Vicki Zhao as Mulan, in a 44-part soap opera in 2005

Excerpts... Moment in Peking

Growing up in Peking

It was now deep winter. Winter in Peking is insurpassable, unless indeed it is surpassed by the other seasons in that blessed city. For Peking is a city clearly marked by the seasons, each perfect in its own way and each different from the others.

In that city, man lives in civilization and yet in nature, where the maximum comforts of the city and the beauties of rural life are perfectly blended and preserved, where, as in the ideal city, man finds both stimulation for his mind and repose for his soul. What great spirit organised this pattern of life so that here at last the ideal of human living should be realised? True, Peking is naturally beautiful, with its lakes and parks inside the city and its girdle of the transparent blue Jade River and its skirt of the purple Western Hills outside. The sky also helps: if the sky were not such a clear deep blue, the water of the Jade Spring could not be such a transparent jade green, nor the slopes of the Western Hills such rich lavender and purple. True, also, the city was planned by a master architect as no other city was ever planned on this earth, with a breadth of human spirit, an understanding of sublimity and grandeur and the amenities of domestic living, paralleled nowhere else. But Peking as a human creation was not the work of any one, rather the joint product of generations of men who had the instinct for beautiful living.

Climate, topography, history, folk customs, architecture, and the arts combined to make it the city that it is. The human element in the life of Peking is the great thing. The unmistakable poise and leisurely accent of the speech of a Pekinese boy, girl, man, or woman is sufficient evidence of this human culture and this geniality of life. An accent is but the spiritual voice of a whole people.

Mannia, secluded in her mourning and never venturing outside her courtyard during the half year after Pingya’s death, felt rather than saw the Peking atmosphere. She felt the charm of Peking winter, its dry, crisp, cold air and its gloriously clear blue sky, and the provisions for winter comforts inside the house, so different from the dreary winter in Tai-an. When a snowstorm was raging outside, she could keep the potted begonias blooming in her rooms, for the thick padded door-screen, the papered windows, the heavy carpets, and the stove kept the rooms warm and comfortable, and one could work well deep into the night. She had really no use for a sable coat of Pingya’s which Mrs Tseng told her to turn into her own. For the most part, she was making the eight pairs of embroidered shoes which she as a bride should have presented to her mother-in-law on the morning after the wedding, during the formal reception, but which she had not been able to make because of Pingya’s illness. These presents to the mother-in-law had to be the bride’s own handiwork, being her chance to show off her needlework, as well as a sign of dutifulness, and they could not be slipshod work. Women were happy and proud to wear shoes made by their daughters-in-law since it meant respect for their position and that they had good thrifty daughters-in-law.

Richness of life

But Mulan was a child of Peking. She had grown up there and had drunk in all the richness of life of the city which enveloped its inhabitants like a great mother soft toward all her children’s requests, fulfilling all their whims and desires, or like a huge thousand-year-old tree in which the insects making their home in one branch did not know what the insects in the other branch were doing. She had learned from Peking its tolerance, geniality, and urbanity, as we all in our formative years catch something of the city and country we live in. She had grown up with the yellow-roofed palaces and the purple and green-roofed temples, the broad boulevards and the long, crooked alleys, the busy thoroughfares and the quiet districts that were almost rural in their effect; the common man’s homes with their inevitable pomegranate trees and jars of goldfish, no less than the rich man’s mansions and gardens; the open-air tea houses where men loll on rattan armchairs under cypress trees, spending twenty cents for a whole afternoon in summer; the enclosed teashops where in winter men eat steaming-hot mutton fried with onion and drink pehkan and where the great rub shoulders with the humble; the wonderful theaters, the beautiful restaurants, the bazaars, the lantern streets and the curio streets; the temple fairs which register the days of the month; the system of poor man’s shop credits and poor man’s pleasures, the open-air jugglers, magicians, and acrobats of Shihshahai and the cheap operas of Tienchiao; the beauty and variety of the pedlars’ street-cries, the tuning forks of itinerant barbers, the drums of second-hand goods dealers working from house to house, the brass bowls of the sellers of iced dark plum drinks, each and every one clanging in the most perfect rhythm; the pomp of wedding and funeral processions half-a-mile long and official sedan chairs and retinues; the Manchu women contrasting with the Chinese camel caravans from the Mongolian desert and the Lama priests and Buddhist monks; the public entertainers, sword swallowers and beggars, each pursuing his profession with freedom and an unwritten code of honor sanctioned by century-old custom; the rich humanity of beggars and “beggar kings,” thieves and thieves’ protectors, mandarins and retired scholars, saints and prostitutes, chaste sing-song artists and profligate widows, monks’ kept mistresses and eunuchs’ sons, amateur singers and “opera maniacs”; and the hearty and humorous common people.

