• Info
  • Pages
  • Transcript
  • Related
Laou-Seng-Urh, or, An heir in his old age
John Francis Davis (1795-1890)
London: John Murray
Page 1
Page 2
Page 3
Page 4
Page 5
Page 6
Page 7
Page 8
Page 9
Page 10
Page 11
Page 12
Page 13
Page 14
Page 15
Page 16
Page 17
Page 18
Page 19
Page 20
Page 21
Page 22
Page 23
Page 24
Page 25
Page 26
Page 27
Page 28
Page 29
Page 30
Page 31
Page 32
Page 33
Page 34
Page 35
Page 36
Page 37
Page 38
Page 39
Page 40
Page 41
Page 42
Page 43

A Brief View, &c.

AMONG the many interesting and valuable communications, for which Europe
is indebted to the Jesuits and the other less enlightened and more
prejudiced orders of the Catholic missionaries, who established
themselves in China more than two centuries ago, very little is to be
found respecting the taste of that extraordinary nation for lyric
poetry, or theatrical exhibitions; and from the infrequency of European
visitors, we are left almost wholly in the dark with regard to the
nature of this kind of composition, as well as of the actual state of
the drama, and indeed of that department of literature in general which
is usually known by the name of belles lettres. Led astray by Chinese
prejudices, and falling in with Chinese feelings, respecting their
ancient books, these writers have so stuffed their communications with
excessive panegyric on the beauties of the four King, and the wisdom and
virtues of Yao and Chun, as to leave themselves no time to enquire into
the modern state of general literature. We are told, indeed, by Pere
Cibot,[1] and the remark is copied from him by the Abbé Grozier, “that
they would speak, in China, of a man of letters making good verses, just
as they would speak, in France, of a captain of infantry playing well on
the violin;” yet both the one and the other immediately contradict such
a notion, by quoting several pieces of poetry, both ancient and modern,
extolling their beauties, and endeavouring to shew their influence over
the passions, and the estimation in which they have been held from the
earliest periods to the present times. The truth is, the most ancient
records that remain of China, consist of poetry. The very symbol by
which compositions of this kind are designated, points out their early
origin;—shee, a character compounded of a word, and a hall or temple, a
place from which the magistrates anciently delivered instruction to the
people—the words of the temple—being short-measured sentences, composed
generally of four characters, so chosen as to be each of them very
expressive and significant, and easily committed to the memory. The Book
of Odes, one of the four most eminent and ancient of their classics, is
chiefly composed of this kind of Verse.

It is not necessary, however, to dive into the depths of antiquity, or
to have recourse to ancient compositions, in order to prove a very
general predilection of the Chinese for epic and lyric poetry. The late
Kien-lung amused himself with writing an epic poem, called Moukden, and
two or three others of considerable length, besides several lyrical
odes, songs, and epigrams, as half the teacups in the empire can
testify; his unfortunate favourite, whose wealth and influence drew upon
him the vengeance of the reigning emperor, wrote verses in his prison
the day before his execution; and the Editor has in his possession the
translation of a copy of verses, entitled “London;” written by a
Chinese, who had accompanied a Gentleman to England, in the capacity of
his servant, describing very concisely, but characteristically, what he
saw, and more particularly, those things which contrasted with the
manners and appearances of his own country.

It is not correct, therefore, to say that the Chinese have no relish for
poetry. They cannot avoid liking it, for every symbol of their written
language is poetical; each character presenting to the eye, and through
it to the mind, the picture of the idea which it is meant to represent.
It is true, some of the missionaries make a reserve in favour of ancient
poetry: “the good old times” are praised in more countries than in
China, and with as little knowledge of what their “goodness” consisted
in; but Mr. Morrison, in his Chinese Grammar, quotes a Chinese author
who seems to have sounder notions on the subject than either Pere Cibot
or the Abbé Grozier: he compares the progress of poetry among his
countrymen to the gradual growth of a tree: “the ancient She-king (the
Book of Odes) may be likened to the roots; when Soo-loo flourished, the
buds appeared; in the time of Keen-ngan there was abundance of leaves;
but during the dynasty Tang, many reposed under the shade of the tree,
and it yielded rich supplies of flowers and fruit.”[2]

