To create at the Exhibition a true Chinese dwelling in all its striking reality, to initiate the European into the civilisation and inner life of a people still little known, although much has been said about them, to re-establish in Paris what no longer exists in Peking, such was the aim which was proposed and which was achieved in the most fortunate manner at the Champ de Mars.
The programme of the Exhibition was to bring together in the same enclosure, to merge into a vast whole all industries, all civilisations; the Chinese Empire was to be represented at this universal competition.
The Chinese Empire was to be represented at this universal competition. In May 1865, an invitation was sent to the court of Peking. The Chinese government refused to follow the example of the other Eastern peoples who had responded so enthusiastically to France's appeal. It was then that a man to whom the Chinese language and customs were as familiar as those of his own country, an artist, a scholar as well as a man of the world, why should we not name him, the Marquis d'Hervey de Saint-Denis, proposed to organise a Chinese exhibition with his own resources. Needless to say, his offer was eagerly accepted.
There was no time to lose. Eighteen months were not too much time to procure the necessary objects in China and send them to Europe, while at the same time completing everything that had to be done in Paris. For this twofold task, a double contribution was indispensable. M. d'Hervey de Saint-Denis joined M. de Meritens who, for fifteen years, has been at the head of the customs administration of the Celestial Empire. M. de Meritens was in Paris at the time; he left immediately; and thanks to his activity and efforts, he managed to assemble a complete and unique collection of the most beautiful products of Chinese industry; he was even able, with the support of Prince Kong, to obtain objects from the imperial factories which, as everyone knows, manufacture exclusively for the emperor.
During this time, organisation was taking place in Paris. The Marquis d'Hervey de Saint-Denis wanted to produce something remarkable and of such a nature as to strike the imagination; to achieve this result, he had to give his work an indisputable stamp of authenticity. The story of this installation is too interesting not to be told.
Everyone has heard of the summer palace, although few people know what it actually was. A huge park, as big as a city, in the middle of which stood a multitude of pavilions, of different architecture and shape, devoted to various uses, this is what was called the Summer Palace. For centuries, the emperors of China had made it their favourite residence; they had accumulated there treasures of all kinds: manuscripts, books, albums, art objects, precious jewels. One day, the gates of this sanctuary were forced open: armed men poured into these gardens, which until then had been surrounded by an impenetrable mystery; everything was ransacked, smashed and looted; it only took a few hours for the flames to reduce to ashes these incomparable, unique collections, which the Tartars themselves had respected.
However, a few wrecks had been saved from destruction. Among these was an album containing the complete collection of drawings and plans of the various installations of the summer palace; plucked from the flames by Colonel Dupin, it had been offered by him to the Imperial Library. It was from this source that the Marquis d'Hervey de Saint-Denis drew his inspiration, and his choice was the tea kiosk, so called because the emperor went there every day to have tea. The plan was scrupulously drawn up and reproduced in the most minute detail by M. Alfred Chapon; and Paris now owes it to this skilful architect, who has done such beautiful things at the Champ de Mars that his name is now inseparably attached to the memory of the Exhibition, to possess an edifice whose loss China will always mourn.
For those who know China only from the decorations of the Porte Saint-Martin or the Opera, the effect is striking. One feels gripped, if I may use this expression: every detail has such a powerful stamp of originality, that it is impossible not to exclaim: It must be true. One enters the garden by passing under a portico of yellow and red carved wood; the roof, covered with straw chopped in a particular way, rises to a point at the ends. Two small bamboo and straw huts, lined with Chinese mats, serve as toll offices. The garden is planted with trees and flowers brought from China; it is tended by two sturdy fellows from the province of Tche-Kiang; it is a pleasure to see them working, with their mats rolled up at the top of their heads; they only display this elegant appendage in all its glory when the work is done.
A sloping walkway leads to the main pavilion, which is rectangular in shape and covered with bizarre, brightly coloured paintings. Presumably, in Peking, each of these panels was a porcelain plate. The roof, covered with chopped straw, is topped by two gigantic dolphins. The pavilion has only one floor; on the ground floor, under the canopy, is the bazaar of the Chinese trader established in the Rue Tronchet. The kiosk is glazed; there are gathered under the name of Chinese museum, the rarest objects, the most precious collections exposed by various amateurs. Our attention was particularly drawn to a snuffbox and an engraved plate in jade, to magnificent vases in cloisonné enamel, and to porcelains such as there are none in the world, objects that are priceless because they are unique in their various kinds. But the jewel in the crown is a box with a lid, mounted in gold and inlaid with pearls and precious stones. On the gold base there is an inscription engraved in Chinese, Mantchu and Thibetan, stating that this box was made, by order of the Emperor Kien-Long, from the skull of a Tartar general whom the Emperor particularly cherished and to whose spirits he thought he could give no better proof of his affection.
