A Chinese Journey. I
MY DEAR —,
I assume thee’s on tiptoe for news of me. But I should be writing anyhow: it’s the only activity that saves me from the crushing realization that I now belong to the illiterates — nay, the defectives. Not a word can I read, write, or speak! And only to-day have I learned to respond to my Chinese name. A Chinese name, thee knows, one must have, and one comes by it on this fashion: the mandarin teacher who is attached to every foreign household looks out the nearest phonetic equivalent in Chinese to one’s English name. When found, to be sure, those sounds have many meanings; but the honorable teacher selects for you the one that has the gracious connotation. Mine might mean several things, but the gentleman of the old school elects that it shall mean Honorable Teacher of Beautiful Ceremonies. And I, a Friend, who knows naught of ceremonies, English or Chinese!
Thus am I christened to the tasks of Oriental life. To him that overcometh, say I to myself, there shall be given a new name; and then, as if by magic, comes also the ‘ white stone ’ — a tiny piece of white jade which I shall bring thee for a present. And by that token thee will know that the Angel of Beauty hath broken the last seal. Through a bit of jade the Westerner may glimpse down a byway of beauty where I fear he will never walk. Hard by the Jade Fountain are the pure delights of touch. The Westerner, through his art, hears and sees; but it has not been given to him to feel his way, with finger-tips purposely trained, along cool smooth surfaces from which he gets definite response. Perhaps the subtlety will always restrict the pleasure to a few. Dr. Fergusson is bold enough to claim that ‘this artistic appreciation of a sensitive touch is peculiar to the Chinese race, and even among them it has been confined in its expression to this one medium of jade.’ As to that, ‘this deponent sayeth not.’ I know I have seen Chinese gentlemen turning over tiny balls as they chat; and my gentle tutor tells me it is a pastime with a purpose — to keep the tips of the fingers live. Recently I had tea with L—H—C—, who has a few priceless pieces of jade. The shapes and variations in color, which so appealed to me, he never mentioned; but as his finger slipped along the delicate surfaces, his face lighted, and I knew him for a homesteader in a realm where I am only a vagrant.
At another point the foreign lady feels a bit gauche. She covets ownership. My Chinese friends love their art, but few are obsessed (it is that, is it not?) with desire for ownership. Many a time, in a bit of a shop in Honan Road which is one of my daily haunts, I see a group of Chinese gentlemen saunter in, spend ‘time, times and half a time’ delicately fingering a few jades, — realizing them, as it were, — and then on to their tea. They go to the jade shops as we go to the symphony.
There’s something extraordinarily nice about this impersonal appreciation, but, alas, it has a fatal consequence: despite the boycott, the best things are going, as fast as they can travel, to private collections in Japan. For some weeks back I have had the tail of my larboard eye on a brave little altar screen — a little Ming thing of translucent marble, painted in blues that sing and reds that swear. That happy alliance was not adulterous to the Ming (Bright) dynasty. Every week, on a Friday, which is my ‘free’ day, I fare forth to parley with the ‘master.’ Yesterday, when I reached the shop, the darling space was vacant — the little screen was gone. I assure thee I felt as if the baby were dead. The ‘master’ shared my grief, but, — he bows apologetically,— ‘Japanese man pay first price.’
‘But spiritually it belonged to me,’ I say lamely.
‘ So! So! ’ he mourns, ‘ but — first — price.’
I know it is futile to hurl myself against Capitalism, but I remember that a flea did once attack Zeus. So I fling back with malice, ‘A Chinaman cares for naught but his chow and his coppers.’
‘ An’ his child’s,’ he adds, with a smile that restores friendly relations, ‘most for the child’s.’ And that is true, and because of it, I’m thinking, these deliberate folk some day are going to have the last word. Because of that — and other things — they ’ve a cosmic insurance against failure. But I go no more to the little shop: it has ceased to be a shop, this necropolis of my hopes.
I must not revert to the subject of jade or I shall be lost in subtleties which are not for an humble follower of George Fox—drat him! — with the heavy toll he levies on my conscience after these two hundred years. Otherwise I should return with a barge laden like that of M. Polo. Just one more item — the tiny jade links which one sees everywhere are tokens of lasting friendship; so thee will be knowing that my wee gift is more than just a piece of jade.
