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Two Years in the Forbidden City by The Princess Der Ling

Part 5 out of 5

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Majesty asked if I had noticed this lady with the clothes made out
of "rice bags," and wasn't it rather unusual to be presented at
Court in such a dress. Her Majesty wanted to know who she was and
where she came from. I replied that she certainly did not belong
to any of the Legations as I was acquainted with everybody there.
Her Majesty said that whoever she was she certainly was not
accustomed to moving in decent society as she (Her Majesty) was
quite certain that it was not the thing to appear at a European
Court in such a costume. "I can tell in a moment," Her Majesty
added, "whether any of these people are desirous of showing proper
respect to me, or whether they consider that I am not entitled to
it. These foreigners seem to have the idea that the Chinese are
ignorant and that therefore they need not be so particular as in
European Society. I think it would be best to let it be understood
for the future what dress should be worn at the different Court
Functions, and at the same time use a certain amount of discretion
in issuing invitations. In that way I can also keep the missionary
element out, as well as other undesirables. I like to meet any
distinguished foreigners who may be visiting in China, but I do
not want any common people at my Court." I suggested that the
Japanese custom could be followed, viz.: to issue proper
invitation cards, stipulating at the foot the dress to be worn on
each particular occasion. Her Majesty thought this would meet the
case and it was decided to introduce a similar rule in China.

Whenever the weather permitted, Her Majesty would pass quite a lot
of her time in the open air watching the eunuchs at work in the
gardens. During the early Spring the lotus plants were
transplanted and she would take keen interest in this work. All
the old roots had to be cut away and the new bulbs planted in
fresh soil. Although the lotus grew in the shallowest part of the
lake (the West side) it was necessary for the eunuchs to wade into
the water sometimes up to their waists in order to weed out the
old plants and set the young ones. Her Majesty would sit for hours
on her favorite bridge (The Jade Girdle Bridge) and superintend
the eunuchs at their work, suggesting from time to time as to how
the bulbs were to be planted. This work generally took three or
four days, and the Court ladies in attendance would stand beside
Her Majesty and pass the time making fancy tassels for Her
Majesty's cushions, in fact doing anything so long as we did not

It was during the Spring that Yuan Shih Kai paid another visit to
the Palace, and among other subjects discussed was the Russo-Japan
war. He told Her Majesty that it was developing into a very
serious affair and that he feared China would be the principal
sufferer in the long run. Her Majesty was very much upset by this
news, and mentioned that she had been advised by one of the
censors to make a present to the Japanese of a large quantity of
rice, but had decided to take no action whatever in the matter,
which resolve Yuan Shih Kai strongly supported.

I was still working each day translating the various newspaper
reports and telegrams relating to the war and one morning, seeing
a paragraph to the effect that Kang Yu Wei (Leader of the Reform
Movement in China in 1898) had arrived at Singapore from Batavia,
I thought it might interest Her Majesty and so translated it along
with the rest. Her Majesty immediately became very much excited
which made me feel frightened as I did not know what could be the
matter. However, she explained to me that this man had caused all
kinds of trouble in China, that before meeting Kang Yu Wei the
Emperor had been a zealous adherent to the traditions of his
ancestors but since then had plainly shown his desire to introduce
reforms and even Christianity into the country. "On one occasion,"
continued Her Majesty, "he caused the Emperor to issue
instructions for the Summer Palace to be surrounded by soldiers so
as to keep me prisoner until these reforms could be put into
effect, but through the faithfulness of Yung Lu, a member of the
Grand Council, and Yuan Shill Kai, Viceroy of Chihli, I was able
to frustrate the plot. I immediately proceeded to the Forbidden
City, where the Emperor was then staying and after discussing the
question with him he replied that he realized his mistake and
asked me to take over the reins of government and act in his

(The result of this was, of course, the Edict of 1898 appointing
the Empress Dowager as Regent of China.)

Her Majesty had immediately ordered the capture of Kang Yu Wei and
his followers, but he had managed to effect his escape and she had
heard nothing further about him until I translated this report in
the newspaper. She seemed relieved, however, to know where he was,
and seemed anxious to hear what he was doing. She suddenly became
very angry again and asked why it was that the foreign governments
offered protection to Chinese political agitators and criminals.
Why couldn't they leave China to deal with her own subjects and
mind their own business a little more? She gave me instructions to
keep a lookout for any further news of this gentleman and report
to her immediately, but I made up my mind that in any case, I
would not mention anything about him again and so the matter
gradually died away.

