AT THE SIGN OF THE LAUGHING GODS
BY J. O. P. BLAND
There are two morals to this story. One, that the long arm of coincidence can easily put a girdle about this little planet of ours; two, that in China dead men's bones often count for more than the limbs of this living.
The story itself, which had lain submerged for thirty years in some hidden backwater of memory's
wayward tide, came back to me, all unexpectedly, as such things do, on afternoon during a
recent visit to Peking. I was riding by myself that day, rambling without any definite purpose
among the quiet narrow streets which lie between the Hatamen
the eastern wall of the Tartar city; and my mood was of the sentimental reminiscent kind, which
endeavours to recapture something of the fragrance and glamour of bygone happy days.
Those who in middle age revisit the glimpses of joyous suns which shone upon their primrose paths
of youth and
wanderlust,usually find something bitter-sweet in the savour
produced by the sights and sounds of old familiar places, by the whispering ghosts of vanished
years, that gather at every turn of half-forgotten roads. Mingled with a wistful melancholy of
retrospection and heart-stirring memories of the past, there lurks an involuntary subtle
complacency, something like unsophisticated pride in a personal achievement, in the reflection
that we ourselves still survive and have our being, still fill our little place in the sun. I
know that as I rode that day down the Kou-lan hutung,that narrow street
between mysterious high-walled dwellings which I came to know by heart in the old days of the
Customs Students' Mess, something of this feeling rose unbidden to the surface of a stream of
crowded memories. I thought of all the paroxysms and perils of change through which Peking had
passed since first I saw it, in the yellow haze of an autumn dust-storm, thirty-six years
before. I thought of all the Red-buttoned mighty ones, of whom our Chinese teachers used to
speak with such awe, princes and viceroys and governors, whose names are now as swiftly fading
shadows on a ruined wall. With these tumultuous years, all the might, majesty, and dominion of
the Great Pure dynasty had been swept away, its forbidden sanctuaries invaded, and its high
altars defiled; and yet here was I, an insignificant specator of that drama, tranquilly
revisiting the glory that once was China's capital—a comfortable pilgrim,
hoping to feel once again some thing of the tingling vividness of sensation, the throbbing
joie de vivre,indissolubly associated in my mind with every early memory of Peking.
And in theis narrow street, where no swift tide of traffic has ever run, the sights and sounds
that met me on my way all contributed to a pleasing sense of stability, to the illusion of a
little oasis of ancient ways inviolate in a wilderness of change. At the red-lacquered gateway
of a Bannerman's ancestral home stood one of the old springless carts with a great Szechnen
mule between the doorway, squatting on their hams, its driver and the gatekeeper were chatting
over their long pipes. To the tinkling of brass cymbals, a pedlar of sweetmeats was making his
leisurely round, and chubby children snatched a fearful joy as they gambled for sugar-plums
with the "lucky bamboos" of his jingling-box. Overhead, a flockof blue-grey pigeons was swiftly
circling, and the soft crescendo of their tiny bamboo pipes, as they came up into wind,
sounded, as of old, like the sighing of unhappy household gods. To the outward eye hardly a
landmark of the old days was changed. Beneath the sign of the "Prospering Winds" two lads were
mixing coal-dust with yellow clay, just as two other lads had done thirty years before; and at
the end of the
hutung,where it joins the street of Filial Piety, my nose
gratefully acknowledged, as of old, the fragrance of sandalwood and pine emanating from the
Wang Chia timber-yard, which stands opposite to the Sign of the Laughing Gods.
It was the sight of this old sign-board, a weather-beaten thing of black and gold lacquer, which suddenly recalled to my mind the story of its owner, Kao Shih-lan, maker of Lohan, Buddhas, and other graven images, who, when first I knew him, was the
bête noireof the Students' Mess, and the undisguised foe of every "foreign devil" who passed his door.
Later, when by the grace of his own gods we had established relations of friendship as nearly intimate as they can ever be between East and West, I came to learn the cause of his grudge against Europeans, and held him justified. Now, remembering his story, and many an hour of good talk passed with him in those far-distant days, I stopped my pony at the door of the timber-yard, desiring to find out from them, before knocking at Kao's door, into whose hands his business had passed. As he was a middle-aged man when I had last seen him in 1890, I reckoned that by now he must either have been gathered to his fathers, or at all events have given up work.
