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Thursday, October 1, 2009

Happy Birthday NEW China?

Appropriately, this morning on the 60th anniversary of the PRC, I finished reading John Blofeld's City of Lingering Spendour, A Frank Account of Old Peking's Exotic Pleasures written in 1961. It was the latest in a series of memoirs of old China that have occupied my attention over the past few months. Unlike Carpenter's 1920s travelogue and Graham Peck's books about the war years in Changsha, Chengdu and Kunming, this was was set in Peking, in the last years just before the Japanese occupation, and then for a brief time before the Communists took Peking. It recalls David Kidd's memoir of the same period which I read a few years ago. China was THE place to go for a young man of means in the 30s. In some ways, it still is.

All these books recall a romantic Middle Kingdom that any longer only exists in wuxia film, those stories about Han Chinese wanting to take back their country from whoever was occupying it--Tartars, the Japanese, the Manchurians, European concession holders, troublesome emperors, and so on. The history of China, really. (Vincent Zhao has said that "The Master of Tai Chi" was originally meant to be a contemporary story--about himself, perhaps--but that it was changed to 1930s China because it is "more popular.")

Maybe one way to come to grips with history is just to start over: hence the 60th anniversary of a 5,000-year-old culture. Still it's a little sad-- old China becomes frozen like Egypt, Greece, and Rome, while Beijing and Hong Kong and Shanghai become more and more like LA or Chicago.

Blofeld was a scholar of Eastern traditions -- Taoism and Buddhism -- and has written other books more specifically about his experiences with those topics. City of Lingering Spendour is his account of times spent with old time Taoist hermits, literati, students, and Buddhist monks visiting duck restaurants, flower-girl houses (more geisha-like than brothels), and parks and sacred mountains. His adventures weren't quite the same as Graham Peck's, but equally intriguing. Blofeld's comments about political situations are more incidental, things happening outside his own life. Peck was an artist and an OWI communications and information officer; Blofeld was a teacher and a mystic seeker. But they both were emotionally torn by leaving China on the eve of the People's Republic. Neither had any confidence in Chiang Kai-Shek, and fully expected (in the sense of hoping) the Communists to improve things, but neither cared to risk sticking around to find out.

At the end of CLS, Blofeld writes in a postscript called "Dawn?" about a visit 10 years after the Communists "entered the city in triumph" (but before the Cultural Revolution):

"From all I hear and read, I cannot doubt they have accomplished much that was desirable and even more that seemed desirable to them. ... The former inmates of flower-houses and brothels have been re-educated to serve society in less intimate ways. Even flies, they say, have been abolished.

"Massive concrete blocks of workers' flats and government offices soar above the low grey roofs of medieval dwellings--relics of a feudal past scheduled for gradual elimination. ... The ghosts of Confucius and Mencius have fled to escape chastisement by sages Marx and Mao.

"No one starves or freezes, which was, alas, not always so. ...

"In all seriousness, who can doubt that much of this is for the good? ... And yet?

"The world must be in some sort poorer for the loss of "Old" Peking ... a living flame from the ancient views of a civilization as unique as it was venerable."

I'm looking forward to starting another of his books, My Journey in Mystic China: Old Pu's Travel Diary, which was originally published in 1990 in Chinese. "Old Pu" was Blofeld's Chinese moniker; he even acquired Pu Tai Tai before he left Peking 60 years ago.

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