Bin Chun Mission - 1866
In the aftermath of the Second Opium War (Second Anglo-Chinese War), Robert Hart, the head of China's Imperal Maritime Customs, suggested to the Qing authorities that they send an exploratory diplomatic mission to some of the principal countries in Europe. After Thomas Wade, by then British Minister at Beijing, seconded this opinion, the Qing government decided to send a mission, but one which was strictly informal.
They took advantage of Robert Hart's 1866 furlough to include his then language secretary - with temporary third-degree official rank - and several students to Europe. After landing in Marseilles, they moved on to London, Paris, Copenhagen and Berlin, before returning to China. They have left interesting diaries, primarily describing the strange social customs and city descriptions, but including very little commentary on the politics of the countries they were visiting.
THE PIN MISSION, as it was generally known, was the brainchild of Robert Hart and perhaps the only one of his projects to prove a failure. It owed its inception partly to his desire, after twelve years' continuous residence in the Far East, to revisit his native Ulster'; and partly to his clear-sighted grasp of the fact that China, to whose service he was totally devoted, would continue to be at a disadvantage in her relations with foreign powers so long as they maintained their Ministers in Pekin while no corresponding emissaries represented the interests of the Dragon Throne abroad.
Throughout the centuries China had asked nothing of the outside world but to be left alone. She had, from time to time, received envoys from abroad, but they were merely regarded as providing interesting, amusing and novel entertainment; and, up till 1842, no single one of their requests had ever been granted. Equally, she saw no reason to send her own envoys overseas. She had no curiosity about foreign countries; she did not wish to compose her frequent differences with them, nor to explain her attitude towards them. She simply hoped to ignore altogether their existence. Only once had she broken this self-imposed rule when, in 1733, the Emperor Yungcheng had sent a mission to St. Petersburg. The official reason for this exception had been that, alone of European powers, Russian territory marched with that of China, The real reason was that the Emperor, having discovered that the Orthodox Church was hostile to the Papacy, hoped to use it as a counterpoise to "the pernicious intrigues of the Jesuits", whom he was trying to drive from his kingdom. The Jesuits, however, survived.
Preparations for the expedition proceeded apace and, to give him a suitable standing, Pin was raised to the rank of honorary permanent under-secretary in the Tsungli Yamen and promoted to the "Transparent Blue Button,"* the third class of the mandarinate; but he was still accorded no official status as an Imperial Envoy and, as the time for departure drew near, the hostile chorus rose in a great crescendo. The Chinese literati were jealous, saying that his distinction was too cheaply earned, the foreign diplomats were apprehensive, with some good reason, of damage to Western prestige, while the merchant princes of Shanghai were beside themselves with fury. The diatribes of the China Mail can be dismissed as vulgar-and not very witty abuse; but a rational note of warning was sounded by Freeman-Mitford. 2-
He (Pin) is told to travel and write down all about the "hills and streams" of the countries he visits; and he will be trotted about to every object of interest. I only hope he will not be too much lionised. It would be misinterpreted here, where people would say at once "See what great people we are;
On the 14th March the Mission embarked in a small coastal steamer at Tientsin for a tour that was to include the capitals of all European countries having treaty relations with China, more specifically London, Paris, the Hague, Copenhagen, Stockholm, St. Petersburg and Berlin; then returning via Washington, San Francisco, "the Society Isles" and Japan. It was a sufficiently ambitious itinerary and even the farsighted Hart could not anticipate how much it would be affected by the actions of two notable individualists, one being Prince Bismark and the other, Pin himself.
The latter, as dedicated a diarist as Edward who was waiting to join them in Hong Kong, survived a stormy night in the Yellow Sea (he seems to have been a surprisingly good sailor) and the next day surveyed the scene and described it in vigorous prose, little suggestive of senility:
The wind gradually fell. Went up into the pilot-house and took a view around the entire horizon-one vast expanse of sea and sky, a waste of billows without limit in any direction. Many miles off there was a faint thread of smoke to be scene, about two or three inches long. This was pronounced by the captain, after looking at it through a telescope, to be a three-masted steamer. From Taku to this point we have traversed 2,000 IF of water and have seen but this one vessel-a proof that it is no light matter to navigate the sea!