In like manner the two writers above mentioned, Cibot first, and Grozier
servilely copying him, pretend to say, that from the earliest periods in
which theatrical exhibitions entered into domestic amusements, and the
public entertainments of the court, the learned have not ceased to
publish philosophical observations on the dangers of the theatre, and
its baneful effects on public manners. “Plays (says one of these
philosophers) are a kind of artificial fire-works of wit, which appear
in the night of disorder; they debase and expose those who let them off,
fatigue the delicate eyes of the sage, occupy dangerously idle minds,
expose women and children who listen to them, give out more of smoke and
stench than of light, leaving only a dangerous dazzling, and often cause
dreadful conflagrations?”[3] Yet in the same page we are told that the
greater part of Chinese comedies and tragedies appear to be written to
shew the deformity of vice and the charms of virtue. The writer might
have added, that they are universally performed and encouraged from the
court to the cottage; that the Chinese are so passionately fond of
scenic representations, that in most houses of the great, a hall is set
apart for the performance of plays; that no entertainment is ever given
without a company of comedians to amuse the guests; that they constitute
a part of all public festivals; and that foreign ambassadors are
invariably entertained with theatrical representations:—he might further
have added, that it is not true, as he asserts, that public theatres are
put on a level with houses of prostitution and confined to the suburbs
of cities.[4] There is no such thing, in fact, as a public theatre in
all China. A Chinese company of players will at any time construct a
theatre in the course of a couple of hours; a few bamboos as posts to
support a roof of mats, and a floor of boards, raised some six or seven
feet from the ground; and a few pieces of painted cotton to cover the
three sides, the front being left entirely open, are all that is
required for the construction of a Chinese theatre; which very much
resembles, when finished, one of those booths erected for similar
purposes in Bartholomew Fair, but is far less substantial. Indeed a
common apartment is all that is necessary for the performance of a
Chinese play. They have no scenical deception to assist the story, as in
the modern theatres of Europe; and the odd expedients to which they are
sometimes driven by the want of scenery are not many degrees above Nick
Bottom’s “bush of thorns and a lanthorn, to disfigure or to present the
person of moonshine;” or the man with “some plaister, or some lome, or
some rough cast about him, to signify wall;” thus a general is ordered
upon an expedition to a distant province; he mounts a stick, or
brandishes a whip, or takes in his hand the reins of a bridle, and
striding three or four times round the stage in the midst of a
tremendous crash of gongs, drums, and trumpets, he stops short, and
tells the audience where he is got to; if the wall of a city is to be
stormed, three or four soldiers lie down on each other to “present
wall.” A tolerable judgment may be formed of what little assistance the
imaginations of an English audience derived from scenical deception, by
the state of the drama and the stage, as described by Sir Philip Sidney,
about the year 1583. “Now you shall have three ladies walk to gather
flowers, and then we must believe the stage to be a garden. By and by we
have news of shipwrack in the same place; then we are to blame, if we
accept it not for a rock. Upon the back of that, comes out a hidious
monster with fire and smoke; and then the miserable beholders are bound
to take it for a cave; while in the mean time two armies fly in,
represented with four swords and bucklers, and then what hard heart will
not receive it for a pitched field.”[5] Inigo Jones appears to be the
first who invented painted cloths for moveable scenes, which were used
at Oxford in 1605.

It is very true that stage players are not held in great respect by the
Chinese; and Cibot had probably read the statute[6] against civil or
military officers of government, or the sons of those who possess
hereditary rank, frequenting the company of prostitutes and actresses,
which led him into the mistake of the juxta-position of their trading
concerns, a mistake, the more likely to be committed, as he frankly owns
he knows very little of the matter, and takes no interest in the
subject. We must be cautious, however, in estimating the conduct of the
Chinese from their moral maxims or legal precepts: there is no people on
earth whose practice is so much at variance with their professed
principles; as a striking instance of this remark, it may be observed,
that the late Emperor Kien-lung, in the teeth of the above mentioned
statute, took an actress for one of his inferior wives or concubines;
since which, it is said, females have been prohibited from appearing on
the stage, .and their places supplied by boys, and those creatures who
are of neither sex. No women ever appeared on the Greek and the Roman
theatres; but the characters in the dramas of the latter, as in those of
China, were sometimes played by eunuchs. The soft and delicate female
characters of Shakespeare had not the advantage of being played by a
female during his life; Mrs. Betterton, about 1660, being the first, or
about the first, female who played Juliet and Ophelia. It is observed in
the prologue to the Moor of Venice, in introducing the first female who
played Desdemona,

