The Hall of Great Elegance
Lamb shank, a dish when well prepared, makes a wonderful meal. My friends Ron and Lesley invited me to dinner when my dear wife was in Denver to attend our nephew’s wedding. Ron prides himself on preparing lamb shank in a slow-cook process. It was delicious, especially when washed down with a glass of good red wine.
Their delightful grandchildren, Chloe age 14 and Thomas age 11, were also at the dinner. They were both inquisitive and asked me to tell them about my childhood and growing up in China. I did oblige them. I told them some incidents and experiences in China. They listened intelligently, not simply out of politeness encouraged by their grandparents, but because they really wanted to know.
On my way home, I reflected on my teenage life in Wuhan, when Great Events happened that changed my outlook and my sense of self.
From 1945 and 1949 the world turned upside down. The government in China was changing, and it was the end of an era and the demise of my way of life. When I remember this period, I think of the painter who lived at the very end of the Ming dynasty, in the middle of the 17th century. He refused to be a citizen of the new dynasty of the barbarian Qing, who invaded from the north and did away with his known world. He changed his name to Ba Da San Ren, which in Chinese “grass” writing looks like the characters for cry and laugh. I felt the same way.
In 1945 after the Sino-Japanese war, my mother, my sister and I made our way from inland China to Wuhan, a city on the Yangtze River where we had lived before the war. A month later, we were joined by my father, my aunt, my elder sister and my elder brother. We all moved back to our old house in Hankou, one of the three cities that make up Wuhan, near the old race track. It was originally built for the Managing Director of the Jardine Matheson trading company. The whole district was called Jardine Village.
Our old friends and relatives gradually returned. The universities and colleges all returned to their old campuses, department stores reopened with the first post-war goods imported from outside, our old servants who had dispersed during the war also returned to rejoin our household, and I went back to my old boarding school. Normal, pre-war life seemed to be restored.
My parents loved to entertain their friends. During the week, I was boarding at school, but in the weekends I went home and quite often joined the dinner parties. I remember once an elaborate banquet was given in honour of Mr and Miss Zhen, brother and sister, who resided in England. They were on their way from San Francisco, via China, to go back to England. They had been appointed by the government as members of the delegation that represented China in the founding of the United Nations in San Francisco. The Zhens were the descendants of Zhen Guofan, a statesman and general who raised the army that defeated the Tai Ping and preserved the Qing Dynasty. Theirs was at one time the most important family in China. My great-great-grandfather fought in the Zhen’s army, called Sheng Juin—the Hunan province army.
In a decisive battle in Anhui in 1861, my great-great-grandfather was killed on the ramparts of a city in a siege by the Tai Ping army. After the war, my ancestor was awarded a hereditary title, roughly equivalent to Viscount, by the emperor. The Zhen family and my father’s family were generational friends. My maternal grandmother was a daughter of the Zhen family, and my own mother went to live with a branch of the Zhen family in Shanghai to be married off. She met my father because he came to the house as a visitor.
The dinner was very elaborate. The chef prepared twelve courses, each made of special delicacies. Each one had an elaborate name with a poetic reference. A famous dish was Hunan Beef, slow-cooked with spicy red peppers, dear to the hearts of the Hunanese guests. Another was a cold dish of Hunan smoked meat and pickles. A soup dish had a duck wing, wrapped with bamboo shoots and ham, in a separate bowl for each diner. Each course displayed visual appeal in the coordination of colours and the ornamentations such as carved radish roses and specially chosen decorative leaves. Steamed foods were wrapped in lotus leaves. Chinese wine of a 30-year vintage accompanied the food. During the meal, the guests conversed about current affairs. At one point, Mr. Zhen did an impersonation of Eleanor Roosevelt and her manner of speaking, in an exaggerated way. At the time I didn’t quite understand, but I joined in the hilarious laughter that followed.
However, the distant thunder of the civil war was forming in the north-east of the country. By 1946 it was approaching the Yellow River. The city of Wuhan was not yet under direct threat—that would come later—but a shadow was cast over the parties and social occasions. Society felt uncertain about the future, and people were driven to seek answers in superstition and to pray for guidance from the ancestors. Soothsayers, fortune-tellers, palm-readers, and astrologists abounded. Everyone seemed to be living in a perpetual twilight, waiting for the darkness to fall but not knowing when.
We were like tribes in the Amazon who intuitively knew their days were numbered, and whose every hunt became the last hunt, each ritual the last ritual. In the meantime, we were doing our very best to carry on. The dinner parties had an artificial gloss, a forced gaiety, and contrived laughter. The reality gradually took shape. It was not a civil war after all. It was a class struggle disguised as land reform. In this conflict, no remnant of the former society was approved. The future was not to be inclusive; we would not be in it. At best, we were tolerated for a short period of time. At worst, we were enemies of the people, to be exterminated.
In the meantime, in the city we pretended to some degree of normality. Parties still went on, but the people who came to dinner seemed to be different. Among the academics, intellectuals, and artists of former years, we also had some black marketeers with attire purchased from their new-found wealth and high-ranking civil servants who had gained their positions by skirt-and-belt relationships rather than merit.
After my parents’ entertainment of such mixed groups of guests, when they had left, my father would often say to me with a sigh, “So-and-so just cannot attend the Hall of Great Elegance.” It was a strange phrase, and I did not understand the meaning of it, but it stuck in my mind. I had a vague idea he was talking about a real hall, perhaps similar to drawings I had seen in magazines of an English Gentleman’s Club, with men sitting around in overstuffed leather chairs, discussing abstract philosophy while puffing pipes. Or perhaps such a hall would resemble a Greek assemblage of robed thinkers and scholars. I thought, Who would be allowed to attend? Why would anybody wish to attend? Who are the people not allowed to attend?
I reflected upon the newer guests at my parents’ parties. They flattered me and gave me gifts. The ladies, with painted make-up smiles, actually called me “gongzi”—Prince. I was a bit of a snob in those days and rejected the flattery at the same time that I enjoyed it. I suspected, of course, what my father meant about suitability in spite of my puzzlement about the hall itself.
Then the war was approaching the city. In the autumn we could hear the sounds of the artillery. No more discussion; decisions were made. We left with small personal belongings and joined the refugee migration. In September 1949 we joined the enclave of refugees in Hong Kong. Not only had we lost our world, our possessions. We also lost our identity and needed to reconstruct it. I had no links to my ancestral home. We were displaced people. My father never used the phrase again about attending the Hall of Great Elegance. There was no Hall of Great Elegance to attend.
Years and years later, I was living in California and had the luxury of not working, but rather was reading and thinking. I thought about identity and the formation of an identity. The phrase came back to me then, and I began to think about it. I realised the Hall was a concept, an aspiration.
Today I think I’d like to tell this story to Chloe and Thomas.