Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 10/Ch-ng P-ng; or, The Sphinx of Pekin

Once a Week, Series 1, Volume X
Ch-ng P-ng; or, The Sphinx of Pekin
by Edward Smith


Many centuries ago, when all countries and dynasties except China were yet young, there flourished in that wonderful empire a sovereign by race and temper a Tartar, who ruled his people with a rod of iron; his name was Ching Ping. Great and absolute monarch as he was, he was not, however, entirely supreme in his empire, for one, a female, ruled him; a lady, who, even more than her father, inherited all the attributes of the Tartar race, but of such a surpassing and miraculous beauty, that to see even her shadow was to become enamoured. Of course she had many suitors at the time of the opening of my tale, when she had just turned sixteen; but you must know that from her earliest girlhood she had had suitors, and nearly every sovereign in the known world had made proposals of marriage, and laid his own particular net to catch the mighty prize who was being dandled in her nurse's arms. The first proposal made to the Princess in person, whose name was Chang Pang, was at the age of fourteen, by a young emperor of India, an alliance which would have been honourable to both parties. It is said that on this occasion her heart was slightly touched with the blind god's dart, and the young emperor was apparently prospering in his suit, when chance—also, I believe, a blind goddess—threw in her way Confucius's "Treatise on Early Marriages," after perusing which she broke off the match, and the young emperor his neck, by casting himself in despair headlong from the summit of the palace walls. I have never heard whether this incident caused her any uneasiness, for she never lost her health, and she continued, as before, the reigning beauty of the Eastern world. But from that time forth she rejected all suitors, and had, as was believed, taken a vow of celibacy, to the great sorrow of her father the emperor, and the intense disgust of the court-ladies, who were jealous of her charms, and wished to see her married and, so to speak, "done for." Suitors still came in shoals, but she rejected them all, evinced a resolution not to change her maiden station, and, averse to husbands, resolved to husband her affection. Many thought her crazed, but not so her father, who was ever impressing upon her the importance to his own empire of her marriage with some great potentate.

Chang Pang, beautiful as she was, was of a cold and cruel disposition, and cared no more for what her father said than the idle wind; but latterly, at which time she was about seventeen years of age, becoming harassed by continual solicitations, hit upon a scheme to relieve herself from her suitors. It was this: she proposed three conundrums, which I will tell you presently, and promised to marry the man who should succeed in guessing them, annexing as a penalty, death to the rash man who should venture and fail in the attempt. To this artful device the emperor, in a weak moment, consented; and the horrible consequences of this Machiavellian scheme I am going to relate to you.

It may be expected, as was the case, that this scheme, which was publicly proclaimed, thinned the number of suitors rapidly, but not to so great an extent as Chang Pang had expected, such was her transcendent beauty and so great the pecuniary value of the prize to the successful guesser. The proclamation, of which I have a copy in Chinese in my pocket, given to me by a Chinese antiquarian, is as follows:—


Whereas, divers princes and other persons of suitable rank have demanded in marriage the hand of our well-beloved daughter and heiress, Chang Pang, but none of them has engaged the affections of our aforesaid daughter, and whereas it is hereby proclaimed and declared unto every person or persons who might, would, should, or could, at present or in future, be desirous of demanding in marriage the aforesaid daughter, that in the event of such person or persons satisfactorily answering three riddles, enigmas, conundrums, charades, or other diverting questions to be propounded or otherwise laid before them by our aforesaid daughter, that person or persons shall forthwith receive, take, or otherwise become possessed of our aforesaid daughter’s hand in marriage, and be made co-heir of this our Celestial Empire of all the Chinas: but and on the other hand, if such person or persons fail to solve or otherwise answer the aforesaid diverting questions, they shall be immediately hanged by the neck until they die or otherwise expire, and their goods, chattels, or other personal and real property, if there be any, be forfeited to our Celestial Exchequer. Given at our Court of Pekin.

Vivat Imperator.”