Shanghai, where they spent four days and transhipped to the Labourdonnais, made little impression, but the comparatively large French liner fascinated him and he noted down every conceivable detail regarding her dimensions, her complement and her passenger accommodation-"in each cabin two glass lamps are inserted beside a large toilet-glass, in which the lights are gorgeously reflected. Entering this apartment, one is dazzled with the radiance and bewildered as though lost in a palatial maze".
A week later a wealthy Mohammedan passenger was buried at sea and, at Hart's suggestion, Pin commemorated the event with "a stanza in pentameter verse". He had now settled down stoically to shipboard life and even discovered some of its placid pleasures. "This night", he notes, "the moon shone brilliantly and the deep-green sea was perfectly still. Leaning against the bulwarks and gazing into the far distance, I mused tranquilly and with far-reaching aspirations." The next day he left his bunk at five "and saw the mists of the ocean assuming countless fanciful shapes as the sun rose above the horizon". At last, on the 24th April, they reached Suez and were disembarked at dawn to await, in the local hotel, the afternoon train to Cairo. Here he made the acquaintance of what must have been the forerunner of those "German Bands", which were to become such a cheerful feature of our London streets in the days before the First World War.
Tables were spread and meals were served precisely as on board the steamer, except that wine had to be paid for as ordered. While we were breakfasting, loud sounds of music were heard. The performers were eight in number, male and female, and the instruments upon which they played were of very singular forms, but the music was not unpleasing. I found, on inquiry, that these persons were Germans. Three of the women passed round the tables with glass dishes in their hands and each guest gave them one or two pieces of silver money.
His reaction to his first railway journey was predictable-"the houses, trees, hills and roads by the side of the train fly past so swiftly that they are scarcely perceived by the eye"-and he is suitably impressed by the luxury and grandeur of his hotel in Cairo. But his diary for the day closes with a sentence which reveals at last the real man behind the bland, dignified mask". At length, after a sea voyage of a month's duration, I am on shore again and able, for the first time, to take off my clothes".
The following morning he was duly escorted to see the Pyramids, his comments on which were considerably more interesting than those made by Edward just four years before. He put up the sensible suggestion that the various inscriptions should be copied for comparison with those on ancient bells, vases and monuments in China; and found a resemblance between the face of the Sphinx and that of Buddha, in particular "the image at the Ta-fah-sze (Grand Monastery of Buddha) by the Lake of Hang-chow". The train which took him on to Alexandria was even faster than the other and "the sensation was precisely that of flying through the air". Their Mediterranean voyage was uneventful; on the 2nd May they landed at Marseilles and Edward began a new diary.
Both he and the equally dynamic de Champs were bursting with energy after the prolonged inactivity of the voyage; the French municipal authorities were keenly conscious that the imperial splendours of their cities were soon to be compared with those of England and the Pin Mission received the full treatment. On the morning of the 4th they were taken over the Messageries Imperiales shipyard at La Ciotat (23 miles distant along the coast) and were spared nothing. "The Graving and other docks", says Edward, "were carefully inspected; several vessels in the course of construction were visited and the cranes, lifts, locks and appliances for launching were examined with an amount of interest and curiosity which we had scarcely hoped to have been manifested." They were perhaps lucky to be allowed to spend the afternoon shopping at a bazaar, but the following forenoon the Prefect in person conducted them over the new Palais de justice and they then surveyed the city from the hilltop chapel of Notre Dame de la Garde before dashing down again to catch the 11.30 train for Lyons, an eight-hour journey. On the 5th they spent the day at a silk weaving factory, probably the first visit since landing at Marseilles to hold the slightest real interest for them, though even here they made scarcely any purchases as the colours did not seem to suit their taste. On the 6th Pin went flatly and firmly on strike.
