A LUNCHEON WITH THE EMPRESS
WHEN we had finished drinking tea, she told us to go with her into the next room, where the tables had been prepared for lunch, and I wondered if she had any room for lunch, after all that she had just eaten, but I soon found out. As soon as she was inside the room, she ordered the covers to be removed and they were all taken off at one time. Then she took her seat at the head of the table and told us to stand at the foot. She then said: "generally the Emperor takes lunch with me when we have the theatre, but he is shy to-day, as you are all new to him. I hope he will get over it and not be so bashful. You three had better eat with me to-day." Of course, we knew that this was an especial favor, and thanked her by kowtowing before we commenced to eat. This kowtowing, or bowing our heads to the ground, was very tiring at first and made us dizzy, until we got used to it.
When we commenced to eat, Her Majesty ordered the eunuchs to place plates for us and give us silver chopsticks, spoons, etc., and said:
"I am sorry you have to eat standing, but I cannot break the law of our great ancestors. Even the Young Empress cannot sit in my presence. I am sure the foreigners must think we are barbarians to treat our Court ladies in this way and I don't wish them to know anything about our customs. You will see how differently I act in their presence, so that they cannot see my true self."
I was watching her while she was talking to my mother and marvelled to see how she could eat, after having eaten such a quantity of candy, walnuts, etc., while in her bedroom.
Beef was a thing that was tabooed within the precincts of the Palace, as it was considered a great sin to kill and eat animals that were used as beasts of burden. The food consisted mostly of pork, mutton and game, fowls and vegetables. This day we had pork cooked in ten different ways, such as meat balls, sliced cold in two different ways, red and white, the red being cooked with a special kind of sauce made of beans which gives it the red color and has a delicious taste. Chopped pork with chopped bamboo shoots, pork cut in cubes and cooked with cherries and pork cooked with onions and sliced thin. This last dish was Her Majesty's favorite and I must say it was good. Then there was a sort of pancake made of eggs, pork and mushrooms chopped fine and fried, also pork cooked with cabbage and another dish cooked with turnips. The fowl and mutton was cooked in several different ways. In the center of the table was a very large bowl about two feet in diameter of the same yellow porcelain, in which there was a chicken, a duck and some shark fins in a clear soup. Shark fins are considered a great delicacy in China. Besides this there was roast chicken, boneless chicken and roast duck. Ducks and chickens are stuffed with little pine needles to give them a fine flavor and roasted in open air ovens.
There was another dish that Her Majesty was very fond of and that was the skin of roast pork cut into very small slices and fried until it curls up like a rasher of bacon.
As a rule the Manchu people seldom eat rice, but are very fond of bread and this day we had bread, made in a number of different ways, such as baked, steamed, fried, some with sugar and some with salt and pepper, cut in fancy shapes or made in fancy moulds such as dragons, butterflies, flowers, etc., and one kind was made with mincemeat inside. Then we had a number of different kinds of pickles, of which Her Majesty was very fond. Then there was beans and green peas, and peanuts made into cakes and served with sugarcane syrup.
I did not eat very much, as I was too busy watching Her Majesty and listening to what she said, although she told us to eat all we could. In addition to all I have mentioned, we had many different kinds of porridge, some made of sweet corn and some with tiny yellow rice (like bird seed), and Her Majesty said that we must all eat porridge after our meat.
After we had finally finished eating, Her Majesty rose from the table and said: "Come into my bedroom and you will see the Young Empress and the Court ladies eat; they always eat after I am finished." We went with her and I stood near the door between the two rooms and saw the Young Empress and Court ladies come in and stand around the table eating very quietly. They were never allowed to sit down and eat their food.
All this time the theatre had been going on playing some fairy tales, but they were not near as interesting as the first play that we had seen. Her Majesty sat on her long couch in the bedroom and the eunuch brought her some tea and she ordered some brought for us. My reader can imagine how delighted I was to be treated in this way. In China the people think their sovereign is the supreme being and that her word is law. One must never raise their eyes when talking to her. This is a sign of great respect. I thought these extreme favors must be most unusual. I had been told that Her Majesty had a very fierce temper, but seeing her so kind and gracious to us and talking to us in such a motherly way, I thought my informant must be wrong and that she was the sweetest woman in the world.
