A PLAY AT THE COURT
THIS day to me was a medley of brilliant impressions. I was a great novelty among these exclusive Court ladies, brought up rigidly apart from foreign life and customs, and I was subjected to a rapid fire of questions. I soon found that these women were the same as others the world over in point of curiosity and love of gossip. The fourth daughter of Prince Ching (Sze Gurgur), a young widow and a strikingly handsome woman, spoke to me. "Were you brought up in Europe and educated?" she asked. "I am told that when people go to that country and drink the water there, they quickly forget their own country. Did you really study to acquire all those languages or was it drinking the water that gave them to you?" I mentioned that I met her brother, Prince Tsai Chen, in Paris on his way to London for the coronation of King Edward, and that we should have liked to have gone also, as my father had a special invitation, but were prevented from doing so by his urgent duties in Paris in settling the Yunnan question, to which the Princess replied: "Is there a king in England? I had thought that our Empress Dowager was Queen of the world." Her sister, wife of the brother of the Young Empress, a most intelligent, quiet and dignified lady, stood by smiling and listening to the eager questions. After numerous questions had been asked the Young Empress finally said: "How ignorant you are. I know that each country has its ruler and that some countries are republics. The United States is a republic and very friendly toward us, but I am sorry that such a common class of people go there, as they will think we are all the same. What I should like to see is some of our good Manchu people go, as then they would see what we really are." She afterwards told me she had been reading a history of the different countries, which had been translated into Chinese, and she seemed to be very well informed.
After the Audience was over, Her Majesty called us out from behind the screen and told us to go with her to see the theatre. She said, as it was such a beautiful day, she preferred to walk, so we started, walking a little behind her, as is the custom. Along the way she pointed out from time to time different places and things that were her particular favorites, and as she had to keep turning around all the time, she finally told us to come and walk alongside of her. This, as I afterwards found out, was a great condescension on her part and a thing that she very seldom ever did. She, like everybody else, had her pets and hobbies, such as flowers, trees, plants, dogs, horses, etc., and there was one dog in particular that was her favorite pet. This dog was with Her Majesty always and followed her wherever she went, and a more homely dog I never saw. It had absolutely nothing to recommend it in any way. Her Majesty thought it beautiful, and called it Shui Ta (Sea Otter).
A short distance from the Audience Hall we came to a large courtyard. On each side of this courtyard were two immense baskets fifteen feet in height, built of natural logs and literally covered with purple wisteria. They were simply gorgeous and great favorites of Her Majesty. She was always very proud of them when in bloom and took great delight in showing them to the people.
From this courtyard we entered a sort of passageway which ran along the sides of a big hill and led directly to the theatre, where we soon arrived. This theatre is quite unlike anything that you can imagine. It is built around the four sides of an open courtyard, each side being separate and distinct. The building has five stories. It is entirely open on the front and has two stages, one above the other. The three top stories are used for holding the drops and for store rooms. The stage on the first floor is of the ordinary kind; but that on the second floor is built to represent a temple and used when playing religious plays, of which Her Majesty was very fond.
On the two sides were long, low buildings with large verandas running their entire length, where the Princes and Ministers sat when invited by Her Majesty to witness the play. Directly opposite this stage was a spacious building, containing three large rooms, which was used exclusively by Her Majesty. The floor was raised about ten feet above the ground, which brought it on a level with the stage. Large glass windows ran along in front, so made that they could be removed in the summer and replaced with pale blue gauze screens. Two of these rooms were used as sitting rooms and the third, the one on the right, she used as a bedroom, and it had a long couch running across the front, on which she used to sit or lie according to her mood. This day she invited us to go to this room with her. Later I was told that she would very often come to this room, look at the play for a while and then take her siesta. She could certainly sleep soundly, for the din and noise did not disturb her in the least. If any of my readers have ever been to a Chinese theatre, they can well imagine how difficult it would be to woo the God of Sleep in such a pandemonium.
As soon as we were in this bedroom the play commenced. It was a religious play called "The Empress of Heaven's Party or Feast to all the Buddhist Priests to eat her famous peaches and drink her best wine." This party or feast is given on the third day of the third moon of each year.
The first act opens with a Buddhist Priest, dressed in a yellow coat robe with a red scarf draped over his left shoulder, descending in a cloud from Heaven to invite all the priests to this party. I was very much surprised to see this actor apparently suspended in the air and actually floating on this cloud, which was made of cotton. The clever way in which they moved the scenery, etc., was most interesting, and before the play was finished I concluded that any theatre manager could well take lessons from these people; and it was all done without the slightest bit of machinery.
