On a Chinese Screen, also known as On a Chinese Screen: Sketches of Life in China, is a travel book by W. Somerset Maugham, first published in 1922. It is a series of short sketches Maugham made during a trip along the Yangtze River in 1919-1920, and although ostensibly about China the book is equally focused on the various westerners he met during the trip and their struggles to accept or adapt to the cultural differences they encounter, which are often as enormous and as alienating as the country itself.
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THE RISING OF THE CURTAIN
YOU COME TO THE ROW of hovels that leads to the gate of the city. They are built of dried mud and so dilapidated that you feel a breath of wind will lay them flat upon the dusty earth from which they have been made. A string of camels, heavily laden, steps warily past you. They wear the disdainful air of profiteers forced to traverse a world in which many people are not so rich as they. A little crowd, tattered in their blue clothes, is gathered about the gate and it scatters as a youth in a pointed cap gallops up on a Mongolian pony. A band of children are chasing a lame dog and they throw clods of mud at it. Two stout gentlemen in long black gowns of figured silk and silk jackets stand talking to one another. Each holds a little stick, perched on which, with a string attached to its leg, is a little bird. They have brought out their pets for an airing and in friendly fashion compare their merits. Now and then the birds give a flutter into the air, the length of the string, and return quickly to their perch. The two Chinese gentlemen, smiling, look at them with soft eyes. Rude boys cry out at the foreigner in a shrill and scornful voice. The city wall, crumbling, old and crenellated, looks like the city wall in an old picture of some Palestinish town of the Crusaders.
You pass through the gateway into a narrow street lined with shops: many of them with their elegant lattice work, red and gold, and their elaborate carving, have a peculiar ruined magnificence, and you imagine that in their dark recesses are sold all manner of strange wares of the fabulous East. A great multitude surges along the uneven narrow footwalk or in the deepset street; and coolies, bearing heavy loads, shout for way in short sharp cries. Hawkers with guttural sound call their wares.
And now at a sedate pace, drawn by a sleek mule, comes a Peking cart. Its hood is bright blue and its great wheels are studded with nails. The driver sits with dangling legs on a shaft. It is evening and the sun sets red behind the yellow, steep, and fantastic roof of a temple. The Peking cart, the blind in front drawn down, passes silently and you wonder who it is that sits cross-legged within. Perhaps it is a scholar, all the learning of the classics at his finger ends, bound on a visit to a friend with whom he will exchange elaborate compliments and discuss the golden age of Tang and Sung which can return no more; perhaps it is a singing girl in splendid silks and richly embroidered coat, with jade in her black hair, summoned to a party so that she may sing a little song and exchange elegant repartee with young blades cultured enough to appreciate wit. The Peking cart disappears into the gathering darkness: it seems to carry all the mystery of the East.
MY LADY’S PARLOUR
“I really think I can make something of it,” she said.
She looked about her briskly, and the light of the creative imagination filled her eyes with brightness.
It was an old temple, a small one, in the city, which she had taken and was turning into a dwelling house. It had been built for a very holy monk by his admirers three hundred years before, and here in great piety, practising innumerable austerities, he had passed his declining days. For long after in memory of his virtue the faithful had come to worship, but in course of time funds had fallen very low and at last the two or three monks that remained were forced to leave. It was weather-beaten and the green tiles of the roof were overgrown with weeds. The raftered ceiling was still beautiful with its faded gold dragons on a faded red; but she did not like a dark ceiling, so she stretched a canvas across and papered it. Needing air and sunlight, she cut two large windows on one side. She very luckily had some blue curtains which were just the right size. Blue was her favourite colour: it brought out the colour of her eyes. Since the columns, great red sturdy columns, oppressed her a little she papered them with a very nice paper which did not look Chinese at all. She was lucky also with the paper with which she covered the walls. It was bought in a native shop, but really it might have come from Sandersons’; it was a very nice pink stripe and it made the place look cheerful at once. At the back was a recess in which had stood a great lacquer table and behind it an image of the Buddha in his eternal meditation. Here generations of believers had burned their tapers and prayed, some for this temporal benefit or that, some for release from the returning burden of earthly existence; and this seemed to her the very place for an American stove. She was obliged to buy her carpet in China, but she managed to get one that looked so like an Axminster that you would hardly know the difference. Of course, being hand-made, it had not quite the smoothness of the English article, but it was a very decent substitute. She was able to buy a very nice lot of furniture from a member of the Legation who was leaving the country for a post in Rome, and she got a nice bright chintz from Shanghai to make loose covers with. Fortunately she had quite a number of pictures, wedding presents and some even that she had bought herself, for she was very artistic, and these gave the room a cosy look. She needed a screen and here there was no help for it, she had to buy a Chinese one, but as she very cleverly said, you might perfectly well have a Chinese screen in England. She had a great many photographs, in silver frames, one of them of a Princess of Schleswig-Holstein, and one of the Queen of Sweden, both signed, and these she put on the grand piano, for they give a room an air of being lived in. Then, having finished, she surveyed her work with satisfaction.