The timber-yard people told me that he had died in 1900—the year of the Boxer rising,—and that the business had them passed to his second son, the elder having also lost his life
during that time of trouble. I wondered whether the old man and his first-born had heard the
call of the wild and taken a hand in the siege of the Legations, but it was best to ask no
questions. Kao Shih-lan was dead, and although, but for me, that second son would not have
lived to worship at his grave, I felt no inclination to intoduce myself to him, or to evoke the
manifestations of gratitude and filial piety which the occasion would have required. To tell
the truth, although I could not have expected to find old Kao alive, to learn that he had been
dead for twenty years lent a distateful flavour of Old Mortality to my tranquil cud of
meditation. The news induced a Rip Van Winkle feeling, intensified by the apparent immutability
of the scene in which he had always been associated in my mind as a conspicuous figure. There
was the old sign-board, swinging in the wind; behind the gate-screen, a glimpse of the little
courtyard with its slumbering dogs, and of the shop, with its front of cunning lattice-work and
windows, half paper and half glass—everything just as it was when I first saw it. And
there across the way, pestiferous as ever, was the open drain, in which the present owner of
the shop so nearly came to an untimely end. All this immutability of inanimate things gave one
an uncanny feeling.
Letting my pony choose his own leisurely way, I rode on towards the East Gate, but my thoughts
remained in the little inner room at the Sign of the Lauging Gods, where, after the incident of
the open drain, I had smoked many a pipe of peace with the maker of graven images. It was there
that he told me the story which accounted for his hostility to foreigners. Very vividly, as I
rode, came moving pictures of those half-forgotten days.
Amongst these, one of the most distinct in that of my first meeting with Kao Shih-lan. I had
often seen him before, of course, scowling at us students as we rode past his door; but though
we all longed for a
casus belli,none of us had ever had speech with
One afternoon, several of us were going on a picnic to the Princess's Tomb—it was the holiday of the Feast of Lanterns,—and just as we passed Kao's door, a fire-cracker exploded right in front of Bessenthal, our German colleague, bringing about the sudden separation which invariably followed when his mount shied. Muddy and wrathful, Bessenthal burst in upon Kao with none of the sangfroid essential in bringing a Chinaman to book, and his subsequent moral collapse was painful to witness. Beginning in voluble Chinese, his command of the language rapidly gave out, and what had been intended for an eloquent fulmination tailed off into sensless sound and fury. (At the best of times Chinese
is not the language in which a European can hope to express strong feelings.) When, with a salvo
of Rhineland oaths, Bessenthal came to an ignominious end, he found old Kao quietly gazing at
him with an expression of placid amusement. Looking out over the irate foreigner's shoulder, he
called to the
mafoowho was holding Bessenthal's pony in the street. "Come
here," he shouted, "and tell me what your Hsien-shengis talking about. I
do not understand his foreign tongue."
Sheepshly, as natives talk to each other in the presence of foreigners, the
mafooexplained about the fire-cracker, while Bessenthal looked on, inwardly raging at the Tower of Babel and certain ordinanes of the German Legation which forbade the summare chastisement of natives. The Kao spoke again—
"Tell you master," he said, "that I am a busy man and have no leisure to watch all the children that pass by. There is a shcool near here, and this being a festival, some of the little ones fire crackers on their way home. As for those of my household, they are all indoors. They have nothing to do with the matter."
So Bessenthal remounted and we rode on, all conscious of our loss of face; and next day I noticed that Kao's children had new toys.
Thereafter, when passing by the Sign of the Laughing Gods, I always kept an eye open for the dealer in deitites, and amused myself by meeting his truculent scowl witha cheery good-day. Gradually I developed a sneaking regard, almost a liking, for the obsitate old heathen. There was a certain charm—call it the charm of variety—in the frankness of his malevolent attidue. It was refreshing to find a Pekinese freely expressing hostility which, in a greater or less degree, they all feel towards the foreigner who has forced his unwelcome way to the heart of the Celestial Kingdom.
