Thursday, July 28, 2011

Beijing Story

Beijing wasn't at its best in April a year ago. The trees that give the city much of its beauty were still bare and bony-looking and the sky was a leaden bowl. It took a fair amount of effort to bundle up against the chill of early spring and wander and look, but there was a path along a canal to follow and I set off.

Suddenly on my left was a huge area, fenced in, with standing stones in formation and a pagoda on a hill. Bamboo provided a note of greenery that my eyes were starving for so I approached the open gateway. A man in a small guardhouse waved me inside--no ticket, no fee.

The stones were eerie, looking as though they'd grown from the ground they stood upon. A wall of rock buttressed the hill on which the pagoda was perched. There were pavilions scattered over the landscape and a lovely curving path led me into the bamboo grove. The only signs were ones that warned against electric shock with cartoon-like images; nowhere was there an admonishment for visitors to behave in a good manner or pictures of items forbidden in this mysterious spot. There were no park benches or anything that indicated this was a public area, except for children playing on the pagoda's hill and a couple of old men sitting in the pavilions.

The path that twisted into the stand of bamboo led to a walled-off construction site and there were clothes drying on a line that had been strung between two standing stones. Men in hardhats looked up and smiled as I turned to retrace my steps.

Broken things--what looked like an incense burner, bits of statues, and large white cylinders that seemed as though they might have been parts of columns were strewn about near the pavilions. The fenced area was spacious in a city where space indicates wealth and yet I had no idea of what it was or had been, only that it was enigmatic and beautiful.

I took a picture of a sign carved in stone, the only one I could find, and asked a woman what it said. It warned that nearby were municipal electric power lines, she told me. Still puzzled, I kept the photos I'd taken and continued to wonder about where I had been.

Months later in Bangkok, I bought a book called Peking Story, written by a man named David Kidd, who had, in the year I was born, met the aristocratic Beijing woman he would later marry. Her family had lived for generations in an old mansion with more than a hundred rooms that was surrounded by a wall; it “sprawled over several acres,” with a garden that was "more than fifty thousand square feet."

Kidd was in Beijing when Mao reinstated the city as China’s capital and when the Communist government became officially installed with elaborate and jubilant ceremonies. He eloquently describes his father-in-law’s funeral and he is Felliniesque when he tells the story of the last party in the garden at which the guests arrived in costume under the full moon. "That's not a costume," he tells a smitten diplomat, "she really is a Mongolian princess," although, he continues, "I hadn't the heart to tell him that the Mongolian princess was really a Mongolian prince."

But for me, it was the house and grounds that I tore through the book to learn more about; its bamboo groves, its “tree-shaded paths,” the rock grottoes, the hill that symbolized Mount T’ai. It sounded familiar and then suddenly I came to a full-stop because I had chills.

For the decadent costume party, the family’s electrician was called in to tap power from “the city electric lines that ran just outside the garden wall.” I thought of the sign that had been translated for me and read even faster to see if I could find where this house had been.

I found no address but the more I read, the more I was certain that I had been on the grounds of the mansion Kidd had lived in. I was positive the paths I had walked were part of the ‘private landscape of careful deception” that he described and that the stones I had seen were the same that he wrote about. “Lavalike…filled with holes and hollowed into whirls and arabesques by wind and water”; or “balanced on slender ends, like sculptured maidens on tiptoe”, or “long, striated, grey shafts of stone that shot straight up out of the earth”, “the rarest” with ‘more stone below ground than above.” “They are called, living stones,” Kidd’s brother-in-law told him, “because it is believed that they grow an inch every hundred years.”

“Unlike a Japanese garden, which is made chiefly to be looked at, a Chinese one is meant to be walked in.” That, I realized, was what had drawn me in to the place I had stumbled across and had walked through, feeling somehow spellbound.

When the house was sold, Kidd said, it took two weeks for two hundred horse-drawn carts to empty it of its contents. And then, he writes, it was razed to make room for offices of the Ministry of Finance. When he saw where it had once been thirty years later, “where the courtyards and gardens should have been” there was “a forbidding, multi-storeyed brick building.”

I wanted to cry.

So I hadn't found the site of the old mansion of the Yu family, but I’m sure it was not the only one that lay beside the city electric lines near Donshengmen. Yet I was correct that the grounds where I had been were ancient and regal and somehow haunted.

As beautiful as the spot still was, its reason for existence had disappeared and what remained was a shadow of its past magnificence.

Early in his account of his Peking Story, David Kidd tells about fourteen incense burners that had never cooled once in five hundred years. Cast from Burmese red copper and ground Turkestan rubies during the Ming dynasty, the burners were lit when they were still warm from the kiln, "magical objects, glowing and shimmering like jewels, no two alike. Some were red; others were speckled with iridescent green or with twinkling bits of ruby or gold. One had a smooth gold surface, incredibly bright and shining." But, Kidd's wife told him, "Once the burner is allowed to grow entirely cold, the color fades and no later heat can bring it back."

A spiteful servant, after being scolded, poured water in each of the burners in revenge--"five centuries of tending and firing wiped out in the space of seconds." They were still of exquisite shape but "all the color and life was gone."

(Peking Story by David Kidd is published by Eland. It was originally published in England by John Murray in 1961 under the title All the Emperor's Horses. Kidd was nineteen when he first came to China in 1946; he left at the age of twenty-two.)

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