« AnteriorContinuar »
apologues and some short specimens of poetry, collected and published by Du Halde and Grozier, constituted all the knowledge which, till of very late years, we possessed in Europe, of the taste of the Chinese in that department of literature generally known by the name of belles lettres.
Yet a more intimate knowledge of this particular branch of national literature would seem precisely to be that which was most wanting to enable us to form a true estimate of the national character--itis that which, of all others, appears best calculated to show us how this singular people acted and thought under the ordinary occurrences of life ; and how far the fine moral sentiments, which Confucius uttered, and which are painted in large characters in their houses and temples, by the sides of the high roads, and in all public places, are carried into practice in real life. That beautiful little novel the Hao-kiou-tchuan, translated by Mr. Wilkinson and published by Dr. Percy, did this to a certain extent, but it remained for many years the solitary specimen of this kind of composition. The knowledge of the language which the translator had acquired seems to have died with him; and as Bohea and Sou-chong could he provided by the easier process of a sort of telegraphic communication aided by a murderous jargon of English, the study of the language of China revived only with the Embassy of Lord Macartney to the Court of Pekin. This mission afforded an opportunity to the present Sir George Staunton, then a boy, to cultivate it with complete success; and his example has been followed by several of the Company's servants at Canton, but by none with more assiduity and advantage than by Mr. Davis, the translator of the drama before us: this young gentleman is a writer on the establishment of the East India Company's factory at Canton, where, we understand, he has not been resident much more than two years.
The cditor of this literary curiosity, for such it must be consiclered whatever its merits or defects may be, has taken a summary view of the Chinese drama, or rather, we should say, of the stage-representations, as they are exhibited for the entertainment of foreign ambassadors; these exhibitions, it must be confessed, are puerile enough, consisting chiefly of broad farce, of tumbling, jug: gling, posture-making, and ridiculous processions of men disguised as animals, the last of which may be intended perhaps to convey, by personified allegories, allusions to some national tradition or religious superstition. Of their regular dramas, such as this before us, we hear little or nothing in the accounts published of the several embassies sent by different nations to the Court of Pekin. The reason is obvious. Until the present embassy of Lord Amherst, neither the ambassador nor any of his suite were fortunate enough to understand one word of what they beard; and as it is said that, when one sense is shut, the others become more open, these travellers describe accurately enough, no doubt, what they saw, but are necessarily silent as to what they heard.
The editor mentions a poem, written by a common Chinese, called . London,' also translated by Mr. Davis. We have procured a copy of this poem, or rather of that part of it which has been translated : though the author's observations, in general, are just, yet, as he was ignorant of our language, they proceed almost wholly from what was communicated to the mind through the organ of sight. Their play-houses,' he says, are always shut during the day; after dark the scenes are opened. The faces of the actors are very handsome. Their dresses are embroidered and splendid ; and they sing in exact unison with the music; and dance to the drums and nutes. The exhibition is delightful in the highest degree, and all go away with laughing countenances.' And he adds, in a note, for this Chinese poet too uses his verses as pegs to hang notes upon, that all descriptions of people mix together and pay a certain fixed price ; that the scenes are painted to represent trees and houses, that they are frequently changed; and that the female characters are all performed by women. Of the Thames he says, “three bridges resist the stream, and form a communication. Ships and boats pass beneath the arches; men and horses walk amidst the clouds; a thousand masses of stone rise one above the other; and the river flows through nine channels. The bridge of Lo-yang, which out-tops all under heaven, resembles them in form.'-—But he adds, in a note, that the bridge of Lo-yang, in Fokien, is the finest in the world; that it resembles these of the Thames) in appearance, but there is a difference in point of size :in the original, there is an artfulambiguity by which the superiority
in point of size is left undecided. Our traveller (who is not deficient in intelligence) notices chiefly those objects which excited attention by their contrast with those of his own country-thus he observes that, the houses are so lofty that you may pluck the stars from them ;' that, on four sacred days in the month, people put on their best clothes, and go to the temple; that the virtuous read their sacred book, which they call Pe-lee to kot, (pray to God); that the appearance of the country is beautiful, and the hills, rising one above another, delightful to behold; that little girls have rosy cheeks and fair complexions; that men and women marry from mutual choice; and love and respect each other; and that there are no şecond wives; that the grass is cut, and dried, to feed cattle in winter when there is frost and snow; that men and women ramble into the fields to gather flowers; that poor women at the wheat harvest gather the grain which is left, and sing as they go home ;
VOL. XVI, NO. XXXII.
and that people recommend each other in spring and autumn to return early, lest they should be bewildered in the fog, &c. As this is the first attempt by a Chinese to give his countrymen any infor. mation respecting England, we have thought that our readers would not be displeased with a short specimen of the mode in which it is conveyed.