When Her Majesty had rested a while, she told us that it was time we were returning to the city, as it was getting late. She gave us eight big yellow boxes of fruit and cakes to take home with us. She said to my mother: "Tell Yu Keng (my father) to get better soon and tell him to take the medicine I am sending by you and to rest well. Also give him these eight boxes of fruit and cakes." I thought my father, who had been quite ill since we returned from Paris, would not be much benefited if he ate all those cakes. However, I knew he would appreciate her kind thoughtfulness even if it were detrimental to his health.
As perhaps most of my readers know, it is the custom to kowtow when Her Majesty gives presents and we kowtowed to her when she gave us the fruit and cakes and thanked her for her kindness.
Just as we were leaving, Her Majesty said to my mother that she liked us very much and wanted us to come and be her Court ladies and stay at the Palace. We thought this was another great favor and again thanked her, and she asked us when we could come and told us to bring our clothes and things only, as she would fix everything for us and showed us the house we would live in when we came and told us to come back inside of two days. This house contained three very large rooms and was situated on the right side of her own or private Palace. This Palace Ler Shou Tong (Ever Happy Palace) is situated on the shores of the lake and was Her Majesty's favorite place and where she spent most of her time, reading and resting and when the spirit moved her she would go for a sail on the lake. In this Palace she had quite a number of bedrooms and made use of them all.
When she had finished showing us this house we took leave of Her Majesty, the Young Empress and the Court ladies, and after a long and tiresome ride, reached home exhausted but happy, after the most eventful day of our lives. When we got into the house, we were surprised to find several eunuchs waiting our return. They had brought us each four rolls of Imperial brocade from Her Majesty. Once more we had to bend to custom in thanking her for these gifts. This time, the gift having been sent to the house, we placed the silk on a table in the center of the room and kowtowed to thank Her Majesty and told the eunuchs to tell Her Majesty how grateful we were to her for all her kindness and for the beautiful gifts.
There is another thing that had to be done according to the custom, and that was to give the eunuchs a present or tip, and we had to give each of the eunuchs ten taels for their trouble. We afterwards found out that when eunuchs went anywhere to take presents for Her Majesty, they were required to report to her when they returned how the recipient had thanked her and what had been given them, which she allowed them to keep. She also asked them numerous questions about our house, whether we were pleased with her, etc. These people are extremely fond of talking and after we had returned to the Palace again, they told us what Her Majesty had said about us the first day we were there.
My mother felt very much worried to go to the Palace and leave my father all alone owing to his being in poor health, but we could not disobey Her Majesty's order, so we returned to the Palace three days later.
Our first day there was a busy one for us. When we first arrived we went and thanked Her Majesty for the present that she had sent us. She told us that she was very busy to-day, as she was going to receive a Russian lady, Madame Plancon, wife of the Russian Minister to China, who was bringing a miniature portrait of the Czar and Czarina and family as a present from the Czar to her, the Empress Dowager. She asked me if I could speak Russian. I told her that I could not, but that most Russians spoke French, which seemed to satisfy her. She, however, said: "Why don't you tell me you speak Russian, I won't know or be able to find out," and at the same time was looking at one of the Court ladies. I concluded that someone must be fooling her, for she seemed to appreciate the fact that I had told her the truth. This afterwards proved to be true and one of the Court ladies was dismissed for pretending she could talk foreign languages when she could not speak a word.
Besides this audience there was the theatre and the engagement ceremony of Her Majesty's nephew, Ter Ju. The engagement ceremony, according to the Manchu custom, is performed by two of the Princesses of the Royal family going to the house of the prospective bride, who sits on her bed cross-legged, her eyes closed and awaits their coming. When they arrive at the house, they go to her bedroom and place a symbol called Ru Yee, made of pure jade about one and a half feet long, in her lap and suspend two small bags made of silk and beautifully embroidered, each containing a gold coin, from the buttons of her gown, and place two gold rings on her fingers, on which is carved the characters Ta Hsi (Great Happiness). The meaning of the symbol or sceptre Ru Yee is "May all joy be yours."
During this entire ceremony absolute silence is maintained and immediately they have finished, they return to the Palace and inform Her Majesty that the ceremony has been completed.