During one of our visits to the Sea Palace Her Majesty drew
attention to a large piece of vacant ground and said that it had
formerly been the site of the Audience Hall which had been
destroyed by fire during the Boxer trouble. Her Majesty explained
that this had been purely an accident and was not deliberately
destroyed by the foreign troops. She said that it had long been an
eyesore to her as it was so ugly, and that she had now determined
to build another Audience Hall on the same site, as the present
Audience Hall was too small to accommodate the foreign guests when
they paid their respects at New Year. She therefore commanded the
Board of Works to prepare a model of the new building in
accordance with her own ideas, and submit it for her approval. Up
to that time all the buildings in the Palace Grounds were
typically Chinese but this new Audience Hall was to be more or
less on the foreign plan and up to date in every respect. This
model was accordingly prepared and submitted to Her Majesty. It
was only a small wooden model but was complete in every detail,
even to the pattern of the windows and the carving on the ceilings
and panels. However, I never knew anything to quite come up to Her
Majesty's ideas, and this was no exception. She criticised the
model from every standpoint, ordering this room to be enlarged and
that room to be made smaller: this window to be moved to another
place, etc., etc. So the model went back for reconstruction. When
it was again brought for Her Majesty's inspection everybody agreed
that it was an improvement on the first one, and even Her Majesty
expressed great satisfaction. The next thing was to find a name
for the new building and after serious and mature consideration it
was decided to name it Hai Yen Tang (Sea Coast Audience Hall).
Building operations were commenced immediately and Her Majesty
took great interest in the progress of the work. It had already
been decided that this Audience Hall was to be furnished
throughout in foreign style, with the exception of the throne,
which, of course, retained its Manchu appearance. Her Majesty
compared the different styles of furniture with the catalogues we
had brought with us from France and finally decided on the Louis
Fifteenth style, but everything was to be covered with Imperial
Yellow, with curtains and carpets to match. When everything had
been selected to Her Majesty's satisfaction, my mother asked
permission to defray the expense herself and make a present of
this furniture. This Her Majesty agreed to and the order was
accordingly placed with a well-known Paris firm from whom we had
purchased furniture when in France. By the time the building was
completed the furniture had arrived, and it was quickly installed.
Her Majesty went to inspect it and, of course, had to find fault
as usual. She didn't seem at all pleased with the result of the
experiment and said that after all a Chinese building would have
been the best as it would have had a more dignified appearance.
However, the thing was finished and it was no use finding fault
now, as it could not be changed.

During the Summer months I had plenty of leisure time and devoted
about an hour each day to helping the Emperor with his English. He
was a most intelligent man with a wonderful memory and learned
very quickly. His pronunciation, however, was not good. In a very
short time he was able to read short stories out of an ordinary
school reader and could write from dictation fairly well. His
handwriting was exceptionally fine, while in copying old English
and ornamental characters, he was an expert. Her Majesty seemed
pleased that the Emperor had taken up this study, and said she
thought of taking it up herself as she was quite sure she would
learn it very quickly if she tried. After two lessons she lost
patience, and did not mention the matter again.

Of course these lessons gave me plenty of opportunity to talk with
His Majesty, and on one occasion he ventured the remark that I
didn't seem to have made much progress with Her Majesty in the
matter of reform. I told him that many things had been
accomplished since my arrival at Court, and mentioned the new
Audience Hall as an instance. He didn't appear to think that
anything worth talking about, and advised me to give up the matter
altogether. He said when the proper time arrived--if it ever did
arrive--then I might be of use, but expressed grave doubts on the
subject. He also enquired about my father and I told him that
unless his health improved very soon it would be necessary for us
to leave the Court for a while at any rate. He replied that
although he should very much regret such a necessity, he really
believed that it would be for the best. He said he felt certain
that I should never be able to settle down permanently to Court
life after spending so many years abroad, and for his part would
put no obstacles in the way of my leaving the Court if I desired
to do so.

