Commentary Magazine

Beijing 1947

One day in March 1947, two young Englishmen, who had been ordered to describe themselves as members of the Foreign Office, arrived at His Britannic Majesty’s consulate in Peip’ing, as Beijing was then called.1 They had in fact been serving for some five years in the British Government Code and Cipher School at Bletchley Park, the predecessor intelligence agency to the organization later known as Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ). After spending those years wrestling with the problems of Japanese codes and ciphers, they had received a few weeks’ training in the Chinese language and were now being sent for six months of live study in China itself, where a number of British military officers were already engaged in the same enterprise. One of the two was the late K.M. Rees of GCHQ, the other was myself.

Young and highly impressionable, the two men had left a London whose streets ran with the gray slush of melted snow and ice, and it was barely credible that the floatplane or flying boat on which they embarked at Poole, on the Dorset coast, would deliver them to Hong Kong in a mere five days. But so it did, bringing new worlds to reality wherever its floats made their controlled and graceful impact on the waters: at Marseilles or Calcutta, on the Nile or the Irawaddy, and finally at Kaitak in Hong Kong. This was some years before a long runway was built there for jets, and as the flying boat drew in for its final descent, the passengers felt that by stretching an arm through the window they might be able to pluck the grass on the islands that lined the aircraft’s path.

From Hong Kong the two passengers made their way by Chinese National Airways Company, stopping overnight at Shanghai. They had landed in a China that was engaged in a fierce and relentless civil war. Chiang Kai-shek—leader of the Kuomintang party, head of the internationally-recognized Nationalist government of the country, and bearer of the military rank of Generalissimo—was opposed by Mao Tse-tung, the supreme commander of the People’s Liberation Army, who was destined to proclaim the People’s Republic in October 1949. In Shanghai, the British consul general greeted them with warnings of shortages, inconveniences, and dangers ahead, for they would be in an area not too distant from the scenes of fighting between government forces and Communist insurgents.

The second lap of the flight brought a magnificent view of the Yangtse River—denied these days to jet-imprisoned passengers so many more thousands of feet above. At length, the pilot of the Skymaster kindly circled around China’s last imperial capital, displaying to his charges a never-to-be-forgotten view of the double set of walls that surrounded the city and the palace itself with its concentric rectangles of gaily colored roofs.

Michael Gillet, the urbane consul in Peip’ing, had not been fully informed of the status of the two young men, or of the nature of their work in London. In earlier postings, he himself had tasted the joys of consular life in remote sites like Kashgar in the extreme western part of the country or T’eng-yüeh, a walled town in Yunan, and in the best traditions of the service had spent his leisure hours studying Manchu. Somewhat nonplussed on this occasion, he nevertheless extended a warm welcome to his visitors, though he also terrified them on their first evening by a very kindly meant announcement: “We do not dress for dinner every night, gentlemen.”

Very soon, the two were settled with comforts far superior to those of the style of life to which they had been accustomed: a small bungalow with a cook, one houseboy each, and a coolie; chairs, tables, and sofas that had graced the British legation in King Edward’s time; and teachers chosen to give personal instruction in Chinese. To all this was added an early and invaluable piece of advice. Before venturing into the city streets to practice their halting speech, they would do well to imbibe a gin or two. This would work wonders to open lips and move tongues that the most adroit of native Chinese teachers had failed to loosen.



Situated to the southeast of the imperial palace, the consulate lay within the old Legation Quarter of Peip’ing, the scene of British defense in the Boxer uprising of 1900 against Western influence in China. Outside the stone arch that had given access to British diplomats were the neighboring compounds of France, the United States, the Netherlands, and others. Only the gates of the Soviet consulate stood closed, for Stalin, who was eagerly looking forward to a Communist victory, had seen no reason to continue his recognition of Chiang Kai-shek’s government. Of the Soviet consular officers who still found themselves in the city, at least one was taking full advantage of the curtailment of his duties by engaging in academic research.

Our Soviet colleagues also joined happily in the convivial parties at which the Western community gathered to praise the past and decry the present. Here the two young Englishmen were introduced to some of the ways of consular life, as those assembled would drink the health of King George VI, or celebrate the American Declaration of Independence, or simply return the hospitality of the rather hungry Chinese officials. Here, too, one might hear the reports of a passing messenger from the British crown on the latest iniquities of the Labor government, and contrive to introduce newly arrived visitors to those with whom they were duty-bound to converse.

