To return, after a long digression. The age of manly sport, as above described, has long passed away; and the only hope is for a revival under the changing conditions of modern China. Some few athletic exercises have survived; and until recently, archery, in which the Tartars have always excelled, was regarded almost as a semi-divine accomplishment. Kite-flying has reached a high level of skill. Clever little "messengers" have been devised, which run up the string, carrying fire-crackers which explode at a great height. There is a game of shuttlecock, without the battledore, for which the feet are used as a substitute; and "diavolo," recently introduced into Europe, is an ancient Chinese pastime. A few Manchus, too, may be seen skating during the long northern winter, but the modern inhabitant of the Flowery Land, be he Manchu or Chinese, much prefers an indoor game to anything else, especially when, as is universally the case, a stake of money is involved.
Gambling is indeed a very marked feature of Chinese life. A child buying a cake will often go double or quits with the stall-keeper, to see if he is to have two cakes or nothing, the question being settled by a throw of dice in a bowl. Of the interval allowed for meals, a gang of coolies will devote a portion to a game of cards. The cards used are smaller than the European pack, and of course differently marked; they were the invention of a lady of the Palace in the tenth century, who substituted imitation leaves of gilt paper for real leaves, which had previously been adopted for playing some kind of game. There are also various games played with chequers, some of great antiquity; and there is chess, that is to say, a game so little differing from our chess as to leave no doubt as to the common origin of both. In all of these the money element comes in; and it is not too much to say that more homes are broken up, and more misery caused by this truly national vice than can be attributed to any other cause.
For pleasure pure and simple, independent of gains and losses, the theatre occupies the warmest place in every Chinaman's heart. If gambling is a national vice in China, the drama must be set off as the national recreation. Life would be unthinkable to the vast majority if its monotony were not broken by the periodical performance of stage-plays. It is from this source that a certain familiarity with the great historical episodes of the past may be pleasantly picked up over a pipe and a cup of tea; while the farce, occasionally perhaps erring on the side of breadth, affords plenty of merriment to the laughter-loving crowd.
Ability to make Chinamen laugh is a great asset; and a foreigner who carries this about with him will find it stand him in much better stead than a revolver. When, many years ago, a vessel was wrecked on the coast of Formosa, the crew and passengers were at once seized, and confined for some time in a building, where traces of their inscriptions could be seen up to quite a recent date. At length, they were all taken out for execution; but before the ghastly order was carried out, one of the number so amused everybody by cutting capers and turning head over heels, that the presiding mandarin said he was a funny fellow, and positively allowed him to escape.
With regard to the farce itself, it is not so much the actual wit of the dialogue which carries away the audience as the refined skill of the actor, who has to pass through many trials before he is considered to be fit for the stage. Beginning as quite a boy, in addition to committing to memory a large number of plays — not merely his own part, but the whole play — he has to undergo a severe physical training, part of which consists in standing for an hour every day with his mouth wide open, to inhale the morning air. He is taught to sing, to walk, to strut, and to perform a variety of gymnastic exercises, such as standing on his head, or turning somersaults. His first classification is as male or female actor, no women having been allowed to perform since the days of the Emperor Ch'ien Lung (A.D. 1736-1796), whose mother was an actress, just as in Shakespeare's time the parts for women were always taken by young men or boys. When once this is settled, it only remains to enrol him as tragedian, comedian, low-comedy actor, walking gentleman or lady, and similar parts, according to his capabilities.
It is not too much to say that women are very little missed on the Chinese stage. The make-up of the actor is so perfect, and his imitation of the feminine voice and manner, down to the smallest detail, even to the small feet, is so exact in every point, that he would be a clever observer who could positively detect impersonation by a man.
Generally speaking, a Chinese actor has many more difficulties to face than his colleague in the West. In addition to the expression of all shades of feeling, from mirth to melancholy, the former has to keep up a perpetual make-believe in another sense, which is further great strain upon his nerves. There being no scenery, no furniture, and no appointments of any except the slenderest kind upon the stage, he has to create in the minds of his audience a belief that all these missing accessories are nevertheless before their eyes. A general comes upon the scene, with a whip in his hand, and a studied movement not only suggests that he is dismounting from a horse, but outlines the animal itself. In the same manner, he remounts and rides off again; while some other actor speaks from the top of a small table, which is forthwith transfigured, and becomes to all intents and purposes a castle.