Her Majesty had given me permission to visit my father twice every
month, and everything appeared to be going along nicely until one
day one of Her Majesty's servant girls told me that Her Majesty
was trying to arrange another marriage for me. At first I did not
take any notice of this, but shortly afterwards Her Majesty
informed me that everything was arranged and that I was to be
married to a certain Prince whom she had chosen. I could see that
Her Majesty was waiting for me to say something, so I told her
that I was very much worried at that time about my father and
begged her to allow the matter to stand over for the time being at
any rate. This made Her Majesty very angry, and she told me that
she considered me very ungrateful after all she had done for me. I
didn't reply, and as her Majesty did not say anything more at the
time, I tried to forget about it. However, on my next visit home,
I told my father all about it, and as before he was strongly
opposed to such a marriage. He suggested that on my return to the
Palace I should lay the whole matter before Li Lien Ying, the head
eunuch, and explain my position, for if anybody could influence
Her Majesty, he was the one. I, therefore, took the first
opportunity of speaking to him. At first he appeared very
reluctant to interfere in the matter, and said he thought I ought
to do as Her Majesty wished, but on my stating that I had no
desire to marry at all, but was quite willing to remain at Court
in my present position, he promised to do his best for me. I never
heard anything further about my marriage, either from Her Majesty
or Li Lien Ying, and therefore concluded that he had been able to
arrange the matter satisfactorily.

The Summer passed without anything further important occurring.
During the eighth moon the bamboos were cut down and here again
the Court ladies were called upon to assist, our work being to
carve designs and characters on the cut trees, Her Majesty
assisting. These were afterwards made into chairs, tables and
other useful articles for Her Majesty's teahouse. During the long
Autumn evenings Her Majesty would teach us Chinese history and
poetry and every tenth day would put us through an examination in
order to find out how much we had learned, prizes being awarded
for proficiency. The younger eunuchs also took part in these
lessons and some of their answers to Her Majesty's questions were
very amusing. If Her Majesty were in a good humor she would laugh
with the rest of us, but sometimes she would order them to be
punished for their ignorance and stupidity. However, as they were
quite accustomed to being punished they did not seem to mind very
much and forgot all about it the next minute.

As Her Majesty's seventieth birthday was approaching the Emperor
proposed to celebrate this event on an unusually grand scale, but
Her Majesty would not give her consent to this proposal on account
of the war trouble, for fear people might comment on it. The only
difference, therefore, between this birthday and former ones was
that Her Majesty gave presents to the Court, in addition to
receiving them. These included the bestowal of titles, promotions
and increases in salary. Among the titles conferred by Her
Majesty, my sister and myself received the title of Chun Chu Hsien
(Princess). These titles, however, were confined to members of the
Court, and were granted specially by the Empress Dowager. Similar
promotions to outside officials were always conferred by the
Emperor. It was proposed to hold the celebrations in the Forbidden
City as it was more suited for such an important event. However,
Her Majesty did not like this idea at all, and gave instructions
that the Court should not be moved until three days before the
10th of the tenth moon, the date of her birthday. This entailed a
lot of unnecessary work as it necessitated decorating both the
Summer Palace and the Forbidden City. Everything was hurry and
bustle. To add to this, it snowed very heavily during the few days
previous to the tenth. Her Majesty was in a very good mood. She
was very fond of being out in the snow and expressed a wish to
have some photographs taken of herself on the hillside. So my
brother was commanded to bring his camera, and took several very
good pictures of Her Majesty.

On the seventh day the Court moved into the Forbidden City and the
celebrations commenced. The decorations were beautiful; the
Courtyards being covered with glass roofs to keep out the snow.
The theatres were in full swing each day. The actual ceremony,
which took place on the tenth, did not differ in any respect from
previous ones. Everything passed off smoothly, and the Court
removed again into the Sea Palace.

