The Soul of Pekin

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The Soul Of Pekin  (1916) 
by Achmed Abdullah

Extracted from Smart Set magazine, Aug 1916, pp. 89–95.


By Achmed Abdullah

WITH tears you come to Pekin; with tears you leave again,” it says in the Chapter of the Yellow Emperor in the Book of Lieh-Tzu, the book of the unknown philosopher.

Tears of content! Tears of fulfilment! For up there, in the raw North of China, lie all the qualities of the Earth, massive, self-contained, yet—when seen through the golden, flowered dawn of Han and Ming—as elusive as the Patmos visions of St. John. A macrocosm in herself, Pekin is the symbol and interpreter of China’s inner being. In her soul, which is the soul of all the East, are the strength of the trees, the dignity of the rocks, the power of the wind … and also the graciousness of the flowers, the softness of the grass in spring time, the peace of open spaces, and the overwhelming calm of vast skies. In her soul is the murmur of Asia … Asia of the past, Asia of the future.

Nor is that all. Consider:

A bird flutters like an autumn leaf from one tree to another. It is a sparrow, and, by every rule of nature, it should be melancholy grey and unpardonable bistre-brown. But as it flies in the wash of the afternoon sun its plumage is brushed with ruby and flecked with old-gold; and it comes to rest on a roof which is turquoise-blue … a turquoise-blue which is very luminous, and yet without sheen.

There is gold in the mellow, man-fashioned marbles of Sicily, ruby in the million flowers of the Valley of Kashmere, and blue in the high-parched heavens of Rajputana. There is ruby-and-gold and turquoise-blue in the Great Cañon of Southern Utah, where the White River winds through the quicksands. But there is no ruby-and-gold like that of the little, downy sparrow, no turquoise-blue like that of the low, incurved roof.

A sound drifts from the West. Thin, quavering, monotonous, it stabs the ear. It breaks and splinters into melody. But each tone of the melody is accompanied by appoggiaturas which are an infinitesimal sixteenth below the main harmonic tones to which the human ear is attuned. It is like the singsong cry the wind whistles through a cracked chimney; like the eerie song of a spring storm over a sweep of grassy hills; like the swishing of the flood through the rocky crannies of a far coast; tuneless, persistent, searching. It holds something enormous, uncomplex … and as passively threatening as the bunched bulk of a granite peak overhanging a valley.

It is the language, the voice of China; and, in all the world’s Babel, there is no voice like it … a voice strayed together, lost and bizarre, like molten fragments from some distant and forgotten world.

The sparrow, the incurved roof, and the sing-song of the broken sixteenth tones!

They are China; China of the raw North, and the great, sandy, alluvial plain in the midst of which the gar- dens of Pekin bunch out in huge, green-plumed masses … when seen from the wing of the sparrow’s flight. For it is the garden, and not the house which is the castle of the Pekinese; and so, as we walk through the streets of Chinese town and Tartar town, as we look toward the Mei-shan—the so-called “Coal Hill”—which crowns the Imperial City, no gardens are visible, but only solid house-fronts, knit together with plaster, bamboo, and scarped stone. The gardens are in the back of the houses where they belong, placed there with a proper regard for the science of Feng-shui, the wind and water superstition, which is the bane of the European contractor in the Middle Kingdom.

'“With tears you come with tears you leave again.”'

That was true long before the armies and missions of Butei, sixth of the dynasty of Han, carried Chinese civilization and Taoist ethic-archy past the Kunglung mountains into the far heart of the Pamirs. And it is true to-day … provided that you can shut your ears and your soul to the sound waves, thin, sombre, ominous, which drift in from the West toward the Pacific, and study instead the ruby-and-gold of the little sparrow as, mindful of the '“Tsieh-kwang! Tsieh-kwang!”'—the “Please give room! Please give room!”—of the blue-bloused rickshaw coolies, it flies up from the gutters of the Street of the Leaning Plum Tree, and sweeps to the carved, gilt struts of some lone-standing temple gate in the deserted ruins of the quarter of K’ung-ti.

