It was on a bright spring afternoon that a Chinese official and his little boy called at our home on Filial Piety Lane, in Peking.
The dresses of father and child were exactly alike -- as though they had been twins, boots of black velvet or satin, blue silk trousers, a long blue silk garment, a waistcoat of blue brocade, and a black satin skullcap -- the child was in every respect, even to the dignity of his bearing, a vest- pocket edition of his father.
He had a T'ao of books which I recognized as the Fifteen Magic Blocks, one of the most ingenious, if not the most remarkable, books I have ever seen.
A T'ao is two or any number of volumes of a book wrapped in a single cover. In this case it was two volumes. In the inside of the cover there was a depression three inches square in which was kept a piece of lead, wood or pasteboard, divided into fifteen pieces as in the following illustration.
These blocks are all in pairs except one, which is a rhomboid. They are all exactly proportional, having their sides either half-inch, inch, inch and a half, or two inches in length.
They are not used as are the blocks in our kindergarten simply to make geometrical figures, but rather to illustrate such facts of history as will have a moral influence, or be an intellectual stimulus to the child.
He may build houses with them, or make such ancient or modern ornaments, or household utensils, as may suit his fancy; but the primary object of the blocks and the books, is to impress upon the child's mind, in the most forcible way possible, the leading facts of history, poetry, mythology or morals; while the houses, boats and other things are simply side issues.
The first illustration the child constructed for me, for I desired him to teach me how it was done, was a dragon horse, and when I asked him to explain it, he said that it represented the animal seen by Fu Hsi, the original ancestor of the Chinese people, emerging from the Meng river, bearing upon its back a map on which were fifty-five spots, representing the male and female principles of nature, and which the sage used to construct what are called the eight diagrams.
The child tossed the blocks off into a pile and then constructed a tortoise which he said was seen by Yu, the Chinese Noah, coming out of the Lo river, while he was draining off the floods. On its back was a design which he used as a pattern for the nine divisions of his empire.
These two incidents are referred to by Confucius, and are among the first learned by every Chinese child.
I looked through the book and noticed that many of the designs were for the amusement of the children, as well as to develop their ingenuity. In the two volumes of the T'ao he had only the outlines of the pictures which he readily constructed with the blocks. But he had with him also a small volume which was a key to the designs having lines indicating how each block was placed. This he had purchased for a few cash. Much of the interest of the book, however, attached to the puzzling character of the pictures.
There was one with a verse attached somewhat like the following:
The old wife drew a chess-board On the cover of a book, While the child transformed a needle Into a fishing-hook.
Chinese literature is full of examples of men and women who applied themselves to their books with untiring diligence. Some tied their hair to the beam of their humble cottage so that when they nodded with sleepiness the jerk would awake them and they might return to their books.
Others slept upon globular pillows that when they became so restless as to move and cause the pillow to roll from under their head they might get up and study.
The child once more took the blocks and illustrated how one who was so poor as to be unable to furnish himself with candles, confined a fire-fly in a gauze lantern using that instead of a lamp. At the same time he explained that another who was perhaps not able to afford the gauze lantern, studied by the light of a glowworm.
"K'ang Heng," said the child, as he put the blocks together in a new form, "had a still better way, as well as more economical. His house was built of clay, and as the window of his neighbor's house was immediately opposite, he chiseled a hole through his wall and thus took advantage of his neighbor's light.
"Sun K'ang's method was very good for winter," continued the child as he rearranged the blocks, "but I do not know what he would do in summer. He studied by the light reflected from the snow.
"Perhaps," he went on as he changed the form, "he followed the example of another who studied by the pale light of the moon."
"What does that represent?" I asked him pointing to a child with a bowl in his hand who looked as if he might have been going to the grocer's.
"Oh, that boy is going to buy wine."
The Chinese have never yet realized what a national evil liquor may become. They have little wine shops in the great cities, but they have no drinking houses corresponding to the saloon, and it is not uncommon to see a child going to the wine shop to fetch a bowl of wine. The Buddhist priest indulges with the same moderation as the official class or gentry. Indeed most of the drunkenness we read about in Chinese books is that of poets and philosophers, and in them it is, if not commended, at least not condemned. The attitude of literature towards them is much like that of Thackeray towards the gentlemen of his day.
