China Books

Earnshaw Books' Tales of Old Peking


Tales from Old Peking is available from Earnshaw Books, and like its sister, Tales from Old Shanghai is a book of fragments of information about periods, events or places in Beijing's history, collaging together pictures and text about eunuchs, concubines, the Lama Temple, Opium Wars, art, emperors, and a miscellany of other interesting topics.

Following is the book's introduction by its compiler, Derek Sandhaus, and following that, an extract about the famous British lords who didn't comprise their prejudices to win favor with China.

An Introduction to Tales of Old Peking

by Derek Sandhaus

Peking has always been viewed as one of the world’s most mysterious cities. For Westerners, it was for hundreds of years a forbidden city, but its role as the capital of the world’s greatest empire has made it the focus of enormous curiosity since the days of Marco Polo in the 13th century.

The story of Polo’s visit to Khanbalic, the great capital of the Mongolian-dominated Chinese Empire, is an inspiring tale of a traveler in a faraway land forging a powerful relationship with an utterly alien people based on curiosity and mutual respect. He was in awe of the elaborately conceived city that would one day be called Peking, sophisticated beyond the wildest imaginings of a Medieval European. The tentative Silk Road links across Asia along which Marco Polo is said to have traveled could have been the beginning of a much earlier relationship between Europe and China, but it was not to be. The Mongol empire that provided the opportunity for such travels collapsed, and the next known contacts were not to occur until Europeans mastered the sea-lanes around Africa and across the Indian Ocean to the China world.

They found a China, under the Chinese Ming emperors, that was becoming more not less xenophobic and was uninterested in the barbarians of the West or their offers of trade. With the exception of a few Catholic priests in the 17th century, no Westerners are known to have set foot in Peking for about 500 years.

The West that returned to China’s capital in the late 18th century had in the meantime overtaken China in terms of military technology. This was the beginning of the age of colonialism and China was another corner of the globe in which to plant a flag and open shop. But in Peking the colonial West found an equal to their arrogance and stubbornness. For thousands of years, China had been the unquestioned heart of East Asian power and the Chinese emperors considered anything outside of their purview to be unworthy of respect.

What followed was ugly. Peking became the flash point of confrontation, characterized by almost complete misunderstanding on both sides. For many long years, the Chinese even refused to allow the westerners to live in the city at all, and it took the two Opium Wars to force them to allow Britain and other countries to open Peking legations in the early 1860s.

The tightly-knit community of foreign diplomats lived in a walled compound known as the Legation Quarter, just to the southeast of the Forbidden City. Most of them hated it. They found Peking uncomfortable, dirty and incomprehensible. Few of them spoke Chinese and their interactions with the local community were limited almost exclusively to servants and unreceptive, often hostile, Chinese government officials. They were sent to secure concessions, not agreements, and were deeply resented because of it.

On the other hand there was the Chinese Imperial court which, under the increasingly decadent and ineffective Manchus, was remote, inaccessible and mired in political intrigue. Despite a steadily fragmenting Empire, their belief in their superiority was absolute. The people of Peking also shared in that feeling of self-importance that comes with living at the center of the known universe (as is true of New York today). The presence of the foreigners with their endless demands and weird customs was seen as an insult. It is not surprising that this mixture of misunderstanding and mutual loathing sometimes boiled over and manifested itself in violence.

One of the key moments in the period covered by this book is the Boxer Rebellion of 1900 and the siege of the foreign legations that followed. Old Peking was never more high-profile around the world than during the 55 days of the siege. But this book also looks beyond the drama of war to the chaotic quaintness of Peking’s back streets the awe-inspiring magnificence of the palace of the emperors, the Forbidden City.

This is not a traditional history of the city of Peking, and there is no need to read it from start to finish. It is rather a jumble of items which evokes the city’s past. To chronicle every significant event and personality in Peking’s rich history would be impossible. The aim instead is to recreate a sense of the time and place through a pastiche of historical snippets – stories, quotations, cartoons, postcards and hastily scribbled drawings.

This history is not complete or balanced in any way. It includes the words of diplomats, emperors, sinologists and random visitors, who provided some of the most vivid descriptions of all. Their perceptions, real and imagined, combine to create a memory of Peking that lingers on to this day.

One final note on the name Peking. This city, now known as Beijing (Northern Capital), has been called many things: Yanjing, Zhongdu, Khanbalic and Peiping. The Chinese government decreed that its name should be spelt as Beijing in the 1970s, but it was not until the late 1980s that the spelling took hold. Today, the romanization ‘Peking’ seems an anachronism, but then the city of Beijing today is a very different place from what it was in yesteryears. So Tales of Old Peking it is.

How Now Kowtow

Many an early foreign diplomatic envoy to Peking was thwarted by their refusal to acknowledge the supreme authority of the dragon throne.

When Lord Macartney sailed for China in 1793, his mission was simple: impress upon the Chinese Emperor the greatness of the British Crown to secure greater trading concessions. Before such a meeting could be held, the Mandarins insisted that Macartney perform the requisite kowtow before Emperor Qianlong.

In a craftily pompous move, he declared that he would indeed kowtow if a Mandarin of
similar rank to him would kowtow before a picture of the British monarch. In the end, Macartney agreed only to kneel on one knee as he would before his own king.

All of his country’s demands were refused and his party glumly sailed back to England empty-handed.

Lord William Amherst, undeterred by his predecessor’s failings, was also asked to perform the kowtow when leading a similar mission in 1816 and refused.

When Amherst was sent for by the Emperor, he declined, complaining that he was too tired. The Emperor was so insulted by the slight that Amherst was not permitted to even set foot in Peking.

It is worth noting that the improbably named Dutch envoy Andreas Everardus van Braam Houckgeest entertained no such pretensions and happily agreed to kowtow. The solemnity of the gesture was disrupted when van Braam’s wig fell off mid-kowtow
(“on account of the glass of wine” he had drunk) and the Emperor and his assemblage erupted in laughter. The Dutch Titsingh Embassy reportedly kowtowed no less than 30 times, sometimes in extreme temperatures and once before the emperor’s half-
eaten pastry.


“I will get on one knee before my king and two before my God, but the notion of a gentleman prostrating himself before an Asiatic barbarian is preposterous.”
Lord George Macartney

There are currently 1 Comments for Earnshaw Books' Tales of Old Peking.

Comments on Earnshaw Books' Tales of Old Peking

Tales of Old Peking reminds me of another book, by Chris Elder, entitled Old Peking: City of the Ruler of the World. Despite being published by the reputable Oxford University Press (HK) in 1997, it is a rather obscure publication - not many seem to have payed attention to it; I would like to go on record saying that this is one of the best publications on the history of the city of Peking I have come across so far. It is in fact an anthology of snippets and bits and pieces of writings, of bonmots and poems and short narratives, by western travelers and residents alike. Organized along 16 themes like Daily Life, The Chinese City, The Legation Quarter, etc., each theme is comprised of dozens if not hundreds of short impressions by a huge variety of authors, ranging from Marco Polo to Putnam-Weale to Staunton, Toynbee and Bredon. Under "Daily Life" for example we find an entry from China as it Really Is (1912) which reads: "the student interpreter sent out to Peking by H.M. Government, with a view to acquiring a knowledge of the language, is apt to laugh when older men solemnly warn him against the insidiousness of the study on which he is embarking. There can be little doubt that when once a man has got keen on the language he counts no more as a practical man of affairs. The sinologue is rightly looked upon as mad until he proves his sanity."

And so on...a marvelous treasure of a book, I highly recommend it.


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