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we are told that the greater part of Chinese comedies and tragedies appear to be written to shew the deformity of vice and the charms of virtue. The writer might have added, that they are universally performed and encouraged from the court to the cottage; that the Chinese are so passionately fond of scenic representations, that in most houses of the great, a hall is set apart for the performance of plays; that no entertainment is ever given without a company of comedians to amuse the guests; that they constitute a part of all public festivals; and that foreign ambassadors are invariably entertained with theatrical representations : he might further have added, that it is not true, as he asserts, that public theatres are put on a level with houses of prostitution and confined to the suburbs of cities.* There is no such thing, in fact, as a public theatre in all China. A Chinese company of players will at any time construct a theatre in the course of a couple of hours; a few bamboos as posts to support a roof of mats, and a floor of boards, raised some six or seven feet from the ground; and a few pieces of painted cotton to cover the three sides, the front being left entirely open, are all that is required for the construction of a Chinese theatre; which very much resembles, when finished, one of those booths erected for similar purposes in Bartholomew Fair, but is far less substantial. Indeed a common apartment is all that is necessary for the performance of a Chinese play. They have no
Ut supra. Grozier, vol. ii. p. 417.
scenical deception to assist the story, as in the modern theatres of Europe; and the odd expedients to which they are sometimes driven by the want of scenery are not many degrees above Nick Bottom's "bush of thorns and a lanthorn, to disfigure or to present the person of moonshine;" or the man with some plaister, or some lome, or some rough cast about him to signify wall;" thus a general is ordered upon an expedition to a distant province, he mounts a stick, or brandishes a whip, or takes in his hand the reins of a bridle, and striding three or four times round the stage in the midst of a tremendous crash of gongs, drums, and trumpets, he stops short, and tells the audience where he is got to; if the wall of a city is to be stormed, three or four soldiers lie down on each other to" present wall." A tolerable judgment may be formed of what little assistance the imaginations of an English audience derived from scenical deception, by the state of the drama and the stage as described by Sir Philip Sidney, about the year 1583. "Now you shall have three ladies walk to gather flowers, and then we must believe the stage to be a garden. By and by we have news of shipwreck in the same place; then we are to blame, if we accept it not for a rock. Upon the back of that, comes out a hideous monster with fire and smoke; and then the miserable beholders are bound to take it for a cave; while in the mean time two armies fly in, represented with four swords and bucklers, and then what hard heart will not receive it for a pitched
field?" Inigo Jones appears to be the first who invented painted cloths for moveable scenes, which were used at Oxford in 1605.
It is very true that stage players are not held in great respect by the Chinese; and Cibot had probably read the statute † against civil or military officers of government, or the sons of those who possess hereditary rank, frequenting the company of prostitutes and actresses, which led him into the mistake of the juxta-position of their trading concerns, a mistake, the more likely to be committed, as he frankly owns he knows very little of the matter, and takes no interest in the subject. We must be cautious, however, in estimating the conduct of the Chinese from their moral maxims or legal precepts there is no people on earth whose practice is so much at variance with their professed principles; as a striking instance of this remark, it may be observed, that the late cmperor Kien-lung, in the teeth of the above mentioned statute, took an actress for one of his inferior wives or concubines; since which, it is said, females have been prohibited from appearing on the stage, and their places supplied by boys, and those creatures who are of neither sex. No women ever appeared on the Greek and the Roman theatres; but the characters in the dramas of the latter, as in those of China, were sometimes played by eunuchs. The soft and delicate female characters of Shakespeare had not the advantage of being played by a female during his life; Mrs. Bet
* Malone's Shakespeare, vol. ii. p. 57. Ta-tsing-leu-lec, p. 410.
terton, about 1660, being the first, or about the first, female who played Juliet and Ophelia. It is observed in the prologue to the Moor of Venice, in introducing the first female who played Desdemona,—
<< "Tis possible a virtuous woman may Abhor all sorts of looseness, and yet play.""
