Travels in China

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Travels in China
Travels in China: containing descriptions, observations, and comparisons, made and collected in the course of a short residence at the imperial palace of Yuen-min-Yuen, and on a subsequent journey through the country from Pekin to Canton
John Barrow (1764-1848)
London: T. Cadell and W. Davies
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“On the morning of the 18th September we again went 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 and lasted till noon. The Emperor was seated on a
throne, opposite the stage, which projected a good deal into the pit.
The boxes were on each side without feats or divisions. The women were
placed above, behind the lattices, so that they might enjoy the
amusements of the theatre without being observed.

“Soon after we came in, the Emperor sent for Sir George Staunton and me
to attend him, and told us, with great condescension of manner, that we
ought not to be surprized 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 endeavoured, 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 800 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 pieces of silk or 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 connexion 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 battles, murders, and most of the
usual incidents of the drama. Last of all was the grand pantomime 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 tygers, 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 figure
of whales and dolphins, porpesses and leviathans, and other sea
monsters, besides ships, rocks, shells, spunges, 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
tb 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,
kung hao!’—‘charming, delightful!’

“A little before one o’clock in the afternoon we retired, and at four we
returned to court to see the evening’s entertainments, which were
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. We had now 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 were 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 of the same kind.

“A fellow lay down on his back, and then railed 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 to three feet
diameter. This be 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 shewing 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 hand, and twirling them about for some time,
put them one after the other upon the points of the six bootsticks
abovementioned, 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 other, 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 style of Hughes’s and Ashley’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 the Chinese fireworks we had seen at 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 lanterns 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 having a light of a beautifully coloured flame burning brightly
within it. This devolution and developement of lanterns (which appeared
to me to be composed of gauze and paper) were several times repeated,
and every time exhibited a difference of colour 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 divi-visions
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 colours indeed with which the
Chinese have the secret of cloathing fire seems one of the chief merits
of their pyrotechny. The whole concluded 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, whole 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 incalculable numbers. A dead silence
was rigidly observed, not a syllable articulated, nor a laugh exploded
during the whole performance.”

Such was the reception and the entertainment of the British Embassador
at the court of Gehol, in Man tchoo Tartary, during the days of the
festival of the Emperor’s anniversary. I now proceed to give some
account of the manner in which the Dutch Embassadors were received, and
the entertainments that took place on the occasion of the festival of
the new year, as related in the manuscript journal above alluded to.