Village Life in Ming

views updated

Village Life in Ming




Villages. During Ming times (1368-1644) about 90 percent of the Chinese still lived in villages, most of which had about fifty families. Villages were usually smaller in the north than in the south. Few Chinese lived in single fami-lies on isolated farms. Villages were real communities, small gathering places for group activity.

Intervillage Marriage. Villagers’ lives were not confined to their local streets and the nearby fields where they worked. Villages acted within a large system of social inter-action. Generally, villagers had only one surname. People who had the same surnames were considered kin, if often very remote. To avoid incest taboos, married women in such villages had to have different surnames from their spouses, and therefore came from a different village, under a system operated by law and by custom. For this reason men sought wives from other villages, and as a result, there were close relations among different villages.

Intervillage Activities. Trade was also significant in intervillage activities, although there was a move from barter to money transactions in many areas of China during mid-Ming times. Small villages might not have any permanent stores or shops but would have a market that conducted business on a regular schedule, usually for one or more days. When a village was too small to support regular market, its people walked to nearby villages on their market days as buyers or sellers, or only as sightseers looking for excitement and enjoyment. Peddlers walked through a region with their wares, gossip, and news. Large villages and towns had scheduled markets that met as often as every other day, while some communities had permanent stores. Large villages in more prosperous regions had central streets with both a marketplace and some permanent stores, craftsmen’s shops with storefronts, and booths where doctors, fortune-tellers, barbers, letter writers, and other individuals provided services.

Entertainment. Most ordinary Chinese spent their time on work and little time on entertainment. The simple pleasures focused on holiday meals with special food at home or at religious events held at temples and shrines. At tea shops the men of farming and crafts households got together for refreshments, chats, and business discussions. In prosperous cities there were inns, restaurants, brothels, and entertainments of many kinds. People gathered together to listen to professional storytellers, while actors and acrobats presented their skills on temporary portable stages or in the courtyards of temples. Most villagers had chances to watch performances of touring theater troupes at least once a year. Buddhist monasteries hosted annual regional fairs that attracted buyers from long distances. Rural life during Ming times was bustling and, at times, exuberant with activity.


Secret societies existed in China since ancient times, but their activity and numbers increased after the barbarians invaded the Song empire (960-1279). The Hung Society, one of the active secret societies in south, west, and central China during the Ming period (1368-1644), was mainly political, though with a religious coloring. The following are the ten disciplines of the secret society.

It is not permitted to injure or destroy a fellow Brother [that is, in the Society’s secret language, be disrespectful to him].

It is not permitted to curse or scold parents.

It is not permitted to stir up a lamp or put out a light [stir up trouble].

It is not permitted to oppress others because of one’s superiority.

It is not permitted to deceive Heaven and cross the river [cheat people].

It is not permitted to skim off the fat and leave the soup [take the best for oneself].

It is not permitted to be inhumane and unrighteous.

It is not permitted to pick the red and take what is sub-merged in water [take illegal fees or compensation].

It is not permitted to struggle to go ahead when walking with others [push ahead for personal glory].

It is not permitted to usurp any position in the Society.

Source: William Theodore de Bary and others, eds,, Sources of Chinese Tradition (New York: Columbia University Press, 1960), pp. 658-659.

Family Religious Duty. Most villages had small votive shrines and temples. Monks and nuns traveled extensively, providing links to the outside. They often promoted village group pilgrimages to religious sites such as well-known temples. These several-day-long journeys became joyous holidays as well as spiritual experiences. Most villages had schools that were established on temple premises. Since many Chinese worshiped their ancestors, the home, not a temple or shrine shared with the community, was the site of a family’s primary religious duties. They performed rituals of veneration at home on the first and fifteenth days of the lunar month, on birthdays, and on special occasions. The eldest male heir or a near-kin surrogate conducted the ceremonies at home and at family tombs in the spring. Although Buddhist and Daoist religious observances and ceremonies of local cults were colorful and popular, they

took precedence over family religious duties. Among popular religions, sectarian lines were indistinct or absent, especially at lower levels of society where the differences among Buddhism, Daoism, and local cults were unclear.

Nationwide Holidays. In all villages most people in Ming times observed the three big holidays of the year: the lunar New Year, the Festival of Dragon Boat, and the mid-autumn festival. Holidays were observed differently in various regions, but these three holidays were celebrated nationwide. The solar-lunar calendar marked the annual round of seasons and festivals.