MY DEAR ―,
I’m interned to-day. Perhaps thee thinks I’m ill. No, I’m indecently well. Nor is it bad weather. It s a bright, cold day — like a November morning on the Common. Moreover, it’s my ‘free’ day, and such an orgy as was written in the stars for this seventh day of the tenth month. It was to be a ride down Foochow Road among the heartless little Sing-Song girls, in their gay silks as brilliant as Brazilian June-bugs — far less moral, I dare say, though my acquaintance with the latter is simply a museum affair. Then there was to be tea in one of the homes of a friendly courtyard, and a visit to the wondrous silk shops in Nanking Road (China’s Bond Street). There tea awaits the stranger, and cigarettes, if one will, and pleasant greetings and parley — also a charge account, if one even so much as hints that way, without reference or collateral. Each shining roll of priceless silk is encased in its spotless paper cylinder, from which hangs a cryptic tag done in the decorative Chinese script. Purchase is a ritual — but of that later.
Thee must be wondering why my rose-colored day suddenly faded to dull drab. It was this way: every evening I tell my ricksha boy at what hour to come in the morning. ‘To-morrow at nine,’ said I last evening. He loitered, his face full of pleading, his fine brown body glistening after his run in the heat of the day. Then with gentle firmness, ‘’Morrow Ah Nee no come. ’Morrow Ah Nee stay homeside. ’Morrow Ah Nee have gues’ses.’ This from one whose fealty I have come to regard as inviolate. I am distraught, and summon the little Chinese student who is our go-between. She hears him out and then says courteously: ‘Ah Nee is right; to-morrow he must not come, to-morrow he entertains guests.’ He is only a coolie boy, but I know I must not remonstrate, and we part with mutual respect.
But those guests—I am curious! My little friend explains. ‘To-morrow ,’ she says, ‘his family worship their ancestors.’ Their spirit world is not ours, but theirs is nearer than ours. I shall tell thee more of this boy later. He had never heard of the Great War — fancy that for a street-runner in a treaty port! Does thee wonder China is inarticulate? He tells my little friend that he likes to run for the foreign lady — she is unbelievably light, she stops strange foreigners in the big street, she talks so oddly; but, most important I gather, she pays him one-and-forty more than the last beneficer, who was of the Celestials.
My dear, this is the strangest world! Despite all I knew to the contrary, I know now that what I expected was the China of the returned student. But there are 399,500,000 others (this is a hypothetical percentage of a supposed population). And it is those others, after all, who make up China. With them I do not yet feel quite at home. I hope I shall soon be more conscious of the fundamental likenesses between us. I recall that one of our Oxford professors (Gilbert Murray, I think) once unconsciously withered me by noting that the scholar’s mind discerns first fundamental likenesses. If that is true, I fear I ’m an outcast, for I am acutely conscious right now of the differences. The externals of life are all so different. It is curious to be in a world where the men wear silk skirts and the women trousers; where little boys jump rope and little girls play marbles; where one gets on bravely with no fires or sanitation, and with never a proper bath; where industry, for the most part, is still in homes; where not machines but bare brown human backs are requisitioned for the burdens of the highway; where one gets used to a whole new scale of prices — thirty cents a hundred for strictly fresh eggs; gorgeous, wicked, voluptuous poinsett ias at two-for-five, and just a bit more for chrysanthemums, of the imperial yellow, if you please, and as big as — well, the only things that come to mind are the puffs on the ‘ cauliflower ’ tree in our St. Francis print. It is true, there is soap, which is treble what is asked at home; and for stationery I pay a ruinous sum. In fact, one feels like Alice always growing very, very little or very, very tall, in order to fit one’s environment.
But by far the strangest thing of all is to live among folk who have little knowledge of secondary causes. Last night, while we were at dinner, came the greatest uproar from the street: the ubiquitous firecracker (when the Chinaman wishes to register extreme emotion, joy or sorrow or fear, the firecracker is the medium) was supplemented by rockets, by drums, by tom-toms, by wails. Our own servants, in lieu of anything more rhetorical, had seized the kitchen pans and chopsticks, and were doing their ‘bit’ to augment the frenzy. Altogether Shanghai seemed given over suddenly to the weirdest and most pervasive noises a populace could produce.
