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Professor in the Peking University


Court Life in China: The Capital Its Officials and People.
The Chinese Boy and Girl
Chinese Mother Goose Rhymes


Until within the past ten years a study of Chinese court life would
have been an impossibility. The Emperor, the Empress Dowager, and the
court ladies were shut up within the Forbidden City, away from a world
they were anxious to see, and which was equally anxious to see them.
Then the Emperor instituted reform, the Empress Dowager came out from
behind the screen, and the court entered into social relations with

For twenty years and more Mrs. Headland has been physician to the
family of the Empress Dowager's mother, the Empress' sister, and many
of the princesses and high official ladies in Peking. She has visited
them in a social as well as a professional way, has taken with her her
friends, to whom the princesses have shown many favours, and they have
themselves been constant callers at our home. It is to my wife,
therefore, that I am indebted for much of the information contained in
this book.

There are many who have thought that the Empress Dowager has been
misrepresented. The world has based its judgment of her character upon
her greatest mistake, her participation in the Boxer movement, which
seems unjust, and has closed its eyes to the tremendous reforms which
only her mind could conceive and her hand carry out. The great Chinese
officials to a man recognized in her a mistress of every situation; the
foreigners who have come into most intimate contact with her, voice her
praise; while her hostile critics are confined for the most part to
those who have never known her. It was for this reason that a more
thorough study of her life was undertaken.

It has also been thought that the Emperor has been misunderstood, being
overestimated by some, and underestimated by others, and this because
of his peculiar type of mind and character. That he was unusual, no one
will deny; that he was the originator of many of China's greatest
reform measures, is equally true; but that he lacked the power to
execute what he conceived, and the ability to select great statesmen to
assist him, seems to have been his chief shortcoming.

To my wife for her help in the preparation of this volume, and to my
father-in-law, Mr. William Sinclair, M. A., for his suggestions, I am
under many obligations.

I. T. H.




The Empress Dowager - Her Early Life

All the period since 1861 should be rightly recorded as the reign of
Tze Hsi An, a more eventful period than all the two hundred and
forty-four reigns that had preceded her three usurpations. It began
after a conquering army had made terms of peace in her capital, and
with the Tai-ping rebellion in full swing of success....

Those few who have looked upon the countenance of the Dowager describe
her as a tall, erect, fine-looking woman of distinguished and imperious
bearing, with pronounced Tartar features, the eye of an eagle, and the
voice of determined authority and absolute command. - Eliza Ruhamah
Scidmore in "China, The Long-Lived Empire."



One day when one of the princesses was calling at our home in Peking, I
inquired of her where the Empress Dowager was born. She gazed at me for
a moment with a queer expression wreathing her features, as she finally
said with just the faintest shadow of a smile: "We never talk about the
early history of Her Majesty." I smiled in return and continued: "I
have been told that she was born in a small house, in a narrow street
inside of the east gate of the Tartar city - the gate blown up by the
Japanese when they entered Peking in 1900." The princess nodded. "I
have also heard that her father's name was Chao, and that he was a
small military official (she nodded again) who was afterwards beheaded
for some neglect of duty." To this the visitor also nodded assent.

A few days later several well-educated young Chinese ladies, daughters
of one of the most distinguished scholars in Peking, were calling on my
wife, and again I pursued my inquiries. "Do you know anything about the
early life of the Empress Dowager?" I asked of the eldest. She
hesitated a moment, with that same blank expression I had seen on the
face of the princess, and then answered very deliberately, - "Yes,
everybody knows, but nobody talks about it." And this is, no doubt, the
reason why the early life of the greatest woman of the Mongol race,
and, as some who knew her best think, the most remarkable woman of the
nineteenth century, has ever been shrouded in mystery. Whether the
Empress desired thus to efface all knowledge of her childhood by
refusing to allow it to be talked about, I do not know, but I said to
myself: "What everybody knows, I can know," and I proceeded to find out.

I discovered that she was one of a family of several brothers and
sisters and born about 1834; that the financial condition of her
parents was such that when a child she had to help in caring for the
younger children, carrying them on her back, as girls do in China, and
amusing them with such simple toys as are hawked about the streets or
sold in the shops for a cash or two apiece; that she and her brothers
and little sisters amused themselves with such games as blind man's
buff, prisoner's base, kicking marbles and flying kites in company with
the other children of their neighbourhood. During these early years she
was as fond of the puppet plays, trained mice shows, bear shows, and
"Punch and Judy" as she was in later years of the theatrical
performances with which she entertained her visitors at the palace. She
was compelled to run errands for her mother, going to the shops, as
occasion required, for the daily supply of oils, onions, garlic, and
other vegetables that constituted the larger portion of their food. I
found out also that there is not the slightest foundation for the story
that in her childhood she was sold as a slave and taken to the south of

The outdoor life she led, the games she played, and the work she was
forced to do in the absence of household servants, gave to the little
girl a well-developed body, a strong constitution and a fund of
experience and information which can be obtained in no other way. She
was one of the great middle class. She knew the troubles and trials of
the poor. She had felt the pangs of hunger. She could sympathize with
the millions of ambitious girls struggling to be freed from the
trammels of ignorance and the age-old customs of the past - a combat
which was the more real because it must be carried on in silence. And
who can say that it was not the struggles and privations of her own
childhood which led to the wish in her last years that "the girls of my
empire may be educated"?

