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Two Years in the Forbidden City By Princess Der Ling Characters: 22747

Updated: 2017-11-28 00:06

THE building where we had our rooms, as I have said before, contained four large rooms and a hall, and we three, my mother, sister and myself, each took a room and gave the fourth to our maids. Her Majesty had ordered a eunuch to accompany us and this eunuch told us that Her Majesty had ordered four young eunuchs to attend on us and that if they did not behave, we should tell him. He also said his name was Li, but as there were so many by this name, including the head eunuch, it was very hard to tell them apart.

When we arrived, which took some time, he pointed to a building on our right and said that it was Her Majesty's own Palace and the one which we had just left. I could not understand why it had taken us so long to come, when the Palace was so near, and asked him about it. He told us that our little buildings were at the left side of the Emperor's Palace and that Her Majesty had had the entrance leading from our place to her Palace closed up for certain reasons which he would not tell, but said: "You see this place ought to face East instead of towards the lake." The view on the lake was beautiful and I told him I liked it much better the way it was. He smiled and said: "You will have to learn a lot before you find out this wicked place." I was surprised at what the eunuch said, but did not like to ask him any questions. He also told us that the Emperor's Palace was just behind our place and was a large building similar to Her Majesty's Palace. We looked and could see the trees of his courtyard above the roof. Then he pointed to another building behind the Emperor's, which was larger but lower than the Emperor's Palace, and also had a large courtyard, and said it was the Young Empress's Palace. It had two buildings flanking it on each side and the eunuch told us that the one on the left was the Secondary Wife's bedroom. That there had been an entrance between the two Palaces, but that Lao Fo Yeh (The great old Buddha), as the eunuchs called Her Majesty, had blocked it up so that the Emperor and Empress could not communicate with each other, except through Her Majesty's own Palace. I suppose this was the way she kept watch over them and knew at all times what they were doing. This was all news to me and I did not know what to think of it. I was afraid that this eunuch Li would tell me more of these curious things, so I told him I was tired and would go to my room and rest, and he went away.

When I finally got inside my room and had a chance to look around, I saw that it was very prettily furnished with ebonywood furniture, which was covered with red satin cushions and the windows were hung with red silk curtains. All the bedrooms were just alike. The kong (bed) was made of brick covered with the same kind of wood and ran along the wall under the front window. It had high teaster posts with slats running across on which red curtains were hung. These kongs are very curiously built. They are made of brick and have a hole in the front center in which fire is placed to heat the brick in winter time. During the day a sort of table is placed on top of the kong and removed again at night.

Shortly after we had gone to our rooms, some eunuchs came and brought our dinner, which they placed on a table in the center of the hall. They told us the food had been sent by Her Majesty and that she had ordered them to tell us to make ourselves comfortable. We were so tired that we could not eat very much and were about to retire for the night when this eunuch Li came again and told us that we must be up at five o'clock, not later, so I told my eunuch to knock on my window at five. Immediately after this we went to bed, but did not sleep immediately, as we wanted to talk over the events of the day, which had been many and strange. After we did finally get to bed, it seemed as if we had just fallen asleep when I heard someone knocking on my window. I woke up with a start and asked what the matter was and a eunuch told me it was five o'clock and time to get up.

I immediately got up and opened my window and looked out. The day was just dawning and the sky was a beautiful deep red which was reflected in the lake, which was perfectly calm. The scenery was lovely and in the distance I could see Her Majesty's peony mountain, which was literally covered with these beautiful flowers. I dressed at once and went to Her Majesty's Palace and there met the Young Empress sitting on the veranda. I courtesied to her as a good morning salute. The Emperor's Secondary wife was there also, but we had been ordered not to courtesy to her, as she was considered not to have any standing there. There was also a number of young Court ladies, many of whom I had never seen before. The Young Empress introduced me to them, saying that they were also Court ladies. They were daughters of high Manchu officials and some were very pretty and bright. The Young Empress told me that these ten (there were just ten there) were never allowed to go near Her Majesty, as they were just learning the court etiquette. They were all dressed very nicely in pretty Manchu gowns, the same design as that worn by the Young Empress.