I fled to the roof, accompanied by one of our Chinese students. She noticed at once that the moon was under a slight eclipse and said, ‘ Oh, it is that: they are terrified. The demon dogs are gnawing the moon; if that is consumed we shall all fall a prey to the demons.’ The eclipse spread rapidly, but could not keep pace with the noise. By every sound known to man were the demons appeased. ‘Apparently it was a hard task to pull Mlle. Diana through; but Shanghai sat up with the lady and rendered enthusiastic aid until the danger point was passed.’ A recently organized Fire Department nervously awaited summons, for it seemed as if whole sections of the city were ablaze. At 11.30 the eclipse passed, and there was an immediate lull; there was a final lavish expenditure of gunpowder, a grand flutter of gongs, much burning of joss paper, and at last, quiet. Again the demons were conquered.
Think of that for a port city! When science has done her perfect work, will all our ‘dangers’ be known as shadows? I wonder.
19, HSI TANG TZU HUTUNG PEKING, Good Friday
While I am waiting for the late member of our party, — thee knows there must always be a late member, — I have just time to start my little weekend record to thee. All our belongings — bedding, personal linen, cameras, typewriters, tins of food, et cetera, — are packed either in duffel-bags that lock, or waterproof sheets that ‘rope.’ They are being tumbled into a tiny cart, drawn by a toy white donkey beside whom the driver looks heroic. Everything but ourselves has gone into the cart. I, on second thought, reserve Hermes 1 for safety. The donkey has brayed, the driver has argued, the servants have harangued, the amah has blessed, we have commanded, but at last, for one brief moment, all are inarticulate, and we are off, looking like an invading army. We move off with quite an air because we go, not, as usual, by cart or donkey or ricksha, but, for part of the way at least, by motor — the last word in luxury, available because of an opportune ‘check from father,’ just received by one member of our party. We are going to the Western Hills!
The evening of the same day
Wo Fo SSU
(The Temple of the Sleeping Buddha)
I can scarcely believe that the morning and the evening are the same day. The busy city, with its intrigue and plague and refugees and malevolent dust, is left behind, and we are in the silent hills. To-night I am the guest of a long-dead Manchu Emperor. I am living in his tiny guest-palace, built on one of the ‘ high places ’ in this old Temple of the Sleeping Buddha, Perhaps thee will need, as I did, to rearrange thy ideas of a temple. It is not a building, but an enclosure. Within is ‘a series of rectangular courts running from north to south, with the principal edifice in the centre, and the lesser buildings ’ nestled in the evergreens of the surrounding hills. There are sunny courtyards, open pavilions, long avenues of cypress, jade ponds for goldfish, pilgrims’ houses, where, for a bit of teamoney, the weary may rest though the wicked do not guarantee to cease from troubling. A central temple contains the awesome Buddha — fifty feet long, and sound asleep in his clay robes. If the Mongol who placed him there left word, as did Little Boy Blue, ‘Now don’t you go till I come,’ he may be rising any day now, for Mongol drums arc heard not afar off; the great Mongol war lord, Chang Tso Lin, is to-day in Tientsin; and a delegation of Mongolian priests from the Hutukhtu, or Living Buddha, are said to be on their way to Peking for a conference, which is a Mongolian euphemism for invasion.
The little guest-palace where I am put up is the most ravishing abode one can imagine. The roof is of tiles, gold and pale blue — the shade of Fra Angelico angels. I begin with the roof, because, in Chinese buildings, large and small, sacred and secular, the roof is the feature. The architecture, as thee perhaps knows, follows the old tent model — inviting one to take one’s soul on a pilgrimage. Only, instead of sagging canvas, here are convex shingles of brilliant tile. The sag of the canvas from the high centre-pole finds a counterpart in the downward curve of the tiling; and the slope of the canvas upward again, to catch the outer tent-poles, is repeated in the upward tilt of the tiles. The old nomad weighted his canvas with stray stones. In the evolution of detail, the stones have been supplanted by golden finials, creatures from the animal world — not the fearsome gargoyles of Notre Dame, but friendly little beasties, despite their glazed exterior: Ming editions of collie pups. Instead of tent-poles there are uprights and beams of fine, old hard wood, all lacquered in the ever-recurring design, golden dragons contending for the pearl — an age-old game, apparently, in China, played always on the same daring background of orange, green, and blue. We are enclosed on only three sides, with walls of Pompeian-colored plaster. Wonder-stuff, in the way of a carved grille, gives us two ‘apartments,’ and presently, when the moon rises (it is due in a minute!) I expect a phœnix to rise from one and a dragon from the other. I hope so, for, though I scorn to be afraid, the Mongolian war lord does seem unpleasantly near to-night.
