CHINA HERITAGE QUARTERLY China Heritage Project, The Australian National University ISSN 1833-8461
No. 19, September 2009


1949-2009: Sixty Years Out of Range | China Heritage Quarterly

1949-2009: Sixty Years Out of Range

An Oral History from The Rings of Beijing: China's Global Aura

By Sang Ye

Translated by Geremie R. Barmé

Zhao Hang is a Beijing gourmand and traditional opera expert.

My humble surname is Zhao, personal name Lüjian. My literary name [zi 字] is Hang, as in 'Where is the white jade ornament [hang 珩] from the State of Chu'.[1] But there I go, off on a digression before we've even started. You probably think it's odd that I have a literary name, what an antique! There's no space marked 'literary name' on one's ID card. It does indicate when you were born. I was born in December 1948. I've lived through one whole rotation of the jiazi 甲子, the sixty-year traditional calendar; I've experienced the full cycle. Sixty years is the lion's share of a person's life, once you've reached sixty you begin 'counting off the years like rosary beads'.[2]

Contemplating the transient world, it seems that history has flashed by in an instant. But the 'instant' of history covering the last fifty odd years, has been a rather special one. In this particular instant, Chinese society changed dramatically, culture was turned on its head and people's lifestyles have been completely transformed.

I'm too lazy to keep pace with the changes. A few years back, I was invited to write something about how 'a classical sensibility [gudian qinghuai 古典情懷] might cope with modern society'. I found the topic too scary, too broad. It was hard to put my thoughts into words, to express them with any clarity. So I told them that 'sensibility' is an intensely personal thing. Society is always changing. A 'classical sensibility' boils down to identification with one's culture. It wasn't something I was equipped to write about; I couldn't do it.

I've never thought of myself as the heroic sort of individual who goes against the tide and weathers all adversity. All I ever wanted was to be a mild-mannered and decent person with a rich appreciation of the art of living.[3]

You can take the approach of [the historian] Sima Qian and strive to 'a thorough comprehension of the workings of affairs divine and human, and a knowledge of the historical process'.[4] Or you can take the approach of [the Northern Song writer] Meng Yuanlao who, in Eastern Capital: A Dream of Splendours Past, describes in meticulous and encyclopaedic detail the capital city of Kaifeng from the Chongning to the Xuanhe years [of the Emperor Hui Zong, 1102-25 CE]—its streets and marketplaces, local customs and festivals, foods and entertainments, lifestyle, livelihoods and musical and theatrical divertissements.[5]

But then there are people who touch the very core of your being like Xi Kang [third century, one of the Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove]. When Xi Kang, this 'serene and sedate' man, was sentenced to death by the ruler Sima Zhao he requested a lute. After he had finished playing Xi Kang declared that 'the Melody of Guangling was no more'.[6] No matter how many people Sima Zhao killed he could never entirely sever the threads of culture; its not that easy to destroy intangible heritage. Of course, it's best if it passes from generation to generation like a torch. But so long as there is sufficient fuel the fire will not be extinguished. The fuel can be heaped in piles somewhere; the moment it is licked by flame, it will reignite. Cultural heritage can neither be burnt to ashes nor buried alive.[7]

In the early 1960s my family moved to Cuiwei Street to the west of the city [near the Military Museum]. Before that we lived at Huan Yuan 幻園, the Garden of Illusion, 61 Dongzongbu Hutong. Many luminaries had visited my family there: [the opera singer] Mei Lanfang, [the artist] Chen Banding, and [the politician and soldier] Zhang Xueliang. [The singer] Zhang Junqiu even lived there for a while. You could say that our garden residence played a minor role in the history of old Beijing. Time passes and the seas turn into mulberry fields. Battered by bitter autumn winds, that courtyard house decayed and collapsed. It's like the famous gardens of the Tang dynasty capital of Chang'an described in Mr Feng's Record of Sight and Sounds,[8] just a modern footnote to the old story about how a place can go from splendour to desolation in just a few generations.

