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A CHINESE THEATRE.
chanting of three Buddhist priests who, kneeling before a table which is covered with dishes of eatables, bronze figures and lights, are performing a funeral ceremony. There is a stolid look of mechanical devotion on their faces as they go through their genuflexions and their shrill chants, and indeed their appearance tends to confirm the statement often made by Europeans in China that the Buddhist priests are a very unintellectual and degraded class.
We pass from grave to gay by a rather rapid transition, and are soon inside the theatre, where we form part of a large audience, which fills both the galleries and the pit, and is assembled to hear a performance undertaken by boys and girls only.
What the plot of the play is we are unable to make out. There is no scenery on the stage, but the actors make use of much action, especially of the hands and wrists; the parts are recited in a high falsetto strain, approaching at times almost to a screech. There is a running accompaniment kept up of cymbals, fiddles, and pipes by four or five musicians at the back of the stage. Occasionally the voices of the players are almost drowned in a storm of discord from the unharmonious instruments. The performance concludes with a short series of tumbling and other acrobatic feats given by half a dozen of the boys.
The Chinese seem to have as intense a love of dramatic performances as the people of any western nation. They spend large sums over their theatres, and dramatic writings probably form a larger portion of Chinese literature than writings of any other class. The Government encourages the amusement, yet, strange to say, play-actors in China are legally classed with vagabonds in almost the lowest class of society, as if the tendency of the stage to demoralise the actors were even stronger in the Eastern than in the Western world.
It must not be imagined that the Chinese stage is in any way a copy of any European one: the institution has existed in the Central Flowery Land’ from time immemorial, and there are several features of it which, from their similarity to those of the Greek drama, would rather tend to prove that the two had a common origin.
Some of the plots of the Chinese plays are said to be very clever. Sir John Davis, in his work on China, states that Voltaire's 'L'Orphelin de la Chine' is founded on the Chinese play, 'The Orphan of Chaou.' The dresses worn by the actors are generally very gaudy and extravagant; and as most of their plays are historical, and supposed to have taken place before the Tartar conquest, the costumes are those of the ancient Chinese, and instead of the pig-tail, so characteristic of John Chinaman in our eyes, they show the uncut and flowing hair.
Forty miles west of the thriving British settlement of Hongkong, is the somewhat decayed Portuguese settlement of Macao. Three hours' sail in a small American steamer, along a barren, but not unpicturesque coast, brings us in sight of the promontory, jutting out southwards from the island of Hian Shan, on which this ancient European settlement is situated. The Portuguese portion of the town, with its picturesque Praya, or promenade in front of it, faces the sea to the eastwards, while the Chinese quarter lines the inner harbour, on the western side of the isthmus. North and south of the town rise abrupt but low hills, crowned with one or two forts, a monastery, and the remains of an old church. The harbour is crowded with junks, and in the outer roads are lying two or three large ships of European rig. These latter ships are engaged in the coolie trade
HONGKONG AND MACAO.
between Macao and the west coast of South America. Coolies are the most profitable, and probably the most badly used, kind of goods that are shipped from this port: the system of the trade is so bad that it was interdicted at Hongkong some years ago; and even the Peruvian Government have the question of its stoppage under consideration. Between ten and twelve thousand of these coolies are annually shipped from here; more than half of them go to work sugar plantations in Peru, and nearly all the rest are sent to the Havannahs.
Landing in Macao, we find a marked difference between its appearance and that of Hongkong. The Chinese quarter is indeed busy and prosperous, but the Portuguese portion looks like a neglected watering-place, and has only some slight advantages over the native portion in being not quite so dirty, and having a certain picturesqueness lent to its streets by its projecting balconies, and by the tasteful costume of its Portuguese duennas.
The chief revenue of the town is derived from the gambling-houses kept by the Government; though the settlement is ten times as old as that of Hongkong, it has not, except in coolies, a tenth of the trade of that port, neither natural advantages nor a good administration being there to enable it to keep up any competition with its neighbour.
Beyond the general picturesqueness of the place, there is little to interest or admire, unless it be an old cathedral, which on a saint's-day morning is filled with an array of dark duennas, with their mantas' and fans, or the grotto which is said to have been the favourite resort of Camöens, who passed some years of exile here. We need not delay here longer, especially when there is a place so full of interest as Canton within a few hours' sail of us.
• Crowded cities please us then,
From Hongkong up to Canton is a distance of ninety miles, or thereabouts, which is traversed daily by large and powerful steamers. These steamers are built after the American style of river-steamers, very broad, with a light draught and low bulwarks; the saloons, cabins, &c., being piled up in two tiers above the main deck, and looking rather as if two flats had been sliced off a large wooden house, and placed bodily on board.
Starting in one of these vessels from the Honkong wharf early one morning, we find that we have on board 500 or 600 Chinamen as fellow-passengers, besides some half-dozen Europeans or Americans. The Chinamen keep in a separate part of the vessel from the foreign passengers, and are scarcely visible after we have started, most of them stretching themselves on one of the lower decks to sleep or smoke opium. This large number of natives, availing themselves of improved means of communication and travelling, augurs well for the time when other parts of China than those immediately in connection with foreign parts shall have steamers and railways traversing them, instead of canal-boats and sedan-chairs.
We soon pass out of the harbour, and enter a narrow passage lying between the mainland and the island of
Lin Tung. The scenery here is bold and fine, and may remind one of some of the views on the west coast of Scotland, except that the water lacks colour, and there are those ugly bare patches of decayed rock on the hill-side which we could not help noticing when first approaching Honkong. Two hours' steaming brings us abreast of the Bogue Forts, whose shattered walls still remain as they were left by British guns fifteen years ago. Once past the forts, the low paddy-fields within a mile of each side of the vessel show that we are really inside the river's mouth. Going rapidly up with a favourable tide, we reach-within five hours of leaving Hongkong- Whampoa, the highest point to which merchant sailing-vessels at present penetrate.
In another hour, after threading our way through a swarm of junks, and rounding a bend of the river, we come in full sight of Canton; or, as the proper Chinese name has it, Kwang-chow-fu, Canton being merely the English or Portuguese corruption of Quan-tung, the name of the province of which the city is the capital.
The first view of the city and of the river in front of it is both novel and curious. Masses of rickety wooden houses, of which each seems to be threatening to fall upon its neighbour, line the river bank on either side, while further in from the river and much higher than these poor houses, rise up here and there tall square buildings of blueish-gray brick, the only buildings in the city—if we except the Pagoda, and the new Roman Catholic Cathedral in course of erection-of any elevation.
Two or three miles from the river, and immediately behind the city, to the north, is a hill of about 300 feet in height, surmounted by a low and broad pagoda, up to which from each side runs the city wall. But what are the tall buildings which we have mentioned as most con