LORD LI AND A CHINESE LUNCHEON

The “late” (or, as diplomacy ungraciously calls such, “ancient”)
Chinese Minister to London, Lord Li Ching Fong, did much to cement
a friendly feeling between the East and the West. He taught us to
appreciate the charm of manner and breadth of thought of a cultured
Chinese gentleman. No diplomat ever made himself more popular in London
Society than this cheery, kindly little representative of the East.
No matter where he went he always wore his hat indoors or out, with
its red bob on the top and his pig-tail below, and dark silk coats in
private, or embroidered robes at Court—but he walked about unattended
and lived the life of an ordinary English gentleman. In the Legation
he was one of the kindest and best hosts I have ever come across. He
entertained a great deal and handled large, important dinners of twenty
or thirty people with skilful ease. Lord Li never forgot a promise,
however trivial, and was never late for an engagement.

One June day in 1909 the Chinese Minister was lunching with me, so
I asked him to write his name on the cloth opposite the Japanese
Ambassador. His neighbour on the other side was Lady Millais, the
daughter-in-law of the famous artist. She was so delighted with the
neat, small Chinese writing that she asked His Excellency if he would
put her name on the back of her card in Chinese.

“Have you such a name as Mary or Maria,” I asked, “in Chinese?”

“No,” he replied, “but I can do its equivalent phonetically,” and very
pretty it looked when done.

On her other side sat Joseph Farquharson, R.A., and turning to him,
Lady Millais said:

“‘Mary had a little lamb,’ but where is the _lamb_?”

Farquharson being famous for painting snow and sheep quickly saw the
point, and taking her card, and a pencil from his pocket, exclaimed:

“Here it is!” and below the Chinese writing he drew a little lamb.

Mrs. Kendal, on his other side, leant over to hear what was going on,
and laughingly said:

“I am jealous. Although not a ewe lamb, I think I deserve a sheep.”
Whereupon Farquharson picked up her card, and with wonderful rapidity
drew a sheep, and handing it back, said:

“I am very sorry, Mrs. Kendal, it is only a black sheep.”

It was all done so quickly it was quite a delightful incident.

Then I asked the Minister to write his name in Latin characters above
the Chinese, and he did so; whereupon I proceeded to read the first
word as “Lie.”

“No,” he said, “that is a bad word in English, but it is not my
name. My father, Li Hung Chang, went to Paris, and as the Frenchmen
pronounced his name “Lee” we have remained “Li” ever since. So I am now
known by that title, and go about in Europe as Lord Li, although it
sometimes causes my countrymen to smile when they hear it.”

Lord Li (Lee) told me the only foreigner he had ever known who spoke
Chinese like a Chinaman was Sir Robert Hart; “And he speaks it as well
as I do.”

Later I chaffed my Chinese friend about our English tea, and asked him
if he considered it poison.

“Not poison,” he said, “but I do not like it.”

“Is yours made very differently?” I asked.

“Quite,” he replied.

“Will you show me some day?”

“With pleasure, but I must send you a Chinese cup, for I cannot make
Chinese tea in your cups. In our cups the saucer is on the top, not at
the bottom.”

Accordingly, this was arranged, and the following day the teacup duly
arrived. It was about the size of a breakfast cup, with a ring of
china instead of a saucer; the cup itself fitted into the hole, and
was covered with a lid, which again fitted inside the bowl instead of
outside.

Five o’clock was the hour named for our tea ceremony. I was sitting
in the drawing-room with my ordinary English tea arrangements, and a
special spirit lamp for His Excellency. At ten minutes past five he was
announced, laughing merrily.

“What do you think I have done?” he said. “I have been so stupid. It
was fine, so I walked from Portland Place, and thinking I knew your
house well I did not look up at the number. I arrived and was shown
upstairs by the parlourmaid, who seemed quite pleased to see me. At the
door I gave my name as the ‘Chinese Minister,’ and was duly ushered
into a drawing-room, which I at once saw was not like your room. A
lady who was sitting there rose and said, ‘How do you do?’ I bowed and
repeated the remark, at once feeling I had made a mistake.

“‘Do you speak English?’ she asked.

“‘Yes, madam,’ I replied, with my best bow, now quite certain of my
mistake.

“‘Shall I tell the lady?’ I thought. ‘It will make me look a fool, and
make her feel uncomfortable,’ and as she at once told me she had been
in China, and expressed pleasure at seeing me, we chatted for a few
minutes, and I waited for an opportunity which would allow me to get up
and go gracefully. The opportunity soon came, and I said good-bye. She
thanked me very much for calling, and I left.” Again the merry little
man chuckled at his intrusion.