My great grandfather, Zhao Erfeng, was the governor-general of Sichuan in the lateQing era and the dynastic representative for Lhasa.[9] My great-uncle Zhao Erzhuan was the head of the Qing Dynastic History Office during the Republic, which was in charge of compiling the Draft History of the Qing Dynasty.[10] Following the establishment of New China in 1949, my father, Zhao Shouyan, was made deputy editor-in-chief of Zhonghua Books. He was put in charge of punctuating and collating the Twenty-four Dynastic Histories.[11]

There's a long history of home education among 'those raised on the fragrance of books'. I was home schooled. Traditionally, the purpose of study was self-cultivation as well as having the means to support your family, help govern the state and bring peace to the world [as it is said in the Confucian classic The Great Learning].[12] Given the times, the most I could hope for was self-cultivation. So at home I read the Book of Songs, The Songs of the South, Tang poetry, as well as Record of Discarded Dust, Eastern Capital: A Dream of Splendours Past, A Record of Dreams and The Notebooks of Yueman Studio. I particularly enjoyed reading scholar-notebooks because they had a strong narrative, and they led you off in all directions.[13] Naturally, I also learned the essential texts by heart, beginning with Confucius' Analects and Mencius and going on to major works in the collection The Ultimate in Classical Prose.[14] I used to be able to recite the whole of Mencius, but it's been years since I've done so, so I've forgotten a lot of it. Though, I can still recite the Analects from any line you care to mention.

Because he was so absorbed in his work on the Twenty-four Dynastic Histories, my father didn't really mind what I read, as long as I concentrated on classics like Analects and Mencius. He was happy to let me follow my own interests. I enjoyed a liberal and harmonious home environment. These days many parents burden their children with their unrealised aspirations. They force them to work hard, but it shows disrespect to children. For me reading is pure enjoyment, a way of amusing myself.[15]

I also like painting and ice-skating. I even made a bit of a name for myself as a skater: I was a 'level-three' athlete. I enjoy stamp collecting too, and I have something of a reputation as a philatelist. I'm on the board of the National Association of Chinese Philatelists. Looking back, when I collected stamps in my youth it was for the sheer joy of it. It's completely different these days, and not just for stamp collectors. There's a whole bubble market out there for all sorts of collectibles. A quiet hobby pursued for the joy of it is now akin to playing the stock or real estate markets. Everyone invests money in it and everyone talks about it, but all they're only interested in a collection's value—historical, artistic and scientific. It's just a game for the purposes of financial gain.

My mother graduated from the Catholic Fu-jen University,[16] but she's never had a formal job in the new society. Instead, she stayed home and translated books like [Yung Wing's] My Life in China and America[17] and [Mary Wollstonecraft's] A Vindication of the Rights of Woman: with Strictures on Political and Moral Subjects. That's why I've read so much fiction in translation. During the Cultural Revolution people gave me books they'd stolen from the public libraries, but one look and I realised I'd already read them: Balzac, Hugo, Goldsworthy, Gogol, Turgenev, Dickens… I'd already read nearly every novel that had been translated up to that time.

From the start of the Cultural Revolution I stayed at home reading. I also copied Western oil paintings. Because my family was regarded as a 'dead tiger' [with no authority or profile], we weren't targeted too viciously. We lost some books, that was about it.

Back then, apart from big-character posters people wrote down almost nothing. As the old saying has it, trouble flows from the mouth, but to make a crime stick there had to be something in writing too. To avoid trouble people burned or pulped all calligraphy and letters. The wastepaper baskets in every house were completely empty.

I never considered reading or study a worthless pursuit. I had no idea when society might turn the corner, but I believed that eventually things would return to normal. They had to. I knew in my heart that they wouldn't always treat traditional culture with such contempt. During those years I concentrated on reading history and scholar-notebooks like A Record of Nurturing the New from the Studio of Tireless Pursuit, Disputations on the Seventeen Histories, Notes on the Twenty-two Histories, and Researches into Anomalies in the Twenty-two Histories.[18] I also read translations. I loved the details of nineteenth-century English rural life in George Eliot's The Mill on the Floss. I would read a section and then throw open the window and take in the air. It might be noisy and bustling outside or dead still—it was as if I was in another world. And so I was.

