Narrative of the Chinese Embassy to the Khan of the Tourgouth Tartars

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Narrative of the Chinese Embassy to the Khan of the Tourgouth Tartars
Narrative of the Chinese Embassy to the Khan of the Tourgouth Tartars, in the years 1712-1715
George Thomas Staunton (1781-1859)
London: John Murray
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The Dramatic Works of the Chinese are certainly less calculated, on the
whole, than their Novels, to reward the labour of the Translator. Too
local and national to please much as mere compositions, and their minute
beauties of style and language necessarily, in great measure, lost in
the translation, the remaining sources of interest are but slender; the
dramatic dialogue drily rendered, and unaided by the talents of the
actor, can convey, generally speaking, no more than a very imperfect
outline of that interesting picture of life and manners, which, in their
novels and romances, is filled up in its minutest details.

Of the Chinese Drama we possess as yet but two complete specimens in the
English language; one translated originally into French in the latter
end of the seventeenth century, by Father Premare, and possessing some
adventitious interest, from its having afforded the ground-plan of
Voltaire’s celebrated tragedy of the Orphan of China; and the other more
recently, by Mr. Davis, a young but distinguished Chinese scholar of
this country, and published three or four years ago in London, together
with an interesting Introduction by the editor.

Upon the former work, by Father Premare, having had occasion to compare
it with the original, the translator may perhaps be permitted to make a
few observations. It appeared to him to be altogether a faithful and
correct version, giving a perfectly fair view of the scope of the
Chinese tragedy, without any attempt to reconcile it to our ideas,
either by amplification or embellishment. Some redundancies and
unnecessary details are indeed pruned away, which would have been
insufferably tedious to the European reader: the songs also, which occur
very frequently, and constitute probably not less than a fourth of the
original text, are almost wholly omitted. These songs, it is to be
observed, are by no means easily to be understood by a foreigner, and
appear to be seldom or ever absolutely essential to the developement of
the plot; being, in general, little more than high-toned declamatory
repetitions of the sentiments expressed in the prose lines immediately
preceding. Though, certainly written in what may be termed poetic
language, they are not subjected to any of the ordinary metrical or
other rules of Chinese poetry; but it is evident that they are intended
to be sung, or at least recited in some peculiar cadence, as the first
words of some familiar song are always prefixed, in the precise manner
that they are occasionally with us, in order to indicate in each case
the appropriate tune.

Father Premare acknowledges very pointedly the difficulty of fully
understanding these compositions; and it is probable, that, had he felt
himself competent to have given a satisfactory version of them, he would
not have omitted so favourable an opportunity of letting us into the
secret of the merit of these and similar poetical productions among the
Chinese. In fact, whatever is refined or elaborate in the language of
the Chinese drama, seems to be confined almost exclusively to these
songs, or, as they might more properly be termed, marked and emphatic
passages, intended to be sung; they have even been considered by the
late Bishop Hurd, in his Discourse on Poetical Imitation, as affording a
rather remarkable instance of “coincidence between the Chinese and the
Grecian models,” and as “somewhat resembling in character the ancient
Chorus.” However this may be, it seems obvious that a translation of a
Chinese play, in which all such passages were to be omitted, would be
little better than a translation of one of Shakspeare’s
tragedies—Hamlet, for instance, which should be curtailed by the
exclusion of all those soliloquies and beautifully elaborate passages,
which are not absolutely essential in developing the plot or carrying on
the narrative. This plan might sufficiently illustrate the general scope
and design of the original writer, but certainly not do justice either
to the merits of his style, or the richness of his imagination. By this
comparison, it is by no means intended to condemn the performance of
Father Premare, which, as far as it goes, is still undoubtedly a very
valuable as well as rare example, in an European dress, of this branch
of Chinese literature. The above omissions, notwithstanding his
extensive and intimate knowledge of the language, he probably found, in
consequence of the difficulty and obscurity of the original, almost
unavoidable. But it is no more than justice to the merits of the Chinese
drama, to show how faintly and imperfectly they are capable of being
transfused into, or represented by, the best of European translations.
It is true that the translator of the Chinese comedy recently published,
has very laudably endeavoured to render both portions of his work into
English, and “in such a manner as would best convey the spirit of the
original, without departing far from its literal meaning.” But he justly
acknowledges at the same time, that the import of that portion which is
intended to be sung, is “often very obscure,” and that the sense is, or
at least appears to be, “sometimes neglected for the sake of a pleasing
sound.” It is perfectly obvious, that, with respect to any compositions
which partake at all of the above character, but a very faint and
imperfect image indeed of the pleasure their perusal or performance may
afford to a native, can be conveyed to a foreigner through the medium of
any translation, however accurate, ingenious, or elaborate.

With respect to the moral of the tragedy translated by Father Premare,
what is most offensive to the European reader, is undoubtedly the
dreadful and systematic spirit of revenge which throughout the piece it
expressly recommends and inculcates. In bringing about the catastrophe,
the gratification of revenge seems evidently a primary consideration,
and the satisfaction of justice, only a secondary one.

An European dramatist might not perhaps have found much to alter in the
catastrophe itself; but he must, in part at least, have brought it about
by different means, and certainly have represented the several agents
engaged in it, as inspired with different motives.

Before, however, we utterly, or at least, exclusively condemn the
Chinese for this defect in their moral sense, in thus seeming to
encourage and hold up to admiration, a disposition of mind so odious, we
must recollect how nearly their sentiments on this subject will be found
to correspond with those of the most polished and enlightened nations of
antiquity; as well as indeed with those of all the moderns, whose
feelings and sentiments have not been humanized and purified by the
introduction and establishment of Christianity.

Portland Place.

January, 1821.