After I had been introduced to these young ladies and talked with them a while, I went inside with the Young Empress and there met Sze Gurgur, fourth daughter of Prince Ching and a young widow twenty-four years of age, Yuen Da Nai Nai, widow of Her Majesty's nephew. Both were busy getting things ready for Her Majesty. The Young Empress told us that we must go at once to Her Majesty's bedroom and assist Her Majesty to dress, so we went at once and courtesied to her and said: "Lao Tsu Tsung Chi Hsiang" (old ancestor, all joy be with you). Her Majesty was still in bed and smiled to us and asked us if we had slept well. We told her the rooms were very comfortable, etc. I thought to myself, we had slept very well for the little time we had, but I had not had half enough. The day before had been very hard for us and we were quite unused to it and it had made us very lame and sore running around so much.

She asked us if we had had any breakfast and we told her not yet. She scolded Li for not having given the order for our breakfast to be brought to our rooms and said: "You must not feel like strangers, order anything you may want." Then she arose and started to dress. She put on her white silk socks first, having slept in her pantaloons as is the custom, and tied them at the ankle with pretty ribbon. I must tell you here that although she always slept in her clothes, she changed them for clean ones every day. Then she put on a pale pink shirt of soft material and over that a short silk gown, that was embroidered with bamboo leaves, as she always wore low heeled shoes in the morning and consequently could not wear her long gowns. After she had dressed she walked over to a window in front of which were two long tables covered with toilet articles of every kind and description.

As she was washing her face and dressing her hair, she said to my mother that she could not bear to have the servant girls, eunuchs, or old women, touch her bed, that they were dirty, so the Court ladies must make it. When she said this she turned to my sister and myself, we were standing a little to one side, and said: "You two must not think for a moment that the Court ladies do servant's work, but you know I am an old woman and could easily be your grandmother and it will do you no harm to work a little for me. When it comes your turn, you can superintend the others and don't have to do the work with your own hands." Then Her Majesty said to me: "Der Ling you are a great help to me in every way and I make you my first lady-in-waiting. You must not work too much for you will have to make all the arrangements for the audiences for foreigners and you will have to interpret for me. I also want you to look after my jewels and don't want you to do rough work at all. Roon Ling (my sister) can choose what she likes to do. I have two more besides you, Sze Gurgur and Yuen Da Nai Nai, making four altogether and you must all work together. It is not necessary to be too polite to them and if they are not nice to you, you let me know." Although I was very happy at receiving this appointment, I knew that according to custom I must refuse it, so I thanked Her Majesty very kindly for the honor she had given me and said that I did not know enough to hold such an important position and would prefer to be just an ordinary Court lady, and that I would learn as quickly as possible to be useful to her. She hardly let me finish what I was saying, when she laughed and said: "Stop! don't say anything like that; you are too modest, which shows you are very clever and not a bit conceited. I am surprised to see what a perfect little Manchu lady you are, knowing even such small etiquette as this, although you have spent many years outside of China." She was very fond of making fun and liked very much to tease, and said that I could try and if she saw that I could not do the work, she would scold me and put someone else in my place. After all this that she had said, I accepted the appointment and went over to her bed to see how it was made, and I found that it was very easy work to do. As this would be one of my duties, I watched while the bed was being fixed. First of all, after Her Majesty had risen, the bedclothes were taken out into the courtyard by the eunuchs and aired, then the bed, which was made of beautifully carved wood, was brushed off with a sort of whiskbroom, and a piece of felt placed over it. Then three thick mattresses made of yellow brocade were placed over the felt. After this came the sheets made of different colored soft silk, and over the whole thing was placed a covering of plain yellow satin embroidered with gold dragons and blue clouds. She had a great many pillows, all beautifully embroidered, which were placed on the bed during the daytime; but had a particular one stuffed with tea leaves on which she slept. It is said that stuffing the pillow on which you sleep with tea leaves is good for the eyes. In addition to all these, she had another very curiously shaped pillow about twelve inches long in the middle of which was a hole about three inches square. It was stuffed with dried flowers, and the idea of the hole was that when she laid on it she could place her ear in this hole and in this way hear any and every sound. I suppose in that way no one could come on her unawares.

Besides this last yellow embroidered cover, there were six covers of different colors, pale mauve, blue, pink, green and violet, and were placed one on top of the other. Over the top of the bed was a frame of wood handsomely carved and from this frame white crepe curtains, beautifully embroidered, hung, and numerous little gauze silk bags filled with scent were suspended from the carved work of the frame. The odor from these bags was very strong and made one feel sick until they became used to it. Her Majesty was also very fond of musk and used it on all occasions.

