« PrécédentContinuer »
WHEN poets lay the scene of their fictions among their own countrymen, they are generally the best possible authorities on the subject of customs and manners. For in their descriptions, particulars which might appear misplaced in history, or any grave work, may be given with very good effect; because, while they communicate an air of truth to the narrative, as if the writer wished to be correct in the minutest trifle, they further serve to stamp upon it the character of an authentic picture of national habits and peculiarities. On this account we always regard Homer's poems in the light of history, so far as relates to manners, and believe that in them is to be found a faithful record of what men did and thought, both in public and in private, during the heroic ages of Greece. Other poets contrive also, by observation and art, to be considered the representatives, as it were, of other systems of manners, and thus secure immortality to their names; for whoever gives the best picture of any thing worth. representing, may rely on the good sense of mankind for its preservation.
However, the poet who describes obsolete or foreign manners is sure to be inferior in popularity to him who gives us pictures of ourselves, for how great soever may be the curiosity of mankind, their self-love is still greater. They seek knowledge with much less ardour than pleasure; labour they abhor; to understand the allusions of an antient or foreign writer, to enter into his feelings, to enjoy his beauties, some labour is necessary; nothing more needs be said to account for the very limited circulation of antient or foreign books. Doubtless it is of much more importance that we should thoroughly understand, and properly value, the notions and modes now prevailing in London, than those which flourished formerly at Memphis or Babylon, or are at present in vogue at Ispahan or Pekin. The former affect our interest, the latter do not. Nevertheless, the true cause of the slight attention we afford to authors, whether of prose or verse, whose works relate to manners and customs entirely different from our own, may, after all, be very honourable to human nature; for as they speak of things with which we have little or no acquaintance, the mind feels that it has no proper standard by which to estimate the correctness or incorrectness of their pictures, and therefore does not choose to preside as judge in an affair where the advocates plead in an unknown tongue.
The case is different where the passions are concerned. Time and place have no effect upon them. They are not subject to change. The Egyptian who now figures as a mummy in Mrs. Belzoni's exhibition in Leicester-square, three thousand years ago felt anger or pleasure, sorrow or love, on the banks of the Nile, precisely as we now do
1 Chinese Courtship, in Verse. To which is added, an Appendix, treating of the Revenue of China, &c. By Peter Perring Thoms. 8vo. London; Macao, China. 1824.
Oriental Herald, Vol. 9.
on those of the Thames. He walked about bare-headed, and wore a loose robe; we wear hats and breeches-that's all the difference. Fontenelle says the French people of his day were extremely surprised to find that the Siamese ambassador and his suite, then at Paris, were possessed of common sense. Had they struck his Excellency on the face, and received a good round blow in return, they would have felt no astonishment. We never expect to find men without passions.
The Chinese Poem of which we are now about to speak, is a tale, in which the loves and misfortunes of three or four very interesting persons are related. We say of three or four, because the hero has two mistresses, and a slight hankering after one if not two of their maids, not amounting precisely to love, perhaps, but of a kindred nature. Being a kind of metrical novel, the work by no means disdains to enter into the most familiar details, relating, for example, how the ladies rouge, scold their maids, chat in their bed-rooms, or sip their tea. When the hero travels, we likewise hear of his "luggage"; when he visits, of his dinners and his potations; in short, except that there is no ribaldry or wit,Chinese Courtship' may be said to have some likeness to Don Juan.' It places us on very familiar terms with the Mandarins and their wives; and, by describing the offices and occupations, the friendships and social intercourse, of the persons whose story is related, conveys a clearer notion of what Chinese society really is, than all the descriptions we have ever seen of the Celestial Empire. In fact, the author seems to have considered the exact imitation of human life, its humble no less than its exalted parts, as the only proper aim of poetry; and he has scrupulously abided by his theory, for nothing in the world can be more un-exaggerated and natural than his pictures.
The story is plain and simple; but as it may serve to show what sort of invention chiefly prevails in the extremity of Asia, we shall as briefly as possible, give a sketch of it. Leang, a youthful student of the province of Soo-chew-foo, who, before his eighteenth year, has been enrolled among the literati, begins, about that period, to feel the solitude of his study grow irksome. He grudges to bestow the whole of life's spring upon his books; and, finding the current of his imagination strongly tinged with the hues of love, he meditates an emigration into the province of Chang-chow, "which," says he, "I have heard has long been famed for lovely women, who, with a soft pale countenance, strive to excel each other in rich attire."
