Some Account of the Public Life of the Earl of Macartney

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Some Account of the Public Life of the Earl of Macartney
Some account of the public life, and a selection from the unpublished writings of the Earl of Macartney
John Barrow (1764-1848)
London: T. Cadell & W. Davies
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Wednesday, September 18th. We went this morning to court, in consequence
of an invitation from the emperor, to see the Chinese comedy and other
diversions, given on occasion of his birth-day. The. comedy began at
eight o’clock A. M. and lasted till noon; he was seated on a throne
opposite the stage, which projects a good deal into the pit. The boxes
are on each side without seats or division. The women are placed above,
behind the lattices, so that they can enjoy the amusements of the
theatre without being observed. Soon after we came in, the emperor sent
for me and Sir George Staunton to attend him, and told me, with great
condescension of manner, that we should not be surprised to see a man of
his age at the theatre, for that he seldom came there, except upon a
very particular occasion like the present, for that considering the
extent of his dominions and the number of his subjects, he could spare
but little time for such amusements. I endeavored, in the turn of my
answer, to lead him towards the subject of my embassy, but he seemed not
disposed to enter into it, farther than by delivering me a little box of
old japan, in the bottom of which were some pieces of agate and other
stones, much valued by the Chinese and Tartars; and at the top a small
book written and painted by his own hand, which he desired me to present
to the king my master, as a token of his friendship, saying, that the
old box had been eight hundred years in his family. He, at the same
time, gave me a book for myself, also written and painted by him,
together with several purses for Areca nut. He likewise gave a purse of
the same sort to Sir George Staunton, and sent some small presents to
the other gentlemen of the embassy. After this, several nieces of silk
and porcelain, but seemingly of no great value, were distributed among
the Tartar princes and chief courtiers, who appeared to receive them
with every possible demonstration of humility and gratitude.

The theatrical entertainments consisted of great variety, both tragical
and comical; several distinct pieces were acted in succession, though
without any apparent connection 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 love scenes, battles, murders and
all the usual incidents of the drama. Last of all was the grand
pantomine, which, from the approbation it met with, is, I presume,
considered as 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 tigers, 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, porpoises 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! As the entertainment
lasted some hours, and there was an uninterrupted communication between
the court boxes, where we were and the others, several of the principal
Mandarines took the opportunity of entering into frequent conversation
with us, and from what passed I have certainly derived much matter of
observation and reflection. It did not escape me that most of these
Mandarines were Tartars, scarcely any real Chinese coming near us, but
among those that addressed us the most familiarly I particularly
remarked two, who appeared to have a more confident and disengaged
manner than the rest, and who asked us whether we could speak Persian or
Arabic. It seems they were Musselmen and chiefs of those hordes of
Calmucks who, not long since, on occasion of some discontent or
misunderstanding with Russia, migrated in great numbers from the coasts
of the Caspian to the frontiers of China, and put themselves under the
emperor’s protection. He gave them a very favorable reception, and has
decorated these two leaders, or mirzas, with transparent blue buttons,
and peacock’s feathers to their caps, as an earnest of his accepting
their submission and allegiance. A little before one o’clock P. M. we
retired, and at four we returned to court to see the evening’s
entertainments, which wore exhibited on the lawn, in front of the great
tent or pavilion, where we had been first presented to the emperor. He
arrived very soon after us, mounted his throne, and gave the signal to
begin. There were wrestling, and dancing, and tumbling, and
posture-making, which appeared to us particularly awkward and clumsy,
from the performers’ being mostly dressed according to the Chinese
costume, one inseparable part of which is a pair of heavy quilted boots,
with the soles of an inch thick. The wrestlers, however, seemed to be
pretty expert, and afforded much diversion to such as are admirers of
the palæstra.

