The Chinese Ladies -- Their Ills

My home is girdled by a limpid stream,
And there in summer days life's movements pause,
Save where some swallow flits from beam to beam,
And the wild sea-gull near and nearer draws. The good wife rules a paper board for chess;
The children beat a fish-hook out of wire;
My ailments call for physic more or less,
What else should this poor frame of mine require?
-- "Tu Fu," Translated.

[4] Taken from Mrs. Headland's note-book.

One day a eunuch dashed into the back gate of our compound in Peking, rode up to the door of the library, dismounted from his horse, and handed a letter in a red envelope to the house servant who met him on the steps.

"What is the matter?" asked the boy.

"The Princess is ill," replied the servant.

"What Princess?" further inquired the boy.

"Our Princess," was the reply.

"Oh, you are from the palace near the west gate?"

"Yes," and the boy and the servant continued their conversation until the former had learned all that the letter contained, whereupon he brought me the message.

I opened the letter, written in the Chinese ideographs, and called the messenger in.

"Is the Princess very ill?" I inquired.

"Not very," he answered, "but she has been indisposed for several days."

"When does she want me to go?" I inquired, for I had long ago learned that a few inquiries often brought out interesting and valuable information.

"At once," he answered; "the cart will be here in a few minutes."

By the time I had made ready my medical outfit the cart had arrived. It was very much like a great Saratoga trunk on two wheels. It was without seat and without springs, but filled with thick cushions, and as I had learned to sit tailor fashion it was not entirely uncomfortable to ride in. It had gauze curtains in summer, and was lined with quilted silk or fur in winter, and was a comfortable conveyance.

When I reached the palace I was met by the head eunuch, who conducted me at once to the apartments of the Princess. Her reception room was handsomely furnished with rich, carved, teak-wood furniture after the Manchu fashion, with one or two large, comfortable, leather-covered easy chairs of foreign make. Clocks sat upon the tables and window-sills, and fine Swiss watches hung on the walls. Beautiful jade and other rich Chinese ornaments were arranged in a tasteful way about the room. On the wall hung a picture painted by the Empress Dowager, a gift to the Prince on his birthday.

After a moment's waiting the Princess appeared attended by her women and slave girls.

"I beg your pardon for not having my hair properly dressed," she said, as she took my hands in hers, the custom of these Manchu princesses and even the Empress Dowager herself, in greeting foreign ladies. "I welcome you back to Peking after your summer vacation."

When the usual salutations had been passed she told me her trouble and I gave her the proper medicine, with minute instructions as to how to take it, which I also repeated to her women.

"The cause of my illness," she explained, "is over-fatigue. I had to be present at court on the eighth of the eighth month and I became very tired from standing all day."

"But could you not sit down?" I asked.

"Not in the presence of the Empress Dowager," she replied.

"Of course, I know you could not sit down in the presence of Her Majesty, but could you not withdraw and rest a while?" I inquired.

"Not that day. It was a busy and tiresome day for us all," she replied.

While we were talking the young Princess, her son's wife, came in and greeted her mother-in-law in a formal but kindly way, and gave her hands to me just as the Princess had done. She remained standing all the time she was in the room, as did four of the secondary princesses or wives of her husband. They were all beautifully dressed, but they are beneath the Princess in rank, and so must stand in her presence. If the Prince's mother had come in, as she often did when I was there, the Princess would have to stand and wait on her. All Manchu families are very particular in this respect.

"You will be interested," said the Princess, "in one phase of our visit to the palace." Then turning to one of her women she said: "Bring me those two pairs of shoes."

"These," she explained, "are like some made by my mother-in-law and myself as presents for the Empress Dowager. On the eighth of the eighth month we have a feast, when the ladies of the royal household are invited into the palace, and our custom is for each of us to present Her Majesty with a pair of shoes."

The shoes were daintily embroidered, though not so pretty as some I have seen the Empress Dowager wear. Some of her shoes are decorated with beautiful pearls and others are covered with precious stones.

"The Empress Dowager," continued the Princess, "is very vain of her small feet; though," she continued, as she put her own foot out, encased in the daintiest little embroidered slipper of light-blue satin, "it is not so small as my own."

It seemed very human to hear this delicate little Princess make a remark of this kind. Of course, both she and the Empress Dowager have natural feet.

It was late in the afternoon, some months after my visit to the Princess, that a very different call came for my services.

The boy came in and told me that a man wanted me to go to see his wife, who lived in the southern city outside the Ha-ta gate. It has always been my custom never to refuse any one whether they be rich or poor, and so I told him to call a cart.

It was in midwinter and a bitter cold night, the room was without fire and yet there was a child of three or four toddling about upon the kang or brick bed whose only garment was a long coat.

"You should put a pair of trousers on that child," I said, "or it will catch cold and I will soon have to come again."

"Yes," they said, "we will put trousers on it."

"You had better do it at once," I insisted.

"Yes," they continued, "we will see that it is dressed."

After attending to the woman, and again urging them to dress the child, I wrapped my warm cloak around me and started home, though I could not forget the child.

"It is a cold night," I said to the driver as we started on our way.

"Yes," he answered, "there will be some uncomfortable people in the city to-night."