The occasion was a Grand Military Fête held under the auspices of the officers of the Lyons garrison, which "we felt compelled to decline, as Pin-ta-jen1 could not be persuaded to wear his official hat and costume, although informed that all the authorities of the place would be 'en grande tenue' and were anxious to be presented to him".
His reasons were probably twofold, the first being quite simply that he was fed up. For the past three days he had been both bored to distraction and fatigued beyond endurance. In spite of Edward's optimism, the only items he had thought of sufficient interest to merit a detailed description had been the lift in his hotel and the service bell in his bedroom.' A vista of similar fatigue and boredom stretched interminably ahead of him and this military occasion was the last straw. It is hard to realise today the deep disapproval and contempt felt by the old-style Chinese, especially the literati, for the profession of arms. "One does not", runs a much-quoted proverb, "make good iron into nails, nor good men into soldiers." In public esteem the soldier was held to rank below the actor and as the latter was frequently a professional pervert, the military reputation stood low indeed. To be asked to don his round black mandarin's hat with its newly acquired and greatly cherished sapphire button for the benefit of these barbarians was just too much. His wrath exploded and it was perhaps fortunate that they left for Paris by the night train.
Their stay in the capital began somewhat inauspiciously with an undignified dog-fight between de Champs and the Baron de Méritens, the same man in whose honour Edward had written that undelivered speech in Shanghai, and who was now on leave. Hart had left them in Marseilles, going straight on to his family in Ireland, and de Méritens, being senior to de Champs in the Customs Service, now claimed to have charge of the Mission so long as they were in France. The storm broke over the vital point as to which of the two should present Pin to M. Drouyn
(1) Chinese proper names are always a difficulty and Hart himself refers to Pin on various occasions as "Pin Ch'un", "Pinchun", "Pin-ta-jen" (literally "Big-man-Pin") and "Pin-lao-yeh" (literally "Old Gentleman Pin").
(2) "There is, in addition, a smart apartment, accommodating seven or eight persons, which by means of a large revolving wheel, is hoisted to the top of the building. Each room is provided with covered indicator of intelligence, through which it is known at once in the office that attendance is called for." Pin's diary 2. v. 66.
dc i'Huys, the Foreign Minister, and de Méritens declared that, should de Champs insist on doing this, he would immediately issue a statement that the visit was unauthorised and irregular -dirty words in diplomatic circles. Both parties invoked their personal honour and dignity; frantic express letters were addressed to Hart demanding his ruling and it took all Edward's tact to avert an open breach.
Their behaviour was puerile, futile and, in fact, typical of petits fonctionnaires, but it brought matters to an impasse since, while celebrities' visiting cards were piling up in the ante-room of their suite, protocol forbade that these calls should be returned until after the essential interview at the Foreign Office. Meanwhile poor Pin's purgatory continued. He was driven along the Champs Elysées and round the Bois de Boulogne; he was taken to see a glass building in the process of erection for the Exposition of 1867 and made to examine the plans in detail, with the assistance of the great M. de Lesseps himself. The only bright spot in these two days was a visit to the Jardin d'Acclimatation, where he was fascinated by the small sea creatures in their transparent tanks.
At last, on the 9th May, the problem of protocol was solved by a presentation made simultaneously by both de Champs and de Méritens: and Pin heard, with a sinking heart, that he must attend an official reception that evening and also that every ministry and government institution in Paris was open to his personal inspection. But his time of tribulation was now nearly at an end for, with much determination and ingenuity, he contrived to slip away from the glittering function and visit instead the Theatre de 1'Ambigu. It is instructive to compare his reaction with that of the dutiful Edward who merely records that they "were seated opposite the Emperor' who was present at the performance".
During the progress of the play, natural scenery accompanied by cascades, with the sun and the moon alternately shining and obscured, was represented, whilst figures of the gods, or clouds of fairies were seen descending from on high amidst a dazzling halo of light, forming an inconceivably marvellous spectacle.
