After Dinner Speech at the Legation Quarter

Beijing Literary Festival

13th March 2009

Ladies and Gentlemen

It’s always invidious to be put in the after dinner spot, especially on an occasion like this where the temptation would be to luxuriate in superlatives about the excellent dinner we’ve just enjoyed – but I wouldn’t dare to broach the subject of food after Fuchsia Dunlop has spoken so eloquently about it already. There’s an old Chinese saying “Ban Men Nong Fu” which literally translates as “Waving an axe at the gate of the God of Carpentry” and I certainly don’t have the temerity to wave my clumsy axe in front of a master cuisiniere.


So I thought I’d concentrate on the venue, to praise the Sadler’s restaurant for sure, but also Handel Lee’s wonderful Legation Quarter complex in which it is located. For a gathering like this, where we are celebrating Eastern and Western literature and the meeting of minds from all over the world, no more appropriate restaurant in the city could have been chosen.

Why’s it called the Legation Quarter? Because that’s where we are. This part of the old city of Peking, just by the southern Tatar walls, once contained all the mansions of the foreign powers. We are sitting in a monument of history.

This very spot – the old American Legation – was where the foreign diplomats were besieged for nearly two months by Imperial Forces during the Boxer Rebellion. Has anybody seen the great 1960s epic movie, ‘Fifty Five Days in Peking’? This is where it happened. This was where Charlton Heston, David Niven and Ava Gardner bravely defended Shepperton Studios against hordes of London’s Chinese waiters led by Dame Flora Robson.

In more peaceful times, when the bullets weren’t flying, here, and in the British and French and Italian Legations close by, lived and worked some of the first Western scholars who wrote about the magical city they loved, or if they didn’t actually work here, it was where they were frequently entertained by proconsuls like the American Minister, E H Conger, whose wife wrote an excellent account of the siege, or the magnificently moustachioed Sir Claude McDonald aka David Niven, the doyen of the diplomatic community. Through their books, they formed some of the impressions of Peking we still have.

A Literary Festival covers writing about everything from the past and the present – and we’ve had during this Festival a veritable feast of talks to match this excellent dinner – but above all a festival like this is a celebration of the city that hosts it and gives it its character, as well as the books which over the centuries have formed our ideas of it, so I think it’d be appropriate for us modern writers to pause a moment to remember some of the great literati, foreign and also Chinese, who have revealed Peking to us in the past.

Well, we have to start with Marco Polo because he was the first westerner to write about it and his description of the great city of Khanbalik, as it was called in Kublai Khan’s time, created in Christendom a wonderful fantasy of the great metropolis, far surpassing in grandeur anything in the West. The image still lingers. Centuries later it found true poetic form in Coleridge’s ‘Xanadu’!

Ok, there are those like Frances Wood who believe Marco Polo never actually came here. She wrote a book claiming he made it all up. Mmm. Since Ms Wood is only attending the Shanghai Literary Festival and not the Beijing one, I think we can safely put such ungracious ideas aside. Here in Peking we firmly believe as a matter of faith that Marco Polo DID come here, even if he didn’t describe dwarf trees and the Great Wall or whatever tendentious arguments she brings to bear. Marco, after all, was not the only celebrity who was underwhelmed by the Great Wall. I quote the immortal words of President Nixon after his visit to Badaling. When journalists asked him his impression of this 2000-mile-long monument which Neil Armstrong said could be seen from the moon, the President thought carefully and said: “It sure is a great wall!” And, a few years later, the captain of the Watford Football Team brought over by Elton John was quoted as saying “Seen one wall, seen ‘em all, entcher?” Boorishness does not disprove the existence of the wall, or of Marco Polo!