"In that house we just left," I continued, for I could not banish the child from my thoughts, "there was a little child playing on the bed without a shred of trousers on."

"Quite right," said he; "they pawned the trousers of that child to get money to pay me for taking you to see the sick woman."

"To pay you!" said I, with indignation, and yet with admiration for the character of the people for whom I was giving my services -- "to pay you! Then drive right back and give them their money and tell them to go and redeem those trousers and put them on the child!"

"The city gate will be closed before we can reach it if I return," said he, "and we will not be able to get in to-night."

"No matter about that," I insisted, "go back and give them the money."

He turned around with many mutterings, lashed up his mule at the top of his speed, gave them the money, and then started on a gallop for the city gate. It was a rough ride in that springless cart over the rutty roads. But my house seemed warmer that night and my bed seemed softer after I had paid the carter myself.

Among my friends and patients none are more interesting than the Misses Hsu. They are very intelligent, and after I had become well acquainted with them I said to them one day:

"How is it that you have done such wide reading?"

"You know, of course," they said, "that our father is a chuang yuan."

I asked them the meaning of a chuang yuan. Then I learned that under the Chinese system a great many students enter the examinations, and those who secure their degree are called hsiu tsai; a year or two later these are examined again, and those who pass are given the degree of chu jen; once more these latter are examined and the successful candidates are called chin shih, and are then ready for official position. They continue to study, however, and are allowed to go into the palace, where they are examined in the presence of the Emperor, and those who pass are called han lin, or forest of pencils. Once in three years these han lins are examined and one is allowed to obtain a degree -- he is a chuang yuan.

Out of four hundred million people but one is allowed this degree once in three years.

"Your father must be a very great scholar," I remarked.

"He has always been a diligent student," they answered, modestly.

"What is his given name?" I inquired, one day.

"If you will give me a pencil I will write it for you; we never speak the given name of our father in China," said the eldest, and she wrote it down.

"How many sisters are there in your family -- eight, are there not?"

"Yes. You know, of course, that number five was engaged when a child of six to the son of Li Hung-chang."

"No, I was not aware of the fact; and were they married?"

"No, they were never married. The young man died before they were old enough to wed. When word of his death was brought to her, child that she was, she went to our mother and told her she must never engage her to any one else, as she meant to live and die the widow of this boy."

"And did she go to Li Hung-chang's home?"

"No, the old Viceroy wanted to take her to his home, build a suite of rooms for her, and treat her as his daughter-in-law, but our parents objected because she was so young. The Viceroy loved her very much, and his eyes often filled with tears as he spoke of her and the son who had passed away. When the Viceroy died she wanted to go and kotow at his funeral, and all his family except the eldest son were anxious to have her do so, and thus be recognized as one of the family. But this son objected, and though Lady Li knocked her head on the coffin until it bled he would not yield, lest she might want her portion."

"And what has become of your sister? How is it that I have never seen her?"

"She withdrew to a small court, where she has lived with none but her women servants, not even seeing our father or brothers, and not allowing a male servant to go near her. And she will not permit the word Li to be spoken in her presence."

"And what does she do?" I asked. "How does she employ herself?"

"Studying, reading, painting, and embroidery. When young Li refused to allow her to attend his father's funeral her sense of self-respect was outraged and she cut off her hair and threatened to commit suicide. She often fasts for a week, and has tried on several occasions to take her own life."

I asked them if they did not fear that she might succeed finally in this attempt to kill herself.

"Yes, we have constant apprehensions. But then, what if she did? It would only emphasize her virtue."

It was some months after the young ladies told me what I have just related that they called, for they had taken up the study of English and I had agreed to help them a bit.

"How is your sister?" I inquired, for the sad fate of this young girl weighed like a burden on my heart.

"She fasted more than usual during the early summer, but she bathed daily and changed her clothes, dressing herself in her most beautiful garments. She had not been sleeping well for some time, and one day she ordered her women to leave her and not return until they were called. They remained away until a married sister and a sister-in-law-a niece of Li Hung-chang -- called and wanted to see her. We went to her room but found it locked. We knocked but received no answer. We finally punched a hole through the paper window and saw her sitting on her brick bed, her head bolstered up with cushions and her eyes closed. We supposed she was sleeping, but on forcing open the door we found that she had gone to join her boy husband, though her colour and appearance was that of a living person."

"And are you sure she had not swooned?"

"She remained in this condition for twenty-two hours without pulse or heart beat, and so we put her in her casket."

I could not but feel sad that I had not been in the city, and had had an opportunity to help them to ascertain whether her life had really gone out. But the girls seemed proud of the distinction of having had a sister of such consummate virtue. Numerous embroidered scrolls and laudatory inscriptions were sent her from friends of the Li family as well as of their own, and it is expected that the throne will order a memorial arch erected to her memory.

On another occasion I was requested to go to the palace of one of the princes. The fourth Princess, a beautiful little child of five, was ill with diphtheria, and the first greeting of the mother as I went in was that she "was homesick to see me." The child had been ill for several days before they sent for me, and I told them at once that the case was dangerous. I wanted to do all I could for them and at the same time protect my own children from the danger of infection. After the first treatment with antitoxin she seemed to rally, her throat cleared up, but I soon found that the poison had pervaded her entire system, and so I stayed with her day and night.