The next morning
These hills are filled with temples — the Buddhists knew the sacred spaces. We took donkeys this morning, and picked our way across a barren, rocky valley to Pei Yun Ssu, Temple of the Green Jade Clouds — not the oldest in the hills, but reputed to be the most beautiful. The temples are much alike in general arrangement, but each boasts some special feature. This one has a Hall of Five Hundred Buddhas. Some are sardonic, some are benevolent, some are lean, some are obese, some are Chinese, some hint at Semitic, some are Mongolian — all are potent and must be placated.
A beautiful Chinese lad comes in while we are here. I follow him. He will worship, I think from his sensitive profile, before the Buddha of Beauty. No, we pass that. Then it will be the Buddha of Happy Ancestors — he looks such a dutiful lad. No, we pass that without turning a hair. Then it will be the Buddha of the Bright Heart — I know from the lad’s mouth, with corners finished just right, that he is pure in heart. No, we pass that. I hesitate to tell thee that presently, with the preliminary fee to the priest, and with three bundles of joss-sticks ablaze, he drops, three times, prone, before the Buddha of Big Business. And now he goes back, calm and confident, to his little shop.
There are dramatic friezes here, too, of Heaven and the Eighteen Traditional Hells (think of only eighteen!). Like the Italians, the Chinese have ‘done’ their purgatories with much more power than their beatitudes. Virtue did not capture their imagination, however it may have excited effort. The ‘hell’ before which I lingered, because it had suffered least from occupancy and hence decay, was like Signorelli’s in this — it consisted of every conceivable physical torture. Many of the unrighteous are famine-stricken, some are overcome by flood — two bits of realism always before the Chinese of the north.
I am hoping my camera will yield good representations of some of the balustrades and spires from Pei Yun Ssu. The symmetry and grace and the basrelief all bear testimony to the masterbuilder. Though I am dying to try, I shall refrain from vilifying them by vocabulary, but hope, later, to send thee prints.
The ride back to Wo Fo Ssu was unpleasantly dusty, with a strong wind full of fine sand that is blinding. I hate to admit it but these heavy dust storms, when the Gobi Desert literally drops in for the day, make one excessively nervous.
I wish thee were here to keep First Day with us. This evening we climbed to a high spot, going up the old rift between the hills, over what was once the river bed. We spread our rugs on a tiny plateau overlooking the summer home of a Chinese gentleman — so different from an American home! The grounds were terraced, and scattered between flowering almonds and peach-trees and persimmon bushes were the low, singlestory houses, each with its own courtyard. There must be a house for the master, and one for No. 1 wife, another for No. 2 wife, another for the manservants, another for the amahs, one of course for guests. This time there was still another, wee as a playhouse, with two beautifully carved doors and bravely lacquered. That is the home of two slim-legged, stately herons, which are pirouetting about their tiny court, their plumage iridescent even in the late afternoon light. From the bough of a cypress a dashing blue parrot (the primeval Blue Bird?) sways in a hoop of bamboo — a good foil for a drab monkey playing with some blue-clad kiddies on the flagstones under the wall. Down the valleys come the coolies, clad, if at all, in the blue smocks which are the feature of every landscape here. In the stillness I was startled by a low, quivering bleat. It was the little coolie boy, gently, in their own language, persuading his flock to the great adventure of return to the fold. No wonder they responded, though the trail was steep and the tiny ones had not yet got their ‘mountain legs.’ Shepherds, like mothers, have a way with them!
Out across the plain, as far as the eye can reach, are placed rectangular towers. Why at irregular intervals? I trace an imaginary line between them and find it sinuous, making curious convolutions. Why are watch towers so capriciously placed? The Lady from Shansi tells me they are more than watch towers, they are to hold down the tail of the Dragon. In Italy it was the campanile, in Ireland the Round Tower, in England and France the Gothic spire. What in America? The modern little New Yorker at my elbow murmurs, with unconscious irony, ‘The skyscraper.’ ‘ Oh yes, of course,’ I reply, because I’m rather afraid of the issue. Do they typify our aspirations?
