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FEB 2015

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FEB 2015 Issue

Conversation In The Palace Of Ch’ien-Lung

Wang Lun

When Döblin’s first great epic novel Die drei Sprünge des Wang Lun was published in 1915, two sections of the manuscript were missing, presumably under pressure from the publisher. These “outtakes” eventually appeared in the 1920s as short stories, with no reference to their connection with the novel. The first, the omission of which materially affects the shape and meaning of the novel, was restored for the first time in the English translation The Three Leaps of Wang Lun (1991; 2nd ed. New York Review Books, out this month) as the Prologue ‘The Attack on Chao Lao-hsu’. The second outtake, ‘Conversation in the Palace of Ch’ien-lung’, translated here for the first time in English, is less central to the novel but still worth preserving for the density of the evoked atmosphere and a remarkable example of synaesthesia. A small amount of overlap with the text of the novel shows that this outtake was originally intended for early in Book 3 of Wang Lun.

The session of the High Council which convened on the morrow was unable, through an external circumstance, to give consideration to the Torghut question. Once certain personnel matters which had lain pending for too long had been dealt with, the Emperor was called away to view, together with the Chief Overseer of Eunuchs, the young ladies who had been chosen to replenish the Imperial harem.

Seven Manchu beauties of distinguished family trembled on rugs in the vestibule of one of the Imperial houses of women. The Minister named each of them to the Emperor, who nodded thoughtfully. As each was named she stood up, let fall her milk-white veil, exuded the scent of choice perfumes, lifted her gaze. The Yellow Lord was pleased when the third, stupefied, tugged at her veil without loosening it; with a glance he held back the portly Chief Eunuch, who was about to tear away the veil. Ch’ien-lung took the end of the veil that dangled at her waist and placed it around her neck. She shrank back emitting a little squeal. Ch’ien-lung, laughing, pronounced her name to Hu, who was purple with anger. Hesitant, astonished, he engraved the name with a stylus on a wax tablet carried by a house-slave behind him: the young lady was to wait upon the Son of Heaven at the double hour of the Dragon.

The Yellow Lord commanded that Chia-ch’ing, the King of Turkestan and sundry nobles who had his confidence should meet with him in the afternoon.

In the palace the Yellow Lord sat by himself on a dais, his guests on low chairs below the steps. It was already known that the Emperor was discomposed by the Torghut business, that he wished to move matters forward, but that certain difficulties had presented themselves. Chia-ch’ing squatted motionless on his chair. The situation displeased him. He foresaw debates, outbreaks of anger, misunderstandings. He glared at the white-bearded Khan of Turfan, whose bright blue eyes, he thought, lent the man a ridiculous appearance. The inevitable Sung with his owl eyes squatted next to the foreigner, then the chatterbox A-kuei. How to manage it so that nothing would follow from them. Life at Court would be easier to bear without them. Let them all be sent tripping one day over a staff. The blue-eyed King of Turfan, a vigorous old man with a goatee and a Manchu queue, was in a cheerful mood as he regarded Sung, who had regaled him splendidly for half the day with refined and learned verses; clearly Sung took him very seriously; he did not notice how much he revealed to the seasoned Minister by and by about his relation to the Torghuts and to Lhasa. Absolute silence reigned once the Emperor appeared and the guests had prostrated themselves; then, at a word from the Emperor, they took their places. Below the ceiling of the little hall hung an enormous yellow silk cloth; a mighty dragon embroidered in gold, blue and red soared across the symmetrical silken folds that came together in the middle of the ceiling. The windows were curtained despite the daylight; heavy bronze oil lamps hung from chains that pierced the silken ceiling, cast their ruddy glow over the carpeted steps, the sovereign in his yellow gown, and the resplendent silent guests. Young eunuchs busied themselves soundlessly above and below, served tea in a golden service. For a long while Ch’ien-lung held his little cup with its little porcelain lid aloft, flourishing it gently above his guests, and read the verse that decorated the cup, which he himself had composed:

“Over a low fire set a tripod, whose bloom and grain betoken long use. Fill it with pure snow water. Boil for as long as would be needed to turn fish white or crabs red. Pour it onto tender leaves of choice tea in a cup of Yüeh ware. Let it steep until the steam has risen in a cloud and on the surface there remains but a thin swirling mist. Drink this precious liquor at your pleasure, and it will dissipate the five causes of ill-humour. This moment of peace I can only taste and enjoy, not describe.”

And how happy the poem made Chia-ch’ing at that moment; for the phlegmatic man hoped and foresaw that the Emperor would be inclined to believe his own poem and at least feign a certain equanimity.

The narrow-shouldered king, addressed by the Emperor, broke out in hypocritical formulae of obeisance. Then the Emperor asked Sung whether Chao Hui had been invited. The lanky general, seated beside A-kuei, had gone unremarked by Ch’ien-lung, whose eyes were failing. Ch’ien-lung nodded to him with a smile: “Could your troops, Excellency, within two months stand once again on the Ili?”

