restricted access Introduction
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In the early autumn morning of the 18th of September 1793, Lord Macartney and his entourage waited to be ushered into the imperial summer retreat at Rehe to take part in the celebration of the Qianlong 乾隆 emperor’s eighty-second birthday. It was a long day; the drama performance itself lasted five hours. The stage was gigantic, with three levels; the number of actors was enormous; the props were magnificent and the special effects were spectacular. However, Macartney (1737–1806) and the others had no idea what it was all about. There were many scenes of fish, turtles and other sea creatures, and they guessed it must have had something to do with the marriage between the ocean and land. They could not have been more wrong. A major episode in the program that day was about them, the British delegation. The main character, the God of Literature, introduced them: The country of Yingjili 英吉利, gazing in admiration at Your Imperial Majesty, sincerely presents its tribute to the court. That country is several times further away than Vietnam. Some people have travelled from there with great difficulty for several years, and yet they have not always succeeded in reaching the shores of China. The boats of this tribute mission, however, departed in the first month of the New Year, and by the sixth month they had already reached the area around the capital. Oh Sage Son of Heaven, this is due to your benevolence and virtue reaching Heaven, so the ten thousand spiritual essences are obedient to your will. If they did not have some supernatural being to escort them, how could their voyage be so swift and easy? Whatever Macartney’s view of his visit was, the message was clear: to the Chinese, he was a guest from afar who had come to visit the mighty Emperor of China and pay tribute to him. This particular drama was entitled Ascendant Peace in the Four Seas (Sihai shengping 四海昇平) and was specially commissioned for the Introduction 2 Introduction occasion of the Macartney visit. The script was carefully checked by Qianlong (1711–1799) himself; amended and punctuated with his vermillion brush. It contains both mythological creatures and certain facts. Macartney and the delegation were not aware that one detail in the drama indicated that they would have to go home very soon after the banquet and entertainment. The clear message was that they would not be able to stay in Peking to discuss their mission with Heshen 和珅 (d. 1799) as they had hoped. However, since they did not grasp the implications of the story line of the drama, they only learnt this devastating news after returning to Peking. The Qing court, especially Qianlong, used drama extensively for ritual and political purposes. Drama performance on the occasions of visits by foreigners was only one of them. Of the five imperial rites, jili 吉禮 (auspicious rites), jiali 嘉禮 (felicitous rites), junli 軍禮 (martial rites), binli 賓禮 (protocol rites) and xiongli 凶禮 (inauspicious rites), only the last, which dealt with funerals and disasters, did not involve the performance of ritual drama. Qianlong provided a complete set of ritual dramas, in fact a complete set of palace rituals, for succeeding emperors to follow. Drama as a political tool The use of drama or other entertainment to serve political needs was by no means an invention of the Qing court. John Francis Davis (1795–1890), an associate of the East India Company in Canton and later Governor of Hong Kong (1844–1848), made no secret of the fact that he considered the translation of Chinese drama scripts essential to the success of British mercantile and military interests. The drama he chose to translate was Autumn in the Palace of the Han (Hangongqiu 漢宮秋), a Yuan 元 drama based on the Wang Zhaojun 王昭君 legend and the discord between the Han 漢 dynasty and the Xiongnu. His view was that this could be used to generalise Tartar and Chinese conflicts and thereby provide a rationale for Britain’s mid-nineteenth century wars against China.1 Even during the very short period of Yuan Shikai’s 袁世凱 (1859–1916) provisional presidency, he ordered a script writer to compile a Peking opera, The Mirror of Evil (Niejingtai 孽鏡台). Revolutionary figures such as Sun Yat-sen 孫中山 (1866–1925), Huang Xing 黃興 (1874–1916), and Qiu Jin 秋瑾 (1875–1907) were portrayed as beasts, and the Four Great Warrior Attendants who defeated them represented the warlords Zhang Xun 張勳 Introduction 3 (1854–1923), Duan Qirui 段祺瑞 ([1864]–1936), and Feng Guozhang 馮國 璋 (1859–1919). Some of the best actors...