« AnteriorContinuar »
long dragons of silk or paper, painted blue, with white scales, and stuffed with lighted lamps. These two dragons, after saluting the emperor with due respect, moved up and down with great composure; when the moon suddenly made her appearance, upon which they began to run after her. The moon, however, fearlessly placed herself between them, and the two dragons, after surveying her for some time, and concluding apparently, that she was too large a morsel for them to swallow, judged it prudent to retire; which they did with the same ceremony as they entered. The moon, elated with her triumph, then withdrew with prodigious gravity: a little flushed, however, with the chase which she had sustained." ***
It would seem, however, that meanness and vulgarity are not the most objectionable charges to which the exhibitions of the Chinese stage are obnoxious; some of them being grossly indecent and obscene. An instance is mentioned by Mr. Barrow, of a woman being condemned to be flayed alive, for the murder of her husband; she appears on the stage not only naked, but completely excoriated and he adds, that the, European gentlemen at Canton, are sometimes so disgusted with the filthy and obscene exhibitions, as to leave the theatre.† "The history of husbands deceived by their mistresses," says Mons. de Guignes, "being frequently the subject of their comedies, there occur therein sometimes situations so free, and in which the actor ex
* Voyage à Pekin, vol. i. p. 421. + Travels in China, p. 222.
hibits so much truth, that the scene becomes extremely indecent : " and he mentions an instance of which he was an eye-witness, where the heroine of the piece "devint grosse et accoucha sur le théatre d'un enfant." The piece was called the See-hou Pagoda, being the history of the destruction of the pagoda in ruins on that famous lake described by Mr. Barrow under the name of Lui-fungta, the temple of the thundering winds. "Several genii mounted upon serpents, and marching along the margin of the lake, opened the scene; a neighbouring bonze shortly after made love to one of these goddesses, who, in spite of the remonstrances of her sister, listened to the young man, married him, became pregnant, and was delivered of a child upon the stage, who very soon found itself in a condition to walk about. Enraged at this scandalous adventure, the genii drove away the bonze. and finished by striking the goda with lightning, and reducing it to the ruined condition in which it now appears.'
As scenes like these are stated to have thrown the audience into raptures, M. de Guignes very naturally concludes the real character of the Chinese to be vicious. We must not, however, judge too harshly on performances, which, for "licentious pleasantries," we could fairly match them several hundred years after those of the Chinese were written. Warton has observed, that "gross and open obscenities" enter into our old mysteries or religious represen tations; that in a play of the "Old
* Voyage à Pekin, vol. ii. p. 324.
and New Testament," Adam and Eve were both exhibited on the stage naked, and appeared in the subsequent scene with their figleaves; and Malone says, this kind of primitive exhibition was revived in the time of James the First; "several persons appearing almost entirely naked, in a pastoral exhibited at Oxford before the king and queen, and the ladies who attended her."
Mr. Barrow has conjectured, that the low and trifling amusements of the court, may have been introduced by the Tartars, as more congenial to their rude and unpolished manners, while the songs and recitative of the regular drama are more suited to the genius and spirit of the ceremonious Chinese. The two Mahomedans who visited China are silent on the subject; and Marco Polo only observes, that at the emperor's feasts were buffoons, and players on musical instruments, and posture-masters. At that time, however, a Tartar dynasty also occupied the throne.
As far as the mere spectacle is concerned, the several travellers we have mentioned could not well be mistaken. Some deduction, however, ought probably to be made, on account of their ignorance of the language. The absurdities that strike the eye they are capable of describing, but the dialogue of the regular drama, being utterly unintelligible, ceases to create any interest. What their merits and defects may therefore be, Europeans have hitherto possessed very slender means of forming a sound judgment. A garbled translation of a single drama by Pere Premare, a jesuit, is the solitary specimen of this kind of VOL. LIX.
