A haunting and delicately observed description of the last days of Mandarin culture before the revolution, Peking Story is a testimony to a way of life, a culture, an aesthetic and a civilisation which has since completely disappeared.
As the American son-in-law of a revered official from an ancient Chinese family, David Kidd had unique access to the life – their sprawling mansion, the visits to ancestral temples, the moonlit picnics, demure servants, opulent ceremonies, lavish entertainments and cherished antique heirlooms, such as the set of braziers which had never lost the heat of their original founding due to the meticulous care of successive generations of owners. But it is the brooding sense of the inevitability of great change, and Kidd’s sympathy with many of the goals of the revolution, which transforms this memoir into something tragically profound.
‘... simple, graceful, comic, mournful miniatures of an ominous catastrophe, the unprecedentedly swift death of a uniquely ancient civilisation.’ - John Updike
Format: 176pp demi pb
David Kidd, born in 1927, grew up in Corbin, Kentucky USA, where his father operated a coal mine, and then in Detroit where his father became an automotive executive. In 1946, at the age of nineteen, having graduated from the University of Michigan where he had been a student of Chinese culture, he went to Peking’s Yenching University on an exchange. There he studied Chinese poetry and at Tsinghwa University he taught English. He stayed in Peking for the two years up to the 1948 Communist Revolution and two years after, feeding his fascination for ancient Chinese art. His marriage to Aimee Yu, the daughter of an aristocratic Chinese family, gave him insider knowledge of the ways of the dying imperial regime.
In 1950 David Kidd and his wife left for the United States. She pursued a career as a physicist in California and he immersed himself in Oriental art circles in New York. They were eventually divorced. He taught at the Asia Institute until 1956, when he moved to Japan. There he taught at Kobe and Osaka Universities and began collecting Chinese and Japanese art and antiques, which he was not unknown to sell on. He found a lifelong companion in Yasuyoshi Morimoto. They settled in Kyoto where Kidd founded the Oomoto School of Traditional Japanese Arts with a view to educating foreigners, but later Japanese as well. His glamour and expertise eventually made him a tourist attraction for Westerners travelling to Japan.
His account of the last days of the ancient Chinese regime was published in 1960 as All the Emperor’s Horses and reissued in 1988 as Peking Story.
He died of cancer in Honolulu in 1996.
Extract from Chapter One
Dragons, Pink Babies, and the Consular Service
LATE IN January of 1949, Peking surrendered gracefully to the ever victorious Communist Army, and one day soon after, my fiancée—a Chinese girl—telephoned me to say that her father, who had been ill for a long while, was dying. We must marry immediately, Aimee said, or face the prospect of waiting out at least a year of mourning, as Chinese custom demanded. It seemed unfeeling to hold a wedding at such a time, and there was no way of guessing what the Communist authorities would say to a marriage between the daughter of a ‘bureaucratic-capitalist’ Chinese and an American teacher, but the future was so uncertain that we decided we must go ahead. Aimee’s family, when consulted, agreed. However, since we could not be sure we were not bringing some sort of trouble on them, we planned to keep the marriage a secret, at least for a while.
I had first met Aimee a year earlier one hot summer evening at a Peking opera theater in the South City. I had rented an open booth at the balcony railing where, in the heat, I indulged myself in the usual Chinese opera fan’s pastime of cracking salted watermelon seeds between my teeth and drinking cup after cup of tea from the pot, replenished from time to time by the waiters, on my table. I noticed that the booth to my left was still unoccupied, but knew that many opera buffs never arrived until after ten, when the best actors appeared. Tonight Hsiao Ts’ui-hua, an impersonator of coquettish girls, would end the program. He was one of the last actors in China who could still perform in toe shoes, the better to emulate the bound feet and swaying gait of a high-caste woman.
A drama had just ended and a placard announcing Mr Hsiao as the last performer was already up when waiters began affixing red silk chairbacks and laying out tea pots and cups in the next booth. At the same moment, a sudden murmur in the audience caused me to look toward the end of the aisle. Flanked by two maids in pale blue, Aimee stood in a doorway between curtains that had just been parted. She wore a tight, high-collared, white silk dress, slit to the thighs, and carried an ivory fan in her hand on which shone a green jade ring. She looked overwhelmingly cool and beautiful in that hot, smoke-filled theater. If more were needed, the elaborate care with which the waiters unshered her to the booth next to mine was proof enough that she was a lady of distinction. As she seated herself, I noticed the tip of a white jade pin in her hair and detected the faint but refreshing scent of sandalwood and jasmine.