Many of those who might be apt to smile at the simple Chinese mind which can tolerate such absurdities in the way of make-believe, require to be reminded that the stage in the days of Queen Elizabeth was worked on very much the same lines. Sir Philip Sidney tells us that the scene of an imagined garden with imagined flowers had to do duty at one time for an imagined shipwreck, and at another for an imagined battlefield, the spectator in the latter case being helped out by two opposing soldiers armed with swords and bucklers. Even Shakespeare, in the Prologue to his play of Henry V, speaks of imagining one man to be an army of a thousand, and says: —
Think, when we talk of horses that you see them
Printing their proud hoofs i' the receiving earth;
For 'tis your thoughts that now must deck our kings.
Here, then, is good authority for the quaint system that still prevails in China.
Hundreds of Chinese pilgrims annually went their weary way to the top of Mount Omi in the province of Ssuch'uan, and gaze downward from a sheer and lofty precipice to view a huge circular belt of light, which is called the Glory of Buddha. Some see it, some do not; the Chinese say that the whole thing is a question of faith. In a somewhat similar sense, the dramatic enthusiast sees before him such beings of the mind as the genuine actor is able to call up. The Philistine cannot reach this pitch; but he is sharp enough to see other things which to the eye of the sympathetic spectator are absolutely non-existent. Some of the latter will be enumerated below.
The Chinese stage has no curtain; and the orchestra is on the stage itself, behind the actors. There is no prompter and no call-boy. Stage footmen wait at the sides to carry in screens, small tables, and an odd chair or two, to represent houses, city walls, and so on, or hand cups of tea to the actors when their throats become dry from vociferous singing, which is always in falsetto. All this in the face of the audience. Dead people get up and walk off the stage; or while lying dead, contrive to alter their facial expression, and then get up and carry themselves off. There is no interval between one play and the next following, which probably gives rise to the erroneous belief that Chinese plays are long, the fact being that they are very short. According to the Penal Code, there may be no impersonation of emperors and empresses of past ages, but this clause is now held to refer solely to the present dynasty.
For the man in the street and his children, there are to be seen everywhere in China where a sufficient number of people gather together, Punch-and-Judy shows of quite a high class in point of skill and general attractiveness. These shows are variously traced back to the eighth and second centuries B.C., and to the seventh century A.D., even the latest of which periods would considerably antedate the appearance of performing marionettes in this country or on the Continent. Associated with the second century B.C., the story runs that the Emperor of the day was closely besieged by a terrible Hun chieftain, who was accompanied by his wife. It occurred to one of his Majesty's staff to exhibit on the walls of the town, in full view of the enemy, a number of manikins, dressed up to a deceptive resemblance to beautiful girls. The wife of the Hun chieftain then persuaded her husband to draw off his forces, and the Emperor escaped.
By the Chinese marionettes, little plays on familiar subjects are performed; many are of a more serious turn than the loves of Mr. Punch, while others again are of the knock-about style so dear to the ordinary boy and girl. Besides such entertainments as these, the streets of a Chinese city offer other shows to those who desire to be amused. An acrobat, a rope-dancer or a conjurer will take up a pitch right in the middle of the roadway, and the traffic has to get on as best it can. A theatrical stage will sometimes completely block a street, and even foot-passengers will have to find their way round. There is also the public story-reader, who for his own sake will choose a convenient spot near to some busy thoroughfare; and there, to an assembled crowd, he will read out, not in the difficult book-language, but in the colloquial dialect of the place, stories of war and heroism, soldiers led to night-attacks with wooden bits in their mouths to prevent them from talking in the ranks, the victory of the loyal and the rout and slaughter of the rebel. Or it may be a tale of giants, goblins and wizards; the bewitching of promising young men by lovely maidens who turn out to be really foxes in disguise, ending as usual in the triumph of virtue and the discomfiture of vice. The fixed eyes and open mouths of the crowd, listening with rapt attention, is a sight which, once seen, is not easily forgotten.
For the ordinary man, China is simply peopled with bogies and devils, the spirits of the wicked or of those unfortunate enough not to secure decent burial with all its accompanying worship and rites. These creatures, whose bodies cast no shadow, lurk in dark corners, ready to pounce on some unwary passer-by and possibly tear out his heart. Many a Confucianist, sturdy in his faith that "devils only exist for those who believe in them," will hesitate to visit by night a lonely spot, or even to enter a disused tumbledown building by day. Some of the stories told are certainly well fitted to make a deep impression upon young and highly-strung nerves. For instance, one man who was too fond of the bottle placed some liquor alongside his bed, to be drunk during the night. On stretching out his hand to reach the flask, he was seized by a demon, and dragged gradually into the earth. In response to his shrieks, his relatives and neighbours only arrived in time to see the ground close over his head, just as though he had fallen into water.
From this story it will be rightly gathered that the Chinese mostly sleep on the ground floor. In Peking, houses of more than one storey are absolutely barred; the reason being that each house is built round a courtyard, which usually has trees in it, and in which the ladies of the establishment delight to sit and sew, and take the air and all the exercise they can manage to get.