But what really attracted his attention was the cast:
Fifty or sixty females, actresses, made their appearance on the stage, of whom one-half were noticeable for good looks, the great majority being nude to the extent of half their persons, and took part in the performance as dancers.
Pin was beginning to feel that his mission might, after all, be worthwhile.
Next day the dreary round continued. The Mission was "entirely occupied in making and receiving calls" and these included one on Lord Cowley, who announced ominously that Lord Clarendon would "make suitable arrangements for visiting various places of interest in England". They did, however, succeed in sneaking off to buy watches and toys in the Palais Royal and that same night escaped to the circus where Pin was entranced by-
an equestrian performance which I found superior to Chinese horse-racing. A female performer danced upon a horse's back and, while the animal was racing at full speed, jumped through a hoop and alighted again upon the saddle. Another individual made a horse stand up and dance on its hind-legs; besides which there was an iron cage, larger than an ordinary room, which was rolled on wheels into the arena and in which five lions were confined. Their roaring boomed in the ear like the reverberations of a deep toned bell. A man entered the cage and engaged in combat with these beasts, using a sword and rapier and discharging a fire-arm.
The 11th May was a day of decision. At eleven o'clock poor Pin called on Mr. Bigelow, the American Ambassador, and was deluged with eloquence by that well-intentioned but obtuse and ignorant demogogue; at one o'clock he visited Baron Budberg, the Russian Ambassador, at two o'clock the Swedish Minister and at three o'clock the Imperial Printing Office. He then retired to his apartments in the Grand Hotel and, from there, issued a firm and formal directif to the effect that he and his entourage wished to visit as many theatres as possible and that this was to have an absolute priority over any other engagements. His tone was mandatory and that very same night they took in two separate entertainments, the Opéra Comique and the Theatre du Chatelet.
The next morning Pin was indisposed. He was too unwell to receive visits from the Swedish, the Danish or the American Ambassadors, or to visit the Mint, the Library, M. Julien (a prominent sinologue), the General Post Office, the General Telegraph Office and a manufactory of electrical apparatus, where his faithful staff were "surprised beyond measure at the numerous applications of which the electric fluid is capable". Even an after-dinner stroll in some illuminated gardens failed to tempt him from his couch.
On the 13th he was worse, unable to receive a variety of visitors, to tour Versailles, or even to occupy a box at the Bouffes-Parisiens, which had been placed at his disposal by the management. He also announced that he would be unfit to proceed to London the following day and, while flatly refusing any medical attention, declared himself worn out by the fatigues and ardours of the past week; and that his only hope of a rapid recovery would be to remain quietly in Paris, attended only by his son, Kwang Ying, and contemplate the innumerable cultural beauties of the city. The rest of the Mission, he insisted, should proceed without him.
Some frenzied telegraphing ensued and Hart eventually agreed that Edward should conduct the junior members of the Mission to London without waiting for the Pins père et fits; but he also ruled that de Champs should remain with them in Paris, in case the old gentleman's appetite for the cultural beauties of that city waxed too insistent and he tried to prolong his stay indefinitely.
So the 15th May saw Edward set foot on his native shore for the first time in over three years, his arrival coinciding with a panic on the Stock Exchange, which had at last realised that Bismark was poised for his next pounce and that an AustroPrussian war might well engulf the whole of Europe. No such anxieties damped the high spirits of the four youngsters. Arriving at seven a.m. they put up at the United Hotel in Charles Street, just off St. James's Square, paid a duty call on Hart and then set blithely off to see Mme. Tussaud's Exhibition of Waxworks. On the 16th, being Derby Day, they went by coach to Epsom, where they saw Lord Lyon, the odds-on favourite, win by a short head and a weishing bookie beaten insensible in front of the grandstand. After such frivolities, their noses were clamped firmly to the grindstone and the following day was spent at the British Museum, the South Kensington Museum and the not-wholely edifying-spectacle of "Capt. Meponi's collection of jewels plundered from the Yuan Ming Nguan".