Alas! what boots it with incessant care
strictly meditate the thankless muse?
But let us be just to our student; he does not think solely of the ladies of Chang-chow, but states, as an additional motive, that it was likewise famous for its schools, in which he hopes to meet a studious
companion. His father being absent, he obtains his mother's permission to make the journey, and, setting out next morning, arrives, without meeting with any adventure, at the house of his aunt Heaou, in the city of Soo-chow. As it happens to be her birth-day, Leang is commissioned by his mother to be the bearer of several little presents suited to the occasion, and these on his arrival he delivers, and is received with very cordial welcome. As the anniversary of the natal day is a season of much festivity in China, Leang finds other branches of the family assembled, and among the rest his cousin Yaou-seen. The reader must not imagine, however, that he meets this young lady at the tea-table, or in the dining-room; they manage these things otherwise in China. He knows nothing of her being in the house until very late in the evening, when, tempted by the bright moonlight, and the scents of innumerable flowers, he quits his chamber, and strolls out into the garden. The passage in which Leang's apartment and the scene that drew him into the garden are described, is well worth copying, as it conveys a striking idea of Chinese domestic economy:
Young Leang now saw that the book-stands were filled with books, row after row; and perceived that the flowers in every direction sent forth their fragrance. On the table lay the pearly dulcimer, with its silver strings, and in the brazen vase was lit a stick of famed incense. The silver sang and pearly flute hung against the wall, and in the corner was placed a double set of dice, with the chess-board. On each side of the room were suspended antient drawings and elegant stanzas; and the newly-blown flowers were arranged in a line. As he approached the window he beheld a beautiful prospect, and also perceived a railed path that led to the white-lily pond. On entering the garden, about to cross the red bridge at the head of the pond, he perceived in the water a ripple agitating the reflection of the bright moon. On each side of its banks danced the drooping willow, while in the shade lay the boat for gathering the fruit of the water-lily.2 The sportive fish caused the ripple on the water to sparkle, while the reflection of the clouds in the pond appeared a vast void.
During this stroll it is that Leang is smitten with love; for, having wandered about for some time among the flowers, he at length draws near a cool summer-house, and sees two ladies playing at chess by the light of a silver lamp. With the elder of these, a delicate and slender beauty with extremely small feet, he becomes deeply enamoured, and in spite of all decorum walks into the summer-house to feast his eyes upon her charms. Of course the ladies instantly retire. And now the spell begins to work; Leang, inflamed with passion, and bereft in great measure of reason, remains rapt in the summer-house; and one of Yaou-seen's maids coming, by order of her mistress, to remove the chess-board, he makes her the bearer of his love to the fair.
In the provinces of Fo-kien and Canton, the water-lily is cultivated very generally; its root is a common article for the table, and the seeds are very much esteemed. At Canton, there are ponds, or land inundated, for rearing them, several acres in extent; hence the poetical allusion of a boat for gathering the flowers. The white flowers, by the Chinese, are preferred to the red.
Oriental lovers are not so averse to the confessional as the amorous youth of both sexes in Europe generally are; so, the next morning, Leang discloses the state of his heart to his aunt, who, good woman! engages to exert all her influence in furtherance of his desires. For the present she advises him to steep his feelings in wine, a remedy to which the Chinese, both men and women, appear to be particularly partial. In a day or two, and before Leang is allowed any further opportunity of communicating his affections, the fair Yaou-sëen returns to her father's house, leaving her lover in the greatest perplexity, His poetical studies,
Now all neglected, all forgot!