Even to this day, gentle reader, it is still the unpleasant truth that every chinaman, from Cabinet Minister to coolie, either hates or despises us—often he does both,—and, honestly, I don't see how we can blame him. From his point of view our manners are unspeakable and our morals doubtful. He might overlook these, and regard us with the friendly tolerance which is in his nature, were it not for the fact that all efforts to educate him to our conception of civilisation have ended in his despoilment and humiliation. Therefore, in addition to the usual instictive sense of superiority, which every healthy nation displays towards its neighbours, the Chinese as a nation feel for the white race the kind of dull resentment which they manifest in regard to plague, pestilence, famine, and all other inscrutable and irresistable visitations of Providence. There is thus no real freindliness between them and us, diplomatic
speeches and missionary resports to the contrary notwithstanding; but the Northern Chinese, as a
rule, dissembles his feelings better than his bretren of the south. In a clumsy way he
endeavours to make you believe that he enjoys your society—partly from a desire to avoid
trouble (which by force of habit he associates with the foreign devil), and partly on the
offchance of making something out of it. If he thus conceals his real feelings, it is also
because of the memory of certain forcible object-lessons, and because nature and the
race-minded have made him a pacifist philosopher.
Therefore the undisguised scowl on Kao's ugly face appealed to me as the shade of the tree of truth in a desert of make-believe. The very fact that he stood out as an unusual speciment of his race made me desire his better aquaintance. From one of the curio-dealers I leanred that he was not a pukka Pekinese by birth, though he had spent most of his life in the city, and that in some matter connected with foreigners he had once "eaten much bitterness"; but as to the nature of that ancient grudge I could learn nothing. It may seem strange that I should have troubled my head about the surly fellow; but in China, when you have lived through half the rainy season seeing the same half-dozen white faces, discussing the same threadbare topics, and doing the same unprofitable things day after day, you must either cultivate an intelligent interest in the life of the natives or take to drink; which may account for the consumption of whisky at the lesser Treaty ports.
In the natural order of things I might have gone on for ever fussing at the secret behind Kao's
black looks. I knew that any attempt to conciliate him would be worse than useless, for when a
European (either Government or individual) makes friendly overtures to hostile Orientals, it
amounts to asking for trouble, and even where harmonious relations are established it is hard
for us to get to know much about the inner thoughts of the Chinese. Time and much patience are
needed to bridge the gulf which divides their philosophy of life from ours. So I had to content
myself with chaffing the cantankerous fellow, and lashings at his yapping dogs whenever a
But at the time of the heavy rains Fate intervened, and put me in the way of laying the
idol-maker under a heavy obligation, probably the only one that he would ever have
acknowledged. His younger son, a lad of about six, while flying a kite in the street of Filial
Piety, stepped backwards into the open drain. He had fallen upon a bad day, for the drain,
usually a dry ditch, was so swollen by the rains that it held a sweift current. It would
speedily have carried him to-
wards the main street, where the drain becomes a brick tunnel, had I not chaned to be riding that way. Luckily, I was just in time to save the boy. A crowd collected, of course, in the twinkling of an eye, and a woman told me the half-drowned youngster was the son of Kao Shih-lan. I carried him into his father's shop.
considering the procreative capacity of the race, and its consequently appalling infant
mortality, it would seem as if one atom of Chinese infancy more or less should not matter very
much; boradly speaking, of course, it doesn't. But this particular child, happening to be the
only son of his mother (Kao's second wife), was a person of considerable importance in his own
circle. It was interesting to see Kao struggling with his mixed feelings; gratitude won the
day, but his surliness towards Europeans was a fixed habit not easily discarded at a moment's
notice. He could not help thanking his gods that a foreigner had witnessed the accident,
knowing tha this own people are not given to intefering with Providence in cases of drowning.
His rugged honesty was compelled ot give us credit for a virtue that had touched him so nearly,
so that before I could make my way through the crownd of women-folk he had said several
pleasant and courteous things. I went home, wondering whether his scowl would come back, and if
not, whether I might some day learn how and why he had "eaten bitterness" at the hands of a
After that eventful day Kao made an honourable exception in my favour in the matter of
incivility. His two sons were taught to smile at me as I passed instead of shouting "
Yang Kuei-tzu" from behind the gate-screen, and sometimes on my way home I
used to stop and smoke a pipe in his courtyard. He liked to talk about his trade, and told me
curious tales about the little ways of the keepers of some of the shrines for which he made his
ridiculous gods. Personally, he was not much of a belieer in his own wares; indeed, his
knowledge of the attributes of the various Buddhist deities was curiously vague, but he was
very skilful in fashioning Buddhas, Kuan-yins, and the lesser gods, either of brass or
lacquered wood. He used to let me watch him at his work, and after a while, when the weather
grew cold, he would invite me to take a cup of tea in his inner room.