When little Miss Chao had reached the age of fourteen or fifteen she
was taken by her parents to an office in the northern part of the
imperial city of Peking where her name, age, personal appearance, and
estimated degree of intelligence and potential ability were registered,
as is done in the case of all the daughters of the Manchu people. The
reason for this singular proceeding is that when the time comes for the
selection of a wife or a concubine for the Emperor, or the choosing of
serving girls for the palace, those in charge of these matters will
know where they can be obtained.

This custom is not considered an unalloyed blessing by the Manchu
people, and many of them would gladly avoid registering their daughters
if only they dared. But the rule is compulsory, and every one belonging
to the eight Banners or companies into which the Manchus are divided
must have their daughters registered. Their aversion to this custom is
well illustrated in the following incident:

In one of the girls' schools in Peking there was a beautiful child, the
daughter of a Manchu woman whose husband was dead. One day this widow
came to the principal of the school and said: "A summons has come from
the court for the girls of our clan to appear before the officials that
a certain number may be chosen and sent into the palace as serving
girls." "When is she to appear?" inquired the teacher. "On the
sixteenth," answered the mother. "I suppose you are anxious that she
should be one of the fortunate ones," said the teacher, "though I
should be sorry to lose her from the school." "On the contrary," said
the mother, "I should be distressed if she were chosen, and have come
to consult with you as to whether we might not hire a substitute." The
teacher expressed surprise and asked her why. "When our daughters are
taken into the palace," answered the mother, "they are dead to us until
they are twenty-five, when they are allowed to return home. If they are
incompetent or dull they are often severely punished. They may contract
disease and die, and their death is not even announced to us; while if
they prove themselves efficient and win the approval of the authorities
they are retained in the palace and we may never see them or hear from
them again."

At first the teacher was inclined to favour the hiring of a substitute,
but on further consideration concluded that it would be contrary to the
law, and advised that the girl be allowed to go. The mother, however,
was so anxious to prevent her being chosen that she sent her with
uncombed hair, soiled clothes and a dirty face, that she might appear
as unattractive as possible.

The prospects for a concubine are even less promising than for a
serving maid, as when she once enters the palace she has little if any
hope of ever leaving it. She is neither mistress nor servant, wife nor
slave, she is but one of a hundred buds in a garden of roses which have
little if any prospect of ever blooming or being plucked for the court
bouquet. When, therefore, the gates of the Forbidden City close behind
the young girls who are taken in as concubines of an emperor they shut
out an attractive, busy, beautiful world, filled with men and women,
boys and girls, homes and children, green fields and rich harvests, and
confine them within the narrow limits of one square mile of brick-paved
earth, surrounded by a wall twenty-five feet high and thirty feet
thick, in which there is but one solitary man who is neither father,
brother, husband nor friend to them, and whom they may never even see.

When therefore the time came for the selection of concubines for the
Emperor Hsien Feng, and our little Miss Chao was taken into the palace,
her parents, like many others, had every reason to consider it a piece
of ill-fortune which had visited their home. The future was veiled from
them. The Forbidden City, surrounded by its great crenelated wall, may
have seemed more like a prison than like a palace. True, they had other
children, and she was "only a girl, but even girls are a small
blessing," as they tell us in their proverbs. She had grown old enough
to be useful in the home, and they no doubt had cherished plans of
betrothing her to the son of some merchant or official who would add
wealth or honour to their family. Neither father nor mother, brother
nor sister, could have conceived of the potential power, honour and
even glory, that were wrapped up in that girl, and that were finally to
come to them as a family, as well as to many of them as individuals.
Their wildest dreams at that time could not have pictured themselves
dukes and princesses, with their daughters as empresses, duchesses, or
ladies-in-waiting in the palace. But such it proved to be.


The Empress Dowager - Her Years of Training

The kindness of the Empress is as boundless as the sea.
Her person too is holy, she is like a deity.
With boldness, from seclusion, she ascends the Dragon Throne,
And saves her suffering country from a fate we dare not own.
- "Yuan Fan," Translated by I. T. C.