“ ’Tis possible a virtuous woman may

Abhor all sorts of looseness, and yet play.”[7]

No prohibition, however, of females acting on the Chinese stage, appears
in the code of laws; but it is enacted, that “all strolling players, who
shall be guilty of purchasing the sons or daughters of free persons, in
order to educate them as actors or actresses; or who shall be guilty of
marrying or adopting as children such free persons, shall, in each case,
be punished with a hundred blows of the bamboo”[8]—and the same
punishment is extended to the seller of free persons, and to females
born of free parents voluntarily intermarrying with strolling players.

It has been said, that in Pekin alone there are several hundred
companies of comedians, when the court is there, and that at other times
they travel about from one city to another. A company generally consists
of eight or ten persons, who are literally the servants or slaves of the
master or manager. They travel about from place to place in a covered
barge, on canals or rivers near to which most great cities are situated;
these barges are their habitations, and in those they are instructed in
their parts by the master. When called on to perform before a party, a
list of the plays they are prepared to represent is put into the hands
of the master of the feast, who consults his guests as to the choice to
be made; this done, the dramatis personas are read over; and if it
should happen that a name occurs therein, corresponding with the name of
any of the guests, another piece is immediately chosen, in order that no
offensive act or allusion in the play may be coupled with the name of
the auditor. Perhaps, however, this restrained delicacy is only on
paper, and not followed up in practice; just as the statute which
prohibits musicians and stageplayers from representing, in any of their
performances, “emperors, empresses, famous princes, ministers, and
generals of former ages,” is perpetuallly infringed, such
representations being, in fact, the favourite and most usual subjects of
theatric exhibition. Indeed there is a saving clause, which says, that
“this law is not intended to prohibit the exhibition upon the stage of
fictitious characters of just and upright men, of chaste wives, and
pious and obedient children, all which may tend to dispose the minds of
the spectators to the practice of virtue.”[9]

When the common people wish for a theatrical entertainment, they
subscribe among themselves a sum sufficient to cover the expense of
erecting the temporary theatre and paying the actors, which is said to
be very moderate. De Guignes says, that the temples or pagodas are
sometimes used for theatres,[10] which is not impossible, as they are
the common places of resort for gamblers, and the lodging houses of
foreign ambassadors, and officers travelling in the public service. But
neither in this respect would the Chinese be singular; our old mysteries
and moralities were frequently played in churches. Taverns in China have
also a large room set apart for the entertainment of guests with
theatrical exhibitions; just as in England, companies of players had
occasional stages erected in the yards of the principal inns, in Queen
Elizabeth's time.

If the missionaries have communicated little information respecting the
actual state of theatrical representations in China, the descriptions,
which occasional visitors to that country have given of the actual state
of scenic exhibitions, convey a tolerably correct notion of what they
are: and they certainly are not of a nature to give us any very exalted
notion of the state of the drama, or of the refinement of the people.
The most singular and inexplicable part of the subject is, that those
representations would appear to descend into lowness and vulgarity, in
the inverse ratio of the rank and situation in life of the parties for
whose amusement they are exhibited. Thus, at the court of Pekin, and in
presence of his Imperial Majesty, Ysbrandt Ives, the Russian ambassador
in 1692, was entertained with jugglers, posture-makers, and harlequins,
while on his way thither, and not far from the Great Wall, the governor
of a city entertained him with a regular play. “First,” says he,
“entered a very beautiful lady, magnificently dressed in cloth of gold,
adorned with jewels, and a crown on her head, singing her speech, with a
charming voice, and agreeable motion of the body, playing with her
hands, in one of which she held a fan. The prologue thus performed, the
play followed, the story of which turned upon a Chinese emperor, long
since dead, who had behaved himself well towards his country, and in
honour of whose memory the play was written. Sometimes he appeared in
royal robes, with a flat ivory sceptre in his hand, and sometimes his
officers shewed themselves with ensigns, arms and drums, &c. and by
intervals a sort of farce was acted by their lacqueys, whose antick
dress and painted faces, were as well as any I have seen in Europe; and
as far as was interpreted to me, their farce was very diverting,
especially part of it which represented a person who had in his marriage
been cheated by a debauched wife, and fancying her constant to him, had
the mortification to see another make love to her before his face.”[11]

