Peking -- The City of the Court

The position of Peking at the present time is one of peculiar interest, for all the different forces that are now at work to make or mar China issue from, or converge towards, the capital. There, on the dragon throne, beside, or rather above, the powerless and unhappy Emperor, the father of his people and their god, sits the astute and ever-watchful lady whose word is law to Emperor, minister and clown alike. There dwell the heads of the government boards, the leaders of the Manchu aristocracy, and the great political parties, the drafters of new constitutions and imperial decrees, and the keen-witted diplomatists who know so well how to play against European antagonists the great game of international chess.
-- R. F. Johnston in "From Peking to Mandelay."

In the place where Peking now stands there has been a city for three thousand years. Five centuries before Christ it was the capital of a small state, but was destroyed three centuries later by the builder of the great wall. It was soon rebuilt, however, and has continued from that time until the present, with varied fortunes, as the capital of a state, the chief city of a department, or the dwelling-place of the court.

It is the greatest and best preserved walled city in the empire, if not in the world. The Tartar City is sixteen miles in circumference, surrounded by a wall sixty feet thick at the bottom, fifty feet thick at the top and forty feet high, with six feet of balustrade on the outside, beautifully crenelated and loopholed, and in a good state of preservation. The streets are sixty feet wide, -- or even more in places, -- well macadamized, and lit with electric light. The chief mode of conveyance is the 'ricksha, though carriages may be hired by the week, day or hour at various livery stables in proximity to the hotels, which, by the way, furnish as good accommodation to their guests as the hotels of other Oriental cities.

In the centre of the Tartar City is the Imperial City, eight miles in circumference, encircled by a wall six feet thick and fifteen feet high, pierced by four gates at the points of the compass; and in the centre of this again is the Forbidden City, occupying less than half a square mile, the home of the court.

Fairs are held, at various temples, fourteen days of every month, distributed in such a way as to bring them almost on alternate days, while at certain times there are two fairs on the same day. It is a mistake to suppose that the Chinese women in the capital are very much secluded. They may be seen on the streets at almost any time, while the temple courts and adjacent streets, on fair days, are crowded with women and girls, dressed in the most gorgeous colours, their hair decorated with all kinds of artificial flowers, followed by little boys and girls as gaily dressed as themselves. Here they find all kinds of toys, curios, and articles of general use, from a top to a broom, from bits of jade or other precious stones, to a snuff bottle hollowed out of a solid quartz crystal, or a market basket or a dust-pan made of reeds.

Peking being the city of the court, and the headquarters of many of the greatest officials, is the receptacle of the finest products of the oldest and greatest non-Christian people the world has ever known. China easily leads the world in the making of porcelain, the best of which has always gone to Peking for use in the palace, and so we can find here the best products of every reign from the time of Kang Hsi, as well as those of the former dynasties, to that of Kuang Hsu and the Empress Dowager. The same is true of her brass and bronze incense-burners and images, her wood and ivory carvings, her beautiful embroideries, her magnificent tapestries, and her paintings by old masters of six or eight hundred years ago. Here we can find the finest Oriental rugs, in a good state of preservation, with the "tone' that only age can give, made long before the time of Washington.

There is no better market for fine bits of embroidery, mandarin coats, and all the better products of needle, silk and floss, of which the Chinese have been masters for centuries, than the city of the court. The population consists largely of great officials and their families, whose cast-off clothing, toned down by the use of years, often without a blemish or a spot, finds its way into the hands of dealers. The finest furs, -- seal, otter, squirrel, sable and ermine, -- are brought from Siberia, Manchuria and elsewhere, for the officials and the court, and can be secured for less than half what they would cost in America. Pearls, of which the Chinese ladies and the court are more fond than of diamonds, may be found in abundance in all the bazars, which are many, and judging from the way they are purchased by tourists, are both cheaper and better than elsewhere.

The Chinese have little appreciation of diamonds as jewelry. On one occasion there was offered to me a beautiful ring containing a large sapphire encircled by twenty diamonds. When I offered the dealer less than he asked for it, he said: "No, rather than sell it for that price, I will tear it apart, and sell the diamonds separately for drill-points to the tinkers who mend dishes. I can make more from it in that way, only I dislike to spoil the ring." The Empress Dowager during her late years, and many of the ladies and gentlemen of the more progressive type, affected, whether genuinely or not, an appreciation of the diamond as a piece of jewelry, especially in the form of rings, though coloured stones, polished, but not cut, have always been more popular with the Chinese. The turquoise, the emerald, the sapphire, the ruby and the other precious stones with colour have, therefore, always graced the tables of the bazars in the capital, while the diamond until very recently was relegated to the point of the tinker's drill.

