish one from the other. Peking is a strange city and will remain strange in spite of the proposed plan for the reorganization of the...

      (pp. 11-17)

      ON the day when our hero, Little Bald Head, came to the Wu household there were all sorts of opportunities to test the strength and capacity for joy of old Mrs. Wu. For it was she who was the conductor of the entire show though young Mrs. Wu and the baby naturally were the central characters of the performance. Midwife Ma’s predictions having always proved to be sound in the past, the Wu family held everything ready for the coming event with such great enthusiasm that everybody was at home from early morning on that day—everybody except young Mr....

      (pp. 18-25)

      CHINESE newborn babies do not get a bath until the third day after birth for it is believed (or has been found out by experience) that it is not advisable to wash the babies before they get a chance to adapt themselves to climatic conditions and environment and until their feeble physique has had a chance to get somewhat “solidified”, and that argument seems to be sound sense. The program of things done at the so-calledHsi San(洗三), “Washing Third”, is a hopeless mess of superstitions mingled with practicalities. It is composed of undertakings both ceremonious and picturesque mixed...

      (pp. 26-42)

      ILL health of the mother almost always precedes and follows a childbirth in China for the typical Chinese woman is a weaker person, perhaps, than most οf her sisters the world over. The occurrence of sundry sicknesses is so prevalent during such periods that special medical preparations are to be found in the pharmacopoeia, known as theKuan Fang Tze(官方子), “Official Prescriptions”. The doses are a mixture of various herbs and other things of a specific quantity each and the juice obtained from boiling these together is taken as a cure-all. These prescriptions are even taken without the mother...

      (pp. 43-51)

      THE Wu child fared very well from the day of his birth and by the time the date of the Hundred Days Ceremony arrived he had grown fat, strong and robust and as cheerful as few other babies of his age could have been. His mother’s breast milk was good, the care taken was thorough in every respect and nutrition was in perfectly good order. In roughly three months he had grown up to be a typical baby that could challenge any medical test. His picture would have made a fine advertisement for any milk food or for any baby’s...

      (pp. 52-67)

      ALMOST as soon as an “unrecognized prescription” of eggs cooked in the soup of crab pulp was administered to young Mrs. Wu her breast milk reappeared and a calamitous crisis was fortunately avoided.

      This probably impressed young Mrs. Wu with the importance of taking still greater care of both herself and the baby. As no stone was left unturned to see that Little Bald Head obtained “the best that he deserved” of everything, he made excellent progress in personal habits as well as bodily growth. A Chinese aphorism for judging the proper infant development says: “Three, turns; six, sits; and...

      (pp. 68-78)

      “NO flower can stay in full bloom for one hundred days, nor can a person expect to be well for a thousand days continuously,” says a Chinese proverb. Even such a sturdy and robust “big boy” as Little Bald Head was not entirely sickness-proof. He became sick.

      He was hot with fever and his eyes were red and watery. His nose ran profusely. He refused to eat and looked bad. He was sleepy and fastidious.

      Even experienced old Mrs. Wu lost confidence in herself as to what was the matter with Little Bald Head. She wisely decided to take him...

      (pp. 79-95)

      THE Temple of the Goddess of Azure Clouds, situated on the summit of the Miao Feng Shan, the Mystic Peak, is the most important of sacred spots to the immense following of devout Buddhists of Peking and, indeed, also of Tientsin and the neighbouring districts. It is comparable to the T’ai Shan of Shantung province in religious esteem though not in natural or scenic grandeur. To this temple thousands and thousands of pilgrims, men and women, young and old, literally toil their way during the open season either to beg for an all-year long-term protection or, full of gratitude because...

      (pp. 96-102)

      THE pilgrimage of old Mrs. Wu was soon brought to a triumphant end and arriving home she found her grandson glad to see her back. It gave her immense pleasure to hear that ever since she left, the child had constantly been inquiring as to where his grandmother had gone and when she would be back. There was a close companionship between her and him and so they had missed each other very much. Old Mrs. Wu was glad of it.

      The child soon developed into a very smart and talkative youngster. He was not quite four years old but...

      (pp. 103-110)

      COMING to think of it, Peking people are the most resourceful and painstaking people in the world in so far as eating problems and their associated “fine arts” are concerned. Peking people pay more attention to palatal satisfaction than perhaps Confucius did himself. Confucius, in his famous book “Lun Yu” (論語) or “The Analects”, referred again and again to the question of eating, to which subject, indeed, a goodly portion of his chapter on living (I refer to that famous Section Ten, known asHsiattg Tang(鄕黨) or “Among Fellowtownsmen”) was devoted. He emphatically said that he would object to...

