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A Crash Course in Chinese Morals at Singapore’s Haw Par Villa

ScribblingGeek earned a bachelor's degree in communication studies in 1999. His interests include history, traveling, and mythology.

Spend an afternoon at Haw Par Villa in Singapore, and you'd be an informal expert on Chinese morals.

Spend an afternoon at Haw Par Villa in Singapore, and you'd be an informal expert on Chinese morals.

Haw Par Villa is renowned for being Singapore’s weirdest attraction. Because of that, it’s often forgotten that the statue park was originally created by its founders, the Aw Brothers, to celebrate and promote classic Chinese morals. Here are 9 “lessons” on classic Chinese virtues that you would encounter were you to visit this truly bizarre attraction.

1. Madam White Snake (白蛇传, Bai She Zhuan)

The legend of Madam White Snake is one of the most well-known legends in Chinese mythology. It is also one of the hardest to interpret, with the story exploring a broad range of themes such as inter-racial unions, moral obstinacy, blind fury, and karma. If there’s any overall takeaway, it is perhaps that of destructive cultural differences; the tragedies in the latter part of the myth all stem from Monk Fa Hai’s fervent opposition to a snake spirit marrying a mortal, in spite of her being benevolent.

Note too that the trope of forbidden unions recurs often in Chinese myths. This might or might not be reflective of oppressive class differences during Ancient China.

The dioramas depicting the tale of Madam White Snake are near the main entrance. Here, Fa Hai tries to convince Madam White Snake’s husband to use a demon suppressing talisman on her.

The dioramas depicting the tale of Madam White Snake are near the main entrance. Here, Fa Hai tries to convince Madam White Snake’s husband to use a demon suppressing talisman on her.

2. Old Sage Jiang (姜子牙, Jiang Zi Ya)

Historically, Jiang Ziya was a strategist who aided the Zhou Kingdom dukes in overthrowing the Shang dynasty, thereafter also assisting with the establishment of the Ancient Zhou Dynasty. Within Chinese culture, however, he is more widely remembered as the magical sage marshaling the Zhou forces in the Chinese fantasy saga, Investiture of the Gods.

As for his symbolism in traditional Chinese values, any discussion of this could easily extend into a thesis, a task further complicated by modern beliefs that the Zhou rulers rewrote history to vilify the defeated. What’s undeniable, on the other hand, is that Jiang is widely regarded by the Chinese as representative of heavenly justice. Revered as they were, Chinese rulers and leaders were expected to put subjects before themselves. Failing to do so, too often, invites punishment by the gods themselves.

Jiang Ziya at Haw Par Villa. The characters on the sage’s hat means, the willing jump at the bait. This is one of several Chinese idioms associated with Jiang.

Jiang Ziya at Haw Par Villa. The characters on the sage’s hat means, the willing jump at the bait. This is one of several Chinese idioms associated with Jiang.

3. The Oath of the Peach Garden (桃园三结义, Tao Yuan San Jie Yi)

A major event in the classic Chinese saga The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, the declaration of brotherhood by Liu Bei, Guan Yu, and Zhang Fei has for centuries, symbolized loyalty and devotion to the Chinese. To a great extent, it represents honor and integrity too. Guan and Zhang remained loyal to Liu Bei throughout their lives despite their faction being the weakest.

One of the tamer displays of Haw Par Villa, this statue trio is located a shady tree corner; specifically, at a quiet spot near the rear of the park. The serene location certainly provides for lofty reflections. It also invites the question of, would you remain loyal to a comrade when faced with overwhelming odds?

Not many can comfortably answer that question.

Liu Bei, Guan Yu, and Zhang Fei. The most legendary “band of brothers” in Chinese history.

Liu Bei, Guan Yu, and Zhang Fei. The most legendary “band of brothers” in Chinese history.

4. A Blissful Union? (美满良缘, Mei Man Liang Yuan)

This bizarre display near the heart of the park is one of the most baffling in Haw Par Villa. And not just because there is no explanatory plaque accompanying it.

The wolf bridegroom and the rabbit bride strongly indicate a disastrous and “carnivorous” union. In stark contrast, though, everything else in the homely surroundings suggests a blissful marriage. Given Haw Par Villa was built in the 1930s, a period when China was undergoing terrible social upheaval, could this macabre scene could be a satire of a tragic practice then? That of selling daughters to rich men for marriage?

Alternatively, it might refer to naive girls marrying wealthy men for money. These girls, naturally, had no idea what they were in for.

A rabbit marrying a wolf? Possibly the weirdest Haw Par Villa diorama.

A rabbit marrying a wolf? Possibly the weirdest Haw Par Villa diorama.