Another blood-curdling story is that of four travellers who arrived by night at an inn, but could obtain no other accommodation than a room in which was lying the corpse of the landlord's daughter-in-law. Three of the four were soon snoring; the fourth, however, remained awake, and very soon heard a creaking of the trestles on which was the dead body dressed out in paper robes, ready for burial. To his horror he saw the girl get up, and go and breathe on his companions; so by the time she came to him he had his head tucked well under the bedclothes. After a little while he kicked one of the others; but finding that his friend did not move, he suddenly grabbed his own trousers and made a bolt for the door. In a moment the corpse was up and after him, following him down the street, and gaining gradually on him, no one coming to the rescue in spite of his loud shrieks as he ran. So he slipped behind a tree, and dodged right and left, the infuriated corpse also dodging right and left, and making violent efforts to get him. At length, the girl made a rush forward with one arm on each side, in the hope of thus grabbing her victim. The traveller, however, fell backwards and escaped her clutch, while she remained rigidly embracing the tree. By and by he was found senseless on the ground; and the corpse was removed from the tree, but with great difficulty, as the fingers were buried in the bark so deep that the nails were not even visible. The other three travellers were found dead in their beds.
Periodical feasting may be regarded as another form of amusement by which the Chinese seek to relieve the monotony of life. They have never reserved one day in seven for absolute rest, though of late years Chinese merchants connected with foreign trade have to some extent fallen in with the observance of Sunday. Quite a number of days during the year are set apart as public holidays, but no one is obliged to keep them as such, unless he likes, with one important exception. The festival of the New Year cannot be ignored by any one. For about ten days before this date, and twenty days after it, the public offices are closed and no business is transacted, the seal of each official is handed over for safe keeping to the official's wife, a fact which helps to dispose of the libel that women in China are the down-trodden creatures they are often represented to be. All debts have to be paid and accounts squared by midnight on the last day of the old year. A few nights previously, offerings of an excessively sticky sweetmeat are made to the Spirit of the Hearth, one of whose functions is that of an accusing angel. The Spirit is then on the point of starting for his annual visit to heaven, and lest any of the disclosures he might make should entail unpleasant consequences, it is adjudged best that he shall be rendered incapable of making any disclosures at all. The unwary god finds his lips tightly glued together, and is unable to utter a single word. Meanwhile, fire-crackers are being everywhere let off on a colossal scale, the object being to frighten away the evil spirits which have collected during the past twelve months, and to begin the year afresh. The day itself is devoted to calling, in one's best clothes, on relatives, friends and official superiors, for all of whom it is customary to leave a present. The relatives and friends receive "wet" gifts, such as fruit or cakes; officials also receive wet gifts, but underneath the top layer will be found something "dry," in the shape of silver or bank-notes. Everybody salutes everybody with the conventional saying, "New joy, new joy; get rich, get rich!" Yet here again, as in all things Chinese, we find a striking exception to this good-natured rule. No one says "Get rich, get rich!" to the undertaker.
A high authority (on other matters) has recently stated that the Chinese calendar "begins just when the Emperor chooses to say it shall. He is like the captain of a ship, who says of the hour, 'Make it so,' and it is so." The truth is that New Year's Day is determined by the Astronomical Board, according to fixed rules, just as Easter is determined; and it may fall on any day between the 21st of January and the 20th of February, but neither before the former date nor after the latter date, in spite even of the most threatening orders from the Palace. This book will indeed have been written in vain if the reader lays it down without having realized that no such wanton interference on the part of their rulers would be tolerated by the Chinese people. But we are wandering away from merry-making and festivity.
In their daily life the Chinese are extremely moderate eaters and mostly tea-drinkers, even the wealthy confining themselves to few and simple dishes of pork, fowl, or fish, with the ever-present accompaniment of rice. The puppy-dog, on which the people are popularly believed to live, as the French on frogs, is a stall-fed animal, and has always been, and still is, an article of food; but the consumption of dog-flesh is really very restricted, and many thousands of Chinamen have never tasted dog in their lives. According to the popular classification of foods, those who live on vegetables get strong, those who live on meat become brave, those who live on grain acquire wisdom, and those who live on air become divine.
At banquets the scene changes, and course after course of curiously compounded and highly spiced dishes, cooked as only Chinese cooks know how, are placed before the guests. The wine, too, goes merrily round; bumpers are drunk at short intervals, and the wine-cups are held upside down, to show that there are no heel-taps. Forfeits are exacted over the game of "guess-fingers," for failure to cap a verse, or for any other equally sufficient (or insufficient) reason; and the penalty is an extra bumper for the loser.
