An essential part of an village fort in Yu County is the village opera stage. The standard Mandarin for this would be 戲台 xi tai, “Opera Platform”, but Yu County people call these structures 樂樓 yue lou, “Music Houses”. Outsiders find this quaint. Before the Communist takeover, there were at least 700 opera stages in Yu county, spread over 738 villages. Now there are around 300 opera stages still remaining, some perfectly intact and some almost totally collapsed. To be clear, this is a lot of opera stages. According to one count, the entire province of Shanxi contains only 146 such pre-Communist stages, less than half the number in the one county of Yu. And while the building of these opera stages is not usually recorded in literary sources, we actually can tell some things about who used them and when by visual and written information on the walls of the stages themselves.
When a particular opera troupe played a show at a particular stage, it was common for them to write a small graffito on the back interior wall of the stage to memorialize the performance. Many of these still remain. From these we know the names of many of the late Qing opera troupes operating in Yu County or visiting from neighboring regions. The Yu County scholars Tian Yongxiang 田永翔 and Wang Zhijun 王志軍 state that they’ve counted the names of at least 400 individual opera troupes from the stage walls. They divide the types of performances into 大戲 “Great Opera”, 秧歌 “Seedling Songs”, 弦子腔 “Zither Tunes”, 道情 “Operas of the Way and Emotion”, 賽戲 “Temple Fair Plays”, 燈影戲 “Lamp-Shadow Plays”, 高蹺戲 “Plays on Stilts”, 羅羅腔 “Lolo Tunes”, 耍孩兒 “Playing with the Children”, and others. These two authors provide a whole history of opera in Yu County, pointing out that musical performers have existed in Yu County since antiquity, being mentioned in the Han dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD) records of the Kingdom of Dai (代國), which had its royal city in what’s now Yu County. Opera stages, however, came much later. I can’t ever recall seeing a dated epigraph in an opera stage earlier than the Daoguang Reign of the Qing (1821-1850), and there are numerous ones after that. From this we can infer that opera, or at least opera stages, really took off in a big way in Yu County from the early part of the 19th century.
As for the opera stages themselves, they are generally one-roomed structures, enclosed on three sides and raised up to a height of 1.5 meters or so off the ground on a mud and stone platform. In all cases they face a temple, for the purposes of offering operatic performances to the gods. The stages themselves are bisected about halfway in by a decorative wooden screen stretched between pillars, which encloses the front stage from a rear area which is invisible to the spectators. This wooden screen is often decorated with colorfully painted panels depicting actors, musicians, and tumblers. On the side walls of the front part of the stage there are often murals which would serve as scenery for the plays.
An opera stage from the front. The stage faces a temple to Lord Guan across a little square, and is boarded-up against the elements.
The interior of an opera stage, looking in; note the paneled wooden screen across the middle and the effaced frescoes on the outer flanking walls.
An opera stage from the inside looking out. The wooden screen has been taken down here and the room is being used for storage; note the frescoes on the outer flanking walls.
In present-day Yu County the opera-stage murals are usually heavily damaged or completely effaced, as wind and rain can come in through the open face of the stage. Nevertheless enough of them remain that one can discern two main decorative tropes. The first, and more common, is paintings of folding screens. These give the illusion of a wealthy interior and the panels of the screens themselves are often painted with monochrome Shan Shui “Mountains and Water” scenery. The second, less common trope, is architectural drawings. These are quite rare and I’m only aware of seven extant examples in all of Yu County, of which only one survives in anything like an intact state. Nevertheless there’s enough of them, and the architecture depicted in them is distinctive enough, that it’s possible to say something about what these drawings are and what they’re supposed to be representing.
To begin with, the standard composition for these drawings is as follows (for examples, see above and below). Two scenes are painted on the two sides of the opera stage. In each of these scenes, there is a large, multi-storied building painted towards the inside of the stage. These are often multi-storied structures with rows of western-style windows and sometimes domes or barrel-arched roofs on top. On the upper floor of these buildings are sometimes balustrades or belvederes of a type sometimes found in western buildings but almost never seen in China. At the base of this structure there is a sort of gate portico or platform. This portico and the large multi-story building behind it are often enclosed by a wall in the lower part of the composition. In front of this portico and towards the outer side of the stage, the scene opens up onto a plaza or open country where figures may or may not be found. Sometimes in the plaza and sometimes in the background beneath a further compound wall, you can see one or several Chinese-style pagodas rising up. The compositions typically have strong blue coloration.