give place to the more interesting study of how to obtain an interview with the "light of his soul;" and he is not an ace less frantic than the renowned Knight of the Rueful Countenance, when intent on performing penance in the Brown Mountain. Totally engrossed by the pursuit of beauty, he no longer considers it a noble task to pluck the Olea Fragrans from the palace of the Moon! Impressed with these feelings, he can no longer remain at the dwelling of his aunt, but, following the steps of Yaou-seen, arrives, quickly after her return, at her father's door. Being there, however, he can discover no means of having a letter conveyed to the "silken apartments"; and, in default of more expeditious means of fulfilling his design, purchases the adjoining house, which very fortunately happens to be vacant. Entrenched within his new dwelling, he meditates at leisure the best methods of proceeding, and, after much deliberation, determines to regulate his conduct by that truly Chinese maxim, "slow and sure." He procures artists and artisans, fits up and furnishes his mansion magnificently, purchases a noble library, lays out his garden with infinite taste, &c.; and having by these means excited the curiosity of his neighbours, introduces himself to Yaou-seen's father. The old gentleman, who, be it remembered, is Leang's uncle, receives the youth with great civility, and invites him, and his cousin Heaou, who accompanies him, to dinner. While the servants prepare the repast, General Yang (that is the gentleman's name) takes the youths into his grounds, and entering, in their rambles, a summer-house on the edge of a lake, they find a sweet little ode pasted up on the wall. The subject is no more than a drooping willow, planted in the middle of the lake. General Yang informs the young gentlemen that the verses were produced by his daughter, and, by way of compliment, requests Leang to celebrate his garden in an extempore ode. The lover, after some hesitation, complies, and his piece, in which he slyly alludes to Yaou-seen's cruelty, is pasted up by the side of the young lady's. Next morning, soon after dawn, (for ladies rise early in China,) the beautiful poetess, accompanied by her maids, repairs to the fragrant summer-house, to watch the progress of the morning among the clouds, and is very much surprised to find an answer to her ode on the wall,
8 That is, to acquire fame; which we express in Europe by saying, such a one is intent" to win the boys."
and still more on perceiving it to be signed with the name of Leang. Upon this it is remarked by one of her maids, that undoubtedly heaven had decreed her union with the young student; and though Yaou-seen, through maiden delicacy, affects to feel angry at the thought, the reader soon begins to perceive that Leang has not been "gnawing a file." The intercourse between the lover and his mistress's family being now firmly established, the old General begins to conceive that a young man of so much wit and refinement might make a good son-in-law; but he cannot prevail upon himself to break the ice. They meet, therefore, with the same proposition on the top of each of their tongues, but some accursed notions, on one side of modesty, on the other of decorum, prevent their explaining themselves. How frequently are the whole schemes of life blasted by feelings of this kind! One won't begin-neither will the other; people meet, with large intentions in their souls, and would give the world to be delivered of them; but words, always so ready when they can be of little use, refuse to come; they cannot look their thoughts-would to God they could!-so they stammer out incoherent remarks on things they are not thinking about, and, feeling the extreme agony of their situation, retreat with mutual eagerness from the embarrassment of each other's faces.
But to go on with our tale. Not being able to communicate his wishes, General Yang invites the young student to have a door opened between their gardens, that each may enjoy, at will, the pleasure of sauntering through both Of course this proposal does not require two words. Leang has the door suspended before the next morning, "lest," as the poet expresses it," the old gentleman should change his mind." The next day, he meets one of Yaou-seen's maids "among the flowers," and does not, of course, neglect to breathe, through her ministry, his amorous sighs into his mistress's ear. On this occasion, Yaou-seen herself owns her love to the confidante, but in a manner the most delicate: "None but you and I," said she, "may be acquainted with this affair. While in the retired apartments we are as elder and younger sisters; of all the servants, there is none that attends so frequently on my person. When I heard you unravel the thread of his wounded heart, you sowed the seeds of love, and caused him to be pitied." A passage of no inconsiderable beauty occurs in this part of the poem, of which we shall extract a few portions; it is where Yaou-seen and her inseparable maids are introduced gazing at the autumnal moon, and moralizing like philosophers:
It being the commencement of autumn, and the moon shining bright, she ordered Yun-heang to roll up the painted screen. In company with her servant, she went on the terrace to gaze at the moon, for its globular reflection in the water was beautiful to behold. As breeze after breeze of the pure wind entered the silken doors, the shadow of the flowers appeared to dance on the wall. . . . The flowers, from season to season, continue to bloom and fade, so the bright moon, in the course of the year, repeatedly arrives at her full. . . . Some time has elapsed since I planted a row of silken willows; though small, they were then green, and reached to the top of my