The Chinese: a General Description. 1

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The Chinese: a General Description. 1
The Chinese: a general description of the Empire of China and its inhabitants
John Francis Davis (1795-1890)
London: C. Knight & Co.
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English residents at Canton have occasionally had opportunities of
taking a part in the formal dinners of the Chinese; but few have
witnessed a solemn feast conferred by the Emperor, which may be
described from an unpublished journal of the last embassy. “The
ambassador informed the gentlemen of his suite, that he was going to
perform the same salutation of respect, before the yellow screen, that
he was accustomed to make to the vacant throne of his Sovereign in the
House of Lords. We were directed to keep our eyes on him, and do exactly
as he did. A low, solemn hymn of not unpleasing melody now commenced,
and at the voice of a crier, the two imperial legates fell prostrate
three times, and each time thrice struck the floor with their foreheads;
a cranio-verberative sound being audible amidst the deep silence which
prevailed around. The ambassador and his suite, standing up in the mean
while, made nine profound bows. Thus far we had got very well over the
ground, without doing that which no representative of Chinese majesty
ever condescended to do to a foreigner, until Genghis Khân first made
them. They here conceded to us the point on which they broke off with
Count Golovkin, the Russian ambassador, though they yielded it to Lord

“When the ceremony was over, the feast was brought in, and the
theatrical entertainments commenced. The legates sat to the left, on an
elevation of one step; and the ambassador and two commissioners on the
same elevation to the right. The other Chinese grandees sat on the left,
a little below the legates; and the gentlemen of the embassy to the
right, below his lordship and the commissioners. The two lines thus
faced each other down the room. As no chairs can be used where the
Emperor is present, or supposed to be so, the whole party sat
cross-legged on cushions, with sartorial precision; but the mandarins,
being bred to the trade, of course had the advantage of us. The tables
were low in proportion, and, when we were all seated, a number of
attendants placed on each table, holding only two quests, a large tray
which fitted it, and contained a complete course, of which four in all
were served. The first consisted of a rich soup; the second of sixteen
round and narrow dishes containing salted meats and other relishes; the
third of eight basins of birds’-nests, sharks’-fins, deer-sinews, and
other viands supposed to be highly nourishing; the fourth of twelve
bowls of stews immersed in a rich soup. The quests helped themselves
with chopsticks, small spoons of porcelain fashioned like a child's
pap-boat, and four-pronged forks of silver, small and straight; and when
they drank to each other, the warm wine was poured into little cups by
the attendants, who at the same time bent one knee.

“At the other end of the hall where we sat, so as to be viewed by each
person from his place down the two ranges of tables, proceeded the stage
performances. The music was infernal, and the occasional crash of gongs
might have roused Satan and his legions from their sleep on the
sulphureous lake. Some pyrotechnic monsters, breathing fire and smoke,
were among the dramatis personæ; but by far the best part of the scene
was the tumbling,—really superior in its kind. The strength and activity
of one man were particularly eminent. Leaping from the ground, he
performed a somerset in the air backwards, and, after the first effort
continued to revolve in this manner with such velocity, that his head
and feet, the extremities of revolution, were scarcely discernible.”

An invitation to a private feast is conveyed some days before, by a
crimson-coloured ticket, on which is inscribed the time appointed, and
the guest is entreated to bestow “the illumination of his presence.” The
arrangement of the tables is the same as at the imperial entertainment,
but they are of the ordinary height, and the party are seated on chairs,
two at each table, so as to see the performances on the stage. The
material of the dinner is much the same as before described; but,
previous to its commencement, the host standing up drinks to his guests,
and then invites them to begin upon the dishes before them. At a certain
period of the entertainment, towards the close, the whole party rise at
once, and drink to their host. Before the dramatic performance begins,
one of the actors presents to the principal guest a list of plays,
consisting perhaps of fifty or sixty different pieces; but they have
these so well by heart that they are ready to perform any one he may
select. There is no scenery, and in this respect a great deal is left to
the imagination of the spectators. The dresses, however, are extremely
splendid, especially in heroical pieces, consisting of representations
of different portions of their ancient history. The most objectionable
part is the terrible din kept up by the instruments of music and the
gongs, during those portions of the play which represent battles and
tragical scenes.

The females of the household, mean while, who cannot take a part in the
festivities of the table, look on from behind a trellis-work at one of
the sides of the stage, with such of their friends of the same sex as
may be invited on the occasion. A particular description of the Chinese
drama will be given in its proper place; but we may observe here, that
dancing is a thing almost entirely unknown to them, either on or off the
stage. On one occasion, indeed, in the interval or space between the
ranges of tables, we saw two children, showily dressed, go through a
species of minuet, consisting of a regular figure to slow time,
accompanied by a motion of the arms and head not ungraceful in effect.