      (pp. 111-117)

      THE Tung Yueh Miao or the Temple of the Sacred Eastern Mountain is one of the chief monasteries in Peking and is frequented by devout worshippers in vast numbers. It is situated in the eastern gate of Ch’ao Yang Men, the Gate of the Morning Sun. This temple is open to receive incense burning pilgrims on the first and fifteenth of each lunar calendar moon. But throughout the latter half of the third moon, its precincts are thrown open to all pilgrims, particularly as some special rites sponsored by various temple societies (a distinct variation from the Miao Feng Shan...

      (pp. 118-126)

      FAMILY life in Peking is a colourful affair and as such is punctuated at intervals with seasonal touches. These seasonal touches are special fares for the family table, special articles of clothing, special religious observances and devotional exercises. On top of it all, children get special playthings “in season”. Some particular items of these will be described.

      The season is early summer. To give a general idea of the climatic conditions we can quote a T’ang Dynasty poet, whose poem, “Waking up from an Early Summer Siesta,” reads:

      “The green plums are sour with their acid juice penetrating my teeth;...

      (pp. 127-133)

      IN describing the life of the Wu family in general and that of Little Bald Head in particular, we have had various occasions in the past to refer to that wonderful house hold book, popularly calledHuang Li(皇曆) or the “Imperial Almanac”. This is because the book is the one book, very often the only book in a Chinese home, to which the people almost daily make reference for authority or guidance. This book, it is said, possesses certain benevolent properties which makes it a book “quite all right to read under the lamplight”—a phrase which often appears...

      (pp. 134-140)

      CHINESE children are not always destined to lead a life of solitude such as Little Bald Head has apparently been described to be leading, but being the only child in the Wu family he did not have many opportunities to associate with other children for a fuller enjoyment of life. Though his parents and grandparents, in their own pursuance of happiness had been providing pleasant diversions to his otherwise monotonous daily life, he was very often unhappy. Modern kindergartens have only recently been introduced into China and during Little Wu’s time they had not yet begun to be popularized. They...

      (pp. 141-148)

      FOR anybody who knows anything at all about China it is not necessary to dwell so much in detail upon the matter of the three bigchieh(節), or festivals, which are universally observed throughout the length and breadth of China, but it is perhaps permissible to give a short explanation as a preamble to the description of the customs and “to do’s” on theWu Yueh Chieh(五月節), or the “Fifth Moon Festival ” The classical name for this red-letter day isTuan Wu(端午) which means “Beginning of Noon”, but it is better known among foreigners as the...

      (pp. 149-153)

      THERE are two temples in Peking known as temples of Sleeping Buddhas; one is on the main highway leading to the so-called Western Hills about twelve or fourteen miles from the city, and the other is located on the extension of the Flower Market Street outside the Hata Men. It was on this street that the makers of artificial flowers had their periodic gatherings or fairs as the majority of these people had only small family “factories” where members of the families, particularly the women and children, pursued what was a much “sweated” industry in the slums behind closed doors...

      (pp. 154-158)

      NO description of Peking life can leave out the teashops which dot the broad streets and narrow lanes alike, besides occupying all the desirable spots in historically famous places in and around the metropolis. It is another institution that pervades all classes of the people in its various aspects. There are the luxuriously furnished places with the wicker chairs, some inclined like steamer chairs to give the gathering fashionables more comfort. These also serve light lunches and little fancy tit-bits of dainty morsels to the “classy” patrons. These, it must be admitted, are really adaptations of something foreign although the...

      (pp. 159-168)

      CHINESE conceptions of weather represent another phase of popular superstition. According to their idea the various phenomena of wind, rain, etc., are controlled by various departments of the deities. We have seen how the Chinese interpret thunder and lightning and it is on the same general principles that rain is controlled by the rain god and clouds by the god of clouds, wind by the god of wind, etc. To each of these a special shrine of elaborate proportions has been dedicated where the imperial families used to send a high-ranking official on specific dates for sacrificial ceremonies and to...