The only thing I did out of character was to get hold of a Red Guard travel permit during the Great Link-ups [19] of the second half of 1966. I used it to go sightseeing around China. I simply wanted to live that dream of the ancients; having 'read 10,000 books' I wanted to 'travel 10,000 li'.[20] I never read any big-character posters—best not to pollute your eyes with that sort of language. I stayed in the hotel on the peak of Mount Tai [in Shandong] for three days. It rained for two days non-stop. When I woke on the afternoon of the third day, the sun was shining through the window and the whole mountain was bathed in shimmering green light. I felt the truth of [the Tang Dynasty poet] Du Fu's line about 'at a single glance… all the other mountains grow tiny beneath me'[21] and I realised that when [the Tang-dynasty artist] Li Sixun created 'gold-and-green landscapes' he was not exaggerating at all.[22]

After that I went to Suzhou eager to take a boat up the Grand Canal to Hangzhou so that I could experience for myself that famous poetic line [by Zhang Ji of the mid-eighth century] 'And I hear, from beyond Suzhou, from the temple on Cold Mountain,/ Ringing for me, here in my boat, the midnight bell'.[23] But I ended up going in the opposite direction—from Hangzhou to Suzhou.

In 1969, educated young people from the cities were packed off to the countryside to be re-educated by the poor and lower middle peasants. They sent me to Inner Mongolia. You had no choice. If you refused they just kept coming around to 'mobilise' you. But I snuck back to Beijing after a year and lived 'a life of leisure' at home. I didn't worry about not having a residency permit. I spent my time punctuating the History of the Han dynasty. I had the cheapest Zhujian Studio edition and I punctuated and annotated it from cover to cover. Then I started working on the Records of the Historian [by Sima Qian], but didn't manage to finish it. In the three years I remained unemployed at home, I also copied out Confucius' Analects in formal small-script calligraphy on a long scroll, which I eventually had mounted. I still have it. I also reread all of Hans Christian Andersen's fairy tales and stories with my wife—The Emperor's New Clothes, The Flea and the Professor, The Silver Shilling. I even wrote an appreciation of the stories as we read them. Anderson's fairy tales aren't just for children, after all. On Chinese New Years Eve in 1973 my family all got together, 'trimmed the wicks of our lamp, ground some ink and made a painting together'.[24] I painted [the vanquisher of ghosts and demons] Zhong Kui, my mother added the background scenery and my dad composed a poem and wrote it in calligraphy on the painting. It was to repel evil spirits big and small. We really were out of step with the times.

In 1974, they restored my Beijing residency permit. I was allocated work in the Chinese Medicine Hospital. Everything takes you to traditional medicine, be it Buddhism, Taoism, Shamanism or even Confucianism. But I wasn't interested in medicine so when the Open Door and Reform policies were launched [in 1978] I took the exams to get a job with a publishing house. Before retiring I was the Editor-in-Chief of Yanshan Publishers, a publishing house specialising in books on Beijing culture and history. During my years there I edited a number of books and even wrote two myself. I started out writing about food because I'm lazy and a bit of a glutton. The word 'taste' in English and 'wei 味' in Chinese have similarly complex layers of meaning. Both are very hard to pin down. You could buy my books, but I'm not sure I make sense of it… .

Though I've read [the Taoist] Laozi and Zhuangzi, I haven't delved much into philosophy, and I have no particular insights to speak of. Neither have I studied broader historical problems; I'm not good at big topics. I do have my own view on various issues of course. Take the Taoist monk Wang Yuanlu of Dunhuang, for example.[25] What was so despicable about him? I don't think he gave away those precious scrolls to Aurel Stein for practically nothing because of sheer ignorance. After all, once he got the money he applied himself devotedly to covering up those elegant, beautifully painted and fluent wall paintings and statues, which had suffered badly from erosion over the years. In their stead he created a pile of crude, artless and vulgar rubbish.

