Life of a Rooster

Memoirs of a psychiatrist, journalist and educator

Wretched Dream of the Qing Palace

on June 13, 2014

I finally did improve in Chinese, both reading and writing, both modern and classical, not because of a tutor, because we did not have one; not because of the teacher, because she would give her lecture and sweep out of the classroom, regardless of whether we got it or not; and not because of our textbooks or exercises. It was because of a new phenomenon for us, the Chinese TV drama.

In our last months in Paris, Uncle Lung had acquired a television, a legacy from a departing colleague. So we had learned about TV shows, which in France were partially French-produced and partially American imported. France TV series were called “feuilletons” and lasted around 30 minutes per episode.

 

Zhen Fei (Consort Pearl) in Wretched Dream of the Qing Palace. I was amazed by the huge headdresses worn by the consorts and empress.

Zhen Fei (Consort Pearl) in Wretched Dream of the Qing Palace. I was amazed by the huge headdresses worn by the consorts and empress.

Here in Taiwan, each episode was closer to an hour, minus the commercials, which popped up whenever they felt like it, unlike the French ones which only appeared after a short animated sketch announced that this was the commercial break. The stories were long, and I mean, long,with dozens of episodes. In December 1970, for the first time, Taiwan Television Corporation broadcasted a daily TV drama set in the declining years of the Qing Dynasty. Entitled Wretched Dream of the Qing Palace, it centered around the doomed love story of Emperor Guang Xu and his concubine Zhen Fei who was eventually ordered to be thrown down into a well by the Empress Dowager Ci Xi. I was incensed at the uselessness of the puppet emperor and his futile attempts at modernization and building up a strong army. I could not believe that the fate of China rested in the hands of an old woman who still believed, on the eve of the twentieth century, that China was the center of the universe, and that building a sumptuous summer palace to prop up her image would resolve the problem of foreign powers trying to eat up our land piece by piece. This was my first introduction to the fascinating world of Chinese history.

Today's Chinese TV dramas set in the Qing dynasty have come a long way: compare the sumptuous and intricate headdresses!

Today’s Chinese TV dramas set in the Qing dynasty have come a long way: compare the sumptuous and intricate headdresses!

But all this, I did not learn on the spot. What attracted me at first were the costumes, very pitiful compared to today’s splendid productions, but nonetheless an eye opener for me at the time. Then, the language and rituals. I was fascinated by the bows and curtsies, so different from European ones; here, a eunuch would go down on one knee, while snapping out his long sleeves and acquiescing with a “zha!” (in today’s movies this word has been updated to “zhe”) instead of a Yes, Ma’am! The emperor would not call himself “I”, nor even a royal “we”, but a new word, “zhen”.

At first, I could not understand a single word of this semi-classical Chinese. Fortunately, there were always subtitles. So I tried reading them. Lucky me if I caught one word before it flashed away. Gradually, I managed to catch a few words at a time, and finally I was able to read all the line in time. To this day, I advise foreign language learners to watch movies with subtitles for faster learning. You read, and hear the words pronounced at a normal speed with a realistic tone of voice.

Thus, every evening, I would camp myself in front of the TV, with my textbooks, notebooks, and pens, just so I could manage to do some homework during the commercials, and stay glued to it until the episode finished. My parents would occasionally remind me, half-heartedly, that it would be more effective for me to do my homework in my room. But they themselves would be so engrossed in the plot and background politics that they would forget about me. I am forever indebted to them, for it was thus that I finally started reading classical Chinese faster and with immediate understanding.

Empress Ci Xi, as portrayed in Wretched Dream of the Qing Palace. Leaving behind her on the throne a five-year-old  boy, she passed away three years before the crumbling empire was finally overthrown by revolutionaries in 1911.

Empress Ci Xi, as portrayed in Wretched Dream of the Qing Palace. Leaving behind her on the throne a five-year-old boy, she passed away three years before the crumbling empire was finally overthrown by revolutionaries in 1911.

However, reading subtitles was still a long way from reading our literature texts. They were still full of unknown characters. One day, the teacher assigned us an entire text to be committed to memory by the next morning. I could not believe she would do such a thing. I spent the entire evening and night trying. I had to look up each character to figure out its pronunciation and its meaning, note them in the margins, and then attempt to learn it all by heart. As usual, I fell asleep on my desk, and had to be dragged to bed by Mama, kicking and moaning about having to finish my homework. I got up at five, as usual, had breakfast, and then took the two city buses to school, studying all the way. I studied in between classes, but still, by the time Chinese literature came, I had only finished one paragraph and one sentence. I was crushed. This was the end. I was going to get a zero.

The teacher explained the procedure: #1 would recite paragraph 1; #2 would recite paragraph 2, and so on. All the students in each class had a class number, which was separate from our school ID number. Having joined the class a week late, Saadia and I had been assigned numbers 56 and 57. I looked at the board to check how many of us were absent. I subtracted that from 57, then divided the resulting number by the number of paragraphs. This should tell me which paragraph I would have to recite. I prayed it would be the first one. Too bad, it turned out to be the second one. Well, I still had some time. I tried and tried, but one by one, the students stood up, recited and sat down, and my turn came closer and closer. I was devastated. I still could manage only one sentence and a few more words. My neighbor on the left said, “Just keep the book propped up in front of you, the teacher won’t see.” The neighbor in front kindly cooperated by sitting up straight so the book could lean on her back.

My turn came. I stood up, with my glasses on, so it would help me see the words more clearly. I said the one and only sentence I knew, then started stammering out the next few words. OK, let’s try to read off the textbook… I squinted as hard as I could… impossible! Too small! I just could not read the characters! My neighbor on the left whispered them to me, but the buzz of muted conversations was too loud and I could not hear her. “What? What? Louder!” I muttered under my breath.  At this point, I realized all these efforts were futile. The teacher must have noticed by now I wasn’t saying anything any more. She must be getting ready to scold me… Hey! Why wasn’t she? I lifted my head. Dear Teacher was nodding off, a slight snore curling out of her lips, totally oblivious to my despair.

Such an anticlimax triggered it. I burst out laughing. I tried hard to hold myself, but the more I tried, the more the hahahas forced themselves out, making me sputter and cough from the effort. The droning voices all stopped suddenly, all heads turning towards me. My neighbor whispered, “What’s the matter? Why are you laughing? Just say it, the next sentence is…” The sudden silence replacing the soothing lull of whispered conversations woke the sleeping teacher. She flipped her head up, wiped the dripping saliva, blinked, and surveyed the landscape. Severely, she scolded my neighbor, “Why are you teasing Mai Tai-Chi?”  Then, to me, “All right, you may sit down.” and she wrote some grade in her grade book.

Thank You, O God! For having listened to my desperate prayers and protected me from an ignominious and unfair failing grade!


One Response to “Wretched Dream of the Qing Palace”

  1. Saadia Mai says:

    Ha ha! I love this story. Poor Faw, you were overwhelmed with the challenges of Chinese class. I have no idea how I coped, I don’t recall much of it. I do remember the fantastic Chinese TV shows and how everyone was enthralled with the latest episode of the trendiest show of the day.

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