It took us about fifteen minutes to make the bed, and when I had finished, I turned around and saw that Her Majesty was dressing her hair. I stood beside her Majesty while the eunuch was dressing it and saw that as old as she was, she still had beautiful long hair which was as

soft as velvet and raven black. She parted it in the center and brought it low at the back of her ears, and the back braid was brushed up on the top of her head and made it into a tight knot. When she had finished doing this, she was ready to have the Gu'un Dzan (Manchu headdress) placed on and pinned through the knot with two large pins. Her Majesty always dressed her hair first and then washed her face. She was as fussy and particular as a young girl and would give it to the eunuch if he did not get it just to suit her. She had dozens of bottles of all kinds of perfume, also perfumed soap. When she had finished washing her face, she dried it on a soft towel and sprayed it with a kind of glycerine made of honey and flower petals. After that she put some kind of strong scented pink powder on her face.

When she had completed her toilet, she turned to me and said: "It must seem to you quite funny to see an old lady like me taking so much care and pains in dressing and fixing up. Well! I like to dress myself up and to see others dress nicely. It always gives me pleasure to see pretty girls dressed nicely; it makes you want to be young again yourself." I told her that she looked quite young and was still beautiful, and that although we were young we would never dare compare ourselves with her. This pleased her very much, as she was very fond of compliments, and I took great pains that morning to study her and to find out what she liked and what she didn't.

After this Her Majesty took me into another room and showed me where her jewels were kept. This room was covered with shelves on three sides of the room from top to bottom, on which were placed piles of ebony boxes all containing jewels. Small yellow strips were pasted on some of the boxes on which was written the contents. Her Majesty pointed to a row of boxes on the right side of the room and said: "Here is where I keep my favorite everyday jewels, and some day you must go over them and see that they are all there. The rest are all jewels which I wear on special occasions. There are about three thousand boxes in this room and I have a lot more locked up in my safety room, which I will show you when I am not busy." Then she said: "I am sorry you cannot read and write Chinese, otherwise I would give you a list of these things and you could keep a check on them." I was very much surprised at this and wondered who had told her I couldn't. I was anxious to know, but did not dare to ask her, so I told her that although I was not a scholar, I had studied Chinese for some time and could read and write a little, that if she would give me a list I would try and read it. She said: "That is funny, someone told me the first day you were here, I forget now who it was, that you could not read or write your own language at all." While she was saying this, she was looking all around the room and I was sure she knew who it was that had told her, but she would not tell me. Then she said: "When we have time this afternoon, I will go over this list with you. Bring me those five boxes on the first row of shelves." I brought the boxes to her room and placed them on the table. She opened the first one and it contained a most beautiful peony made of coral and jade and each petal trembled like a real flower. This flower was made by stringing the petals which were made of coral on very fine brass wire, also the leaves which were made of pure jade. She took this flower and placed it on the right side of her headdress. Then she opened another box and took from it a magnificent jade butterfly made in the same way. This was an invention of her own and it was done by carving the coral and jade into petals and leaves and boring holes in the lower ends through which brass wire was run. The other two boxes contained bracelets and rings of different patterns. There was a pair of gold bracelets set with pearls, another pair set with jade, with a piece of jade hanging from the end of a small gold chain, etc. The last two contained chains of pearls, the like of which I never saw before, and I fell in love with them at once. Her Majesty took one which was made into a plum blossom string by winding a circle of five pearls around a larger one, then one single pearl, then another circle of five pearls around a large one, and so on, making quite a long chain, which she suspended from one of the buttons of her gown.

At this juncture one of the Court ladies came in carrying several gowns for Her Majesty to select from. She looked at them and said that none of them suited her, to take them back and bring more. I had a look at them and thought they were perfectly lovely, such pretty colors and so beautifully embroidered. In a short while the same Court lady came back carrying more, and from these Her Majesty selected a sea-green one embroidered all over with white storks. She put this gown on and looked at herself in the mirror for a while, then took off her jade butterfly. She said: "You see I am very particular about little details. The jade butterfly is too green and it kills my gown. Put it back in the box and bring me a pearl stork in No. 35 box." I went back to the jewel room and fortunately found No. 35 box and brought it to her. She opened the box and took from it a stork made entirely of pearls set in silver, the bird's bill being made of coral. The pearls making the body of the bird were so cleverly set that the silver could not be seen at all unless one looked at it very closely. It was a most magnificent piece of workmanship and the pearls were of perfect color and shape. Her Majesty took it and placed it in her hair and did look very graceful and pretty. Then she picked out a mauve-colored short jacket, also embroidered with storks, which she put on over her gown. Her handkerchief and shoes were also embroidered with storks and when she was entirely dressed she looked like the stork lady.

