The Chinese as They Are

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The Chinese as They Are
The Chinese as they are: their moral, social, and literary character; a new analysis of the language: with succint views of their principal arts and sciences
George Tradescant Lay
London: William Ball & Co.
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The Chinese, as is elsewhere intimated, have very poor conceptions of
architectural design, and are therefore unable to rear a building winch
would answer the purposes, or deserve the name, of a public theatre.
Their edifices for the enacting of plays are of a temporary kind,
pitched like a tent in a field, and struck as soon as the engagement
between the actors and their patrons has terminated. They differ widely
in their dimensions, though constructed nearly upon the same plan, and
consist generally of four separate buildings, planted upon the four
sides of a large quadrangle. One side is occupied by the stage, which
consists merely of a robing-room and platform for the actors: the
opposite side is distinguished by a large gallery set apart for the
ladies, who are thus indulged with a position corresponding to our front
boxes. Here we have a practical proof of Chinese gallantry where
strangers would scarcely expect to find it; for the front is regarded as
the most advantageous place for seeing. In the opera-house at Rio
Janeiro a large box or room at the top of the semicircle, is devoted to
the emperor, who in this way faces the stage as he reclines in his
chair; an honour of the same sort is awarded to the dames of the
Celestial Land. The two side-galleries are intended for gentlemen who
pay for their places: the area or pit is filled with persons of all
ranks, who are admitted without payment of any fee.

When one of these theatres happens to be very large, and the actors of
the first rate in reputation, the neighbourhood is in a blithesome
ferment, and reminds an Englishman of the wakes and fairs of his
fatherland. To preserve order, regular and special police-officers are
stationed in different parts, each with a bundle of rattans in his hand.
As all are merry and gay, there is little fear of any disturbance from
an outbreak of passion: but all are eager to press forward towards the
place of interest, and thus, without meaning any harm or offence, they
crowd the paths and obstruct the passage that ought to be left for the
supporters of the entertainment. Whom a lady approaches in her sedan,
the interposition of an officer is unnecessary, for the chair-bearers
evert their stentorian voices so effectually as to clear the path as
they proceed; but if one is seen plying her small feet, and reeling to
and fro, in anxious haste to be in time, an officer runs to meet her,
and by the application of his rod opens a channel through the crowd.

Wishful to see everything that throws light upon the character of the
Chinese, I started after breakfast one morning with a native servant,
and reached the scene of amusement an hour and a-half before the acting
commenced. The appearance of the fan kwei was unexpected; and some
remarked upon it, but none offered hindrance or molestation. My
attendant paid the fee, (half-a-dollar,) and I was forth-with invited to
ascend by a narrow skittish kind of ladder to the gallery. The person
who had the oversight of this department obligingly fetched me a seat,
as the front divisions or boxes are unprovided with such things, and
placed it in the best situation he could, find for viewing the
spectacle; while my attendant seated himself immediately behind me, to
shew that he was not ashamed of a foreign master. My position so near
the front of the box, or stall if you please, attracted the notice of
the mixed multitude in the pit, and tempted some of them to climb up,
that they might ask what I thought of the scene before me. One of the
persons whose duty it was to keep order had the imprudence to share in
their curiosity, and began to put a variety of queries, till the manager
came up and checked our proceedings. My seat was moved to the back of
the inclosure,—the inquisitive spectators were dislodged,—and the poor
fellow who had just been so busy with his questions got such a reproof
that his face became like scarlet, and the blood gushed into his eyes
and set them fast in their sockets. A Chinaman will put up with a blow
from the rattan or the bamboo, but a rebuke cuts him to the heart. This
is one of the most hopeful traits in the native character, and seems to
mark out the Chinese as the very people to profit by instruction and
remonstrance. My complaisance in allowing my seat to be set where the
manager pleased, and the obvious contentment of my looks, bespoke me
general attention, which each new comer seemed to fall in with as soon
as he arrived. I had thus an opportunity of feeling that popularity is a
very charming thing, though it must be confessed I had paid a very low
price for it.