      (pp. 169-181)

      A CHINESE proverb says “There are buyers for everything for which there are sellers” The truth of this is proved nowhere better than in Peking for in so far as the colourful petty pedlars are concerned you can always expect the unexpected while wandering along Peking streets.

      Little Bald Head and his father were on a Sunday afternoon walk along the boulevard leading from the Gate of Heavenly Peace when they ran into one of Peking’s insect sellers.

      There are not many insect sellers and they are an interesting and picturesque lot. A wicker-woven market basket is carried slung on...

      (pp. 182-186)

      JUDGING from the descriptions of the doings of the Wus it would seem that the life of young Little Bald Head was a continued round of amusements and entertainments, doing things and going places, and that before long the boy would be sadly spoiled from running around town with his aged grandfather who had nothing to do but enjoy himself. This was exactly what the child’s ambitious young father became concerned about, particularly as his attempts to start the child on the path of knowledge were invariably turned down flat at the family conferences by the grandmother. It was when...

      (pp. 187-197)

      MUSKMELONS and watermelons are a popular group of “fruits” with all inhabitants of North China where these various members of the “gourd family” (as in the language of the botanists) are produced in large quantities and are therefore within the purchasing power of all the people. Eating melons therefore is a highlight in the life of all families during the summer season.

      There are many varieties of muskmelons, each known by a special fancy name based more or less on individual taste and quality characteristics. A few examples of these names would be “Goat Horn Honey,” given to the yellowish...

      (pp. 198-208)

      THE schoolwork of Little Bald Head at the hand of his grandfather was more or less a hit-and-miss affair. Although a schedule was at first solemnly drawn up setting two one-hour periods a day aside as his study periods, there were many reasons for calling off schoolwork for the day. A visitor in the house, some climatic extremes, a day’s outing or a visit to a friend either on the part of the student or of the teacher was each an acceptable excuse for a holiday. A family school is a flexible affair, its rules elastic and as such it...

      (pp. 209-220)

      CHINESE polytheistic Buddhism is an interesting story all by itself and in every trade and every phase of the life of mankind there is usually to be found some sort of a god worshipped very much in the same manner as a patron saint. The various major and minor divinities were not all created in one day for we find that they were mostly humans to whom were attributed special achievements or some outstanding contribution to the particular trade which they had practised. In the same manner as honorary academic degrees are presented to living great men in modern times,...

      (pp. 221-231)

      OF THE various insects which receive the attention of Peking families, none receive a bigger measure than those of the orthopterous or straight-winged families and of these there are many.

      There are the locusts which roam the North China plains and are such a destructive force for all farm plants that they are likened in China to an epidemic for clouds of them render green fields stem-bare as quick as a wink as if by the deliberate will of the gods antagonistically directed against the peasants although they (the locusts) are really doing their legitimate part in the struggle for...

      (pp. 232-239)

      FROM the first to the fifteenth of the seventh lunar month is a period devoted by the Peking-jento the special religious observance of ancestor worship. Primarily it is a family rite but it has been extended to a much wider scope to become a universal day of remembrance by which the fifteenth day, the principal day, has been known to foreign residents as China’s “All Souls Day”. It is a period of prayers, or Buddhist masses, and “burning of paper” as a gift or offering to the dead in the next world, very solemn in nature and touching in...

  5. II

      (pp. 1-5)

      WE already have noted that Peking families are very fond of lotus roots and lotus seeds as dainty titbits, particularly the fresh and tender kinds available in summer time. But there are also other varieties of water plants equally sought after by the children as well as the adults while they are in season. Thepi ch’i(輦蘆), or water chestnuts, are not really nuts but are the starchy bulbish part of the underground stems of a perennial grass with a blackish brown skin. Eaten raw they are sweet and crisp and when cooked they form a very palatable part...

      (pp. 6-15)

      IT was in the early fall of the year in which Little Bald Head or Wu Hsueh-wen (it is not good form to address him by any other name than “Hsueh-wen” now, although his parents and grandparents found it hard to make the change as the milk name of “Little Bald Head” sounded much more affectionate) was eight years old that he was transplanted from Mr. Yung’s school to a public institution in another lane not far from their own house. This was a big place and contained well furnished classrooms and a spacious playground with certain items of gymnastic...

      (pp. 16-21)

      LITTLE Wu’S schoolmates were not all like Master Chin who paid more attention to his pets than to his studies and aside from still another boy who habitually went to sleep at his desk about once in every three study periods and who had the pleasure of staying behind to join a new class coming up the summer after Little Wu entered public school all the rest were quite industrious scholars.