Note the various elements: The tall western-looking building on the right (the inner side of the stage), the portico or gate at the bottom center, and the Chinese-style pagodas behind a wall to the left (the outer side of the stage).
Occasionally one or both of these structures have plaques hung over the gates which give a legend. There are five extant legends, which are as follows:
(1) Partially illegible; I can make out Si Ji? Chun [ ] Ben 四吉?春[ ]本, “Four Auspicious? Spring [illegible] Basic”, which obviously doesn’t make any more sense in Chinese than it does in English, so who knows.
(4) Si Wang Lou 四望樓, “The Tower of Gazing in the Four Directions”
(3) Si Wang Ting 四望亭, “The Pavilion of Gazing in the Four Directions”
(2) Xi Yang Lou 西洋樓, “The Palace of the Western Seas”
(1) Yi Da Gong 意大宮, “Intentions-Great Palace”, or possibly Yi Da Guan 意大官, “Intentions-Great Official”. This overwrites an apparently earlier legend in blue ink which says [ ][ ] Zhen Shi, [ ][ ]真事 “[two illegible characters] True Affair”.
So what does all this mean? It turns out that at least two of these titles can be matched to actual buildings that exist or once existed.
The Pavilion of Gazing in the Four Directions
There’s two versions of this in the inscriptions, one of which is a pavilion or pagoda (ting 亭) and one of which is a mansion or tower (lou 楼). Nevertheless they seem to refer to the same thing. The key to identifying the structure is two figures on the top of the pagoda in two separate drawings, a young girl and a monkey. They’re just visible in the drawing below, as beneath them various figures comment and posture.
A monkey and a girl atop the Pavilion of Gazing in the Four Directions
These two figures come from an anonymous folk novel called either “The Green Peony” 《绿牡丹》or “The Full Tale of the Pavilion of Gazing in Four Directions” 《四望亭全传》. Opinions on when this was written seem to differ (I’ve seen it put at various points between 1600 and 1900) and nobody knows who wrote it. This story ostensibly narrates the swashbuckling saga of some young braves during the age of the Empress Wu Zetian (624-705). Interestingly enough, although the play contains plenty of male characters, the main warriors are all female. The central heroine is a young circus performer named Hua Bilian 花碧莲, “Flower Jade-Lotus” who takes up arms against the various men who want to marry her and then against the empress of China herself, aiming to rescue the deposed heir of the Tang Dynasty and restore him to the throne. “The Green Peony” became a popular subject for plays; the “Dictionary of Chinese Bangzi Opera Titles”《中国梆子戏剧目大辞典》lists two extant plays named “The Green Peony”, and notes that each of these can be broken up into many smaller plays, which are performed individually. The summary of the action of the plays is as follows:
Hua Zhenfang travels with his wife and daughter, making a living by performing. He becomes friends with Luo Hongxun and Ren Zhengqian. Wang Lun is the son of the evil official Wang Huaiyi. Wang Lun plots to kidnap the daughter of the Hua family, Jade-Lotus, and force her to marry him. Jade-Lotus and her mother create great havoc in the official’s palace, and break out and escape. On the road in Yangzhou, they pass by the Pavilion of Gazing in the Four Directions. Jade-Lotus climbs up the pagoda to capture a monkey but loses her footing and falls. Fortunately she’s caught by Luo Hongxun. Hua Zhenfang promises her in marriage to Luo Hongxun. Wang Lun uses a huge amount of gold to hire the assassin Pu Tianpeng to kill Luo Hongxun. Luo Hongxun, however, gives Pu Tianpeng silver ingots and the two part. Pu Tianpeng’s father in law, Bao Zeng’an, hears about this and invites Luo Hongxun to his village, “Stockade on the Waters”, for a meeting. Bao Zeng’an’s daughter, Golden-Flower, gets drunk and challenges Luo Hongxun to a contest of the martial arts. In a moment of anger she wounds him, but Bao Zeng’an and Hua Zhenfang etc. come to the rescue.