And the fact is that centuries later, when diplomats were living where we are dining, the city that the scholars wrote about had hardly changed from Marco Polo’s time. They could see for themselves the sights he described. If you haven’t read any of these great antiquarian classics written between 1900 and 1940, I do urge you to do so. Let us recall Sir Reginald Johnston, played by Peter O’Toole in the epic ‘The Last Emperor’, who, as Pu Yi’s tutor, penetrated all the secrets of the imperial court. He described its mysteries in his two-volume ‘Twilight in the Forbidden City’. Bertolucci’s film based on it is worth watching by the way, if only for his meticulous recreation of the scene, filmed on location from the steps of the Taihedian, of the young emperor reviewing his ranks of officials. It uncannily brings the past alive. Sadly it also caused the sacking of the then Chinese Minister of Culture, the great actor Ying Ruocheng, who approved what a communist government called a foreign desecration of their cultural artefacts. But the ancient rituals were preserved on celluloid for posterity.

Then there were the aesthetes: Sir Harold Acton, who wrote the novel “Peonies and Ponies” about his time in Peking. The peonies were the men of culture like himself who loved Peking and everything about it – the bustling streets with their pailous, the hidden palaces, the conversation of scholars, beauty caught in a poem, or on a porcelain bowl. The ponies were – well, the businessmen who preferred the beauties of the race track. Throughout Peking’s history beauty and crudeness coexisted – the refinement of culture and harsh reality of the power that pays for it go hand in hand.

There was John Blofeld, who wrote “City of Lingering Splendour” subtitled “A Frank Account of Old Peking’s Exotic Pleasures” – and, my goodness, does he deliver! But in a most wonderful refined way. His chapter headings say it all ‘Drum Girls Survive Confucius’, ‘A Solitary Eunuch and some Flower Girls’, ‘Manchus, Lute and Vampire Fox’, ‘A Taoist Sage, a Hermaphrodite and a Dissolute Singing Master’, ‘Peking Duck and Opium Clouds’ ending with the enigmatic ‘Girls, Peaks, Tombs and Hermits.’

There was George Kates, whose “The Years That Were Fat” – beautifully illustrated by the photographs of the brilliant Hedda Morrison, described Peking in its final years before the Japanese invasion of 1937. It is a wonderful elegy.

And there was – for me the master among all aesthetes – the incomparable Italian diplomat Daniele Vare who wrote, in English, a trilogy about a Euopean Sinologist living in a Peking hutong and the adventures of his delectable waif and ward, Kuniang, among all the weird and exotic characters who populated this city – they were novels but also romans de clef, decadent truths thinly veiled, or so one longs to believe – “The Maker of Heavenly Trousers”, “The Gate of Happy Sparrows” and “The Temple of Costly Experience”. Again, the titles tell it all.

One could go on forever. There were other writers too: Anne Bridge, who wrote “Peking Picnic” and “The Ginger Griffin”, Lin Yutang (a Chinese but he wrote very much for a Western audience), Edmund Backhouse (fantasist of fantasists: he describes his affair with the Empress Dowager in more salacious detail than Flashman!), George Morrison, B.L. Putnam Weale, Osbert Sitwell, Somerset Maugham, Stephen Becker etc etc. Not to mention the extraordinary books of photographs by Hedda Morrison, whom we’ve mentioned, and Donald Mennie.

I mention all these because they have one thing in common: the writers, artists and photographers experienced something unique here. They recreated for us in their art a mediaeval city that in terms of culture, beauty, religion and sheer mystery was unrivalled on the planet. There is one word that rings through every account: it is “magic!” Magic!

Well, one asks, where is that city of magic today? The ancient walls photographed by Hedda Morrison were pulled down during the Great Leap Forward. The entrepot at the end of the Silk Road in whose market places grizzled Uighur traders sold Confucian scholars gum guggul, and benzoin, frankincense and myrrh, peepuls, aloeswood, realgar, rhinocerous horn and anything else that could be carried on the back of a camel from the furthest boundaries of the Middle Kingdom and beyond are gone. Gone are the old academies and teahouses. No longer walking down a shady hutong does one hear the strain of flute and pippa from over the walls, promising exotic mysteries within.

