Copper Men Perform the West Chamber

In the twenty-ninth year of the Qianlong reign, Westerners presented eighteen copper-made robots as tribute to the imperial court. These eighteen robots were capable of performing the play “The West Chamber.”

Each of these robots was a little over a foot tall, and their bodies, ears, eyes, hands, and feet were all made of copper. They had mechanisms connecting their hearts, stomachs, kidneys, intestines, etc., similar to the construction of a self-playing clock. When these robots appeared for the performance, each had a key to open them. Upon opening, a specific program was initiated. If the program was reversed, their movements and actions would become chaotic. If opened according to the program, characters like Zhang Sheng, Yingying, Hongniang, Huiming, and Facong could independently open their boxes, dress themselves, change their postures, make courteous gestures, and move forward or backward, just like real people, albeit without singing. After the play concluded, these robots would autonomously remove their costumes and lie down in their boxes. When they reappeared later, a turn of the key would make them stand up on their own, ready for another performance. The clever design by Westerners had reached such a remarkable level!

Translated from《銅人演西廂》in 《子不語》:

乾隆二十九年,西洋貢銅伶十八人,能演《西廂》一部。人長尺許,身軀耳目手足,悉銅鑄成;其心腹腎腸,皆用關鍵湊接,如自鳴鐘法。每齣插匙開鎖,有一定準程,誤開則坐臥行止亂矣。張生、鶯鶯、紅娘、惠明、法聰諸人,能自行開箱著衣服。身段交接,揖讓進退,儼然如生,惟不能歌耳。一出演畢,自脫衣臥倒箱中。臨值場時,自行起立,仍上戲毯。西洋人巧一至于此。

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