Old procedures followed in settling cases of divorce.

Contributed by Wang Ming-ji.


In 1947 in response to my enquiries, Wang Ming-ji wrote an outline of the procedures that used to be followed in settling the dispute that arose between two families if a marriage had broken up. The outline included a short extract of the kind of conversation which would have taken place when the two middlemen sent by one party arrived at the home of the other party. The opening gambit was full of indirect, almost evasive statements, and the quotation of proverbial sayings. In reality the bargaining was probably a protracted process, with each side well aware what the traditional settlement required, but each trying to vary the terms to their own advantage, by pleading special circumstances.

An interesting feature was the use of code words, wheat, barley, and oats, instead of naming the animals actually involved in the payment. Repeated questioning failed to discover the reason for this usage, but apparently it used not to be considered delicate to call a cow, "a cow" in the course of such negotiations.

When matters had been talked through and the required payments made, the parties came together and the formal agreement was recited, presumably by a middleman. This made reference to the "yi-xiu" and the "fu-xiu", which were some kind of mythical creatures, possibly the male and female of the species. The point about them was that they could never be separated. The "smooth road" and the "bright road", are one and the same, a paved thoroughfare where the stones were so polished that they shone. The agreement also mentioned the "dang", a bamboo whistle pipe, rather like pan-pipes, but so constructed that musical notes could be produced both by blowing and by sucking.

After the recitation, the agreement was finally ratified by the handing over of a ploughshare. This was a large triangular object made of iron, which fitted on to the wooden plough much as a garden spade is fitted to its handle. It was secured in position with a large nail. The Miao, having no means of setting out the agreement in written form, chose a ploughshare as a token and a witness, presumably, because it was made of iron, it was one of the more enduring of household objects, and also because its use in the production of crops may have given it some connotation of fertility.

Enquiry into the meaning of "let him enter the hole of the ploughshare", elicited the explanation that the transgressor of the agreement would drop dead and his spirit would be imprisoned within the ploughshare by way of punishment.

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