Mr. Bell, who accompanied the Russian ambassador to Pekin in 1719,
describes the court amusements to consist of wrestling, sham-fights,
tumbling, posture-making, and fire-works. At an entertainment given to
the gentlemen of the embassy, by one of the Emperor’s sons, the
amusements were somewhat better. Speaking of the comedians, he says,
“There entered on the stage seven warriors, all in armour, with
different weapons in their hands, and terrible vizards on their faces.
After they had taken a few turns about the stage, and surveyed each
other’s armour, they at last fell a quarrelling; and, in the encounter,
one of the heroes was slain. Then an angel descended from the clouds, in
a flash of lightning, with a monstrous sword in his hand, and soon
parted the combatants, by driving them all off the stage; which done, he
ascended in the same manner he came down, in a cloud of fire and smoke.
This scene was succeeded by several comical farces, which, to me, seemed
very diverting, though in a language I did not understand.”[12] But the
comedy performed at a tavern in Pekin, “by a company of players
maintained by the house,” at an entertainment given to them by “a young
Chinese gentleman,” afforded to all great pleasure; and “the performer's
consisted of both men and women, well dressed, and of decent

Lord Macartney, in his own journal, describes the wrestling, tumbling,
wire-dancing, conjuring, and fire-works, that were exhibited at his
introduction to the late Emperor Kien-lung, and seems to speak of them
with great contempt, except the ingenuity with which the Chinese had
displayed their art in clothing fire with all manner of colours and
shapes. Their “wretched dramas,” as he calls them, are thus described.
“The theatrical entertainments consisted of great variety, both tragical
and comical; several distinct pieces were acted in succession, though
without any apparent connexion with one another. Some of them were
historical, and others of pure fancy, partly in recitativo, partly in
singing, and partly in plain speaking, without any accompaniment of
instrumental music, but abounding in battles, murders, and most of the
usual incidents of the drama. Last of all, was the grand pantomime,
which, from the approbation it met with, is, I presume, considered a
first rate effort of invention and ingenuity. It seemed to me, as far as
I could comprehend it, to represent the marriage of the Ocean and the
Earth. The latter exhibited her various riches and productions, dragons
and elephants and tygers and eagles and ostriches, oaks and pines, and
other trees of different kinds. The ocean was not behind hand, but
poured forth on the stage the wealth of his dominions, under the figures
of whales and dolphins, porpesses and leviathans, and other
sea-monsters, besides ships, rocks, shells, sponges, and corals, all
performed by concealed actors, who were quite perfect in their parts,
and performed their characters to admiration. These two marine and land
regiments, after separately parading in a circular procession for a
considerable time, at last joined together, and, forming one body, came
to the front of the stage, when, after a few evolutions, they opened to
the right and left, to give room for the whale, who seemed to be the
commanding officer, to waddle forward; and who, taking his station
exactly opposite to the Emperor’s box, spouted out of his mouth into the
pit, several tons of water, which quickly disappeared through the
perforations of the floor. This ejaculation was received with the
highest applause, and two or three of the great men at my elbow desired
me to take particular notice of it; repeating, at the same time ‘hao!
hung hao!—charming, delightful!’[14]