The soul of Pekin is about you as, coming up from Tientsin by the morning train, you catch a glimpse of solid highways paved with huge, square blocks and stretching toward the cardinal points of the compass. and finally a view of a long, dented, zig-zagging line. The Outer Wall of Pekin … the wall the beginnings of which date back to the twelfth century before Christ, when Pekin was still known as Ki, when the Mings were still Tartar barbarians near like Baikal, who ate raw horseflesh, who quaffed curdled milk out of bleached human skulls, and who took no interest in the symmetrical arrangement of monochrome lines on delicately tinted porcelain with which their name is associated in the West.

There is a breach in this outer wall; and the train rambles through it. You turn to the fat, peaceful gentleman across from you, whose long finger nails are encased in gold and whose ivory-white complexion is like ancient, minutely-crackled eggshell china.

“I suppose Tartars made this breach,” you ask, since you pride yourself on your knowledge of Chinese history, “when they decided to remove the capital from the Yangtse valley to the North? Or perhaps the nomadic barbarians of the Mongol plains when they came to plunder Pekin?”

The fat gentleman smiles … and the smile makes him look very much like one of those unhuman Li-lung-mien paintings in the British Museum.

“Yes,” he replies, “barbarians made this breach … but not those of the Mongol plains … but those from across the water … who also came to Pekin in search of loot.” He draws a silk-and-ivory fan from his wide sleeve, and adds inconsequentially: “I believe this railroad of theirs pays fifteen per cent. dividends. The coolies who work for them receive twelve cents a day. They live here.”

He points through the window. The train rushes through a hard, profitless flat dotted with huts, with cemeteries sleeping beneath gnarled cypress trees, and with an occasional brook which looks artificial. Once in a while there is a blotch of blue and sad mauve as a coolie woman steps from her hut and stares at the fire-breathing dynamo of Western progress. Then the train comes to another wall, brown, bastioned, monotonous, which looks down on the glistening railway metal with all the unspeakable melancholy, with all the stark contempt of the centuries. This wall surrounds the Northern of the two great quadrangles of which Pekin is composed: the Tartar City as the Europeans call it; the “Cheng-li-ton,” or “Inside the Town,” as the Chinese call it in contrast to the “Cheng-wai-ton,” or “Outside the Town,” the Chinese City, which forms the Southern quadrangle.

The station is directly at the foot of the wall; and, as we leave the train, China is upon us like a huge Cosmic Being which las crouched for centuries and which has leapt to its feet in a single bound that propels it with a giant’s stride. Pekin rises. She shakes her immense, quivering sides, and greets us with a cadenced roar that rolls forth into the air. With head thrown back, chest forward, legs firmly planted, she stands there, superbly outlined, pushing eternities before her.

The roar increases as you step away from the station … like an echoing chorus, high-pitched; swelling and decreasing in turns, dying away in thin, quavery tremolos, again bursting forth thick and palpable. There is a mass of color, pink, mauve, blue, and yellow, melting on a background of sepia. There is also a keen, lascivious odor that is not wholly unfamiliar to you if you know San Francisco, the docks of Liverpool, or the stoke-hole of a P. & O. Liner. A sudden, bunched impression of sounds and colors and odors. It passes. And the macrocosm which is the soul of Pekin separates itself into a thousand microcosms, each flashing its own bit of color, eddying its own path, breathing its own life, yet all knit together into compendious unity by that brown, bastioned wall.

You are bewildered by the variety of sounds. Every one talks; and talking in Pekin is always done in extremes, either in a leaden, cavernous whisper, or in an ear-splitting scream. All the people look strangely alike, dressed in blues and occasional yellows; and here and there a Pekinese Moslim, with a green or white turban, and a scanty, tufted beard which contrast curiously with his Mongol cast of features. Every man you meet moves swiftly to some definite object of his own, and the only men who loaf are a few grandfathers with their tiny, red-cheeked, perk-eyed granddaughters perched high on their shoulders.