composition in any European language, before that which is now offered to the public. It is called the Orphan of Chao, and forms one of a collection of one hundred plays, written under the dynasty of Yuen,* in the fourteenth century. Voltaire, who adapted the subject to the French stage, considers it as a valuable monument of Chinese literature at that early period, barbarous as it is when compared with the dramatic art in Europe, but far superior to any thing that Europe could boast at the time it was written. He considers it at least equal to the English and Spanish tragedies of the seventeenth century; and observes that, "like the monstrous farces of Shakespeare, and of Lopez de Vega, which have been called tragedies, the action of the Chinese picce continues five and twenty years.". "Montrous," however, as they may be, few Englishmen would give up the worst "farce" of Shakespeare, for the heavy monotony and blustering declamation of the best "tragedy" of Voltaire. He admits that "the Orphan of Chao," notwithstanding the improbability of the occurrences, has something in it which interests us; and that, in spite of the innumerable crowd of events, they are all exhibited in the most clear and distinct manner-but these he considers as its only beauties; unity of time and action, sentiment, character, eloquence, passion, all, he says, are wanting. Some of them, it is true, are wanting in Premare's translation, because he has omitted most of the
poetry, or those parts which have been compared with the Greek chorus, and in which sentiment, eloquence, passion, are all expressed; that is to say, he has left out the very best parts of the play. Our countryman, Dr. Hurd, in his "Discourse on Poetical Imitation," formed a very different opinion of this tragedy from that of Voltaire. He conceived that it embraces the two essentials of dramatic poetry, unity and integrity of action-and a close connexion of the incidents of the story; for, first, he observes "the action is strictly one; the destruction of the House of Chao is the single event on which our attention turns from the beginning; we see it gradually prepared and brought on; and with its completion the tragedy finishes. Secondly, the action proceeds with as much rapidity as Aristotle himself demands" and having noticed its resemblance in many points to the Electra of Sophocles"let me add," says he, "an intermixture of songs in passionate parts, heightened into sublime poetry, and somewhat resembling the character of the ancient chorus." Had Premare translated more of these lyrics, he would probably have found the resemblance still more complete.
The comedy of an "Heir in his Old Age," is the simple representation of a story in domestic lifea plain, “unvarnished tale," in which Chinese manners and Chinese feelings are faithfully delineated and expressed, in a natural manner, and in appropriate language. Two things, however, must be borne in mind by the European reader, to enable him to
enter fully into the spirit of this play-first, that filial piety is, among the Chinese, the first of virtues, and the lack of it, one of the worst of crimes; that it is the grand basis on which all the religious, moral, and civil institutions of the empire are founded; that the greatest misfortune in life is the want of a son to honour and console his aged parents, and to visit annually their tombs when dead-and, secondly, that to afford every means of procuring a son, a man may take inferior wives or concubines, who are generally purchased from poor relations; such wives having no rights of their own, and their children being considered as the children of the first or legitimate wife, who call her by the name of mother, and are entitled to the same rights and privileges as her own children.
The dramatis persona of this play are made up entirely of the members of a family in the middling class of society, consisting of an old man, his wife, his second or inferior wife, his nephew, his son-in-law, and his daughter. The old man, having amassed considerable wealth by trade, and having no son to console him in his old age, and to perform the obsequies at his tomb, had taken a second wife, whose pregnancy is announced in the opening of the play. In order to propitiate heaven to favour him with a son in his old age, he makes a sacrifice of all the small debts due to him, by burning the documents, which at the same time serves to quiet some scruples of conscience as to the mode in which part of his money had been acquired. He then divides his property between
his wife and his married daughter, giving to his nephew, (a deceased brother's son) a hundred pieces of silver, and sending him away to seek his fortune, the wife, owing to an old quarrel with his deceased mother, leading him a most unhappy life at home. The old gentleman then sets out for his estate in the country, recomi mending his pregnant wife to the humane treatment of his family, and in the hope of receiving from them speedy congratulations on the birth of a son.