Mr. Barrow, in describing the amusements given to the Dutch ambassadors
in 1795, from the journal of a gentleman in their suite, speaks of
posture making, rope-dancing, “and a sort of pantomimic performance, the
principal characters of which were men dressed in skins, and going on
all fours, intended to represent wild beasts; and a parcel of boys,
habited in the dresses of mandarins, who were to hunt them.”[15] And
again, after the whole court had been terribly frightened by an eclipse
of the moon, an entertainment was given to the ambassadors, during which
“a pantomime, intended to be an exhibition of the battle of the dragon
and the moon, was represented before the full court. In this engagement,
two or three hundred priests, bearing lanterns suspended at the ends of
long sticks, performed a variety of evolutions, dancing and capering
about, sometimes over the plain, and then over chairs and tables,
affording to his Imperial Majesty, and to his courtiers, the greatest
pleasure and satisfaction.” De Guignes also, who accompanied these
ambassadors, describes this scene as a very puerile and ludicrous
representation. “A number of Chinese,” he says, “placed at the distance
of six feet from one another, now entered, bearing two long dragons of
silk or paper, painted blue, with white scales, and stuffed with lighted
lamps. These two dragons, after saluting the Emperor with due respect,
moved up and down with great composure; when the moon suddenly made her
appearance, upon which they began to run after her. The moon, however,
fearlessly placed herself between them, and the two dragons, after
surveying her for some time, and concluding, apparently, that she was
too large a morsel for them to swallow, judged it prudent to retire;
which they did with the same ceremony as they entered. The moon, elated
with her triumph, then withdrew with prodigious gravity: a little
flushed, however, with the chase which she had sustained.”[16]

It would seem, however, that meanness and vulgarity are not the most
objectionable charges to which the exhibitions of the Chinese stage are
obnoxious; some of them being grossly indecent and obscene. An instance
is mentioned by Mr. Barrow, of a woman being condemned to be flayed
alive, for the murder of her husband; she appears on the stage not only
naked, but completely excoriated: and he adds, that the European
gentlemen at Canton, are sometimes so disgusted with the filthy and
obscene exhibitions, as to leave the theatre.[17] “The history of
husbands deceived by their mistresses,” says M. de Guignes, “being
frequently the subject of their comedies, there occur therein sometimes
situations so free, and in which the actor exhibits so much truth, that
the scene becomes extremely indecent”—and he mentions an instance of
which he was an eye-witness, where the heroine of the piece “devint
grosse et accoucha sur le théatre d’un enfant.” The piece was called the
See-hou Pagoda, being the history of the destruction of the pagoda in
ruins on that famous lake described by Mr. Barrow under the name of
Lui-fung-ta, the temple of the thundering winds. “Several genii mounted
upon serpents, and marching along the margin of the lake, opened the
scene; a neighbouring bonze shortly after made love to one of these
goddesses, who, in spite of the remonstrances of her sister, listened to
the young man, married him, became pregnant, and was delivered of a
child upon the stage, who very soon found itself in a condition to walk
about. Enraged at this scandalous adventure, the genii drove away the
bonze, and finished by striking the pagoda with lightning, and reducing
it to the ruined condition in which it now appears.”[18]

As scenes like these are stated to have thrown the audience into
raptures, M. de Guignes very naturally concludes the real character of
the Chinese to be vicious. We must not, however, judge too harshly on
performances, which, for “licentious pleasantries,” we could fairly
match them several hundred years after those of the Chinese were
written. Warton has observed, that “gross and open obscenities” enter
into our old mysteries or religious representations; that in a play of
the “Old and New Testament,” Adam and Eve were both exhibited on the
stage naked, and appeared in the subsequent scene with their fig-leaves;
and Malone says, this kind of primitive exhibition was revived in the
time of James the First; “several persons appearing almost entirely
naked, in a pastoral exhibited at Oxford before the King and Queen, and
the ladies who attended her.”

Mr. Barrow has conjectured, that the low and trifling amusements of the
court, may have been introduced by the Tartars, as more congenial to
their rude and unpolished manners, while the songs and recitative of the
regular drama are more suited to the genius and spirit of the
ceremonious Chinese. The two Mahomedans who visited China are silent on
the subject; and Marco Polo only observes, that at the Emperor’s feasts
were buffoons, and players on musical instruments, and posture-masters.
At that time, however, a Tartar dynasty also occupied the throne.