No prohibition, however, of females acting on the Chinese stage, appears in the code of laws; but it is enacted, that "all strolling players, who shall be guilty of purchasing the sons or daughters of free persons, in order to educate them as actors or actresses; or who shall be guilty of marrying or adopting as children such free persons, shall, in each case, be punished with a hundred blows of the bamboo;"t-and the same punishment is extended to the seller of free persons, and to females born of free parents voluntarily intermarrying with strolling players.
It has been said, that in Pekin alone there are several hundred companies of comedians, when the court is there, and that at other times they travel about from one city to another. A company ge nerally consists of eight or ten persons, who are literally the servants or slaves of the master or manager. They travel about from place to place in a covered barge, on canals or rivers near to which most great cities are situated ; these barges are their habitations, and in these they are instructed in their parts by the master. When called on to perform before a party, a list of the plays they are prepared
to represent is put into the hands of the master of the feast, who consults his guests as to the choice to be made; this done, the dramatis personæ are read over; and if it should happen that a name occurs therein, corresponding with the name of any of the guests, another piece is immediately chosen, in order that no offensive act or allusion in the play may be coupled with the name of the auditor. Perhaps, however, this restrained delicacy is only on paper, and not followed up in practice; just as the statute which prohibits musicians and stageplayers from representing, in any of their performances, "emperors, empresses, famous princes, ministers, and generals of former ages," is perpetually infringed, such representations being, in fact, the favourite and most usual subjects of theatric exhibition. Indeed there is a saving clause, which says, that "this law is not intended to prohibit the exhibition upon the stage of fictitious characters of just and upright men, of chaste wives, and pious and obedient children, all which may tend to dispose the minds of the spectators to the practice of virtue.”*
When the common people wish for a theatrical entertainment, they subscribe among themselves a sum sufficient to cover the expense of erecting the temporary theatre and paying the actors, which is said to be very moderate. De Guignes says, that the temples or pagodas are sometimes used for theatres,† which is not impossible, as they are the common places of
Ta-tsing-leu-lee, p. 418.
↑ Voyage à Pekin, Tom. ii. p. 322.
resort for gamblers, and the lodging-houses of foreign ambassadors, and officers travelling in the public service. But neither in this respect would the Chinese be singular; our old mysteries and moralities were frequently played in churches. Taverns in China have also a large room set apart for the entertainment of guests with theatrical exhibitions; just as in England, companies of players had occasional stages erected in the yards of the principal inns, in Queen Elizabeth's time.
If the missionaries have communicated little information respecting the actual state of theatrical representations in China, the descriptions, which occasional visitors to that country have given of the actual state of scenic exhibitions, convey a tolerably correct notion of what they are: and they certainly are not of a nature to give us any very exalted notion of the state of the drama, or of the refinement of the people. The most singular and inexplicable part of the subject is, that those representations would appear to descend into lowness and vulgarity, in the inverse ratio of the rank and situation in life of the parties for whose amusement they are exhibited. Thus, at the court of Pekin, and in presence of His Imperial Majesty, Ysbrandt Ives, the Russian ambassador in 1692, was entertained with jugglers, posture-makers, and harlequins, while on his way thither; and not far from the great wall, the governor of a city entertained him with a regular play. "First," says he, "entered a very beautiful lady, magnificently dressed in cloth of gold, adorned with jewels, and a crown on her
head, singing her speech, with a charming voice, and agreeable motion of the body, playing with her hands, in one of which she held a fan. The prologue thus performed, the play followed, the story of which turned upon a Chinese emperor, long since dead, who had behaved himself well to wards his country, and in honour of whose memory the play was written. Sometimes he appeared in royal robes, with a flat ivory sceptre in his hand, and sometimes his officers shewed themselves with ensigns, arms, and drums, &c. and by intervals a sort of farce was acted by their lacqueys, whose antick dress and painted faces were as well as any I have seen in Europe; and, as far as was interpreted to me, their farce was very diverting, especially part of it which represented a person who had in his marriage been cheated by a debauched wife, and fancying her constant to him, had the mortification to see another make love to her before his face." *
Mr. Bell, who accompanied the Russian ambassador to Pekin in 1719, describes the court amusements to consist of wrestling, sham-fights, tumbling, posturemaking, and fire-works. At an entertainment given to the gentle men of the embassy, by one of the emperor's sons, the amusements where somewhat better. Speaking of the comedians, he says, "There entered on the stage seven warriors, all in armour, with different weapons in their hands, and terrible vizards on their faces. After they had taken a few turns about the stage, and survey
Harris's Voyages, vol. ii. p. 939.