The year our little Miss Chao entered the palace was a memorable one in
the history of China. The Tai-ping rebellion, which had begun in the
south some three years earlier (1850), had established its capital at
Nanking, on the Yangtse River, and had sent its "long-haired" rebels
north on an expedition of conquest, the ultimate aim of which was
Peking. By the end of the year 1853 they had arrived within one hundred
miles of the capital, conquering everything before them, and leaving
devastation and destruction in their wake.

Their success had been extraordinary. Starting in the southwest with an
army of ten thousand men they had eighty thousand when they arrived
before the walls of Nanking. They were an undisciplined horde, without
commissariat, without drilled military leaders, but with such reckless
daring and bravery that the imperial troops were paralyzed with fear
and never dared to meet them in the open field. Thousands of common
thieves and robbers flocked to their standards with every new conquest,
impelled by no higher motive than that of pillage and gain. Rumours
became rife in every village and hamlet, and as they neared the capital
the wildest tales were told in every nook and corner of the city, from
the palace of the young Emperor in the Forbidden City to the mat shed
of the meanest beggar beneath the city wall.

My wife says: "I remember just after going to China, sitting one
evening on a kang, or brick bed, with Yin-ma, an old nurse, our only
light being a wick floating in a dish of oil. Yin-ma was about the age
of the Empress Dowager, but, unlike Her Majesty, her locks were
snow-white. When I entered the dimly lighted room she was sitting in
the midst of a group of women and girls - patients in the hospital - who
listened with bated breath as she told them of the horrors of the
Tai-ping rebellion.

"'Why!' said the old nurse, 'all that the rebels had to do on their way
to Peking, was to cut out as many paper soldiers as they wanted, put
them in boxes, and breathe upon them when they met the imperial troops,
and they were transformed into such fierce warriors that no one was
able to withstand them. Then when the battle was over and they had come
off victors they only needed to breathe upon them again, when they were
changed into paper images and packed in their boxes, requiring neither
food nor clothing. Indeed the spirits of the rebels were everywhere,
and no matter who cut out paper troops they could change them into real

"'But, Yin-ma, you do not believe those superstitions, do you?'

"'These are not superstitions, doctor, these are facts, which everybody
believed in those days, and it was not safe for a woman to be seen with
scissors and paper, lest her neighbours report that she was cutting out
troops for the rebels. The country was filled with all kinds of
rumours, and every one had to be very careful of all their conduct, and
of everything they said, lest they be arrested for sympathizing with
the enemy.'

"'But, Yin-ma, did you ever see any of these paper images transformed
into soldiers?'

"'No, I never did myself, but there was an old woman lived near our
place, who was said to be in sympathy with the rebels. One night my
father saw soldiers going into her house and when he had followed them
he could find nothing but paper images. You may not have anything of
this kind happen in America, but very many people saw them in those
terrible days of pillage and bloodshed here.'"

Such stories are common in all parts of China during every period of
rebellion, war, riot or disturbance of any kind. The people go about
with fear on their faces, and horror in their voices, telling each
other in undertones of what some one, somewhere, is said to have seen
or heard. Nor are these superstitions confined to the common people.
Many of the better classes believe them and are filled with fear.

As the Tai-ping rebellion broke out when Miss Chao was about fifteen or
sixteen years of age, she would hear these stories for two or three
years before she entered the palace. After she had been taken into the
Forbidden City she would continue to hear them, brought in by the
eunuchs and circulated not only among all the women of the palace, but
among their own associates as well, and here they would take on a more
mysterious and alarming aspect to these people shut away from the
world, as ghost stories become more terrifying when told in the dim
twilight. May this not account in some measure for the attitude assumed
by the Empress Dowager towards the Boxer superstitions of 1900, and
their pretentions to be able at will to call to their aid legions of
spirit-soldiers, while at the same time they were themselves
invulnerable to the bullets of their enemies?

It was when Miss Chao was ten years old that the conflict known as the
Opium War was brought to an end. It has been said that when the Emperor
was asked to sanction the importation of opium, he answered, "I will
never legalize a traffic that will be an injury to my people," but
whether this be true or not, it is admitted by all that the central
government was strongly opposed to the sale and use of the drug within
its domains. It is unfortunate, to say the least, that the first time
the Chinese came into collision with European governments was over a
matter of this kind, and it is to the credit of the Chinese
commissioner when the twenty thousand chests of opium, over which the
dispute arose, were handed over to him, he mixed it with quicklime in
huge vats that it might be utterly destroyed rather than be an injury
to his people. They may have exhibited an ignorance of international
law, they may have manifested an unwise contempt for the foreigner, but
it remains a fact of history that they were ready to suffer great
financial loss rather than get revenue from the ruin of their subjects,
and that England went to war for the purpose of securing indemnity for
the opium destroyed.