      Of the best lads in the class there were four outstanding ones and the five pupils, including Little Wu, became an inseparable set. Out of school they were dear...

      (pp. 22-30)

      ON the third day of the eighth lunar moon the birthday of the Chinese Kitchen God is celebrated.

      The Kitchen God, or Tsao WangYeh (鐵王爺), occupies an important position in the Chinese home as a liaison officer between the celestial regime and the resident observer of the activity of each family. His image, painted in multichrome, is seen in the kitchen of every Chinese home, almost always above or near the cooking stove as the Chinese name Tsao Wang actually means “King of the Stove.”

      The cooking stove unquestionably is considered the most important equipment in the home, as the...

      (pp. 31-41)

      THE eighth Lunar moon is the happiest month for China’s immense agricultural population as the year’s most important crops are harvested at this time. A stroll in the countryside will reveal scenes of the contentment of those who live on the good earth, where the simple rhythm of the flail resounding on the hard-surfaced threshing floor and the creak of the stone roller-mill operated by blind-folded donkey power mingle with the farmer’s song in praise of a year’s assured livelihood.

      The Mid-Autumn Festival, the fifteenth of the eighth moon, is usually accompanied by fine weather for at this time the...

      (pp. 42-49)

      THE busy festival season was soon over and the Wus embarked on a fresh adventure—hunting for a new pet, a Pekingese dog.

      The Wus always kept a dog. During his younger days, old Mr. Wu had kept Chinese hunting dogs for in those days it was a fashionable sport to keep such dogs and take them on crosscountry hunting trips. Chinese hobbies and amusements are classified under the four words: “Sounds, Colours, Dogs and Horses” and by these words they are contemptuously referred to. Of course, but few can afford horses while dogs are much more within the average...

      (pp. 50-55)

      THERE are many kinds of Chinese wines and principally they come under two names, “yellow wine” and “white wine”. The yellow wine is itself of two kinds, the Shantung yellow and Shaohsing yellow. Shantung yellow is manufactured in Peking while Shaohsing yellow is supposed to come only from the district of Shaohsing in Chekiang province from where it is distributed all over China, in like manner perhaps as the Japanesenada-no-sake. This Shaohsing wine is packed and shipped in the original crude earthen, small-mouthed demijohns of a typical shape and sealed with a big heavy cake of yellow mud. It...

      (pp. 56-62)

      The “big wine vats” or Chinese bars and the famous tea houses, both previously described, are places where all types of people can be met and studied from convenient angles. It was often the pleasure of the youthful scholar of the Wu family to appear with his leisurely grandfather and listen to the stories and yarns of the customers seen regularly at these establishments. There were, for example, the group of idle bird-fanciers who turned also amateur hunters during the autumn and winter months. Though these hunters, apparently belonging to a past generation, are “as rare as the stars in...

      (pp. 63-74)

      THE ninth moon is the month of the chrysanthemum and in almost all Peking families may be found this seasonal flower. The flower markets are filled with them and flower hawkers peddle them in the streets. Amateur gardeners show their new specimens in the public parks as each year their painstaking work in crossing the various kinds is rewarded with novel varieties, and friends gather in parties for “viewing” them.

      The purely commercial florists reap a rich harvest in profits as the chrysanthemum craze is universal and few people would permit the season to go by without getting at least...

      (pp. 75-84)

      LITTLE Bald Head, later named Wu Hsueh-wen, attended the public school for six years and in due course graduated with high honours from the institution and was transferred to a secondary school through a matriculation examination which he passed without difficulty. He was then fourteen years of age. The Wus were very happy. This was on the whole a good year for the Wus because certain business in which the old man was interested in partnership with others had a prosperous year and Master Wu’s father also received a promotion in the bank where he had been working for many...

      (pp. 85-93)

      WITCH doctor Sun Nai Nai, an expert rumour-monger, set up a smoke screen with the farcical news that old Mr. Wu had been nominated to an official position in the next world and, thus cleverly covered, effected a strategic retreat in perfect order and per pre-arranged plan having earned all possible money from the Wus. Though not all people believed what she said, such a piece of good news was quite effective in taking away a part of the bitter sting from the impending death of the old man who was but four years short of being an octogenarian.


