A case of abandonment

The seal character at the left (a) is the most ancient form of 弃 (qì), which means ‘to discard, abandon’. To the right of it (c) is it’s modern form. It can often be seen in 抛弃 (pāoqì), which has the same meaning. The character depicts a situation that was unfortunately rather common in ancient times (and even in not so ancient times) in China and in some other countries when modern methods for birth control were not available. At the top is the inverted form of 子 (, son or daughter), indicating a child that is just born, with the head forward, and therefore turned upside down. Below that are two hands. The meaning is as clear as it is gruesome: a child that is being thrown away. Later a fork or shovel was added (b), which became the basis for the traditional character next to it (d).

An interesting legend is connected with this character, because it was the name of the person who became known as the ‘Lord of Millet’, or  (Hòu Jì), as he is known in China. According to the Wikipedia, there are two versions of the events surrounding his birth. According to one, he was one of the four sons of emperor Ku, who was one of the five sage emperors of Chinese mythology. According to the other, described in some detail on Baike.baidu, he was supernaturally conceived when his mother, while walking in the mountains, found a huge foot print. Greatly amazed by what she had found, she couldn’t resist the temptation to step into the foot print. Just at the moment when her foot sank in the print of the big toe, she felt something stirring inside her, which made her afraid and worried that something bad might have happened. When ten (Chinese) months later she gave birth to a child, and fearing that the child would appear to be a monster (妖), she decided to abandon him. Though she tried three times to leave the child at a spot in the surrounding countryside, each time the child was miraculously saved by animals. At last, when she found it alive and well for the third time, she understood that the king of heaven (上帝 Shàngdì) must have been protecting him, and that the footprint had been his. She decided to take care of the child and bring him up, and gave him the name 弃 (qì).

During his younger years he was fond of working the land and plant and improve crops. He is mostly credited with teaching people to work the land and plant millet, rice, beans, hemp and gourds. It was said that he saved many lives during a famine that lasted seven years just by teaching people these skills. He was made Director of Grains, which position he held during the Yao and Shun periods. It was during that period that he became known as the Lord of Millet (Hou Ji). According to the Wikipedia, however, it was emperor Tang of the Shang dynasty who conferred the title of Hou Ji posthumously on him and ordered rites to be installed to commemorate him. That meant that people would burn incense in his honour and in the hope that his spirit would ensure a bountiful harvest. However that may be, he is mostly known under that name, that we know as the Lord of Millet.

Abandoning newly born children seems a horrible way of solving the problem of overpopulation, but people had few other choices until fairly recent times. When Christian missionaries in the early days of contacts between the European countries and China found that the practice was fairly common in some areas, they sometimes asked the parents to give them the child in order to bring it up by themselves. Sometimes the parents would consent, but not always. One of the missionaries wrote once that the crying of a baby was so heart rending that it could bring a stone to tears.

During my sixteen years of contacts with Chinese students as a teacher in Guangzhou I have found that norms and values are in general not very different from those in the west. What people in western countries consider as cruel and immoral is almost always exactly the same as in China (with the possible exception of the death penalty). It is also good to note that norms change over time. In my own country, the Netherlands, we had pretty cruel customs when it came to, for example, punishing people for things that at present we may not approve of, but would not punish at all, or at least not in a cruel manner. Amsterdam is a city with history, and people have found reasons to establish museums dedicated to all kinds of things. Even to things like sex, and, yes, to torture. Such museums with rather extreme topics are located at spots mostly frequented by tourists. No doubt to make money, but maybe it helps to keep us humble about our past, and not to condemn other cultures without knowing the background.

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After ten years working as database programmer in the Netherlands, I moved to China in 1991 and began to study Chinese. During my study of the language I started to develop my own character dictionary to help me with looking up and remembering characters. In 2016 it was self-published through Amazon. Since 2018 I have been living in Hong Kong, while still working on the dictionary and trying to get attention for it among potential customers.

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