The second play seems to be a sequel to the first. The action moves from personal conflicts among the characters to national swashbuckling among the great and powerful of the Tang Dynasty. Jade-Lotus takes the center stage as the main martial hero:
During the Tang Dynasty, the empress Wu Zetian orders Zhang Tianyou to take the city of Fangzhou, but he suffers a great defeat. The virtuous official Di Renjie [the famous “Judge Dee”] has characters tattooed on Zhang Tianyou’s back, and releases him back to the court. In resentment, Zhang Tianyou asks the empress Wu to have Di Renjie executed. Just at this time, from the west of the nation of Qi comes a strange beast which no one is able to tame. The Empress Wu gives an order that a master of strange creatures be found. The Green-Forest peasant rebel heroes Hua Zhenfang and Bao Zeng’an order the two girls Jade-Lotus and Golden-Flower to travel to the capital. They are successful in subduing the beast, and they are both granted the title “The First of the Three Ranks”. The Empress Wu sends Wei Shihua to lead Jade-Lotus to subdue Di Renjie as well. Along the way, Wei Shihua is able to capture the Lord of Luling, Li Chengjian. But he doesn’t expect that Jade-Lotus and the others will change sides. They attack Wei Shihua and kill him in a fight, saving the Lord of Luling [who goes on to replace Wu Zetian and restore the Tang Dynasty as the Zhongzong Emperor].
Just in case you wanted to picture this, here’s a clip from an old movie of “The Green Peony” which shows the first meeting between Jade-Lotus and Luo Hongxun.
Of course the couple is fated to be, but Luo Hongxun and Jade-Lotus are separated and don’t meet again until the twentieth chapter, which is the important one for our purposes. The scene now is at a crossroads near the east gate of the city of Yangzhou 揚州. Yangzhou is a town of great refinement on the lower Yangzi river, famous for its literati, its courtesans, and for having been repeatedly and brutally sacked at various points in history. Our hero Luo Hongxun and his drunken friend Yu Qian have gone out to attend a fair at the Temple of the Three Officials 三官廟. Yu Qian catches sight of a monkey which has escaped from a neighbor’s house. He leaps onto the roof to catch it. The monkey, frightened up, jumps from the roof onto the side of a pagoda which sits in the middle of the street, called the Pavilion of Gazing in the Four Directions. Yu Qian leaps after it. The two of them shimmy up the side of the pagoda but Yu Qian still can’t catch the monkey.
Right at this moment, Hua Zhenfang, his daughter Jade-Lotus, and the nine Ba brothers are driving their horses in through the city gate. The street is mobbed with spectators watching the scene on the pagoda. Not a man to sit in traffic, Hua Zhenfang stampedes his horses into the crowd and scatters them all. He rides up to the base of the pagoda and recognizes his old friend Yu Qian climbing around up there. He makes inquiries and finds that the owner of the monkey is willing to pay ten silvers if someone can catch it, and twenty silvers if a girl as pretty as Jade-Lotus will climb up there in front of everybody and do it. After some haggling, a deal is made.
Here’s from the story. I think this is fun:
Hua Zhenfang shouts up at Yu Qian, “This malicious little creature, it doesn’t need someone like you to catch it. That’s like cutting up a chicken with a cattle knife! Uncle Yu, we haven’t had the chance to meet for so long, I implore you to come down and talk, and my daughter will go up in your place and catch the monkey for you.” He turns to Jade-Lotus. “Daughter! Get up there!”
And you only have to see – Jade Lotus uncoils her body and leaps onto the first floor of the pagoda. The crowd of people watching all raise their voices to applaud: “Such a skill is rare to find, even in a thousand years! Truly amazing, truly amazing!”
At the moment that Jade-Lotus leaps onto the pagoda, the monkey is within, but startled by her it jumps up onto the second floor. Jade-Lotus pauses just for a moment, but then uncoils her body once again and leaps up after it onto the second floor. Granny Hua sees her granddaughter on the second floor of the pagoda, and immediately releases her own body and leaps up onto the very top floor of the pagoda. The crowd on the ground once again applaud, “For such an elderly person to have such energy – she really is an old robber’s wife!” And when Hua Zhenfang sees both his mother and his daughter preparing to ascend even further, he, Yu Qian, and the other six all spread out to stand around the four sides of the pavilion.