As those who live here know, and those who are visiting for the first time will quickly see, this is a world class capital and therefore by its nature similar to others, a city of skyscrapers, whose modern monuments, towering over what remains of the old palaces and temples, are those built for the Olympics: the Bird’s Nest stadium, the big shining egg that is the Opera House and the giant straddling trousers of the CCTV tower (whose accompanying building was sadly burned down by a firework a few weeks ago, to the chagrin of my company which was due to open a Mandarin Oriental Hotel there in the summer).

The theme of the vanished city of dreams has been very much part of this Festival. Jasper Becker, who has just written a book called “The City of Heavenly Tranquillity” about the wanton destruction of its old parts during the communist era, was one of our first speakers, and he made a savage indictment of the ‘modernisation’ that bulldozed during the last two decades centuries of history, thousands of temples, old streets down which Marco Polo himself might have walked and, in so doing, converted the city of Khanbalik into another concrete metropolis like any other.

But … do you know… I’m not entirely convinced. In fact it was a book by another speaker in this Festival, Ian Buruma , which gave me the clue. In a beautiful passage within his novel ‘The China Lover’, there is a scene where an old Japanese intellectual is wandering through the rubble of a post war Tokyo destroyed by B-52 bombers. The narrator of this section is an American who feels guilty about what his countrymen have done:

“As we gazed upon the ruins of Ueno, he pointed out some of his favourite places that had disappeared in the firestorms: the graceful wooden shrines of Yamashita; the Buddhist temples behind Kiyomizu Hall; the Sakuraya teahouse, scene in happier times of illicit love affairs and legendary samurai battles. All gone up in smoke. Like a melancholy stork, Hanazono observed the wreckage. I felt sadness and shame….when suddenly I heard a chuckle, then a loud guffaw, then convulsive laughter… When the hilarity had subsided somewhat, Hanazono turned to me, and noticed my look of consternation. “Sidney-san,” he said, still chuckling, “c’est pas grave.” He tapped the side of his head. “You cannot destroy my city. It’s all in here.”

And in many ways that is what I feel – for to a great extent, Peking always was a city of the imagination – for Marco Polo who may not have come here, for Coleridge who envisioned it in an opium dream, for the aesthetes of the 1910s, 20s and 30s who wrote so lovingly about its beauty. The reality that underlay the fantasy was sometimes brutal, as we’ve mentioned. At the same time that Harold Acton was writing his rarefied appreciation of porcelain and peonies, the Chinese novelist, Lao Shi, was describing the hideous poverty and the hopelessness of a rickshaw boy in his Luotuo Shangzi. That also was the authentic Peking, in a time of civil war in the interregnum between the Qing Dynasty and the Communist takeover, which included the full horror and rapine of the Japanese invasions. Cities are always much more than their beautiful buildings, however old, and look under the surface, lift a corner, it doesn’t take you long in modern concrete Peking to find the resilience, humour, happiness, tragedy, art and philistinism that have characterised its people since before the Mongols came here. The soul of a city, as Buruma’s Japanese intellectual realises, can’t be destroyed.

At the end of the day, isn’t a city, any city, actually the sum of what you see physically but also coupled with all its associations from history and legend? Aren’t we always, when wandering round even a mundane high street, still looking with part of our mind, through the curtains that our memories or our imaginations hang over the stone, for that indefinable soul that makes it unique?

By God, it applies to Peking, where its history was only buried under concrete in our own lifetimes, and still has the capacity to surprise you in the most mysterious ways.

A half mile east of here, along Chongwenmen Road, lies a stretch of wall that has been rebuilt for tourists. Four years ago I took there my 93-year-old great aunt, who had not been in China since 1939. As we sat on a bench on the lawn by the ersatz recreation of the old Hatamen gate I was wondering, looking at my nonagenarian companion, what image of a lost Peking had she in her mind when she first came here sixty five years before. Were great walls like this what she was expecting?

