While visiting Wuxi as a Fulbright Lecturer, my hosts took me to visit the former residence of Xue Fucheng, a Wuxi native, Qing Dynasty reform thinker, provincial administrator and Chinese diplomat in the late 19th century. Touring the many rooms, courtyards and gardens with a guide provided an interesting insight into imperial life.
I became intrigued by four Chinese symbols that in the l960s Red Guards had chiseled from a granite frieze above an entrance. The Chinese characters identified four key criteria of imperial examinations: “pàn” represented judgment, “yán” stood for logical thinking and “shū” evaluated writing technique. Evidently Xue Fucheng’s calligraphy was not up to imperial standards, as demonstrated with writing samples in an exhibit, and he failed to achieve a higher rank at the time.
The last standard was “xíng,” referring to the official countenance or the authoritative appearance of the man seeking advancement. In my early years in the Navy, “command presence” appeared on an officer’s fitness report, which I’d deem equivalent to the imperial assessment.
During the Qing Dynasty, the emperor alone could wear robes embroidered with a five-clawed dragon. Commoners could only depict four-clawed and three-clawed dragons. The Qing emperors even portrayed a large dragon on the national flag of China. In China the dragon represents strength, protection and good fortune, a masculine symbol. However, in the West our myths illustrate dragons as fire-breathing, aggressive and destructive beasts. During a trip to Greece several years ago, I bought an icon depicting Saint Demetrius of Thessaloniki slaying a dragon with his lance.
Likewise, only the Empress could wear the emblem of the phoenix bird, generally viewed as a female symbol. The penalty for lesser officials and common people using the five-clawed dragon or phoenix was death! However, I learned how the wealthy would slightly alter the images to avoid evoking the emperor’s—or empress’—wrath, when I visited some old Chinese mansions in other cities. Likewise, to get around the emperor’s restrictions on the number of rooms in the homes of lesser officials, Xue Fucheng used a novel two-pillar construction technique in designing his sprawling mansion.
The family received important visitors and friends in Wuben Hall. It intrigued me that three doors, all with wooden stoops to step over, provided entry to the room. The height of the stoop reflected the official imperial rank of the host. Only visitors of an equivalent rank or higher could use the center entrance, which was then lowered or a step was provided for their passage. Lower-ranking guests had to use one of the side doors.
Women were secluded during the Qing Dynasty, enjoying their own courtyard and housing area. A separate open courtyard featured a stage and tiny garden for theatrical and musical performances. Xue Fucheng’s plans for the mansion also included a library and many gardens with ponds, pavilions, flowers and statues to enjoy while sipping tea, discussing public affairs or simply reflecting. Since he had visited England, Xue Fucheng even included a separate billiard room, featuring a large snooker table he bought in London.
Xue Fucheng served as the emperor’s Envoy Extraordinary to Europe, traveling to England, France, Belgium and Italy in the late l9th century. As a learned scholar, he maintained a diary about his observations and China’s concerns that he presented to European governments. His observations were frank, often noting the clear differences between China’s values and those he encountered in the Western countries he visited.
His European diary was translated into English and can be read on the Internet. One passage particularly struck me as amusing. In his February 12, 1893, diary entry, he contrasted the centrality of the family under Confucianism to his reflection on the impact of Western religion on the role of the family in Europe.
I’ve condensed the passage to present the key points: “Traditionally, the Chinese believe that each family should keep its lineage intact. It is firmly believed that a childless couple will become hungry ghosts, because they will have no one to visit their graves to offer food to their spirits.”
He continued, “By contrast, it’s not unusual to see high-ranking Western government officials who remain bachelors in their advanced years…. They do not consider it important to have children. Their reason is apparently due to their faith in Jesus, whose preaching advocates that spirits require no food.”
A fascinating observation that highlights how cultural differences between East and West can skewer our respective understanding of another nation.