The spectators in the pit talked in their usual strain when their hearts
are excited,—that is, as loud as they were able; and as the many were
speakers, and the few hearers, the hubbub made the ears tingle. The
scene was occasionally varied by a contest between some young fellow and
a police-officer. The former was anxious to secure a better view of the
actors, by climbing up the lofty pillars on which our roof rested, the
latter determined to disappoint the expected pleasure. The fellow was
seen clambering, with stealthy haste, half-way up the pillar, perhaps,
before his proceedings were detected; but just as he began to felicitate
himself upon his good fortune, a long bamboo pole was applied, to his
back and legs, which compelled him to descend faster than he went up.
Some who were more hardy compounded for the beating, and made their way
up to the beams, whereon they took their seats and remained till the
play was over. Every now and then another was descried endeavouring to
seat himself upon the edge of the stage, but, alas for his happiness,
the bamboo was always in abeyance, ever ready to fall upon the head of
the culprit. The little wrath and ill-feeling which accompanied these
disappointments and rebuffs could not fail to draw forth the admiration
of the stranger. A fierce look and a sudden ejaculation were all that
occurred to ruffle the tranquillity, and these were instantly swallowed
up by the universal glee which pervaded the assembly. The boxes were
filled by gentlemen in plain white or gray-coloured gowns, who came
attended by a servant with a canteen, or a bundle of refreshments, the
long tobacco-pipe, and its elegant pouch. Bows and other marks of
recognition passed very freely among them; and I observed that each made
his neighbour as welcome as himself to anything he had brought for his
own gratification. The appearance of so many “celestial” ladies gave new
interest to the spectacle, and afforded ample room for comment upon the
manners and habits of the people. Their attire was of the favourite
colour, blue, variegated by borders of black and white trimmings. The
vest is fastened closely round the neck, but leaves the arms partially
bare: these were adorned with rings and bracelets. But the head was the
chief object of embellishment, and displayed as much taste as the lady
and her faithful attendants could muster.

After every corner of the theatre was filled, and every one had fairly
expended his stock of social remarks, the car-piercing sounds of the
Chinese clarinet, and the loud and mingled roll of the gongs and drums,
opened the prelude. Every eye was immediately directed towards the stage
in eager expectation. At this instant the rush at the two entrances to
the pit was so violent, that those who stood near the stage were, in
spite of all their efforts to withstand the impulse by grasping the edge
of the platform and its supports, carried several feet beneath it. As
this made their seeing anything that was exhibited out of the question,
they stoutly rallied, turned round, and, by a simultaneous effort,
regained their places. This process was renewed at intervals during the
whole performance, so that the crowd resembled the sea heaving and
falling by turns. In the contest no man lost his temper, though, perhaps
at the moment when he was deeply interested by some turn in the story,
he suddenly found himself under the covert of the stage, where he could
see nothing hut posts and stakes.—The first personage who presents
himself upon the stage is a civilian, in the robes of office, carrying a
sceptre, or rather a flat staff, as the representative of the
writing-tablets which courtiers used to bear to the levee or council
before paper was invented. He paces about the stage with a step that is
ludicrously measured and formal, and smiles with all the well-acted
complacency of a courtier. Every now and then he flourishes his sceptre,
or gazes upon it with delight, as if the bliss of self-approbation were
complete in the thought, that he is about to confer with and counsel the
“son of heaven.” This pantomime he varies by taking up a long scroll
which makes some allusion to the emperor, and pointing to it again and
again as the object of his highest admiration. This is intended as a
compliment to the emperor, and gives the traveller an excellent idea of
what a courtier is expected to be in China. When this personage has
finished his part, he retires, and is followed by the pa seen, or eight
genii, in robes of the most gorgeous kind. These advance to the front of
the stage in pairs, lift up their hands hid in their flowing sleeves,
how, kneel, recline, touch the floor with their foreheads, and then go
through the same evolutions in a retrograde order, with a grace and
decorum surpassing all description. When the ceremony is finished, they
look at each other and retire to make room for their successors. The two
females are the last of the four pairs, and modify their obesiance by
the introduction of a courtesy. These beautiful acts of respect are
meant as an acknowledgment to the patrons of the theatre, who are in
this instance their very “approved good masters.” The next scene
furnishes us with a view of the imperial court,—his majesty sitting
behind a small table, with his high officers on his right and left. He
is chiefly distinguished by the predominance of yellow in his robes, and
by a countenance which is a singular combination of beneficence and
melancholy: a benevolent regard for the public weal and the
multitudinous cares of government have cast this shade of
thoughtfulness, over his visage. I have seen several emperors thus
represented, and they all seemed to be members of the same family,—such
was the similarity of their features and general bearing. The whole of
the minutiæ of their looks, as well as their conduct, were the result of
design, and shew what sort of person the Chinese think the supreme ruler
ought to be in his temper and behaviour. His counsellors are often
boisterous, hot in argument, and positive in affirming; and he checks
them by reaching out his hand, with a countenance of entreaty, and not
of threatening. He receives despatches, and answers them with his own
hand, with the ease and rapidity of a man accustomed to business. War is
soon decided upon—to repel some invader, or to recover some lost
territory: and this makes room, for a display of warriors who are
burning with desire to signalize themselves in the bloody combat. A
group of these heroes, drawn from materials in the possession of the
author, and executed under his superintendence, is faithfully
represented in the London Saturday Journal, No. 80.

