By Frank G. Carpenter.
Probably no city in the world possesses a greater interest for the American and European, than Peking, the northern capital of the Chinese Empire, from which are sent out the edicts governing nearly four hundred millions of yellow-faced human beings. From it is governed a territory equal to about One-tenth of the earth's surface. Its citizens consider it the center of the world, and there are few who do not imagine that all the nations of the globe are tributary to it.
The avenue along which the foreign legations are located is said to be designated by them as the "street of the subject nations," and the ministers from London, Paris, Berlin and St. Petersburgh, who reside there, are popularly supposed to be present in Peking for the purpose of acknowledging the greatness of their Emperor to whom their respective governments pay tribute. They rank with the yellow-robed Lamas, the big-hatted Yang-Ban from Korea, and thick-lipped officials from Siam, who bear presents occasionally to Peking.
The foreign powers, during the reign of the last boy Emperor, whose death by small-pox elevated the present youth to the throne, demanded an audience with the Emperor, and insisted that they should approach him in accordance with the etiquette of Western civilization. At that time, no one, however mighty, dare approach him except on all-fours, or rather all-fives, for the head of the Chinaman strikes the ground in the performance of the kotow in the imperial presence. This audience has not been repeated because the ruler of China subsequently and for a long period was a woman. The Empress-Regent received no one in her royal presence except such of her own people as had already been presented at Court, and they were interviewed by her from behind a screen of gauze, the foreign ambassadors having waived their right to be present at Court, out of deference for the female sex. This, however, was in the past. Last spring the young Emperor ascended the throne, and the Empress-Dowager is still to aid him with her advice; and admittance to the Court, it is said, will again be demanded by the representatives of the great powers.
It is impossible for anyone who has not visited Peking, to appreciate the awe with which the imperial person is surrounded. He is greeted on earth as "The Son of Heaven," and when he dies is said to be "The Guest of Heaven." One of his titles is, "The Sire of Ten Thousand Years." Reverence for the Emperor is shown among all classes of Chinese. The highest officials reverence him as both high-priest and king, and even Li Hung Chang, who is one of the Emperor's tutors and one of the greatest scholars of Asia, the premier and guardian of the Chinese throne, must go down on his knees and kotow when he enters the royal presence. In a memorial which this great man (whom Gen. Grant called "the Bismarck of China") recently sent to the throne on the subject of railroads, the statement opens by calling himself "the humblest slave of the Emperor," and used the expression that" he is on bended knees, looking reverently upward while he addresses the throne."
Peking is located toward the northern boundary of China, and so is in a great measure isolated from the rest of the country. It is reached by the steamer to the Taku Ports from Shanghai and the southern ports and up the Peiho River to TienTsin, thence by cart or by boat, dragged by coolies, up the Peiho to Tung-Chow. The completion of the railroad from Tien-Tsin changes all this. It has only been constructed through the persistent efforts of some of the really great minds of the Empire, notably Li Hung Chang, assisted and advised by an Englishman, Sir Robert Hart, who for thirty years, holding the post of Inspector-General of Maritime Customs, has been the chief counselor and reliance of the Emperor's government in all important affairs. A man of clear head and wonderful powers of concentration, he has advised the Chinese always for the best, and at the same time thoroughly maintained his dignity and exacted the highest esteem from the ministers of foreign countries resident in Peking.
Foreign merchants are not allowed to do business in Peking. During my visit, I received a notice from the American minister not to appear on certain streets between certain hours on the morning of a certain day, as during those hours the Emperor would go to worship at a certain temple. I passed through the streets on the day before. Matting was hung up in front of all the houses, and the roadway was filled with an army of coolies, pushing barrows filled with yellow clay through the streets, and sprinkling it over the streets and over themselves. When this procession passes through the streets, no one is allowed to look out.
In the center of Peking proper, there is a great walled enclosure nearly a mile square, within which is the Emperor's Palace, whose gates are never entered except by those attached to the Imperial household, or by great officials having business with the Emperor. The walls which surround this enclosure, as well as that which surrounds the city itself, are from fifty to sixty feet in height, and are pierced by gateways, from which towers rise, gallery upon gallery, to the height sometimes of one hundred feet.