The child constructed the picture of a Buddhist priest, who, with staff in hand, and a mug of wine, was viewing the beautiful mountains in the distance. He then changed it to one in which an intoxicated man was leaning on a boy's shoulder, the inscription to which said: "Any one is willing to assist a drunken man to return home."
"This," he went on as he changed his blocks, "is a picture of Li Pei, China's greatest poet. He lived more than a thousand years ago. This represents the closing scene in his life. He was crossing the river in a boat, and in a drunken effort to get the moon's reflection from the water, he fell overboard and was drowned." The child pointed to the sail at the same time, repeating the following:
The sail being set, He tried to get, The moon from out the main.
I noticed a large number of boat scenes and induced the child to construct some of them for me, which he was quite willing to do, explaining them as he went as readily as our children would explain Old Mother Hubbard or the Old Woman who Lived in her Shoe, by seeing the illustrations.
Constructing one he repeated a verse somewhat like the following:
Alone the fisherman sat, In his boat by the river's brink, In the chill and cold and snow, To fish, and fish, and think.
Then he turned over to two on opposite pages, and as he constructed them he repeated in turn:
In a stream ten thousand li in length He bathes his feet at night,
While on a mount he waves his arms, Ten thousand feet in height.
The ten thousand li in one couplet corresponds to the ten thousand feet in the other, while the bathing of the feet corresponds to the waving of the arms. Couplets of this kind are always attractive to the Chinese child as well as to the scholar, and poems and essays are replete with such constructions.
The child enjoyed making the pictures. I tried to make one, but found it very difficult. I was not familiar with the blocks. It is different now, I have learned how to make them. Then it seemed as if it would be impossible ever to do so. When I had failed to make the picture I turned them over to him. In a moment it was done.
"Who is it?" I asked.
"Chang Ch'i, the poet," he answered. "Whenever he went for a walk he took with him a child who carried a bag in which to put the poems he happened to write. In this illustration he stands with his head bent forward and his hands behind his back lost in thought, while the lad stands near with the bag."
We have given in another chapter the story of the great traveller, Chang Ch'ien, and his search for the source of the Yellow River.
In one of the illustrations the child represented him in his boat in a way not very different from that of the artist.
Another quotation from one of the poets was illustrated as follows:
Last night a meeting I arranged, Ere I my lamp did light, Nor while I crossed the ferry feared, Or wind or rain or night.
The child's eyes sparkled as he turned to some of those illustrating children at play, and as he constructed one which represents two children swinging their arms and running, he repeated:
See the children at their play, Gathering flowers by the way.
"They are gathering pussy-willows," he added.
In another he represented a child standing before the front gate, where he had knocked in vain to gain admission. As he completed it he said, pointing to the apricot over the door:
Ten times he knocked upon the gate, But nine, they opened not, Above the wall he plainly saw, A ripe, red apricot.
He continued to represent quotations from the poets and explain them as he went along.
There was one which indicated that some one was ascending the steps to the jade platform on which the dust had settled as it does on everything in Peking; at the same time the verse told us that
Step by step we reach the platform, All of jade of purest green, Call a child to come and sweep it, But he cannot sweep it clean.
"You know," he went on, "the cottages of many of the poets were near the beautiful lakes in central China, in the wild heights of the mountains, or upon the banks of some flowing stream. In this one the pavilion of the poet is on the bank of the river, and we are told that,
In his cottage sat the poet Thinking, as the moon went by, That the moonlight on the water, Made the water like the sky."
Changing it somewhat he made a cottage of a different kind. This was not made for the picture's sake, but to illustrate a sentence it was designed to impress upon the child's mind. The quotation is somewhat as follows:
The ringing of the evening bells, The moon a crescent splendid, The rustling of the swallow's wings Betoken winter ended.
The child looked up at me significantly as he turned to one which represented a Buddhist priest. I expected something of a joke at the priest's expense as in the nursery rhymes and games, but there was none. That would injure the sale of the book. The inscription told us that "a Buddhist lantern will reflect light enough to illuminate the whole universe."
Turning to the next page we found a priest sitting in front of the temple in the act of beating his wooden drum, while the poet exclaims:
O crystal pool and silvery moon, So clear and pure thou art, There's nought to which thou wilt compare Except a Buddha's heart.