The field of battle is next before us, and gives the actors an
opportunity of displaying a variety of feats, so that the action is a
curious mixture of fun and fighting. After we are well sated with stirs
and broils, the ebbs and flows of triumph and defeat, we are at length
indulged with a little acting which we can understand and feel. The
common scenes of life are introduced for our entertainment, and, I may
add, for our instruction; for life, with all its realities, is
imitated—nothing is added to make the picture a caricature, nor anything
omitted which might contribute to make the resemblance more perfect. The
features of the actor, his carriage, and his voice, harmonize admirably
with the part he has to perform; while, from early habit, he enters into
the spirit of his part with such an instinctive relish that every
movement is full of meaning. In the intercourse of the middle and upper
ranks among the Chinese there is something that strikes the stranger as
studied and formal, but on the stage the bearing and the attitudes are
English, with some few exceptions, which, though a little singular, are
not difficult to understand. When, for example, a man is unable to
overcome or persuade another by argument, he throws out his hand
repeatedly towards him, by way of expressing his disgust or contempt,
especially if the latter turns his back. Another action consists in
pulling up the sleeves, as if the person were on the point of engaging
in some handicraft, though the whole business before him must be
conducted by words only. A man of distinction perchance entertains the
idea of marrying a princess, and proceeds to court in the company of
some skilful friend, who is to open the negotiation for him. The friend,
however, does not at once make the overtures, but fetches many a
circuitous form of speech to be sure of his ground as he advances. The
great man, full of impatience, pulls up his sleeves, prances backward
and forward, and lets you see, by most significant actions, that if the
matter were in his own hands, he would cut it short. When he can no
longer contain himself, he advances from his concealment, and is about
to make his declaration, hut is most unfeelingly thrust back by bis wily
acquaintance, to undergo afresh the process of self-torture. The
interview of the princess and the courtier lasts some time; but the
impetuous man evinces his displeasure at the delay with such an
ever-changing succession of gestures and pantomime, that the eye is not
weary, while the mind is ready to fancy that his passion must be real.
It is not easy to see the connexion of all the scenes with their
predecessors, though there are sometimes evident traces of a plot, and
an attempt to shew how often inconsiderable circumstances lead to
results of great importance. A small tablet is suspended upon the
pillars in front of the stage, and in enigmatical language prepares you
for the scene that is to follow next, but helps you not at all in seeing
the concatenation which the several incidents have with each other. Many
of these, however, are complete in themselves, and are perhaps
introduced with the same view that an episode is in an epic poem,
namely, to relieve the attention of the spectator. In one of these
incidents a character appears very much like the hero of “Where shall I
dine?” He is famished with hunger, and is in quest of some happy
conjuncture to assuage his longings for food. In his way, he encounters
some workmen, and offers to assist them at their toil, with the hope of
sharing in their meal; but they, unlike the Chinese in general, devour
their viands without bidding him welcome to a single morsel. Undismayed
by disappointment, he addresses himself to a couple of priests, who have
just replenished their vessels at the cost of some liberal benefactor.
To win their friendship, he proposes to join them in some very
interesting undertaking: they receive the proposal with the highest
apparent satisfaction, but, in the most ungracious way, empty their
basins without leaving a grain of rice behind. The anxiety of the hungry
man, and the address and patience he exerts to obtain the smallest
pittance chance might throw in his way, were exhibited with so many
touches of real life and feeling, that it was hard to believe one was
looking at a native of a country so famed for its eccentricities.

There was very little in the shape of scenery,—the Chinese stage being
very nearly in the state of the Athenian when Thespis left it,—but the
dresses were superbly elegant, and the acting throughout was so perfect
in its kind, that the eye could not detect a single fault. The
performance lasted about six hours, without any relief; but such was the
interest which the players and the spectators felt in it, that neither
seemed to be tired of the sport. A continuance in one position and on a
hard seat for so many hours in a hot climate, made me glad when the
attendant took down the tablet for the last time.