I found that the child had contracted the disease from another about her own age, who was both her playmate and her slave. It is the custom among the wealthy to purchase for each daughter a companion who plays with her as a child, becomes a companion in youth and her maid when she marries. These slaves are usually treated well, and when this one became ill the members of the family visited her often, taking her such dainties as might tempt her appetite. As a result I had to administer antitoxin to eight of the younger members of the household, so careless had they been about the spread of this disease; indeed I have found that the isolation of patients suffering from contagious diseases is wholly unknown in China.

One of the most attractive of all my Chinese lady friends and patients is the niece of the great Viceroy, Li Hung-chang, the daughter of his brother, Li Han-chang, who is himself a viceroy. I have been her physician for eighteen years or more and hence have become intimately acquainted with her. She has visited me very often in my home and, of all the women I have ever known, of any race or people, I have never met one whom I thought more cultured or refined than she. This may seem a strange statement, but the quiet dignity that she manifested on all occasions and her charming manners are not often met with. I have never felt on entering a drawing-room such an atmosphere of refinement as seemed to surround her.

That the Chinese take very kindly to foreign medicine there is no doubt, though it is sometimes amusing how they go back to their own native methods.

One day my husband brought home a physiological chart about the size of an ordinary man. It was covered with black spots and I asked him the reason for them.

"That is what I asked the dealer from whom I bought it," he replied, "and he told me that those spots indicate where the needle can be inserted in treatment by acupuncture without killing the patient."

When a Chinese is ill the doctor generally concludes that the only way to cure him is to stick a long needle into him and let out the pain or set up counter irritation. If the patient dies it is evident he stuck the needle into the wrong spot. And this chart has been made up from millions of experiments during the past two or three thousand years from patients who have died or recovered.

This was practically illustrated by a woman who was brought to the hospital. Having had pain in the knee she sent for a Chinese physician who concluded that the only method of relieving her was by acupuncture. He therefore inserted a needle which unfortunately pierced the synovial sac causing inflammation which finally resulted in complete destruction of the joint. Such cases are not infrequent both among adults and children in all grades of society, due to this method of treatment.

One day I was called to see a lady who was in immediate need of surgical treatment. She had three sons who were in high official positions in the palace, and if their mother died they would have to withdraw from official life and go into mourning for three years. When men are thus compelled to resign the new incumbent is not inclined to restore the office when the period of mourning is over. They were therefore doubly anxious to have their mother recover. They had tried all kinds of Chinese physicians and finally sent for me.

I explained the nature of the operation necessary, and gave them every reason to hope for a speedy recovery, while without surgical treatment she must surely die. They consented and the operation was successful. She recovered rapidly for a few days until I regarded her as practically out of danger. But one day when I called I found her bathed in perspiration, shaking with fear, weeping and depressed. Her wound was in an excellent condition and I could find no reason for her despondency. I cheered her up, laughed and talked with her, gave her such articles of diet as she craved, and left her happy. The next day I again found her in the same nervous condition.

"Something is wrong with your mother of which you have not told me," I said to her son.

"Before we sent for you," he said, "we had called a spirit doctor, who went into a sort of trance, claimed to have descended into the spirit world where he saw them making a coffin which he said my mother would occupy before the fifteenth of the month. It is because that time is approaching that she is filled with fear."

I talked with the lady, showed her how her wound was healing, encouraged her to rest easy until the fifteenth, when I would spend the day with her, after which she immediately began gaining strength and soon recovered.

At another time I was called to see the wife of the president of the Board of Punishments. I found an operation necessary. The next day I found the patient delirious with a fever, and asked the husband if my directions had been followed.

"I assure you they have," he answered. "But the cause of the fever is this: Last evening while the servants were taking their meal she was left alone for a short time. While they were absent, her sister who lived on this street, a short distance from here, committed suicide. When the servant discovered it she ran directly to my wife's room, and told her of the tragedy. My wife began to tremble, had a severe chill, and soon became delirious. I suspect that her sister's spirit accompanied the servant and entered my wife."

In spite of this explanation I cleaned and dressed the wound and left her more comfortable. The next morning she was somewhat better, without fever and in her right mind.

"What kind of a night did she have?" I asked her husband.

"Oh, very good," he answered. "I managed to get the spirit out of her."

"How did you do it?" I inquired.

"Soon after you left yesterday, I dressed myself in my official garments, came into my wife's apartments, and asked the spirit if it would not like to go with me to the yamen, adding that we would have some interesting cases to settle. I felt a strange sensation come over me and I knew the spirit had entered me. I got into my cart, drove down to the home of my sister-in-law, went in where the corpse lay, and told the spirit that it would be a disgrace to have a woman at the Board of Punishments. 'This is your place,' I said, in an angry voice; 'get out of me and stay where you belong.' I felt the spirit leaving me, my fingers became stiff and I felt faint. I had only been at the Board a short time when they sent a servant to tell me that my wife was quiet and sleeping. When I returned in the evening the fever was gone and she was rational."