Jade-Lotus has now attained the second floor. She takes out a handful of the fruits she’s been carrying against her breast, and tosses some of them in front of where the monkey can see, sitting herself up above so as not to startle it. When the monkey catches sight of the fruits he immediately takes them up in his hands and gobbles them down into his mouth. When he’s finished, Jade-Lotus throws another handful, and the monkey once again takes them up and eats them. Jade-Lotus very slowly inches forward, until she’s about two or three feet away. Suddenly the monkey sees her and is startled, and flees towards the south side of the pagoda. Jade-Lotus is behind a wall and she can’t see where he’s gone. Ba Long is standing on the ground at the south side of the pagoda. He shouts up: “The monkey’s gone to the south!”
Jade-Lotus turns towards the south. She throws another handful of fruit out that way. Once again, the monkey takes it up and eats it. Jade-Lotus inches closer to it, until she is almost up to the creature, but once more the monkey is startled and flees off somewhere else, she can’t see it. It seems to Jade-Lotus that if the monkey hadn’t been scared off by Yu Qian, she would have been able to capture it easily with this method. But her father Hua Zhenfang and Yu Qian are standing beneath, shouting up: “The monkey’s jumped over onto the northern side!”
Jade-Lotus turns towards the north. The monkey jumps up onto the top floor. She goes up after it. Happily, up above doesn’t have walls blocking her line of sight. Jade-Lotus formulates a plan. She says: “I have to drive this creature out onto one of the corners of the pagoda roof. That way, he’ll have nowhere to escape to. That’s the only way I’ll catch him.”
Once again, she takes out another handful of fruits from her shirt, and throws them onto the protruding north-east corner of the roof. Once the monkey sees that there’s fruit there, he heads towards the north-east corner to pick it up and eat it. Jade-Lotus slides herself ever so slightly towards the monkey. She reaches out an arm to grab him. The monkey sees that Jade-Lotus is blocking the escape route to the right, he’s got no empty space to escape through. The animal panics, and uses all his might to leap, hoping that he can jump right over Jade-Lotus’ head. For many years though nobody has kept up the Pagoda of Gazing in the Four Directions. The wood is rotten and the mortar and bricks are coming apart – and Jade-Lotus and the monkey both fall! On the ground the people exclaim: “How terrible! Someone’s fallen down!”
As Jade-Lotus falls, Hua Zhenfang, Yu Qian, and the Ba brothers are all dismayed and without any recourse. Jade-Lotus has absolutely no way of saving her own life. The only hope comes from one young man beyond the four or fifth ring of spectators, who shouts: “You still haven’t moved to save her – what are you waiting for!”
He uncoils his body and with a single leap he’s there, and catches Jade-Lotus with both hands, and holds her to his breast, sitting down onto the ground. Everyone shouts: “What an extraordinary hero! Without him, she’d have been crushed to meat-mush!” Hua Zhenfang and a whole crowd all run over and with one glance they see – the person who’d saved Jade-Lotus was none other than Luo Hongxun!
So that’s the story. This would have circulated both in the form of operas and of vernacular storytelling performances. Here’s one video of it being performed in Jiangxi style; the entire play takes five hours of watching to finish.For vernacular storytelling, here’s one of the “Jade-Lotus Catches a Monkey” section being first sung and then narrated by this guy from Langfang 廊坊. This dude tears it up:
As noted above, there’s one pavilion with the legend Si Ji? Chun [ ] Ben 四吉?春[ ]本, “Four Auspicious? Spring [illegible] Basic”. I still have no idea what this means, but if you look closely you can see the figures of Jade-Lotus and her grandmother climbing around on it. The monkey’s been scratched out.
Interestingly, as it turns out, the Pavilion of Gazing in the Four Directions actually exists in real life, and there’s some argument to be made that at least one Yu County painter had actually seen it. It sits just within the eastern gate of the old city of Yangzhou. This is nearly 600 miles as the crow flies from Yu County, but the drawing and the structure itself match fairly well. Here’s the drawing and the building as it stands today; I stole this image from the internet.
I still have no idea why everyone in Yu County felt the need to draw this specific pagoda from this specific story on the walls of their opera stages, but I think it’s interesting. I had fun pursuing this particular monkey of the mind across the internet and eventually catching it, so I’ve put up the results here.