Two distinguished Chinese stood out as guests at these parties: Hu Shih, at one time the ambassador to the United States, and Chao Yüanjen, later to hold a chair in Chinese studies at an American university. Both men had by then contributed to a highly significant linguistic innovation whereby the old style of literary elegance in official writings was being replaced by the vernacular. Little remembered nowadays, this represented a real cultural revolution, if one can appropriate a term usually reserved for the sponsored antics and orchestrated violence of the 1960’s.

Within the consulate office, an aged secretary who still wore traditional Chinese dress took it upon himself to provide the newcomers with Chinese names, so that they could have their visiting cards printed and thus avoid appearing naked at official functions. This man, Chin P’ei-shan, whose sunken cheeks betrayed an early addiction to opium, clearly felt that the passing in 1911 of the nearly four-centuries-old Ch’ing Dynasty had been nothing but a momentary accidental event, whose effect would soon be rectified. To Chin P’ei-shan, with his pure Pekingese accent, it was a matter of scorn that his colleague, a young accountant dressed in Western style, spoke Cantonese.

It was to this accountant, though, that the two young men repaired when they needed an advance on their salaries. At a time of rampant inflation, they would wait each week until the moment came for shopping and then spend as much money as quickly as possible, repeating the whole process the following week. In March, the paper bank-notes needed for these expeditions could perhaps fit into an inner pocket; by September, shoppers went to market carrying a suitcase. Somehow, the two young men spent a lot of money without ruining their credit; some of the expense was presumably met by the vagaries of exchange at a highly volatile moment in China’s financial history.



Several Chinese teachers were already then engaged in instructing British military officers, as well as the more numerous American officers in Peip’ing. As consular officers—for such had become their title—the two young gentlemen selected teachers both to provide oral practice and (for so they had been ordered) to introduce them to different types of contemporary official documents. Most teachers agreed that far more could be learned by contacts in the lively markets of the city than in the stifled atmosphere pi a study or classroom, though one felt that his pupils should concentrate on ancient philosophical texts while another, an old-fashioned, Taoistminded scholar who dressed in a black gown and wore one fingernail to the length of perhaps an inch, proposed to read the Tao-te ching with them.

Encouraged by many, and sometimes accompanied by a teacher, the two young men soon explored the city, sitting back in pedicabs or going by foot through the streets and narrow lanes. Majestic, brightly painted arches led the way into the main boulevards. In the courts of the Forbidden City, grass grew between the flagstones. Owing to the twin effects of sunlight and neglect, bare patches of plaster or wood were visible in the pillars and walls, bereft now of the oxblood paint that had long protected them from decay. A quiet, old-style teahouse still provided refreshment for the few visitors to the Temple of Heaven and its park, one of Asia’s truly noble sites, then happily unspoiled.

Set as a double perimeter around the city stood the massive walls, a monument to the imperial might of the Ming (1368-1644) and Ch’ing (1644-1911) dynasties. In a few years’ time, this massive structure would be seen as an affront to the new masters of the city. Only a few fragments of gateways and towers would survive the deliberate destruction of the 1960’s, and then solely as an object lesson in how the working class, in pre-Marxist times, had been forced to labor for the delectation of its tyrannical masters.



The streets and markets of the city, which then boasted perhaps a million and a half inhabitants, seemed unbelievably crowded to the two visitors. Smells ranged from the sweet bouquet of fruits and vegetables to the rank stench of filth and ordure, tempered throughout by the hot breath of garlic. An occasional caravan of Bactrian camels could be seen, harking back to the centuries-old method of conveying goods to and from Central Asia. Such a troop animates a still-surviving painting of the city of K’ai-feng, the capital of the brilliant Northern Sung Dynasty (960-1127); the artist, Chang Tse-tuan, depicts scenes of daily life recognizable in the Peip’ing of 1947, where the notices and banners announcing the business, occupation, or trade of offices and shops were still made with an eye to calligraphic beauty in unabbreviated characters, and the lanes resounded to the traditional call of the craftsman or peddler proclaiming his skills as knife-grinder or shoemaker.

The broader avenues, lined with well-established trees, were set to the points of the compass, and divided the northern part of the city into the small cells of a grid. Such had been the design of imperial capital cities as far back as the former Han Dynasty (206 B.C.E.-8 C.E.), enabling the authorities to impose a curfew, control loiterers and criminals, and supervise the activities of the markets. In 1947, some of the traders set out their goods on the sandy embankment that lined the main east-west avenue, and there a fortunate collector might light upon a delicate example of cloisonne, or a finely lacquered compass that in the 18th century had served the needs of geomancy (feng-shui). Alongside the curio seller might be a barrow laden with luscious melons, sold by the slice and attracting flies whose descendants would soon be banished by Mao Tse-tung. For choice pieces of jade, bronze, or lacquer; chairs of rosewood; or bolts of so-called tribute silk, the shopper went elsewhere. The best sources of such rarities were the subject of much talk as the drinks were handed around at consular parties.