“Of course it doesn’t look like a room in London,” she said, “but it might quite well be a room in some nice place in England, Cheltenham, say, or Tunbridge Wells.”
THE MONGOL CHIEF
HEAVEN KNOWS FROM WHAT MYSTERIOUS distance he had come. He rode down the winding pathway from the high Mongolian plateau with the mountains, barren, stony, and inaccessible, stretching on all sides, an impenetrable barrier; he rode down past the temple that guarded the head of the pass till he came to the old river bed which was the gateway into China. It was hedged in by the foothills brilliant under the morning sun, with sharp shadows; and the innumerable traffic of the centuries had formed on that stony floor a rough road. The air was keen and clear, the sky was blue. Here all the year round from daybreak till sundown, passed an unending stream, camels in caravan bearing the brick tea to Urga seven hundred miles away and so to Siberia, long lines of wagons drawn by placid bullocks, and little carts in twos and threes behind stout ponies; and in the contrary direction, into China, again camels in caravan bringing hides to the markets of Peking, and wagons in long procession. Now a mob of horses went by and then a flock of goats. But his eyes did not rest on the various scene. He seemed not to notice that others were travelling the pass. He was accompanied by his henchmen, six or seven of them, somewhat bedraggled it is true, on sorry nags, but they had a truculent air. They ambled along in a slovenly bunch. He was dressed in a black silk coat and black silk trousers thrust into his long riding boots with their turned-up toes, and on his head he wore the high sable cap of his country. He held himself erect, riding a little ahead of his followers, proudly, and as he rode, his head high and his eyes steady, you wondered if he thought that down this pass in days gone by his ancestors had ridden, ridden down upon the fertile plain of China where rich cities lay ready to their looting.
THE ROLLING STONE
I HEARD HIS EXTRAORDINARY STORY before I saw him and I expected someone of striking appearance. It seemed to me that anyone who had gone through such singular experiences must have in his outer man something singular too. But I found a person in whose aspect there was nothing remarkable. He was smaller than the average, somewhat frail, sun-burned, with hair beginning to turn grey though he was still under thirty, and brown eyes. He looked like anybody else, and you might see him half a dozen times before remembering who he was. If you had happened upon him behind the counter of a department store or on a stool in a broker’s office you would have thought him perfectly in place. But you would have noticed him as little as you noticed the counter or the stool. There was so little in him to attract attention that in the end it became intriguing: his face, empty of significance, reminded you of the blank wall of a Manchu palace, in a sordid street, behind which you knew were painted courtyards, carved dragons, and heaven knows what subtle intricacy of life.
For his whole career was remarkable. The son of a veterinary surgeon, he had been a reporter in the London police courts and then had gone as steward on board a merchant ship to Buenos Ayres. There he had deserted and somehow or other had worked his way across South America. From a port in Chili he managed to get to the Marquesas where for six months he had lived on the natives always ready to offer hospitality to a white man, and then, begging a passage on a schooner to Tahiti, had shipped to Amoy as second mate of an old tub which carried Chinese labour to the Society Islands.
That was nine years before I met him and since then he had lived in China. First he got work with the B.A.T. Company, but after a couple of years he found it monotonous; and having acquired a certain knowledge of the language he entered the employment of a firm which distributed patent medicines through the length and breadth of the land. For three years he wandered in province after province, selling pills, and at the end of it had saved eight hundred dollars. He cut himself adrift once more.
