My little girl came running into my study greatly excited and exclaiming:
"Papa, the monkey show, the monkey show. We want the monkey show, may we have it?"
Now if you had but one little girl, and she wanted a monkey show to come into your own court and perform for her and her little friends for half an hour, the cost of which was the modest sum of five cents, what would you do?
You would do as I did, no doubt, go out with the little girl, call in the passing showman and allow him to perform, which would serve the triple purpose of furnishing relaxation and instruction for yourself, entertainment for the children, and business for the showman.
This however proved to be not the monkey show but Punch and Judy, a species of entertainment for children, the exact counterpart of our own entertainment of that name. It may be of interest to young readers to know how this show originated, and I doubt not it will be a surprise to some older ones to know that it dates back to about the year 1000 B. C.
We are told that while the Emperor Mu of the Chou dynasty was making a tour of his empire, a skillful mechanic, Yen Shih by name, was brought into his presence and entertained him and the women of his seraglio with a dance performed by automaton figures, which were capable not only of rhythmical movements of their limbs, but of accompanying their movements with songs.
During and at the close of the performance, the puppets cast such significant glances at the ladies as to anger the monarch, and he ordered the execution of the originator of the play.
The mechanic however ripped open the puppets, and proved to his astonished majesty that they were only artificial objects, and instead of being executed he was allowed to repeat his performance. This was the origin of the play in China which corresponds to Punch and Judy in Europe and America.
To the question which naturally arises as to how the play was carried to the West, I reply, it may not have been carried to Europe at all, but have originated there. From marked similarities in the two plays however, and more especially in the methods of their production, we may suppose that the Chinese Punch and Judy was carried to Europe in the following way:
Among the many traders who visited Central Asia while it was under the government of the family of Genghis Khan, were two Venetian brothers, Maffeo and Nicolo Polo, whose wondering disposition and trading interests led them as far as the court of the Great Khan, where they remained in the most intimate relations with Kublai for some time, and were finally sent back to Italy with a request that one hundred European scholars be sent to China to instruct them in the arts of Europe.
This request was never carried out, but the two returned to the Khan's court with young Marco, the son of one of them, who remained with the Mongol Emperor for seventeen years, during which time he had a better opportunity of observing their customs than perhaps any other foreigner since his time. His final return to Italy was in 1295, and a year or two later, he wrote and revised his book of travels.
The art of printing in Europe was discovered in 1438, and the first edition of Marco Polo's travels was printed about 1550-59. Our Punch and Judy was invented by Silvio Fiorillo an Italian dramatist before the year 1600. I have found no reference to the play in Marco Polo's works, nevertheless, one cannot but think that, if not a written, at least an oral, communication of the play may have been carried to Europe by him or some other of the Italian traders or travellers. The two plays are very similar, even to the tones of the man who works the puppets.
In passing the school court on one occasion I saw the students gathered in a crowd under the shade of the trees. A small tent was pitched, on the front of which was a little stage. A manager stood behind the screen from which position he worked a number of puppets in the form of men, women, children, horses and dragons. These were suspended by black threads as I afterwards discovered from small sticks or a framework which the manager manipulated behind the screen. When one finished its part of the performance, it either walked off the stage, or the stick was fastened in such a way as to leave it in a position conducive to the amusement of the crowd. These were puppet shows, and were put through entire performances or plays, the manager doing the talking as in Punch and Judy.
After the performance several of the students passed around the hat, each person present giving one-fifth or one-tenth of a cent.
As I came from school one afternoon, the children had called in from the street a showman with a number of trained mice. He had erected a little scaffolding just inside the gateway, at one side of which there was a small rope ladder, and this with the inevitable gong, and the small boxes in which the mice were kept constituted his entire outfit.
In the boxes he had what seemed to be cotton from the milk-weed which furnished a nest for the mice. These he took from their little boxes one by one, stroked them tenderly, while he explained what this particular mouse would do, put each one on the rope ladder, which they ascended, and performed the tricks expected of them. These were going through a pagoda, drawing water, creeping through a tube, wearing a criminal's collar, turning a tread-mill, or working some other equally simple trick.
At times the mice had to be directed by a small stick in the hands of the manager, but they were carefully trained, kindly treated, and much appreciated by the children.
Although less attractive, there is no other show which impresses itself so forcibly on the child's mind as the monkey, dog and sheep show.
The dog was the first to perform. Four hoops were placed on the corners of a square, ten feet apart. The dog walked around through these hoops, first through each in order, then turning went through each twice, then through one and retracing his steps went through the one last passed through.
