THE NEW YEAR FESTIVALS
WE now reached the time set apart for cleaning the Palace in preparation for the New Year festivals. Everything had to be taken down and thoroughly overhauled, and all the images, pictures, furniture and everything else were subjected to a thorough scrubbing. Her Majesty again consulted her book in order to choose a lucky day on which to commence these operations, finally choosing the twelfth day as being most favorable. As we had all received our orders previously, we commenced early on the morning of the twelfth. Several of the Court ladies were told off to take down and clean the images of Buddha and prepare new curtains for them. The rest of the cleaning was done by the eunuchs. I asked Her Majesty whether I was to clean her jewelry, but she answered that as nobody but herself ever wore it, it didn't need cleaning.
After everything had been cleaned to Her Majesty's satisfaction, she prepared a list of names of the people she desired to attend the ceremony of Tzu Sui. This ceremony was held on the last day of each year and was something like the midnight services usually held in Europe on the last night of each old year -- just a farewell ceremony to bid the old year adieu. The guests were invited about a fortnight ahead, so as to give them plenty of time to get ready. Her Majesty also ordered new winter clothing for the Court ladies. The only difference between these new garments and those we were then. wearing was that they were trimmed with the fur of the silver fox instead of the gray squirrel.
The next thing was to prepare cakes, which were to be placed before the Buddhas and ancestors, during the New Year. It was necessary that Her Majesty should make the first one herself. So when Her Majesty decided that it was time to prepare these cakes the whole Court went into a room specially prepared for the purpose and the eunuchs brought in the ingredients-ground rice, sugar and yeast. These were mixed together into a sort of dough and then steamed instead of baked, which caused it to rise just like ordinary bread, it being believed that the higher the cake rises, the better pleased are the gods and the more fortunate the maker. The first cake turned out fine and we all congratulated Her Majesty, who was evidently much pleased herself at the result. Then she ordered each of the Court ladies to make one, which we did, with disastrous results, not one turning out as it should. This being my first year, there was some excuse for my failure, but I was surprised that none of the older Court ladies fared any better, and on inquiring from one of them the reason, she replied: "Why, I did it purposely, of course, so as to flatter Her Majesty's vanity. Certainly I could make them just as well as she, if not better, but it would not be good policy." After we had all finished making our cakes, the eunuchs were ordered to make the rest, and needless to say they were perfect in every way.
The next thing was to prepare small plates of dates and fresh fruits of every kind. These were decorated with evergreens, etc., and placed before the images of Buddha. Then we prepared glass dishes of candy, which were to be offered to the God of the Kitchen. On the twenty-third day of the last moon the God of the Kitchen left this earth to go on a visit to the King of Heaven, to whom he reported all that we had been doing during the past year, returning to earth again on the last day of the year. The idea of offering him these sweets was in order that they should stick to his mouth and prevent him from telling too much. When these candies were prepared, we all adjourned to the kitchen and placed the offering on a table specially placed for the purpose. Turning to the head cook, she said: "You had better look out now; the God of the Kitchen will tell how much you have stolen during the past year, and you will be punished."
The following day another ceremony had to be gone through, that of writing out the New Year Greetings for the guests and Court, so in the morning we all went with Her Majesty to the Audience Hall, where the eunuchs had prepared large sheets of yellow, red and pale green paper. Her Majesty took up a large brush and commenced to write. On some of these sheets she wrote the character "Shou" (Long Life) and on others "Fu" (Prosperity). By and bye, when she began to feel tired, she would get either one of the Court ladies or one of the official writers to finish them for her. When finished, they were distributed to the guests and different officials, the ones Her Majesty had written herself being reserved for her special favorites. These were given out a few days before the New Year.
Her Majesty received New Year presents from all the Viceroys and principal officials. She would examine each present as it was received, and if it found favor in her eyes, she would use it, but if not, she would have it locked away in one of the storerooms and probably never see it again. These presents consisted of small pieces of furniture, curios, jewelry, silks, in fact everything -- even clothing. The present sent by Viceroy Yuan Shih Kai was a yellow satin robe, embroidered with different colored precious stones and pearls designed to represent the peony flower; the leaves were of green jade. It was really a magnificent thing, and must have cost a fortune. The only drawback was its weight; it was too heavy to wear comfortably. Her Majesty appeared delighted with this gown, and wore it the first day, after which it was discarded altogether, although I often suggested that she should wear it, as it was the most magnificent gown I ever saw. Once when Her Majesty was granting an audience to the Diplomatic Corps, I suggested that she should wear this dress, but she refused, giving no reason, so nobody outside the Court has ever seen this wonderful garment.
