The leading figure of the court is Yehonala, wife of the late Emperor Kuang Hsu. She has always been called the Young Empress, but is now the Empress Dowager. After the great Dowager was made the concubine of Hsien Feng, she succeeded in arranging a marriage, as we have seen, between her younger sister and the younger brother of her husband, the Seventh Prince, as he was called, father of Kuang Hsu and the present regent.
The world knows how, in order to keep the succession in her own family, she took the son of this younger sister, when her own son the Emperor Tung Chih died, and made him the Emperor Kuang Hsu when he was but little more than three years of age. When the time came for him to wed, she arranged that he should marry his cousin, Yehonala, the daughter of her favourite brother, Duke Kuei. This Kuang Hsu was not inclined to do, as his affections seem to have been centred on another. The great Dowager, however, insisted upon it, and he finally made her Empress, and to satisfy, -- or shall we say appease him? -- she allowed him to take as his first concubine the lady he wanted as his wife; and it was currently reported in court circles that when Yehonala came into his presence he not infrequently kicked off his shoe at her, a bit of conduct that is quite in keeping with the temper usually attributed to Kuang Hsu during those early years. This may perhaps explain why she stood by the great Dowager through all the troublous times of 1898 and 1900, in spite of the fact that her imperial aunt had taken her husband's throne.
Mrs. Headland tells me that "Yehonala is not at all beautiful, though she has a sad, gentle face. She is rather stooped, extremely thin, her face long and sallow, and her teeth very much decayed. Gentle in disposition, she is without self-assertion, and if at any of the audiences we were to greet her she would return the greeting, but would never venture a remark. At the audiences given to the ladies she was always present, but never in the immediate vicinity of either the Empress Dowager or the Emperor. She would sometimes come inside the great hall where they were, but she always stood in some inconspicuous place in the rear, with her waiting women about her, and as soon as she could do so without attracting attention, she would withdraw into the court or to some other room. In the summer-time we sometimes saw her with her servants wandering aimlessly about the court. She had the appearance of a gentle, quiet, kindly person who was always afraid of intruding and had no place or part in anything. And now she is the Empress Dowager! It seems a travesty on the English language to call this kindly, gentle soul by the same title that we have been accustomed to use in speaking of the woman who has just passed away."
My wife tells me that, -- "A number of years ago I was called to see Mrs. Chang Hsu who was suffering from a nervous breakdown due to worry and sleeplessness. On inquiry I discovered that her two daughters had been taken into the palace as concubines of the Emperor Kuang Hsu. Her friends feared a mental breakdown, and begged me to do all I could for her. She took me by the hand, pulled me down on the brick bed beside her, and told me in a pathetic way how both of her daughters had been taken from her in a single day.
" 'But they have been taken into the palace,' I urged, to try to comfort her, 'and I have heard that the Emperor is very fond of your eldest daughter, and wanted to make her his empress.'
" 'Quite right,' she replied, 'but what consolation is there in that? They are only concubines, and once in the palace they are dead to me. No matter what they suffer, I can never see them or offer them a word of comfort. I am afraid of the court intrigues, and they are only children and cannot understand the duplicity of court life -- I fear for them, I fear for them,' and she swayed back and forth on her brick bed.
"Time, however, the great healer with a little medicine and sympathy to quiet her nerves, brought about a speedy recovery, though in the end her fears proved all too true."
In 1897 the brother of this first concubine met Kang Yu-wei in the south, and became one of his disciples. Upon his return to Peking, knowing of the Emperor's desire for reform, and his affection for his sister, he found means of communicating with her about the young reformer.
At the time of the coup d'etat, and the imprisonment of the Emperor, this first concubine was degraded and imprisoned on the ground of having been the means of introducing Kang Yu-wei to the notice of the Emperor, and thus interfering in state affairs. She continued in solitary confinement from that time until the flight of the court in 1900 when in their haste to get away from the allies she was overlooked and left in the palace. When she discovered that she was alone with the eunuchs, fearing that she might become a victim to the foreign soldiers, she took her life by jumping into a well. On the return of the court in 1902, the Empress Dowager bestowed upon her posthumous honours, in recognition of her conduct in thus taking her life and protecting her virtue.
Some conception of the haste and disorder with which the court left the capital on that memorable August morning may be gleaned from the fact that her sister was also overlooked and with a eunuch fled on foot in the wake of the departing court. She was overtaken by Prince Chuang who was returning in his chair from the palace, where, with Prince Ching, he had been to inform their Majesties that the allies were in possession of the city. The eunuch, recognizing him, called his attention to the fleeing concubine, who, when he had alighted and greeted her, begged him to find her a cart that she might follow the court. Presently a dilapidated vehicle came by in which sat an old man. The Prince ordered him to give the cart to the concubine and sent her to his palace where a proper conveyance was secured, and she overtook the court at the Nankow pass.