      (pp. 94-109)

      A FUNERAL is known in China as apai shih(白事) or “white affair” and a wedding, ahung shih(紅事) or “red affair”, because such are the predominating colours used in connection with these events. Red is the colour of happiness and white that of sorrow.That a bride should wear a white gown with white blossoms and a groom be dressed in black is terribly in contradiction to the traditional colour-consciousness of the race. In Western countries, the Chinese are told, white is symbolic of happiness and black that of mourning but they cannot find a good reason why...

      (pp. 110-130)

      AS young Mr. Wu went to the family graveyard to see about digging the grave for old Mr. Wu’s remains, Seventh Uncle had his busy day, too, for there were many things to be attended to in the short period of time available. He spent a long time with the caterers over the menu for the forthcoming reception which was to be held in full style prior to the burial day.

      This grand reception is known in the vernacular asPan Su(伴宿) or “Accompanying Overnight”, as theoretically all the guests are to stay with the mourning family during their...

      (pp. 131-139)

      DURING the lengthy period of mourning following the passing of old Mr. Wu, the family life of the Wus took on a dull atmosphere for members of a mourning family in China are not supposed to enjoy themselves with any amusements, particularly not with entertainments of a public nature. Going to a theatre, for instance, has been ruled a breach of etiquette, as also is participation in dinner parties, especially being a host. Occasions of celebrations are of necessity disregarded as such and even a hearty laugh is considered bad form. A son or a grandson in mourning is not...

      (pp. 140-154)

      THE days toward the end of the old year and before the coming of the new are known in China collectively as the period ofSuei mu(歲暮), meaning the “evening of the year.” This period lasting about three weeks is a busy season for the Peking-jenand parading through the Peking streets may be seen a group of country people who, not profitably engaged on the farms, turn their attention to the urban districts for business opportunities in order to earn some extra money for their expensive winter house-keeping or for certain things to make their own new year...

      (pp. 155-161)

      NEW Year’s eve finds the Peking family at their busiest period of the year. In the shop and in the office they also work their hardest as each person has many important functions to attend to. The last day of the old year is the only time, since the Mid-autumn festival four and a half months before, when a creditor may press for payment of various debts which have been allowed to roll along getting bigger and bigger like a snowball. A statement is rendered to each customer who has had a “charge” account and shop clerks, mostly junior accountants...

      (pp. 162-173)

      ALMOST quite as important in the schedules of the Peking-jneas making new year calls is visiting the Buddhist and Taoist temples during the festivities. Of these temples the most outstanding ones are the Tung Yueh Miao or “Temple of the Eastern Sacred Mountain”, where old Mrs. Wu often went for her religious devotions and which is open for one day at the new year, the Wu Hsien Ts’ai Shen Miao (五顯財神廟) or the “Temple of the Five Distinguished Gods of Wealth,” situated some three miles outside of the Kwang An Men (廣安門), open on the second day of thee...

      (pp. 174-189)

      BY THECh’ang Tien-erh(廠旬兒), or “Factory Suburb”, is generally meant the district ofLiu Li Ch’ang(琉璃廠), or Factory of the Glazed Wares, principally the busy street east and west running almost the entire distance from the Chien Men Street to the Hsuan Wu Men boulevard and known throughout the country as Peking’s cultural market. In ancient times this must have been somewhat of a wilderness as the development of Peking was from the Tartar City southward and what is now one of the important shopping centers was until the latter part of the Manchu Dynasty a deserted region...

      (pp. 190-206)

      IN THE fourth year after old Mr. Wu’s death, Scholar Wu Hsueh-wen graduated from the secondary school and the Wus had to decide then whether he was to continue with his studies or be started in business life at an early date. It was in favour of the latter course that the family, including young Wu, decided finally and following the footsteps of his father, conforming to the business tradition of this country, he was recommended to start as a clerk in a banking house. His father having been reputably established in such circles, it was no trouble at all...

      (pp. 207-228)

      AN AMATEUR matchmaker is referred to locally as the person “who drinks the pumpkin soup”. This expression is widely known and almost universally understood by all Peking-jenbut few can give the exact origin of this interesting metaphor. It is really very simple as any person who drinks a hot bowl of pumpkin soup (which is a familiar Peking family dish) will exude just about as much perspiration as an amateur matchmaker must expect to exude on account of his selfimposed exertion. The matchmaker’s good work is never pronounced complete until the wedding is over and, as in the orthodox...