Then there is the [anti-Manchu activist] Gu Tinglin. In his later years, he didn't just choose his friends in accordance with his strict political principals but became close to people on the basis of shared cultural views or personality. But for the past hundred years people have always made out that he always judged his contacts rigidly as though the complex physics of emotion had no sway over him. Such a view is not that different from that which guided Qianlong's compilation of Biographies of Those who Served Two Dynasties. [As Qian Zhongshu wrote,] 'You don't end up with a true account of the person or past events, for you need to empathise. You needs must place yourself in that context, imaginatively engage with the heart-mind of the past, feel it, sense it, be intimate with it.'[26]

We are surrounded by modern gadgets, so it's even more important to preserve the world of the past in our lives. Of course, computers are good; they save time and effort. But there's nothing like writing a letter with a calligraphic brush on traditional letter paper to an elder or friend. How could an email suffice? When I want to thank someone for their hospitality, I write out the Preface to the Orchid Pavilion Poems in my formal calligraphy.[27] It's the traditional way. Inviting someone out in return is all a trifle too modern and practical, don't you think? In short, you need to have a sense of what you are prepared to do and what you are not. It's not hard to do what you want to do; it is difficult to avoid doing what you don't. But even if it's difficult, it's not impossible. As long as you have your health you can follow the ways of the ancients. Take lodging in a temple when you are travelling, for example. It's what the literati have done from ancient times. It might appear to be a difficult thing to do it these days. You aren't a monk who's allowed to stay in temples while on the road; nor are temples supposed to function as hotels. How do you get away with such a thing? In my desire to share the experience of my forebearers, however, I've passed the night in over twenty temples. If you really want to emulate the ancients, you can find a way.

Put simply, I've never been in their sights. I've just kept out of range. That's why my study is called the 'Out of Range Studio'.[28] My book armoire dates from the Qing dynasty, and the bookcases are from the Republican period. On my desk I have my brushes, slabs of ink, paper and an ink stone.[29] On the wall I have a fan-face with calligraphy by Ji Xiaolan[30] and my grandfather's hand-copied version of the Preface to the Orchid Pavilion Poems. There is a curtain on the window and a reed blind on the outside. Many people are surprised that I could somehow get away with what I did during the topsy-turvy era of the Cultural Revolution and the Education Revolution. They say that 'when the bird's nest is overturned all the eggs inside shatter'.[31] But I never appeared on their radar. My life has been spent out of range, and it's possible—even in the midst of great upheaval.

Translator's Notes:

Anecdotal evidence would suggest that the practice of home schooling continues in China today. Some of these children grow up steeped in traditional learning and literature. The translator would like to thank Linda Jaivin for her stylistic and editorial suggestions. See also:

[1] Hang, from bai hang 白珩, part of a jade ornament in pre-dynastic times, often a horizontal jade piece, though sometimes in the form of a ring. It occurs in the Guoyu 國語, a collection of accounts of various states from roughly 1000 to 450 BCE compiled in the Western Han dynasty. The reference to hang occurs in an account of the State of Chu. See 《國語•楚語下》:' 趙簡子 鳴玉以相,問於 王孫圉 曰:"楚 之白珩猶在乎?"'韋昭 注:'珩,珮上之橫者。'

[2] The line in the original reads, 手挼六十花甲子,循環落落如弄珠。It is a quotation from the Tang-dynasty writer Zhao Mu's poem, 'Drinking Wine in Company' (趙牧《對酒》):


[3] pingdan liangshan dong shenghuode ren 平淡良善懂生活的人. Pingdan 平淡 is a term with a long history related to the art of living and the individual pursuit of an untrammelled and refined existence.

[4] In the original, jiu tian ren zhi ji, tong gu jin zhi bian 究天人之際, 通古今之變. From Sima Qian 司馬遷, 'Letter to Ren An' (Bao Ren An shu 報任安書) in his Records of the Historian (Shiji 史記) written in the first century BCE, translated by J.R. Hightower, reproduced in John Minford and Joseph S.M. Lau, Classical Chinese Literature, An Anthology of Translations, New York: Columbia University Press/Hong Kong: The Chinese University Press, 2000, vol.1, p.581.

[5] In Chinese: 孟元老撰《東京夢華錄》.

[6] Xi Kang 嵇康 (also Ji Kang, 223-262 CE). One of the Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove Zhulin qi xian 竹林七賢 who were, as Jacques Gernet writes, 'a little group of Bohemian literati, the best known of whom is the poet and musician Xi Kang.' The temper of the times encouraged among the lettered men of an era of political turmoil 'nonconformist attitudes—contempt for rites, free and easy behaviour, indifference to political life, a taste for spontaneity, love of nature.' Indeed, 'Independence and freedom of mind, a horror of conventions, a passion for art for art's sake are characteristic of the whole troubled age from the third to the sixth century.' See Gernet, A History of Chinese Civilization (1982), quoted in Minford and Lau, Classical Chinese Literature, An Anthology of Translations, vol.1, p.444.

