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[563] Peking Story: The Last Days of Old China – David Kidd

peking

” Returning to Peking had been like stepping into the vortex of a storm. For me, China was still a grand stage on which all action took place in sharp contrasts. Everything was exaggerated and brutally real. Perhaps the contrasts I were not just poverty and wealth, wisdom and stupidity, beauty and ugliness, sanity and madness, but at some elemental level were contrasts between life and death. ” (A Gift of New Vases, 180-1)

David Kidd went to Peking as a University of Michigan exchange student in 1946. Like many of his peers at the age of 19, he wanted to get as far away from home as possible. He spent the next four years teaching English at suburban colleges. During this time, he married the daughter of a former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, moving into her family’s gigantic mansion with a labyrinth of courtyards, garden and rooms.

The unique thing about these incense burners was that they had always to be kept burning. They had been in Aimee’s charge from the time her father became bedridden, and he had given her detailed instruction in their history and care. (All the Emperor’s Horses, 32)

It’s living in the Yu mansion that Kidd developed a lifelong fascination with ancient Chinese art and a love for the material culture of old China. His unlikely marriage to Aimee Yu coincided with the cataclysmic time in China—the Communist Revolution in 1949, with Mao Tse-Tung’s victory and seize of power. Peking Story is set against this limbo-like period of time in which backers of New China could not wait to be rid of the artifacts, the people in power, and the traditions and ways of feudal and monarchic China.

They had also not mentioned the fact that antique Ming furniture, for example, was being sold by weight on the open market as firewood, that porcelains, bronzes, and paintings, whether fine or otherwise, symbolized in the New China a class slated for extermination, and that no one in his right mind would have dreamed of buying the very objects that would single him out for the exterminators. (Houses and People and Tables and Chairs, 147-8)

Peking Story is memoir made up of pieces of vignettes and anecdotes. It belongs to the kind of books that tells a large story by concentrating on a small one. Kidd doesn’t focus on the political and historical aspects of Mao’s new regime; nor does the book capture the gore and purging of people slate for purging. He writes about life within the Yu mansion and how the dying of the old patriarch catalyses the decadence of a once aristocratic family. In concentrating on this, he manages to tell us what happened to China in early 20th century and the extent of the human and cultural losses involved. From the delousing of precious incense braziers, whose extraordinary colors are kept alive by constantly keeping the fire on, the neglected tablets of ancestors, the replacement of tight, high-collared dress slit to the thighs with uniform-like blouse, to the crumbling Yu mansion, Kidd captures not just the diminishing fortune of one family, but also the life of an ancient regime that never seems as sweet as in the last moments before it collapses.

Even more horrifying is that China seems to be repeating this history even today in its ferocious pursuit for power and wealth at the expense of morality.

183 pp. NYRB Classics. Paper. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]

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