The Fan-Qui in China

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The Fan-Qui in China
The Fan-Qui in China. In 1836-1837
C. Toogood Downing
London: Henry Colburn
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Passing on among the crowd, our attention was next directed to the
actors, who were exhibiting their powers on temporary stages, erected
over the heads of the people at the ends of the streets. The
representations appeared to depend entirely upon the skill of the
performers, as no kind of scenery was visible behind them. A narrow
platform, with a few bamboos set up around the sides and at the back, on
which was suspended a coloured cloth, was the whole of the arrangement
necessary to complete this temporary theatre. Although this exhibition
was intended for the common people alone, and, of course, the
performances were not of the highest class, yet it appears that very
little more preparation is considered necessary unless the entertainment
is given on very important occasions.

A foreigner may look a long while at one of these performances before he
is able to derive amusement from it, or to understand how it is possible
that any other person can do so. One of the first circumstances that
strikes his attention is that the whole of the performers are men, no
women being allowed to go upon the stage. As it is still necessary to
represent that interesting portion of mankind, without whom no story can
be complete, some of the men are dressed up as females: a small ledge in
front of the stage serving to hide the sprawling feet, which would
otherwise take away all the charm of the deception. The “Golden Lilies”
being thus dispensed with, the harsh natural voice of the male sex is
altered for the falsetto, and a screaching, penny-trumpet sound is
uttered, as an imitation of the softer notes of the female. When you
look at one of these lady-actors, and notice the distorted faces he
makes as he pours out this flood of crude, squeaking rubbish, you cannot
fail to be seized with the greatest disgust, and to stop your ears
mechanically whenever you fancy it repeated. The sound still haunts you,
however, wherever you go; you hear it resound from one end of the place
to the other. This, which I considered the characteristic feature of the
Chinese comedy, is often uttered in so loud and piercing a key, that you
may frequently distinguish it above every other sound in the vicinity.
At Whampoa especially, I have been obliged to notice it above the sound
of all the kettle-drums, gongs, and trumpets, which were in full
operation at some distance inland on the adjacent shore, during the
festivity of the new moon.

On account of the poverty of the oral language, the meaning of the
performers is required to be show much more by their actions than by
their words; so that what we observe of the drama at Canton, made up as
it appears to be of gestures and uncouth sounds, gives us a very
unfavourable idea of its present state throughout China. It appeared,
however, to be very well suited to the tastes and opinions of the common
people, as they roared with laughter and seemed highly delighted at what
we were apt to consider vastly inferior to our Punch and Judy. But after
all, not understanding the language, the stranger is somewhat in the
position of a man in a ball-room, who, having stopped his ears to the
music, thinks all the company mad for jumping about in such an
extravagant manner. Opinion and custom are the music, which makes the
most ridiculous antics pass for sensible and intelligent actions.

However popular the drama may be among all classes in China, and there
is every evidence that it is so, still its professors have never been
held in much estimation in that country. It is considered merely as the
amusement of an idle hour, and no idea of its utility as a political or
moral agent would appear to be at all entertained.

The performers are, in general, slaves to the manager, and a heavy
penalty is imposed upon those who would oblige a child to enter the
profession; so that the actors are looked upon as the very dregs of
society. There is no regular exhibition in any public theatre at stated
times of the year, but the actors go about in troops, to be hired by
those who can afford to pay for their services. Many hundreds of these
companies are employed in Peking alone, while others stroll about the
country, or take the course of the rivers and canals in barges and
floating-houses. Even when the emperor chooses to see a play, he has to
hire those who are in the most general repute, and bestows little favour
upon them, however pleased he may be with their performances; nor does
he attach them to him as a part of his household.

Notwithstanding these circumstances, no people are better employed. An
entertainment of any kind is not considered complete without a dramatic
exhibition, and the less opulent individuals will often subscribe
together to defray the expenses of enjoying together this favourite
amusement. The public inns, and all the large private houses, have a
room which is set apart entirely for this purpose, and we have seen how
soon and how easily a temporary stage is erected when the populace alone
are to be gratified.

