Rare Book Review:
Is the Past another Country?
By Nirupama Menon Rao
Former Foreign Secretary, Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India and Former Ambassador to China
Published on May 3, 2021
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Our previous posts have talked of India in the European eye, and now, this account will present aspects of Chinese life drawn and depicted in a set of four volumes called â€œChina Illustratedâ€from 1843 that speak of the scenery, the architecture and social habits of â€œThat Ancient Empireâ€, drawn â€œFrom Original and Authentic Sketches by Thomas Allom, Esq.â€ and supplemented with â€œHistorical and Descriptive Notices by the Rev. G.N. Wright, M.A.â€ The cover of each of these volumes is a production in itself. (See picture)
Giving a full account of all that is contained in these four volumes is of course a tall order but let me dwell on a few aspects that interest me from my own study of China over nearly four decades. Let us start with the West Lake in Hangzhou on the eastern coast of that country, called Lake See-Hoo in this account from 1843.
The â€œfascinating scenery of these elysian regionsâ€, the writer gushes - the picture of the lake that we see above is chinoiserie transposed onto the picturesque - an occidental view of a Chinese scene that would find a favored place in an English sitting room. As a pandemic rages around us, this view of the West Lake seems oddly calming, offering a view of a world imagined in happier, safer times, life as it could have been. So let your mind wander in this description of how like the â€œLatina of Venice, the face of these waters is crowded day and night with pleasure-boats of every gradeâ€. The banks â€œare decked all round with flowering water-lilies, the purple poppy enriches the lowest margin of the land, beyond which rise in gradual dignity the camphor, the tallow-tree, and the arbor-vitae.â€ It is a â€œfairy lakeâ€.
But as the pandemic reminds us, in the midst of life, we are in death. The sad â€œVale of Tombsâ€ is in the vicinity of the Lake. The Chinese, described as â€œrude in custom and habitsâ€ are nonetheless â€œtoo refined and sentimental in the reverence they pay the deadâ€ and overlooking the lake are monuments, tombs and â€œfantastic sepulchral honoursâ€, â€œmelancholy resting places of many generationsâ€. Cypresses and weeping willows overlook these tombs and often at night, torches are perceived in the area, borne by visitors to the graves of friends, relations and parents. In the seasons of the spring and autumn, the graves are swept â€œand garnished with tinsel-paper, slips of silk, flowers and various other ornamentsâ€.
And overlooking it all is the fantastic â€œTemple of the Thundering Windsâ€, a â€œstructure of great antiquityâ€, with foundations dating back to the era of Confucius. It is perched on the hill seen to the right of the picture of Lake â€œSee Hooâ€ above.
The West Lake has inspired several Chinese poets. Here is what a eleventh century mandarin Su Shi, writing poetry like several of his tribe, had to say:
â€The shimmer of light on the water is the play of sunny skies
The blur of colour across the hills is richer still in rain.
If you wish to compare the lake in the West to the Lady of the West,
Lightly powdered or thickly smeared the fancy is just as apt.â€
And thence on to the preparation of tea, such an ubiquitous feature of Chinese and Indian life. But before we do that, a question to our reader. Did you know that â€˜Potalaâ€™ - as in the Potala in Lhasa, Tibet - or â€˜Poo-talaâ€™ as our book terms it - is apparently â€œa corruption of Budhalaya, the habitation of Budahâ€? There is a chapter devoted to the â€œTemple of Poo-Ta-La at Zhe Hol in Tartaryâ€ (see picture) and the magnificence of this structure. Tartary for the European adventurers and mercenaries of the eighteenth century and before was an amorphous region on the Eurasian landmass, astride the Caucasus and Central Asia. The temple in question is the Putuo Zongcheng Temple in Chengde, Hebei Province, China, modeled on the Potala in Lhasa.
Yes, tea. This infusion, it is observed, is supposed to â€œhave been first employed by the Chinese as a preventive of leprosyâ€. Be that as it may, â€œits effects on the human system are those of a very mild narcotic and sedative; and like those of any similar medicine taken in small quantities, exhilarating.â€ Green tea possesses these elements in greater proportion than black tea it seems. â€œStill, of all narcotics, tea is the least pernicious, if indeed it be so in any degree.â€ Around the same time as the writing of this book, the tea-plant was discovered growing wild in Assam, â€œin the natural jungle which covers a large portion of the country, and beneath the shade of which it grows luxuriantlyâ€ . Thereafter the â€œculture of tea was spiritedly commencedâ€ with the aid of Chinese cultivators with the confidence that it would ultimately be able to â€œcompete with the large black-leafed tea, called in England, bohea, and in China ta-cha or large teaâ€.