The Chinese coolie gangs chant as they work. Moreover, they chant antiphonally. Sometimes it is an old, weird, and inexpressibly beautiful folk-song; sometimes a narrative of the ‘passing show.’ For instance, as I come round the corner, the foreman will break into a low chant: ‘Here comes a foreigner! Here comes a foreigner!’ The men will chant in return: ‘What does she wear to-day? What does she wear to-day?’
Or sometimes it is a wedding, or a funeral procession. We had a gorgeous one recently in Peking. One of the last concubines of the imperial family died. She was escorted to her Manchu tomb by a train of camels, each in the imperial trappings of yellow embroidered satin. I assure you more than the coolies broke into song when that stately procession moved slowly to the city gate.
I’m wondering how often they ’ll be singing — these coolies — when China moves into the mechanical stage. Now they lift the heaviest burdens, and pull the heaviest loads, to rhythm. This morning I heard their voices and followed the sound, until I came up with the group on one of the slopes of the temple enclosure. There I found an engine from Corry, Pennsylvania, with twenty sweating coolies trying to ' chant it’ up the steep slope. But Corry failed to respond to Oriental symphony, and I fear the pauses were not all registered in the original score. When the foreign foreman came along, I learned what it was all about. The drills were close behind the engine, and both were there for the purpose of driving an artesian well. If this is successful, they are to go from here to the famine area over in Shansi, where recent investigation has pointed to a possible subterranean lake. The foreigner’s face shone as he told me his dream — a hundred artesian wells and a district interlaced with irrigating streams, and the end of this age-old scourge. That, of course, would be the real famine relief. (And by the way China has awakened to a new dream — famine prevention.)
While we were chatting, the coolies fetched some logs from the nearby wood and constructed a rough corduroy road, and Corry was again ‘on the job,’ moving steadily uphill to the tune of an old Tartar field song. ‘Why did you not tell them to do that an hour ago?’ I queried of my engineer. His answer was the slogan of the Orient: ‘They would have lost face.’ Having got their promise, ‘Can do,’ he must not interfere: otherwise, to-morrow no men. He told me with pride that this was the first American engine in the field, and that it would drill a well several thousand feet deep in three weeks — as against a four months’ job by the Chinese method. I bade my glowing countryman good-bye, feeling that I had been in the presence of a real missionary, one who was willing to endure as seeing that which is as yet invisible.
When I came by late in the afternoon, neither engine nor coolies were in sight. On the other side of the summit I could hear their voices and an initial puff from Corry. They had gone ‘over the top’ to make a conquest of No Man’s Land. The priests are still droning their sutras, and the Buddha sleeps.
I like to think of the enthusiastic young foreigner, but I fear it is rather a flash in the pan for Corry. I am told that there is plenty of iron, coal, cotton, and wool up in the famine area, and that that district should be evacuated by the ‘farmers of forty centuries’ and given over to diversified industries.
FOOCHOW, FUKIEN PROVINCE, CHINA
I am of that small minority who have entered Paradise — being one of seventeen foreigners within the walls of this wonderful old city, which still shelters more than six hundred thousand inhabitants, though Amoy, with the honey-sweet fruit and the bitter morals, is fast stealing the trade. And I came, as the Fathers would prefer, via purgatory, — the China Merchants Line, there being no other way. The Big Liner, who’s a lady, goes direct to Hongkong, with never so much as a peep at the Chinese ports; and as there is no railway, one must leave one’s maps and charts in port, and literally roll down on an evil-smelling little craft, with a population that rivals the states (and the jungle) for diversity.
We reached the mouth of the Ming River in the dark o’ the moon, and had to wait until dawn to be piloted in. There are dreadful stories of the orgies of the river god, and of his mad displeasure if a craft enters without the escort of his emissary. How does thee think the pilots came aboard? They came out in a sampan, with women at the oars: when within a few feet of us, they ‘tackled ’ our deck-rails with hooks embedded in long bamboo poles, skillfully kicked themselves clear of the sampan, and clambered up the poles to our deck, dropping the poles back into the water where they were rescued by the women rowers.