He is no sooner departed, however, when the son-in-law cannot conceal from the daughter his disappointment at the pregnancy of the old man's second wife, as, if she brings forth a girl, he will lose half the family property, and if a son, the whole. His wife soothes him by a hint how easily she may be got rid of, and the old man persuaded that she had suddenly disappeared; and shortly after both the son-in-law and the audience are left to infer that she has actually contrived to put her to death. In the mean time, the old man waits the result in great anxiety; his family appear in succession to console him for the loss of his second wife, which he is reluctantly brought to believe. In the bitterness of his disappointment, he bursts into tears, and expresses strong suspicions of some foul play. He attributes his misfortunes to his former thirst of gain, resolves to fast for seven days, and to bestow alms publicly at a neighbouring temple, in the hope that the objects of his charity may treat him as a father. Among the beggars at the temple, his
nephew appears, in the most hopeless state of poverty, being reduced to take up his lodging under the furnace of a pottery; he is insulted by the son-in-law, and reproached by the old wife; but his uncle, moved with compassion, contrives to give him a little money, and earnestly advises him to be punctual in visiting the tombs of his family at the approaching spring, assuring him that a due attention to filial piety must ultimately lead to wealth. The nephew accordingly appears at the tombs, performs the rites of oblation, as far as his poverty will admit, and invokes the shades of his ancestors to commiserate his distress, and to grant him their protection. He no sooner departs than the uncle and aunt appear, and express their indignation that their own daughter and son-inlaw have neglected their duty, in not being there with the customary offerings; they observe that, from the earth being turned up, and paper burnt, some needy person must have been there, and conclude it to be their nephew. The scene of the tombs, and the reflections to which it gives rise in the old man's mind, have considerable interest; he reasons with his wife, convinces her that the nephew is more worthy, as well as nearer in blood, than the sonin-law; she relents, and expresses a wish to make him reparation ; he appears, a conciliation takes place, and he is again received into the family. Soon after this, the son-in-law and daughter appear, with a great noise, and a procession of village officers, to perforin the ceremonies; but are received 2 K 2
by their parents with bitter reproaches for their tardy piety and ingratitude, and ordered never to enter their doors again. On the old man's birth-day, however, they send to ask permission to pay their respects, when, to the utter astonishment and unbounded joy of the old man, his daughter presents him with his second wife and her son, now about three years of age, both of whom it appears had been secreted by the daughter, and supported, out of affection for her father, and unknown to the husband, who had supposed them to have been otherwise disposed of. The daughter is separated from her husband, and taken back into her family; a new arrangement is made for the disposal of the old man's property, the daughter to have a third, the nephew a third, and the little son a third; and the piece concludes with expressions of joy and gratitude for the old gentleman having been blessed with an heir in his old age."
Such is the brief outline of the fable; the unity and integrity of action and design are strictly adhered to, and all the incidents are closely connected with the story, which turns entirely on the misery arising out of the want of an heir to perform the duties which filial piety demand, both to the living and the dead. The time employed in the course of the piece is three years, but the events follow each other in so natural a manner, and with such uninterrupted rapidity, that the time elapsed would not be perceived but for the age of the child brought forward in the concluding act. The several scenes
and acts are as properly divided as those of an European drama; the sentiments are naturally expressed, often tender and affecting, and always friendly to virtue. The translator observes, that a few passages which were grossly indecent, have been omitted in the translation; the Chinese, with all their politeness, are coarse in their expressions; and we have seen that, from a too close adherence to nature and to facts, the scenic representations are often exceedingly gross and indelicate. "Ils mettent," says De Guignes, “trop de la verité dans le scène."
The lyrical compositions, which prevail more in tragedy than in comedy, certainly bear a strong resemblance to the chorus of the old Greek tragedy; like the chorus too, they are sung with an accompaniment of music. The translator seems to think that these
passages are chiefly intended to gratify the ear, and that sense is very often sacrificed to sound; even if this were the case, examples of the same kind might be produced nearer home. Perhaps, however, their obscurity may be owing to the nature of the written language, in which associations of ideas are presented rather to the eye, or to the recollection, than to the ear, by a combination of signs or symbols, on the choice of which the force of the expression must depend. Mr. Morrison observes, that "without extensive knowledge of their ancient poetry, and the customs and manners of the country, it is very difficult to understand their poetical compositions. The very point and beauty of the piece often depends on some