Two famous accounts of Xi Kang's appearance, and one related to his uncompromising death, are given in Liu Yiqing's 劉義慶 A New Account of Tales of the World (Shishuo xinyu 世說新語, compiled c.430 CE), chapters 14 and 6 respectively:

Solitary Pine
Xi Kang's body was seven feet eight inches tall, and his manner and appearance conspicuously outstanding. Some who saw him sighed, saying 'Serene and sedate, fresh and transparent, pure and exalted!' Others would say, 'Soughing like the wind beneath the pines, high and gently blowing.'

Shan Tao said, 'As a person Xi Kang is majestically towering, like a solitary pine tree standing alone. But when he's drunk he leans crazily like a jade mountain about to collapse.'

The Melody Is No More
On the eve of Xi Kang's execution in the Eastern Marketplace of Luoyang (in 262), his spirit and manner showed no change. Taking out his seven-stringed zither (qin), he plucked the strings and played the 'Melody of Guangling'. When the song was ended, he said, 'Yuan Jun once asked to learn this melody, but I remained firm in my stubbornness, and never gave it to him. From now on the "Melody of Guangling" is no more!' [The famous line being: Guangling san yu jin jue yi 廣陵散於今絕矣] (Translated by Richard Mather and quoted in Minford and Lau, Classical Chinese Literature, An Anthology of Translations, vol.1, p.457.)

[7] The first Qin emperor Shihuang 秦始皇 was infamous for having 'burned the books and buried the [Confucian] scholars' (fen shu keng ru 焚書坑儒). Mao Zedong frequently referred to the Qin and jokingly observed that he and his comrades had outdone the first emperor many times over.

[8] In Chinese, 唐封演撰 《封氏聞見記》.

[9] Zhao Erfeng was also known as 'Butcher Zhao' due to the fact that during his official career he ordered numerous executions. He was in turn beheaded during the Xinhai Revolution of 1911, though Zhao Hang didn't mention this.

[10] 清史稿. Prior to his work on Qing history in the Republican era, Zhao Erzhuan had been a late-Qing governor of the northeastern three provinces.

[11] A job carried out on the orders of Mao Zedong, who was obsessed with Chinese history, and one that required the Zhao family moved to the secure Courtyard Number Two at Cuiwei Road.

[12] The Great Learning (Da Xue 大學) is one of the Four Books of Confucianism. As Zhao says, quoting the book, '讀書要修身、齊家、治國、平天下'.

[13] 'Scholar-notebooks' or 'note-form literature' biji 筆記, are collections of succinct, casual essays, or short records by writers and scholar-bureaucrats that cover a myriad of topics ranging from personal jottings to formal historical accounts and anecdotes. Zhao's home schooling and taste in reading were completely at odds with the education his generation was receiving in a system dominated by the Communist Party and one which increasingly emphasized the importance of politics and class struggle.

[14] Guwen Guanzhi 古文觀止, an anthology for students first published in 1695. The expression 'ultimate vision' (guanzhi 觀止) in the title refers to an incident in the ancient text Zuo Zhuan 左傳 (Duke Xiang, 29) where the ruler says that a performance on one occasion was so superlative that no future performance would be worth looking at—this was the 'last sight' or 'ultimate vision'. Many of the texts in Guwen Guanzhi are still used by teachers in the Chinese world and numerous texts from this compilation have been translated into European languages.

[15] wan'r 玩兒: a hard word to translate given that it is laden with connotations relating back to the scholar-bureaucrat tradition where it means to pursue something seemingly with light-hearted delight while in fact finding in it the expression of an unfettered, although meticulously trained, artistic soul. Today, it merely means 'to have fun'.

[16] Fu-jen University was built on the grounds of Prince Tao's Mansion (Tao beile fu 濤貝勒府). For details and an aerial image, see Sang Ye and Barmé, 'Hidden Mansions: Beijing from the Air (Part I)' in China Heritage Quarterly, Issue 16 (December 2008).