Mulan’s imagination had been keenly stimulated by her childhood in this city. She had learned the famous Peking nursery rhymes with their witty commentary on life. She had, as a child, trailed on the ground beautiful rabbit lanterns on wheels and watched with fascination the fireworks, shadow plays, and Punch-and-Judy shows. She had listened to blind minstrel singers telling of ancient heroes and lovers, and “big-drum” storytellers by whom the beauty of the Pekinese language was brought to perfection of sound and rhythm and artistry. From these monologue declamations she had first realised the beauty of language, and from every day conversations she had unconsciously learned that quiet, unperturbed, and soothing style of Pekinese conversation. She had learned through the annual festivals the meaning of spring, summer, autumn, and winter, a system of festivals which regulates life like a calendar from the beginning to the end of the year, and enables man to live in close touch with the year’s rhythm and with nature. She had absorbed the imperial glamour of the Forbidden City and ancient institutions of learning, the religious glamour of Buddhist, Taoist, Tibetan, and Mohammedan temples and their rites and ceremonies and the Confucian Temple of Heaven and Altar of Heaven; the social and domestic glamour of rich homes and parties and exchange of presents; and the historic glamour of ancient pagodas, bridges, towers, archways, queens’ tombs, and poets’ residences, where every brick was fraught with legend, history, and mystery.

Peking folklore

She also early began to learn the rich Peking folklore, with its gods and superstitions, and its beauty. Two legends especially she loved and believed in and later told to Mannia. One was that of the big copper bell at the Bell Tower north of the Palaces. The master of the foundry had failed in several attempts at casting the copper bell and was threatened with punishment by the Emperor. To save her father’s life, the daughter leaped into the pot of molten copper, when no one was watching, and then the bell was cast without a crack. Hence on windy or rainy nights one could hear in the bell’s notes a plaintive whine which was the song of the soul of the bell caster’s daughter, and now she was worshiped in the Bell Mistress’s Temple near by, and known as the “Holy Mother of the Bell.”

The other legend was connected with the Kaoliang Bridge outside the West City which was named after a eunuch. When the great Emperor Yunglo had rebuilt Peking, there was a great drought in the year 1409 and a shortage of water supply in the city. The Emperor dreamed one night that outside the West Gate he met a white-haired old couple, the husband pushing and the wife pulling a wheelbarrow carrying an oil hamper. The Emperor asked what was in the hamper and the old man replied that it contained water for the city of Peking. The next day he consulted his general about this dream, and sent his eunuch Kao Liang to go forth outside the West Gate, and ordered him that when he met an old couple answering to the description, he should poke through the oil hamper and hastily turn his horse round toward the city, but he must not look back. Kao went forth as he was told and indeed met an old couple pushing a wheelbarrow and he poked at the hamper, and hastily turned back on his horse. Behind him he heard the rush and roar of an oncoming flood of water, but when he got to the West Gate, he could not help turning back to look and immediately he was caught by the flood and drowned. The Emperor therefore built this many-arched stone bridge in memory of him. Today the bridge still stands across the Jade River where the Empress Dowager used to get into her boat to go to the Summer Palace. Willow-covered embankments surrounding farmers’ fields, with peasant women kneeling and washing garments in the water and the common people loitering and fishing on the banks and paddling in the river, give that suburb a peculiar rural beauty suggestive of the South. It was one of Mulan’s favorite outing places in summer.

City drums

Mannia, as I say, saw little of Peking in that first half-year of her widowhood. But she had that sense of hearing which women in their seclusion developed. The sounds were strange and beautiful. Early in the morning she heard from her courtyard the wonderful street cries of the Peking hawkers. She heard the evening drums from the Drum Tower and the morning bells from the Bell Tower, for although they were about a mile from the Tseng home, their pealing notes could be heard over half the city. The drums marked the watches for the night, and Snow Blossom told her their meaning so that when she lay awake at night and heard the drums, she knew that at the fourth watch the poor court officials and ministers had gathered at the Tunghwa Gate of the Forbidden City, and that at the fifth watch, at daydawn, they were going in for the imperial audience.

Pages 170-175

Peking scenes |  Love is an immortal wound | Mr Tseng’s deathbed speech
Introduction | Contents Page

Moment in Peking, movie poster 2005