Chao, shocked, pulled himself together and confirmed it. The sovereign’s eyes had a wicked spiteful gleam; he knew, must have known, that a slaughter unworthy of man had been perpetrated on the Ili; the benevolence he was wont to accord Chao could not mean that he would entrust him with a repetition of this gruesome task. But you never knew with Ch’ien-lung.

And how old was Chao Hui and how many sons did he have.

The Tartar answered his sovereign with effusive expressions of obligation for his graciousness.

“No need,” the Yellow Lord rocked himself in his armchair, “you are strong and your son will tend your ghost. I calculate that your Excellency will dispose of thirty thousand men. In addition to your own tested core troops you will receive Mongolian Banner regiments. The Tsongtu of Chihli will be responsible for filling the ranks, and he will also, upon your request, supply Green Flag regiments. I do not know whether you will find a use for these. At tomorrow’s Council we shall make a decision. But the country is empty, the Ili country. At least you will have space for your troops until they are needed. And in your free time, your Excellency can make sacrifices for the fallen rebels of Ili, who I understand from A-kuei still rob you of your rest.”

Chia-ch’ing bowed his head. He, like the Emperor, was smiling. He recommended mustering a regiment of bonzes, since soldiers might not have experience of sacrificial rites.

“Excellency Chao Hui is free to recruit such a regiment,” replied Ch’ien-lung in a calm, still mocking tone, “I was merely making a suggestion. The details and provisioning of his priest-troops are matters for Chao Hui himself to decide. What I have in mind for you, Excellency, is indeed a perilous task. You know that the Torghuts intend to come to the Ili next year. Well, you will be there on the Ili with your selected troops. Who will be driven back will be decided by who has the hardest bones. But anyway, ever since your unforgettable deeds, the lands on the Ili belong to me. And if necessary I shall issue a decree assigning the hardest bones to you.”

“The soldiers of Your Majesty under my command are armed and ready. We await Your Majesty’s orders and these orders will empower us to prevail.”

The Emperor, disarmed, nodded his head. The doughty warrior’s words betrayed not a trace of petulance.

“We are not in Council, Excellency. This is not a serious debate. You are my guests, and we are having a discussion. I hope that I am wrong about the Torghuts.”

After they had all raised their cups, Chia-ch’ing declaimed: “Drink this precious liquor at your pleasure, and it will dissipate the five causes of ill-humour. This moment of peace I can only taste and enjoy, not describe. – But if you will permit this youth unblessed with wisdom, he would like to put forward a suggestion, in the event that Excellency Chao is forced to mount up once again.”

 Ch’ien-lung: “To take you along? My son Chia-ch’ing, the lancer.”

“If it please the Lord of the World, then yes. Even though Chia-ch’ing takes more pleasure and delight in the company of his father and music than of sweaty Torghuts and soldiers.”

Sung piped up: “For nails you use bad iron and for soldiers – ”

“No bad men,” Chao interjected, “but good iron.”

Ch’ien-lung laughed contentedly and lay back. He sent a eunuch, who glided down the steps at the side, to take the general candied figs from his plate. “Only good iron, Chao, the hardest that you can gather.”

Chia-ch’ing hummed and hawed, sought for words: “It has still not been clarified, if I may point out in support of His Serenity Sung, whether iron is in any case a particularly valuable metal. It has no colour, does not shine, plays no role in determining auspicious or inauspicious events. One has need of iron, but – perhaps savants of more advanced understanding will mock this youngster – if the outcome were to depend solely on hardness, then forged iron would be better than the man whom it slays; and the primordial Yin and Yang would have erred in embodying themselves in people rather than in iron. But I did not want my proposal to be forgotten.”

“You are not quite right, Chia-ch’ing,” said the Emperor, “but it is enough generally to be a little bit right, so that errors can be revealed. Iron has its time, jade has its time, water has its time. Sometimes iron has my time.”

“How would it be, I wanted to propose to Your Majesty, if Your Majesty were to augment the planned regiment of priest-soldiers by attaching to it the long-nosed missionaries from the West. They claim that the enviable spirit to which they pray can perform boundless acts, far more than any spirit of the eighteen provinces; there are even some among them who assert like children that they have the real, the true, the authentic spirit, who can do anything. While everyone knows that no spirit or god should be allowed to grow too big, as then he would become negligent and neglect his simplest obligations, and it is customary among us to serve many spirits, turn and turn about according to their capacities.”

“If Chao Hui desires, I shall put together a battalion of missionaries for him and despatch it to the Ili. It will be a test for them: whether the Torghuts can be brought to a stand through the intercession of the western god or not. This god is not known to us; we do not want to show prejudice against him: but of course we would rather depend more on the iron that Chia-ch’ing has disparaged. And on the calculations of our own astrologers.”