As this Buddhist Priest was descending, a large pagoda began to slowly rise from the center of the stage in which was a buddha singing and holding an incense burner in front of him. Then four other smaller pagodas slowly rose from the four corners of the stage, each containing a buddha the same as the first. When the first Buddhist Priest had descended, the five buddhas came out of the pagodas, which immediately disappeared, and walked about the stage, still singing. Gradually from the wing came numbers of buddhas singing until the stage was full, and they all formed into a ring. Then I saw a large lotus flower, made of pink silk, and two large green leaves appearing from the bottom of the stage, and as it rose the petals and leaves gradually opened and I saw a beautiful lady buddha (Goddess of Mercy) dressed all in white silk, with a white hood on her head, standing in the center of this flower. As the leaves opened I saw a girl and a boy in the center of them. When the petals of the lotus flower were wide open this lady buddha began to gradually ascend herself, and as she ascended, the petals closed until she seemed to be standing on a lotus bud. The girl standing in the leaf on the Goddess' right side held a bottle made of jade and a willow branch. The legend of this is that if the Goddess dips the willow branch into the jade bottle and spreads it over a dead person it will bring the person to life. The boy and the girl are the two attendants of the buddha.
Finally the three came down from the flower and leaves and joined the rest of the buddhas. Then the Empress of Heaven came, a good old lady with snow-white hair, dressed from head to foot in Imperial yellow, followed by many attendants, and ascended the throne, which was in the center of the stage, and said: "We will go to the banquet hall." This ended the first scene.
The second scene opened with tables set for the feast to be given by the Empress of Heaven. These tables were loaded down with peaches and wine and four attendants guarding them. Suddenly a bee came buzzing near and scattered a powder under the nostrils of the attendants, which made them sleepy. When they had fallen asleep, this bee transformed itself into a big monkey and this monkey ate all the peaches and drank all the wine. As soon as he had finished he disappeared.
A blast of trumpets announced the coming of the Empress of Heaven and she soon arrived accompanied by all the Buddhist Priests and their attendants. When the Empress of Heaven saw all the peaches and wine had disappeared, she woke the attendants and asked them why they were asleep and where the peaches and wine had gone. They said that they did not know, that they were waiting for her to come and fell asleep. Then one of the guests suggested that she should find out what had become of the feast, and attendants were sent out to the guard to find out from the soldiers if anyone had gone out of the gate recently. Before the messenger had time to return, the Guard of Heaven came and informed the Empress that a big monkey, who was very drunk and carrying a big stick, had just gone out of the gate. When she was told this, she ordered the soldiers of heaven and several buddhas to go and find him at his place. It seems that this monkey had originally been made from a piece of stone and lived in a large hole in a mountain on the earth. He was endowed with supernatural powers and could walk on the clouds. He was allowed to come to heaven and the Empress of Heaven gave him a position looking after the Imperial orchards.
When they got to his place on the earth, they found that he had taken some of the peaches with him and he, with other monkeys, was having a feast. The soldiers challenged him to come out and fight. He immediately accepted this challenge, but the soldiers could do nothing with him. He pulled the hair out of his coat and transformed each hair into a little monkey and each monkey had an iron rod in its hand. He himself had a special iron rod, which had been given to him by the King of Sea Dragons. This rod he could make any size he wanted from a needle to a crowbar.
Among the buddhas who had gone with the soldiers was one named Erh Lang Yeh, who was the most powerful of them all and had three eyes. This buddha had a dog which was very powerful and he told the dog to bite this monkey, which he did, and the monkey fell down and they caught him and brought him up to heaven. When they got there the Empress of Heaven ordered that he should be handed to Lao Chun, an old taoist god, and that he should burn him in his incense burner. The incense burner was very large, and when they took the monkey to him he placed him inside this burner and watched him very carefully to see that he did not get out. After he had watched for a long time he thought the monkey must be dead and went out for a few minutes. The monkey, however, was not dead and as soon as Lao Chun went out, he escaped and stole some golden pills which Lao Chun kept in a gourd and went back to his hole in the mountains. These pills were very powerful and if one of them were eaten it would give eternal life, and the monkey knew this. The monkey ate one and it tasted good and he gave the little monkeys some. When Lao Chun came back and found both the monkey and the pills gone he went and informed the Empress of Heaven. This ended the second scene.