(1) After extensive googling, I can say that there are at least two other buildings in China which have the name 四望 “Gazing in the Four Directions”. One of these is an unremarkable pagoda in Chongqing. The other is a little pavilion in a park in Harbin. According to the government website for Harbin’s Hulan District, this was constructed by a governor named Lu Kezun 路克遵 in 1927, with fines he’d levied on some ne’er-do-well named Zhu the Black Son (朱黑子). Zhu had been found guilty of stealing the colorful park railings and using them to decorate his whorehouse.
(2) The whole thing about letting loose the horses and pursuing the monkey is possibly some sort of Buddhist metaphor. This comes from the stock phrase 心猿意馬 “The monkey of the mind and the horses of the thoughts”. These have to be properly reigned in so that the practitioner can concentrate.
(3) According to Baidu Baike, there’s record of a structure with the name “Pavilion of Gazing in the Four Directions” having been built in Yangzhou in the early 13th century. Unfortunately it’s noted as sitting south of the city, while the present one clearly sits right at the east gate. A second gazetteer from the Qianlong reign puts the building of the structure in 1559, when it was constructed by the adjacent Confucian Academy as a pavilion to the gods Wenchang and the Kui-Star. Hence it was known as the Wen-Kui Tower 文奎樓. According to the dominant theories on the internet, the pavilion only acquired the name “Gazing in the Four Directions” after 1853, when the Taiping rebels took the city, propped up ladders and scaffolding onto the sides of the thing, and used it as a watchtower. It retained this use until Qing loyalist troops retook the city a few years later. That said the pavilion is clearly mentioned in the late-Ming “Green Peony” as having been located at a crossroads near a gate in the Yangzhou city wall, so my guess is that this theory is bunk.
(4) This is off-topic, but the whole thing reminds me of a story told to me by an elderly resident of the lower fortress in Futu Village (浮圖村). In the center of this village is an archway on top of which sits a tower room. The tower was originally a temple to the god of literature, Wenchang, but after the Communist takeover this was found to be both feudal and unpropitious. Sensibly enough the villagers decided that rather than going to the trouble of tearing the giant stone tower down, they’d just rename it in honor of Mao’s 1963 Socialist Education Movement, which aimed to “Purify Politics, Purify the Economy, Purify the Party Organization, and Purify Ideology” (清政治，清经济，清组织，清思想). Thus the tower was rechristened “The Tower of the Four Purifications” (四清樓). It remained unmolested right through the Cultural Revolution and retains this name today.
The Mansion of the Western Seas
Now we turn to the other structure identified by name on the opera stage at the Big Stubborn Fort, the Xi Yang Lou 西洋樓, “The Mansion of the Western Seas”. As noted above, these drawings usually portray multi-story buildings with long rows of windows and occasionally domes on top, both architectural forms not found in traditional Chinese architecture. As it turns out, there’s an explanation for this available fairly nearby: “The Mansion of the Western Seas” was the name of a European-style palace constructed by Italian and French Jesuits for the Qianlong Emperor in the middle of the 18th century. The western mansions were constructed over a roughly twenty year period, beginning in 1749 and coming to completion in the early 1770s. The palaces were built to showcase the European concept of hydraulic-powered fountains, which the Qianlong emperor found fascinating, and to hold the extensive Imperial collection of European artifacts and exotica. The compound and the several buildings within it sat in the northern part of the Garden of Perfect Light (Yuan Ming Yuan 圓明園), a vast Qing summer palace in the fields north of Beijing, which was originally begun by the Kangxi emperor in 1690. The Mansions of the Western Seas were famously looted and then put to torch along with the rest of the Garden of Perfect Light in 1860 by the Anglo-French invasion force during the Second Opium War, in revenge for the torture and execution of British envoys. Since the European mansions were built of marble while the much vaster Chinese palace surrounding it was built of wood, the only part of the Garden of Perfect Light that survives today is the ruined masonry of these European buildings. The tumbled-down masonry is today preserved as a “national ruin”, to commemorate China’s humiliation at the hands of foreign powers during the Opium Wars.
