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The Court De Beauvoir in China


Within the last twenty years the East has opened wide its gates, and China, Japan and India are as anxious to become acquainted with the later but more fully developed civilizations of Europe and this country as we are to examine their social, political and industrial systems. We have had accounts from English, American, German and French travelers in the East, each tinged, in a measure, with the national spirit of their respective countries. In the case of the traveler, as of the astronomer, a certain allowance, known as the personal equation, has to be made in receiving the accounts of his observations.


The journey round the world made by the count de Beauvoir in company with the duke de Penthièvre, son of the prince de Joinville, is entitled to especial notice, as the attentions shown to the travelers by the Chinese and Japanese authorities enabled them to obtain the best conditions for investigating various matters of interest.

On landing at Shanghai their hearts were gladdened by seeing "on the quay a French custom-house official, with his kepi over his ear, his rattan in his hand, dressed in a dark-green tunic, and full of the inquisitiveness of the customs inspector—as martial and as authoritative as in his native land." The appearance of the population here struck our travelers as different from that of the native Chinese farther south. Those were yellow, copper-colored, lean, and slightly clad in garments of cotton cloth; these were rosy as children and fat as pigs: they were besides wrapped up in four or five pelisses, worn one over the other, lined with sheepskins, so that a single man smelt like a whole flock of sheep. Their style of dress was this: half a dozen waistcoats without sleeves, covered with a single overcoat with extremely long sleeves, falling down to their knees. These garments made them resemble balls of wool rather than men.

By accident, the party passed first through the quarter of the town devoted to the restaurants. Here they were for every grade of fortune, from the millionaire to the ragged poor. The street filled with these latter was terrible: it swarmed with thousands of beggars, hardly human in form and almost naked, though there was frozen snow upon the ground. A group, seeming even joyous, attracted attention. The cause of their happiness was a dead dog which they had found in one of the gutters. Even, however, in this degradation the politeness of these people struck our Frenchmen forcibly. The guests gathered about this fortuitous repast treated each other with a ceremonious deference strange enough in such surroundings. In a still lower stratum, however, among even a more degraded class, whose feasts were obtained from the live preserves carried upon their own persons, this politeness, the last quality a Chinaman loses from the degradation of poverty, was wanting.

A few miles from Shanghai lies Zi-Ka-Wai, a colony founded by the Jesuits, of which our traveler gives a most interesting account. The road to Zi-Ka-Wai lay over a sandy plain intersected with canals. On both sides of the road were hundreds of coffins resting upon the surface of the ground. In the northern part of China there are no grave-yards, and the coffins were arranged sometimes in piles in the fields. It is said that they thus remain until a change takes place in the reigning dynasty, when they are all destroyed. As the present dynasty has reigned about three hundred years, the accumulation may be imagined. This traditional respect for the inviolability of the dead is one of the chief obstacles in the way of the introduction of the telegraph and railroad in China. A commercial house in Shanghai had built a telegraph to Wo-Soung to announce the arrival of the mail, but in a few days the wire was cut in more than five hundred places—at all the points where its shadow from the rising sun fell upon the coffins lying on the ground.

At Zi-Ka-Wai the Jesuits have an educational institution, and, dressed in the Chinese costume, smoking the long native pipes, received their visitors with great cordiality. Their pupils are divided into three classes. The first consists of the children of the neighboring towns who have been deserted by their parents and left to die of hunger. The majority of them are lepers, and have been more or less perfectly cured by the Fathers. When brought to the institution they are thoroughly cleaned, being rubbed with pumice stone. They receive an industrial as well as a literary education. In one building they are taught to read and write, and in another are the schools for shoemaking, carpentering, printing and other manual arts; so that, being received at the age of five or six, at twenty to twenty-one they are launched upon the world with an education and a trade.