The performance was about to begin, and I beckoned to a waiter indicating that I wished another pot of tea. When he approached, Aimee stopped him and spoke quickly in Chinese. After he left, she turned to me and said in much slower Chinese, ‘The tea here is too poor. I have asked him to prepare for you the tea I brought from home.’ Then she said in English, ‘It is only an ordinary tea, but I hope you will like it.’ I mumbled my thanks in both English and Chinese.
In due course the last opera, a comedy, began with Mr Hsiao sailing across the stage, swaying gracefully on his famous, fluttering feet. The tea, when it came, was delicious. During the performance, Aimee and I, more often than not, laughed at the same time. I almost felt that I had come to the theater with her and wondered if she might be feeling the same. In any event, after the drama came to an end and Hsiao Ts’ui-hua had disappeared from the stage for good, Aimee introduced herself and asked, in careful Chinese again, if I cared to visit backstage and meet Mr Hsiao. I accepted with pleasure.
We found the actor in his dressing room before a mirror, removing his make-up with cold cream. Meanwhile attendants were busy, first removing the rows of glittering coloured stones from his black wig, next the wig and its many separate pieces, and last the bands of starched white cotton placed at the hairline, which Aimee explained to me, when applied wet, tightened the actor’s face, creating the illusion of youth I had seen on stage. Seated before me now, his make-up, jewels, and starched bands removed, Mr Hsiao was an old and ordinary looking man. Amused at my surprise, Aimee wrote out her address and invited me to tea a few days later, where I learned that she could play the violin, had studied gypsy dancing—complete with tamborine—from White Russians in Peking, knew classical Chinese dance, and, to my surprise, had majored in chemistry at the university. I also discovered that she was the fourth daughter of the former Chief Justice of the Chinese Supreme Court. I was to meet Aimee’s father only once. (Her mother was dead.) Even then, dressed in a padded blue silk gown and wearing a black silk cap, the elegant old man looked frail and ill, his skin appearing almost translucent. He received me in a building in the Yu mansion called the Eastern Study where he was occupied, at the time, in examining a pair of rare porcelain stem cups. When he let me handle them, I felt immensely honoured. Now he lay on his death bed.
Thus began the events that led to the unseemly haste of our wedding.
Peking had, of course, just been through a siege of over a month. I had been cut off from the National Tsinghwa University, some six miles outside the city, where I taught English, and had been living in a small house in Peking that I had previously rented for use on weekends and holidays. I liked the address—Bean Curd Puddle Lane. During the siege, Aimee used to bring me tureens of fatty pork cooked with aniseed, and invite me to unbelievable banquets for two in her family’s enormous house. Her source of supply was a secret, and I had never asked her about it; I only know that without her, and it, I would have had little besides watered rice to eat.
Now, though the siege was over, foreigners were forbidden to leave the city, so I was still unable to get back to my classes. Communist troops were quartered in the front courtyards of Aimee’s home, and their horses were tethered in the garden, where they ate venerable and valuable chrysanthemum roots and became as much the subject of the family’s complaints as the soldiers themselves. The family—Aimee’s two brothers and eight sisters, plus wives, husbands, children, aunts and uncles, about twenty-five people in all—spent most of its time complaining. The Communists were using a relatively light hand at the moment, but the men in the buildings around the front courtyards were taking up space, using precious water and electricity, and causing unrest among the servants.
Aimee’s people had lived in the old mansion for generations. Surrounded, along with its outbuildings and its large garden, which must have been close to fifty thousand square feet in area, by a wall, it contained more than a hundred rooms, as well as a labyrinth of corridors and courts. It sprawled over several acres, and all the rooms were at one time warmed by radiant heat—that is, by charcoal fires kept burning under the tile floors—but after the revolution of 1911 the cost had become too great and coal stoves were installed. Although normally there were at least twenty servants, at the time of the siege there were fewer than ten, and afterward, under the influence of the Communists, these grew insolent and lazy. Fires were made carelessly or not at all, and meals were late and unappetizing. One servant, laying a fire in the old man’s sickroom, was heard telling the invalid—even then too ill to speak—that it was only a matter of time before they would see who would make whose fires.
The servant was discharged, and spent the next two days wailing at the main gate, arousing deep sympathy among the soldiers. They were already suspicious of people living in so large a house, and now they became so surly and sullen that the family stopped using the main gate, coming and going instead by a small one that opened on a back alley. All in all, the situation was far from propitious for a wedding.