As far as the mere spectacle is concerned, the several travellers we
have mentioned could not well be mistaken. Some deduction, however,
ought probably to be made, on account of their ignorance of the
language. The absurdities that strike the eye they are capable of
describing, but the dialogue of the regular drama, being utterly
unintelligible, ceases to create any interest. What their merits and
defects may therefore be, Europeans have hitherto possessed very slender
means of forming a sound judgment. A garbled translation of a single
drama by Pere Premare, a Jesuit, is the solitary specimen of this kind
of composition in any European language, before that which is now
offered to the public. It is called the Orphan of Chao, and forms one of
a collection of one hundred plays, written under the dynasty of
Yuen,[19] in the fourteenth century. Voltaire, who adapted the subject
to the French stage, considers it as a valuable monument of Chinese
literature at that early period, barbarous as it is when compared with
the dramatic art in Europe, but far superior to any thing that Europe
could boast at the time it was written. He considers it at least equal
to the English and Spanish tragedies of the seventeenth century; and
observes that, “like the monstrous farces of Shakespeare, and of Lopez
de Vega, which have been called tragedies, the action of the Chinese
piece continues five and twenty years.”—“Monstrous,” however, as they
may be, few Englishmen would give up the worst “farce” of Shakespeare,
for the heavy monotony and blustering declamation of the best “tragedy”
of Voltaire. He admits that “the Orphan of Chao,” notwithstanding the
improbability of the occurrences, has something in it which interests
us; and that, in spite of the innumerable crowd of events, they are all
exhibited in the most clear and distinct manner—but these he considers
as its only beauties; unity of time and action, sentiment, character,
eloquence, passion, all, he says, are wanting. Some of them, it is true,
are wanting in Premare’s translation, because he has omitted most of the
poetry, or those parts which have been compared with the Greek chorus,
and in which sentiment, eloquence, passion, are all expressed; that is
to say, he has left out the very best parts of the play. Our countryman,
Dr. Hurd, in his “Discourse on Poetical Imitation,” formed a very
different opinion of this tragedy from that of Voltaire. He conceived
that, it embraces the two essentials of dramatic poetry, unity and
integrity of action—and a close connection of the incidents of the
story; for, first, he observes “the action is strictly one; the
destruction of the House of Chao is the single event on which our
attention turns from the beginning; we see it gradually prepared and
brought on; and with its completion the tragedy finishes. Secondly, the
action proceeds with as much rapidity as Aristotle himself demands”—and
having noticed its resemblance in many points to the Electra of
Sophocles—“let me add,” says he, “an intermixture of songs in passionate
parts, heightened into sublime poetry, and somewhat resembling the
character of the ancient chorus.” Had Premare translated more of these
lyrics, he would probably have found the resemblance still more

The comedy of an “Heir in his Old Age,” is the simple representation of
a story in domestic life—a plain “unvarnished tale,” in which Chinese
manners and Chinese feelings are faithfully delineated and expressed, in
a natural manner, and in appropriate language. Two things, however, must
be borne in mind by the European reader, to enable him to enter fully
into the spirit of this play—first, that filial piety is, among the
Chinese, the first of virtues, and the lack of it, one of the worst of
crimes; that it is the grand basis on which all the religious, moral,
and civil institutions of the empire are founded; that the greatest
misfortune in life is the want of a son to honour and console his aged
parents, and to visit annually their tombs when dead—and, secondly, that
to afford every means of procuring a son, a man may take inferior wives
or concubines, who are generally. purchased from poor relations; such
wives having no rights of their own, and their children being considered
as the children of the first or legitimate wife, who call her by the
name of mother, and are entitled to the same rights and privileges as
her own children.