There are about four hundred children in this class, and the activity, the order and organization of the workshops, and the exquisite cleanliness of the surroundings, are delightful to see. Near at hand is a school of a higher grade, to which the most promising pupils are transferred for the study of Chinese literature. The system of teaching here is peculiar: all the pupils are required to study aloud, and the din is in consequence deafening and incessant. Then there is the highest class, consisting of about two hundred and fifty youths, the sons of rich mandarins, who pay heavily for their instruction. These are destined to become rhetoricians, and, step by step, bachelors, licentiates, doctors, then mandarins and members of the governing class of the Middle Kingdom. The studies are Chinese, and the Fathers have with wonderful patience learned not only the Chinese language, as well as its written characters, but also the nice critical points of its idioms, so as to be able to teach with authority the poetry and legends and the commentaries upon the writings of Confucius. This they have done for the purpose of having an opportunity to convert the orphans they have adopted, and thus by degrees introduce into the government an element which will be essentially Christian. Thus far, the profession of Christianity is not essentially incompatible with the office of mandarin, though it is impossible to hold this position without performing some idolatrous rites.


On the 13th of March the ice was sufficiently broken to open the navigation of the Pei-Ho, and the party started upon the steamer Sze-Chuen for Tien-Tsin and Pekin. They were joined by an English commissioner of the Chinese custom-house, whose position as a high functionary of the Celestial government, together with his knowledge of Chinese, proved of great service. The trip to Pekin was brought to a sudden temporary close by the Sze-Chuen running aground on the bar of the Pei-Ho, where she remained nearly two days, but was finally got off after the removal of a part of her cargo.

The navigation of the Pei-Ho is difficult on account of the narrowness of the stream and its exceedingly sinuous course. Frequently the steamer had to be towed by a line passed on shore and fastened round a tree. At Tien-Tsin the travelers landed, and witnessed a review of some imperial cavalry regiments mounted upon Tartar ponies, with high saddles and short stirrups. The warriors wore queues and were dressed in long robes. Their moustaches gave them, however, a fierce martial air, and they were armed with English sabres and American revolvers.

Tien-Tsin ("Heaven's Ford") is a city of about four hundred thousand inhabitants, and lies at the junction of the Imperial Canal with the Pei-Ho. The country from here to Pekin, about three days' journey by land, is sandy, and the trip is made a very disagreeable one by the clouds of dust, which blind the traveler and effectually prevent any examination of the country passed through.

The cavalcade comprised seven of the native carts, each drawn by two mules. Their construction may be thus described: A sort of barrow made of blue cloth hangs like a box upon an axletree about a yard long, furnished with two clumsy wheels. It is impossible to lie down in them, because they are too short, nor can a bench to sit on be placed in them, because they are too low. As a compensation, however, they are so light that they can go anywhere. The driver sits on the left shaft, where he is conveniently placed for leaping down to beat the mules. These are harnessed, one in the shafts and the other in front, with long traces tied upon the axletree near the left wheel. As they are guided only by the voice, the course of the cart depends chiefly upon the fancy they may take for following or neglecting the road; while from the manner in which they are harnessed their draught is always sideways, and they therefore trot obliquely.

At Yang-Soun the party was joined by a mandarin with a crystal button, sent by the governor of the province of Tien-Tsin, Tchoung-Hao, with a profusion of passports and safe-conducts. During the rest of the journey this mandarin, Ching, led the way in his cart drawn by a fine black mule, and on arriving at the villages on the route displayed his function, as a man of letters, by putting on an immense pair of spectacles, the glasses of which were about three inches in diameter. At Ho-Chi-Wou the procession halted during the middle of the day, and was photographed by one of its members. The curious crowd of spectators which gathered in every village to inspect the "foreign devils" scattered when the camera was posed, and for a few moments our travelers were freed from their intrusiveness.


Starting next morning at daylight, at three in the afternoon the party entered Pekin. The relief was great to leave the sandy, dusty road for one of the paved ways which radiate from the city. The first sight of the city struck the travelers as the most grandiose spectacle of the Celestial Empire. In front rose a high tower, with a five-storied roof of green tiles, pierced with five rows of large portholes, from which grinned the mouths of cannon; while to the right and left, as far as could be seen, stretched the gigantic wall surrounding the city, built partly of granite and partly of large gray bricks, with salients, battlements and loopholes, wearing a decidedly martial air. This impression was somewhat modified, however, by the discovery that the grinning cannons were made of wood. The entrance was under a vaulted archway, through which streamed a converging crowd of Chinese, Mongols, Tartars, with their various costumes, together with blue carts, files of mules and caravans of heavily-loaded camels.

