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Friday, April 23, 2010

A Bygone Era

A Bygone Era

神道上, 花盤底. Sacred Way1 under the steps of flower pot bottoms2,
玉手鐲, 巾帕飄. Bracelets on jade hands3, handkerchiefs wafting in the wind.
珠釵搖, 柳腰垂, Pearl strands dangling, slender waists swaying in unison.
春顏爽, 誰知心. Though joys are on their faces, what lurks in their hearts no one knows.

This poem was inspired when I heard the main theme of the “Last Emperor” which was set to words in a Chinese video store. In my mind, I could see rows of Manchu court ladies following the imperial cortege or entourage on the “Sacred Way” visiting the imperial tombs on a spring day. Though smiles are on their faces (a rare chance out of the palace prison) but no one except themselves know what sorrows are in their hearts, what memories, lost opportunities, dreams they once harboured are buried along with the dead emperor. Their youth wasted in their golden cages. Even in death, they may never be able to leave the Forbidden City…

Included are video clips that I spliced from a 1975 Shaw production of the “Empress Dowager” (倾國傾城 - Beauty so great that cities are ruined and empires collapsed. This phrase came from a poem. For more info see and “The Last Tempest” (瀛臺泣血, Sorrow in the Terrace of the Ocean). This to help in conveying the flavour of the poem - the women walking gaits, their ubiquitous handkerchiefs and dangling accoutrements.

Most scenes are self explanatory. However some clarifications: Starting with the scene when some rectangular tablets were thrown into a tray. These contain names of rejected candidates who are vying to be selected as Court Concubines (妃). The rejected ones are then given lesser ranks. The process is quite unlike selection of US presidential candidates. In this case the Empress Dowager selects those she likes before finalists are given to the Emperor to decide.

Besides being a virgin, they are inspected by senior female imperial members for defects in the body, having foul smell and checking for their poise and demeanor before reaching the last stage to be viewed by the Empress Dowager herself. By law, all Manchu girls are registered with the Imperial Household Bureau the moment they are born.

The celebration of the birthday of the Empress dowager began with the scene with this gorgeous round decoration with a red character of longevity surrounded by lemon yellow flowers.  Whether this is a center piece for the table or some giant cake I am not sure. The feast is given to officials to show imperial gratitude. The Imperial family had already eaten. Manchu Court protocol,dictates a hundred dishes to be placed on a long table for the main meal. This is only for show, a feast for his eyes. His favourite foods are placed near the front of the table. Whatever left uneaten is then distributed and shared among to those in attendance. Similarly the Empress and Imperial Concubines dine alone unless summoned by the Emperor. Each residence in the palace has its own kitchen. Of course the number of dishes is accorded by the virtue of their rank.

Peking opera is the favourite pastime of the Empress Dowager, especially those with longevity themes. Sometimes she would participate in plays, often dressing as the Goddess of Mercy! Indeed her nickname is "Old Buddha". The Chinese photographer lady is "Princess" Der Ling who later wrote books about Imperial Court life, one of which is "The Imperial Incense Burner". She was a daughter of an official posted as a foreign minister to France. The Empress Dowager was curious about her western clothes. After serving 2 years in the Ching Court, she married to an American. She was mortally injured by a hit and run grocery cart driver outside the south gates of University of California, Berkeley in November, 1944.

This was an era of about 110 years ago; the video clips are from a 35 year old movie. Time passes but in a twinkle of an eye. Even those with such absolute power over life and death are but in the end, equalized by Death himself. Cherish the times we have; we are but a mere short life span on this earth.


1. The main road leading to imperial tomb.

2. These flower pot bottoms are slang for Chinese "high heels". Instead of having a spike at the end of the shoe, it has a raised block in the center causing slight instability while walking in them. Manchu women do not wear such “high heels”until emperors began having this fetish of bound feet of Chinese women. Manchu laws forbade such practice for its women. To counter this “willow swinging gait”, Manchu women invented this contraption to simulate the sway like willow blowing in the wind.   Handkerchiefs are used to enhance their walking movements and counterbalance the overall effect of their gait. These shoes are worn in the court by high ranking women. Lowly servants do not wear them because of practical reasons. You can see a glimpse shot of the flower pot bottoms in the video clip.

3. This is not a mistranslation – it is Jade hands not jade bracelets. Jade hands mean beautiful hands, skin pale and smooth like jade. The green color jade is not popular with the Chinese until the 20th century. The best jade is of a certain white translucent color, known as “mutton fat jade” (羊脂白玉). It is extremely rare even in the old days.

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