“Ah,” said I; “but it won’t end there. If you _will_ call upon a
strange lady, she will think she met you somewhere and return the call.”

“I did not really know her, so I need not repeat my visit,” he said
quietly. “But I shall not forget I have done something stupid.”

I thought it so nice of him not to tell her of his mistake, and thus
give a very diplomatic ending to an awkward situation. Then came the
tea. Our tea-party.

He boiled the spirit lamp, and when I took off the lid, thinking it was
ready, he shook his head.

“No, no,” he said, “the water must actually boil three minutes; that is
the main point.” Into the cup, really the size of a breakfast-cup, he
put a small half-teaspoonful of Chinese tea.

“What a small amount,” I remarked; “we put one fat teaspoonful for each
person, and one for the pot.”

“No wonder your tea is so bad, madam,” he laughed; “my arrangement is
tea, yours is stew,” he continued with a wicked little twinkle.

On to these few scattered leaves Lord Li poured the boiling water,
which he immediately covered with the lid. In a few moments he removed
the latter, and taking the half-side of the lid instead of a spoon,
stirred the surface of the tea. This he did about three times in a
minute, by which time the water was slightly yellow and the leaves had
all sunk to the bottom.

“Now it is ready,” he said; “remember, no sugar nor milk, _ever_!”

“But it is too hot to drink,” I said.

“Not too hot for a Chinaman, we drink it like that. But if it is too
hot for you, we will pour it out,” and putting the versatile lid on the
table so that it formed a saucer, he poured some tea into it.

“Do you drink it from the saucer like that?”

“Yes; those people who cannot take it so hot always do so. Otherwise,
or when it is cooler, we drink it so,” and he put the lid back in the
cup, but only half _on_ in a slanting way, and made me sip the tea
through the aperture at the side.

“What is the idea of that?” I said.

“To keep the tea hot and to hold back the leaves, because you see our
cup is also our teapot.”

It really was both nice and refreshing.

“How many cups does your Excellency drink in a day?” I enquired.

“Always twenty, sometimes thirty.”

“Good heavens! How do you do it?”

“The better-class Chinaman gets up when it is light and goes to bed
when it is dark. I cannot do that in London because you keep me out so
late at night, but I am called at half-past seven, when I get a cup
of tea; with my bath I have another cup of tea. With my breakfast at
eight-thirty I have rice, vermicelli, fish, fruit, and more tea. Then I
go down to my office, and during all the hours from nine to half-past
twelve, when I am working with my secretaries, we all drink tea every
half-hour or so, and some smoke pipes, but not opium. That is rare in
China. Next comes lunch; but you must come and have a real Chinese
luncheon and see how we eat it with chopsticks. Not an official party
such as you have been to before at my house. Then it is the French
cook, but my own cook, when I am alone, is a Chinaman.

“At four in the afternoon we have our third meal, and for the first
time no tea, but cakes and light things. At half-past seven we dine, a
dozen little dishes all at once. Then, if I were in China, I should go
to bed, but as I am in London, I do as London does.”

“Last thing at night I still drink tea. The kettle is always boiling at
the Legation, the cup is always ready, and my servant puts in the tea
and pours on the water; then by the time it reaches me it is ready.”

The Chinese Minister is a very interesting man, and having finished our
tea-party, during which he laughingly suggested that I should give him
a certificate as a good cook, he told me many interesting things by way
of exciting my interest and persuading me to write a book on China.

The children of the high-class families in China are betrothed very
young, often when four or five years old, and never later than
fifteen. The parents get a third person to negotiate, and if a union
is considered desirable between the two families (they never marry out
of their own social position in China), the parents meet and more or
less settle the future line of education for their offspring, and sign
letters officially agreeing to the betrothal. Nothing more happens. The
wife, however, sometimes sees her future son or daughter-in-law.

When these children reach fifteen or twenty years of age their final
marriage takes place. They never meet until the wedding-day, and the
property settled on the girl by her father is her own by the law of
China. After her marriage she belongs to her husband’s family, and goes
to live in the house of her father-in-law.

If by the time a woman is thirty she has no son to continue the
traditions of the family—and family counts for everything in China—the
husband is legally allowed to take unto himself a mistress. She is
not well born. He chooses her from the people, and she is officially
accepted by the house, allowed to sit at the table, and if she bears
sons, the first belongs to the legal wife, the second to herself, and
if there is only one son, both wife and mistress share him, and,
strange as it may seem, they generally get on quite well.

We had a long and interesting talk on the future of China.