Pekin was built by Kublai-Khan about 1282, near the site of an important city which dated from the Chow dynasty, or some centuries before the Christian era. The city covers an enclosed space about twenty miles in circumference. It is rectangular in form, and divided into two parts, the Chinese and the Tartar cities. The walls of the Tartar city are the largest and widest, being forty to fifty feet high, and, tapering slightly from the base, about forty feet wide at the top. They are constructed upon a solid foundation of stone masonry resting upon concrete, while the walls themselves are built of a solid core of earth, faced with massive brick: the top is paved with tiles, and defended by a crenelated parapet. Bastions, some of which are fifty feet square, are built upon the outside at distances of about one hundred feet. There are sixteen gates, seven of which are in the Chinese town, six in the Tartar town, and three in the partition wall between these two. In the centre of the Tartar city is an enclosure, also walled, called the Imperial City, and within this another, called the Forbidden City, which contains the imperial palaces and pleasure-grounds. Broad straight avenues, crossing each other at right angles, run through the whole city, which in this respect is very unlike other Chinese towns. A stream entering the Tartar city near its north-west corner divides into two branches, which enter the Imperial City and surround the Forbidden City, and then uniting again pass through the Tartar and Chinese towns, to empty in the Tung-Chau Canal.

The foreign legations are in the southern part of the Tartar city, on the banks of this stream. The top of the walls forms the favorite promenade of the foreign settlers, and from here a fine view of the whole city is obtained. M. de Beauvoir, however, from his more minute examination, comes to the following conclusions: "This immense city, in which nothing is repaired, and in which it is forbidden under the severest penalties to demolish anything, is slowly disintegrating, and every day changing itself into dust. The sight of this slow decomposition is sad, since it promises death more certainly than the most violent convulsions. In a century Pekin will exist no longer; it must then be abandoned: in two centuries it will be discovered, like a second Pompeii, buried under its own dust."

The gates of Virtuous Victory and of Great Purity, the temples to the Heavens, to Agriculture, to the Spirit of the Winds and of the Thunder, and to the Brilliant Mirror of the Mind, occupied the attention of the party. They saw the gilded plough and the sacred harrow with which the emperor yearly traces a furrow to obtain divine favor for the crops, as well as the yellow straw hat he wears during this ceremony; and also the vases made of iron wire in which he every six months burns the sentences of those who have been condemned to death in the empire. They visited also the magnificent observatory built by Father Verbiest, a Jesuit, for the emperor You-Ching, in the seventeenth century. The instruments are of bronze, and mounted upon fantastic dragons, and are still in good condition, though they have been exposed to the open air all this time. One of them was a celestial sphere eight feet in diameter, containing all the stars known in 1650 and visible in Pekin.


Visits to the theatres, to the temple of the Moon, that of the Lamas, that of Confucius, and to others made the days spent in Pekin pass quickly. Among the wonders shown was the largest suspended bell in the world—the great bell of Moscow has never been hung—twenty-five feet high, weighing ninety thousand pounds, and richly sculptured.

The private life of the Chinese it is almost impossible for a stranger to take part in. To do so requires a knowledge of Chinese, which can be gained only by years of assiduous study, and that the applicant should, as far as possible in dress and general appearance, make himself a Chinese. Even then, complete success is gained only by a fortunate combination of circumstances. The streets devoted to shops of all kinds afford, however, to the traveler a never-ending succession of changing and interesting pictures. Yet the general spirit of the Chinese leads them also to be sparing of all outward decoration, reserving their forces for interior display. The Forbidden City even, though marvelous stories are told of its interior splendors, has outside a mean appearance. "A pagoda of the thirty-sixth rank has more effect than the sacred dwelling of the Son of Heaven."

In the military quarters, and in those inhabited by the nobility, the party in their wanderings were struck with an expression of disdain on the countenances of those natives whom they met. Elsewhere the curiosity to see the foreigners was even greater than the Chinese themselves ever excited in the capitals of Europe; but at home the higher classes passed the foreigners without even turning to look at them, or else glanced at them indifferently or disdainfully. Some of the noble class walked, but generally they rode in carts similar to that of the mandarin Ching. The higher the rank of the owner, the farther behind are the wheels placed. With a prince's cart they are so far behind that the rider hangs between them and the mule. Palanquins, carried upon the shoulders of the porters, offer another and the most convenient means of locomotion used in China: this method is, however, forbidden except for princes and ministers of state.