On the first floor are the café and the restaurant; as on the ground floor, there are no partitions, but a glass window covered by charming blue blinds. The cook, we are assured, is a true artist with valuable recipes, especially for the preparation of rice. But rest assured, reader, and do not believe that as soon as you set foot in this seductive garden, you will be forced, if your appetite presses you, to swallow unheard-of dishes prepared with castor oil; for it is an established fact in Europe that the Chinese cannot do without this pleasant condiment. This is the most prodigious mystification I know of, and must have been caused by a joke of a facetious Chinese, to whom it would have seemed piquant to make the Europeans dine on castor oil. In reality, a Chinese meal differs from a European one more in the manner of eating than in the nature of the elements. Thus, it is the rule to begin with the dessert and end with the soup, to drink the wine steaming, to use two small chopsticks as forks to seize the dishes which are brought in advance cut into small pieces, to use, instead of napkins, small squares of silky paper of which a supply is placed next to each guest, all habits which seem very strange to us. But the Chinese value meat, fish, poultry and vegetables as much as we do. It is true that from time to time they offer themselves a few delicacies, such as shark fins, fried worms, sparrow heads and swallow nests. But these dishes, especially the last one, are very expensive and only accessible to the pockets of mandarins. Moreover, the nests eaten in China are nothing like those seen in our countries. These nests, which are found in the islands of the Indian archipelago, are made up of feathers, seaweed and straw, bound together by a viscous substance, which is attributed to the elements on which the sea swallow feeds, or to a kind of saliva which the bird draws from its gullet. At certain times the nests are seized and taken to China. There they are carefully removed from the seaweed, feathers and straws, so that only the viscous material remains, which has solidified and retains the exact shape of the nest. They are cooked in water with certain seasonings; the nests dissolve into long filaments and form a kind of thick vermicelli soup. This is the story of these famous nests which arouse so much curiosity in Europe.
The main pavilion has no interior staircase. The café is reached by a yellow and black wooden staircase, which also leads to a small side kiosk where the tea shop is located. This is where the great teas of China are sold, which one rarely has the opportunity to taste in Europe. Because, let's face it, we are drinking a liquid that a common man in Beijing would not want. Would you like to be convinced of this, reader? On your next visit to the Exhibition, ask for a cup of tea at the Chinese Garden. The necessary amount of tea is put in the bottom of a lovely little porcelain cup, and boiling water is poured over it. The infusion is very smoky and is taken without sugar.
The kiosk where the tea is sold deserves special attention. Nothing is more attractive and successful than this charming little dwelling. One can see unbelievable details, taken from the fact: a window, for example, in the shape of a leaf, which is a real masterpiece. On the roof there is a red and green fish, a much appreciated ornament in China. In a word, it is a slavish reproduction, but a happy one, which alone could give success. Only the Chinese possess the art of contrasting these bold, sharp colours and of blending them into a harmonious whole. If one had wanted to imagine, to create, one would never have produced anything but a bastard and grotesque work.
On the ground floor of the kiosk is the tea shop; behind the counter stand two young Chinese girls, who are not the least subject of astonishment in this exhibition so full of surprises of all kinds. Genuine Chinese girls! This is certainly a very rare commodity, and one that is very difficult to obtain in Paris, as the laws of the Celestial Empire most formally prohibit the export of women. Also, many negotiations and steps were necessary for M. de Meritens to make an exception in his favour. Once the authorisation had been obtained, not all the difficulties had been resolved. It was still necessary to find subjects who would agree to leave the country and board the large junks to go to the land of the Barbarians. It was only after a long search, and for a very high price, 16,50Q francs, that the two young girls seen in the Champ de Mars were bought in the province of Fo-Kien. The choice, moreover, was a happy one: these young girls were considered in their country to be accomplished types of beauty; we, who do not have precisely the same way of looking at beauty as the Chinese, found them very nice; they are fourteen and sixteen years old, and answer to the sweet names of A-Tchoë and A-Naï. Since their arrival in Paris, they have led the most extraordinary existence, spending their days making music, painting fans, and above all playing dominoes; we know that gambling is the dominant passion of the Chinese people. The European beds seem to them much too soft, and they have removed the mattresses to lie on the wood; and it is on this bed, which still seems too voluptuous to them, that they spend long hours, their necks held by a wooden pillow, so as not to disturb the immense structure of their headdress.
A-Tchoë and A-Naï are happy and grateful for the care they receive of all kinds. On the upper floor of the kiosk they have been provided with a delightful little boudoir furnished in the Chinese style with every imaginable luxury, where they can rest and have their meals.
At the end of the garden stands the theatre where, in the evening, exclusively Chinese theatrical performances are given every day. It is impossible for us to give the programme of this sing-soug at present. We can, however, assure you that there will be successive troupes of actors, jugglers and musicians. The theatre is spacious; the decoration is very happy. We greatly admired the roof made of yellow and green glazed tiles and surmounted, like that of the pavilion, by two gigantic dolphins. The performances are given in the open air; the spectators are seated in the garden or on the café platform.
Everything in this garden has been designed with infinite care and love of detail. The wooden chairs of different colours are adapted to the double requirement of European comfort and general decoration. The lanterns are distinguished by their variety of shapes and colours, from the round lantern covered with a simple gummed cloth applied to a light wooden frame to the glass lantern decorated with rich designs, silk tassels and pearl bands. Bamboo gas candelabras light the theatre. All around the garden, poles, gilded at their ends, support banners and other ornaments of great reality.
As you can see, the Chinese garden is designed to attract the attention of the curious and even of special people. It should be seen as more than a childish establishment, but as a living reproduction of a civilisation unknown to us, and which is nevertheless the civilisation of so much of the human race.
©L'Exposition Universelle de 1867 Illustrée