The wall of the Tartar city is sixteen miles in length, while that of the Chinese city, which adjoins, is probably twelve or thirteen miles more. These walls are not only very high, but so broad that twenty horsemen can ride easily abreast upon them. To give an idea of the immense mass of material used in the construction of these walls, one may estimate that the height equals that of an ordinary three story house. The wall is topped with a flag pavement as smooth as that in front of the White House in Washington, and laid upon a foundation of concrete which is held between side-walls of great burnt bricks, the whole being as hard, after centuries, as if it were mixed with Portland cement. Grass grows through this unused pavement, and in some of the towers great trees have sprouted upward and forced their way through the crevices.
The common people of Peking are not permitted upon these walls, but foreigners may walk around them, and from them may be obtained the best idea of this great capital. Standing at the busy gate which separates the Chinese city on the south from the great Tartar city on the north, you see this great metropolis spread out below you. It looks more like a great military camp than a city, and it is hard to imagine that it contains nearly two million people within its blue brick walls. The spires of no churches point their fingers toward heaven. No life insurance palaces nor fourteen-story tenement houses lift their heads over humbler neighbors of brick and mortar. All is a wilderness of small trees, cut here and there by wide streets filled with curious masses, ant-like in the distance, and with the low-ridged, heavy-tiled roofs of one-story buildings, which come hardly above the smallest trees.
Standing at this gate and turning your head to the north, you see inside of this walled Tartar city another walled space, the sides of which are about two miles long, and the tops of whose walls are as of bright yellow. They glisten like burnished gold under the bright rays of the sun of North China. This is the Imperial city, and there is within it another walled space, the sides of which are covered with the same yellow tile, including a section of five acres, and constituting the home of the Emperor himself. These royal palaces are not the grand structures of Windsor or Versailles. Your barbarous eyes are not permitted to examine them closely, but, standing here upon this wall, you see them rising out of the trees, perhaps three hundred yards away. There are said to be two hundred of them, and their heavy roofs of porcelain “old-gold" tiles dazzle your eyes as you look. There is the Hall of “Highest Peace," on a terrace of white marble, which rises one hundred and ten feet from the ground, measured, however, from the walls only by the eye. It is two hundred feet long by ninety feet broad, and it has a throne in its midst where the Emperor holds his great levees on his birthdays and at New Year, and where the princes and the highest nobles fall down upon their knees before him. There is the Hall of "Central Peace," with that circular yellow roof, where this son of heaven examines the written prayers which are to be offered, and puts his royal O.K. on them. There is the Hall of "Intense Thought," where sacrifices are presented to Confucius, and the Hall of the "Literary Abyss," which contains the royal library of books and scrolls upon whose pages almond eyes alone can look. There, farther over, is the Hall of "Secure Peace," and there beyond it is -whisper it low - the Palace of "Earth's Repose," where the pretty, fifteen-year-old Manchu maiden, the virtuous Tet-ho-na-la, who has been chosen as heaven's consort, rules the royal palace, and dispenses justice and order to the secondary wives and the numerous slaves under the eyes of a goodly number of the three thousand eunuchs who act as the servants of this little city of palaces.
All of the servants of the king are eunuchs, and these dull-eyed, shrill-voiced men are among the most powerful officials of China. They have their fixed grades and their regular salaries, and the favorite eunuchs of the Imperial ladies are supposed to manipulate the Emperor through his love for their mistresses. The ladies of the palace are the flower of the Tartar nobility. The daughters of the Manchu officers do not bind their feet, and "the Golden Lilies," the title by which the Chinese poets go into ecstasies over this mark of beauty of their favorite women, is here unknown. The Emperor of China is a Manchu, and he belongs to the Tartar dynasty, which with its soldiers took possession of China between two and three hundred years ago, and the descendants of which make up a large part of the governing class in China to-day. It is against the law for the Manchus to intermarry with the Chinese, and the Emperor has his pick of the daughters of the Manchu officers as his wives. The selection of his wife was made by having the daughters of the Tartar nobility come to the palace. The Empress-Dowager, during my stay in Peking last November, assisted at this selection; and the wedding, which has not taken place at this writing, will cost, it is said, more than ten millions of dollars.
One can almost see the flower-gardens of the palace from the wall, and the Emperor's miniature lake, about a mile long and three hundred yards wide, glistens among them. There is a little steam-launch upon this, in which His Majesty and the Empress occasionally ride, and the royal pair are by this time enjoying a train of miniature railroad cars, presented to them by the French syndicate of capitalists who wish to get contracts for building railways.
In China, they will wonder at its steam engine; and the six thousand electric lights which are now being introduced into this holiest of Chinese sanctuaries, cannot but turn their eyes to our civilization.
