Moment in Peking 京華煙雲
To the brave soldiers of China who are laying down their lives that our children and grandchildren shall be free men and women this volume written between August 1938 and August 1939 is humbly dedicated
WHAT is a novel but “a little talk,” as the name hsiaoshuo implies? So, reader, listen to this little talk awhile when you have nothing better to do. This novel is neither an apology for contemporary Chinese life nor an exposé of it, as so many recent Chinese “dark curtain” novels purport to be. It is neither a glorification of the old way of life nor a defence of the new. It is merely a story of how men and women in the contemporary era grow up and learn to live with one another, how they love and hate and quarrel and forgive and suffer and enjoy, how certain habits of living and ways of thinking are formed, and how, above all, they adjust themselves to the circumstances in this earthly life where men strive but the gods rule. – Lin Yutang
Why read this book
Moment in Peking has been described as an historical novel, originally written in English by Chinese scholar Lin Yutang. The novel covers the turbulent events in China from 1900 to the mid-1930s, and includes the Boxer Uprising of 1900, the Republican Revolution of 1911, the Warlord Era, and the start of the brutal Japanese invasion.
When I left secondary school in 1967, jobs were hard to find in Singapore. In the day I worked as a factory odd-job labourer at the Far East-McGraw Hill printing factory in Jurong, and at night I gave tuition to two primary school brothers. One day their father, a wealthy man working as general manager of a supermarket chain, gave me an old, dust-covered copy of Moment in Peking. This was the first time I saw the book.
I’d already read some of Lin Yutang’s English-language anthologies of Chinese culture and literature in school and was mesmerised by his expressive language and elegant diction which I imitated in my composition lessons, thus earning me the reputation of possessing the most “powerful” English among the secondary students in Singapore then. So, a novel by Lin was a treasure to me. I’ve since re-read this book countless times.
Although the novel is “historical” and the chaos of old China is only a fading memory, the events Lin recounts has an immediacy for me. Lin begins his story in 1900 in Peking when the Yao family is making preparation to flee the city because of the Boxer Rebellion. My father was born in 1911, the year the Emperor abdicated and the Republic established. My father left his village in Mei Hsien county in Guangdong province when he was 20, to seek his fortune in British Malaya and in Java (the Dutch East Indies then). He met my mother in Singapore, they married and then moved to neighbouring Riau island where he managed a sundry goods shop. I was born in 1951, two years after Mao’s Red Army drove out the Koumintang and closed the country’s borders.
Although I grew up in Singapore, I find the customs, practices and values of the people in the novel familiar to me. Reading Moment in Peking is to have a glimpse of life in the pre-communist world of my father and his migrant generation before they left the old country.
Painting above: What Mulan and women in China in the 1920s and 1930s would have worn, oil on canvas by Guangzhou artist, Chen Yanning (1994)