That same night the two Pins arrived from Paris, where their resting period had apparently done little to improve the old man's health, since his first action was to declare himself too unwell to fulfil his immediate engagements. From now onwards, his indisposition began to assume a definite pattern. On the 18th he was too ill to receive any visitors or to attend the Annual China Dinner at Wills's Room and return thanks for the Emperor's well-being, but he managed, with the support of his son, to stagger down Charles Street as far as the Haymarket Theatre. On the 20th he was too weak to visit St. Paul's Cathedral or watch, at University Hospital, a surgical operation by Sir James Fergusson, but by the evening had regained his strength sufficiently to face a performance at the Primrose Theatre. It appeared that by day his health remained precarious and his participation could never be relied on, but his vigour seemed to revive with the setting sun and after nightfall he was usually ready for whatever gaiety was on the programme.
With or without his presence, the Mission worked hard at Hampton Court with supper at the Star and Garter; the Horse Show at Islington and an opera (The Huguenots) at Her Majesty's; the Polytechnic and the Foreign Office; the Thames Tunnel and the Flower Show; the Tower, a fountain factory and the G.P.O.; all the European Embassies in one dreadful day; a worse one followed, which included The Times printing house, Pentonville Model Prison and the Athenaeum, ending with Mrs. Gladstone's "At Home" where "Pin-ta-jen was introduced to half the peerage"-and so it went on.
A few occasions stood out from the rest, one being a visit to Aldershot, where Edward with his memories of Turr's Hungarian horsemen outside Capua, found himself seated beside General Scarlett, that most astonishing of all Crimean soldiers who, being appointed to command the Heavy Brigade when lie had never in his life heard a shot fired in anger, had the good sense and humility to engage two Indian Army veterans to ride with him; and with their advice succeeded in leading one of the most successful cavalry charges in all military history. Another was a day at Woolwich Arsenal and lunch with Colonel Gordon, brother of the Taipings' conqueror, which so inspired Pin that he "composed a couple of sonnets in pentameter during the repast". Yet another, an evening spent at Cremorne Gardens, which seems to have been something between a circus, a pantomime, a revue in time and a straight strip-tease. An account in The Times a few days later mentions that "On the stage there is a burlesque show, well written and duly seasoned with smart puns" together with "a numerous corps de ballet and two dancers of the higher school- Signorina Olympia and Signorina Eugenia", also gymnastic performances, bare-back riding, trapeze artists, tight-rope walking and "the Immortal Blondin". Pin found it "divinely wonderful beyond conception". But the greatest impression of all was made by a tour of the Customs House and the bonded warehouses for tea and wine nearby. Pin comments-
These vaults are of great extent and we burnt out ten or more candles before our visit was over. The atmosphere is powerfully impregnated with vinous exhalations, yielding an agreeable perfume to the senses. If Yuan Tsieh could be brought hither, he would certainly exclaim-"Bury me here when I die and spare yourselves the trouble of following me with a mattock!"'
Hitherto the Mission had attracted disappointingly little notice from the press. The Parisian journalists had confined their coverage to accusing each other of faking or inventing interviews, to totally false descriptions of the habits of their guests-"they never eat beef, because the ox is a beast of agriculture" and "they never drink wine with their meals" were typical-and to would be humorous speculation as to their surprise and alarm should they find themselves under fire between the Prussian and Austrian armies. (The French felt themselves to be comfortably clear of this particular war and could afford to be frivolous.)
The English newspapers had hitherto given them scarcely any space at all and it was not till the beginning of June that a singularly silly question in Parliament by the egregious Colonel
(1) Yuan Tsieh is one of the seven wine-bibbing worthies of Chinese history and romance. Died A.D.263. As the professor of an epicurean philosophy, which ridiculed the formal ceremonies of the day, he was accustomed to say "Let me die drinking and shovel me into my gravel" Anon-but almost certainly C. A. V. Bowra, Edward's son.