In the busy streets of trade the scene is most animated. Thousands of scarlet signs with gilded inscriptions hang from oblique poles raised in front of the shops. Carts, palanquins, mules, camels, coolies, soldiers and merchants throng the streets, while to add to the confusion myriads of children play about your legs, and the old men carrying their kites toward the walls add to the singularity of the scene. The kites, representing dragons, eagles, etc., are managed with a dexterity which comes only from a lifelong practice. They are sometimes furnished with various aeolian attachments which imitate the songs of birds or the voices of men. The pigeons also in Pekin are frequently provided with a very light kind of aeolian harp, which is secured tightly to the two central feathers of their tails, so that in flying through the air the harps sound harmoniously. This curious, indistinct note had excited the count's attention, and he learned its cause from a pigeon which fell dead at his feet, having in its flight struck itself against the cord of one of the kites. Their use was explained by the natives as a protection against the hawks which are very common in Pekin.

Passing one day the place of execution, the travelers were shocked to see that the heads of the executed were exposed to the public gaze, labeled with the crimes for which they had suffered. Such sights as this, with the terrible filth of all the Chinese cities, the squalid suffering of the poor and the want of sympathy with indigence and disease, suggested to the count, as they too frequently suggest to European visitors, that the degradation of the Chinese is hopeless. Yet such sights were common a few generations ago in every European capital, and the same causes which have led to their cessation there are at work to-day in China, and bid fair to produce the same results.


The service of the custom-house, which has been put into the hands of Europeans, and under the management of Mr. Robert Hart has been thoroughly organized, is having a great influence in civilizing the government, as well as in diffusing European ideas and methods among the people. A fixed rate of charges, an honesty of administration which is beyond question, prompt activity in the transaction of business, have replaced the depredations and the old methods in use under mandarin rule. It is the desire of the manager of the custom-house to inaugurate in China the establishment of a system of lighthouses, to organize the postal system, to introduce railroads and telegraphs and to open the coal-mines of the empire. Success in these reforms means bringing China into the circle of inter-dependent civilized nations; and so far all the steps in this direction have been sure and successful ones.

On leaving Pekin, our party set out to visit the Great Wall of China, which lies about three days' journey from that capital, on the route to Siberia. Mongolian ponies served for the means of transportation on this trip. These shaggy little animals were as full of tricks as they were ugly. The cavalcade was followed by two carts for carrying the money of the expedition. The whole of this capital amounted to about one hundred and fifty dollars, in the form of hundreds of thousands of the copper coins of the country, made with holes in their centres and strung by the thousand upon osier twigs. This is the only money which circulates in the agricultural portions of China, and a "barbarian" has to give a pound weight of them for a couple of eggs. The country soon began to become hilly, with the mountains of Mongolia visible in the distance. Trains of camels were passed, or could be seen winding in the plain below.

The next day the party arrived at the Tombs of the Emperors. These are the tombs of the Ming emperors, one of the most brilliant dynasties of Chinese history. They lie in a circular valley which opens out from a great plain, and is surrounded by limestone peaks and granite domes, forming a barren and waste amphitheatre. The grandeur of its dimensions and the awful barrenness of its desolation make it a fit resting-place for the imperial dead of the last native dynasty. At the foot of the surrounding heights thirteen gigantic tombs, encircled with green trees, are arranged in a semicircle. Five majestic portals, about eight hundred yards apart, form the entrance to the tombs. From the portico giving entrance to the valley to the tomb of the first emperor is more than a league, and the long avenue is marked first by winged columns of white marble, and next by two rows of animals, carved in gigantic proportions. Of these there are, on either side, two lions standing, two lions sitting; one camel standing, one kneeling; one elephant standing, one kneeling; one dragon standing, one sitting; two horses standing; six warriors, courtiers, etc. The lions are fifteen feet high, and the others equally colossal, while each of the figures is carved from a single block of granite.