The wedge of Western invention is slowly but surely prying apart the almost impenetrable structure of these palaces of heaven; and should the youth who is now known by the Chinese people as the Son of Heaven develop such a progressive nature as exists in the Viceroy, Li Hung Chang, or the late Chinese minister to England, the Marquis Tseng, this great empire may be opened to modern civilization, and the stolid nature of the. Chinese people may begin to undergo a like wondrous transformation to that now seen in Japan.
It is high time, for the sake of the city and for the people of China, that it did so. Peking is a capital in decay.
The streets which lead to the entrance gate of the prohibited city itself are unpaved, full of mud holes, and lined on both sides with tawdry, dingy one-story buildings. The palaces which I have described, beautiful in the distance, are, I am told, on close inspection, ragged, dirty, and faded. The statistics state that there are twenty thousand imperial roads in China, and these roads are represented fairly by those of the Chinese capital. They are worse than the open field and like the streets of Peking during the wet days of the summer. The travelers along them are sometimes drowned in the mud. Peking is the representative city of China. Decayed buildings and no public improvements go hand in hand with official corruption, as they do the empire over. The mandarin in silks pushes the beggar in sackcloth into the mire, and apparent wealth ever tramps upon the heels of starvation and misery. No one has seen China a vast area, embracing twenty-eight square miles. It is one of the old cities of China, and it was in existence two hundred years before Christ. It became the capital of the Chinese empire under Kublai Kahn in 1264; but the succeeding dynasty removed the capital to Nanking, and it was not until the fifteenth century that it again became the residence of the Son of Heaven.
The Peking streets are crowded, and the carts jostle against foot passengers, and men and women of all ages riding astride of donkeys, ponies, and camels. Each picks the best footing he can and tries to push the others into the mud. Mixed with them all is the Chinese wheelbarrow, which will carry tons, and which is the dray of Peking. It is pushed and pulled by half-naked coolies, who have their black cues tied in a coil around their heads and who perspire profusely as they work. The people on foot are of all classes, and the strange contradictions of our two civilizations are seen. The mourner dressed in white walks along with the bridal party dressed in red. The women wear pantaloons, and the richer of the men are clad in long silk skirts. The whole makes you think of a great fair, and you wonder where the people come from. The sides of the wide streets are lined with the sheds of itinerant venders. Here is an auctioneer selling sheepskin coats, and he screams out at the top of his voice the qualities of each rag as he holds it up. Here is a wayside cook shop, its dozens of customers eating rice with chop-sticks, and its half-naked owner sweating before the fire. His cash box is a hollow bamboo tube which stands beside his counter, so deep that the arm of the sneak thief cannot reach to the bottom. Next him is a story-teller with a crowd of admiring auditors, and here is a fish man who sells his stock alive to his customers.
How curious it all looks! this cosmopolitan mass of North China. These tall, straight, high-cheek-boned, almond-eyed people are different from the coolies who emigrate to America. We get only the scum of South China, and we have few such bright, intellectual faces among our Mongolians as we find here. How gorgeously the mandarins dress, and how ragged and naked the beggars are!
The Mongols interest the traveler. They come from beyond the great wall of China and they go through the city on camels. Whole families ride these wooly ships of the Siberian desert, picking their way through the city in single file. What big beasts they are, and how ugly! They are not like the camel of Arabia and Egypt; they have two great humps, their eyes are ill-favored, and their lower lips hang down in disgust; they are covered with long wool of a dirty tan color, and this hangs down in a great fringe from the front of their necks. These beasts are found in Peking by the thousands. They bring loads of furs and coal for the Chinese markets from the wilds of Mongolia, and they carry back great chests of brick tea which is to be mixed with mare's milk and to be eaten as soup by the Tartars. Their riders are clad in sheepskins, they are bronzed and fierce-eyed, and they speak a tongue far different from that of the Chinese.
One of the finest bridges of Peking is made of marble and was originally a work of art. It is just on the inside of the Chinese city and next the gate which leads into the Tartar city; it is known as Beggar's Bridge, and upon it may be found the choicest species of the Chinese variety. Dirty, lean, and ragged, these beggars are importunate in their demands. They will run after your donkey for miles. They get down on the ground and knock their heads against, a stone, and they sometimes cut themselves with knives to excite your compassion.