[17] Yung Wing (Rong Hong 容閎, 1828-1912) was the first Chinese student to graduate from an American college, Yale, after attending the Morrison School for Boys, named after Robert Morrison (1782-1834), a protestant missionary who translated with assistance and published the Bible in China. Yung worked with the Qing court to establish the Chinese Educational Mission that saw young Chinese sent to America for education from the late Tongzhi Restoration period (1870s). For the full text of Yung Wing's memoir, go to the Transcribed Texts section of the Yung Wing Project founded by Cassandra Bates at:

[18] 錢大昕撰 《十駕齊養新錄》or Qian Daxin's Record of Nurturing the New from the Studio of Tireless Pursuit and his 《廿二史考異》Researches into Anomalies in the Twenty-two Histories, 王鳴盛撰 《十七史商榷》or Wang Mingsheng's Disputations on the Seventeen Histories, and 趙翼撰《廿二史剳記》 or Zhao Yi's Notes on the Twenty-two Histories and 《陔余叢考》.

[19] In Chinese, geming da chuanlian 革命大串連.

[20] In the original, du wan juan shu zhi hou xing wan li lu 讀萬卷書之后行萬里路.

[21] Tai Shan in Shandong province. For Du Fu's poem, see, Minford and Lau, Classical Chinese Literature, An Anthology of Translations, vol.1, p.769. The original reads:


[22] Li Sixun 李思訓 was a Tang-dynasty artist (651-?715), and a member of the imperial family, who was famous for his extraordinary landscape paintings executed in what is known as the 'gold-and-green manner' (jinbi shanshui 金碧山水).

[23] From Zhang Ji, 'A Night-Mooring near Maple Bridge', Minford and Lau, Classical Chinese Literature, An Anthology of Translations, vol.1, p.852, translated by Witter Bynner:

While I watch the moon go down, a crow caws through the frost;
Under the shadows of maple-trees a fisherman moves with his torch;
And I hear, from beyond Suzhou, from the temple on Cold Mountain,
Ringing for me, here in my boat, the midnight bell.


[24] In the original: 挑燈研墨聯袂繪丹青.

[25] Zhong Kui 鍾馗.

[26] Gu Tinglin 顧亭林, also known as Gu Yanwu 顧炎武 (1613-82), was a philologist and famous for his resistance to the Manchu-Qing dynasty that replaced the Ming in 1644. He was also a critic of Neo-Confucianism. The quotation from Qian Zhongshu comes from his Pipe and Awl Collection (Guanzhui Bian 管錐編), first published in 1979. 追敘真人實事,每須遙體人情,懸想事勢,設身局中,潛心腔內,忖之度之,以揣以摩 .

[27] Wang Xizhi 王羲之, Lan Ting ji xu 蘭亭集序. At the Spring Lustration Ceremony in 353 CE Wang Xizhi (309-c.365) wrote a 'Preface to the Orchid Pavilion Poems' that had been composed during a gathering of literary friends at the Orchid Pavilion in Guiji near present-day Shaoxing, Zhejiang province. Wang is renowned as the greatest of Chinese calligraphers and his short preface a work of great beauty. See Duncan Campbell, 'Orchid Pavilion: An Anthology of Literary Representations' in China Heritage Quarterly, Issue 17 (March 2009).

[28] In Chinese, gouwai shuwu 彀外書屋. 'Gou' literally means 'target', or 'in the field of fire'. It can also mean a fully drawn bow.

[29] bi mo zhi yan 筆墨紙硯, known as the 'for precious things of the scholar's studio' (wenfang si bao 文房四寶), essential for literary composition and painting.

[30] Ji Xiaolan 紀曉嵐 (Ji Yun 紀昀, 1724-1805), famous for his collections of ghost tales, and his more serious endeavour of co-editing the magnum opus of Qing collation, The Complete Library in Four Branches (Siku quanshu 四庫全書).

[31] fu chao zhi xia qi you wan luan 覆巢之下豈有完卵 also 覆巢無完卵. A saying from Liu Yiqing's A New Account of Tales of the World relating to the sorry fate of Kong Rong 孔融. See Note 2 above.