The reader here should be aware of how exotic multi-story buildings, arcades, domes, belvederes on the roof, and other such architectural features were in China. For this we can quote the French missionary-painter Jean-Denis Attiret, in his famous epistle on the Garden of Perfect Light:
“Their Eyes are so accustom’d to their own Architecture, that they have very little Taste for ours. May I tell you what they say when they speak of it, or when they are looking over the Prints of some of our most celebrated Buildings? The Height and Thickness of our Palaces amazes them. They look upon our Streets, as so many Ways hollowed into terrible Mountains; and upon our Houses, as Rocks pointing up in the Air, and full of Holes like Dens of Bears and other wild Beasts. Above all, our different Stories, piled up so high one above another, seem quite intolerable to them: and they cannot conceive, how we can bear to run the Risk of breaking our Necks, so commonly, in going up such a Number of Steps as is necessary to climb up to the Fourth and Fifth Floors. ‘Undoubtedly’, said the Emperor Cang-hy whilst he was looking over some Plans of our European Houses, ‘this Europe must be a very small and pitiful Country; since the Inhabitants cannot find Ground enough to spread out their Towns, but are obliged to live up this high in the Air’.”
- Attiret, “A Particular Account of the Emperor of China’s Gardens near Pekin“, 1747, trans. Sir Harry Beaumont.
In any case, it’s my contention here that whoever drew these images on the opera stages of Yu County had clearly seen the western structures outside of Beijing. The following black and white engravings were made in European style by a Manchu painter named Yi Lantai 伊兰泰 in 1783, and represent the most complete record of the Mansions.
花園正面 – The Maze, from “The Delights of Harmony, p.40.
Domes are never found in Chinese architecture almost as a rule; there was at least one in the Mansion of the Western Seas, in a pavilion at the center of the maze.
海晏堂北面 – North facade of the Palace of Calm Seas, from “The Delights of Harmony”, p.46.
Long, multi-story buildings of several stories.
湖東線法畫 – Painting of perspective, east of the lake.
Receding perspective was a novelty, and one of the purposes of the Mansions of the Western Seas was to showcase this Western artistic technique. This depicts what “The Delights of Harmony” describes as, “a long basin leading to a European village painted in perspective on walls erected like a theater set” (p.9).
All this so far is a bit circumstantial. Actually the clearest indication that someone in Yu County was familiar with the buildings and ornamentation styles of the Mansion of the Western Seas comes not from the opera houses themselves but from the interior frescoes of a particular shrine to the God of Wealth 财神殿 located at the south end of a village fort in Yu County. (As usual I’m not going to say where.) These scenes flank either side of the small temple room and the main votive statue, and depict devotees bearing treasures to what is presumably the palace of the God of Wealth. The composition of the images is identical to the opera-stage drawings: a large multi-story building on the inner side of the hall with a pagoda on the outer side, and a gate or portico at the base of the structure. And one glance at the ornamentation style of the windows marks the scene as representing not only western-style architecture, but the specific quasi-baroque style of the Mansions of the Western Seas. The below color pictures come from “Yu County Temple Frescoes”, p.243.
方外觀正面 - Main Face of the Belvedere, from “The Delights of Harmony”, p.43, detail.
養雀籠東面 – East Face of the Aviary, from “The Delights of Harmony, p.42″, detail.
海晏堂北面 – North facade of the Palace of Calm Seas, from “The Delights of Harmony” p,46, detail.
So in this case it seems pretty clear – someone in Yu County was familiar with not only the general forms of western architecture, but the specific ornamentation types of the Mansions of the Western Seas. This actually sheds light on the interpretation of one of the other gate legends recorded above. One of the buildings is titled Yi Da Gong 意大宮, “The Intentions-Great Palace”. Besides just being a strange name for a palace, this isn’t any more grammatical in Chinese than it is in English – at very least it should be Da Yi Gong 大意宮 “Great-Intentions Palace” and not “Intentions-Great”. But if the building is intended to portray a baroque mansion designed by the Jesuit artist Giuseppe Castiglione, the meaning is suddenly obvious. The full title should be Yidali Gong 意大利宮 “The Italian Palace”. The Chinese painter in Yu County, finding “Italy” a mouthful, simply lopped off the -li in Yidali and gave the palace a two-character name that sounds much more acceptably Chinese.
