|Is it not delightful to have friends coming from distant quarters!| CONFUCIUS.
|All within the four seas are brethren.|
|Society and solitude are deceptive names. It is
not the circumstance of seeing more or fewer
people, but the readiness of sympathy, that
imports.| -- EMERSON.
LIFE AMONGST THE UPPER TEN THOUSAND
RECORDING HOSPITALITY SHOWN TO US BY THE OFFICIAL CLASSES
IN the centre of every Chinese city stands the Yamen, where resides the Mandarin, addressed as |Father of the people,| before whom their wrongs must be laid, and who, as direct representative of the central Government, exercises autocratic power. His word is law, a man must kneel in his presence when addressing him, and it is a penal offence to enter his private dwelling-court unsummoned. His term of office is limited to a few years and a change of official entails the removal of his whole suite. The new Mandarin will bring with him his secretaries, underlings, men and women servants, and the prosperity of a city will largely depend upon the personal attitude of the |Great Man| to matters of reform.
Our intercourse with the Hwochow Yamen has been frequent, and owing to the strong attitude taken by the leaders of the Church against interference in law cases where Christians are concerned, it has been of a purely social character.
My first visit was in answer to a request from the Mandarin that I would go to see his wife who was suffering from acute toothache. I was requested to make preparations for an extraction, and was informed that if it suited my convenience I should be fetched that same afternoon. Accordingly, I made ready and in due course the Yamen carriage arrived, a springless, but elegantly upholstered cart, and accompanied by a woman servant we started. Ahead of us an outrider, dressed in a long gown, wore a hat of the inverted bowl shape, decorated with a spreading scarlet tassel. Behind followed other retainers, and thus escorted we passed in triumphal procession through the quiet Hwochow streets. After many bumps and anxious moments as we splashed in and out of mud-pits, we turned into the wide space which surrounds the outermost entrance of the Yamen. Here crowds of men were reading the latest proclamation pasted to the walls, whilst others, talking earnestly, discussed the case tried that very day, of the poor man who in vain sought redress from the rapacity of his wealthy neighbour. He had knelt, and laying his forehead to the ground at the feet of the Mandarin pleaded for justice, but only to find that his condemnation was a foregone conclusion. All these groups were scattered by the yells of our outrider and the cracks of our carter's whip, and the sellers of cooked food gathered their piles of little bowls and swiftly set them out of harm's way, for the habits of Yamen retainers are well known to the populace, and there is little satisfaction to be had when complaints are presented and compensation for destroyed goods is claimed. With ever-increasing speed and corresponding agony, we were driven up the steep ascent which leads to the outer courtyard, where after a preliminary bump down two steps we found ourselves on comparatively smooth ground, and rolled along a broad, high, paved path leading to the second great archway where our conveyance came to a standstill, and we waited whilst our cards were taken and presented to the ladies we had come to see. Many soldiers were standing about, and various instruments used in the punishment of prisoners were fastened to the walls as warning to all who passed that way. A very few minutes and we were invited to leave our cart and follow the man appointed to conduct us to the innermost court where the Tai-tais lived; slaves attended us on either side, whilst the retainer went ahead carrying our scarlet cards breast high before him.
A vista of courtyards opened one from another, and we saw a number of little ladies in charming, brilliant, butterfly-like garments coming to meet us with odd, graceful, stilted movements. Everything must from this point be done according to the strictest etiquette, so the Tai-tai of least rank came first to meet us, and led us back to where stood the head wife, in whose presence we respectfully removed our eyeglasses and made a bow.
There were a large number of women about, for this Mandarin had two wives besides several daughters-in-law. We were invited to a reception-room where carpets, felts, tables, and chairs were all scarlet in colour, and here were served with delicious fragrant tea and small cakes, in which were mixed rose leaves, nuts, and sugar. All the preliminary questions required by good manners were first asked -- our respective |venerable ages| and details of our various near relatives -- but soon curiosity overflowed into many inquiries concerning our |honourable country,| and we were helped to more tea and cakes, and begged to make ourselves at home. We, on our part, led the conversation back to matters concerned with the object of our residence in this country, and received from our hostess extravagant compliments upon our extraordinary ability and learning, the reputation of which, they said, was well known to the Mandarin.