New Year Festival. Xin Nlan (new year), the most important holiday among Chinese all over the world, is celebrated in late January or early February, in accordance with the traditional Chinese lunar calendar, and continues for fifteen days. It was said that in ancient times a wild beast called man devoured many people in a village in the last part of every winter. One year the peasants frightened the beast away by beating gongs and drums and bursting firecrackers. These activities later celebrated the arrival of spring and the start of a new cycle all through imperial China (618-1644). During the New Year people respectfully visited elders and went to see relatives, wrote poems, hung red strips of paper, and enjoyed banquets with many dishes. Special food with emblematic significance was served. Abalone, for instance, was a symbol of abundance; bean sprouts, black seaweed, soybeans, and pork stood for wealth; dumplings represented union and enjoyment; oysters predicted good business; and carp, a large fish, implied success. Special foods were also put on the altar to the family’s ancestors, such as ground nuts and lotus seeds, which signified children and permanence; lichees, which meant success; and longan, a sweet, round fruit, signified harmony and delight. During festival holidays people also presented brilliantly colored woodcuts in the popular art tradition that illustrated happy children, good crops, and folk heroes; held lion dances; and fired strings of loud firecrackers to dismiss evil spirits. Before the New Year people tried to pay off old debts and cautiously cleaned their homes for the festival, considering that one week before the New Year festival the Kitchen God would go to Heaven to report what had happened on Earth during the year. The New Year festival ended with the Lantern Festival on the fifteenth day, the first full moon of the first lunar month.

Dragon Boat Festival. The Chinese developed the Dragon Boat Festival from an ancient ceremony held to propitiate the dragon just before the rainy season began in the sixth month, believing that the dragon would control the rivers and bring more rain. At the Dragon Boat Festival people ate zongzi, sweet rice balls wrapped in bamboo or lotus leaves. They also carried out races in long, narrow boats with carved wooden dragon heads on

their prows. Each boat had from eight to fifteen pairs of rowers, and viewers on the river banks applauded the teams. Dragon-boat racing turned out to be widespread during the Tang dynasty in the Yangzi (Yangtze) River and the West River valleys in South China.

Autumn Moon Festival. The Autumn Moon Festival was a celebration to honor the harvest moon on the fifteenth day of the eighth month in the lunar calendar. Adults went out at night to view the full moon, drink rice wine, and produce poems while children held lanterns made of bamboo frames and colorfully ornamented papers. People presented mirrors as gifts to represent brilliance and wisdom. In the Yuan dynasty (1279-1368) mooncakes filled with sweet paste began to appear at the Moon Festival. One year in the 1350s a peasant named Zhu Yuanzhang put secret messages in mooncakes and passed them to the villagers on the day of the Autumn Moon Festival in order to encourage them to revolt against Mongol rule. In the following year Zhu was successful in overthrowing the Mongols and establishing the Ming dynasty. Mooncakes are eaten at present-day Moon Festivals in China.

Twenty-Four Seasons. The yearly calendar was based on the journey of the sun, determined by its solstices and equinoxes, while the stages of the moon provided the number of days for each month. The passage of the seasons was divided into a sequence of twenty-four fortnightly periods, each named for a seasonal phenomenon of importance to the timetable observed by the Chinese. Peasants and urban dwellers observed the calendar, to which they turned to mark events that added excitement to their otherwise mun-dane lives.


Western DatePeriod
5 FebruarySpring Starts
19 FebruaryRain Waters
5 MarchStirring Insects
20 MarchVernal Equinox
5 AprilClear and Brilliant
20 AprilGrain Rains
5 MaySummer Starts
21 MayGrain Fills
6 JuneGrain Forms Ears
21 JuneSummer Solstice
7 JulySlight Hot
23 JulyGreat Hot
7 AugustAutumn Starts
23 AugustLimit of Hot
8 SeptemberWhite Dew
23 SeptemberAutumnal Equinox
8 OctoberCold Dew
23 OctoberHoar Frost Goes Down
7 NovemberWinter Starts
22 NovemberTiny Snow
7 DecemberSevere Snow
21 DecemberWinter Solstice
6 JanuarySlight Cold
21JanuaryHarsh Cold


Hilary J. Beattie, Land and Lineage in China: A Study of T’ung-ch’eng County, Anhwei, in the Ming and Ch’ing Dynasties (Cambridge & New York: Cambridge University Press, 1979).

Timothy Brook, Praying for Power: Buddhism and the Formation of Gentry Society in Late-Ming China (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1993).

John Fairbank, China: A New History (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1992).

Ray Huang, China: A Macro History (Armonk, N. Y.: M.E. Sharpe, 1990).

Michael Loewe, Imperial China: The Historical Background in the Modern Age (London: Allen 6c Unwin, 1966).

F. W. Mote, Imperial China, 900-1800 (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1999).

Dorothy Perkins, Encyclopedia of China: The Essential Reference to China, Its History and Culture (New York: Facts on File, 1999).