The child next directed our attention to various kinds of flowers, more especially the marigold. A man in a boat rows with one hand while he points backward to the blossoming marigold, while in another picture the poet tells us that,
Along the eastern wall, We pluck the marigold, While on the south horizon, The mountain we behold.
"What is that?" I asked as he turned to a picture of an old man riding on a cow.
"That is Laotze, the founder of Taoism, crossing the frontier at the Han Ku Pass between Shansi and Shensi, riding upon a cow. Nobody knows where he went."
There were other pictures of Taoist patriarchs keeping sheep. By their magic power they turned the sheep into stones when they were tired watching them, and again the inscriptions told us, "the stones became sheep at his call." Still others represented them in search of the elixir of life, while in others they were riding on a snail.
The object of thus bringing in incidents from all these Buddhist, Taoist, Confucian, and other sources is that by catering to all classes the book may have wide distribution, and whatever the Confucianist may say, it must be admitted that the other religions have a strong hold upon the popular mind.
The last twenty-six illustrations in Vol. I represent various incidents in the life, history and employments of women.
The first of these is an ancient empress "weaving at night by her palace window."
Another represents a woman in her boat and we are told that, "leaving her oar she leisurely sang a song entitled, 'Plucking the Caltrops.' "
Another represents a woman "wearing a pomegranate-colored dress riding a pear-blossom colored horse." A peculiar combination to say the least.
The fisherman's wife is represented in her boat, "making her toilet at dawn using the water as a mirror." While we are assured also that the woman sitting upon her veranda "finds it very difficult to thread her needle by the pale light of the moon," which fact, few, I think, would question.
In one of the pictures "a beautiful maiden, in the bright moonlight, came beneath the trees." This is evidently contrary to Chinese ideas of propriety, for the Classic for girls tells us that a maiden should not go out at night except in company with a servant bearing a lantern. As it was bright moonlight, however, let us hope she was excusable.
This sauntering about in the court is not uncommon if we believe what the books say, for in the next picture we are told that:
As near the middle summer-house, The maiden sauntered by, Upon the jade pin in her hair There lit a dragon-fly.
The next illustration represented the wife of the famous poet Ssu-Ma Hsiang-Ju in her husband's wine shop.
This poet fell in love with the widowed daughter of a wealthy merchant, the result of which was that the young couple eloped and were married; and as the daughter was disinherited by her irate parent, she was compelled to wait on customers in her husband's wine shop, which she did without complaint. In spite of their imprudent conduct, and for the time, its unhappy results, as soon as the poet had become so famous as to be summoned to court, the stern father relented, and, as it was a case of undoubted affection, which the Chinese readily appreciate they have always had the sympathy of the whole Chinese people.
One of the most popular women in Chinese history is Mu Lan, the A Chinese Joan of Arc. Her father, a great general, being too old to take charge of his troops, and her brothers too young, she dressed herself in boy's clothing, enrolled herself in the army, mounted her father's trusty steed, and led his soldiers to battle, thus bringing honor to herself and renown upon her family.
We have already seen how diligent some of the ancient worthies were in their study. This, however, is not universal, for we are told the mother of Liu Kung-cho, in order to stimulate her son to study took pills made of bear's gall and bitter herbs, to show her sympathy with her boy and lead him to feel that she was willing to endure bitterness as well as he.
The last of these examples of noble women is that of the wife of Liang Hung, a poor philosopher of some two thousand years ago. An effort was made to engage him to Meng Kuang, the daughter of a rich family, whose lack of beauty was more than balanced by her remarkable intelligence. The old philosopher feared that family pride might cause domestic infelicity. The girl on her part steadfastly refused to marry any one else, declaring that unless she married Liang Hung, she would not marry at all. This unexpected constancy touched the old man's heart and he married her. She dressed in the most common clothing, always prepared his food with her own hand, and to show her affection and respect never presented him with the rice-bowl without raising it to the level of her eyebrows, as in the illustration.
It may be interesting to see some of the ornaments and utensils the child made with his blocks. I shall therefore add three, a pair of scissors, a teapot, and a seal with a turtle handle.
Such is in general the character of the book the official's little boy had with him. I afterwards secured several copies for myself and learned to make all the pictures first shown me by the child, and I discovered that it is but one of several forms of what we may call kindergarten work, that it has gone through many editions, and is very widely distributed. My own set contains 216 illustrations such as I have given.