The common name for opium among the Chinese is yang yen - foreign
tobacco, and my wife says: "When calling at the Chinese homes, I have
frequently been offered the opium-pipe, and when I refused it the
ladies expressed surprise, saying that they were under the impression
that all foreigners used it."

What now were the results of the Opium War as viewed from the
standpoint of the Chinese people, and what impression would it make
upon them as a whole? Great Britain demanded an indemnity of
$21,000,000, the cession to them of Hongkong, an island on the southern
coast, and the opening of five ports to British trade. China lost her
standing as suzerain among the peoples of the Orient and got her first
glimpse of the White Peril from the West.

Although the Empress Dowager was but a child of ten at this time she
would receive her first impression of the foreigner, which was that he
was a pirate who had come to carry away their wealth, to filch from
them their land, and to overrun their country. He became a veritable
bugaboo to men, women and children alike, and this impression was
crystallized in the expression yang huei, "foreign devil," which is the
only term among a large proportion of the Chinese by which the
foreigner is known. One day when walking on the street in Peking I met
a woman with a child of two years in her arms, and as I passed them,
the child patted its mother on the cheek and said in an
undertone, - "The foreign devil's coming," which led the frightened
mother to cover its eyes with her hand that it might not be injured by
the sight.

On one occasion a friend was travelling through the country when a
Chinese gentleman, dressed in silk and wearing an official hat, called
on him at the inn where he was stopping and with a profound bow
addressed him as "Old Mr. Foreign Devil."

My wife says that: "Not infrequently when I have been called for the
first time to the homes of the better classes I have seen the children
run into the house from the outer court exclaiming, - 'The devil
doctor's coming.' Indeed, I have heard the women use this term in
speaking of me to my assistant until I objected, when they asked with
surprise, - 'Doesn't she like to be called foreign devil?'" And so the
Empress Dowager's first impression of the foreigner would be that of a

Colonel Denby tells us that "A Frenchman and his wife were carried off
from Tonquin by bandits who took refuge in China. The Chinese
government was asked to rescue these prisoners and restore them to
liberty. China sent a brigade of troops, who pursued the bandits to
their den and recovered the prisoners. The French government thanked
the Chinese government for its assistance, and bestowed the decoration
of the Legion of Honour on the brigade commander, and then shortly
afterwards demanded the payment of an enormous indemnity for the
outrage on the ground that China had delayed to effect the rescue. The
Chinese were aghast, but they paid the money."

This incident does not stand alone, but is one of a number of similar
experiences which the Chinese government had in her relation with the
powers of Europe, and which have been reported by such writers as
Holcomb, Beresford, Gorst Colquhoun and others in trying to account for
the feelings the Chinese have towards us, all of which was embodied in
the years of training of our little concubine.

It should be remembered that many concubines are selected whom the
Emperor never takes the trouble to see. After being taken in, their
temper and disposition are carefully noted, their faithfulness in the
duties assigned them, their diligence in the performance of their
tasks, their kindness to their inferiors, their treatment of their
equals, and their politeness and obedience to their superiors, and upon
all these things, with many others, as we shall see, their promotion
will finally depend.

When Miss Chao entered the palace, like most girls of her class or
station in life, she was uneducated. She may have studied the small
"Classic for Girls" in which she learned:

"You should rise from bed as early in the morning as the sun, Nor
retire at evening's closing till your work is wholly done."

Or, further, she may have been told,

When the wheel of life's at fifteen,
Or when twenty years have passed,
As a girl with home and kindred these will surely be your last;
While expert in all employments that compose a woman's life,
You should study as a daughter all the duties of a wife."

Or she may have read the "Filial Piety Classic for Girls" in which she
learned the importance of the attitude she assumed towards those who
were in authority over her, but certain it is she was not educated.

She had, however, what was better than education - a disposition to
learn. And so when she had the good fortune, - or shall we say
misfortune, - for as we have seen it is variously regarded by Chinese
parents to be taken into the palace, she found there educated eunuchs
who were set aside as teachers of the imperial harem. She was bright,
attractive, and I think I may add without fear of contradiction, very
ambitious, and this in no bad sense. She devoted herself to her studies
with such energy and diligence as not only to attract the attention of
the teacher, but to make herself a fair scholar, a good penman, and an
exceptional painter, and it was not long until, from among all the
concubines, she had gained the attention and won the admiration - and
shall we say affection - not only of the Empress, but of the Emperor

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Online LibraryIsaac Taylor HeadlandCourt Life in China → online text (page 1 of 17)