CHINA HERITAGE QUARTERLY China Heritage Project, The Australian National University ISSN 1833-8461
No. 12, December 2007


The Dark Lane | China Heritage Quarterly

The Dark Lane

John Minford

The following excerpt is reproduced with permission from the translator's preface to Cao Xueqin, The Story of the Stone, vol.4: 'The Debt of Tears', edited by Gao E (Penguin Classics, 1982), pp.15-20. Anyone familiar with the wounded cultural sites of Beijing in the post-Cultural Revolution years will be arrested by the author's plangent, and evocative, observations. As he reflects, in early 1981, on the dishevelled state of Prince Gong's Mansion and its attached garden, John Minford also presciently remarks that the place seemed destined to become a museum, something that would indeed come to pass in 2008. (GRB)

Mid-January in Peking should be bitterly cold. But this turned out a warm, sunny day, more like spring than winter. It was a Sunday, and families were walking in the streets strolling through Beihai Park, skating on the lakes. North of the broad avenue running along the site of the old northern wall of the Imperial City is an area of small lanes, or hutongs, which still retains something of the atmosphere of seclusion it had during the Qing dynasty, when princes and wealthy Bannermen had their palaces here, and it was a' poetical, cultivated, aristocratic, elegant, delectable, luxurious, opulent locality', a sort of Manchu Kensington.

Skirting the west bank of the lake called Shichahai, I came to a point where five or six of these lanes intersected, and stopped for a moment to try and get my bearings. In those mazes of bare, grey walls it is the easiest thing to get lost, even if you know exactly where you are going. And I only knew that I was looking for a palace, and that it lay vaguely somewhere in this north-west corner of the old Tartar City. A friend had, the previous evening, described the whole expedition as foolishly romantic, doomed to failure, in a country where everything happens either as the result of some elaborate bureaucratic procedure, or through some privately arranged back-door.

Squatting by one of the walls, I took a little book from my knapsack. This book, published recently, expounds the view of one of the most eminent Stone-scholars, Zhou Ruchang, that Cao Xueqin's Rong-guo Mansion and Prospect Garden were in some sense based on the site of the palace I was looking for. This palace at one time longed to Qianlong's favourite Heshen (1750-99). It was then bestowed in turn upon various princes, the most famous of whom was Prince Gong (1833-98), younger brother of the Xianfeng Emperor and doyen of Chinese foreign relations in the second half of the nineteenth century. In the 1930s, the palace was bought by Furen Catholic University. Studying the little sketch map at the front of Zhou's book, I found it hard to superimpose its eighteenth-century topography on to the crude tourist street-plan I had with me, and harder still to relate the two to the anonymous walls before me. I was just beginning to give up, when a voice shouted Firecrackers for sale!' about six inches from my ear. I looked up and saw an of man smiling down at me. 'Looking for Prince Gong's palace?' he asked, pointing at the cover of my book. 'It's right in front of you.' He gestured along one of the man walls. But I had just come from there, and remembered seeing nothing but a block of large institutional fifties-style buildings, and a forbidding gateway through which I had glimpsed only buses, a few limousines and a long red screen-wall with some faded revolutionary slogan peeling from it.

The old man ignored my doubtful reaction and started off in the direction in which he had just pointed, clearly intending me to follow him. Several firecracker-sales later, he deposited me at the very same forbidding gateway. This time I read the writing: 'Chinese Academy of Music', inscribed vertically on the right-hand side. I shook my head at the old man again in disbelief. This was not what I had come to find. He assured me that this was the place, made a vigorous gesture in the direction of the screen-wall, which seemed to mean 'on the other side of that', and set off at a great pace, to sell more firecrackers.

Half an hour later, having with great difficulty convinced an unsympathetic gateman that I was not a spy, and having left my bundle of books in his lodge, I was allowed to wander in on my own, in search of my palace. Once I had negotiated the screen-wall, to my amazement I saw before me, set among utilitarian classroom buildings, 'two great stone lions, crouched one on each side of a gateway'. Inside this outer gateway was indeed a 'raised stone walk running up to the main gate'. Here was the palace, embedded in its modern surroundings like a jewel set in concrete.

'The Magic Jade and the Crimson Pearl Flower' (Tongling baoshi jiangzhu xiancao 通靈寶石絳珠仙草), Gai Qi (1774-1827), illustrated, Hongloumeng tuyong, Beijing: Beijing Tushuguan Chubanshe, 2004, n.p.

It took me only five minutes of exploration to understand why some scholars have been led to see a connection between this palace and the Jia mansion in The Stone (a connection denied with equal emphasis by another school of scholars). The lay-out is so similar ('Grandmother Jia's courtyard', for example, is exactly where it should be in relation to the rest of the buildings), the architectural style and scale are so exactly what one would have expected, grand but in exquisite taste. Does it ultimately matter whether Cao Xueqin 'in fact' modelled his fiction on this reality, or whether those who lived here modelled their 'reality' on Cao's fiction? After all, as Cao himself wrote:

Truth becomes fiction when the fiction's true;
Real becomes not-real where the unreal's real.


