A Description of China. 2
FROM their Music, let us proceed to their Poetry, and Eloquence. These
Arts must be of great Antiquity in China, it being generally observed,
that in all Countries Poetry and Oratory have been cultivated long
before other Sciences were even thought of; and that the first Histories
of all Nations were composed in Verse, as the best Way to hand them down
to Posterity, especially when Writing was not in Use.
BESIDES the ancient Books of the Chinese, some of which are in Verse,
the Poems of Kyu-i-wen are extreamly delicate and sweet. Under the
Dynasty of the Tang, Li-tsau-pe and Tu-te-mwey, did not yield to
Anacreon and Horace. In short, in China, as formerly in Europe, the
Philosophers are Poets; and among all their celebrated Writers,
Tseng-nan-fong is the only one who has not written in Verse; for which
Reason he is compared to the Flower Hay-tang; which would be perfect,
were it not insipid.
To understand well in what the Excellency of the Chinese Poetry
consists, it is necessary to be skilled in their Language; but as that
is no easy Matter, we cannot give the Reader a very good Notion of it.
Their Compositions of this Kind are somewhat like the Sonnets, Rondeaux,
Madrigals, and Songs, of our European Poets: Their Verses are some long,
some short; that is, have more or fewer Words in them, their Beauty
consisting in the Variety of their Cadence and Harmony. They ought to
have a Relation to each other, both in the Rhime and Signification of
their Words, which have among themselves a Variety of Tones agreeable to
the Ear. They have another Kind of Poetry without Rhime, which consists
in the Antithesis, or Opposition of the Thoughts, insomuch that if the
first Thought relates to the Spring, the second shall concern the
Autumn; or if the first concerns the Fire, the other shall relate to the
Water; which Manner of Competition has its Difficulties, and requires
some Skill. Nor are their Poets destitute of Enthusiasm: Their
Expressions are often allegorical, and they know how properly to employ
the Figures that render the Stile more lively and pathetic.
NEVERTHELESS, their Rhetoric is almost intirely natural; they being
acquainted with very few Rules proper to adorn and embellish the
Diction: They content themselves with reading the most eloquent
Compositions; therein observing the Turns that are most likely to affect
the Mind, and make such an Impression as they aim at.
THEIR Eloquence does not consist in a certain Arrangement of Periods,
but in lively Phrases and noble Metaphors, as well as bold Comparisons;
and, chiefly, in Maxims and Sentences taken from the ancient Sages;
which being expressed in a sprightly, concise, and mysterious Stile,
contain a great deal of Sense, and Variety of Thoughts, in a very few
THEIR Logic, which is refined to such a Pitch in Europe, is in no better
a State. They have invented no Rules to bring Argumentation to
Perfection, and shew the Method of defining, dividing, and drawing
Consequences. They follow nothing but the natural Light of Reason; by
which only, without any Assistance from Art, they compare several Ideas
together, and draw Consequences sufficiently just.
WITH these Helps the Chinese have published a vast Number of Books on
all Sorts of Subjects; as, Agriculture and Botany, the liberal,
military, and mechanical Arts, Philosophy and Astronomy. But, they have
been of most Use to them in composing their Histories, Plays, Books of
Knight-Errantry, Romances, and Novels. These last are not unlike those
to be met with in Europe; with this Difference, that ours generally
consist of nothing but Love-Adventures, or ingenious Fictions, which
corrupt the Mind at the fame Time they divert the Fancy: Whereas, the
Chinese Novels are commonly very instructive, as well as pleasant,
containing Maxims for the Reformation of Manners, and almost always
recommending the Practice of some Virtue. These Stories are often
intermixed with four or five Verses, to enliven the Narration. Du
Halde has inferred three or four Pieces of this Kind by Way of Specimen.
PLAYS must be very common in China, since, as hath been already
observed, they are acted at every considerable Entertainment: But
neither the three Unities, of Action, Time, and Place, nor the other
Rules observed by the Europeans, to give Regularity and Grace to these
Sorts of Works, are to be Sound in them. The whole Design of their
Authors being to divert their Countrymen, and move their Passions; to
inspire them with the Love of Virtue, and an Abhorrence of Vice; they
think it sufficient if they succeed thus far. They make no Distinction
between Tragedies, which do not differ from their Novels, excepting,
that Persons are introduced speaking on a Theatre. In the printed Plays,
the Names of the Persons are seldom set down; because they always begin
by telling the Spectators who they are, and the Parts they are to act.
A COMPANY of Comedians consists of eight or nine Actors, who have each
their proper Parts allotted, much like the Italian Comedians and French
Strollers: Frequently, the fame Player acts several different Parts;
other wife, as the Chinese represent every Incident, and in the Dialogue
Form, the Company would be too numerous: But then the Spectator is
liable to be puzzled. This might be remedied by a Mask; but Masks are
seldom used, except in Interludes; and are worn only by Villains and the
Chiefs of Robbers.
THE Chinese Tragedies are intermixed with Songs; and they often
break-off Singing, to recite two or three Phrases in the usual Manner of
speaking. It shocks an European to see an Actor fall a-singing in the
Middle of a Dialogue: But it must be considered, that among the Chinese,
the Singing is to express some great Emotion of the Soul; such as Joy,
Anger, Grief, or Despair: For Instance, a Man who is filled with
Indignation against a Villain, sings; another, who animates himself to
Revenge, sings; a third, who is ready to make himself away, likewise
THE Songs in some Plays arc difficult to be understood, especially by
Europeans, because full of Allusions to Things unknown to them; and
Figures of Speech which they have much ado to comprehend. The Airs
belonging to the Songs of the Chinese Tragedies are but few, and, in the
Impression, they are placed at the Head of the Songs; which are printed
in large Characters, to distinguish them from Prose.
THE Tragedies are divided into several Parts, which may be called Acts:
The first is named Sye-tse, and resembles a Prologue or Introduction:
The Acts are called Chê, which may be divided, if one will, into Scenes,
by the Entries and Exits of the Actors.
FOR a Specimen of the Chinese Plays, the Author has inferred a Tragedy,
intitled, Chau-shi-ku-eul, that is, The little Orphan of the House of
Chau. It was translated by de Premare the Jesuit, from a Collection of
an hundred of the best Plays composed under the Dynasty of the Ywen, (or
Western Tartars) and contains an hundred Volumes divided into four Tau.
It is the eighty-fifth of the Collection, and begins the thirty-fifth
Volume. There are but five Actors, although near a Dozen Persons speak,
if we reckon the Guards and Soldiers.
 Du Halde’s China, vol 1. p. 394.
 The same, vol 2. p. 146.
 The same, vol 2. p. 124.
 The same, vol 2. p. 147.
 See before, p. 83. e.
 Du Halde’s China, vol 2. p. 175.