Imaginary Conversations and Poems, by Walter Savage Landor

The Emperor of China and Tsing-Ti

On the morrow I was received at the folding-doors by Pru–Tsi, and ushered by him into the presence of his majesty the Emperor, who was graciously pleased to inform me that he had rendered thanks to Almighty God for enlightening his mind, and for placing his empire far beyond the influence of the persecutor and fanatic. ‘But,’ continued his majesty, ‘this story of the sorcerer’s man quite confounds me. Little as the progress is which the Europeans seem to have made in the path of humanity, yet the English, we know, are less cruel than their neighbours, and more given to reflection and meditation. How then is it possible they should allow any portion of their fellow-citizens to be hoodwinked, gagged, and carried away into darkness, by such conspirators and assassins? Why didst thou not question the man thyself?’

Tsing–Ti. I did, O Emperor! and his reply was, ‘We can bury such only as were in the household of the faith. It would be a mockery to bid those spirits go in peace which we know are condemned to everlasting fire.’

Emperor. Amazing! have they that? Who invented it? Everlasting fire! It surely might be applied to better purposes. And have those rogues authority to throw people into it? In what part of the kingdom is it? If natural, it ought to have been marked more plainly in the maps. The English, no doubt, are ashamed of letting it be known abroad that they have any such places in their country. If artificial, it is no wonder they keep such a secret to themselves. Tsing–Ti, I commend thy prudence in asking no questions about it; for I see we are equally at a loss on this curiosity.

Tsing–Ti. The sorcerer has a secret for diluting it. Oysters and the white of eggs, applied on lucky days, enter into the composition; but certain charms in a strange language must also be employed, and must be repeated a certain number of times. There are stones likewise, and wood cut into particular forms, good against this eternal fire, as they believe. The sorcerer has the power, they pretend, of giving the faculty of hearing and seeing to these stones and pieces of wood; and when he has given them the faculties, they become so sensible and grateful, they do whatever he orders. Some roll their eyes, some sweat, some bleed; and the people beat their breasts before them, calling themselves miserable sinners.

Emperor. Sinners is not the name I should have given them, although no doubt they are in the right.

Tsing–Ti. Sometimes, if they will not bleed freely, nor sweat, nor roll their eyes, the devouter break their heads with clubs, and look out for others who will.

Emperor. Take heed, Tsing–Ti! Take heed! I do believe thou art talking all the while of idols. Thou must be respectful; remember I am head of all the religions in the empire. We have something in our own country not very unlike them, only the people do not worship them; they merely fall down before them as representatives of a higher power. So they say.

Tsing–Ti. I do not imagine they go much farther in Europe, excepting the introduction of this club-law into their adoration.

Emperor. And difference enough, in all conscience. Our people is less ferocious and less childish. If any man break an idol here for not sweating, he himself would justly be condemned to sweat, showing him how inconvenient a thing it is when the sweater is not disposed. As for rolling the eyes, surely they know best whom they should ogle; as for bleeding, that must be regulated by the season of the year. Let every man choose his idol as freely as he chooses his wife; let him be constant if he can; if he cannot, let him at least be civil. Whoever dares to scratch the face of any one in my empire, shall be condemned to varnish it afresh, and moreover to keep it in repair all his lifetime.

Tsing–Ti. In Europe such an offence would be punished with the extremities of torture.

Emperor. Perhaps their idols cost more, and are newer. Is there no chance, in all their changes, that we may be called upon to supply them with a few?

Tsing–Ti. They have plenty for the present, and they dig up fresh occasionally.

Emperor. In regard to the worship of idols, they have not a great deal to learn from us; and what is deficient will come by degrees as they grow humaner. But how little care can any ruler have for the happiness and improvement of his people, who permits such ferocity in the priesthood. If its members are employed by the government to preside at burials, as according to thy discourse I suppose, a virtuous prince would order a twelvemonth’s imprisonment, and spare diet, to whichever of them should refuse to perform the last office of humanity toward a fellow-creature. What separation of citizen from citizen, and necessarily what diminution of national strength, must be the consequence of such a system! A single act of it ought to be punished more severely than any single act of sedition, not only as being a greater distractor of civic union, but, in its cruel sequestration of the best affections, a fouler violator of domestic peace. I always had fancied, from the books in my library, that the Christian religion was founded on brotherly love and pure equality. I may calculate ill; but, in my hasty estimate, damnation and dog-burial stand many removes from these.

‘Wait a little,’ the Emperor continued: ‘I wish to read in my library the two names that my father said are considered the two greatest in the West, and may vie nearly with the highest of our own country.’

Whereupon did his majesty walk forth into his library; and my eyes followed his glorious figure as he passed through the doorway, traversing the gallery of the peacocks, so called because fifteen of those beautiful birds unite their tails in the centre of the ceiling, painted so naturally as to deceive the beholder, each carrying in his beak a different flower, the most beautiful in China, and bending his neck in such a manner as to present it to the passer below. Traversing this gallery, his majesty with his own hand drew aside the curtain of the library door. His majesty then entered; and, after some delay, he appeared with two long scrolls, and shook them gently over the fish-pond, in this dormitory of the sages. Suddenly there were so many splashes and plunges that I was aware of the gratification the fishes had received from the grubs in them, and the disappointment in the atoms of dust. His majesty, with his own right hand, drew the two scrolls trailing on the marble pavement, and pointing to them with his left, said:

‘Here they are; Nhu–Tong: Pa–Kong. Suppose they had died where the sorcerer’s men held firm footing, would the priests have refused them burial?’

I bowed my head at the question; for a single tinge of red, whether arising from such ultra-bestial cruelty in those who have the impudence to accuse the cannibals of theirs, or whether from abhorrent shame at the corroding disease of intractable superstition, hereditary in the European nations for fifteen centuries, a tinge of red came over the countenance of the emperor. When I raised up again my forehead, after such time as I thought would have removed all traces of it, still fixing my eyes on the ground, I answered:

‘O Emperor! the most zealous would have done worse. They would have prepared these great men for burial, and then have left them unburied.’

Emperor. So! so! they would have embalmed them, in their reverence for meditation and genius, although their religion prohibits the ceremony of interring them.

Tsing–Ti. Alas, sire, my meaning is far different. They would have dislocated their limbs with pulleys, broken them with hammers, and then have burnt the flesh off the bones. This is called an act of faith.

Emperor. Faith, didst thou say? Tsing–Ti, thou speakest bad Chinese: thy native tongue is strangely occidentalized.

Tsing–Ti. So they call it.

Emperor. God hath not given unto all men the use of speech. Thou meanest to designate the ancient inhabitants of the country, not those who have lived there within the last three centuries.

Tsing–Ti. The Spaniards and Italians (such are the names of the nations who are most under the influence of the spells) were never so barbarous and cruel as during the first of the last three centuries. The milder of them would have refused two cubits of earth to the two philosophers; and not only would have rejected them from the cemetery of the common citizens, but from the side of the common hangman; the most ignorant priest thinking himself much wiser, and the most enlightened prince not daring to act openly as one who could think otherwise. The Italians had formerly two illustrious men among them; the earlier was a poet, the later a philosopher; one was exiled, the other was imprisoned, and both were within a span of being burnt alive.

Emperor. We have in Asia some odd religions and some barbarous princes, but neither are like the Europeans. In the name of God! do the fools think of their Christianity as our neighbours in Tartary (with better reason) think of their milk; that it will keep the longer for turning sour? or that it must be wholesome because it is heady? Swill it out, swill it out, say I, and char the tub.

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Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:38