“Work! Work! Work!” says the soul of Pekin, and they obey. They move swiftly and inexorably. They are of the Mongol Horde,

An aged Pekinese mullah, a native Moslim priest, ambles feebly along. '“Hi low yah! To hoh wang!”' cries a friendly chair-bearer, trying to make a path for him, since age in Pekin means dignity and respect. And the Chinese smile and give way. What difference if they be Buddhists or Taoists or Confucianists? The soul of Pekin, being an ancient soul which knows all creeds and despises all rites, is a tolerant soul… and a holy man is a holy man.

They give way before the priest …. all but one … a woman, a pretty, little fifteen-year-old Manchu woman from the Inner Bazaars, gorgeous in sky-blue grenadine embroidered with golden dragons, and very evidently proud of the ancient profession … more ancient than Pekin … to which she belongs. For there is no shame in China … and work is work, to be done and to be paid for.

“Ho!” she shouts shrilly, flipping her fan underneath the aged mullah’s nose. “Some people think that the strings of their underdrawers are equivalent to a mandarin’s glass button and peacock feather!”

The mullah turns to the nearest man.

“In thy protection, O my Head, O my Eyes!” he implores.

The man whose protection he has begged, a portly merchant, dressed in plum-colored silk, remarks pointedly to the girl that respectful silence in presence of her elders is the leading virtue advocated by Confucius.

“Virtue!” shrills the girl. “Virtue … thou fatted ass … dost thou speak of virtue, son of nothing, who only last night …”

The merchant stops her shameless confidences with a fat, strong hand. An itinerant butcher … doubtless in debt to the merchant … joins in, and administers a sound spanking to the nether part of the little Manchu woman's anatomy.

The crowd howls with glee. '“Hi low yah! To hoh wang!”' shouts again the friendly chair-bearer; and the mullah, mollified, his dignity restored, walks on his way.

Follow him. He leads you through a long succession of second-rate streets where everything, even the puddles and the many heavy stinks are decomposed with age. He leads you past the Temple of the Five Hundred Genii, black and ochre and emerald-green; past tall garden walls, tufted with grass, which seem to start nowhere and to end nowhere, around the base of an azalea-covered hill, and into the K’ung-ti, the “Deserted Quarter.” Clustered on all sides by populous streets, it is a hopeless mass of ruins, with broken plinths and split bamboo screens littering the ground, and covered with thick, slushy mud that strikes chilly through the heaviest boot. At the farther end is a tall wooden monumental gate. The gold and ruby is gone from the incurved roof. Time, wind, water, and jagged stones thrown by youthful hands have obliterated the carved figures which once ornamented the lateral struts. But still it stands there, mocking, sneering, jeering at the ruins which crowd about its broad-planted feet in dusty, purposeless impotence. And the sneer is doubly Chinese, the joke is doubly cruel when you read the street sign nailed to the gate, the inscription of which is still legible. For it says, in conventionalized hieroglyphics: “The Street of Eternal Peace.”

The mullah walks up a steep flight of stairs, reminiscent of odorous, slimy Santa Lucia in the blue town of Naples. Beyond, to the south, straight up to the very shadow of the wall of the Chen-wai-ton, we see great fields of melons, with their dry stalks rustling in the wind, acres planted with beans, wheat and vegetables … a huge monotony of tilled plenty, with here and there a narrow-cleft valley where gnarled trees grow as thick as grass. The mullah stops in front of a squat building which blends curiously Chinese and Persian architecture. The outside walls are covered with Arabic characters. For always does the language of Arabia follow the faith of Arabia. The mullah preaches in Arabic, the muezzin calls to prayer in Arabic, and the faithful chant the litanies in Arabic. But they do not understand a word of what they are saying. They have learned their prayers by heart, parrot-like. Their religion is that of hot, burning Mecca but their soul is the eternal soul of Pekin; thus is their mind, their intelligence, their superstitions. And so the mosque is not called as would be a mosque farther west: “The Mosque of Osman Wahhabi, the Clarified-Butter-Seller,” or “The Mosque of Hossain the Martyr.” But it is called “The Mosque of Tung-si Pai-lon,” and to the left of the entrance gate swings a huge, purple-and-gold paper lantern on which is inscribed in Chinese, and not in Arabic, “Li-Pai,” “Place of Worship.”