About this period there arrived in Pekin a young man, to all outward appearance mean and poor, and by trade a photographic artist, an art known many centuries ago, and much practised in the early period of the Chinese Empire, though since lost, and lately re-discovered. I may as well tell you at once, he was son and heir to their Emperor of Thibet, just then dispossessed by a horde of barbarians, led by an unscrupulous usurper. This young man (who was at present in the most strictly anonymous incognito, but of whose name we do not scruple to betray as much as the letters, Ch-ng P-ng) took up his abode at a small hostel in Pekin, to which were attached large gardens, a great resort of the nobility for opium and tobacco. On seeing the proclamation, which was displayed in the gardens, he at once made up his mind to become a suitor to the Princess, but resolved also to maintain a strict incognito. He had a formidable rival in the prime minister of the Emperor, Chong Pong, a man whose sensual unscrupulous character and stupid administration had gained him the hatred and contempt of every good Chinese (a rara avis, indeed, in China, but no matter). The two rivals met at the public gardens. The minister was seated at a table, inhaling opium and tobacco from a jewelled hookah, and to all appearance in a state of comfortable ease, when his eyes happened to light upon the ill-dressed and unshaven stranger. The sight for a moment disturbed him, and he swallowed a mouthful of smoke, which brought on a terrible fit of coughing. The ill-dressed stranger remarked that he seemed to have a wretched cough, by way of commencing a conversation. Upon which, the minister was pleased to inquire who he was, for there was something in the bearing of the stranger which betrayed the nobleness of his birth. The minister seemed scarcely satisfied with the reply that he was a photographic artist, and being again seized with coughing, frowned severely on him, and after five minutes’ more smoking, laying aside his hookah, and taking from his side some jewelled tablets, said to the stranger, who was eating a scanty meal of radishes and water,—

“Young man, I would have had you punished for vagrancy, but know that this morning she smiled on me.”

Chyng Pyng, his mouth full of radishes, said, “Did she? Who is she?” in a tone quite void of curiosity.

The minister, apparently rather puzzled what to think of the stranger, proceeded to read aloud, the stranger having retired into the house, the following, which I have translated, and endeavoured to preserve the metre:—

O Chang Pang! O Chang Pang!
Thou art like the clarion’s clang,
Through the air thy accents rang,
And the tune thy sweet lips sang
Flew and fixed me with a bang,
Yes, on me, severe Chang Pang.

O Chang Pang! O Chang Pang!
Thou art like the boomerang
Hurled from out a Tartar gang,
Mountains, wilds, and glens amang;
For to slay the bold ourang—
And my fate art thou, Chang Pang!

Then taking from his left breast a tiny embroidered slipper, proceeded to kiss it ardently, at which moment the stranger came up, and struck with the wonderful size and delicacy of the slipper, snatched it from him. Oh, how slippery is the path of love. It would seem that Ch-ng P-ng, foresaw in his mind’s eye the transcendent beauty of the owner of the slipper, for need I say it was the slipper of Chang Pang? The minister shouted “Murder!” and “Fire!” and “Waiter!” it was no use, for the stranger, thrusting him aside, and threatening his life, was gone from the gardens in a moment; while the Premier rolled sprawling on the ground in a fainting state.

A few days afterwards Ch-ng P-ng presented himself at the palace, very handsomely dressed, and proclaimed his intention of attempting to guess the riddles, being by no means terrified by the heads of the unsuccessful suitors, which grinned ghastly on the battlements. The minister, Chong Pong, on his entering the presence chamber, recognised him, and warned him in a whisper to withdraw; but Ch-ng P-ng paid no attention to him, and proceeded to do obeisance to the Emperor and Princess. The reception being concluded, Chang Pang, veiled, rose and recited the following, of which I give you a rough translation:—

On a throne at break of day,
In the dust at evening ray,
Once o’er Canton wielding sway,
By his pigtail torn away,
Borne from Canton’s rolling bay,
To Inflexibles a prey,
By his master now degra-
Ded, and gone where he may stay,
Till we for his ransom pay
(Get the which I wish he may),—
Stranger, solve my simple say,
But, beware, don’t say me Nay.

Ch-ng P-ng, with an effort of mind which seemed stupendous to the courtiers, at once guessed the answer to be “Yeh!” Whereupon the Princess, chagrined but not defeated, again rose, and casting a confident look around, recited the second conundrum in melodious tones. It is as follows:—

The ocean is my firstling’s home,
I haunt the heaving billow,
And where the waves are lashed in foam
I have my downy pillow;
Yet sometimes towards the sunny skies
I float with iridescent dyes.