“We are going to be the greatest country in the world in the middle of
this century, but now there are troubled days ahead for us,” he said.
“We are far more conservative than Japan. It has taken us longer to
adopt Western civilisation, but when I went back from England some
years ago, after serving many years in this country, I was one of a
number of young men who tried, and in some cases succeeded, in making
reforms. Those were early days, but boys like my son, now at Cambridge,
are being educated in Europe in 1910; and they will go back with even
stronger and more modern ideas. Indeed, I can see perfectly well that
in the next twenty years there will be many reforms attempted in
diplomatic and other circles in China, before we settle down. Every
country must broaden and widen if it is to keep pace with the march of
civilisation, and China must not be behind. We have a great past, and
we must make a great future.”

Then he spoke with the utmost enthusiasm of the late Empress.

“She was old, she was not pretty, but she was wonderful. She had
the greatest charm of manner of any woman I have ever known. She
reigned for practically fifty years, and therefore her experience was
unbounded. Above all, she was a diplomat. For instance, one day in
1907, she sent for me. I went. She talked pleasantly for some time on
many subjects, and then she said, ‘We cannot always do what we like.
We have to remember our country. We must always work for its good.
You have been in England, and you like it. You are back in China, and
perhaps you like it better because your home is here.’ I bowed. ‘But,’
she said, ‘London wants you. It is necessary to send a Minister to the
Court of St. James’s, and, moreover, to send someone who understands
the English people and is in sympathy with them, and who can be relied
upon in every way. It is not a matter of pay. I know money does not
tempt you. It is not a matter of position. You have that here, but your
country needs your services. You can do much for China in England, and
I am going to ask you to renounce your home life for several years and
go to England.’

“It was charmingly put, and I felt touched at the many kind things she
said, but still I hesitated. Then she looked straight at me.

“‘Li, your father left China for the good of China. We owe him a great
debt for what he did in Paris. Will the son not follow the example of
so excellent a father?’

“That did it. I left my home, and here I am, very happy, for England is
to me a second home, and although I miss my wife and married daughters,
I have my son with me, and many friends. Yes, she was a wonderful
woman, our Empress. Her death was a great loss to China.”

Then I asked him why this boy of three was put upon the throne.
“Because,” he said, “the late Emperor was a nephew of the Empress, and
it is a rule with us that these dignities cannot descend from brother
to brother, but must always come down one generation. When the Emperor
died childless, it was therefore not his brother, but his brother’s
son who succeeded him. As he is only three, his father has been made
Regent, and is virtually the Emperor of China till the child is grown
up. That little boy will be employed in learning to read and write four
Chinese languages fluently till he is twelve or thirteen. After that
his more general education will commence, but he has a difficult task
before him, because he will take up the reins as Emperor at the very
time when I think China will be having its greatest struggle.

“We must never forget the teachings of Confucius, but we must model our
present Government according to the rules of modern civilisation.”

(Barely two years later the Manchus were overthrown.)

My own father had a great idea that everything in the world was good to
eat if only we knew how to cook it.

Therefore, I was brought up to eat all sorts of queer things, a
training that proved very useful in after-life when my travels took me
from Iceland to Africa, from Lapland to Sicily, from Canada to Mexico.
Sometimes I have lived on _foie gras_ and champagne, at others been
glad of black bread—sometimes I have been amongst thousands of cattle
on a ranch without a drop of milk or a pat of butter within hundreds of
miles; often I have been far from butcher’s meat, and drunk milk from
the cocoanut, or eaten steak from the elk, turtle from the river, or
bear from the woods.

Therefore, this paternal theory often held good and helped me over many
an awkward moment. Which philosophy, however, was by no means called
upon when the Chinese luncheon, to which I had been invited at my
little tea-party, became soon after an accepted fact.

It was a hot July Sunday. The door of the Legation in Portland Place
was thrown wide open, and up the green-carpeted stairs I walked. We
were only a party of four, as Lord Li laughingly remarked that there
were not many people in London who would care for Chinese food. He need
not have been so modest about it, for the dishes were really excellent.

We were waited upon by a Chinese servant and an English butler.
Needless to remark, the former was much the more picturesque. He was
dressed in black, with high black velvet boots on his little feet, and
though he looked about fourteen, the Minister assured me he was forty.
He was barber, tailor, and butler.

“These men can do anything,” said His Excellency; “I could not keep a
man in London to shave my head once a week, nor would he have enough to
do to make my clothes. The important suits are sent direct from China.
The others are made and mended by this man. I have four Chinese in the
house, and they eat and live together, the English servants being quite
apart. But they do not quarrel; in fact, I believe they are very good
friends.”

My earliest recollections being of strange foods from many lands, it
was not altogether a surprise to begin our repast with bird’s-nest
soup, which was served in similar cups to that brought by Lord Li to
my tea-party; the cup standing on a plate. At the bottom of the bowl
was a small quantity of white, gelatinous compound, which looked almost
like warm gelatine. Into this I was told to put a tablespoonful of
strawberry jam, the whole strawberries of which I stirred up with the
bird’s nest. Eaten with a spoon the two were very good.