We came upstream in a primitive type of houseboat. The river life is dangerous and social and gay. All the boats are of wood, of the half-moon design, with ribbed sails of mahogany-colored pulp. One detail they all have — a discerning black-and-white eye painted on the bow. Warum? The coolie boy murmurs, ‘No have eye — no can see.’ Nothing could be more simple or satisfactory or rational — or Chinese. All the way up the river the coolies are crooning and yelling and screaming and banging their bamboo poles about, each one demanding the channel. Bamboo is the staple of life. Give us this day our daily bamboo is the river man’s prayer. He punts with his bamboo pole, he sleeps under his bamboo hood, he gets his chow in a bamboo basket, he ties the vagrant baby with a bamboo cord, his petit déjeuner is of boiled bamboo sprouts, and on the rare occasions when he goes ashore, he smokes his bamboo pipe under a bamboo that sheds feathery shade.
The paradise was worth winning. I am high up above the city wall, beyond which a real moat glistens: out toward the sunrise are fields of golden mustard, toward the sunset gleam the rice paddies. Within reach are all the poinsettias, violets, roses, heliotrope, iris, begonia, and China lilies one could wish for. On the streets are good-looking women, with elaborate headdresses of blood-red silk, and chased silver ornaments, dagger-shape, from ten to fourteen inches long — the survival of one mediæval day when the women of the field were coerced and allowed this one weapon for defense. As far as I can see are purple hills. G— Y—, the Chinese friend who shares my sleeping-porch, says that last night I sat bolt upright and laughed aloud in my sleep. I do recall that I was trying to decide whether this was mediæval Brittany or the New Jerusalem, and that I picked the former because of the absence of the ‘ four-and-twenty elders.’ Does thee wonder I was chortling?
To-morrow we go a-lacquering and I shall have a bit in ray locker when I return. This is the place for the No. 1 lacquer, which is done on silk and which sheds sunlight on the dourest day. It takes as much as eight months to make one of the little golden boxes, and the secret is a family affair, handed down, now, for generations.
Then there are dashing red-leather boxes, decorated in the most bizarre fashion. The burning question is, Will thee have dragons or storks? Think of that exquisite choice! Apparently, if one waits long enough, all the fairy stories do come true. Personally, I am all for the dragons, as gratifying a hidden instinct which generations of pacifism have failed to eradicate. Perhaps, too, I feel the irony of storks as a decorative element in a spinster equipment. Thee can take thy choice, but be influenced by the fact that the dragons offer an inexpensive way of seeing life. Recently we had the great privilege of seeing, late at night, the old dragon ceremony, given, in all its grandeur, in the Chinese courtyard of the Confucian chief here. I shall write thee later of that.
First Day evening
We climbed this evening to our nearest ‘high place’ and said farewell to this quiet day from the old altar there. Steps thereto are cut from the solid rock; the altar itself is of the Stonehenge type — a rough post-and-lintel design; behind it is a huge bronze basin from which the sweet savor rose to the infinite. The earlier folk came to the ‘ friend behind phenomena ’ in their own way. The little temple beside the shrine is of the Confucian Order — plainer than a Friends’ Meeting; just
an enclosed space, with a platform at one end on which stand the stately tablets of the law. Think of a temple furnished only with wisdom!
Pray that life may keep us simple
So that God may make us wise.
I shall go again to that high place — but not at sunset. Sunset and evening star, in a strange land, and the altar to the unknown god are not a bracing combination for folk who would be ‘homeside.’
To remember a little Argive Street
Is torture to the bone.
Does thee remember?
Thee ’ll be interested in a detail of my landscape — a village of lake-dwellers exactly like the pictures of prehistoric days. These are for defense in the dreadful spring days, when the wicked little Ming rushes deliriously about over the plain.
I am one hundred and fifty feet above the street. The coolie is winding his way up my high hill, with the ever-present bamboo pole over his shoulder; from each end is suspended a five-gallon bucket of water. Every drop of water we use must be carried. We have one boy who does only that. Up and down, up and down, up and down he goes with his endless buckets. It ’s a ‘ pitiful doing,’ and him still young; and even now unsightly welts of misplaced flesh warp each shoulder; and they will harden there before he knows another way. The potential deformity of all the workers is one of the tragedies. The worst of all is their quiet acceptance of it. Oh, not idolatry, not that, O Lord, not that, but the ‘ lethargic mind ’ is the hideous evil!
- My Corona.↩