What struck still deeper than these resemblances was the discovery which came soon afterwards that this marvelous building was being lived in by the very same kind of people musicians, artists, dreamers as those whose aspirations were voiced in The Stone. As I emerged from one of the long passageways connecting different parts of the palace, the sound of the two-stringed fiddle, played with passion and melancholy, wafted into the sunlit courtyard in front of the Hall of Auspicious Joy. And later, the same young musician began to play on the piano, with feeling and lightness of touch, a set of Mozart piano variations. Just as The Stone has over the years miraculously survived the assaults of ideology and intellect, so this palace has come through two hundred of the most turbulent years in Chinese history unscathed, and is still very much a living place though it seems ultimately destine to become a museum. Palace and novel still perpetuate the same dream.

The garden to the north of the palace is not accessible from the Academy of Music. To reach it, you have to walk out again into the street, turn left, and follow the wall round to another gateway belonging to another institution, to the north-east. It was late in the afternoon by the time I reached this gate. Anxious to see the garden before dark, and slightly inebriated by my success in entering the palace alone, I did not bother this time to mall my presence known at the lodge, but walked boldly in, I could just see in the distance what looked like a tall rockery, and had quickened my step, when I was rudely arrested by a woman's voice. It was no fairy either, come to complain of the arrival of some disgusting creature to pollute her pure maidenly precincts, but an extremely aggressive old lady carrying a large green kettle, who informed me that I had no right to come poking my nose in there, that I had better get out at once, and who was I anyway? I said nothing in reply, but hurried back to the lodge. There I was lucky to find a smiling and rather sleepy old man on duty, who assured me that there was no harm in my going in, and that I should tell anyone who asked that I had his permission. He then withdrew into his cosy little room and went back to the afternoon's Peking Opera broadcast.

In mid-winter, the prince's garden has a desolate charm. Entering it, I felt, even more than with the palace, that I was entering a world of vanished romance, a lost domain. The past, the world of illusion and dreams, hung heavily almost stiflingly, in the air. Finding a gap in the eastern end of the extended artificial mountain which runs all the way along its southern side, I clambered up through weirdly shaped stones to a vantage point from which the first buildings were visible. Directly below, a moon- window gave on to a little partly dilapidated courtyard, withered creepers rambling over its cloister. Over to the left, at the foot of the 'mountain range', stood a small octagonal pavilion, and beyond it a pond (drained of water). On the far side of the pond stretched more miniature mountains and buildings. Looking down, I estimated a total area of the garden at two. or three acres far smaller than I had imagined Prospect Garden to be. But a sense of great space was created by the subtle disposition of the landscape elements. It was a masterpiece of imaginative design.

Climbing down the hill again, I found a plump, red cheeked boy (he must have been about nine years old) staring at me with friendly curiosity. I asked him if he lived in the garden, and when he replied that he did, I expressed my great envy. He seemed unaffected by this, and offering in a business-like fashion to carry my knapsack, led me off to inspect rocks, grottoes, inscriptions all his favourite haunts. There had been no other outsiders in the garden that afternoon, he said. A little while later, as we walked along an intricately constructed covered-way that led to the foot of the 'master-mountain' behind the central pond, another (less ferocious-looking) old lady accosted us. She spoke first to the boy, and turned out to be his aunt. When he told her of the purpose of my visit, she laughed and said to me: 'That's our house up there.' She pointed along the covered way to the little house it led to, on the top of the hill, and went on excitedly: 'That's Green Delights, you know, where Master Jia Bao-yu used to live!' At that moment another old lady appeared as if from nowhere and laughingly chided her: 'Come on now, don't you go leading the young man astray with your tall tales!' I laughed too, and went on to explore the rear part of the garden, where the main path ran in front of several little 'lodges', boring its way at one point through the rocks behind the 'master-mountain'.

Prospect Garden
Prospect Garden Daguan Yuan, as imagined by the Qing-era artist Sun Wen, and dating from the Tongzhi and Guangxu reigns (1860s to 1908). From Liu Guangtang, ed., Sun Wen, illustrator, Sun Wen hui quanben Honglou meng (The Illustrated Complete Dream of the Red Chamber), Beijing: Zuojia Chubanshe, 2004, p.1.

Returning at length to the southern end of the garden, I found my young companion with three of his friends, playing football in the open space between the pond and the octagonal pavilion. I watched them for a while, and reflected that if it was fitting for the 'Jia mansion' to be inhabited by artists, it was equally fitting that 'Prospect Garden' should be a playground for children and that their games should be occasionally interrupted by the voices of old women, fretting or gossiping as they made their way from 'Green Delights' to the 'Naiad's House'.

It was growing late, and I had to leave. On my way out I stopped briefly again at the lodge, and inquired of the sleepy old man what institution it was that now occupied the garden. There had been no writing whatsoever on gateway. He told me it was used as residential quarters by the Ministry of Public Security. As I walked away down the dark lane, I kept turning this last little piece of information over in my mind. That Prince Gong's garden a sort of doppelganger of Prospect Garden should have become a home for security officials and a playground for their children, that the mansion should have been turned into dormitories and practice-rooms for musicians this new metamorphosis said much of the complexity, the contradictions, the light and shade of Chinese culture. It also seemed to me to symbolize the indestructibility of imagination and innocence...