Thus it came about, one winter's afternoon some six months later, that he told me the reason of his hatred of foreigners in general, and Englishmen in particular. We were sitting on the mat-covered
kang, and he was busy applying the first coating of gold-leaf to a Lohan, destined to find its way to the British Legation, by way of the Lama Temple. He had been telling me that his father had lived
at Hai-Tien, some miles to the north of the city, and I had asked him how he and his people had fared when the British and French troops were in that neighbourhood in 1860, when the Summer Palace and the pleasure domes of Yuen-Ming-Yuen were looted and destroyed.
Tajen," he said, stopping in his work and filling a pipe, "I am a Chinese and you are from the outside countries, but you have saved the life of my son, and are to me as an elder brother. I have never spoken to you of those days, although they are always in my heart, but sice you ask me I will tell you of the evil which they brought to me and to my house. When you have herad, you will understand why I do not love your people."
The story of that old-time grudge of his was a long one, and needed several cups of tea in the telling. It dated back to the days when the Allied armies of England and France were camped in the Anting Plain. I shall not attempt to tell the whole tale as he told it, but will set forth the main facts, at the outset observing that, in order to realise Kao's conception of the seriousness of the outrage committed, one must remember the sacrosnctity of ancestors in the eyes of the Chinese.
On the day after the appearance of the Allied forces before the northern wall of Peking, Kao
Shih-lan and his father were busy completing certain repairs at the family burial-ground, a
walled enclosure westward from Hai-Tien towards the hills. Like every one else, they had heard
all sorts of alarming rumours about the ferocity of the invulnerable foreign devils, who had
routed all the armies of the Son of Heaven, but no word had reached them of any sign of the
invaders near Hai-Tien; and in any case Kao's father had decided that the hardships and perils
of flight outweighed the risks of sticking to his home. They were therfore terror-stricken when
at sunset, just as they were leaving off work, a small body of Sikh cavalry ("big men with
black faces and long lances," was Kao's description) suddenly came round a bend of the road,
making straight towards them. There was no cover anywhere except amongst the fir-trees of the
graveyard, so there they crouched. But, as luck would have it, the squadron was looking for a
good place to pitch camp for the night, and chose the burial-ground, so Kao and his father were
discovered. Having no weapons, they were not ill-treated, beyond being tied, with their queues
together, to a tree, and losing their portable property at the hands of the Cantonese
camp-follower who acted as interpreter. Later on, when the men had seen to their horses and
sentries had been posted, the white officer in command ordered them to be untied. They were
food, and told that next morning they would be allowed to return to Hai-Tien. So far, they had been agreeably surprised at their treatment, for the rumour had been widely put about that the Indian soldiery were cannibals.
But when the black men came to prepare their food a terrible thing happened. For the cook, to
save himself the trouble of making an oven, opened up the brick tomb of Kao's grandfather (an
expectant Prefect of some fifty years' decay); moreover, he used the hard-wood coffin of that
deceased worthy as a receptacle for garbage and the coffin-lid as fuel. The bones of the
departed were unceremoniously strewn about. Kao's father implored the Cantonese to intercede
for him with the white officer and prevent the sacrilege, but the scoundrel only laughed in his
face. To crown all, another white man, who appeared upon the scene some hours later and
remained chatting a while with the officer in command, noticed the skull of the expectant
Prefect on the ground, picked it up, and, having tied it to his saddle, rode off with it into
the night. Therefore, as Kao put it, his grandfather's ghost was condemned to wander miserably
by the Yellow Springs of Hades for ten thousand years, while he himself was for ever shamed in
the presence of the ancestral tablets.
Even in those early days I had learned enough about the hoary tradition and superstitions of the
Chinese concerning their dead, to realise that it would be useless to attempt to console the
maker of graven images with any philosophical reflections on the futility of endeavouring to
preserve intact our mortal coil, or to make him realise that the ultimate end of all skulls,
whether in their graves or out of them, is the dust-heap. Nothing that I could say would alter
the fact that, with this ancient people, a dead rogue hath more honour than a living paragon.