The princes and grand mandarins enjoy the pleasures of the theatre
chiefly during their meals, and the stage is permanently fixed opposite
to the royal table. On this the actors play their parts, and assist
royal digestion by their wit and talents. During the progress of Lord
Macartney’s embassy through the country, every attention was paid to the
ambassador of his Britannic Majesty, and to please him especially, one
of these moveable theatres was erected opposite his temporary dwelling,
and the actors exerted their skill during the time of the repast. But
his lordship begged as a particular favour that they would dispense with
this disagreeable ceremony. The Chinese mandarins stared with
astonishment at his singular taste, but upon his repeated entreaties
withdrew the nuisance.

The drama labouring under such disadvantages, all hope of honour and
distinction being denied to the performers, we should not expect to find
that China had produced many Shakspeares, who had given birth to noble
and sublime sentiments. No name appears to be held in reverence, or
referred to with pride, as a genius in this branch of literature. There
have been many writers, however, in this department; for there exists a
collection of one hundred and ninety-nine volumes, from which have been
selected a hundred plays, supposed to be the best productions of the
class. Five of these alone have been translated into European languages,
the titles of them being—“The Orphan of Tchao,” “The Sorrows of Han,”
“The Heir in his Old Age,” “The Circle of Chalk,” and “The Intrigues of
a Waiting-maid.”

The defects which are to be found in this species of composition may
pretty well be inferred, from the low and grovelling state in which the
dramatic art is held in the country. Sufficient inducements or prospects
have not been held out by the influential members of society, to call
out the energies of those who had genius for the task of reformation.
The unities of time and place, with all those things which are
considered by us essential to constitute a regular drama, are entirely
disregarded. The art has not yet had sufficient mind bestowed upon it to
bring it to any degree of perfection.

Even the dialogue labours under a great disadvantage. On account of the
scantiness of the spoken language, words are not to be found sufficient
to express the stronger and more impassioned feelings, so necessary to
produce effect upon the stage. Here, therefore, the actor has to eke out
the meaning of abrupt and disjointed sentences, by the most laboured and
artificial actions; and, after all, the most affecting scenes are
finished in such a summary and business-like manner that the effect is
any thing but imposing.

Another striking peculiarity in the Chinese plays is the repeated
introduction of singing into the most serious and affecting scenes.
Thus, as the author of “The Chinese Miscellany” observes, “The Chinese
plays are intermixed with songs, in the middle of which the actors often
stop to speak a sentence or two in the common tone of declamation. On
the other hand, it appears shocking to us for the actor in the middle of
a dialogue all of a sudden to fall a singing; but we ought to consider
that among the Chinese, singing is added to express some great emotion
of the soul,—as joy, grief, anger, despair. A man, for example, who is
moved with indignation against a villain, sings; another, who animates
himself to revenge, sings; a third, who is going to put himself to
death, sings likewise.”

With all these disadvantages the dramas are often full of feeling, and
cannot be read without a considerable degree of interest. The quickness
of the movements and actions would also preclude any of those feelings
of ennui, which we are apt to experience when we have to listen to
long-winded and tedious speeches. Those performances which are to be
seen without the walls of Canton must be of a very inferior kind, a mere
congeries of buffoonery; as the populace is kept constantly in a state
of laughter, without any mixture of sentiment or feeling.

Those who have witnessed the best specimens of this performance, both in
the interior at the tables of the grand mandarins, and those given to
their honour by the Hong merchants of Canton, found them bearing the
same general characteristics, but certainly conducted in a superior
style. The dresses were remarked to be very splendid, but there was no
kind of scenery or attempt at stage effect. Among the dramatis personæ,
however, in one instance, a singular kind of actor was introduced,
consisting of a dragon made of pasteboard, from whose mouth issued a
torrent of fire and flame. The music on these occasions was considered
by far the most disagreeable part of the entertainment. At the most
solemn and tragic scenes of the drama, the noise of the gongs and
kettle-drums was really horrifying, and such as one would almost expect
to rouse the dead. Feats of jugglery and tumbling were also exhibited at
the same time; and, on one occasion alone, a couple of children
performed a kind of minuet to the sound of very tolerable instrumental