A boy climbed up a pole or bamboo thirty or forty feet high, played
several gambols, and balanced himself on the top of it, in various
attitudes, but. his performance fell far short of what I have often met
with in India,

A fellow lay down on his back and then raised his feet, legs, and thighs
from his middle perpendicularly so as to form a right angle with his
body. On the soles of his feet was placed a large round empty jar, about
four feet long, and from two and a half feet to three feet in diameter.
This he balanced for some time, turning it round and round horizontally;
till one of the spectators put a little boy into it, who, after throwing
himself into various postures at the mouth of it, came out and sat on
the top. He then stood up, then fell flat upon his back, then shifted to
his belly, and after showing a hundred tricks of that sort, jumped down
upon the ground and relieved his coadjutor.

A man then came forward. and, after fastening three slender sticks to
each of his boots, took six porcelain dishes of about eighteen inches
diameter, and balancing them separately at the end of a little ivory
rod, which he held in his band, and twirling them about for some time,
put them one after the other upon the points of the six boot-sticks
above mentioned, they continuing to turn round all the while. He then
took two small sticks in his left hand, and put dishes upon them in the
same manner as upon the others; and also one more upon the little finger
of his right hand, so that he had nine dishes annexed to him at once,
all twirling together, which, in a few minutes, he took off one by one,
and placed them regularly on the ground without the slightest
interruption or miscarriage. There were many other things of the same
kind; but I saw none at all comparable to the tumbling, rope-dancing,
wire-walking, and straw-balancing of Sadler’s Wells; neither did I
observe any feats of equitation in the stile of Hughes’s and Astley’s
amphitheatres, although I had been always told, that the Tartars were
remarkably skilful in the instruction and discipline of their horses.
Last of all were the fireworks, which, in some particulars, exceeded any
thing of the kind I had ever seen. In grandeur, magnificence, and
variety, they were, I own, inferior to those of Batavia, but infinitely
superior, in point of novelty, neatness, and ingenuity of contrivance.
One piece of machinery I greatly admired; a green chest, of five feet
square, was hoisted up by a pulley to the height of fifty or sixty feet
from the ground; the bottom was so constructed as then suddenly to fall
out, and make way for twenty or thirty strings of lanthorns inclosed in
the box, to descend from it, unfolding themselves from one another by
degrees, so as at last to form a collection of at least five hundred,
each showing a light of a beautifully colored flame, burning brightly
within it. This devolution and developement of lanthorns (which appeared
to me to be composed of gauze and paper) were several times repeated,
and every time exhibited a difference of color and figure. On each side
was a correspondence of smaller boxes, which opened, in like manner, as
the others, and let down an immense network of fire, with divisions and
copartments of various forms and dimensions, round and square, hexagons,
octagons, and lozenges, which shone like the brightest burnished copper,
and flashed like prismatic lightning, with every impulse of the wind.
The diversity of colors, indeed, which the Chinese have the secret of
cloathing fire with, seems one of the chief merits of their pyrotechny.
The whole concluded as at Batavia, with a volcano, or general explosion
and discharge of suns and stars, squibs, bouncers, crackers, rockets,
and grenadoes, which involved the gardens for above an hour after in a
cloud of intolerable smoke. Whilst these entertainments were going
forward, the emperor sent to us a variety of refreshments, all which, as
coming from him, the etiquette of the court required us to partake of,
although we had dined but a short time before.

However meanly we must think of the taste and delicacy of the court of
China, whose most refined amusements seem to be chiefly such as I have
now described, together with the wretched dramas of the morning, yet it
must be confessed that there was something grand and imposing in the
general effect that resulted from the whole spectacle; the emperor
himself being seated in front upon his throne, and all his great men and
officers attending in their robes of ceremony, and stationed on each
side of him, some standing, some sitting, some kneeling, and the guards
and standard-bearers behind them, in uncalculable numbers. A dead
silence was rigidly observed, not a syllable articulated, or even a
laugh exploded during the whole performance.

Before we left the court Van-ta-gin told me, that all the ceremonies and
diversions of Gehol were now finished, and that as the emperor had fixed
the time of his departure for Yuen-min-yuen to be on the 24th instant,
it would be proper for us to set out some days before him; he therefore
proposed to me the 21st, and hoped it would not be inconvenient—so we
must get ready accordingly.