“I suppose I imagined something like it,” she said. “Our impressions of the mystic Orient were very much guided by Hollywood in those days.” She chuckled. “Great gates and clanging gongs, Aladdin, Douglas Fairbanks, Anna May Wong and the Arabian Nights…”

“Surely you had some idea of what China would be like?”

“Not really. I’d seen illustrations in children’s books: sampans, pigtails, kites, that sort of thing. Oh, and prints and drawings of the tea trade in old leather books, but it was all very much China of the nineteenth century, and it was totally different when I got here. Well, they still flew kites. I saw plenty of those.”

“They fly them today in Tiananmen,” I said. “What impression of Peking did you come away with once you had seen it?”

She frowned. “Dirt, smells – it was all a bit shabbier than I anticipated.” Her face suddenly brightened. “There were the camels, though. They were marvellous.”

“Camels?”

She laughed. “What did you say the name of this gate was? The original one that was here?”

“Hatamen,” I said. “It was the one that led into the Legation quarter. There was a market here too, I think. It was the place Daniele Vare called The Gate of Happy Sparrows.

“Then I think it’s the very one,” she said firmly. I waited for her to explain, but her pale eyes were searching the procession of cars on the big tree-lined avenue and the tall, white skyscrapers beyond. “It was just sand outside the gate in those days,” she said. “Sand and muddy clay, and a big dry moat. The camel trains used to plod by on the edge of it. Great swaying creatures, with long, tousled hair. There.” She pointed towards the traffic lights. “That’s where the camels were. And we commandeered them. For a laugh.”

I stared at her.

“We’d come up for the gymkhana, you see, and were dressed in our riding clothes, and suddenly, there were all these camels. So, naturally, we decided to race them, right there and then, alongside the city walls. Madcap fools that we were.”

“You rode camels here sixty-five years ago?”

But she was not listening to me. Those staring eyes no longer saw concrete buildings and traffic jams. She appeared to me to be in a parallel world where she had travelled back in time, and was looking at sand and camels.

And I gave up the battle, defeated. Reality, I decided, is only what you want it to be. Imagination can transform a city. Everything that was once beautiful may be obliterated – but the mind has the power to recreate it: the child’s mind, that prefers to live in stories, or the minds of the very old, whose memories you can share, and by so doing bring back the past to co-exist with the present – if only you want it badly enough.

And I realised I did.

So sitting under the reconstructed city walls with my great aunt Ben, I spent a happy half hour in Khanbalik, looking at camels.

Now, all that’s a bit of a plug by the way, for last year, the Bookworm produced an extraordinary book: “Beijing – Portrait of a City”. My story about camels is in it, but so are many, many more, all by wonderful writers who live here – some of them are here tonight: Catherine Sampson, Paul French, Hong Ying – and together they paint a portrait of a city, raw, romantic; beautiful, ugly; cruel, refined; with a past, a present and a future that plods on like my Aunt Ben’s camels of the imagination, sometimes untouched by reality, sometimes ringing, humming, shouting with the life of the streets, and every story is touched by magic. For this is still the magical city. These writers are only the latest in a long tradition, following the Vares, Actons, Blofelds and others I’ve mentioned, each adding their own little detail to the great tapestry that Marco Polo – who DID come here! – began.

So I’d like to end with a toast, to all of us who live here, and all of us who are visiting, especially those coming here for the first time, because, whoever we are and wherever we’ve come from, just being in this city we’re sharing the same journey of the imagination, and what’s great about it is that we’ll all go away, having discovered something completely different..

On behalf of all the writers who’ve gathered here for this festival, I’d like to thank Alex Pearson, Jenny Niven, Paul Eldon, Erin Mackie, Danielle Walter-Davis and all those helping out for their kindness in inviting us here, and for organising such a splendid, and dare I say it, magical event. Beijing may not have a Left Bank yet, but the Bookworm is its Shakespeare and Company and in Alex we have our very own Sylvia Beach!

To the Bookworm – and Peking!


Many of these China classics are now being reprinted by Graham Earnshaw, working with the historian, Paul French, in the excellent CER Classics series.