We pass on, skirting the mysterious mazes of the Imperial City, the Forbidden City. Many fair palaces are inside its vast azure and gold spaces; also artificial lakes and brooks, broidered with bamboo and iris of many colors, and as daintily unreal as a water-color by H’sia Kuei; also streets and bazaars and theaters; also Shubun landscape screens, Han porcelains with the priceless eggplant-purple glaze, and ancient bronze Buddhas with the faintest suggestion of Greco-Bactrian grace in the shell-shaped folds of their draperies and the projecting angles of their noses; also teak frames covered with slabs of soft, thick gold, silver mirrors and jade tablets incrusted with pearls and garnets and rubies, and tall vases filled. with emeralds and yellow diamonds from far Poonah … an orgy of jewels and precious metal, heaped like toys of which children do not know the value; also obese Tartar eunuchs, and the unspeakable palace intrigues that go with their breed, and women and boys who know more of the Arts of Passion than even appears in the Lilah-Shastra, most infamous of Indian books.

Seen from the outside, the Imperial City looks like an immense walled garden from the middle of which rises an oddly shaped hill, wooded with chestnut and beech. It is the Mei-shan, and on its very summit stands a little building, a temple it seems from below … though visitors are not allowed to go up and find out for themselves and carve their names into the age-darkened teak wood … which was built not so many centuries ago by K’ien-lung, the Manchu Emperor, who, in contrast to his predecessor, K’ang-hi, friend to the Jesuits, was the true Chinese Bourbon and who, keen scholar though he was, forced the soul of Pekin to shrink into her shell and finally confirmed the tyranny of the Pekinese type as against the needs of outside readjustment.

Of K’ien-lung’s time, too, is the Mosque of K’ien-lung, which is not far from the flaunting garden of Fa-yüan-sse in the Chinese City. It looks like a purple and crimson tropical moth whose wings are barred with tints as hard and clear as Jeypore enamel, and which seems out of place here, in the raw North, in the Heart of Pekin. Some Persian craftsman built it. And doubtless he was very, very homesick, and the great, stony soul of Pekin broke his heart, as he dreamt here, in the eternal Mongol North, of Hafiz and Said, of the soft gardens of Teheran, and of Isfahan’s damask roses. He, too, must have had the impression that the ancient stones of Pekin, the ancient shadows in the Temple of Heaven, the ancient ground of the city, are screening enormous activities more ancient than themselves. He, too, must have felt that the soul of Pekin, relentless even in its sleep, is pulsing everywhere, immense in passive power, moving inexorably and cruelly, very complex and yet very simple, surging close, and trying to draw in and devour everything that resists. He, too, must ye felt the monstrous Urkraft behind it all.

The Mongol Horde … the hateful suction of the inevitable … and the inhumanity of it, the inhumanity of the yellow, bland, round-faced men and women who are the molecules of the soul of Pekin!

They teem through the streets, which are made by the crossing of straight lines, at all sorts of angles, but with hardly ever a curve. They move in an endless procession, each sure of his aim and object. Some ride in two-wheeled carriages, surmounted by vaulted, sky-blue silk covers. Others, rich merchants they, ride in low victorias crowned with broidered canopies, the wood parts tinseled and lacquered with enamel which burns like a many-colored jewel. Others still ride in rickshaws surrounded by mounted, liveried servants. These are nobles and officials, coming to and from the Imperial City. Slow-moving camels are ambling along on padded feet. They are the shaggy, Northern kind, and they are loaded with the produce of Mongolia. Come blue-bloused peasants, on foot, on mules, on donkeys; and finally the cortege of a hearse. It is preceded by fantastically dressed servants who carry standards, insignia of rank, dummies representing scenes from the life of the deceased, artificial flowers; other servants who rub bronze gongs with scarlet devil-sticks; then, robed in white and assisted by liveried attendants, the chief mourner, directly in front of the red-covered catafalque. They all walk slowly, ceremoniously, but without the slightest indication of piety. Why should they? Pekin is old. Many have died, many more will die to feed her insatiable soul. And the women in the mourners’ coaches at the tail-end of the procession seem to know it. For they chatter and laugh; they lean from the carriages, buying food from itinerant venders, and exchanging once in a while a highly spiced compliment with somebody in the crowd.

