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Mi Li: A Chinese Fairy Tale


Mi Li, prince of China, was brought up by his godmother the fairy Hih,
who was famous for telling fortunes with a tea-cup. From that unerring
oracle she assured him, that he would be the most unhappy man alive
unless he married a princess whose name was the same with her father's
dominions. As in all probability there could not be above one person in
the world to whom that accident had happened, the prince thought there
would be nothing so easy as to learn who his destined bride was. He had
been too well educated to put the question to his godmother, for he knew
when she uttered an oracle, that it was with intention to perplex, not
to inform; which has made people so fond of consulting all those who do
not give an explicit answer, such as prophets, lawyers, and any body you
meet on the road, who, if you ask the way, reply by desiring to know
whence you came. Mi Li was no sooner returned to his palace than he sent
for his governor, who was deaf and dumb, qualities for which the fairy
had selected him, that he might not instil any bad principles into his
pupil; however, in recompence, he could talk upon his fingers like an
angel. Mi Li asked him directly who the princess was whose name was the
same with her father's kingdom? This was a little exaggeration in the
prince, but nobody ever repeats any thing just as they heard it:
besides, it was excusable in the heir of a great monarchy, who of all
things had not been taught to speak truth, and perhaps had never heard
what it was. Still it was not the mistake of _kingdom_ for _dominions_
that puzzled the governor. It never helped him to understand any thing
the better for its being rightly stated. However, as he had great
presence of mind, which consisted in never giving a direct answer, and
in looking as if he could, he replied, it was a question of too great
importance to be resolved on a sudden. How came you to know that? Said
the prince--This youthful impetuosity told the governor that there was
something more in the question than he had apprehended; and though he
could be very solemn about nothing, he was ten times more so when there
was something he did not comprehend. Yet that unknown something
occasioning a conflict between his cunning and his ignorance, and the
latter being the greater, always betrayed itself, for nothing looks so
silly as a fool acting wisdom. The prince repeated his question; the
governor demanded why he asked--the prince had not patience to spell the
question over again on his fingers, but bawled it as loud as he could to
no purpose. The courtiers ran in, and catching up the prince's words,
and repeating them imperfectly, it soon flew all over Pekin, and thence
into the provinces, and thence into Tartary, and thence to Muscovy, and
so on, that the prince wanted to know who the princess was, whose name
was the same as her father's. As the Chinese have not the blessing (for
aught I know) of having family surnames as we have, and as what would be
their christian-names, if they were so happy as to be christians, are
quite different for men and women, the Chinese, who think that must be a
rule all over the world because it is theirs, decided that there could
not exist upon the square face of the earth a woman whose name was the
same as her father's. They repeated this so often, and with so much
deference and so much obstinacy, that the prince, totally forgetting the
original oracle, believed that he wanted to know who the woman was who
had the same name as her father. However, remembring there was something
in the question that he had taken for royal, he always said _the king
her father_. The prime minister consulted the red book or court-calendar,
which was _his_ oracle, and could find no such princess. All the
ministers at foreign courts were instructed to inform themselves if
there was any such lady; but as it took up a great deal of time to put
these instructions into cypher, the prince's impatience could not wait
for the couriers setting out, but he determined to go himself in search
of the princess. The old king, who, _as is usual_, had left the whole
management of affairs to his son the moment he was fourteen, was charmed
with the prince's resolution of seeing the world, which he thought could
be done in a few days, the facility of which makes so many monarchs
never stir out of their own palaces till it is too late; and his majesty
declared, that he should approve of his son's choice, be the lady who
she would, provided she answered to the divine designation of having the
same name as her father.

The prince rode post to Canton, intending to embark there on board an
English man of war. With what infinite transport did he hear the evening
before he was to embark, that a sailor knew the identic lady in
question. The prince scalded his mouth with the tea he was drinking,
broke the old china cup it was in, and which the queen his mother had
given him at his departure from Pekin, and which had been given to her
great great great great grandmother queen Fi by Confucius himself, and
ran down to the vessel and asked for the man who knew his bride. It was
honest Tom O'Bull, an Irish sailor, who by his interpreter Mr. James
Hall, the supercargo, informed his highness that Mr. Bob Oliver of Sligo
had a daughter christened of both his names, the fair miss Bob Oliver.[1]
The prince by the plenitude of his power declared Tom a mandarin of the
first class, and at Tom's desire promised to speak to his brother the
king of Great Ireland, France and Britain, to have him made a peer in
his own country, Tom saying he should be ashamed to appear there without
being a lord as well as all his acquaintance.