He began then the most remarkable of his adventures. He set out from Peking on a journey right across the country, travelling in the guise of a poor Chinaman, with his roll of bedding, his Chinese pipe, and his tooth-brush. He stayed in the Chinese inns, sleeping on the kangs huddled up with fellow wayfarers, and ate the Chinese food. This alone is no mean feat. He used the train but little, going for the most part on foot, by cart, or by river. He went through Shensi and Shansi; he walked on the windy plateaus of Mongolia and risked his life in barbaric Turkestan; he spent long weeks with the nomads of the desert and travelled with the caravans that carried the brick tea across the arid wilderness of Gobi. At last, four years later, having spent his last dollar he reached Peking once more.
He set about looking for a job. The easiest way to earn money seemed to write, and the editor of one of the English papers in China offered to take a series of articles on his journey. I suppose his only difficulty was to choose from the fulness of his experience. He knew much which he was perhaps the only Englishman to know. He had seen all manner of things, quaint, impressive, terrible, amusing, and unexpected. He wrote twenty-four articles. I will not say that they were unreadable, for they showed a careful and a sympathetic observation; but he had seen everything at haphazard, as it were, and they were but the material of art. They were like the catalogue of the Army and Navy Stores, a mine to the imaginative man, but the foundation of literature rather than literature itself. He was the field naturalist who patiently collects an infinity of facts, but has no gift for generalisation: they remain facts that await the synthesis of minds more complicated than his. He collected neither plants nor beasts, but men. His collection was unrivalled, but his knowledge of it slender.
When I met him I sought to discern how the variety of his experience had affected him; but though he was full of anecdote, a jovial, friendly creature, willing to talk at length of all he had seen, I could not discover that any of his adventures had intimately touched him. The instinct to do all the queer things he had done showed that there was in him a streak of queerness. The civilised world irked him and he had a passion to get away from the beaten trail. The oddities of life amused him. He had an insatiable curiosity. But I think his experiences were merely of the body and were never translated into experiences of the soul. Perhaps that is why at bottom you felt he was commonplace. The insignificance of his mien was a true index to the insignificance of his soul. Behind the blank wall was blankness.
That was certainly why with so much to write about he wrote tediously, for in writing the important thing is less richness of material than richness of personality.
THE CABINET MINISTER
HE RECEIVED ME IN A long room looking on to a sandy garden. The roses withered on the stunted bushes and the great old trees flagged forlorn. He sat me down on a square stool at a square table and took his seat in front of me. A servant brought cups of flowered tea and American cigarettes. He was a thin man, of the middle height, with thin, elegant hands; and through his gold-rimmed spectacles he looked at me with large, dark, and melancholy eyes. He had the look of a student or of a dreamer. His smile was very sweet. He wore a brown silk gown and over it a short black silk jacket, and on his head a billycock hat.
“Is it not strange,” he said, with his charming smile, “that we Chinese wear this gown because three hundred years ago the Manchus were horsemen?”
“Not so strange,” I retorted, “as that because the English won the battle of Waterloo Your Excellency should wear a bowler.”
“Do you think that is why I wear it?”
“I could easily prove it.”
Since I was afraid that his exquisite courtesy would prevent him from asking me how, I hastened in a few well-chosen words to do so.
He took off his hat and looked at it with the shadow of a sigh. I glanced round the room. It had a green Brussels carpet, with great flowers on it, and round the walls were highly carved blackwood chairs. From a picture rail hung scrolls on which were writings by the great masters of the past, and to vary these, in bright gold frames, were oil paintings which in the nineties might very well have been exhibited in the Royal Academy. The minister did his work at an American roll-top desk.
He talked to me with melancholy of the state of China. A civilisation, the oldest the world had known, was now being ruthlessly swept away. The students who came back from Europe and from America were tearing down what endless generations had built up, and they were placing nothing in its stead. They had no love of their country, no religion, no reverence. The temples, deserted by worshipper and priest, were falling into decay and presently their beauty would be nothing but a memory.
But then, with a gesture of his thin, aristocratic hands, he put the subject aside. He asked me whether I would care to see some of his works of art. We walked round the room and he showed me priceless porcelains, bronzes, and Tang figures. There was a horse from a grave in Honan which had the grace and the exquisite modelling of a Greek work. On a large table by the side of his desk was a number of rolls. He chose one and holding it at the top gave it to me to unroll. It was a picture of some early dynasty of mountains seen through fleecy clouds, and with smiling eyes he watched my pleasure as I looked. The picture was set aside and he showed me another and yet another. Presently I protested that I could not allow a busy man to waste his time on me, but he would not let me go. He brought out picture after picture. He was a connoisseur. He was pleased to tell me the schools and periods to which they belonged and neat anecdotes about their painters.