That ihe Chinese have something better than those exhibitions described by travellers, the • Orphan of 'Tchao, translated by Prenare, and the Laou-sing-urh, both of which are taken from the same collection of one hundred dramas, abundantly testify; and we think there is also proof that these plays, and others of a similar description, are those which are generally represented before Chinese audiences, though it is not a little remarkable, as the Editor has observed, that those representations 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. The theatrical entertainments exhibited before the emperor and his court, for the amusement of every ambassador, from Ysbrandt Ives to Titsingh and Van Braam, were more puerile, absurd and mean, than those to which they were invited in the provinces. Thus we find in Lord Macartney's entertaining Journal, à ludicrous detail of the entertainments given at Gohol, which lasted five hours, the account of which his lordship thus concludes : • Thus then have I seen King Solomon in all his glory. I use this expression, as the scene recalled perfectly to my memory a puppet-show of that name, which I recollect to have seen in my childhood, and which made so strong an impression on my mind, that I then thought it a true representation of the highest pitch of human greatness and felicity.' But at Tien-sing his lordship speaks of the actors having exhibited during the day several different pantomimes and historical dramas.' One of these,' Sir George Staunton observes, 'attracted particular attention. Scanty as their knowledge was of the language, many of the gentlemen of the embassy perceived, or thought they perceived, the resemblance of the action to one of Shakspeare's historical plays. A rebel general, who bas slain his sovereign, pays his addresses to the captive empress; and, whilst she is tearing her hair, and rending the skies with ber complaints, the conqueror enters, approaches her with respect, addresses her in a gentle tone, soothes her sorrows with his compassion, talks of love and adoration, and, like Richard the Third with Lady Anne, prevails, in less than half an hour, on the Chinese princess, to dry up her tears, to forget ber deceased consort, and yield to a consoling wooer.'
It would be idle to conjecture, in the present state of our imperfect knowledge of China, whence this unfavourable difference
in the court amusements arises; but it would be quite consistent with the character of this mean and insolent government, to suppose that these exhibitions were got up for the occasion, as be. ing, in their opinion, best suited to the taste and understanding of foreign barbarians, who, according to their notions, come froin afar to offer them tribute and to seek their protection.
But the vulgar and childish exhibitions of the Chinese stage form not the most serious charge against the taste and judgment of this nation of sages; it appears, from the Brief View,' that they frequently offend against all decency and morality. Not satisfied with the mere relation of a criminal act or a filthy story, the Chinese require something more-the eye must be gratified by a sight of every process of the transaction. The following in. stance will suffice as a specimen of their taste in this respect.
«The history of husbands deceived by their mistresses, says M. de Guignes, “ being frequently the subject of their comedies, there occur therein sometimes situations so free, and in wbich the actor exhibits so much truth, that the scene becomes extremely indecent,”—and he mentions an instance of which he was an eye-witness, wbere the heroine of the piece “ devint grosse et accoucha sur le théâtre d'un enfant.” The piece was called the See-hou Pagoda, being the bistory of the destruction of the Pagoda now in ruins, on that famous lake described by Mr. Barrow under the name of Lui-fungi-ta,--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 pagoda with lightning, and reducing it to the ruined condition in which it now appears.' (Brief View, p. 29.)
The translation of the Laou-sing-urh puts an end to all dispute with regard to the nature of the Chinese drama, if any doubt could have been entertained with regard to the authenticity and the fidelity of the translation of the Orphan of Tchao. The latter is abused by Voltaire, though he made it the ground-work of one of his best tragedies; he admits, indeed, that, in spite of the innumerable crowd of events, they are all exhibited in the most clear and distinct manner; but he quarrels with it, because unity of time and action, sentiment, character, eloquence, passion, all, by bis account, are wanting-a grave list of defects, truly-but Voltaire probably was not aware that Premare's translation is the skeleton only of the Chinese play, and that those parts which have been compared with the Greek chorus, and in which sentiment and
passion, if not eloquence, are expressed, were omitted by the translator. The editor observes,
Our countryman, Doctor Hurd, in his “ Discourse on Practical 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 wbich 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 uucii rapidity, as Aristotle bimself demands." And having noticed its resemblance in many points to the Electra of Sophocles- lei 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, be would probably have found the resemblance still more complete.' (Brief View, p. 34.)
The Heir in his Old Age' is liable to none of the objections brought by Voltaire against the Orphan of Chao,' except the want of unity of place and time, a defect of which we in England, at least, are not warranted to complain. This drama is wanting neither in sentiment, passion, nor character-of its eloquence none can judge correctly, but those who feel the force of the association of ideas suggested by the compounded symbols of the Chinese language, whose most striking beauties, as a Chinese has observed, “pass through the eye immediately to the heart, and whose sound, striking upon the car, brings the recollection of the picture to the eye.' These combinations of symbols, the frequent use of meta.' phors, and of allusions to ancient history and popular stories, especially in the lyrical parts, which are sung or chanted with music,' must render the translation of them a difficult task to an European; and after all, the best translation can only be an approximation to the original, wanting the strength, and beauty, and expression conveyed by the latter to the eye of a Chinese. Mr. Davis, we think, has done wonders; he found, he says, the lyrical parts very obscure, but where doubtful passages occurred, · the opinion of two or more natives was asked, and that sense adopted which appeared to be most consistent with the idiom of the language, and with the scope of the original.'
The comedy of · An Heir in his old Age' is the representation of a simple story in domestic life, the dramatis persone being composed entirely of the members of a family in the mercantile, or irading profession, which in China we may consider as constituting the middle class of society. The moral meant to be conveyed is an illustration of the bappiness or the misery of having