The Minister explained the delicacy thus. “There is a small sea-bird in
China which builds its nest on the sides of the rock with the little
fish it gets from the water. These nests become quite hard in the heat
of the sun, and it is these that are collected and used for this soup.
It is a delicacy, quite expensive, and never eaten by ordinary people,
but used more like your turtle soup on great occasions.”

_Sharks’ fins_ made our next dish. These were also served in little
cups and eaten with chopsticks. The two chopsticks were about a foot
long and made of ivory, but it seems they are often made of bone,
silver, gold, or wood, and children, until they are six or seven
years of age, are rarely able to manipulate them. One is held between
the thumb and first finger, the second between the first and second
fingers, and so dexterous was Lord Li in their manipulation that he,
later, took the small bones out of a fish and put them on one side more
easily than one could have done with a knife and fork.

The shark fins, when boiled in Chinese fashion, were almost like the
gelatinous part of calf’s head or the outside of a turbot. They were
cooked with cabbage and some ham, so, in a way, the taste reminded
me of German sauerkraut; but though also a delicacy, this was less
delicate in flavour than the bird’s nest and somewhat satisfying.

Now came fish—mackerel, I think—likewise cooked in a Chinese way, for,
be it understood, the Chinese cook was doing the entire luncheon. A
thick brown sauce, with a curry flavour, and the tiniest of little
onions here and there, were added to the dish, which the guest simply
could not manipulate with chopsticks, so had recourse to an English
knife and fork.

The next course was again served in covered cups, and was chicken, a
favourite and ordinary dish in China. Apparently the bird was chopped
fine, or had been passed through the mincing machine. Anyway, there
were no bones, yet it was solid. My private opinion was that it must
have been compressed under weights, because it adhered to its own
skin and looked substantial, although the ingredients fell apart when
attacked with the chopsticks. This tasted like boned capon, and with it
was something white, appearing to be fish, which Lord Li said was dried
oyster. It seems there is a particularly large oyster in China which
has a sort of bag protrusion. This bit is cut away and sun-dried, when
it makes the flavouring and decoration for the chicken.

We had not finished yet. Duck was the next course. This came on a plate
and had its bones entire. It was also covered with thick brown sauce
and finely shredded vegetables. His Excellency told us there were many
more vegetables in China than in England, and that some of them were
prepared for export. These appeared to be shredded in the same way as
vegetables are cut for Julienne soup. With it was also served a great
dish of rice, and in ordinary Chinese households rice is served with
every course.

“In the rich homes we eat much meat and little rice, and in the poor
homes much rice and little meat,” said the Minister. This dish I did
not care for at all, besides finding it next to impossible to detach
the meat from the bones with the chopsticks.

Our next course was a very pretty one. On a plate sat a row of little
dumplings, into which lobster, finely shredded with ham, had been
daintily tucked.

I was struck by the fact that with the exception of the duck everything
had been passed through the mincing machine or chopped. Beef, by the
way, is so bad in China that it is rarely eaten.

Then followed the pudding, which was altogether a success, entitled
“Water lily.” The sweet was also served on plates. Lord Li maintained
that the foundation was rice; if so, it had been boiled so long that it
was more like tapioca. Round it were stewed pears and peaches, and all
over it little things that looked like white broad beans. These had a
delicate and delicious flavour, and I guessed a dozen times what they
could be, but in each case was wrong; and the Minister explained they
were the seeds of the lotus flower.

No wonder His Excellency lives on Chinese food at home when it is so
good and so well cooked. The native wine or spirit I did not like; it
rather reminded me of vodka.

Our meal finished we repaired to the drawing-room, where was set out a
silver tray of beautiful Chinese workmanship, with a silver teapot and
silver cups lined with white china and with ordinary handles.

“You ladies must sit on the sofa,” said Lord Li, “for it is the fashion
in China for the host himself to dispense the tea.”

Accordingly, he lifted the entire table and placed it before us, then
poured out what appeared to be the palest green liquid.

“Surely that is not tea!” I exclaimed.

“Oh yes, it is green tea. Not green tea made for the English market,
but real green tea, uncoloured, such as we drink in China without sugar
or milk.” And, putting the spoon in the pot, he produced the leaves,
very long and broad, each one separate from the other and absolutely
devoid of stalks and dust.

“This I have sent over for me specially from my own estate,” he said,
“and this is the tea of which I drink thirty or forty cups a day.”

It was refreshing, and reminded me of the orange leaves used so much in
tropical Southern Mexico in the same way. With this ended our quaint
Eastern meal.

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