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My father is one of a handful of Westerners alive today, perhaps no more than a dozen, to have lived in Peking during the s. His recollections fanned the image of China I grew up with, which probably only ever existed on the snuff bottles that his parents brought home to Worcestershire, along with miniature trees dangling with jade leaves, intricately carved camphor-wood chests and paintings of mountain temples on brown silk.
Never having visited China, I persuaded my father last autumn to accompany me as a guide through the fabled walled city of his boyhood. I wanted to see through his eyes the changes that none of us can avoid hearing about. A child of the Empire, my father saw out its last moments. He is an example of the speed with which national fortunes change. In January , aged five, wearing a black armband because George V had just died, he boarded the troop ship Neuralia , taking his father out to Peking on his posting there as medical officer to the garrison guarding the British Legation.
On the way from Hong Kong we stopped at Shanghai, which was also a British concession. This meant in effect that throughout the long journey we never once set foot on foreign soil. At every port, the Union Flag was proudly flying and Royal Navy gunboats lay at anchor in the harbour. At the time, Britain remained the chief foreign power in China. In China accounted for a mere 1. The last leg of the journey was by train. After hours of empty desert and monotonous grassland, suddenly, there on its plain, nestling in a crook of mountains, was a vast walled garden containing 1.
Nothing prepared you for the beauty of this city: it seemed so completely designed. Green burst up from the open courtyards like frozen explosions, and traditions survived that were a thousand years old. I was fascinated by their feet — they were absolutely tiny. With his black armband still on, he entered a Peking that was barely touched by the modern world: a unique, unindustrialised city protected by a series of high crenellated walls within walls.
These foot battlements of hardened grey brick were surmounted at intervals by heavy 15th-century watch-towers, with rose-coloured gates that closed at dusk.