Sykes, that same self-appointed apologist for the Taipings who had aroused Edward's wrath the previous autumn-gave the Mission some publicity, albeit of a kind that they could well have done without. Pursuing some obscure personal feud with the Manchu dynasty, he asked whether "Pin and his son Yo-Ho and their Mongol and Tartar friends" were officially accredited to the British government. His phraseology struck a note of ill-mannered facetiousness rather rare at that date and might easily have earned him a sharp rebuke, but the House was debating matters of great and immediate moment-nothing less than the reform of the great public schools, with special mention of Eton and Winchester-and the subject was dropped.
But poor publicity could be dismissed as a minor annoyance, since the Mission's sojourn in England was now approaching its climax with royal recognition of their presence and the prospect of a personal presentation to the Queen herself. The matter was first broached on the occasion of their visit to Parliament where Pin-ta-jen had caused consternation by a rather pertinent question. After listening to some notable orator discoursing with his usual dramatic gestures, he asked-"But is he speaking good sense?"
A matter of so much importance had, of course, to be immediately referred to Hart, who had once more retreated to his family home in Lisburn, whence he replied-"Should the Prince' wish Pin to attend a levee, let him go, accompanied by yourself of course; but don't let him take his flute!"
The news spread rapidly and no sooner was it generally known than the great hostesses of the capital began revising their invitation lists and, instead of such humdrum entries as "Mrs. Gladstone's At Home", Edward's engagement book filled with glamorous passages like "Lady Waldegrave's Assembly" or "Dine with Lords Milton and Houghton at the Garrick Club and go on to Lady FitzWilliam's Assembly". Pin's physical health now became of much concern in court circles, since nothing untoward must be allowed to interfere with the great event and, faced with the rigours of a tour of the Crystal Palace, he was not only received by the Chairman and Manager but provided with "a small carriage to obviate the necessity of walk-
(1) The Prince of Wales (afterwards Edward VII) to whom Queen Victoria had, at this date, delegated most of her social duties.
ing", in other words a bath-chair. On the 4th of June they visited Eton ("the Great College" Pin calls it) and Windsor Castle, being furnished with Royal Carriages for their transport. Here Pin was truly in his element, both among the oriental treasures in the public apartments and the exotic plants in the greenhouses. He recognised "three heptameter stanzas from the poem entitled Liu Hiang Tieh" painted on a fan and "specimens of the Cydonia japonica some two or three feet in height, of most symmetrical beauty"; but what plainly afforded him the greatest pleasure were "the eight small carriage ponies, resembling the ponies of the west of China, which are driven by the Queen herself".
Early on the 5th they were summoned to a State Ball which took place at the Palace that same evening and here at last Pin found himself genuinely and unaffectedly impressed by the dignity of the ceremonial and the magnificence of the scene; but his description, though lengthy and detailed, contains nothing particularly original till, after his presentation to the Prince and Princess and an exchange of the usual banalities, he spoke up for himself-
I also said-"Envoys from China have never as yet reached your honourable country; and now, having been ordained to travel abroad, I have learnt for the first time that such beautiful lands exist beyond our seas. Moreover, by the extremely gracious welcome accorded to me by the Queen and your Royal Highness, I feel honoured in an unparalleled measure."
Hereupon the Prince and Princess, both smiling, permitted me to withdraw for the purpose of proceeding to the banqueting-room, where a profusion of costly wines and elegant viands was laid out. The servitors of the entertainment, decked in gold lace, carried trays about, moreover, and handed refreshments to the guests.
I almost fancied I had been transported bodily to the Lake of Gems in heaven, that the crowd around me were the golden-armoured Gods, or the Immortals of fairy-land and that I had bidden farewell to the world below!
Here we have Pin is in his true guise of cultured gentleman and gifted poet. In this high-flown and evidently heart-felt eulogy, he ingeniously combined various oriental ideas of celestial magnificence in one picture. The Lake of Gems is the fabled abode of the "Queen of the Fairies", Si Wang Mu; the golden-armoured Gods are the attendants of Indra, whilst the Immortals are part of the Taoist mythology.'