Just as she had finished dressing, the Emperor Kwang Hsu came into the bedroom dressed in his official clothes. These clothes were exactly like other official clothes, except that he had no button on his hat and did not wear the peacock feather. He knelt down before Her Majesty and said: "Chin Baba, Chi Hsiang" (dear father, all joy be with you). It may seem curious that the Emperor and all of us should call Her Majesty father, and the reason why this was done was because Her Majesty always wanted to be a man and compelled everyone to address her as if she were actually one. This was only one of her many peculiarities.

I did not know whether to courtesy to the Emperor or not, not having received any orders as to what I should do. However, I thought it better to be too polite than not enough, so I waited until either he or Her Majesty went out of the room, as we were not allowed to salute or courtesy to anyone in her presence. In a little while the Emperor went out and I followed him out into the hall and just as I was in the act of courtesying Her Majesty came out. She looked at me in a very peculiar way, as if she did not approve of what I had done, but said nothing. I felt very uncomfortable and made up my mind that being too polite did not always pay after all.

I then returned to the room again and saw a small eunuch placing several yellow boxes on a table at the left side of the room. Her Majesty seated herself in a large chair, which was called her little throne, and this eunuch opened the boxes, took a yellow envelope from each box and handed them to Her Majesty. She opened these envelopes with an ivory paper knife and read their contents. They were memorials from the heads of the different Boards, or from the Viceroys of the different Provinces. The Emperor had come back and was standing at the side of this table and after she had finished reading, she handed them over to him. While all this was being done I stood at the back of her chair. I watched the Emperor as the different papers were handed to him and noticed that it did not take him very long to finish reading their contents. After he was finished reading the papers, they were placed back in the boxes. During all this time absolute silence was maintained. Just as they had finished the head eunuch came in, knelt down and announced that Her Majesty's chair was ready. She immediately got up and went out of the house, we following her, and I took her arm while she was descending the steps to go to her chair. When she had entered the chair to go to the Audience Hall, the Emperor and Young Empress and we all followed in our usual places, the eunuchs, amahs and servant girls carrying all the things exactly the same as was done the first day I came to the Palace. When we arrived at the Audience Hall, we took our places behind the big screen and the audience commenced. I was very curious to find out just how the audiences were conducted and wanted to listen to what was going on, but the Court ladies would not leave me alone. However, when they were all talking together with my sister, I stole away into a corner where I could sit and rest and listen to the conversation between the different Ministers and Her Majesty. Trust a woman for being inquisitive.

The first part of the audience I could not hear very well, as so many people were whispering and talking at the same time, but by peeping through the carved-work of the screen, I could see a General talking to Her Majesty. I also saw the members of the Grand Council come in headed by Prince Ching, who was the Councillor-in-Chief. After the General had finished, Her Majesty talked with Prince Ching about the appointment of some minor officials, a list of whose names had been handed to her. She looked over this list and spoke about several of the people, but Prince Ching suggested some others, saying: "Although these people whose names have been submitted to Your Majesty should receive appointments, those that I have suggested are better fitted for the positions." Her Majesty said: "All right, I leave it all to you." Then I heard Her Majesty say to the Emperor, "Is that correct?" and he replied, "Yes." This finished the Audience for the morning and the Ministers and Grand Councillors took their leave. We came out from behind the screen to Her Majesty and she said that she wanted to go for a walk to get some fresh air. The servant girls brought her a mirror, placed it on a table, and Her Majesty took off her heavy headdress, leaving the simple knot on the top of her head, which was quite becoming. She wanted to change some of the flower jewels and I opened a box which one of the eunuchs had brought and took out some very dainty flowers made of pearls. I handed her one which she placed at the side of this knot, then she selected a jade dragonfly which she placed on the other side. She said these small flowers were favorites of hers and she liked to wear them when she took off her heavy headdress. I was watching her very closely and wondered what I was going to do with the flowers she had taken off. I had not brought the boxes to put them in, as I did not know she was going to change again after the audience, and felt a little nervous as to what was the right thing to do, or as to what she would say. However, I saw a eunuch come in carrying these boxes and felt much relieved. I quickly placed the things in the boxes where they belonged.

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