While at the Sea Palace we received news that my father's
condition was becoming serious, and he again tendered his
resignation to Her Majesty. She sent her eunuchs to find out
exactly what the matter was, and on learning that he was really
very ill, accepted his resignation. Her Majesty agreed that it
might be better for him to go to Shanghai and see if the foreign
physicians could do him any good. She said she supposed it would
be necessary for my mother to accompany him to Shanghai, but did
not consider it serious enough to send my sister and myself along
also. I tried to explain that it was my duty to go along with him
as he might be taken worse and die before I could get down to see
him again, and I begged Her Majesty to allow me to go. She offered
all kinds of objections but eventually, seeing that I was bent on
going, she said: "Well, he is your father, and I suppose you want
to be with him, so you may go on the understanding that you return
to Court as soon as ever possible." We did not get away until the
middle of the eleventh moon, as Her Majesty insisted on making
clothes for us and other preparations for our journey. Of course
we could do nothing but await Her Majesty's pleasure.

When everything was ready Her Majesty referred to her book to
choose a suitable day for our departure, and fixed on the
thirteenth as being the best. We therefore left the Palace for our
own house on the twelfth. We kowtowed and said good-bye to Her
Majesty, thanking her for her many kindnesses during our stay with
her. Everybody cried, even Her Majesty. We then went to say
good-bye to the Emperor and Young Empress. The Emperor simply
shook hands and wished us "Good Luck" in English. Everybody
appeared sorry to see us leave. After standing about for a long
time Her Majesty said it was no use wasting any more time and that
we had better start. At the gate the head eunuch bade us good-bye
and we entered our carriage and drove to my father's house, our
own eunuchs accompanying us to the door. We found everything
prepared for our journey, and early the next morning we took train
to Tientsin where we just managed to catch the last steamer of the
season leaving for Shanghai. As it was, the water was so shallow
that we ran aground on the Taku bar.

On arrival in Shanghai my father immediately consulted his
physician who examined him and prescribed medicine. The trip
itself seemed to have done him a lot of good. I very soon began to
miss my life at Court, and, although I had many friends in
Shanghai and was invited to dinner parties and dances; still I did
not seem to be able to enjoy myself. Everything seemed different
to what I had been accustomed to in Peking and I simply longed for
the time when I should be able to return to Her Majesty. About two
weeks after our arrival, Her Majesty sent a special messenger down
to Shanghai to see how we were getting along. He brought us many
beautiful presents and also a lot of medicine for my father. We
were very glad to see him. He informed us that we were missed very
much at Court and advised us to return as soon as it was possible
for us to do so. As my father began to show signs of improvement
he suggested that there was no further need for me to stay in
Shanghai, and thought it better that I should return to Peking and
resume my duties at Court. I therefore returned early in the New
Year. The river was frozen and I had to travel by boat to
Chinwantao, from thence by rail to Peking. It was a most miserable
journey and I was very glad when it was over. Her Majesty had sent
my eunuchs to the station to meet me and I at once proceeded to
the Palace. On meeting Her Majesty we both cried again by way of
expressing our happiness. I informed her that my father was
progressing favorably and that I hoped to be able to remain with
her permanently.

I resumed my previous duties, but this time I had neither my
sister for a companion nor my mother to chat with and everything
appeared changed. Her Majesty was just the same, however, and
treated me most kindly. Still, I was not comfortable, and heartily
wished myself back again in Shanghai. I stayed at the Court, going
through pretty much the same daily routine as before until the
second moon (March 1905), when I received a telegram summoning me
to Shanghai as my father had become worse, and was in a critical
condition and wished to see me. I showed Her Majesty the telegram
and waited for her decision. She commenced by telling me that my
father was a very old man, and therefore his chances of recovery
were not so great as if he were younger, finally winding up by
telling me that I could go to him at once. I again wished
everybody good-bye, fully expecting to return very soon; but this
was not to be. I found my father in a very dangerous condition,
and after a lingering illness, he died on the 18th of December,
1905. Of course we went into mourning for one hundred days which
in itself prevented my returning to the Court.

While in Shanghai I made many new friends and acquaintances and
gradually began to realize that after all, the attractions of
Court life had not been able to eradicate the influences which had
been brought to bear upon me while in Europe. At heart I was a
foreigner, educated in a foreign country, and, having already met
my husband the matter was soon settled and I became an American
citizen. However, I often look back to the two years I spent at
the Court of Her Majesty, the Empress Dowager of China, the most
eventful and happiest days of my girlhood.

Although I was not able to do much towards influencing Her Majesty
in the matter of reform, I still hope to live to see the day when
China shall wake up and take her proper place among the nations of
the world.

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