5. Virtues and Vices (善与恶, Shan Yu Er)

This is part of an extensive rundown on classic Chinese morals and virtues, in the form of a macabre cavern slicing through the northern segment of Haw Par Villa.

Notoriously unapologetic in its portrayal of what’s morally superior or reprehensible, the lessons here are obvious. Pretty emphatic too.

At the same time, a unifying theme seems to be that of indulgence leading to violence, followed by open oppression of the weak. In short, this grim diorama and its siblings are not just expository vignettes about classic Chinese morals, they could be considered as socio-political commentaries too. In some ways, they are more chilling than the park’s infamous Hell’s Museum.

It’s always the same downwards spiral the moment you indulge in vices.

It’s always the same downwards spiral the moment you indulge in vices.

6. The Grateful Tortoise (海龟报恩, Hai Gui Bao En)

The Grateful Tortoise tells the story of Wang Qing, a kind man who pitied a tortoise being carried to a market for slaughter. Using his own money, Wang bought the tortoise and set it free in the sea. Thanks to this simple act of kindness, Wang Qing was later rescued by the tortoise after a shipwreck, thus completing the message that a random act of goodness could someday save your life. Of note, though, this story could also be re-interpreted in the opposite way, the question then being, did the other passengers deserved to die simply because they did not perform any ostentatious act of kindness? There is much to chew on regarding this.

Wang Qing and his savior tortoise look rather gleeful in the display. Which somewhat compromises the message of his story.

Wang Qing and his savior tortoise look rather gleeful in the display. Which somewhat compromises the message of his story.

7. Su Wu Herding Sheep (苏武牧羊, Su Wu Mu Yang)

This rather neglected display near the Hell’s Museum tells the story of Su Wu, a Han Dynasty diplomat who lived between 140 BC and 60 BC.

During a mission to bordering Xiongnu “barbarian” kingdoms, Su was captured and imprisoned for 19 years, much of which he was forced to herd sheep under harsh weather. In spite of this hardship, Su remained loyal to the Han Dynasty, never once abandoning hopes of returning to China and completing his mission. (He ultimately managed to escape) The story is thus an analogy for the classic Chinese morals of perseverance and faithfulness to the nation. Su Wu’s success in staying alive under captivity could also be interpreted as a lesson on making the best of one’s circumstances, no matter the overwhelming odds.

Supposedly, Su Wu treated his sheep well too. The diplomat was simply morally perfect.

Supposedly, Su Wu treated his sheep well too. The diplomat was simply morally perfect.

8. The Ten Courts of Hell (十殿阎罗, Shi Dian Yan Luo)

Haw Par Villa’s most terrifying display, and more macabre attraction, is the easiest to understand. Regardless of whichever hellish punishment you are staring at, the message is crystal clear.

Live wickedly and you will suffer horribly for your sins in the afterlife.

At the same time, the descriptions for each of the ten courts also give a good idea of what the Chinese consider as shameful, vile, or immoral. Correspondingly, what’s exemplary could also easily be deduced. For example, filial piety is obviously regarded as a supreme virtue.

Haw Par Villa’s Ten Courts of Hell display is also known as Hell’s Museum. Here, no sinner goes unpunished.

Haw Par Villa’s Ten Courts of Hell display is also known as Hell’s Museum. Here, no sinner goes unpunished.

9. Confucius (孔子, Kong Zi)

With most Chinese morals based on traditional Confucian teachings, it is only natural that the sage himself enjoys a prominent spot in Haw Par Villa.

Displayed together with the Chinese character for benevolence, Confucius is the embodiment of the Chinese phrase, ren yi dao de (仁义道德), which means the way of benevolence and morality. Without going into extensive details, this phrase could be considered as the foundation of all classic Chinese morals, the fountain from which all else stems from. In essence, it denotes “good” living based on kindness and grace to others. More importantly, it also stipulates that one honors his family, fellow men, and country. And never, ever shirk from responsibility to them.

Confucius, the Chinese embodiment of grace, honor, and morality.

Confucius, the Chinese embodiment of grace, honor, and morality.

© 2019 Scribbling Geek

Comments

Scribbling Geek (author) from Singapore on April 06, 2019:

Thanks Liz! If you're ever here, please do visit this bizarre attraction.

Scribbling Geek (author) from Singapore on April 06, 2019:

Oh, you must. Haw Par Villa is really quite an experience, moral stories or not. The nature of the displays also offer insight into the minds of the founders, of which there are many myths about. (I've heard stories of them being sorcerers)

Mary Norton from Ontario, Canada on April 05, 2019:

Enjoyed reading this. Next time I am in Singapore, I certainly will visit this place and with this background, I am sure I will enjoy it more.

Liz Westwood from UK on April 04, 2019:

This is a well structured and well-illustrated article. It looks like an interesting place to visit.