America Through the Spectacles of an Oriental Diplomat         Wu Tingfang

Chapter 16. Conjuring and Circuses

After what I have said as to the position of the actor in China my readers will not be surprised at my saying that the performance of a conjuror should not be encouraged. What pleasure can there be in being tricked? It may be a great display of dexterity to turn water into wine, to seem to cut off a person's head, to appear to swallow swords, to escape from locked handcuffs, and to perform the various cabinet tricks, but cleverness does not alter the fact that after all it is only deception cunningly contrived and performed in such a way as to evade discovery. It appears right to many because it is called "legerdemain" and "conjuring" but in reality it is exactly the same thing as that by which the successful card-sharper strips his victims, viz., such quickness of hand that the eye is deceived. Should we encourage such artful devices? History tells many stories as to the way in which people have been kept in superstitious bondage by illusions and magic, and if it be now held to be right to deceive for fun how can it be held to have been wrong to deceive for religion? Those who made the people believe through practising deception doubtless believed the trick to be less harmful than unbelief. I contend, therefore, that people who go to see conjuring performances derive no good from them, but that, on the contrary, they are apt to be impressed with the idea that to practise deception is to show praiseworthy skill. It is strange how many people pay money to others to deceive them. More than ever before, people to-day actually enjoy being cheated. If the tricks were clumsily devised and easily detected there would be no attraction, but the cleverer and more puzzling the trick the more eagerly people flock to see it.

Christian preachers and moralists could do well to take up this matter and discourage people from frequenting the exhibitions of tricksters. There are doubtless many laws in nature yet undiscovered, and a few persons undoubtedly possess abnormal powers. This makes the cultivation of the love of trickery the more dangerous. It prevents the truth from being perceived. It enables charlatans to find dupes, and causes the real magician to be applauded as a legerdemainist. This is what the New Testament tells us happened in the case of Jesus Christ. His miracles failed to convince because the people had for a long time loved those who could deceive them cleverly. The people said to him, "Thou hast a devil," and others warned them after his death saying, "That deceiver said while he was yet alive `After three days I will rise again.'" When people are taught not only to marvel at the marvelous but to be indifferent to its falsehoods they lose the power of discrimination, and are apt to take the true for the false, the real for the unreal.

For an evening's healthy enjoyment I believe a circus is as good a place as can be found anywhere. The air there is not close and vitiated as in a theater; you can spend two or three hours comfortably without inhaling noxious atmospheres. It is interesting to note that the circus is perhaps the only form of ancient entertainment which has retained something of its pristine simplicity. To-day, as in the old Roman circuses, tiers of seats run round the course, which in the larger circuses is still in the form of an ellipse, with its vertical axis, where the horses and performers enter, cut away. But the modern world has nothing in this connection to compare with the Circus Maximus of Rome, which, according to Pliny, held a quarter of a million spectators. It is singular, however, that while the old Roman circuses were held in permanent buildings, modern circuses are mostly travelling exhibitions in temporary erections. In some respects the entertainment offered has degenerated with the change, for we have to-day nothing in the circus to correspond to the thrilling chariot races in which the old Romans delighted. I wonder that in these days of restless search for novelties some one does not re-introduce the Roman chariot race under the old conditions, and with a reproduction of the old surroundings. It would be as interesting and as exciting as, and certainly less dangerous than, polo played in automobiles, which I understand is one of the latest fads in the West. A modern horse-race, with its skill, daring and picturesqueness, is the only modern entertainment comparable to the gorgeous races of the Romans.

The exhibition of skillful feats of horsemanship and acrobatic displays by juvenile actors, rope-dancing, high vaulting and other daring gymnastic feats seen in any of our present-day circuses are interesting, but not new. The Romans had many clever tight-rope walkers, and I do not think they used the long pole loaded at the ends to enable them to maintain their equilibrium, as do some later performers. Japanese tumblers are very popular and some of their tricks clever, but I think the Western public would find Chinese acrobats a pleasant diversion. With practice, it would seem as if when taken in hand during its supple years there is nothing that cannot be done with the human body. Sometimes it almost appears as if it were boneless, so well are people able by practice to make use of their limbs to accomplish feats which astonish ordinary persons whose limbs are less pliable.

The trapeze gives opportunity for the display of very clever exhibition, of strength and agility; at first sight the gymnast would appear to be flying from one cross-bar to the other, and when watching such flights I have asked myself: "If a person can do that, why cannot he fly?" Perhaps human beings will some day be seen flying about in the air like birds. It only requires an extension of the trapeze "stunt". Travelling in the air by means of airships or aeroplanes is tame sport in comparison with bird-like flights, whether with or without artificial wings.

There are many advantages in being able to travel in the air. One is a clear and pure atmosphere such as cannot be obtained in a railway car, or in a cabin on board a ship; another is the opportunity afforded of looking down on this earth, seeing it as in a panorama, with the people looking like ants. Such an experience must broaden the mental outlook of the privileged spectator, and enable him to guess how fragmentary and perverted must be our restricted view of things in general. There is, however, danger of using such opportunities for selfish and mischievous purposes. A wicked man might throw a bomb or do some other wicked nonsense just as some one else, who really sees things as they are and not as they seem to be, might employ his superior knowledge to benefit himself and injure his fellows; but the mention of the trapeze and its bird-like performers has diverted me from my theme.

I suppose that a reference to the circus would be incomplete which overlooked the clowns, those poor survivals of a professional class of jesters who played what appears to have been a necessary part in society in ruder days, when amusements were less refined and less numerous. The Chinese have never felt the need of professional foolers, and I cannot say that I admire the circus clown, but the intelligence which careful training develops in the horse, the dog, etc., interests me a good deal. An instance of this came under my own observation during a recent visit to Shanghai of "Fillis' Circus". Mr. Fillis had a mare which for many years had acted the part of the horse of a highway robber. The robber, flying from his enemies, urges the animal beyond its strength, and the scene culminated with the dying horse being carried from the arena to the great grief of its master. When this entertainment was given in Shanghai this horse -- "Black Bess" -- fell sick. A tonic was administered in the shape of the lively tune which the band always played as she was about to enter the arena and play her part as the highwayman's mare. The animal made pitiable attempts to rise, and her inability to do so apparently suggested to the intelligent creature the dying scene she had so often played. She lay down and relaxed, prepared to die in reality. The attendants, ignorant of the manner in which the horse had let herself go, tried to lift her, but in her relaxed condition her bowels split -- Black Bess had acted her part for the last time.

Chapter 15   Chapter 17

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