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"Ladies of a Mandarin's Family at Cards" by Thomas Allom

Commentary by G.H. Wright

The position which females occupy in society may be fairly taken as a test of civilization, in each respective nation; wherever the moral and intellectual powers of the gentler sex are held in estimation, that country will be found to enjoy such laws as promote the happiness of the people, wherever personal charms constitute the only ground of love or admiration, as in many Asiatic governments, there tyranny and slavery prevail extensively. Neither do the lavish gifts of nature secure a happy home to their possessor or subdue the fierce spirit of her absolute lord; on the contrary, surpassing beauty, in unchristian climes, rivets the chains of slavery more firmly, elevates the harem-walls to a more hopeless height, excludes the society of friends or companions, and shuts in the luckless victim from the world for ever.

Ladies of a Mandarin's Family at Cards

And while submission to the caprice of a tyrant is the captive's wisest policy, her sole remaining lot, even this great sacrifice does not mitigate the ferocity of his nature, of- the rudeness of his habits, for often are these helpless habitants of the Oriental harem immolated, to allay a groundless jealousy, or make room for a more favoured rival, and oftener still are the most dreadful assassinations perpetrated by tyrants) whose uncontrollable passions are inflamed by the bare suspicion of infidelity Hence it follows, that where the softer sex are retained in a state of bondage, and denied participation in social duties and social intercourse, there the habits of the people are necessarily rude-there civilization is inevitably checked in its humanizing progress.

A species of middle state, between rudeness and civilization, is the portion of a Chinese lady of quality. Inhumanly deprived of the use of her limbs, whenever she desires to go abroad she is subject to a species of concealment in a close sedan, similar to the Arabs of Mohammedan odalisques, and so strictly is this incognito observed, that less wealthy persons keep covered wheelbarrows for their captive wives-not to prevent the winds of heaven from visiting them too roughly, but to deprive them of the homage of earthly eyes. Notwithstanding all this jealous care, it is remarkable that females in the humbler ranks are treated with little respect: one class are the flowers of the garden, the other of the forest; one are fed, and lodged, and cherished, with all the care and cost and jealousy that belong to the conservatory-the other left to waste their sweetness on the desert air, or else spurned soon after by the rude hand that plucked them. Often do we see the poor man's wife labouring in the fields of rice, the farm of cotton, the nurseries of silk, her infant being safely tied upon her back, while her husband is engaged in the excitements of smoking or of gambling.

There is but one supreme mistress of a mandarin's palace, and to her authority all others of her sex, within the limits of the pavilion, must acknowledge entire submission. To the disgrace of this ancient empire, however, polygamy does exist here, although in a form more mitigated than in the Turkish dominions. Amongst the graceful cabinets counted along with the ladies' apartments, there is usually one arranged as a chapel of worship, or a hall of ancestors. In general, a figure of Tien-sing, the Queen of Heaven, is placed in a niche at the end, various decorations being introduced all around; and a splendid curtain of embroidered silk falling in front, secures retirement and perfect seclusion for the votaries who may be disposed to enter and to worship. Having no sabbath, either for the purposes of religion or of rest, the Chinese feel a secret consolation in these domestic chapels, where they pour forth the real sentiments of their souls, before that God whose existence their innate ideas prove, but of whose nature and properties they still are ignorant. With the inconsistency that seems to characterize all Chinese customs, and distinguish them from those of other nations, it is in front of this very capella, and in the very presence of their little golden protectress, that the ladies of every family uniformly seat themselves, to indulge in the amusement of card-playing Denied so many other species of social enjoyment, none but the most rigid and fastidious could object to their indulgence in this ancient game-but who can be unconscious of the glaring contradiction which the choice of a playing-room discloses?

The variety of games known in China is endless; and many of them require considerable dexterity. In shape, the cards are longer and narrower than those in use amongst Europeans, and a pack includes a much larger number. When cards have lost their power of pleasing, the time is beguiled by the introduction of tobacco. Females, from the tender age of eight years, are initiated in this disgusting habit; and a little silken reticule is generally attached to every lady's dress, to hold a pipe and a supply of tobacco. But these, and even less graceful employments, are pardonable, when the monotonous nature of their life of seclusion is remembered. Although less suspected, less enslaved, less degraded than Turkish females, yet the formality to which Chinese ladies are doomed is eminently tedious. Children, chief solace of a mother's retired and useful life, are in China placed under laws that outrage the best feelings of human nature. Female infants may be destroyed at the pleasure of the father-over children of the other sex, the law gives the parent absolute power; hence, at the age of ten years, the boy is removed finally from the mother's surveillance, nor is he permitted after to visit the pavilion in which he was born-the scene in which his helplessness first found that care which a mother only knows how to bestow. Cut off, by a hateful code of regulations, from the opportunity of fulfilling her legitimate trust, the Chinese wife and mother is necessitated to have recourse to those means of filling up the great void in life which these privations have created. Painting, embroidery, the care of an aviary, the recreations of the garden and the pleasure grounds, occasional appeals to the little image that presides over the domestic altar, fond attentions to her children while they are permitted to remain with her, the game of chess when the number of fair captives is limited to two, but, when increased beyond that amount, the more popular amusement of cards, are called to the relief of those pangs which disappointments produce-those sorrows by which separation from the world is so often accompanied.

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