Another costly present was received from the Viceroy of Canton, and consisted of four bags of pearls, each bag containing several thousands. They were all perfect in shape and color, and would have brought fabulous prices in Europe or America. However, Her Majesty had so many jewels, especially pearls, that she hardly paid any attention to them beyond remarking that they were very nice.
The Young Empress and the Court ladies were also expected to give presents to Her Majesty each New Year. These were for the most part articles that we had made ourselves, such as shoes, handkerchiefs, collars, bags, etc. My mother, my sister and myself made presents of mirrors, perfumes, soaps and similar toilet accessories which we had brought with us from Paris. These Her Majesty appreciated very much; she was very vain. The eunuchs and servant girls gave fancy cakes and other food stuffs.
The presents were so numerous that they filled several rooms, but we were not allowed to remove them until Her Majesty gave orders to do so.
The Court ladies also exchanged presents among themselves, which often led to confusion and amusement. On this occasion I had received some ten or a dozen different presents, and when it came my turn to give something, I decided to use up some of the presents I had received from my companions. To my surprise, the next day I received from one of the Court ladies an embroidered handkerchief which I immediately recognized as the identical handkerchief I had myself sent her as my New Year's present. On mentioning the fact, this lady turned and said: "Well, that is rather funny; I was just wondering what had made you return the shoes I sent you." Of course everybody laughed very heartily, and still further merriment was caused when, on comparing all the presents, it was found that quite half of us had received back our own presents. In order to settle the matter, we threw them all into a heap and divided them as evenly as possible, everybody being satisfied with the result.
About a week before New Year's day all audiences ceased and the seals were put away until after the holidays. During this time no business was transacted by Her Majesty. Everything was much more comfortable and we could see that Her Majesty also appreciated the change from bustle to quietness. We had nothing whatever to do but to take things easy until the last day of the year.
Early on the morning of the thirtieth Her Majesty went to worship before the Buddhas and Ancestral Tablets. After this ceremony was finished, the guests began to arrive, until by midday, all the guests, numbering about fifty, were present. The principal guests were: The Imperial Princess (Empress Dowager's adopted daughter), Princess Chung (wife of Emperor Kwang Hsu's brother), Princesses Shun and Tao (wives of the Emperor's younger brothers), Princess hung (wife of the nephew of the Imperial Princess), and Prince Ching's family. All these ladies were frequent visitors to the Court. Next day many other Princesses, not of the Imperial family, but whose titles were honorary titles bestowed by previous rulers, came. Next, the daughters of the high Manchu officials and many other people whom I had never seen before. By midday all the guests had arrived, and, after being presented to Her Majesty, were taken to their different apartments and told to rest a while. At two o'clock in the afternoon everybody assembled in the Audience Hall, lined up according to their different ranks and, led by the Young Empress, kowtowed to Her Majesty. This was the ceremony Tzu Sui already referred to, and was simply a last goodbye to Her Majesty before the New Year set in. When it was all over, Her Majesty gave each of us a small purse made of red satin embroidered with gold, containing a sum of money. This is to enable each one to commence the New Year with a kind of reserve fund for a rainy day, when they would have this money to fall back upon. It is an old Manchu custom and is still kept up.
The evening was spent in music and enjoyment, and was carried on right through the night, none of us going to bed. At Her Majesty's suggestion we commenced gambling with dice, Her Majesty providing each of us with money, sometimes as much as $200. She told us to be serious about it, and to try and win, but of course we took good care not to win from Her Majesty. When Her Majesty began to tire, she stopped the game and said: "Now, all this money I have won I am going to throw on the floor, and you girls can scramble for it." We knew that she wanted to see some fun, so we fought for it as hard as we could.
At midnight the eunuchs brought into the room a large brass brazier containing live charcoal. Her Majesty pulled a leaf from a large evergreen tree, which had been placed there for the purpose, and threw it into the fire. We each followed her example, adding large pieces of resin, which perfumed the whole atmosphere. This ceremony was supposed to bring good luck during the coming year.