The Italian Palace
As for how some lowly village painter in Yu County would have found his way into the Emperor’s own summer palace, Attiret’s letter, quoted above, presents something of both the problem and the solution.
… ‘Tis very fortunate for me, that I had got the little Knowledge of Painting that I have: for without this, I should have been in the same Case with several other Europeans, who have been here between Twenty and Thirty Years without being able ever to set their Feet on any Spot of this delightful Ground [the Garden of Perfect Light]. ...There is but one Man here; and that is the Emperor. All Pleasures are made for him alone. This charming Place is scarce ever seen by any body but himself, his Women, and his Eunuchs. The Princes, and other chief Men of the Country, are rarely admitted any farther than the Audience-Chambers. Of all the Europeans that are here, none ever enter’d this Inclosure, except the Clock-makers and Painters; whose Employments make it necessary that they should be admitted every where. The Place usually assign’d us to paint in, is in one of those little Palaces above-mentioned; where the Emperor comes to see us work, almost every Day: so that we can never be absent.
– Attiret, “A Particular Account of the Emperor of China’s Gardens Near Pekin“, 1743, trans. Sir Harry Beaumont.
Which is to say, nobody but the emperor, eunuchs, and concubines were allowed into the Garden of Perfect Light. The only exceptions were artisans and painters. And little Yu County, on the wrong side of the Taihang range, had nothing whatsoever in abundance other than superb artisans and builders.
The Mansions of the Western Seas must have been well known to Yu County people. The structures stood at the far northern extremity of the Gardens of Perfect Light, north of the city of Beijing and right along the normal traveling route over between Yu County and the capital. Yu County people would surely have seen the exotic, multi-story buildings rising over the garden walls as they passed to and from Beijing. And it’s conceivable that the destruction of the gardens would have made the place better known to the people of Yu County. After its vengeful sack by European troops, the 64 square miles of what was once the Qianlong Emperor’s grand pleasure gardens reverted to brush and farmland. The only buildings that still stood were the gutted marble remains of the Palaces of the Western Seas, several buildings of which were photographed still standing amid the cornfields well into the 20th century. As I hope I’ve demonstrated with this blog, Yu County people were an imaginative lot, and it’s hard to see how they could have passed by the towering ruins of strange, foreign palaces along the road to Beijing and not taken an interest. And what better to do with these curious buildings than to paint them as a kind of reverse-chinoiserie background for your opera stage?
And this gets to what’s actually interesting about these few and ruined images, drawn on the walls of dilapidated buildings in a remote Chinese county, hundreds of years ago. It turns out that in these tiny walled villages you have a miniature counter-narrative to the whole tragedy of 19th and 20th century Chinese history. Everyone knows that 19th century China behind its walls was conservative, patriarchal, and closed to the outside world. And yet in every single village these illiterate farmers built sumptuous opera stages so that they could have light, color, excitement. They loved tough, smart, working-class heroines who took up arms against the powerful and unjust, and also sometimes just had fun chasing monkeys around on the roof. And when they found themselves faced with a foreign culture, their reaction was one of admirable curiosity, openness, and imagination.
– Attiret, Jean-Denis, S.J. (1702-1768). “Lettre du Frere Attiret de la Compagnie de Jesus, Peintre au service de l’Empereur de la Chine. A M. d’Assaut. A Pekin, le 1. Novembre 1743,” in Lettres édifiantes et curieuses écrites des missions étrangères par quelques missionnaires de la compagnie de Jésus. Paris: Guérin, 1749, 27:1-61. English translation of 1752 by Joseph Spence [Sir Harry Beaumont], A Particular Account of the Emperor of China’s Gardens near Pekin; rpt. in The English Landscape Garden, ed. John Dixon Hunt (New York and London: Garland Publishing, 1982).
- Thiriez, Regine, and Karen Turner. The Delights of Harmony: The European Palaces of the Yuanmingyuan & The Jesuits at the 18th Century Court of Beijing. Ed. Ellen Lawrence. Worcester, Massachusetts: Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Art Galler & College of the Holy Cross, 1994. Print.
- 中国梆子戏剧目大辞典. 太原: 山西省戏剧研究所, 1991. Print. [Great Encyclopedia of China Bangzi Opera Titles. Taiyuan: Shanxi Province Opera Research Institute, 1991. Print.]