As in earlier capitals, so in Peip’ing certain large areas had been set aside as more formal markets for goods of all types. In one such square, named the Tung An shih ch’ang, each of the enclosed rows of stalls served the needs of a particular product, and the stall keepers enjoyed a friendly, competitive camaraderie. A large number of bookshops sold new publications, including copies of Nationalist China’s constitution, or educational textbooks, or English-language pornography, not then openly on sale in the lands of George VI.

Of special interest were the stocks of secondhand books, for which a bookseller would ask an outrageously high price to initiate the whole enjoyable process of bargaining; a green customer who paid the asking price was treated with nothing but contempt. On the shelves lay the libraries of some of China’s best scholars and students, who had fallen on evil times, along with some of the earliest Chinese publications to be bound in Western style. Or there might be the remnants of a foreigner’s collection of European literature, hastily discarded before a return to the West. Japanese editions of classical Chinese texts lay piled on the floor as doorstops; the two young language students were glad to seize these rarities, to the great surprise of the bookseller—for who, in the Peip’ing of 1947, would want a written reminder of the recent Japanese intrusion into China? Perhaps, from some religious house in the West, an optimistic stallkeeper had taken in hand a set of the Jerusalem Talmud—and perhaps, in the greatly restricted market of today, he or his successor has it still, in hopes that a purchaser may yet appear.

The cognoscenti also knew where to go to find what have now become bibliographical rarities: copies of traditional blockprinted books, testaments to the industry of Chinese scholars, particularly of the Ch’ing period. For this purpose a teacher would take his pupil to the Liu-li ch’ang, once the site of the glaziers’ workshops that had produced the tiled embellishments of the imperial city and later a depository of the voluminous products of traditional printing in China. A veritable treasure-house of scholarship five decades ago, the Liu-li ch’ang still today boasts a few shops named after the printing houses of Ming times and offering a small stock of pre-modern publications. But in the cleaned-up and freshly-painted Liu-li ch’ang of the 1990’s, such prizes lie concealed from the buses that stop to allow tourists to buy their trinkets and gewgaws.



On Sundays, visitors to the Peip’ing of 1947 might be taken to the Buddhist temples that nestled in the western hills, later to be commandeered as summer retreats for the privileged leaders of the Communist party. From the neighboring Catholic monastery of Chala, Brother Joseph would make his way into the city once a month. On his round of the consulates, he would take orders for the wines and spirits produced by the distillery of his order, and sooner or later these would grace the dinner table of a Westerner’s establishment. Should a hostess desire to serve ice cream, however, she would have to choose her day with care, for but a single ice-cream machine was available to make the rounds of the consular houses. If her cook or head house-boy hinted that she should choose a different dessert, or a different date, she had better do so; and at the dinner that she would enjoy elsewhere on the night of her first choice, in the home of her American, Dutch, or French colleagues, she might well find herself regaled with Spuma Gelata di Marsala.

In the 1960’s, Western students returning home after a brief visit to the Chinese capital would report excitedly that it was thanks to the Communist government that trees ran along the city’s streets. If shown photographs of well-matured trees that had lent their shade to passersby for centuries, they would explain that this could only be propaganda, faked in Taiwan. Even today, the hordes of tourists taken to the Great Wall or the imperial tombs of the Ming Dynasty north of the city are told that it was impossible to see such sites before the liberation of 1949.

Certainly an expedition to the Ming tombs in 1947 involved a ride over rough tracks; but the way was not marred by placards proclaiming the virtues of the government. No guides brandished flags or raised megaphones to control their unruly groups. Where cafeterias and wayside stalls now supply the needs of the multitude, the few visitors of that time took their own picnic in a lonely spot. In place of the roar and fumes of tourist buses, an uncanny peace prevailed within the ring of hills surrounding the monuments and resting-places of the rulers of China’s last native dynasty.

The experts in feng-shui who chose this site had used their compasses with skill. Until recently, the lay of the land prevented inroads by those evil influences (sha) that can wreak havoc at sites whose natural beauty is enhanced by spiritual blessing.



1 Chinese names will be given throughout in the older, Wade-Giles transliteration rather than in the Pinyin system first introduced in 1963 and now commonly used in the West.


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