The third scene opened with the buddhas and soldiers at the monkey's place in the mountains and they again asked him to come out and fight. The monkey said: "What! Coming again?" and laughed at them. They started to fight again, but he was so strong they could not get the best of him. Even the dog who had bit him before was powerless this time, and they finally gave it up and returned to heaven and told the Empress of Heaven that they could not capture him the second time, as he was too strong. Then the Empress of Heaven called a little god about fifteen years old by the name of Neur Cha, who had supernatural powers, and told him to go down to earth to the monkey's place and see if he could finish him. This god was made of lotus flowers and leaves, that is, his bones were made of flowers and his flesh made of leaves and he could transform himself into anything that he wished. When Neur Cha got to the monkey's place and the monkey saw him, he said: "What! A little boy like you come to fight me? Well, if you think you can beat me, come on," and the boy transformed himself into an immense man with three heads and six arms. When the monkey saw this, he transformed himself also into the same thing. When the little god saw that this would not do, he transformed himself into a very big man and started to take the monkey, but the monkey transformed himself into a very large sword and cut this man into two pieces. The little god again transformed himself into fire to burn the monkey, but the monkey transformed himself into water and put the fire out. Again the little god transformed himself, this time into a very fierce lion, but the monkey transformed himself into a big net to catch the lion. So this little god, seeing that he could not get the best of the monkey, gave it up and went back to heaven, and told the Empress of Heaven that the monkey was too strong for him. The Empress of Heaven was in despair, so she sent for Ju Li, an old ancestor of the buddhas, who was the all-powerful one of them all; and Kuan Yin, Goddess of Mercy, and sent them down to the monkey's place to see if they could capture him. When they arrived at the hole in the mountain the monkey came out and looked at Ju Li, but did not say a word, as he knew who this god was. This god pointed a finger at him and he knelt down and submitted. Ju Li said: "Come with me," and took the monkey and put him under another mountain and told him he would have to stay there until he promised he would be good. Ju Li said: "You stay here until one day I lift this mountain up for you to come out to go with a Buddhist Priest to the West side of heaven and demand the prayer books that are kept there. You will have to suffer a great deal on the way and face many dangers, but if you come back with this Buddhist Priest and the prayer books, by that time your savage temper will be gone and you will be put in a nice place in heaven and enjoy life forever afterwards."
This finished the play, which was very interesting, and I enjoyed it from beginning to end. It was acted very cleverly and quite realistic, and I was very much surprised to know that the eunuchs could act so well. Her Majesty told us that the scenery was all painted by the eunuchs and that she had taught them about all they knew. Unlike most theatres in China, it had a curtain which was closed between the acts, also wing slides and drop scenes. Her Majesty had never seen a foreign theatre and I could not understand where she got all her ideas from. She was very fond of reading religious books and fairy tales, and wrote them into plays and staged them herself, and was extremely proud of her achievement.
Her Majesty sat talking, we standing, for some little time and she asked me if I understood the play, and I told her that I did and she seemed quite pleased. Then she said in such a charming way: "Oh! I am so interested in talking with you that I have forgotten to order my lunch. Are you hungry? Could you get Chinese food when you were abroad, and were you homesick? I know I would be if I left my own country for so long a time; but the reason why you were abroad so long was not your fault. It was my order that sent Yu Keng to Paris and I am not a bit sorry, for you see how much you can help me now, and I am proud of you and will show you to the foreigners that they may see our Manchu ladies can speak other languages than their own." While she was talking I noticed that the eunuchs were laying three large tables with nice white table cloths, and I could see a number of other eunuchs standing in the courtyard with boxes of food. These boxes or trays are made of wood painted yellow and are large enough to hold four small and two large bowls of food. After the tables were laid ready, the eunuchs outside formed themselves into a double line from the courtyard to a little gate running into another courtyard and passed these trays from one to the other up to the entrance of the room, where they were taken by four nicely dressed eunuchs and placed on the tables.
It seems that it was a habit of Her Majesty to take her meals wherever she happened to be, so that there was no particular place that she used as a dining room. I should also mention that these bowls were of Imperial yellow with silver covers. Some were ornamented with green dragons and some with the Chinese character Shou (Long Life).
There were about one hundred and fifty different kinds of food, for I counted them. They were placed in long rows, one row of large bowls and one row of small plates, and then another row of small bowls, and so on. As the setting of the tables was going on, two Court ladies came into the bedroom, each carrying a large yellow box. I was very much surprised to see Court ladies doing this kind of work and I said to myself, if I come here will I have to do this sort of thing? Although these boxes appeared to be quite heavy, they brought them in very gracefully. Two small tables were placed in front of Her Majesty, then they opened the boxes and placed a number of very cute plates containing all sorts of sweets, lotus flower seeds, dried and cooked with sugar, watermelon seeds, walnuts cooked in different ways, and fruits of the season cut and sliced. As these plates were being placed on the tables Her Majesty said that she liked these dainties better than meat and gave us some and told us to make ourselves at home. We thanked her for her kindness and enjoyed them very much. I noticed that she ate quite a quantity from the different plates and wondered how she would be able to eat her lunch. When she had finished, two of the Court ladies came and took the plates away and Her Majesty told us that she always gave what was left to the Court ladies after she had finished eating.
After this a eunuch came in carrying a cup of tea. This tea cup was made of pure white jade and the saucer and cover was of solid gold. Then another eunuch came in carrying a silver tray on which were two jade cups similar to the others, one containing honeysuckle flowers and the other rose petals. He also brought a pair of gold chopsticks. They both knelt on the floor in front of Her Majesty and held the trays up so that she could reach them. She took the golden cover off of the cup containing tea and took some of the honeysuckle flowers and placed them in the tea. While she was doing this and sipping the tea, she was telling how fond she was of flowers and what a delicate flavor they gave to the tea. Then she said: "I will let you taste some of my tea and see if you like it," and ordered one of the eunuchs to bring us some tea, the same as she was drinking. When it came, she put some of the honeysuckle flowers in the cup for us and watched us drink it. It was the most delicious tea I had ever tasted and the putting of flowers in it gave it an extremely delicate flavour.