“I wish I could think it was possible for you to appreciate my greatest treasures,” he said, pointing to the scrolls that adorned his walls. “Here you have examples of the most perfect calligraphies of China.”
“Do you like them better than paintings?” I asked.
“Infinitely. Their beauty is more chaste. There is nothing meretricious in them. But I can quite understand that a European would have difficulty in appreciating so severe and so delicate an art. Your taste in Chinese things tends a little to the grotesque, I think.”
He produced books of paintings and I turned their leaves. Beautiful things! With the dramatic instinct of the collector he kept to the last the book by which he set most store. It was a series of little pictures of birds and flowers, roughly done with a few strokes, but with such a power of suggestion, with so great a feeling for nature and such a playful tenderness, that it took your breath away. There were sprigs of plum-blossom that held in their dainty freshness all the magic of the spring; there were sparrows in whose ruffled plumage were the beat and the tremor of life. It was the work of a great artist.
“Will these American students ever produce anything like this?” he asked with a rueful smile.
But to me the most charming part of it was that I knew all the time that he was a rascal. Corrupt, inefficient, and unscrupulous, he let nothing stand in his way. He was a master of the squeeze. He had acquired a large fortune by the most abominable methods. He was dishonest, cruel, vindictive, and venal. He had certainly had a share in reducing China to the desperate plight which he so sincerely lamented. But when he held in his hand a little vase of the colour of lapis lazuli his fingers seemed to curl about it with a charming tenderness, his melancholy eyes caressed it as they looked, and his lips were slightly parted as though with a sigh of desire.
I: LEGATION QUARTER
THE SWISS DIRECTOR OF THE Banque Sino-Argentine was announced. He came with a large, handsome wife, who displayed her opulent charms so generously that it made you a little nervous. It was said that she had been a cocotte, and an English maiden lady (in salmon pink satin and beads) who had come early, greeted her with a thin and frigid smile. The Minister of Guatemala and the Chargé d’Affaires of Montenegro entered together. The Chargé d’Affaires was in a state of extreme agitation; he had not understood that it was an official function, he thought he had been asked to dine en petit comité, and he had not put on his orders. And there was the Minister of Guatemala blazing with stars! What in heaven’s name was to be done? The emotion caused by what for a moment seemed almost a diplomatic incident was diverted by the appearance of two Chinese servants in long silk robes and four-sided hats with cocktails and zakouski. Then a Russian princess sailed in. She had white hair and a black silk dress up to her neck. She looked like the heroine of a play by Victorien Sardou who had outlived the melodramatic fury of her youth and now did crochet. She was infinitely bored when you spoke to her of Tolstoi or Chekov; but grew animated when she talked of Jack London. She put a question to the maiden lady which the maiden lady, though no longer young, had no answer for.
“Why,” she asked, “do you English write such silly books about Russia?”
But then the first secretary of the British Legation appeared. He gave his entrance the significance of an event. He was very tall, baldish but elegant, and he was beautifully dressed: he looked with polite astonishment at the dazzling orders of the Minister of Guatemala. The Chargé d’Affaires of Montenegro, who flattered himself that he was the best dressed man in the diplomatic body, but was not quite sure whether the first secretary of the British Legation thought him so, fluttered up to him to ask his candid opinion of the frilled shirt he wore. The Englishman placed a gold-rimmed glass in his eye and looked at it for a moment gravely; then he paid the other a devastating compliment. Everyone had come by now but the wife of the French Military Attaché. They said she was always late.
“Elle est insupportable,” said the handsome wife of the Swiss banker.
But at last, magnificently indifferent to the fact that she had kept everyone waiting for half an hour, she swam into the room. She was tall on her outrageously high heels, extremely thin, and she wore a dress that gave you the impression that she had nothing on at all. Her hair was bobbed and blonde, and she was boldly painted. She looked like a post-impressionist’s idea of patient Griselda. When she moved the air was heavy with exotic odours. She gave the Minister of Guatemala a jewelled, emaciated hand to kiss; with a few smiling words made the banker’s wife feel passée, provincial, and portly; flung an improper jest at the English lady whose embarrassment was mitigated by the knowledge that the wife of the French Military Attaché was très bien née; and drank three cocktails in rapid succession.