Sung, the jolly literatus, craved leave to speak; his old clever face was creased by a smile: “While working on the glorious history of the K’ang-hsi period, this ant came across a report of the Censor of that time, to whom were delivered some western presents for the son of the Son of Heaven. Old Sung’s legs may be weak, but his memory is still moderately good. The report on the presents of the Jesuit priest Li-ma-tsu read something like this: ‘We have no connection with the west, where people follow neither our laws nor our rites. The pictures of a supposed lord of heaven and a virgin, tendered by Li-ma-tsu, are of no value, the bones which he thinks to present belong, as he says, to immortals, fairies; but he does not consider that when these go to heaven they take their bones with them. We therefore conclude that we can have no truck with such novelties and must send back this man and his presents.” This is what the Censors of old wrote. This ant would add that Li-ma-tsu also offered the Son of Heaven a globe to which no credit could be given, as one sought in vain on it for the Four Seas.”

Soft laughter. Teacups and lids clinked. Warm gentle steam filled the hall. The King of Turfan felt impelled to make an observation to Chia-ch’ing. Employing unhelpful men from the west for the war in Ili might perhaps be superfluous; for, setting aside all other considerations, the westerners’ god, what’s his name, had not the slightest knowledge of that region; the paths and passes between Kulja and Kashgar are difficult enough for natives, unknown in parts, sometimes impassable; southward from Lake Balkash and deep into Dzungaria bare mountain regions soar over steppelands, populated only by foxes, bears, wild yaks. What could a spirit whose home lies a thousand li to the west achieve here.

As they relaxed, as lissom servants glided over the carpets and the guests engaged in whispered conversations under the gaze of the Son of Heaven, from behind a heavy red cloth curtain to one side bamboo flutes set up a soft music. The wide curtain was painted with discreet magnificence; a curious network of violet lines covered the red background, which almost imperceptibly developed towards the centre into figures and forms. It had been painted by Ku K’ai-chih. A lady sat before a mirror, a round green glinting mirror held up for her by two maidservants, one of them was standing, the other rested the edge of the mirror on an outstretched knee; an ancient eunuch leaned on a staff in the background, observing the young artist who stood behind the lady, winding her tresses into the prescribed coils. No figure was painted complete; only silhouettes, folds, outlines were given, so that the figure was always melting back into the ground. The bright yellow of the lady held the focus; the broad folds of the eunuch’s gown in pale blue finely balanced the pink of the hairdresser, whose hands and fingers plunged silver-white into dark masses of hair. The mirror framed the sparely outlined maidservants; the brown of their garments swelled out of the grey-black of the floor.

The music twittered and chirped, flutes sketched wide springtime landscapes, flocks of grazing sheep, soaring finches and larks; in the curtained hall they enchanted with the delights of the earth over which the sovereign on the dais held sway.

Chia-ch’ing looked up at the dim oil lamps; he was happy and moved by the music.

The Emperor called to him as their eyes met: “Would it not be good, Chia-ch’ing, to fill another land such as this with people and let them tend the soil in its fruitfulness? I would gladly keep Chao Hui here, and spare him. You friend of peace, give me your advice, music is filling the hall, you can speak.”

“I believe in the might of Your Majesty. The eighteen provinces are prosperous. Happiness rests in Your Majesty’s lap. The wastelands on the Ili should be entrusted to the Torghuts. With the Tashi-lama as their leader, Your Majesty will overwhelm them with the riches of our culture. If the man of accomplished wisdom in Tashi-lunpo guides your thoughts and hopes now and in forty years, then in fifty years Your Majesty’s people will have converted to them. Their children will speak of the holy men of Tibet as we do – and wear the robe, worship the ancestors, sacrifice to Heaven – like us. The pacific always prevails over the enemies of peace. Wars bring only momentary success, unless they are the final word of an almost completely accomplished move to peace. This ignoramus dares to utter his opinion. And he has no doubt that K’ung-fu-tse will prevail as he did two, three thousand years ago, for another thousand years wherever he encounters crude barbarism.”

“You friend of peace, singer of peace! Tomorrow I shall sit and try to turn your thoughts into poems, Chia-ch’ing. This old man rejoices in his son!”

The deep rapid ever-changing tones of the flutes erected towering cliffs; nomads hunted over narrow passes, muddy brooks tumbled downward, you went reluctantly through the bare landscape.

First published in the Berliner Börsen-Courier, 16 April 1922.


Alfred Döblin

ALFRED DÖBLIN (1878-1957) was a novelist, essayist, neurologist, and a leading figure of German Expressionist writing. He is best known for his novel Berlin Alexanderplatz, which was adapted into an acclaimed TV series by Rainer Werner Fassbinder in 1980. Leading writers including Brecht and Grass have acknowledged Doblin's influence on their work.

Chris Godwin

CHRIS GODWIN studied German and Chinese in Edinburgh and Hong Kong. He worked in Hong Kong and China for many years, and now divides his time between England and Beijing. He recently completed the first English translation of Doblin's South American trilogy Land Without Death. His translation of Doblin's historical-philosophical essay "Prometheus and the Primitive" was published on the Brooklyn Rail's InTranslation website in November 2014.


The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2015

All Issues