Selected Modern Chinese Essays: Fond Memories of Peiping

◎ Lao She

I have no misgivings about writing a novel with Peiping as its background because I can choose to write about what I am most familiar with while shying away from what is less known to me. But I shall be at a complete loss if I should be called upon to write exclusively about Peiping. Peiping is so big and multifaceted that very little of it, I believe, is known to me though I was born and brought up there and never went away until I was 27. Just fancy that I have neglected to visit even Tao Ran Ting, a local scenic attraction! It follows that, in contrast with Peiping in its entirety, what little I know about it is probably a mere drop in the ocean.

I do cherish, however, a genuine love for Peiping — a love that is almost as inexpressible as my love for mother. I smile by myself when I think of something I can do to please mother; I feel like crying when I worry about mother’s health. Words fail me where silent smiles and tears well express my innermost feelings. The same is true of my love for Peiping. I shall fail to do justice to this vast ancient city if I should do no more than extol just one certain aspect of it. The Peiping I love is not something in bits and pieces, but a phase of history and a vast tract of land completely bound up with my heart. Numerous scenic spots and historical sites from Shi Sha Hai Lake with its dragonflies after a rain to the Yu Quan Shan Mountain with the dream pagoda on top — all merge into a single whole. I associate myself with everything in Peiping no matter how trivial it is; Peiping is always in my mind. I can’t tell why.

If only I were a poet so that, with all the sweet and beautiful words at my command, I could sing of the grandeur of Peiping in as longing a note as that of a cuckoo! Alas, I am no poet! I shall never be able to express my love — the kind of love as inspired by music or painting. That is quite a letdown to both Peiping and myself, for it is to this ancient city that I owe what I have within me, including my early knowledge and impressions as well as much of my character and temperament. With Peiping possessing my heart, I can never become attached to either Shanghai or Tianjin. I can’t tell why.

London, Paris, Rome and Constantinople are known as the four major “historic capitals” of Europe. I know something about London; I have been to Paris and Rome only briefly; I have never visited Constantinople at all. Of all these cities, Paris has the closest affinity with Peiping (The word “affinity” may perhaps sound a bit farfetched). Nevertheless, if I should make my home in Paris, I would feel very lonely as if I had no home at all. As far as I know, Paris is too much of a bustling town. It does have quiet open spaces, but they smack of mere expanses of vacancy. Peiping is complicated and yet tangible. I can feel it by touch. I can feel the red wild jujubes growing on its ancient city wall! I can spend a whole day enjoying myself sitting on a rock to observe tiny tadpoles in the water or tender dragonflies on reeds while facing me lies Ji Shui Tan Pond and right behind me rises the high city wall. I can thus enjoy a perfect inner calm, free from any desire or fear, like a child sleeping peacefully in the cradle. There are also bustling places in Peiping, to be sure, but like the traditional Chinese shadow boxing Tai Ji Quan, the city retains its stillness in the midst of motion. While Parisians have to turn to coffee or wine for the relief of boredom caused by so many wearisome places in their city, the mild beverage of jasmine tea will be more than adequate for dwellers of Peiping.

Though Paris has a better layout than London or Rome, it nevertheless cannot compare with Peiping. In Peiping, one always finds the natural in the midst of the artificial. The city as a whole is neither too crowded nor too secluded. Even houses tucked away in very small lanes have their own courtyards and trees. Even the most secluded places are situated within a stone’s throw of business or residential districts. Such a layout is, to my mind, without equal all over the world. However, what distinguishes Peiping is not the perfect layout, but the open spaces here and there where people can breathe freely; not the many beautiful buildings, but the open grounds around each building which add to its architectural beauty. Each gate tower of the city wall and each pailou (decorated archway) can be seen from afar. And the Northern and Western hills are visible to people in the open streets.

Those who are fond of studying or collecting curios will naturally be drawn to Peiping, which is remarkable for its rich store of books and curios. Personally I am not given to studying, nor do I have spare money to buy curios. But I am keen on the flowers, vegetables and fruit which grow in rich abundance in Peiping. Gardening is something very expensive. But since herbaceous flowers in Peiping are very cheap and each house has a courtyard of its own, it does not cost very much to plant a whole courtyard to such flowers which, though humble, are nevertheless lovely to look at, such as morning glories on the wall, china pinks at the foot of the wall and marvels-of-Peru. Yes, cheap as they are, they attract butterflies! Green vegetables, cabbages, hyacinth beans, young soya beans, cucumbers, spinach, etc. are often carried straight from the suburbs to your residential quarters for marketing. Often, leeks from rural farms after a rain still have specks of mud on their leaves. The vegetable stalls are so colourful that they present a scene of poetic charm. Fruits come mainly from the western and northern suburbs, such as crab apples and cherry apples from the Western Hills, and jujubes and persimmons from the Northern Hills. Look, how they are still covered with frostlike bloom when they are put on the market! Indeed, America’s paper-wrapped oranges will pale beside Peiping’s plums bearing a thin coating of frostlike bloom!

The city of Peiping brings its residents into closer contact with nature by growing flowers, vegetables and fruit in large quantities. The city proper is not plagued by factory chimneys such as you find in London giving off volumes of smoke all day long. On the outskirts of the city lie numerous flower gardens, vegetable farms and villages. An ancient Chinese poet by the name of Tao Yuanming says aptly in one of his famous poems, “Plucking chrysanthemums under the eastern hedge, I calmly view the southern hills.” To adapt it to life in Peiping, I might as well substitute the word “western” or “northern” for the word “southern” in the line. Peiping is probably the only place for a man of limited means like me to live an easy and carefree life in.

Now, let me leave off writing, for I am on the point of shedding tears. How I miss Peiping!