The next item was making cakes or pies for New Year's day. On the first of the New Year, nobody is allowed to eat rice, these cakes taking its place. They were made of flour paste, with minced meat inside. While some of us were preparing these cakes, others were peeling lotus seeds for Her Majesty's breakfast.
It was now well on into the morning hours and Her Majesty said that she was tired and would go and rest a while. She was not going to sleep, however, so we could carry on our noise as much as we liked. This we did for some time, and on visiting Her Majesty's bedroom, we found that she was fast asleep. We then all repaired to our various rooms and commenced to make ourselves tidy for the day. As soon as Her Majesty was awake, we all proceeded to her bedroom, taking with us plates of apples (representing "Peace"), olives ("Long Life"), lotus seeds (Blessing). She suitably acknowledged these gifts and wished us all good luck in return. She inquired whether we had been to bed and, on learning that we had been up all night, she said that was right. She herself had not meant to sleep, only to rest a little, but somehow she had not been able to keep awake, and gave as a reason that she was an old woman. We waited on her until she had finished her toilet and then wished her a Happy New Year. We then proceeded to pay our respects to the Emperor and to the Young Empress. There was nothing further to be done in the way of ceremonies, and we therefore all accompanied Her Majesty to the theatre. The performance took place on a stage erected in the courtyard, and Her Majesty closed in one part of her veranda for the use of the guests and Court ladies. During the performance I began to feel very drowsy, and eventually fell fast asleep leaning against one of the pillars. I awoke rather suddenly to find that something had been dropped into my mouth, but on investigation I found it was nothing worse than a piece of candy, which I immediately proceeded to eat. On approaching Her Majesty, she asked me how I had enjoyed the candy, and told me not to sleep, but to have a good time like the rest. I never saw Her Majesty in better humor. She played with us just like a young girl, and one could hardly recognize in her the severe Empress Dowager we knew her to be.
The guests also all seemed to be enjoying themselves very much. In the evening, after the theatrical performance was over, Her Majesty ordered the eunuchs to bring in their instruments and give us some music. She herself sang several songs, and we all sang at intervals. Then Her Majesty ordered the eunuchs to sing. Some were trained singers, and sang very nicely, but others could not sing at all and caused quite a lot of amusement by their efforts to please Her Majesty. The Emperor appeared to be the only one present who was not having a good time; he never smiled once. On meeting him outside, I asked him why he looked so sad, but he only answered: "A Happy New Year" in English, smiled once, and walked away.
Her Majesty rose very early next morning and proceeded to the Audience Hall to worship the God of Wealth. We all accompanied her and took part in the ceremony. During the next few days we did nothing but gamble and scramble for Her Majesty's winnings. This was all very nice in its way, until one day one of the Court ladies began to cry, and accused me of stepping on her toes in the scramble. This made Her Majesty angry and she ordered the offender to go to her room and stay there for three days, saying that she did not deserve to be enjoying herself if she could not stand a little thing like that.
The tenth of the first moon was the birthday of the Young Empress, and we asked Her Majesty whether we would be allowed to give presents. She gave us permission to give whatever presents we might wish to. However, we submitted all our presents to Her Majesty for her approval, before giving them to the Young Empress, and we had to be very discreet and not choose anything which Her Majesty might think was too good. It was very difficult to tell what to send, as Her Majesty might take a fancy to any of the presents herself, even though they might not be of much value intrinsically. In such a case Her Majesty would tell us that she would keep it, and to give the Young Empress something else.
The celebration was very similar to that of the Emperor's birthday, but not on such an elaborate scale. We presented the Ru Yee to the Young Empress and kowtowed to her. She was supposed to receive these tokens of respect sitting on her throne, but out of deference to Her Majesty (we were Her Majesty's Court ladies) she stood up. She always was very polite to us under all circumstances.