At the end of the avenue are the tombs, with groups of trees about them. Each tomb is really a temple in which white and pink marble, porphyry and carved teak-wood are combined, not indeed with harmony or taste, but, what is rare in China, with lines of great purity and severity. One of the halls of these tombs is about a hundred feet long by about eighty wide. The ceiling is from forty to sixty feet high, and is supported by rows of pillars, each formed of a single stick of teak timber eleven feet in circumference. These sticks were brought for this purpose from the south of China. Though they have been in position over nine hundred years, they appear as sound as when first posed, nor has the austere splendor of the structure suffered in any degree.

The sombre obscurity well befits these sepulchral dwellings, and the dull sound of the deadened gongs struck by the guardians makes the vaults reverberate in a singular and impressive way. Behind the memorial temple rises an artificial mound about fifty feet high, access to the top of which is given by a rising arched passage built of white marble. On the top of the mound is an imposing marble structure consisting of a double arch, beneath which is the imperial tablet, a large slab, upon which is carved a dragon standing on the back of a gigantic tortoise. The remains of the emperor are buried somewhere within this mound, though the exact spot is not known: this precaution, it is said, was taken to preserve the remains from being desecrated in a search for the treasures which were buried with him, while the persons who performed this last office were killed upon the spot, in order further to preserve the secret.


From this gigantic effort to preserve  the memory of the dead our party hastened to the Great Wall, an equally immense work to preserve the living from the incursions of their neighboring enemies. Perhaps nowhere in the world are to be found in such close proximity two such striking evidences of the waste of human labor when undirected by scientific knowledge. The wall is to-day, and was from the first, as worthless for the purpose it was intended to serve as the temples are for obtaining immortality for the bodies they enclose.

Leaving the town of Nang-Kao, the party soon found themselves at the entrance of the pass of the same name, and during the six leagues which separated them from the wall the spectacle kept increasing in grandeur. The gorge at first was savage and sombre, shut in closely by the steep mountain-sides. Soon the first support of the Great Wall appeared in a chain of walls, with battlements and towers, built over the principal mountain-chain, and as far as the eye could reach following all the peaks. The effect of this wall is most striking. Like some enormous serpent it stretches away in the distance, climbing rocks which appear impracticable, and which would be so without its aid. The count was convinced that it would be as difficult to climb it for the purpose of defending it as it would be to do so in order to attack it. This first support of the wall is in itself a giant work.

As the party advanced in the valley, in the far distance the crenelated outlines of two other similar and parallel walls appeared, situated also upon the crests. The Great Wall was built about 200 B.C. as a barrier against the Tartar cavalry. It is said to have been built in twenty-two years. It was everywhere constructed of the materials at hand. On the plains it was built of a core of earth, pounded, and faced with tiles, the top being also covered with tiles and furnished with a parapet. On the mountains of stratified rock the facing was made of masonry, and the core of earth and cobble-stones. Where the rock is such as fractures irregularly, the wall is of solid masonry, tapering to the top, which is sharp. Throughout its whole length it is defended by towers occurring every few hundred feet. Every mountain-pass and weak point was defended by a fortified tower. At present the wall is in various conditions of preservation, according to the materials used in its construction. In the valleys, which were the points to defend, it has gradually crumbled to a mere heap of rubbish, which the plough year by year still further scatters.

The Great Wall is, however, a wonderful monument of the labor and organization of the Chinese nation two thousand years ago. The illustration is from a photograph taken on the spot by one of the party. In order to take a view which should be most effective the camera was placed upon the wall itself.

On their return to Pekin the party visited the ruins of the famous Summer Palace, Yuen-Ming-Yuen. The avenues were formerly adorned with porticoes, monuments and kiosques, which are now masses of ruins. Only two enormous bronze lions, the largest castings ever made in China, remain, and these simply because the allies could not carry them away. To have attempted it would have required the building of a dozen bridges over the streams between here and Tien-Tsin. The chapel of the Summer Palace escaped destruction only from the fact that it was situated upon a rock so high that the flames did not reach it. Looking at the confused ruins which are all that remain of this wonderful collection of the most admirable products of fifteen ages of civilization, of art and of industry, the count de Beauvoir says truly that no honest man can help shuddering involuntarily. Though his sentiment of national loyalty is very strong, yet he cannot avoid exclaiming, "Let us leave this place: let us run from this spot, where the soil burns us, the very view of which humbles us. We came to China as the armed champions of civilization and of a religion of mercy, but the Chinese are right, a thousand times right, in calling us barbarians."