The dramatis persona of this play are made up entirely of the members of
a family in the middling class of society, consisting of an old man—his
wife—his second or inferior wife—his nephew-—his son-in-law—and his
daughter. The old man, having amassed considerable wealth by trade, and
having no son to console him in his old age, and to perform the
obsequies at his tomb, had taken a second wife, whose pregnancy is
announced in the opening of the play. In order to propitiate heaven to
favour him with a son in his old age, he makes a sacrifice of all the
small debts due to him, by burning the documents, which at the same time
serves to quiet some scruples of conscience as to the mode in which part
of his money had been acquired. He then divides his property between his
wife and his married daughter, giving to his nephew, (a deceased
brother's son), a hundred pieces of silver, and sending him away to seek
his fortune, the wife, owing to an old quarrel with his deceased mother,
leading him a most unhappy life at home. The old gentleman then sets out
for his estate in the country, recommending his pregnant wife to the
humane treatment of his family, and in the hope of receiving from them
speedy congratulations on the birth of a son.

He is no sooner departed, however, when the son-in-law cannot conceal
from the daughter his disappointment at the pregnancy of the old man’s
second wife, as, if she brings forth a girl, he will lose half the
family property, and if a son, the whole. His wife soothes him by a hint
how easily she may be got rid of, and the old man persuaded that she had
suddenly disappeared; and shortly after both the son-in-law and the
audience are left to infer that she has actually contrived to put her to
death. In the mean time, the old man waits the result in great anxiety;
his family appear in succession to console him for the loss of his
second wife, which he is reluctantly brought to believe. In the
bitterness of his disappointment, he bursts into tears, and expresses
strong suspicions of some foul play. He attributes his misfortunes to
his former thirst of gain, resolves to fast for seven days, and to
bestow alms publicly at a neighbouring temple, in the hope that the
objects of his charity may treat him as a father. Among the beggars at
the temple, his nephew appears, in the most hopeless state of poverty,
being reduced to take up his lodging under the furnace of a pottery; he
is insulted by the son-in-law, and reproached by the old wife; but his
uncle, moved with compassion, contrives to give him a little money, and
earnestly advises him to be punctual in visiting the tombs of his family
at the approaching spring, assuring him that a due attention to filial
piety must ultimately lead to wealth. The nephew accordingly appears at
the tombs, performs the rights of oblation, as far as his poverty will
admit, and invokes the shades of his ancestors to commiserate his
distress, and to grant him their protection. He no sooner departs than
the uncle and aunt appear, and express their indignation that their own
daughter and son-in-law have neglected their duty, in not being there
with the customary offerings; they observe that, from the earth being
turned up, and paper burnt, that some needy person must have been there,
and conclude it to be their nephew. The scene of the tombs, and the
reflections to which it gives rise in the old man’s mind, have
considerable interest; he reasons with his wife, convinces her that the
nephew is more worthy, as well as nearer in blood, than the son-in-law;
she relents, and expresses a wish to make him reparation; he appears, a
conciliation takes place, and he is again received into the family. Soon
after this, the son-in-law and daughter appear, with a great noise, and
a procession of village officers, to perform the ceremonies; but are
received by their parents with bitter reproaches for their tardy piety
and ingratitude, and ordered never to enter their doors again. On the
old man’s birth-day, however, they send to ask permission to pay their
respects, when, to the utter astonishment and unbounded joy of the old
man, his daughter presents him with his second wife and her son, now
about three years of age, both of whom, it appears, had been secreted by
the daughter, and supported, out of affection for her father, and
unknown to the husband, who had supposed them to have been otherwise
disposed of. The daughter is separated from her husband, and taken back
into her family; a new arrangement is made for the disposal of the old
man’s property, the daughter to have a third, the nephew a third, and
the little son a third; and the piece concludes with expressions of joy
and gratitude for the old gentleman having been blessed with “an heir in
his old age.”

Such is the brief outline of the fable; the unity and integrity of
action and design are strictly adhered to, and all the incidents are
closely connected with the story, which turns entirely on the misery
arising out of the want of an heir to perform the duties which filial
piety demand, both to the living and the dead. The time employed in the
course of the piece is three years, but the events follow each other in
so natural a manner, and with such uninterrupted rapidity, that the time
elapsed would not be perceived but for the age of the child brought
forward in the concluding act. The several scenes and acts are as
properly divided as those of an European drama; the sentiments are
naturally expressed, often tender and affecting, and always friendly to
virtue. The translator observes, that a few passages which were grossly
indecent, have been omitted in the translation; the Chinese, with all
their politeness, are coarse in their expressions; and we have seen
that, from a too close adherence to nature and to facts, the scenic
representations are often exceedingly gross and indelicate. “Ils
mettent?” says De Guignes, “trop de la verité dans le scene?”