There is another method of bringing bits of their ancient handiwork to the capital which most of those living in Peking, even, know nothing about. A company, whose headquarters is at an inn, called the Hsing Lung Tien, sends agents all over the empire, to purchase and bring to them everything in the nature of a curio, whether porcelain, painting, embroidery, pottery or even an ancient tile or inkstone, which they then, at public auction, sell to the dealers. The sale is at noon each day. The first time I visited it was with a friend from Iowa who was anxious to get some unique bits of porcelain. The auctioneer does not "cry" the wares. Neither buyer nor seller says a word. Nobody knows what anybody else has offered. The goods are passed out of a closed room from a high window where the crowd can see them, and then each one wanting them tries to be first in securing the hand of the auctioneer, which is ensconced in his long sleeve, where, by squeezing his fingers, they tell him how much they will give for the particular piece. It is the only real case of "talking in the sleeve' I have ever seen, and each piece is sold to the first person offering a fair profit on the money invested, though he might get much more by allowing them to bid against each other.

Among the attractive sights in Peking, none are quite so interesting as the places where His Majesty worships, and of these the most beautiful in architecture, the grandest in conception, and the one laid out on the most magnificent scale, is the Temple of Heaven.

Think of six hundred and forty acres of valuable city property being set aside for the grounds of a single temple, as compared with the way our own great churches are crowded into small city lots of scarcely as many square feet, and over-shadowed by great business blocks costing a hundred times as much, and we can get some conception of the magnificence of the scale on which this temple is laid out. A large part of the grounds is covered with cedars, many of which are not less than five hundred years old, while other parts are used to pasture a flock of black cattle from which they select the sacrifice for a burnt offering. The grounds are not well kept like those of our own parks and churches, but the original conception of a temple on such a large scale is worthy of a great people.

The worship at this temple is the most important of all the religious observances of the empire, and constitutes a most interesting remnant of the ancient monotheistic cultus which prevailed in China before the rationalism of Confucius and the polytheistic superstition of Buddhism predominated among the people. While the ceremonies of the sacrifices are very complicated, they are kept with the strictest severity. The chief of these is at the winter solstice. On December 21st the Emperor goes in a sedan chair, covered with yellow silk, and carried by thirty-two men, preceded by a band of musicians, and followed by an immense retinue of princes and officials on horseback. He first goes to the tablet-chapel, where he offers incense to Shang Ti, the God above, and to his ancestors, with three kneelings and nine prostrations. Then going to the great altar he inspects the offerings, after which he repairs to the Palace of Abstinence, where he spends the night in fasting and prayer. The next morning at 5:45 A. M. he dons his sacrificial robes, proceeds to the open altar, where he kneels and burns incense, offers a prayer to Shang Ti, and incense to his ancestors whose shrines and tablets are arranged on the northeast and northwest portions of the altar.

There are two altars in the temple, a quarter of a mile apart, the covered and the open altar, and this latter is one of the grandest religious conceptions of the human mind. It is a triple circular marble terrace, 210 feet wide at the base, 150 feet in the middle, and ninety feet at the top, ascended at the points of the compass by three flights of nine steps each. A circular stone is in the centre of the top, around which are nine stones in the first circle, eighteen in the second, twenty-seven in the third, etc., and eighty-one in the ninth, or last circle. The Emperor kneels on the circular stone, surrounded by the circles of stones, then by the circles of the terraces, and finally by the horizon, and thus seems to himself and his retinue to be in the centre of the universe, his only walls being the skies, and his only covering, the shining dome.

There are no images of any kind connected with the temple or the worship, the only offerings being a bullock, the various productions of the soil, and a cylindrical piece of jade about a foot long, formerly used as a symbol of sovereignty. Twelve bundles of cloth are offered to Heaven, and only one to each of the emperors, and to the sun and moon. The bullocks must be two years old, the best of their kind, without blemish, and while they were formerly killed by the Emperor they are now slaughtered by an official appointed for that purpose.