Some interesting insights about the Chinese character are provided, whether true or false. It concerns the subject of food. This is what our book says: â€œIn China, the voracity of the people obtrudes itself continually; every object of industry or occupation seems to have such a tendency to the appeasing of appetiteâ€. Talking of the rich among the Chinese, it says that they are â€œdecided epicuresâ€ while the middle and lower classes are â€œdecided sensualistsâ€. They are â€œthe most omnivorous people in the world, there is not an animal or plant that can be procured by art and industry, and eaten without risk of life, that is not pressed into the service by these gastronomers: the flesh of wild horses is highly prized, the larvae of the sphinx-moth, bearsâ€™ paws, and the feet of other animals brought from Tartary, Cambodia and Siam, are deemed delicious; and edible birdsâ€™-nests are esteemed at the banquets of the mandarins, for which they are occasionally made into a soup.â€ Salesman in the meat market, enter it â€œhaving baskets suspended at the extremities of a carrying-pole, in which are contained dogs, cats, rats, or birds either tame or wild, generally alive - sea-slugs, and grubs found in the sugar-caneâ€. The tradition has carried on into modern China, it would seem. The controversial â€˜wet marketsâ€™ come to mind.
Now let us consider the houses of the Chinese, this one a house of a Chinese merchant, near the city of Canton or Guangzhou. A Chinese villa (see picture) is described as an assemblage of buildings, instead of one great mansion, that displays a â€œfruitful imagination and an exhaustless fancyâ€. The Chinese roof is that part of the building upon which the architect â€œexpends his best abilitiesâ€. It is adorned with scroll-work and gilded dragons. The other feature of this dwelling is an artificial lake on the grounds, its banks adorned with rock-work and pleasure-grounds, as if â€œfitted for wood-nymphsâ€, altogether conveying a sense of freedom and â€œunbounded playfulness so conspicuous in all their edicts or any cost or extentâ€.
The Chinese, we know, are obsessed with ceremony. The more you rise in social echelons, the level of ceremony increases with it. The Chinese have swagger. So let us take a look at â€œA Mandarin paying a Visit of Ceremonyâ€ from our book. The â€œdistance between the man in authority, and the subject whose duty is to obey, is so jealously observed in this ancient and populous kingdom, no opportunity is left unimproved of extending the gulf of separation.â€ The mandarin travels ceremoniously in a palanquin or sedan chair, and before it a â€œcrowd of servants advanceâ€, beating gongs, and others â€œextolling in loud tones the virtues of their master, and calling upon the worthless rabble to make wayâ€, terrifying the â€œignorant and enslaved spectators who are peremptorily desired to stand and stareâ€. No public ceremony of joy or sorrow in China, our author says, is complete without the introduction of the bamboo, the â€œnational caneâ€ which is used by the â€œfellows in the pay of the great manâ€ who â€œattend his progressâ€ and who are armed with bamboo canes to â€œbelabor any unhappy obstructions who endeavor to obtain a peep at the petty mandarinâ€. The vanities of officialdom in full display!
We are all familiar with the Great Wall of China, but one of the wonders of old China was the Porcelain Pagoda or Tower in the city of Nanking, now Nanjing, described by the early European travelers as the â€œbest constructed and noblest building of all the Eastâ€. A Buddhist place of worship, it was also called the â€œTemple of Gratitudeâ€, and was built in the fifteenth century, in the reign of the Yongle emperor of the Ming dynasty, and is considered by the Chinese as â€œonly second in importance and miraculous character to the Great Wallâ€. It is described as a â€œdelicate and gorgeous templeâ€ cased on the exterior and interior with porcelain of various colors and shades, that had withstood the â€œviolence of timeâ€ until struck by lightning in the the early 1800â€™s. It was thereafter repaired but then attacked by a â€œparty of English seamenâ€ with pickaxes and hammers who tried to deface its walls and â€œremove the curiositiesâ€. Unfortunately, the pagoda was destroyed during the Taiping Rebellion in 1856, after this account of the temple appeared in our book. It has been rebuilt but its present reincarnation is entirely bereft of the splendor of the original. The Porcelain Pagoda was a legend in its time. We all remember the Hans Christian Andersen story â€œThe Garden of Paradiseâ€ where the East Wind flew home from China to tell his mother , TheWind: â€œI came back from China, where I danced for a while around the To