On this day, as on the Emperor's birthday, the Emperor, Young Empress and Secondary wife dined together. These were the only two occasions when they did so, always dining separately at other times. Her Majesty sent two of her Court ladies to wait upon the Empress, I myself being one of them. I was very pleased, as I wanted to see for myself how they conducted themselves when together. I went into the Young Empress' room and informed her that Her Majesty had ordered us to wait upon them, to which she simply answered: "Very well." So we went to the dining room and set the table, placing the chairs into position. The meal was much different from what I expected. Instead of being stiff and serious like Her Majesty when dining they were quite free and easy, and we were allowed to join in the conversation and partake of some of the food and wine. A very pretty ceremony was gone through at the commencement of the meal. The Emperor and Young Empress seated themselves, and the Secondary wife filled their cups with wine and presented it to them in turn as a sign of respect, the Emperor first. When the meal was over we returned to Her Majesty's apartment and told her that everything had passed off nicely. We knew very well that we had been sent simply to act as spies, but we had nothing interesting to tell Her Majesty. She asked if the Emperor had been very serious and we answered "Yes."
The New Year celebrations terminated with the Festival of Lanterns on the fifteenth day of the first moon. These lanterns were of different shapes, representing animals, flowers, fruits, etc., etc. They were made of white gauze, painted in different colors. One lantern representing a dragon about fifteen feet long was fastened to ten poles, and ten eunuchs were required to hold it in position. In front of this dragon a eunuch was holding a lantern representing a large pearl, which the dragon was supposed to devour. This ceremony was gone through to the accompaniment of music.
After the lanterns came a firework display. These fireworks represented different scenes in the history of China, grape vines, wisteria blossoms, and many other flowers. It was a very imposing sight. Portable wooden houses had been placed near the fireworks from which Her Majesty and the rest of the Court could see them without being out in the cold air. This display lasted for several hours without a stop, and thousands of firecrackers were set off during the time. Her Majesty seemed to enjoy the noise very much. Altogether it was a good finish to the celebrations and we all enjoyed it very much.
The next morning all the guests departed from the Palace and we re-commenced our everyday life.
As usual after the guests had departed Her Majesty began to criticise their mode of dressing, their ignorance of Court etiquette, etc., but added that she was rather glad, as she didn't want them to know anything about Court life.
As Spring soon arrived it was time for the farmers to commence sowing seed for the rice crop, and of course there was another ceremony. The Emperor visited the Temple of Agriculture where he prayed for a good harvest. Then he proceeded to a small plot of ground situated in the temple and after turning the earth over with a hand plow he sowed the first seeds of the season. This was to show the farmers that their labors were not despised and that even the Emperor was not ashamed to engage in this work. Anybody could attend this ceremony, it being quite a public affair, and many farmers were present.
About this same time the Young Empress went to see the silkworms and watch for the eggs to be hatched. As soon as they were out, the Young Empress gathered mulberry leaves for the worms to feed upon and watched them until they were big enough to commence spinning. Each day a fresh supply of leaves were gathered and they were fed four or five times daily. Several of the Court ladies were told off to feed the worms during the night and see that they did not escape. These silkworms grow very rapidly and we could see the difference each day. Of course when they became full grown they required more food and we were kept busy constantly feeding them. The Young Empress was able to tell by holding them up to the light when they were ready to spin. If they were transparent then they were ready, and were placed on paper and left there. When spinning the silkworm does not eat, therefore all we had to do was to watch that they did not get away. After spinning for four or five days their supply of silk becomes exhausted and they shrivel up and apparently die. These apparently dead worms were collected by the Young Empress and placed in a box where they were kept until they developed into moths. They were then placed on thick paper and left there to lay their eggs.
If left to themselves, the silkworms when ready for spinning will spin the silk around their bodies until they are completely covered up, gradually forming a cocoon. In order to determine when they have finished spinning it was customary to take the cocoon and rattle it near the ear. If the worm was exhausted you could plainly hear the body rattle inside the cocoon. The cocoon is then placed in boiling water until it becomes soft. This, of course, kills the worm. In order to separate the silk a needle is used to pick up the end of the thread which is then wound on to a spool and is ready for weaving. A few of the cocoons were kept until the worms had turned into moths, which soon ate their way out of the cocoons when they were placed on sheets of paper and left to lay their eggs, which are taken away and kept in a cool place until the following Spring, when the eggs are hatched and become worms.
When the silk had all been separated we took it to Her Majesty for inspection and approval. On this particular occasion Her Majesty ordered one of the eunuchs to bring in some silk which she herself had woven when a young girl in the Palace, and on comparing it with the new silk it was found to be just as good in every way although many years had passed since it was made.
All this was done with the same object as the Emperor sowing the seeds, viz.: -- to set the people a good example and to encourage them in their work.