The lyrical compositions, which prevail more in tragedy than in comedy,
certainly bear a strong resemblance to the chorus of the old Greek
tragedy; like the chorus too, they are sung with an accompaniment of
music. The translator seems to think that these passages are chiefly
intended to gratify the ear, and that sense is very often sacrificed to
sound; even if this were the case, examples of the same kind might be
produced nearer home. Perhaps, however, their obscurity may be owing to
the nature of the written language, in which associations of ideas are
presented rather to the eye, or to the recollection, than to the ear, by
a combination of signs or symbols, on the choice of which the force of
the expression must depend. Mr. Morrison observes, that “without
extensive knowledge of their ancient poetry, and the customs and manners
of the country, it is very difficult to understand their poetical
compositions. The very point and beauty of the piece often depends on
some slight allusion, which a foreigner does not perceive; added to
which, the style is peculiarly concise, and unusual words are

The opening or prologue of a Chinese drama, in which the principal
personages come forward to declare the characters of the piece, and to
let the audience into the argument or story on which the action is to
turn, bears a strong resemblance to the prologues of the Greek drama,
and particularly to those of Euripides.

In comedy the dialogue is carried on in the common colloquial language,
but in the higher order of historical and tragical plays, the tone of
voice is elevated considerably above its natural pitch, and continued
throughout in a kind of whining monotony, having some resemblance to,
but wanting the modulations and cadences of, the recitative in the
Italian opera; as in this too, the sentiments of grief, joy, love,
hatred, revenge, &c. are, in the Chinese dramas, usually thrown into
lyric poetry, and sung in soft or boisterous airs, according to the
sentiment expressed, and the situation of the actor; they are also
accompanied with loud music, the performers being placed on the back
part of the stage.

Whatever may be the merits and the defects of the Chinese drama, it is
unquestionably their own invention. The only nation from whence they
could have borrowed any thing, is that of Hindostan, from whence they
imported the religion of Budh; but as we know nothing of the Hindoo
drama, except from the single specimen of Sacontala, translated by Sir
William Jones, in a manner, it is said, sufficiently free; and as that
drama differs more from the Chinese than the latter from the Greek,
Roman, English, or Italian, there is not the slightest grounds for
supposing that the one was borrowed from the other. There is, indeed, a
characteristic difference between them; the one adhering strictly to
nature, and describing human manners and human feelings; the other
soaring beyond nature, into the labyrinth of an intricate and
inexplicable mythology.

[1] Mem. Chin. Tom, viii, p. 237.

[2] Grammar of the Chinese Language, p. 273.

[3] Mem. Chin. Tom, viii, p. 227.

[4] ut supra. Grozier, vol. ii, p. 417.

[5] Malone’s Shakespeare, Vol. 2, p. 57.

[6] Ta-tsing-leu-lee, p. 410.

[7] Malone’s Shakespeare, Vol. 2, p. 93.

[8] Ta-tsing-leu-lee, p. 410.

[9] Ta-tsing-leu-lee, p. 418.

[10] Voyage à Pekin, Tom. 2, p. 322.

[11] Harris’s Voyages, Vol. 2, p. 939.

[12] Bell’s Travels from St, Petersburg, p. 288.

[13] Bell’s Travels from St, Petersburg, p. 310.

[14] Life of the Earl of Macartney, Vol. 5.

[15] Barrow’s Travels in China, p. 216.

[16] Voyage à Pekin, Tom. 1, p. 421.

[17] Travels in China, p. 222.

[18] Voyage à Pekin, Vol. 2, p. 324.

[19] This dynasty commenced in 1260, and ceased in 1333.

[20] Morrison’s Chinese Grammar, p. 275.