The prince's passion, which was greatly inflamed by Tom's description of
her highness Bob's charms, would not let him stay for a proper set of
ladies from Pekin to carry to wait on his bride, so he took a dozen of
the wives of the first merchants in Canton, and two dozen virgins as
maids of honour, who however were disqualified for their employments
before his highness got to St. Helena. Tom himself married one of them,
but was so great a favourite with the prince, that she still was
appointed maid of honour, and with Tom's consent was afterwards married
to an English duke.

Nothing can paint the agonies of our royal lover, when on his landing at
Dublin he was informed that princess Bob had quitted Ireland, and was
married to nobody knew whom. It was well for Tom that he was on Irish
ground. He would have been chopped as small as rice, for it is death in
China to mislead the heir of the crown through ignorance. To do it
knowingly is no crime, any more than in other countries.

As a prince of China cannot marry a woman that has been married before,
it was necessary for Mi Li to search the world for another lady equally
qualified with miss Bob, whom he forgot the moment he was told he must
marry somebody else, and fell equally in love with somebody else, though
be knew not with whom. In this suspence he dreamt, "_that he would find
his destined spouse, whose father had lost the dominions which never had
been his dominions, in a place where there was a bridge over no water, a
tomb where nobody ever was buried nor ever would be buried, ruins that
were more than they had ever been, a subterraneous passage in which
there were dogs with eyes of rubies and emeralds, and a more beautiful
menagerie of Chinese pheasants than any in his father's extensive
gardens_." This oracle seemed so impossible to be accomplished, that he
believed it more than he had done the first, which shewed his great
piety. He determined to begin his second search, and being told by the
lord lieutenant that there was in England a Mr. Banks,[2] who was going
all over the world in search of he did not know what, his highness
thought he could not have a better conductor, and sailed for England.
There he learnt that the sage Banks was at Oxford, hunting in the
Bodleian library for a MS. voyage of a man who had been in the moon,
which Mr. Banks thought must have been in the western ocean, where the
moon sets, and which planet if he could discover once more, he would
take possession of in his majesty's name, upon condition that it should
never be taxed, and so be lost again to this country like the rest of
his majesty's dominions in that part of the world.