Other sounds join in: the '“Tsieh-kwang! Tsieh-kwang!”' of the chair-bearers; the melancholy calls of the peddlers; the tin trumpets of knife-sharpeners; the castagnets of sweetmeat sellers; and the whining of innumerable beggars, ragged, maimed, leprous.

The very colors shout and scream. For colors are everywhere, advertising everything, since Pekin is the City of Advertising. Even the gray walls of the little Gothic mission chapel near the Gateway of the Tartar Town receives its daily coating of purple-and-scarlet advertising … which is always promptly removed by the good padre.

We follow the crowd through the streets of the Cheng-wai-ton. There are a few large, two-storied shops. But the majority of the houses are low and one-storied. Some have facades which are carved in the likenesses of man and beast, or of bamboo screens and latticework. Others are painted in loud-screaming colors: green, pink, blue, lilac, ochre, even black; rarely two of the same color side by side, and the whole made yet more fantastic and variegated by tall posts and masts which stick out at all possible and impossible angles. Comes a brick yard with part of its wares built out in the street in the shape of a dainty pagoda; tiny pawnshops, recognizable by their barred windows; and here and there a Buddhist or Taoist temple. Next we skirt the long, tall wall of a noble garden covered with placards and with primitive drawings made by children: mandarins, ships, fabulous animals, and decidedly uncomplimentary representations of the genus White Man, the despised Fan-kwai. Then we pass a fruit market which gives the sensation of an opulent, natural force of the Earth. Heaped up, in pyramids and—overflowing from quaint, plaited baskets, and brimming over the sides of low country carts are all the fruits of all the world: pears, melons, grapes, peaches, almonds, plums, and strange, fiery-colored vegetables. They are all monstrous in size, and the profusion is as monstrous. But nothing is wasted. Even decomposed food is saved and bought. For the soul of Pekin is a parsimonious, hard-bargaining, miserly soul … and there is the Mongol Horde which must be fed …

The stream of the crowd whirls you along. You forget your name, your identity, your nationality. The soul of Pekin is about you, and you are afraid of it, afraid of its stark unhumanity.

And then … very suddenly … you decide that these people are human after all. For the man with the face of a Tibetan devil mask who is selling you English cigarettes made in Japan is smoking a pipe with a quaintly and beautifully carved pendant hanging from the tiny red bowl; and the express office whence you despatch a few curios to your friends back home has on its façade a delicacy of gilt tracery which is quite unlike the drab, fly-specked, saliva-stained walls of the Wells Fargo office in your native town. Also, as you look in passing through the half-open door of a low house inhabited evidently by yellow-skinned devils who are talking to each other in an eternal drone with that infinitesimal appoggiatura, you see that the door is painted in dull red with wondrous gold arabesques, and that behind it stands a split bamboo screen, inlaid with tortoise-shell filigree and tipped with tiny points of green jade.

And the globe-trotter at your elbow tells you that the men of Pekin have been doing these little things … the façade, the screen, the door, and the carved pipe pendant … for a few thousand years, and so of course they must be human. For can a devil have patience enough to make these things … which demand the finest artistry, the hardest work, and the most persistent energy?

Craftsmen, they, and artists! Master-craftsmen and master-artists! Carved ivories, broidered silks, panels of inlay … and, too, the ruby-and-gold of the little sparrow as the last rays of the sun brush over its wings!

True, the soul of Pekin is a great soul. You want to bow deep in its presence, and to speak low, as if in some dim cathedral … and then, suddenly, from the summit of the Mei-shan, a voice drifts down, thin, quavery, ominous. It quivers and trembles like the light of a candle in the meeting of winds. Other voices chime in, chanting antiphonally, weaving the spell of the soul of Pekin in broken, sixteenth tones.

The voices leap over the crenellated, winglike battlements of the Forbidden City … across the alluvial plain … toward Tientsin … and beyond … toward the Pacific … on … on …

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1926.

The author died in 1945, so this work is also in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 75 years or less. This work may also be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.