I was invited by a tradesman to be present at another performance, which
promised to be singularly attractive from the splendour of the e fuk, or
dress. As the theatre was some distance from the English factories, we
seated ourselves in an elegant boat, and glided softly by the river’s
bank to the scene of amusement. My companion settled with the officers,
and I climbed the ladder, but the gallery was too full to gain a good
position. I sat down on the first seat I could find, with my cap on; but
thinking after awhile I would take it off, by way of compliment to the
company, I attempted to remove it unperceived if possible. This,
however, did not escape notice, but was applauded by a murmur that ran
in all directions around me,—so alive are these people to the least act
of respect that is paid them by the foreigner. I found that report had
not exaggerated in reference to the robes, which, in beauty, surpassed
all praise or description. The first scene was intended to represent the
happiness and splendour of beings who inhabit the upper regions, with
the sun and moon, and the elements, curiously personified, playing
around them. The man who personated the sun held a round image of the
sun’s disk, while the female who acted the part of the moon had a
crescent in her hand. The actors took care to move so as to mimic the
conjunction and opposition of these heavenly bodies as they revolve
round in their apparent orbs. The Thunderer wielded an axe, and leaped
and dashed about in a variety of extraordinary somersets. After a few
turns, the monarch who had been so highly honoured as to find a place,
through the partiality of a mountain nymph, in the abodes of the happy,
begins to feel that no height of good fortune can secure a mortal
against the common calamities of this frail life. A wicked courtier
disguises himself in a tiger’s skin, and in this garb imitates the
animal itself. He rushes into the retired apartments of the ladies,
frightens them out of their wits, and throws the “heir apparent” into
the moat. The sisters hurry into the royal presence, and, casting
themselves upon the ground, divulge the sad intelligence that a tiger
has borne off the young prince, who it appears was the son of the
mountain nymph aforesaid. This loss the bereaved monarch takes so much
to heart, that he renounces the world, and deliberates about the
nomination of a successor. By the influence of a crafty woman, he
selects a young man who has just sense enough to know that he is a fool.
The settlement of the crown is scarcely finished when the unhappy king
dies, and the blockhead is presently invested with the “golden round.”
But the lout, instead of exulting in his new preferment, bemoans his lot
in the most awkward strains of lamentation. He feels his incompetency,
and cries “O dear, what shall I do?” with “such piteous action,” and yet
withal so truly ludicrous, that the spectator is at a loss to know
whether he is to laugh or to weep. The courtier who had taken off the
heir, and broken the father’s heart, finds the new king an easy tool for
prosecuting his traitorous purposes, and the state is plunged into the
depths of civil discord at home and dangerous wars abroad.

In the sequel a scene occurred, which is still fresh in my remembrance.
The reconciliation of this court and some foreign prince depends upon
the surrender of a certain obnoxious person. The son-in-law of the
victim is charged with the letter containing this proposal, and returns
to his house, and disguises himself for the sake of concealment. When he
reaches the court of the foreign prince, he discovers that he has
dropped the letter in changing his clothes, and narrowly escapes being
taken for a spy, without his credentials. He hurries back, calls for his
clothes, and shakes them one by one in an agony of self-reproach, hut no
letter appears. He sits down, throwing himself with great violence upon
the chair, with a countenance inexpressibly full of torture and despair:
reality could have added nothing to the imitation.

But while every eye was riveted upon him, he called the servant maid,
and inquired if she knew anything about the letter; she replied, that
she overheard her mistress reading a letter, whose contents were such
and such. The mistress had taken her seat at a distance from him, and
was nursing her baby; and the instant he ascertained the letter was in
her possession, he looked towards her with such a smile upon his cheek,
and such a flood of light in his eye, that the whole assembly heaved a
loud sigh of admiration; for the Chinese do not applaud by clapping, but
express their feelings by an ejaculation that is between a sigh and a
groan. The aim of the husband was to wheedle his wife out of the letter,
and this smile and look of affection were the prelude merely; for he
takes his chair, places it beside her, lays one hand softly upon her
shoulder, and fondles the child with the other, in a style so
exquisitely natural, and so completely English, that in this dramatic
picture it was seen that Nature fashioneth men’s hearts alike. His
addresses were, however, ineffectual; for though a Chinese woman may be
won to yield up her heart, she is too resolute to betray a parent or
sacrifice her honour.

The morals of the Chinese stage are very good. Virtue suffers, and is
not always successful; but vice, though it prosper for a time, meets
with its punishment in the end. As a public amusement, it was the most
unexceptionable that I ever witnessed, either in this country or
elsewhere. This remark, however, applies to the bettersort, where the
company, or rather the patrons, are respectable; what may be the
character of some lesser entertainments, especially when they take place
at night, I cannot pretend to say from observation, but conjecture that
they are polluted by the vices of the country. To a traveller these
spectacles are of the highest value, since they allow him to see into
the very penetralia of domestic life,—the inner appartments being often
exhibited with all the doings and amusements of sequestration and
retirement. The Chinese, to render the picture exact and striking, are
minutely circumstantial in all their scenes; and it is astonishing to
see the variety of minor incidents that are crowded within the compass
of a short passage. The rehearsal is of a perfunctory kind: the manager
takes his place behind a curtain upon the stage, and, holding a book in
his hand, calls each of the actors in their turn, and briefly reminds
them of their part by pointing to some sentence to lie pronounced with
significance, or some particular feature in the acting. We may sum up
the character of the Chinese theatre by saying, that the scenery is
wretched, the morals generally good, and the acting equal to, if not
surpassing, anything to be met with in the Western world: their
excellence consists in a wonderful regard to truth in all its finest
shades of variation and detail.