The showman drove an iron peg in the ground on which were two blocks representing millstones. To the upper one was a lever by which the dog with his nose turned the top millstone as if grinding flour. He was hitched to a wheelbarrow, the handles of which were held by the monkey, who pushed while the dog pulled.
The most interesting part of the performance, however, was by the monkey. Various kinds of hats and false faces were kept in a box which he opened and secured. He stalked about with a cane in his hand, or crosswise back of his neck, turned handsprings, went through various trapeze performances, such as hanging by his legs, tail, chin, and hands, or was whirled around in the air.
The leading strap of the monkey was finally tied to the belt of the sheep which was led away to some distance and let go. The monkey bounded upon its back and held fast to the wool, while the sheep ran with all its speed to the showman, who held a basin of broom-corn seed as a bait. This was repeated as often as the children desired, which ended the show. Time, -- half an hour; spectators, -- all who desired to witness it; price, -- five cents.
The showmen in China are somewhat like the tramps and beggars in other countries. When they find a place where there are children who enjoy shows, each tells the other, and they all call around in turn.
Our next show was an exhibition given by a man with a trained bear.
The animal had two rings in his nose, to one of which was fastened a leading string or strap, and to the other, while performing, a large chain. A man stood on one end of the chain, and the manager, with a long-handled ladle, or with his hand, gave the bear small pieces of bread or other food after each trick he performed.
The first trick was walking on his hind feet as if dancing. But more amusing than this to the children was to see him turn summersaults both forward and backward. These were repeated several times because they were easily done, and added to the length of time the show continued.
Children, however, begin to appreciate at an early age what is difficult and what easy, and it was not until he took a carrying-pole six feet long, put the middle of it upon his forehead and set it whirling with his paws, that they began to say:
"That's good," "That's hard to do," and other expressions of a like nature.
They enjoyed seeing him stand on his front feet, or on his head with his hind feet kicking the air, but they enjoyed still more seeing him put on the wooden collar of a convict and twirl it around his neck. The manager gave him some bread and then tried to induce him to take it off, but he whined for more bread and refused to do so. Finally he took off the collar, and when they tried to take it from him he put it on again. When he took it off the next time and offered it to them they refused to receive it, but tried to get him to put it on, which he stubbornly refused to do, and finally threw it away.
His last trick was to sit down upon his haunches, stick up one of his hind feet, and twirl a knife six feet long upon it as he had twirled the carrying-pole upon his head. The manager said he would wrestle with the men, but this was a side issue and only done when extra money was added to the regular price, which was twelve cents.
One of the most common showmen seen on the streets of Peking, goes about with a framework upon his shoulder in the shape of a sled, the runners of which are turned up at both ends. It seemed to me to be less interesting than the other shows, but as it is more common, the children probably look upon it with more favor, and the children are the final critics of all things for the little ones.
The show was given by a man and two boys, one of whom impersonated a girl. Small feet, like the bound feet of a girl, were strapped on like stilts, his own being covered by wide trousers, and he and the boy sang songs and danced to the music of the drum and cymbals in the hands of the showman.
The second part of the performance was a boat ride on dry land. The girl got into the frame, let down around it a piece of cloth which was fastened to the top, and took hold of the frame in such a way as to carry it easily. The boy, with a long stick, pushed as if starting the boat, and then pulled as if rowing, and with every pull of the oar, the girl ran a few steps, making it appear that the boat shot forward. All the while the boy sang a boat-song or a love-ditty to his sweetheart.
Again the scene changed. The head and hind parts of a papier mache horse were fastened to the "tomboy" in such a way as to make it appear that she was riding; a cloth was let down to hide her feet, and they ran to and fro, one in one direction and the other in the other, she jerking her unmanageable steed, and he singing songs, and all to the music of the drum and the cymbals.
It sometimes happens that while the girl rides the horse, the boy goes beside her in the boat, the rapidity and character of their movements being governed by the music of the manager.
The best part of the whole performance was that which goes by the name of the lion show. The girl took off her small feet and girl's clothes and became a boy again. One of the boys stood up in front and put on an apron of woven grass, while the other bent forward and clutched hold of his belt. A large papier mache head of a lion was put on the front boy, to which was attached a covering of woven grass large enough to cover them both, while a long tail of the same material was stuck into a framework fastened to the belt of the hinder boy.
The manager beat the drum, the lion stalked about the court, keeping step to the music, turning its large head in every direction and opening and shutting its mouth, much to the amusement of the children.
There is probably no country in the world that has more travelling shows specially prepared for the entertainment of children than China. Scarcely a day passes that we do not hear the drum or the gong of the showmen going to and fro, or standing at our court gate waiting to be called in.