The object of my visit was then mentioned, and I was asked to see the tooth, of which, being very loose, I recommended the extraction, and was able to assure the patient that the pain would not be very great. Many of the younger women gathered around her, comforting her, and covered her eyes that she might not see the forceps; they begged her to remember that the pain would soon be over, and as soon as I could induce her to open her mouth, I removed the troublesome member. |How wonderful!| they all exclaimed. |Why, it did not hurt at all!|
After such a surgical triumph, long-neglected and half-forgotten pains were remembered by the bystanders, and all the ladies on my next visit came to me with some complaint. We sought to awaken in them the sense of those far deeper ills which they so little realised, finding once more that in following the method of Christ a sense of need had been awakened: |Ye seek Me because ye did eat of the loaves and were filled. I am the bread of life.|
As soon as the operation was over, we suggested that we must be returning home, but this could not be allowed until we had partaken of further refreshment, and servants appeared with delicacies -- meat balls in gravy, flavoured as only a Chinese cook can flavour, lotus seeds in syrup, luscious fruits, sweetmeats, and a drink of apricot kernels, sweet to excess. The meat balls were daintily wrapped in pastry, and as she helped me to some of these, the Tai-tai said: |I think you do not care for pork.| I replied that we did not as a rule eat much pork. |I am so glad,| she said: |these are fowl, and therefore you can eat them without fear.| A few days later we heard that the head cook was under severe punishment and incarcerated in a dungeon, because he had not taken the trouble to find out what were our special tastes in matters of the table, and had served pork in place of fowl! Some years later he was a patient in our Refuge, and told Mr. Wang that he would like to make a feast for us. We thought this extremely kind of him, considering what he had suffered on our behalf, and he was asked to our kitchen to prepare the food, while we invited some friends to share it with us. I think he was a man of preconceived ideas rather than a genius at making inquiries, whatever his talent in the culinary art, for he said he knew foreigners liked sweet things, and he served us twenty or more courses of the sweetest food it has been my good fortune to eat!
Our visit proved to be the commencement of a most friendly intercourse. A few days later the outrider, cart, and retainers were at our door again, this time escorting the ladies who had come to return the call. They enjoyed the outing considerably, as is easy to see they would, when one remembers that they had lived three years in Hwochow and had now crossed the threshold of their home for the first time during that period. They could have no intercourse at all with the bourgeoisie of the town, and apart from visitors staying at the Yamen, enjoyed no social life.
In due course we were invited to an |eight times eight| feast, consisting of elaborate courses, in which the sweet, the fishy, and the meaty alternated in bewildering miscellany, whilst our vision was delighted by the elegant dishes, the lovely coral china, the pure form of the many-branched candlesticks, and, above all, the graceful, gay little ladies who manipulated the difficult, slippery food with such a masterly command of their nimble chop-sticks. Here for the first time I tasted the delicious birds'-nest soup, gelatinous in consistency and fishy in taste, being, in fact, a mass compounded of seaweed and small fish into a nest by a sea-bird.
So far all was well, but we came home faced by the difficulty that it was now our turn to offer a return feast which must be equally elegant. There was only one cook in the city who was capable of the preparation of a suitable repast, and he was in their employ, and though some surprising things are possible in China, we did not see how we could secure his services to cook a meal for his own mistress. We were, therefore, thrown back upon our slender resources, and decided that an English dinner-party was the only possible solution of the problem. Here at least we were treading upon familiar ground, and were free from the snares of Chinese etiquette. We need have no fear of giving offence to our guests by placing the fish upon the table with its head toward that quarter which would indicate their position to be of military instead of civil rank, and many other equally subtle and delicate questions would now have no terrors for us. We felt it incumbent upon us to do all in our power to please the eye as well as the palate, and while we fully realised our inability to delight our guests with such beauty as that to which they were accustomed, we did our best. Salmon is a great asset, being decorative as well as tasty, and only the hard-pressed know the many uses of a tin of sardines. Jelly is a certain success, and the last plum-pudding from home, cut into dice and blazing in a blue flame, looks mysteriously clever. A bottle of cochineal is worth its weight in gold on such occasions, and the piece montee, which none but an expert could have recognised as spinach, beetroot, carrot, and yam tinted pink, would have done no discredit to Benoist. The novelty of handling spoon and fork, and even so dangerous a weapon as a knife, did much to enhance the pleasure of the meal.