Of all that’s unenduring
On earth I’m emblematic,
I live—I die—a brief career!
A brief career aquatic.
’Twould seem, though ever starving, I’d
By reason of repletion died.

My third unto my first I wish
Will ever be united,
For thus combined they form a dish
To eat you’ll be delighted.
’Tis strange that things so slight and spare
Combined form a dish so rare.

The Princess, after the applause was hushed, said the “third” syllable was as follows:—

When on the fattened swine
Falleth the butcher’s knife,
And you hear a voice, ’tis mine—
The cry of parting life.
I’m used, too, in proverbial slang,
For those who’ve just escaped death’s pang.

For a moment the Prince seemed bewildered, and a shadow of doubt and anxiety passed across his handsome countenance, but it was but momentary, and with a preliminary smack of the lips, he exclaimed, “Bubble-and-Squeak!” The Princess indignantly rose again, and with flashing eye and quivering voice repeated defiantly the following verses to an audience so silent you could hear a pin fall:—

From Cupido’s poisoned dart
Thou shalt never be delivered;
From the first into thy heart
Swift it flew, and there it quivered.
Hope no more that thou wilt place
Yet the second on my finger.
Look once more upon my face,[Uncovering.
For thou must no longer linger.
Our Celestial Empire fame
To the barbarous whole has given.
If thou canst not tell his name,
Thou in vain for me hast striven.

The Emperor and court, on seeing her unveil, said that Ch-ng P-ng was lost, and that the sight of such resplendent charms would drive him mad. Not so, however, for in a tone of exultation he exclaimed, “Bowring.” Chong Pong, the minister, looked baffled and angry, and swore hideously in his sleeve. The Emperor was dumb with surprise; but the Princess, rising suddenly, solved the difficulty, and declared she would not marry him; nay, would die sooner, and then began to faint and beat her heels on the ground. Ch-ng P-ng, who carefully observed her, and saw the prize slipping from his grasp, determined to try another tack, and proposed that he should propound a riddle to her, and in the event of her guessing it, she should slice and fry him; but, if unsuccessful, she should marry him. And on her consenting, he spoke as follows:—

Cruel lady, who is he,
Royal and a refugee,
Wanderer over land and sea,
To the land of truth and tea?
When he thought his troubles o’er
Bliss his own for evermore.
See him wrecked upon the shore,
Poorer than he was before.
You’ll one difference, if you try,
From your name in his descry.
If you ask me where it lie,
I shall, answering, ask you—Why?

The Princess, receiving a copy of the riddle, left the room with her attendants, and the Emperor said they would meet again next morning, when the Princess would give her decision. That evening, she sent her mistress of the robes to entreat Ch-ng P-ng to give up all thoughts of marriage, but it was in vain; and afterwards she dispatched Chong Pong to ferret out the secret, the answer to the riddle. Entering the apartment of Ch-ng P-ng disguised as a nurse, he succeeded in cajoling him to disclose the answer, and throwing off exultingly his disguise as he left the room, plunged Ch-ng P-ng into indignation and grief at the plot by means of which he had been bamboozled and betrayed.

The next morning the court assembled, and Chang Pang, who of course had had an interview with the minister, rose and repeated solemnly and triumphantly, as follows:—

Why the refugee on high
Bent his bold aspiring eye,
Why, when thinking bliss was nigh,
In the dust low he must lie;
Why his cunning I defy,
Why no hope he may descry,
Why ere evening he must die;
Why? Chyng Pyng is spelt with y.

The Emperor was surprised and shocked, Chyng Pyng showed blank despair, but the minister applauded vociferously, while the Princess, veiled, resumed her seat. Chyng Pyng, whose fate seemed certain, seeing no help or sympathy in any face, prepared for death, which seemed now imminent; when the Princess Chang Pang rose, and throwing off her veil, acknowledged her heart melted, and expressed her intention of giving him her hand in marriage, saying she had loved him from the first, which last remark somewhat staggered him. All the court were delighted, except Chong Pong, who, overwhelmed with disappointment, soon afterwards left the court, and married his cook, for it seemed no one else would have him. The Prince then disclosed his name and rank, which gave great delight to both the Emperor and Princess, and after a short delay to prepare the marriage festivities, Chyng Pyng and Chang Pang were united in wedlock, and became the parents of a long line of kings.