During a late visit to Boston, I visited with great pleasure the Chinese Museum which has been opened there, and which will be seen to still greater advantage in New-York next Summer, because there will be more room to display to advantage its rich contents.
There was great pleasure in surveying there, if merely on account of their splendor and elegance, which, though fantastic according to our tastes, presented an obvious standard of its own by which to prize it. The rich dresses of the imperial court, the magnificent jars, the largest worth three hundred dollars, and looking as if it was worth much more, the present-boxes and ivory work, the elegant interiors of the home and counting-room—all these gave pleasure by their perfection, each in its kind.
But the chief impression was of that unity of existence, so opposite to the European, and, for a change, so pleasant from its repose and gilded lightness. Their imperial majesties do really seem so “perfectly serene” that we fancy we might become so, under their sway, if not “thoroughly virtuous,” as they profess to be. Entirely a new mood would be ours, as we should sup in one of those pleasure boats by the light of those fanciful lanterns, or listen to the tinkling of those Pagoda bells.
The highest conventional refinement of a certain kind is apparent in all that belongs to the Chinese. The inviolability of custom has not made their life heavy but shaped it to the utmost adroitness for their own purposes. We are now somewhat familiar with their literature, and we see pervading it a poetry subtle and aromatic, like the odors of their appropriate beverage. Like that, too, it is all domestic—never wild. The social genius, fluttering on the wings of compliment, pervades every thing Chinese. Society has molded them body and soul, the youngest children are more social and Chinese than human, and we doubt not the infant, with its first cry, shows its capacity for self-command and obeisance to superiors.
Their great man, Confucius, expresses this social genius in its most perfect state and highest form. His golden wisdom is the quintessence of social justice. He never forgets conditions and limits; he is admirably wise, pure and religious, but never towers above humanity—never soars into solitude. There is no token of the forest or cave in Confucius. Few men could understand him because his nature was so thoroughly balanced and his rectitude so pure; not because his thoughts were too deep or high for them. In him should be sought the best genius of the Chinese, with that perfect practical good sense whose uses are universal.
At one time I used to change from reading Confucius to one of the great religious books of another Eastern nation, and it was always like leaving the street and the palace for the blossoming forest of the East, where in earlier times we are told the angels walked with men and talked, not of earth, but of Heaven.
As we looked at the forms moving about in the Museum, we could not wonder that the Chinese consider us, who call ourselves the civilized world, barbarians, so deficient were those forms in the sort of refinement that the Chinese prize above all. And our people deserve it for their senselessness in viewing them as barbarians, instead of seeing how perfectly they represent their own idea. They are inferior to us in important developments, but on the whole, approach far nearer their own standard than we do to ours. And it is wonderful that an enlightened European can fail to prize the sort of beauty they do develop. Sets of engravings we have seen representing the culture of the tea plant have brought to us images of an entirely original idyllic loveliness. One long resident in the country has observed that nothing can be more enchanting than the smile of love on the regular but otherwise expressionless face of a Chinese woman. It has the simplicity and abandonment of infantine, with the fullness of mature feeling. It never varies, but it does not tire.
The same sweetness and elegance, stereotyped now, but having originally a deep root in their life as a race, may be seen in their poetry and music.—The last we heard, both from the voice and several instruments, at this Museum for the first time, and were at first tempted to laugh, when something deeper forbade. Like true poetry, the music is of the narrowest monotony, a kind of rosary, a repetition of phrases, and, in its enthusiasm and conventional excitement, like nothing else in the heavens or on the earth. Yet both the poetry and music have in them an expression of birds, roses and moonlight; indeed they suggest that state “where music and moonlight and feeling are one,” though the soul seems to twitter, rather than sing of it.
It is wonderful with how little practical insight travelers in China look on what they see. They seem to be struck by points of repulsion at once, and neither see nor tell us what could give us any real clue to their facts. I do not speak now of the recent lecturers in this city, for I have not heard them; but of the many, many books into which I have earlier looked with eager curiosity—in vain! I always found the same external facts, and the same prejudices which disabled the observer from piercing beneath them. I feel that I know something of the Chinese when I read Confucius, or look at the figures on their tea-cups, or drink a cup of genuine tea—rather an unusual felicity, it is said, in this ingenious city, which shares with the Chinese one trait at least. But the travelers rather take from than add to this knowledge, and a visit to this Museum would give more clear views than all the books I ever read yet.
The juggling was well done, and so solemnly, with the same concentrated look as the music. I saw the juggler afterwards at Ole Bull’s concert, and he moved not a muscle while the nightingale was pouring forth its sweetest descant. Probably the avenues wanted for these strains to enter his heart, had been closed by Imperial Edict long ago. The resemblance borne by this juggler to our Indians is even greater than we have seen in any other case. His brotherhood does not, to us, seem surprising. Our Indians, too, are stereotyped, though in a different way; they are of a mold capable of retaining the impression through ages, and many of the traits of the two races, or two branches of a race, may be seen to be identical, though so widely modified by circumstances. They are all opposite to us, who have made ships and balloons, and magnetic telegraphs as symbolic expressions of our wants and the means of gratifying them. We must console ourselves with these and our organs and pianos for our want of perfect good breeding, serenity and “thorough virtue.”*
“The Celestial Empire.” New-York Daily Tribune, 13 November 1845, p. 2.