As he unfolded the tale of his undying grudge, I realised how deeply he must have felt the
desecration of that burial-ground, and could sympathise with his consequent hatred for all
foreign devils, black and white.
But when he came to the end of the story and the purloinging of his grandfather's skull,
suddenly I perceived the long arm of coincidence putting its miraculous girdle round the earth.
In a flash my mind went back to a room in a house amongst the heather and pines of the West
Cliff at Bournemouth, a man's snuggery, all hung about with trophies of war and
shikar in many lands. The room, to be precise, belonged to a Colonel
Widdicombe, an uncle of mine, who as a subaltern in Desborough's battery had taken a hand in
the shelling of the Summer Palace. And in that snuggery, as plainly as when I first discovered
them in their
curtained alcove, I saw a shelf full of grinning skulls—six of them in a row—which the old warrior, with a hobby for anthroplogy, had collected as souvenirs of his six campaigns. Each skull was neatly labelled with the name and date at which it was acquired, and one, as I well remembered, bore the legend "Peking, 1860." As skull-collecting is not a pastime to which military men are usually addicted, I had no doubt in my mind that htis was the long-lamented head-piece of the late expectant Prefect. As I sat there on Kao's stove-bed I had the creepy sensation of being a predestined puppet playing a minor part in a shadow-play plotted by mysterious Oriental gods. The Chinese, of course, would explain the matter more simply. They would say that the expectant Prefect, or his ancestors, had acquired merit sufficient to make it incumbent upon the Shining Ones to avert from them any injury inflicted by foreign or other devils. My rôle, at all events, seemed clear enough.
Chang-kuei-ti," I said, when his tale was told, "we live in a strangely small world, and the ways of the gods are inscrutable. My words may sound to you like foolishness, and wind in the ear. Nevertheless, I believe that in a little while your grandfather's spirit may cease from wandering forlornly by the Yellow Springs, for I may be able to recover that which was taken from your burial-ground thirty years ago. I believe that I know the man who took that skull, and that he has it still."
Hsien-Sheng," he replied, "if what you say is true, then of a surety it
must be that in a former incarnation we two were blood-brothers. It is no small thing that you,
a foreigner from afar, should have saved the life of my son; if now you can restore serenity to
the wandering spirit of my revered ancestor, how can I ever requite such benefits?"
"If I succeed in getting back the skull, my friend, all I ask is that you shall forget an injury unwittingly committed. Remember that everwhere in war-time things are done which decent folks condemn, and do not hate a whole nation for one man's misdeeds."
"You are right," he replied; "at all events I have learned from you the truth of our sage's saying that 'within the Four Seas all are bretheren.'"
For a little while he sat lost in deep thought, puffing at his water-pipe. I, too, was silent, thinking of the fateful fingers of the long arm of coincidence and the strange whirligig of Time. Then I noticed that something was worrying Kao. His cheerful expression had given way to one of uneasiness; there were wrinkles of doubt on his troubled brow.
Hsien-Sheng," he said, "I trust your word, and have no doubt that you believe you know the man who took away
my grandfather's skull, and can persuade him to return it. But you may be mistaken. After all, there were many graves in China and many soldiers in your army."
It had occured to me, of course that Kao might need to be convinced of the authenticity of any skull restored to his ancestral grave, and that the ghost of the expectant Prefct would in no wise be placated by coffining the wrong head-piece with his remains. At the same time, I felt fairly sure in my mind that his was the only skull which had left North China with the British Army.
"Would you be able to tell if it were the right one?" I asked.
"I think so," he replied; "for I remember that my grandfather had lost nearly all his upper teeth on one side—the result of a kick from a vicious pony. It gave his face a twisted expression."
"Let your mind be at ease," I said; "in three or four months we shall know. As for me, I am certain that before long your ancestor will rest in peace."
And so it turned out. I had no difficulty in persuading the colonel to exchange the skull for a much more interesting specimen—a sacrificial altar-piece bought from a priest at the Yellow Temple; and Kao, having satisfied his doubts as to its identity, returned it to its grave with much kowtowing and burning of joss-paper. In memory of the occasion he gave me a pair of eight-armed Kuanyin, cunningly wrought in sandalwood by one of the most famous craftsmen of the days of Yung Cheng; and thereafter no European was ever called "foreign devil" in the neighbourhood of the Laughing Gods.