Dinner was served. The conversation varied from a resonant, rolling French to a somewhat halting English. They talked of this Minister who had just written from Bucharest or Lima, and that Counsellor’s wife who found it so dull in Christiania or so expensive in Washington. On the whole it made little difference to them in what capital they found themselves, for they did precisely the same things in Constantinople, Berne, Stockholm and Peking. Entrenched within their diplomatic privileges and supported by a lively sense of their social consequence, they dwelt in a world in which Copernicus had never existed, for to them sun and stars circled obsequiously round this earth of ours, and they were its centre. No one knew why the English lady was there and the wife of the Swiss director said privately that she was without doubt a German spy. But she was an authority on the country. She told you that the Chinese had such perfect manners and you really should have known the Empress Dowager; she was a perfect darling. You knew very well that in Constantinople she would have assured you that the Turks were such perfect gentlemen and the Sultana Fatima was a perfect dear and spoke such wonderful French. Homeless, she was at home wherever her country had a diplomatic representative.
The first secretary of the British Legation thought the party rather mixed. He spoke French more like a Frenchman than any Frenchman who ever lived. He was a man of taste, and he had a natural aptitude for being right. He only knew the right people and only read the right books; he admired none but the right music and cared for none but the right pictures; he bought his clothes at the right tailor’s and his shirts from the only possible haberdasher. You listened to him with stupefaction. Presently you wished with all your heart that he would confess to a liking for something just a little vulgar: you would have felt more at your ease if only with bold idiosyncrasy he had claimed that The Soul’s Awakening was a work of art or The Rosary a masterpiece. But his taste was faultless. He was perfect and you were half afraid that he knew it, for in repose his face had the look of one who bears an intolerable burden. And then you discovered that he wrote vers libre. You breathed again.
II: AT A TREATY PORT
There was about the party a splendour which has vanished from the dinner tables of England. The mahogany groaned with silver. In the middle of the snowy damask cloth was a centrepiece of yellow silk such as you were unwillingly constrained to buy in the bazaars of your prim youth and on this was a massive épergne. Tall silver vases in which were large chrysanthemums made it possible to catch only glimpses of the persons opposite you, and tall silver candlesticks reared their proud heads two by two down the length of the table. Each course was served with its appropriate wine, sherry with the soup and hock with the fish; and there were the two entrées, a white entrée and a brown entrée, which the careful housekeeper of the nineties felt were essential to a properly arranged dinner.
Perhaps the conversation was less varied than the courses, for guests and hosts had seen one another nearly every day for an intolerable number of years and each topic that arose was seized upon desperately only to be exhausted and followed by a formidable silence. They talked of racing and golf and shooting. They would have thought it bad form to touch upon the abstract and there were no politics for them to discuss. China bored them all, they did not want to speak of that; they only knew just so much about it as was necessary to their business, and they looked with distrust upon any man who studied the Chinese language. Why should he unless he were a missionary or a Chinese Secretary at the Legation? You could hire an interpreter for twenty-five dollars a month and it was well known that all those fellows who went in for Chinese grew queer in the head. They were all persons of consequence. There was number one at Jardine’s with his wife, and the manager of the Hong-Kong and Shanghai Bank with his wife, the A.P.C. man and his wife, and the B.A.T. man with his wife, and the B.&S. man with his wife. They wore their evening clothes a little uneasily as though they wore them from a sense of duty to their country rather than as a comfortable change from day dress. They had come to the party because they had nothing else in the world to do, but when the moment came that they could decently take their leave they would go with a sigh of relief. They were bored to death with one another.
THE ALTAR OF HEAVEN
IT STANDS OPEN TO THE sky, three round terraces of white marble, placed one above the other, which are reached by four marble staircases, and these face the four points of the compass. It represents the celestial sphere with its cardinal points. A great park surrounds it and this again is surrounded by high walls. And hither, year after year, on the night of the winter solstice, for then heaven is reborn, generation after generation came the Son of Heaven solemnly to worship the original creator of his house. Escorted by princes and the great men of the realm, followed by his troops, the emperor purified by fasting proceeded to the altar. And here awaited him princes and ministers and mandarins, each in his allotted place, musicians and the dancers of the sacred dance. In the scanty light of the great torches the ceremonial robes were darkly splendid. And before the tablet on which were inscribed the words: Imperial Heaven—Supreme Emperor, he offered incense, jade, and silk, broth and rice spirit. He knelt and knocked his forehead against the marble pavement nine times.
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