ed each other's armour, they at last fell a quarrelling; and, in the encounter, one of the heroes was slain. Then an angel descended from the clouds, in a flash of lightning, with a monstrous sword in his hand, and soon parted the combatants, by driving them all off the stage; which done, he ascended in the same manner he came down, in a cloud of fire and smoke. This scene was succeeded by several comical farces, which, to me, seemed very diverting, though in a language I did not understand."* But the comedy performed at a tavern in Pekin, "by a company of players maintained by the house," at an entertainment given to them by "a young Chinese gentleman," afforded to all great pleasure; " and the performers consisted of both men and women, well-dressed, and of decent behaviour."†
Lord Macartney, in his own journal, describes the wrestling, tumbling, wire-dancing, conjur ing, and fire-works, that were exhibited at his introduction to the late Emperor Kien-lung, and seems to speak of them with great contempt, except the ingenuity with which the Chinese had displayed their art in clothing fire with all manner of colours and shapes. Their "wretched dramas," as he calls them, are thus described. "The theatrical entertainments consisted of great variety, both tragical and comical; several distinct pieces were acted in succession, though without any apparent connexion with one another. Some of them were hisBell's Travels from St. Petersburghpage 288.
+ Ibid. p. 310.
orical, and others of pure fancy, partly in recitativo, partly in singing, and partly in plain speaking, without any accompaniment of instrumental music, but abounding in battles, murders, and most of the usual incidents of the drama. Last of all, was the grand pantomime, which, from the approbation it met with, is, I presume, considered a first-rate effort of invention and ingenuity. It seemed to me, as far as I could comprehend it, to represent the marriage of the Ocean and the Earth. The latter exhibited her various riches and productions, dragons and elephants and tigers and eagles and ostriches, oaks and pines, and other trees of different kinds. The ocean was not behind hand, but poured forth on the stage the wealth of his dominions, under the figures of whales and dolphins, porpoises and leviathans, and other sea-monsters, besides ships, rocks, shells, sponges, and corals, all performed by concealed actors, who were quite perfect in their parts, and performed their characters to admiration. These two marine and land regiments, after separately parading in a circular procession for a considerable time, at last joined together, and forming one body, came to the front of the stage, when, after a few evolutions, they opened to the right and left, to give room for the whale, who seemed to be the commanding officer, to waddle forward; and who, taking his station exactly opposite to the emperor's box, spouted out of his mouth into the pit several tuns of water, which quickly disappeared through the perforations of the floor. This ejaculation was received with the
highest applause, and two or three of the great men at my elbow desired me to take particular notice of it; repeating, at the same time, hao! hung hav!'—charming, delightful!*
Mr. Barrow, in describing the amusements given to the Dutch ambassadors in 1795, from the journal of a gentleman in their suite, speaks of posture-making, rope-dancing, "and a sort of pantomimic performance, the principal characters of which were men dressed in skins, and going on all fours, intended to represent wild beasts; and a parcel of boys, habited in the dresses of mandarins, who were to hunt them."† And again, after the whole court had been terribly frightened by an eclipse of the moon, an entertainment was given to the ambassadors, during which "a pantomime, intended to be an exhibition of the battle of the dragon and the moon, was represented before the full court.
In this engagement, two or three hundred priests, bearing lanterns suspended at the ends of long sticks, performed a variety of evolutions, dancing and capering about, sometimes over the plain, and then over chairs and tables, affording to his imperial majesty, and to his courtiers, the greatest pleasure and satisfaction." De Guignes also, who accompanied these ambassadors, describes this scene as a very puerile and ludicrous representation. "A number of Chinese," he says, placed at the distance of six feet from one another, now entered, bearing two
*Life of the Earl of Macartney, vol. ii. + Barrow's Travels in China, p. 216.