The business part of Peking is the Chinese city, but this is not different from other great towns of the empire. The Tartar city is the capital proper and you will find many fine stores here. These stores have fronts gorgeous with painting and gilding; they are often from fifteen to twenty feet front, though I have seen some whose frontage was not more than six feet. Their signs are upright boards gaudily painted with the characters in gold upon a red ground, running from the top of the sign to the bottom. These signs are driven into the ground or fastened into stone bases, and they reach as high and higher than the roofs of the shops. The store-keeper with his hat on his head stands, behind the counter with his goods around him, and he prides himself upon his long finger-nails which show his exemption from manual labor.
These stores are of as many classes as are those of a European city, and shops selling similar goods congregate together. There are snuff shops, tobacco stores and incense stores without number, and I visited places where the whole stock was sacrificial paper. The markets of Peking are fine. The killing of sheep is done on the street in front of the butcher shops, and many a customer picks out his leg of mutton while the sheep still walks, and has it cut off after the animal has been killed, before his eyes. Peking is a great game market, and the Chinese of North China eat as large a variety of good food as you will find in any of the markets of Europe or America.
This wall has several gates which are locked and barred, but the heathen dollar will take the foreign barbarian past them, and it is possible to ascend to the very top of this Chinese sacrificial place.
Nearby is the altar of "prayer for grain," and this is the pagoda-like building which one sees from the wall and which is generally known as the Temple of Heaven. It rises with three circular roofs from a marble platform, and the brass ball which crowns it is about one third the height of the Washington Monument from the ground. The roof is of blue tile, and its windows are shaded with venetian blinds of blue glass rods. This is one of the finest buildings in China, and it is here that the Emperor comes in February to Supplicate Heaven for a propitious year, and it is not far from here that he performs the ceremony of spring plowing, holding the handles of the plow with his sacred fingers and starting the work for the nation.
Scattered about Peking there are other temples, and the capital bears evidence everywhere of its holy character. All religions are represented. There is a Mohammedan mosque where the Chinese followers of the Arabian prophet worship. There is a great temple filled with Lamas from Thibet, in which is adored one of two living Buddhas of the world. There are fifteen hundred priests who study the dogmas of Buddhism in this temple, and they chant their prayers within a stone's throw of the cypress shaded temple of Confucius, and not far from the chapels of the Christian missionaries and of the great observatory founded by the Jesuits.
This observatory was erected in the thirteenth century, and it is mentioned by Marco Polo. It is on the top of the wall of the Tartar City, and it has a bronze globe of, I should say, about fifteen feet in diameter, as carefully made as though the artists of Italy, in the days of Ghiberti, had aided the astronomers in its construction. One of the astronomical instruments is upheld by gorgeous bronze dragons of mammoth size and of exquisite workmanship. I feed the keeper of these instruments in order to see them, and a crowd of dirty ragged Chinese followed me as I went from one to the other, examining their beauties, and noting the neglect with which they were treated. The houses about them are going to ruin, and they themselves would long since have crumbled to dust had they not been made of imperishable bronze.
Near this observatory are the great examination halls. You look down upon them as you stand beside this big bronze globe. An open field of many acres, filled with stone pens or cells, they look more like one of the Chicago cattle yards than the scene of a literary contest. They have accommodations for sixteen thousand students, and in them every three years the most noted scholars of the Empire come to write their essays and to test their knowledge of Chinese science and the Chinese classics in preparation
For the official position which they will secure if they are so fortunate as to pass; the chances of success are, however, less than in the colleges of America or in the great Universities of Europe, and out of the six thousand students there are seldom more than two hundred graduates. These students have been tried by examinations at their native town, and again at the capitals of their provinces, and it is only the picked men of China who come here. They are of all ages – from sixteen to sixty, and at the last examination one of the pupils had reached fourscore years. Sons and fathers, grandsons and grandfathers sometimes sit in adjacent cells at these examinations, and many of the aspirants try and fail, again and again, before they succeed. In no country is literature held so high as in China. A million and a half follow literature as a profession, and only one man in seventy of the students examined succeeds in graduating.
The Chinese civil service is based entirely on literary examinations, and education is the only passport to office. The highest office in China is the Imperial Academy or hanlin college at Peking, and to be a hanlin is the highest literary degree that a Chinaman can attain. The members of this college have the chief offices in the empire.
The Emperor has his cabinet, and it is in Peking that the great departments of the Chinese government are located. These are far different from our government buildings at Washington, and their structures look more like American barns than government offices. In company with our minister to China, Colonel Charles Denby, I visited them. We had to hold to the sides of the buildings to keep from falling into the mud ponds.
Originally published in Cosmopolitan Magazine. December 1889.