This lively picture requires, perhaps, a little further explanation. Chinese "wine" is an ardent spirit distilled from rice, and is modified in various ways so as to produce certain brands, some of which are of quite moderate strength, and really may be classed as wine. It is always drunk hot, the heat being supplied by vessels of boiling water, in which the pewter wine-flasks are kept standing. The wine-cups are small, and it is possible to drink a good many of them without feeling in the least overcome. Even so, many diners now refuse to touch wine at all, the excuse always being that it flushes the face uncomfortably. Perhaps they fear an undeserved imputation of drunkenness, remembering their own cynical saying: "A bottle-nosed man may be a tee-totaller, but no one will believe it." To judge from their histories and their poetry, the Chinese seem once upon a time to have been a fairly tipsy nation: now-a-days, the truth lies the other way. An official who died A.D. 639, and was the originator of epitaphs in China, wrote his own, as follows: —
Fu I loved the green hills and white clouds . . .
Alas! he died of drink!
There are exceptions, no doubt, as to every rule in every country; but such sights as drunken men tumbling about the streets, or lying senseless by the roadside, are not to be seen in China.
"It is not wine," says the proverb, "which makes a man drunk; it is the man himself."
Even at banquets, which are often very rich and costly, unnecessary expense is by no means encouraged. Dishes of fruit, of a kind which no one would wish to eat, and which are placed on the table for show or ornament, are simply clever imitations in painted wood, and pass from banquet to banquet as part of the ordinary paraphernalia of a feast; no one is deceived. The same form of open and above-board deception appears in many other ways. There are societies organized for visiting in a comfortable style of pilgrimage some famous mountain of historic interest. Names are put down, and money is collected; and then the party starts off by boat or in sedan-chairs, as the case may be. On arriving at the mountain, there is a grand feast, and after the picnic, for such it is, every one goes home again. That is the real thing; now for the imitation. Names are put down, and money is collected, as before; but the funds are spent over a feast at home, alongside of a paper mountain.
Another of these deceptions, which deceive nobody, is one which might be usefully adapted to life in other countries. A Chinaman meeting in the street a friend, and having no leisure to stop and talk, or perhaps meeting some one with whom he may be unwilling to talk, will promptly put up his open fan to screen his face, and pass on. The suggestion is that, wishing to pass without notice, he fails to see the person in question, and it would be a serious breach of decorum on the part of the latter to ignore the hint thus conveyed.
Japan, who may be said to have borrowed the civilization of China, lock, stock and barrel — her literature, her moral code, her arts, her sciences, her manners and customs, her ceremonial, and even her national dress — invented the folding fan, which in the early part of the fifteenth century formed part of the tribute sent from Korea to Peking, and even later was looked upon by the Chinese as quite a curiosity. In the early ages, fans were made of feathers, as still at the present day; but the more modern fan of native origin is a light frame of bamboo, wood or ivory, round or otherwise, over which silk is stretched, offering a convenient medium for the inscription of poems, or for paintings, as exchanged between friend and friend.
The same innocent form of deception, which deceives nobody, is carried out when two officials, seated in sedan-chairs, have to pass one another. If they are of about equal rank, etiquette demands that they should alight from their chairs, and perform mutual salutations. To obviate the extreme inconvenience of this rule, large wooden fans are carried in all processions of the kind, and these are hastily thrust between the passing officials, so that neither becomes aware of the other's existence on the scene. The case is different when one of the two is of higher rank. The official of inferior grade is bound to stop and get out of his chair while his superior passes by, though even now he has a chance of escape; he hears the gong beaten to clear the way for the great man, whose rank he can tell from the number of consecutive blows given; and hurriedly turns off down a side street.
An historical instance of substituting the shadow for the reality is that of the great general Ts'ao Ts'ao, third century A.D., who for some breach of the law sentenced himself to death, but satisfied his sense of justice by cutting off his hair. An emperor of the sixth century, who was a devout Buddhist, and therefore unable to countenance any destruction of life, had all the sacrificial animals made of dough.
The opium question, which will claim a few words later on, has been exhaustively threshed out; and in view of the contradictory statements for and against the habit of opium smoking, it is recognized that any conclusion, satisfactory to both parties, is a very remote possibility. The Chinese themselves, who are chiefly interested in the argument, have lately come to a very definite conclusion, which is that opium has to go; and it seems that in spite of almost invincible obstacles, the sincerity and patriotism which are being infused into the movement will certainly, sooner or later, achieve the desired end. It is perhaps worth noting that in the Decree of 1906, which ordered the abolition of opium smoking, the old Empress Dowager, who was herself over sixty and a moderate smoker, inserted a clause excusing from the operation of the new law all persons already more than sixty years of age.
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