Mi Li took a hired post-chaise for Oxford, but as it was a little rotten
it broke on the new road down to Henley. A beggar advised him to walk
into general Conway's, who was the most courteous person alive, and
would certainly lend him his own chaise. The prince travelled incog. He
took the beggar's advice, but going up to the house was told the family
were in the grounds, but he should be conducted to them. He was led
through a venerable wood of beeches, to a menagerie[3] commanding a more
glorious prospect than any in his father's dominions, and full of
Chinese pheasants. The prince cried out in extasy, Oh! potent Hih! my
dream begins to be accomplished. The gardiner, who knew no Chinese but
the names of a few plants, was struck with the similitude of the sounds,
but discreetly said not a word. Not finding his lady there, as he
expected, he turned back, and plunging suddenly into the thickest gloom
of the wood, he descended into a cavern totally dark, the intrepid
prince following him boldly. After advancing a great way into this
subterraneous vault, at last they perceived light, when on a sudden they
were pursued by several small spaniels, and turning to look at them, the
prince perceived their eyes[4] shone like emeralds and rubies. Instead
of being amazed, as Fo-Hi, the founder of his race, would have been, the
prince renewed his exclamations, and cried, I advance! I advance! I
shall find my bride! great Hih! thou art infallible! Emerging into
light, the imperturbed[5] gardiner conducted his highness to a heap of
artificial[6] ruins, beneath which they found a spacious gallery or
arcade, where his highness was asked if he would not repose himself; but
instead of answering he capered like one frantic, crying out, I advance!
I advance! great Hih! I advance!--The gardiner was amazed, and doubted
whether he was not conducting a madman to his master and lady, and
hesitated whether he should proceed--but as he understood nothing the
prince said, and perceiving he must be a foreigner, he concluded he was
a Frenchman by his dancing. As the stranger too was so nimble and not at
all tired with his walk, the sage gardiner proceeded down a sloping
valley, between two mountains cloathed to their summits with cedars,
firs, and pines, which he took care to tell the prince were all of his
honour the general's own planting: but though the prince had learnt more
English in three days in Ireland, than all the French in the world ever
learnt in three years, he took no notice of the information, to the
great offence of the gardiner, but kept running on, and increased his
gambols and exclamations when he perceived the vale was terminated by a
stupendous bridge, that seemed composed of the rocks which the giants
threw at Jupiter's head, and had not a drop of water beneath[7]
it--Where is my bride, my bride? cried Mi Li--I must be near her. The
prince's shouts and cries drew a matron from a cottage that stood on a
precipice near the bridge, and hung over the river--My lady is down at
Ford-house, cried the good[8] woman, who was a little deaf, concluding
they had called to her to know. The gardiner knew it was in vain to
explain his distress to her, and thought that if the poor gentleman was
really mad, his master the general would be the properest person to know
how to manage him. Accordingly turning to the left, he led the prince
along the banks of the river, which glittered through the opening
fallows, while on the other hand a wilderness of shrubs climbed up the
pendent cliffs of chalk, and contrasted with the verdant meads and
fields of corn beyond the stream. The prince, insensible to such
enchanting scenes, galloped wildly along, keeping the poor gardiner on a
round trot, till they were stopped by a lonely[9] tomb, surrounded by
cypress, yews, and willows, that seemed the monument of some adventurous
youth who had been lost in tempting the current, and might have suited
the gallant and daring Leander. Here Mi Li first had presence of mind to
recollect the little English he knew, and eagerly asked the gardiner
whose tomb he beheld before him. It is nobody's--before he could
proceed, the prince interrupted him, And will it never be any
body's?--Oh! thought the gardiner, now there is no longer any doubt of
his phrenzy--and perceiving his master and the family approaching
towards them, he endeavoured to get the start, but the prince, much
younger, and borne too on the wings of love, set out full speed the
moment he saw the company, and particularly a young damsel with them.
Running almost breathless up to lady Ailesbury, and seizing miss
Campbell's hand--he cried, _Who she? who she_? Lady Ailesbury screamed,
the young maiden squalled, the general, cool but offended, rushed
between them, and if a prince could be collared, would have collared
him--Mi Li kept fast hold with one arm, but pointing to his prize with
the other, and with the most eager and supplicating looks intreating for
an answer, continued to exclaim, _Who she? who she_? The general
perceiving by his accent and manner that he was a foreigner, and rather
tempted to laugh than be angry, replied with civil scorn, Why _she_ is
miss Caroline Campbell, daughter of lord William Campbell, his majesty's
late governor of Carolina--Oh, Hih! I now recollect thy words! cried Mi
Li--And so she became princess of China.


[Footnote 1: _There really was such a person._.]

[Footnote 2: _The gentleman who discovered Otaheite, in company with Dr.

[Footnote 3: _Lady Ailesbury's._]

[Footnote 4: _At Park-place there is such a passage cut through a
chalk-hill: when dogs are in the middle, the light from the mouth makes
their eyes appear in the manner here described._]

[Footnote 5: _Copeland, the gardiner, a very grave person._]

[Footnote 6: _Consequently they seem to have been larger._]

[Footnote 7: _The rustic bridge at Park-place was built by general
Conway, to carry the road from Henley, and to leave the communication
free between his grounds on each side of the road. Vide last page of
4th. vol. of Anecdotes of Painting._]

[Footnote 8: _The old woman who kept the cottage built by general Conway
to command a glorious prospect. Ford-house is a farm house at the
termination of the grounds._]

[Footnote 9: _A fictitious tomb in a beautiful spot by the river, built
for a point of view: it has a small pyramid on it._]

Horace Walpole

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