He was at his best again on the following day, when he had the supreme privilege of a private audience-in the Organ Room-with Queen Victoria and he reports the occasion with real reverence concluding-"I cannot help feeling that, for a mere traveller like myself to have been favoured with repeated manifestations of distinguished courtesy, and to have had an interview vouchsafed and condescending expressions addressed to me, is an honour of the very highest degree."
Whatever happened after this was bound to be in the nature of anticlimax and it was just as well that, on the 7th, they left for a tour of the industrial North. Unfortunately the programme on which they now embarked was even more stupidly strenuous than the previous one. Stopping for lunch at Oxford, it was reasonable that they should visit five colleges and the Bodleian before breakfasting with the Vice Chancellor, but quite absurd that they should then be handed over to the Mayor and Corporation to be dragged round the Town Hall, the Free Library and the Corn Exchange, before going on to Birmingham; where another Mayor and Corporation were in waiting. The next few days must have been sheer nightmare.
Pin-ta-jen abandoned for the time his cherished diary and Edward's became little more than an official timetable, but their purgatory can be pieced together from the exuberant columns of the Birmingham Post. Not only did they tour Elkinglon & Mason's plate factory, Edelsien & Williams' pin factory, Gillot's pen factory, a railway carriage factory, Yate's & Co.'s edged tool factory and Aston's button factory, but at each establishment the owners and management conducted them conscientiously through every separate process from raw material to finished article; and in between there were official lunches and dinners with interminable speeches and innumerable toasts.
At first Pin bore up well; he had been greatly flattered by his reception at Court, was becoming much attached to Edward and to some extent infected by his youthful enthusiasm. But soon he began to flag and the first signs showed themselves appropriately enough-in Aston's button factory where-
The variety of buttons that were made seemed to amuse the Commissioner and his suite very much; but the interminable succession of narrow passages and flights of steps appeared to give him some uneasiness. At length . . . he betook himself to a small room where only a few young women were at work and there he and Mr. Bowra remained. It happened to be tea-time when His Excellency dropped in here and a blushing damsel ... etc. etc.
Edward recognised the danger signals and did all that could be done, organising a highly successful party for the Circus that same night, but the next day was just as bad, with two more factories and a most unwilling descent into a coal mine. At the pit-head they refused at first to submit to the supreme indignity of divesting themselves of their official regalia for the garments of a miner, but "after a short but vigorous conversation in Chinese, they resigned themselves with Oriental fortitude to their fate". The same day they left for Manchester and on the 10th, a Sunday, Edward secured for them a full day's rest, apart from a drive-with the Mayor and Aldermen-to Cheadle. But on Monday the wearisome routine was resumed -cotton mills, Assize Courts, Blind Asylums, Deaf and Dumb Schools and a slightly melancholy visit to Macintosh's India Rubber Factory, where Edward mused sadly on how narrowly his father had missed both fame and fortune.
Pin's mood was now openly mutinous and he was threatening to break off the tour altogether, under the rather flimsy pretext of making certain of being back in China by the date commanded. He was, in fact, suffering from a combination of physical fatigue, emotional exasperation and acute homesickness; and his pleasure in finding himself for once in familiar surroundings, when they returned to London and the same hotel in St. James's, is rather pathetic:
On returning to our previous lodgings in Cha-urh-sze Sze-ti-li-ti,' the landlady and the attendants all welcomed us like old acquaintances. The flowers in the vases looked smilingly at the guests and the bird in its cage chirruped its note of recognition. Truly it is said in Tu Yew's poems -"K'iuan ying tseng sub k'eh" ("The dog goes forth to welcome the stranger who has once slept in the house").
The capitals of Europe still stretched in a menacing procession ahead of them and Edward, for once thoroughly worried, poured out his troubles in a letter to Hart, the reply to which arrived while they were packing for the Continent-
I can readily understand the difficulties you have to contend with and you may rest assured that if, by keeping the end in view and making the best of them, your services will not be unappreciated . . . . Tell Pin with my compliments that he may set his mind at rest as to being in China in the proper time.