The covered altar is, I think, the most beautiful piece of architecture in China. It is smaller than the one already described but has erected upon it a lofty, circular triple-roofed temple ninety-nine feet in height, roofed with blue tiles, the eaves painted in brilliant colours and protected from the birds by a wire netting. In the centre, immediately in front of the altar, is a circular stone, as in the open altar. The ceiling is covered with gilded dragons in high relief, and the whole is supported by immense pillars. It was this building that was struck by lightning in 1890, but it was restored during the ten years that followed. Being made the camp of the British during the occupation of 1900, it received some small injuries from curio seekers, but none of any consequence. The Sikh soldiers who died during this period were cremated in the furnace connected with the open altar.

The Chinese have been an agricultural people for thirty centuries or more, and this characteristic is embodied in the Temple of Agriculture, which occupies a park of not less than three hundred and twenty acres of city property opposite the Temple of Heaven. It has four great altars, with their adjacent halls, to the spirits of Heaven, Earth, the Year, and the Ancestral Husbandman, Shen Nung, to whom the temple is dedicated. It was used as the camp of the American soldiers in 1900, and was well cared for. At one time some of the soldiers upset one of the urns, and when it was reported to the officer in command, the whole company was called out and the urn properly replaced, after which the men were lectured on the matter of injuring any property belonging to the temple.

There are several large plots of ground in this enclosure, one of which the Emperor ploughs, while another is marked "City Magistrate," another "Prefect," and on these bits of land the "five kinds of grain" are sown. One cannot view these imperial temples without being impressed with the potential greatness of a people who do things on such a magnificent scale. But one, at the same time, also feels that these temples, and the great Oriental religions which inspire and support them have failed in a measure to accomplish their design, which ought to be to educate and develop the people. This they can hardly be said to have done, especially if we consider their condition in their lack of all phases of scientific development, for as the sciences stand to-day they are all the product of the Christian peoples.

There are three other imperial temples on the same large scale as those just described. The Temple of the Sun east of the city, that of the Moon on the west, and that of the Earth on the north, though it must be confessed that the worship at these has been allowed to lapse. In the Tartar City there are two others, the Lama Temple and the Confucian Temple, in the former of which there is a statue of Buddha seventy-five feet high, and from thirteen to fifteen hundred priests who worship daily at his shrine. This statue is made of stucco, over a framework, and not of wood as some have told us, and as the guide will assure us at the present day. One can ascend to a level with its head by several flights of stairs, where a lamp is lit when the Emperor visits the temple. In the east wing of this same building is a prayer-wheel, which reaches up through several successive stories, and is kept in motion while the Emperor is present.

In the east side buildings there are a few interesting, though in some cases very disgusting idols, such for instance as those illustrating the creation, but over these draperies have been thrown during recent years, which make them a trifle more respectable.

The temple is very imposing. At the entrance there are two large arches covered with yellow tiles, from which a broad paved court leads to the front gate, on the two sides of which are the residences of the Lamas or Mongol priests. At the hour of prayer, which is about nine o'clock, they may be seen going in crowds, clothed in yellow robes, to the various halls of worship where they chant their prayers.

Very different from this is the Confucian Temple only a quarter of a mile away. Here we find neither priest nor idol -- nothing but a small board tablet to "Confucius, the teacher of ten thousand ages" with those of his most faithful and worthy disciples. In the court on each side are rows of buildings -- that on the east containing the tablets of seventy-eight virtuous men; that on the west the tablets of fifty-four learned men; eighty-six of these were pupils of the Sage, while the remainder were men who accepted his teachings. No Taoists, however learned; no Buddhists, however pure; no original thinkers, however great may have been their following, are allowed a place here. It is a Temple of Fame for Confucianists alone.

I have been in this temple when a whole bullock, the skin and entrails having been removed, was kneeling upon a table facing the tablet of the Sage, while sheep and pigs were similarly arranged facing the tablets of his disciples.

For twenty-four centuries China has had Taoism preached within her dominions; for twenty-three centuries she has worshipped at the shrine of Confucius; for eighteen centuries she has had Buddhism, and for twelve centuries Mohammedanism: and during all this time if we believe the statements of her own people, she has slept. Does it not therefore seem significant, that less than a century after the Gospel of Jesus Christ had been preached to her people, and the Bible circulated freely throughout her dominions, she opened her court to the world, began to build railroads, open mines, erect educational institutions, adopt the telegraph and the telephone, and step into line with the industrial methods of the most progressive nations of the Western world?

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