The conversation was now much more intimate than on the earlier occasions, and both sides felt free to ask questions on matters which had excited curiosity. |Does the sun ever shine in your country?| asked the Tai-tai. |I have heard that England is a land of shades.| |When I left my home in Szechwan I was very homesick. Are you?| inquired another lady, but before I could reply, her companion answered for me: |The ability of these ladies is so great that they would be incapable of such feelings.| A guest of their own, who had spent much time in Shanghai, was thoroughly conversant with foreign dress and manners; she described the former with great originality, but admitted that even she was baffled by one thing: |The spotted webbing with which foreign ladies cover their face, is it worn for purposes of concealment or as an aid to the eyesight?| My answer that it served to keep the hair in place carried no conviction, for she had already remarked that though combs are so much in evidence in the foreign woman's coiffure, she seemingly makes little use of them!
The conversation turned to the subject of a proclamation recently issued which forbade the binding of children's feet: |Alas, the people of China are not so easily governed as those of your honourable country,| lamented the chief Tai-tai. |The Mandarin finds it impossible to enforce this one order, whilst he read in last week's paper that in England a man is imprisoned for refusing to send his child to school, for omitting to vaccinate it, and the article even stated that a parent is punished for refusing to call a doctor to see a sick child, even if it be a girl; but the newspapers are full of fabulous tales!|
The next few months saw a growing intimacy and a constant exchange of presents. We were often able to indulge in the famous delicacy of buried eggs, of which the not unpleasant, slightly ammoniated flavour is so much appreciated by the Chinese. Once we were faced by a real difficulty on the occasion of receiving a present of meat, when conscientious Mr. Fu, fearful lest we should shelter under a liberty of conscience whereby we would eat and ask no question, hastily came to warn us that this had been offered to idols before being presented to us. Under these circumstances we had no option but to crave leave to refuse a present whereby a brother might have been caused to stumble.
How little we dreamed of the trouble which would so soon break over the official classes with the overthrow of the Empire, and the establishment of a Republic. I remember the last visit we paid to those friends, and our departure from the Yamen in the brilliant moonlight, whilst huge lanterns lighted our path through the archways and great gateways. As we left the huge enclosure the guard fired the first night watch. |Except the Lord keep the city the watchman watcheth but in vain.| That night the Revolution broke out in Hankow, and the next time we saw our hostesses they were in terrible distress, imploring our permission to make our house their shelter, should the hatred of the mob break forth and their residence be rioted. They were in a most defenceless position, for the Mandarin had taken a journey to Taiyueanfu, and did not return. He was one of the old school, and faithful to the traditions of the Manchus whose court he had accompanied to Sianfu in the flight of 1900. It was still far from certain which party would gain the ascendancy, and he, as most of his class, wished to refrain from an expression of opinion until the situation was clearly defined. This, however, was not allowed, and during the massacres of the Manchus in Taiyueanfu he was arrested, and made to declare himself.
He held the Hanlin degree, the highest honour to which the Chinese scholar is admitted, the Emperor himself conducting the examinations. Faced by his enemies and fearing summary execution, he sheltered himself behind the age-long reverence for scholarship which exists in China as in no other country: |Death has no terrors for me,| he calmly said, |but, alas, that such a scholar should be lost to China!| No armed bodyguard could have afforded him such protection as this transference of insult from his own person to the learning he represented. No man present was prepared to strike a blow at the embodiment of the Divine Right of Scholarship.
He lived to return to Hwochow, where he faced death a second time and was dragged through the streets by an angry populace, but finally escaped and with his wives reached a place of safety.
The polite term for the wife of an official.