He continued, rather optimistically, as things turned out:
I hope to see you off for America by the first opportunity in September; it would not do at all for the mission to return without having at least visited Washington.
And ended on an ominous note:
Should any remark be made relative to the short visits to be paid to Russia and Prussia, you will please to explain that Pin's instructions were to be back again in China in six months time and that he is afraid to be absent any longer.
His letter was dated the 13th June. On the 16th Prussia invaded Hanover, Saxony and Hesse and the Seven Weeks' War began. The previous day, Pin had caused renewed consternation by progressing as far as Strood, where they were received by Lord Wilton and Earl de Grey, on a visit to the Great Eastern and then flatly refusing to go on board that famous steamship, in spite of all their lordships' blandishments. His good sense was vindicated-and by no means for the first time-as the weather was threatening when they embarked and, on their return trip, the yacht which carried them was struck by a squall and dismasted. He was, however, becoming more and more obstreperous and, when Hart rushed over from Ireland to discuss the Continental tour and its possible modifications due to the outbreak of hostilities, Edward was much relieved to see him.
The upshot of their deliberations was that the manifest war risks could be accepted and that Pin must at all costs be bullied or cajoled into continuing the tour. Hart then returned to Lisburn and de Champs went on vacation, leaving Edward once more in sole charge and burdened with responsibilities social, political and diplomatic, which might well have daunted a man of twice his age.
At this moment, however, he felt equal to any task, for a cherished project, very close to his heart, had come to fruition.
His parents, whom lie had hardly as yet had time to see, had contrived in spite of their comparatively strained circumstances and modest way of life, to entertain the Pin Mission and a wide circle of their friends to a garden party in their home at Biggin Hill, about five miles southeast of Croydon. A painting of the house at this date shows a compact, three storied, double-fronted building with an imposing flight of steps leading up to the door and surrounded by a pleasant walled garden with two tall poplars and some smaller trees. So it is possible to imagine the scene with the men in their stiffly correct top hats and frock coats, contrasting with the oriental splendour of the Chinese guests and the women in their preposterous, but none the less elegant wasp-waists and crinoline skirts.
Edmund Bligh, his faithful friend, was there; and Edward Clarke, his old adversary in the Metropolitan Evening Classes Debating Society and now a barrister with his feet already set on the ladder that was to bring him fame; but not, alas, Lord St. Maur, with whom he had continued to correspond while in China, but whose chronic asthma had now rendered him a complete invalid, forced to spend most of the year in Tangier. There was also a handsome, dark-eyed, rather reserved nineteen-year-old called Thirza Woodward, whom he had known-and still thought of-as a child. It was quite surprising to hear that she was already engaged to be married.
The party must have been a success as, though he himself merely notes: "22nd To Croydon", Pin-ta-jen has much more to say:
"A bright sunny day and to Mr. Bowra's residence. After dinner our party went into his charming and beautiful garden, where we enjoyed ourselves immensely in playing croquet, dancing and singing songs; and continued suchlike amusements for the whole day.
While the war spread across Europe, with Italy entering on the side of Prussia and Bavaria on the side of Austria, the exhausted sexagenarian faced his final festivities in London. At the Caledonian Ball he notes:
The majority of the guests, it is stated, were Scottish; and of the ladies, two or three in every ten had white hair, though their faces were blooming and youthful. In answer to my inquiries, I was told that the hair was artificially whitened. One not conversant with the fact might almost have taken youthful matrons for grandmothers.
This was his last observation on the outlandish folk among whom he had sojourned for five crowded weeks. On the 24th the Mission sailed for Antwerp.
Drage, Charles: Servants of the Dragon Throne. (1966, London, Peter Dawnay Ltd.)
copyright © 1966 Charles Drage
The Mission of the Third Class Mandarin