At the audiences, this concubine was always in company with the Empress Yehonala, standing at her left. She, however, lacked both the beauty and intelligence of her sister.
The ladies of the court, who were constantly associated with the Empress Dowager as her ladies in waiting, are first, the Imperial Princess, the daughter of the late Prince Kung, the sixth brother of the Empress Dowager's husband. Out of friendship for her father, the Empress Dowagers adopted her as their daughter, giving her all the rights, privileges and titles of the daughter of an empress. She is the only one in the empire who is entitled to ride in a yellow chair such as is used by the Empress Dowager, the Emperor or Empress. The highest of the princes -- even Prince Ching himself -- has to descend from his chair if he meet her. Yet when this lady is in the palace, no matter how she may be suffering, she dare not sit down in the presence of Her Majesty.
"One day when we were in the palace," says Mrs. Headland, "the Imperial Princess was suffering from such a severe attack of lumbago, that she could scarcely stand. I suggested to her that she retire to the rear of the room, behind some of the pillars and rest a while.
" 'I dare not do that,' she replied; 'we have no such a custom in China.' "
She is austere in manner, plain in appearance, dignified in bearing, about sixty-five years of age, and is noted for her accomplishment in making the most graceful courtesy of any lady in the court.
During the Boxer troubles and the occupation, her palace was plundered and very much injured, and she escaped in her stocking feet through a side door. At the first luncheon given at her palace thereafter, she apologized for its desolate appearance, saying that it had been looted by the Boxers, though we knew it had been looted by the allies. At later luncheons, however, she had procured such ornaments as restored in some measure its original beauty and grandeur, though none of these dismantled palaces will regain their former splendour for many years to come.
Next to the Imperial Princess are the two sisters of Yehonala, one of whom is married to Duke Tse, who was head of the commission that made the tour of the world to inquire as to the best form of government to be adopted by China in her efforts at renovation and reform. It is not too much to suppose that it was because the Duke was married to the Empress Dowager's niece that he was made the head of this commission, which after its return advised the adoption of a constitution. The other sister is the wife of Prince Shun, and is the opposite of the Empress. She is stout, but beautiful. She has always been the favourite niece of the Empress Dowager, appeared at all the functions, and though very sedate when foreign ladies were present at an audience, I was told by the Chinese that when the imperial family were alone together she was the life of the company. She would even stand behind the Empress Dowager's chair "making such grimaces," the Chinese expressed it, as to make it almost impossible for the others to retain their equilibrium. As she was the youngest of the three sisters, and because of her happy disposition, the Chinese nicknamed her hsiao kuniang, "the little girl." These three sisters are all childless.
The Princess Shun and Princess Tsai Chen, only daughter-in-law of Prince Ching, herself the daughter of a viceroy, were very congenial, and the most intimate friends of all those in court circles. The latter is beautiful, brilliant, quick, tactful, and graceful. Of all the ladies of the court she is the most witty and, with Princess Shun, the most interesting. These two more than any others made the court ladies easy to entertain at all public functions, for they were full of enthusiasm and tried to help things along. They seemed to feel that they were personally responsible for the success of the audience or the luncheon as a social undertaking.
Lady Yuan is one of two of these court ladies who dwelt with the Empress Dowager in the palace, the other being Prince Ching's fourth daughter. She is a niece by marriage of the Empress Dowager, though she really was never married. The nephew of the Empress Dowager, to whom she was engaged, though she had never seen him, died before they were married. After his death, but before his funeral, she dressed herself as a widow, and in a chair covered with white sackcloth went to his home, where she performed the ceremonies proper for a widow, which entitled her to take her position as his wife. Such an act is regarded as very meritorious in the eyes of the Chinese, and no women are more highly honoured than those who have given themselves in this way to a life of chastity.
The second of these ladies who remained in the palace with the Empress Dowager is the fourth daughter of Prince Ching. Married to the son of a viceroy, their wedded life lasted only a few months. She was taken into the palace, and being a widow, she neither wears bright colours nor uses cosmetics. She is a fine scholar, very devout, and spends much of her time in studying the Buddhist classics. She is considered the most beautiful of the court ladies.
The Empress Dowager took charge of most of the domestic matters of all her relatives, taking into the palace and associating with her as court ladies some who were widowed in their youth, and keeping constantly with her only those whom she has elevated to positions of rank, or members of her own family. Nor was she too busy with state affairs to stop and settle domestic quarrels.
Among the court ladies there was one who was married to a prince of the second order. Her husband is still living, but as they were not congenial in their wedded life, the Empress Dowager made herself a kind of foster-mother to the Princess and banished her husband to Mongolia, an incident which reveals to us another phase of the great Dowager's character -- that of dealing with fractious husbands.